Behind the Scenes at the Sundance Labs
Two days before the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, all is calm and hushed here in Utah. No, really. While Park City prepares to morph from sleepy ski town into hyper Hollywood annex for the world’s most overcrowded film festival, I’m headed up to the peaceful resort that houses Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute and plays host every January to eight Fellows, handpicked from a pool of more than 2,000 applicants, for the coveted five-day Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Heavy snow has fallen overnight, and the mountains are breathtaking as my driver — one of those serene originals (she owns an Army and Navy store and collects television remote controls) who materialize out of the hills every year to drive festival poobahs around for the fun of it — pulls up at the resort, pointing out a large yurt for which, she assures me brightly, advance booking is fiercely competitive. Sleepovers with total strangers are not my idea of a good time, so it comes as a relief when we drop my overnight bag in one of the tastefully pine-paneled, diligently eco-friendly cabins and head for a modest wooden building hung with gigantic icicles, just down a slippery slope from Redford’s office.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
Inside the writers studio: Sundance Lab Fellow Alician Erian works with adviser Susan Shilliday.
(Click to enlarge)
Moon Molson takes notes from adviser Malia Scotch Marmo.
There the quiet ends, and I am hit with the animated chatter of parka-clad Fellows, advisers and staff mingling freely on line for one of the massive buffet lunches that sate appetites spiked by the altitude (6,500 feet) and hours of intense exchange about character, technique and genre. It’s only day two of the January Lab, but anyone who’s been to summer camp could recognize the instant intimacy that springs up in a group of hermetically sealed people rubbing shoulders round the clock in pursuit of the same mission — in this instance, the perfecting of screenplays the Fellows have brought with them. While they are here, each of these writers will have lengthy daily conferences with multiple advisers, most of them Hollywood or independent film heavies. They will be fed and watered by Institute staff — Feature Film Program director Michelle Satter and her associates, and Institute executive director Ken Brecher, who swans around in outsized lime-green glasses, dispensing wit and encouragement. They will screen each other’s short films and watch selected advisers’ movies. (On the bill tonight is Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’sThe Celebration, followed by a Q&A with Vinterberg, who’s advising for the first time.) They will, if they choose to, walk the beautiful trails, ski downhill or cross-country, and wind down very late at the resort bar.
The one thing they will not do in this cocooned Shangri-La is write. Though one or two Fellows tell me they’re itching to get back to work after a conference with an adviser or a conversation with a peer, most appear pleased to get a break from the solitude of writing — including the advisers, who are especially happy to be kept busy during the ongoing WGA strike. Over lunch, Satter and her young lieutenant, Illyse McKimmie, lay out the rationale for the informal no-writing rule. “We want them to stay fluid,” says Satter, a tall, bespectacled blond in her 50s with a low, musical voice and an unflappable manner that she puts down to hiking the mountain trails every morning for an hour before the Lab gears up. The Fellows will all have six meetings with the advisers, who will have read their scripts but not worked on them before they get here. The advisers will talk to them about character, intent, what they think the story really is. “It’s not Screenwriting 101 here,” Satter tells me. “It’s very collegial and all about responding to a particular script. There’s always a Fellow who will say on the first day, ‘Okay, I’ve figured it out.’ By the third day, they [realize they] probably haven’t figured it out, and by the fourth day they’re coming up with other ideas. It’s a very immersive, intensive experience that’s less about the answers than about finding the right questions.”
First thing every morning, the advisers, led by artistic director Scott Frank, who wrote the graceful screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight and has been coming here for 16 years, convene to discuss the ongoing scripts. This is one gathering I’m not invited to, and as a former teacher I think I know why. In part, faculty meetings are for letting off steam; as one adviser tells me, professional writers can get very competitive about capping each other with their gag lines. “The advisers don’t always agree,” says John Lee Hancock, a tall, genial Texan who wrote Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World and directed an ill-fated 2004 remake of The Alamo. “We have a roundtable so that we don’t disagree so vehemently that we tear the screenwriter in half. It’s absolutely organic. It’s not about drawing consensus in the room and then all following that boilerplate idea, as much as it is filling each other in on the progress, talking about the scripts so that once the wounds are open,” he laughs, “the next person can come in and take advantage.”
Later, 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.”
