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Sundance Labs: “Like some kind of platoon, all of us here in the trenches together.”

[Beginning today Filmmaker Magazine will be taking an exclusive look inside the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Every Monday Filmmaker Braden King will be posting a weekly story on his experience at the Labs until its conclusion on June 28.

His project is titled Here, co-written by himself and Dani Valent, and follows an American mapmaker charting the Armenian countryside who’s traveling with an adventurous landscape photographer revisiting her homeland.

King has directed music videos and short films for Sonic Youth, Will Oldham and Yo La Tengo. He co-directed the film Dutch Harbor: Where The Sea Breaks Its Back.]

Friday, June 08 – 7:09 AM

I keep coming back to the river. How to describe the process that goes on here? I’m tired, used up in all the best ways. I think it’s only week two.

How to form an introduction?

I keep coming back to the river.

Where am I? Somewhere in Utah. In the mountains. I don’t know what day it is.

My second day of shooting starts tomorrow.

Sunday, June 10, 2007 – 2:56 PM

“Art is a mystery. A mystery is something immeasurable.” – e.e. cummings, poet

“Playing it safe gets you nothing.” – Michael Krassner, composer, collaborator

Trying to articulate what goes on here…

I’m not sure that it’s possible to fully articulate what goes on here. It feels like an impossible task. If you haven’t experienced it, if you haven’t felt it, I’m not sure I’m a talented enough writer to bring you here, to bring you in. I can tell you this: it’s a gift. There is no way to leave here unchanged.

We all drank the Kool-Aid pretty quickly. I’m sitting under a tree, next to a river, on my first day off after a six-day week of rehearsals, shoots and edits. There’s a grasshopper walking across the top of my laptop screen.

Better living through chemistry? Better filmmaking through landscape.

I keep coming back to the river.

* * *

My wife is visiting this week. We spent the morning hiking up to a 1,000 foot waterfall. On our descent I kept thinking about how one analogy might be some kind of outward bound for filmmakers, a kind of cinema boot camp that gets under the skin and hits deeper – to the bone, to the soul. We all seem to be finding the edges of ourselves. And then moving past them. Over and over again.

I can’t explain the X factor but I can tell you that there is one, there is magic, there is family, there is something that far transcends simple lessons in craft. The Institute knows this, it knows what it’s doing.

Everything is big here, open. I felt the horizon expand on my first day here. There is a lot of light. Especially coming from New York City.

Yes, there are specifics, there is production. We shoot scenes, we work with actors, crews. Advisors wander on and off your set, into and out of your edit room. Good ghosts, mostly. The kind you want around when you’re up against the wall, painted into a corner. A few short words can turn your entire day around. The generosity is the mind-blower, the depth of care and discourse. A day here feels like a week in the best ways.

Everything is a lesson. The doing is a lesson. The velocity is a lesson. The exhaustion and the failures – most of all – are a lesson. The opportunity to go there is the gift.

You learn from your actors. I have been working with two incredibly talented ones this week – Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now, Changing Times, Exiles) and Derek Cecil (TV’s Pasadena, Push, Nevada). Every take they’ve done has made me a better director. The local actors who fill out our casts are no less essential to the journey.

You learn from your crew – from their sweat, their muscles, their brains, their dedication and their generosity. No one is getting paid to be here; it’s about the love of the game, the contribution, the chance to create something larger than ourselves. Maybe that’s what it comes down to, what it is – the definition. It’s as close as I can get today.

We learn from each other. It’s humbling to be a member of this class – John Morgan, Maryam Keshavarz, Sophie Barthes, Adewale Akinnouoye-Agbaje, Patricia Benoit, Eric Lahey, Richard Montoya. It already feels like some kind of platoon, all of us here in the trenches together.

Finally, of course, you learn from your advisors, the ghosts. I spent time this week with Gyula Gazdag, a magnificent filmmaker and the Lab’s creative advisor, Joan Darling, the resident guru of working with actors, and the visiting advisors Brad Silberling (Director), Peter Medak (Director), John Amiel (Director), Robbie Greenberg (DP) and Lisa Fruchtman (Editor). Even the shortest conversations felt like master classes. A new crew arrives this afternoon (they rotate each week). I can’t wait to meet them.

* * *

I’ve often thought that it’s actually not for us to decide what our stories are about. It’s only for us to create them, to birth them – because we must – or they will kill us.

It’s not for us to impose our hopes on the child. The child will resent us and the child will rebel. The child is the film, the actor, the crew, ourselves. Our job is to ease it out of the ether and into its life.

Sundance, this lab – it’s like the most caring, midwife you can possibly imagine. But it’ also tough. She has to be. The kid has to come out. Now. It’s natural childbirth: messy and painful and without all the drugs, but beautiful, perfect somehow.

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