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After the Script: Sundance Screenwriters' Lab Fellows Start Making Their Deals

Almost exactly a year after I visited the Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ Lab in Utah, the sky has fallen on the economy and independent film is in trouble. So you’d think checking in on the Fellows who went to Robert Redford’s lovely Utah resort to buff up their scripts with the diligent help of some of America’s top writers would make for a depressing tale of stalled projects and low finance. It’s true that the foreign writer-directors, or at least those who come from countries with more generous government funding for the arts than the United States, have had an easier time of it. Hisham Ayouch, a young Moroccan filmmaker working on a comedy about an encounter between a Brazil-obsessed Moroccan provincial and a visiting Islamic cleric, received a $100,000 award from a jury in Abu Dhabi and is ready to close financing on his movie. Chinese writer-director Lou Hao, who has a strong screenplay about a relationship between two rural seniors with Alzheimer’s disease, has a Chinese producer, and is putting together financing so that he can start shooting in spring ’09. Israeli filmmaker Hadar Friedlich’s drama about a kibbutz woman forced into retirement by privatization will probably be the first to begin production. And Frank Budgen, whose script based on a surreal London stage show was a sensation at the Lab, has a producer at Working Title, which is as fancy as you get on the movie-distribution scene.

The American writer-directors are also gaining traction. Almost all the Fellows, according to Lab director Michelle Satter, are in “soft preproduction,” with realistic producers (as opposed to BFFs) in place. Those who continued on to the June writing and directing labs in 2008 also benefit from small grants from the Institute, underwritten by the Annenberg Foundation. Liza Johnson, who’s finalizing her script about a woman soldier returning to her steel town from Iraq, has a producer and most of her financing in place. “There is some cause for optimism that we’ll be able to shoot in May or June,” she wrote me from Ohio, where she was scouting locations. We’re hoping that the casting will come together in the coming weeks, I’m still in touch with a lot of the fellows, and with some of the crew people that I met in the summer. The whole thing has been especially useful coming as I do from the borderlands of the visual arts.”

Dan Casey, about whom I wrote fairly extensively, completed his script for Poletown, set in his hometown of Detroit, is working with indie packaging agent Graham Taylor at Endeavor, and has had enough interest to buoy his hopes of beginning shooting in March. Not bad for a project set in one of the hardest-hit cities in America. But this may be a young filmmaker who knows how to turn rough times into gold.

“The situation here is very grim,” he writes, “and I think that I’ll be adjusting the script to keep the story in line with current events. Poletown was always set against a backdrop of disenfranchisement with the Big Three, so much so that I’m kind of marveling at the timing of this.”

From “Building a Better Screenwriter: Behind the Scenes at the Sundance Labs” by Ella Taylor

I sit in on a gentlemanly but brisk story conference between Hancock and Moon Molson, a Harlem-based African-American Fellow working on a script for a character-based, hip-hop neo-noir set in New Jersey. Hancock, who has an exhaustive knowledge of 1970s film and an intelligent feel for character (“People reveal themselves by the lies they tell,” he tells Molson), gently picks his protegé’s screenplay apart and offers suggestions for improvements. Molson listens, takes a few notes, looks brave. Again and again I hear the phrase, “ We want people to succeed,” which is not nothing in an industry where, as Hancock says, “there’s so much schadenfreude that you can find someone who’ll trash whatever you do.” ...

Robert Redford flits in and out of the building, casual in jeans and sweater, and later in my stay I’m summoned to his aerie — a spare office with an enviably clear desk — to get the official story of how the Labs evolved.... The Institute sprang from the need for a sense of community “free from smarmy pressures of the bottom line,” says Redford, who is courtly and serious and has clearly given this spiel many times. “If you could create a place that might be a bit idyllic and a little utopian, move it into the mountains rather than the city, take money and competition out of the picture and see if we can introduce consistently new voices into the marketplace, what’s the matter with that?”


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