But neither are the one-on-one conferences an exercise in hand-holding. “My script was really raw,” says Molson, who studied with Mira Nair and Tom Kalin at Columbia Film School and whose thesis short, Pop Foul (which screened at Sundance), won him the coveted call from the Lab. “Here, as opposed to film school, there’s this group of professional writers, and they really know how to get inside your script to make it better. I’m getting help with developing my subplot and making it fit organically with the main plot, and comment on it. They don’t completely break us down and make us cry, but we do come out with a lot of tools and concrete ideas to work on.” Molson tells me that he enjoys the sense of community at the Lab. “There’s something about talking to other writers about writing, especially those who are successful, that makes you feel normal, legitimizes the fact that you sit in a room by yourself, talking to yourself,” he says. “These guys do it too, and they make a living out of it.”
Satter really wants the Lab scripts to be made into movies, but that isn’t the immediate purpose. On the contrary, she says, the guiding idea behind the program is to create a protective environment that’s free of external pressures and vested interests. Sundance will not produce or finance the films that come out of the Lab, though advisers and Fellows will stay in touch afterward, and some Fellows who continue on to the monthlong Directors Lab in June will benefit from a grants program funded by the Annenberg Foundation. If their films get produced with a budget of more than $1 million, the Institute asks for a “tiny” percentage of the budget, which it funnels back into supporting the Labs, otherwise funded by a combination of corporate and festival financing. The Institute has just added a new fellowship for producers, which, says Satter, has always been part of Redford’s dream — and has doubtless become a more urgent priority in a glutted market of independent films whose profits have significantly dropped in the last few years. “We do care about the marketplace, and we want to turn out producers who are creatively and strategically skilled,” Satter says. Even the Screenwriters Lab skews more to aspiring writer-directors than pure writers (the ratio this year is two to one), because, as the punishing writers’ strike has demonstrated, the latter have far less power when it comes to controlling their work or seeing it through to commercial release. As former screenwriter Millard Kaufman, famous for being the co-creator of Mr. Magoo as well as for publishing his first novel at age 90, dryly puts it in his entertainingly savage memoir-cum-manual, Plots and Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting, “The greatest part of being a writer is that most of your dreadful work will never see the light. No director in history can make such a claim.”
(Click to enlarge)
Ready for his close-up: Sundance Fellow Dan Casey
(Click to enlarge)
Den mother: Sundance Institute Feature Film Program director Michelle Satter
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. Established in the early 1980s alongside the Sundance festival as it expanded in scope and reach, the Labs grew, he says, out of a desire to salvage “story” and “truth” from the onslaught of special effects and the obsession with the youth market in mainstream movies. 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?” Nothing at all, though the bottom line is everywhere apparent at the festival these days, in the armies of studio execs bellowing into cell phones, the mushrooming corporate logos and celebrity swag stores that dot Main Street. And the earnest dramas that critics have given the usually disparaging sobriquet “Sundance movies” — not to mention those Redford himself has made — suggest an aesthetic that leans more to liberal middlebrow than to pioneering visions.
Redford, one adviser tells me, “willed the festival and the Labs into existence, and when you think of all the things he could have done with his wealth, you have to give him his props.” But the edgy, esoteric taste that has shaped the Labs throughout their 25-year existence belongs to Satter, who oversees both the January and June labs. Together with a small band of associates, Satter has taken an excitingly free interpretation of the Institute’s commitment to that badly abused word “diversity,” and radicalized it even as the broader field of independent film sags beneath its dependence on studio specialty arms. On her watch, even the American regional and/or socially relevant dramas for which Sundance is known have been bracing specimens like Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Half Nelson, Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road.
Among aspiring filmmakers, the Labs are probably most famous for the young Turks whom Satter and her colleagues helped launch into more or less glittering careers — most notably Quentin Tarantino, who left his June Directing Lab early to begin preproduction on Reservoir Dogs; Paul Thomas Anderson, who was recruited after his short film was spotted at the festival and developed Hard Eight at the Lab; and Darren Aronofsky, who went on to make Pi and Requiem for a Dream. At least two of this year’s Fellows — Moon Molson and Daniel Casey, who’s developing an urban drama about his hometown of Detroit — cite Tarantino as an influence, though both are adamant that their movies will take a more humanistic approach to character.
