The June Directors and Screenwriters Labs hosted by the Sundance Institute brought together filmmakers and creators from many disciplines and diverse locales. Elle Toussi went to Park City in Utah to speak to some of the participants.

Sundance selected 13 projects for its annual June Directors and Screenwriters Labs with international participants ranging from Brazil, China, India, Vietnam, Mexico, Europe and the United States.

The selected fellows for the Directors Lab began their journey on May 26 and concluded with a five-day intensive Screenwriters Lab that took place from June 21-26.

“I really love every lab we do,” says Michelle Satter (pictured, bottom left of four photos, at left with Geremy Jasper), founding director of the 33-year-old Feature Film Program. “The Screenwriters Lab is really like the hidden gem of our work. I am moved by both the advisors and fellows’ generosity.” 

Generosity and the openness to the process was the general consensus among many veteran artist directors who reflected on their experience at the Screenwriters Lab in Utah.

The advisors that come to assist the fellows are some of the most respected writers in the industry. One might believe the benefits would be exclusively for the fellows, however award-winning screenwriter and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson expressed just the opposite.

“When I came here for the first time as a mentor about a year-and-a-half ago, I believe it changed my life,” she says. “It woke me up from a bit of a sleep, because I could see different points of view and start interacting with those different points of view.”

The unique experience provided by the Sundance Institute in Utah for all its participants is one that truly sets it apart from all similar programmes offered elsewhere.

Although the advisors are at the institution to provide guidance and assistance to the fellows, many, if not all, reap benefits from the process much like Wilson. The environment, with its natural settings, is advantageous to those wanting to focus solely on the project at hand.

“It is as safe an environment as you will ever be in,” says screenwriter, novellist and educator Howard A Rodman (pictured bottom right of four photos, at left with Hong Khaou and screenwriter Scott Burns.) “We’re here to talk about the work. We are not here to tear [the fellow] down.

“We are here to help the work be a better and more necessary version of what it already wants to be.”

This year the veteran artist directors advising in the lab series included Robert Redford, Rodman, Michael Arndt, John August, Burns, Gyula Gazdag, Deena Goldstone, Susan Shilliday, Dana Stevens, Wesley Strick, Walter Mosley, Joan Tewkesbury, White, Tyger Williams and Wilson.

Joining as first-time advisors were Pedro Peirano, Marjane Satrapi and Chris Terrio.

“It is supportive, collaborative and everybody has a job,” says Nashville screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who has come to the labs, on and off, for close to 20 years. “You don’t just come to observe. You come to be a participant. It’s terrific because you learn everything.”

“About a third of the fellows are international and bring a very important aspect to the mix,” says international director of the Feature Film Program Paul Federbush.

For Khaou, a lab Fellow whose feature debut Lilting premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the experience at the lab has proved to be unique and valuable. “It’s incredible and I’m not exaggerating,” he says. “It’s all about us and they are tuning everything to help us and the script to see how best to take that forward.”

The projects supported by the Sundance Institute receive year-round support from the Feature Film Program, which is customised to include creative and strategic advice, production and post-production resources and whatever else necessary to help the fellow successfully complete the project.

It is also important to note that many people that come to the labs do so from different professional backgrounds.

“Fellows come into the lab with varying experiences beforehand,” says advisor John August, the regular Tim Burton collaborator who wrote Big Fish, Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows. “Some of them are really talented writers or narrative storytellers in a different medium before coming to film. This is a way for them to learn film vocabulary and how all that works.”

For example, writer-director Geremy Jasper (pictured with Michelle Satter) entered the labs this year coming from a music video and commercials environment. With the wide range of advisors available during the labs, Jasper notes that, “everybody has different work and a different approach. When you talk to them about your own work, they are coming at you from a different place, which is really interesting and thrilling.”

Then you have fellows like Brazilian screenwriter and director Gabriela Amaral Almeida, who has directed seven shorts and is currently working on a screenplay for Walter Salles. The diversity among the fellows enhances the experience and, Almeida says, “doesn’t allow for competition to arise.”

For some of the fellows, the experience of the labs began back in January.

“The boundaries between advisor and advisee were completely blurred,” says Almeida, referring to her experience with Tarantino in the January labs. “So we were able to work as a duo. When that happens it is very good.”

One of the most beneficial elements for fellow Johnny Ma includes the new tools revealed to him as a filmmaker at the labs. “They are creating an environment where artists can take risks and you can take a risk to show yourself.”

The June Directors Lab fellows were: Gabriela Amaral Almeida, The Father’s Shadow (Brazil); Jordana Spiro and Angelica Nwandu, Night Comes On (US); Sofia Exarchou, Park (Greece); Geremy Jasper, Patti Cake$ (US); Oorlagh George, Stranger With A Camera (US-Northern Ireland); Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man (US); Johnny Ma, Ten Thousand Happiness (US-China-Canada); and Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser, We The Animals (US).

The June Screenwriter Lab fellows: Ana Lily Amirpour, The Bad Batch (US); Karrie Crouse and Will Joines, Dust (US); Fernando Frias, I’m Already Not Here (US-Mexico); Hong Khaou, Monsoon (Vietnam-UK); and Vasan Bala, Side Hero (India).

For further information about the various Sundance labs held throughout the year or look further into the fellows projects, visit the official website.

Photo top left: Fellow Ana Lily Amirpour. Photo: Fred Hayes

Photo top right : Advisor Mike White (left) with Fellow Hong Khaou. Photo: Ryan Johnson

Photo bottom left: Feature Film Program founding director Michelle Satter (left) with Fellow Geremy Jasper. Photo: Fred Hayes

Photo bottom right: Advisor Howard Rodman (left) with Fellow Hong Khaou (centre) and advisor Scott Burns (right). Photo: Fred Hayes