For the past four years, I’ve been one of the creative advisors to the twice-yearly Sundance Screenwriters Lab, a program which connects working screenwriters with emerging independent filmmakers. Because of work commitments, I’ve actually missed the past three labs, so I’m happy to be going back again this June.
The Sundance Institute recently announced the list of projects and filmmakers for this session. I thought it would be interesting for readers to see how far from “obviously commercial” these projects tend to be.
Taika Waititi (writer/director), A LITTLE LIKE LOVE, New Zealand: For two awkward misfits, life is the question, and love is the answer. Taika Waititi is of Te Whanau-A-Apanui descent, from the east coast of New Zealand and directed the Academy-Award nominated short TWO CARS ONE NIGHT.
Cruz Angeles (co-writer/director) and Maria Topete (co-writer), DON’T LET ME DROWN: In a post-September 11th world overflowing with fear and hate, two Latino teens discover that sometimes the only thing that can keep them from drowning is love. Born in Mexico City and raised in Los Angeles, Cruz Angeles is an award-winning student filmmaker from the graduate film program at NYU. A Bay Area native, Maria Topete began her film career while studying at U.C. Berkeley, and has collaborated as co-writer and producer on several award-winning short films.
Dante Harper (writer/director), DREAMLAND: An unflinching portrayal of the origins of domestic terrorism, DREAMLAND is the tragic story of Tim McVeigh, from his boyhood dreams of being a soldier to his life as a man at war with his own country. Dante Harper is an independent filmmaker, video artist and co-founder of CLC Films and director of the independent film THE DELICATE ART OF THE RIFLE.
Andrew Dosunmu (co-writer/director) and Darci Picoult (co-writer), MOTHER OF GEORGE: Torn between her African culture and new life in America, a woman struggles to please her husband and give him the son that will carry on his family’s legacy. Originally from Nigeria, Andrew Dosunmu has photographed artists including Outkast, Erykah Badu, and Mos Def and recently directed several episodes of the highly acclaimed South African television series YIZO YIZO 3.
Catherine Stewart (writer/director), TRANSIT CAFÃ‰, South Africa: Set in post-apartheid South Africa amid a volatile landscape of fear, hybrid cultures, and shifting identities, three unusual love stories intertwine with startling results on the streets of Johannesburg. Catherine Stewart received and MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University in New York City before returning to Johannesburg to direct documentaries and the thirteen-part dramatic television series TSHA TSHA.
Eva Husson (writer/director), TINY DANCER: In Spanish Harlem, a talented high-school girl struggles to find the right balance between her overpowering family, her need for love, and her passion for contemporary dance. Eva Husson attended the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University in Paris before graduating from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she wrote and directed the award-winning short film HOPE TO DIE.
Stew (co-writer/director) and Heidi Rodewald (co-writer), WE CAN SEE TODAY: The vibrant and authentic story of the deeply intimate and complex relationship between two families – one black, one Jewish – living in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles circa 1973. Stew is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter whose releases have won numerous “Album of the Year” accolades. Born in Pomona, California, Heidi Rodewald is the other half of the multi-disciplinary art team known as STEW.
Ryan Eslinger (writer/director), WHEN A MAN FALLS IN THE FOREST: The lives of three lonely men intersect as they struggle to overcome their deepening isolation and search for connection. Los Angeles resident Ryan Eslinger directed his first feature, MADNESS AND GENIUS, at the age of 23.
Martin Moran (writer), CELESTIAL NAVIGATION: CELESTIAL NAVIGATION is the story of a Roman Catholic boy’s sexual relationship with an older man and its effect on the man he becomes. Martin Moran grew up in Denver and attended Stanford University and The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. He won a 2004 Obie Award for his one man play, THE TRICKY PART, which was developed at The Sundance Theater Lab.
Jake Mahaffy (writer/director), FREE IN DEED: Three years after attempting to perform a miracle in Oil City, a religious man returns to confront the town’s few remaining residents with the reasons for his criminal act. Born in Ohio and currently residing in southwest Virginia, Jake Mahaffy has made award winning short films and the feature-length WAR.
Sabiha Sumar (writer/director), RAFINA, Pakistan: RAFINA is the story of a young woman struggling to define herself in a new, emerging Pakistan – a Pakistan that is steeped in a timeless way of life and, at the same time, is in the throes of cataclysmic change. Born in Karachi, Sabiha Sumar studied Filmmaking and Political Science at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and then studied International Relations at the University of Cambridge. KHAMOSH PANI (SILENT WATERS), her first feature film premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2003 where it won the Golden Leopard for Best Film, Leopard for Best Actress and three other awards.
Annemarie Jacir (writer/director), SALT OF THIS SEA, U.S.A./Palestinian: A Palestinian-American girl, intent on asserting her right of return, travels to the West Bank and meets a dynamic young man who joins her on an adventure journeying across borders. Palestinian-American filmmaker Annemarie Jacir has written, directed and produced both narrative and documentary shorts.
Salvatore Stabile (writer/director), WHERE GOD LEFT HIS SHOES: A struggling ex-boxer and his family, desperate to leave the shelter they’ve been living in, get a Christmas Eve gift of an apartment to call their own – but only if Dad can find a job by the end of the day. New York native and LA resident Salvatore Stabile made his directing debut when he was 21 years old with the film GRAVESEND.
None of these project scream “blockbuster,” but that’s certainly not the point. And a substantial proportion of them will get made. Two of the projects I advised in previous labs include David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls and Michael Burke’s The Mudge Boy. Other major success stories from the lab include Boys Don’t Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
The other advisors for this session include Walter Bernstein, Kathryn Bigelow, Robert Caswell, Erin Cressida Wilson, Joan Darling, Anthony Drazan, Suzy Elmiger, Sally Field, John Gatins, Keith Gordon, Robbie Greenberg, Catherine Hardwicke, Robert Nelson Jacobs, Michael Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeremy Kagan, Michael Lehmann, Malia Scotch Marmo, Peter Medak, Sally Menke, Walter Mosley, Ron Nyswaner, Harold Ramis, Robert Redford, Howard Rodman, Susan Shilliday, Stewart Stern, Joan Tewkesbury, Barbara Tulliver, Jon Turteltaub, Tyger Williams, Doug Wright, and Boaz Yakin.
The summer session includes a three week directing lab, which explains why there are so many advisors — we each take a week or so.
How do you get your project picked for the lab? Well, I’m not the best person to ask, since my script (HERE AND NOW) didn’t make the cut. But I’ve noticed a few common trends among the projects that make it to the lab:
- Dissimilarity to any other movie. If you can say it’s “like” some other movie, it’s probably not going to get in.
- An atypical protagonist. Forget likability. Sundance project “heroes” are not generally the life of the party.
- Lack of clear genre. The very thing that makes it hard to put on the shelf at Blockbuster is a plus to Sundance.
- A filmmaker who’s made another small feature, or a noteworthy short. Sundance tends to look for people’s second movie, not their first.
- International is good. As you can see from the list above, a global perspective is definitely a goal.