Taranteenies notwithstanding, if you run down the list of past and present Fellows, it looks diligently but idiosyncratically varied. African-American writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Love and Basketball was nurtured at the Lab. Native American writer Sherman Alexie honed Smoke Signals there, and this year there’s a black comedy by Canadian-Indian Darrell Dennis, based on his one-man show. Cockeyed is Vancouver writer Ryan Knighton’s “irreverent memoir” of going blind as a boy. John Magary has a script about the post-Katrina tribulations of a New Orleans woman. Women writers and directors are disproportionately represented among both Fellows and advisers compared to their presence in the industry at large. Hadar Friedlich, a shy, introspective Israeli whose sensitive short films — one about an Orthodox Jewish girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the other about a cabbie stunned by grief for his dead son — screened during my stay and who’s still not sure whether she wants to end up a filmmaker or a writer of fiction, is working on a drama about a woman forced into retirement by the privatization of her kibbutz. Alicia Erian, a 40-year-old Arab-American writer whose novel Towelhead has been turned into a film directed by Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball, says she got “stellar” notes from adviser and Coal Miner’s Daughter writer Tom Rickman on her script about the relationship between an American and a Salvadoran immigrant. And Liza Johnson, a 37-year-old video artist who got an invitation from Satter for her script about a woman soldier returning from Iraq to her decaying steel town, says the Lab has helped her develop a tighter structure and a fuller back story for her lead character.
“We try for the broadest definition of diversity,” Satter says. “We wouldn’t select something just because it was written by a woman. But yes, we’re going to work harder to identify some really interesting women filmmakers.” Indeed, there’s not a traditional chick flick to be found among the female-written and directed movies that began life at the Lab. Allison Anders, Kimberly Peirce, Miranda July, Andrea Arnold and Nicole Holofcener — not an earth mother among them — all began or jump-started their careers there. Satter could probably wallpaper her home with the “special thanks” she’s received on the credits of movies by Lab alumni, but it’s the women who are particularly effusive about the way she follows through on their behalf. Anders, who gave her a “Guardian Angel” credit on Mi Vida Loca, tells me that Satter introduced her to Colin Callender, who financed the film for HBO and awarded the filmmakers a camera package. When Anders was having trouble in postproduction, Satter brought back some Sundance advisers to see the cut and found her a postproduction mentor. Holofcener, who after several rejected submissions was admitted to the same session as Anders with the script for her debut feature, Walking and Talking, describes the Lab as “a blast and a great place to make stupid mistakes, because the advisers were all so focused on the process and less on the result.”
Tamara Jenkins, writer-director of the Oscar-nominated 2007 movie The Savages, workshopped her autobiographical first feature, Slums of Beverly Hills, at the Lab. In reply to my query, she sends excerpts from a speech she gave when Women in Film honored Satter with a Leadership award last year: “Michelle shows up at a critical time in a fledgling filmmaker’s life — a stage in their careers when they are often described as ‘emerging’ or more simply put — unemployed. Twelve years ago, I was living in a fifth-floor walk-up on Avenue B, and I was going through a particularly bleak period. I had just suffered the indignities of a very unpleasant breakup. I was broke. I had no health insurance. I had a few short films under my belt and a half-written screenplay sitting in my computer that I was unable to finish. I was officially ‘emerging.’ Then I got the call on my answering machine, a gentle voice wafting through my otherwise stagnant apartment. The idea that someone out there was interested in what I was working on was astonishing and terrifying and kind of thrilling, because as all fledgling filmmakers know, getting the call from Michelle means that you might get invited to the Writers Lab or the Directors Lab or you might hit the jackpot and get invited toboth! You will be flown to far off Utah, where you will workshop your screenplay in a freakishly supportive environment — the likes of which you will never see again. Think of it as a sort of fresh-air fund for filmmakers.”
Of the Lab, Jenkins says she learned more there in four weeks than she did in three years of graduate school. Of Satter herself, she writes, “Michelle works in mysterious ways: She is a coach. A film lover. An arts educator. An architect. A nurturer of neurotics. A producer. An enabler. A reader. A critic. A fan. A guidance counselor. A rare and generous person in a business that isn’t famous for its generosity. When the business aspects of the film business threaten the work itself, when I feel worn out and too tired and about to surrender — when I think maybe it’s not worth the fight, maybe no one cares, they’re just movies — I remember that Michelle Satter is out there, sitting in the dark watching movies, and she cares.”
Doubtless Satter’s catholic tastes were shaped in Boston, where she did public relations and marketing for the Institute of Contemporary Art and produced performing-arts events before joining the Sundance Institute and founding the Labs in 1981. In addition to the open submissions it receives, the Institute also does a colossal amount of outreach that includes gathering input from Lab staff and alumni, advisers, film schools, festival programmers and industry contacts. Staff watch a lot of short films to find first-time filmmakers. “And then we do a lot of script reading,” says Satter. “Six of us full-time plus other readers who help us prioritize.” All this searching widens the field for serendipity and the seeding of relationships that may or may not bring fruit. The writer and performance artist Miranda July was recommended by a producer, setting in motion a relationship with the Institute that resulted in her Sundance and Cannes prize-winning film Me and You and Everyone We Know. A Lab associate saw John Cameron Mitchell’s off-Broadway Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Satter pursued him.
“It was flattering that Sundance was interested,” Mitchell tells me by phone from New York. “The play was popular, and they knew that we already had offers to make a film and were negotiating with New Line. I had no script, nothing but the play when I went to the January Lab.” For Mitchell, the January Lab was a mixed bag. At first, the presence of mentors from major studios unnerved him. “I thought, all these people are from Hollywood, but where are our Todd Haynes?” he says. But he ended up getting great notes from, of all people, Larry Konner, a Hollywood heavy hitter who plows back his profits into political documentaries. “The Lab is not always a perfect match of taste between the writer and the adviser,” Mitchell says, “especially when the writer is experimental. Getting notes on Hedwig from Robert Redford was bizarre, but it was helpful in that if I could make him understand what it was. ...”
This year’s Lab, too, has its share of projects that originated outside the film world. The Henchman, a tale of the difficult relationship between a small-town meat slaughterer and his son, is written by Patrick Vala-Haynes, a former stage-combat choreographer and essayist who owns an Oregon bike shop. Imagine, if you can, the pitch meeting for that, or for the project that’s on everybody’s lips at the Lab — Shockheaded Peter, a surreal stage show from London’s West End based on Heinrich Hoffman’s 19th-century nursery rhymes, which Satter saw performed at UCLA. Another Lab associate had met Frank Budgen, a British director of wickedly inventive commercials that screened at the Lab during my visit, who as a result of Satter’s matchmaking is now attached to write and direct the film version. “Sometimes the advisers grumble, ‘Can’t you bring us better writers?’” says adviser and former artistic director Howard Rodman, who recently stepped down as head of the screenwriting program at USC. “The answer is always that this is an interesting project.”
If there’s one crucial way in which Satter has nudged the Labs into the future, it’s in her increasingly global focus, which has seen advisers sent to a similar outfit in Jordan and has helped to launch indigenous Labs in Mexico, Brazil, France, the U.K., Central Europe and Chile. Satter’s growing interest in the cinemas of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East is reflected in the presence among this year’s Fellows of Liu Hao, a writer-director whose second feature played at Cannes in 2005 and who has a short film in a Chinese omnibus mobile-phone project. Liu speaks little English and works through an interpreter on his script about a romance that develops between two rural octogenarians suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Together with co-writer Karen Sztajnberg, Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa is working on a drama about Brazil’s skin-color-based educational quotas. Meanwhile, Samba Do Mazooz has a comedy about the encounter between a Brazil-obsessed Moroccan provincial and a visiting imam preaching conservative Islam. Occasionally, the international mix creates potentially hairy situations: Israeli filmmaker Dror Shaul (Sweet Mud) and Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now), together at the Lab during a particularly inflamed period of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, started out uneasy and mistrustful of each other. By the end, the two had generated an idea for a joint project, with Redford’s personal support. Now they appear together in ads for peace — and Kenneth Cole jeans.
Between 40 and 50 percent of the projects that pass through the Lab get made into movies, a remarkable success rate until you consider that that adds up to four out of eight projects per year. “The question is, what happens when the mists come up and you can no longer see the village?” says Howard Rodman. “The Lab is a deliberately insular environment, a bunch of people engaging in these lovely Socratic dialogues about their work. And then they’re thrown back into the same world we all live in.” That goes for the advisers, too, several of whom (including Rodman) have formed a writers’ collaborative rooted in the belief that story notes from peers are more useful than those they get from people paid to develop screenplays. The collaborative is called 1:3:9, after the aspect ratio of the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey,and counts among its members John Lee Hancock, Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and Graham Yost (Speed). Movie stars or A-list directors come to 1:3:9 with material they don’t want to develop with the studios, and the company finds a compatible writer to work on the project, during which time no money changes hands. At the end of the day there’s a script developed by the whole group, somebody is attached who can get it made, and the producer’s fee is split between the group. “We do it as if it were a lab project,” says Rodman.
If Satter’s taste in Lab projects is invigoratingly radical and in Fellows idiosyncratic, her choice of advisers — a coveted job, if that’s what you call work whose only material reward is room and board with a view — is market savvy and streetwise, a judicious blend of Hollywood and indie top-drawer and second-tier. It’s true that there’s a kind of democracy when it comes to getting a foot in Hollywood’s door; everybody struggles at first. But who gets where, and how, is instructive, if unsurprising: Success is overwhelmingly if not exclusively white and male. Scott Frank, who last year directed his first feature, the well-reviewed The Lookout, graduated from the film department at UC Santa Barbara and spent two years “knocking around Los Angeles rewriting my scripts” before his success writing Little Man Tate in 1985 got him an agent and an office on the Paramount lot. Rodman grew up in the business (his father was a television writer whose credits include The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and penned the screenplays for two movies premiering at Sundance this year, Tom Kalin’s Savage Grace and Austin Chick’s August.
When he was a Houston lawyer, Hancock submitted his first, “absolutely horrid” screenplay to Sundance and was accepted to a retreat in Austin, where one of his teachers was then–Sundance Institute artistic director Frank Daniel, a former dean of the American Film Institute and USC Film School who “ripped our scripts apart and left them shredded on the ground.” Hancock then moved to Los Angeles, worked three jobs and ran a theater company, “also known as me writing for my friends and directing them.” He broke into the big time with A Perfect World, during which he took careful notes of Clint Eastwood’s directing and ended up directing The Rookie and The Alamo as well as producing the lovely children’s film My Dog Skip.
When the current Fellows graduate, they will step into a hierarchical business, some of which is reflected in the makeup of the Lab advisers. Talk to Hancock and Frank, both of whom work with the studios, and they may complain a little, but they’ll also tell you that the industryhas plenty of decent people who really want you to succeed. But adviser Rodrigo Garcia, who wrote Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her as a Lab Fellow and has achieved some modest success in independent film,says that, in Hollywood, “you are paid not to be an artist,” and that “you have to fight your feelings when you see the crap that gets overpaid.”
Kasi Lemmons, another adviser, began her career as an actress but found the prospect of a career playing the black best friend “supremely unfulfilling.” She got into the Writers Guild under Bill Cosby’s wing and, with the help of independent producer Caldecot Chubb, wrote and directed her first feature, Eve’s Bayou, in 1997. But after the fleeting 2001 Samuel L. Jackson feature The Caveman’s Valentine, it took six years before Lemmons directed another film, last year’s Talk to Me. “I’m a writer, that’s what I do,” says Lemmons, who’s received credit for only one screenplay (Eve’s Bayou), though she’s written 15. “There have been many, many scripts that I’m in love with, but which have not seen the light of day, or the dark of a theater. And I direct when they let me.”
Though the Lab has had its share of top women scribes as advisers — among them Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday, Hairspray), Betsy Johnson (Seven Years in Tibet), Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center) and Susan Shilliday(Legends of the Fall, but better known as a writer on thirtysomething) — most are writers rather than hyphenates. “I have a little Fellow envy,” says Lemmons over lunch with me and Frank, “because I have a script that would be perfect for the Lab, and I really need help with it.” She takes a sly jab at Frank for being “too busy” to look at a script she sent him years ago, which Frank takes in stride, calling himself “lucky” for having 10 out of 12 screenplays turned into movies. Still, he’s pragmatic about the power of connections.
“There are different ways you can connect with people in the business, and if you don’t know anybody, there’s a good chance that you’re going to connect with idiots,” says Frank. “You can write a funny story about how nobody paid any attention to you and your script didn’t happen. But if you write a really good script and meet one of the few gifted producers who really cares — a Scott Rudin, a Walter Parkes, a Stacey Sher or a Lindsay Doran — then it’s going to be hard to write that funny piece. If you got rejected by those people, the chances are you’re not very good.”
The Lab’s bottom line is to help Fellows get good, and having a project worth writing is something that’s drilled into them at the daily afternoon meetings that everyone attends, and which I am able to glimpse for a few minutes before I leave the Institute. Many of the advisers have also taught in film schools, where, says Frank, “teaching writing is teaching how to pitch and sell, how to write studio movies. The students are not actually learning who they are, what questions they’re going to ask. They’ve got to be able to reference other kinds of art to find their own voices. What’s good about this place is that the film can be barely in focus, but if it’s got a powerful story and characters, that means something.”
Dan Casey, a gangly fledgling writer-director with a newly hatched air and an unusually mature sense of purpose, may not have the hip cachet of the international Fellows or those who come from theater or visual arts. But in many ways, he’s the ideal Sundance Fellow, a self-starter who’s also eager to learn. He’s a movie geek who made a “stop-motion animation with turtles” with a video camera when he was 5 years old and at 12 was filming his own stories, using neighborhood kids as actors. In his teens, he made horror movies. Reservoir Dogs changed his life, but so did The Thin Red Line. After his crime drama The Death of Michael Smith (budget: $500) won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance last year, Casey, who’s now all of 25, got himself an agent and a manager; went to a Writers Guild function with the specific purpose of chasing down Satter; and applied to the Lab by general submission after soliciting recommendation letters from everyone he knew who might know someone at the Institute. “I wanted to be in the Sundance Lab more than I wanted a feature,” he tells me. “If you go here, the prestige is so substantial that you don’t run as much of a risk of having your subject matter altered. That, for me, was extremely exciting. The best filmmakers of the last 20 years have come out of the Sundance Lab.”
Casey’s project, Poletown, set in the decaying working-class community of Detroit where he grew up, boasts a dead body and a race-fueled drug war, but it’s the characters and their interpersonal dramas that he focuses on at the Lab. “What I think this Lab has been great with is forcing me to lean on personal aspects of the script,” he says. “My mentors, Michael Goldenberg and Scott Frank, told me that there are points in the script where they can tell that what’s happening is pulled from my own experience, things that I saw when I was living there. Then there are other points where everything becomes familiar and derivative. You need to walk that line and speak in an articulate voice that’s grounded within you. I had a teacher tell me once that the artistic process is finding a way of taking that mold that’s in the back of your mouth, that you’re ashamed of, that’s all hairy and ugly, and showing it to the world.”
Going through the directing program at AFI, where “they would stand students up in front of the rest of the student body and practically paddle them,” was a useful prior ordeal by fire for Casey. Frank Pierson, who teaches at AFI and also mentors at the Lab, told him that, at the latter, “the mentors will read a script and everyone will agree what the problems are, but no one will have remotely similar ideas about how to fix them.” The beauty of that, Pierson said, “is that it shows you that there is a kind of scientific process about screenwriting. But the fact that no one can agree about the solution shows that it’s an art.”
When the Screenwriters Lab is over, the international Fellows get lodging at the festival, while the rest get $400 and nine tickets each to the World Cinema section, widely considered to be one of the festival’s strongest. Such is the protective atmosphere at the Lab that more than one Fellow feels nervous about moving into such a busy public environment. “The festival’s a zoo,” says Casey, “while here I’m falling into intimate relationships with the mentors and the Fellows. I’m intimidated in a good way. I can tell already that I prefer this to that.”
Two months after I leave the Institute, I contact several of the Fellows to see how their scripts are coming along and how they feel about their time at the resort. I get back a few dutiful messages about how valuable and supportive the experience was. From Casey, I receive a long, thoughtful e-mail. “I love the new draft,” he writes. “Love, love, love it. Ten times more than the original. The lab was extremely helpful in the rewriting process. I won’t lie, though — when I returned to L.A., my head was spinning and I didn’t know where to start. It took me about two weeks to actually get my head into a space where I could begin writing again. I think this was mostly caused by two things: one, the sheer amount of notes that I’d assembled from my lab mentors was so huge, and offered so many different directions to take the script, that I had to sort through every one and find a direction that I felt was best for the project. The second thing that had me spooked was anxiety. Though I’ve done rewrites before, I’d never done them like this. I’d never known how to. And obviously, while getting into the Sundance Labs was hard enough, showing these people that I was listening — that I could use the tools they’d offered, and bring Poletown to another level — that’s an entirely different type of pressure.”
Once he’d worked through the notes and shaken off his hesitation, Casey goes on to say, the next draft began to pour out of him. “It was surreal, because I was making some pretty big changes to the script, and normally, I’m squeamish about these things,” he writes. “But it felt great. I loved every change I made. I suppose that says a lot about the folks at Sundance. I remember saying to you in Utah that it felt a lot like joining a family. Even though the Lab is over, it still feels the same way. It’s a gift. And it’s continuously humbling.”
Just humbling enough, and no more. Casey’s advisers read his revisions and gave him more notes, and in March he submitted his next draft. In April, he learned that, along with six other Fellows from the January Lab, he would be going to the Directors Lab in June.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.