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Sundance Directors Lab 2023 Diary: Walter Thompson-Hernández

A man sits on a bed and directs a young actress.Photo by Sam Emenogu, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

This week Filmmaker is publishing three diaries from writers and directors who attended the 2023 Sundance Directors Lab. We’ve already published writer-director Dania Bdeir’s as well as director-writer-producer Masami Kawai‘s. Next up is writer-director Walter Thompson-Hernández, who traveled to the Lab with If I Go Will They Miss Me. (He’s also a Filmmaker 2022 25 New Face.) Here’s the description: “Twelve-year-old Lil Ant begins to see mysterious figures — eerie men with their arms spread like wings — around his home. When his father, Big Ant, realizes his son sees these “airplane people” too, their family history emerges and reveals deeper meaning and connection between them.” A complete list of Sundance Labs participants can be found here. — Editor


Hopped on the flight to Salt Lake City from Burbank Airport. The Uber driver was really cool. I hopped onto the flight and saw Audrey Rosenberg, another directing fellow, sitting across the row from me. We landed at the airport and met with Farida Zahran, who is also a directing fellow. We spent the next hour on road talking about our sandwich preferences. We arrived at the resort and settled in our rooms and met everyone that night. 

Audrey and Farida at the back of the van


Met everyone from production today. Our DP, Gemma Doll-Grossman, who lives by me in Los Angeles, briefly spoke about how to approach the upcoming Osso Bucco scene. Osso Bucco is a scene every directing fellow has to do. It’s almost like an introductory-warm up scene to get acquainted with the crew. The great thing about it is that every fellow puts their own spin on it: we all get the same script but each approach it in different ways. Gemma sent over some really great light and camera references. The mountain was a bit colder than I expected. It was pretty cold actually. I ended up ordering a jacket from Amazon. 


We shot our Osso Bucco scene today with Malik Coleman, one of the Sundance drivers, and Devon Edwards, another driver and crew member. I used a part of the restaurant called The Lookout as well as a part of the ski lift mountain. The entire scene dove into the world of projection and perception. Malik was in dialogue with himself and responding to internal stimuli that only he could see and hear. I pitched the scene to my crew as Atlanta season one having a child with The Shining. 

Malik on the mountain


We screened some of our shorts tonight. It was great to see other fellow’s shorts again. It was cool to see my short on the big screen but also hard to watch at times. I feel like so much has happened since making that short. So much growth. Would definitely make different creative decisions today. 


Met with Gyula Gazdag today! Double G. The O.G. of the mountain. It was so great to finally meet in person after hearing so many great things about him. There was so much that we connected on–our love for surrealist films and our connection to UCLA. 

Spent most of the day editing the Osso Bucco scene with Jack Hessler, an editor from Salt Lake City. Loved working with Jack so much. We clicked instantly. Big fans of the same music. We spent thirty minutes talking about Kendrick Lamar’s latest album. I felt really lightheaded today and was dozing off while Jack was editing. Mountain altitude sickness definitely got the best of me. 

We all screened our Osso Bucco scenes and danced and partied after. It was cool to see people let loose and to hear such incredible and supportive feedback from everyone who attended. 


We rode up to the top of the mountain and received our blessing, which is a Sundance tradition. A member of a local Native American tribe leads the blessing. It was beautiful and memorable. I felt connected to everything and all things in the universe. The trees started to dance when he beat on his drum. 


Rehearsal day! Met with Amari Cheatom and Raven Goodwin, two incredible people and actors. It was truthfully my first time ever rehearsing. Most of my films have been made with friends and limited resources and in a very improvisational spirit. I didn’t know what to do with all that rehearsal time! We walked through some of the scenes and spent most of the time getting to know one another. 

We had dinner with my production team, the blue team. Felt so lucky to have been paired with such beautiful people. There were a lot of jokes going around the table. Art Brainard, our AD, was great at making us all feel welcome and comfortable. 


We shot our first scene! It went well. Our crew was amazing and our actors were incredible as well. It was hard making the mountain home feel like the Imperial Courts Projects in Watts but we made it work. Our gaffer, Duke Stokes, and DP, Gemma, did some incredible work with light and shadows. Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of Love and Basketball and The Woman King, among others, was on set and I was hella nervous. She’s so cool and supportive but I still felt nervous to be on set with a legend! 

Had lunch with Ed Harris today as well. It was amazing to hear his perspective on filmmaking and acting. He was so kind, helpful and humble. I was thinking of how my aunt and uncle loved all his films and wanted them to be there to meet him. 


Edited the scene with my editor, Lam Nguyen, the entire day! 


Rehearsed the first scene for the creative advisors. Everyone had great feedback, some of it wasn’t the easiest to listen to. I had to check my ego halfway through. It was great though. I didn’t go to film school and thought that the experience is something that would happen in film school. Gina Prince-Bythewood, another former fellow athlete, pulled me to the side after the feedback session to tell me this was like sports: they were hard on me because they really believed in me and my vision. 


Shot the second and final scene of the lab. This was my favorite scene. It involved two child actors — Logan from Los Angeles and Trae from from Salt Lake City. They were incredible and really found a way to instantly connect with each other. Most of my films have involved child actors, so I felt like it was in my wheelhouse. The biggest thing was to create an environment where they felt safe to be who they already are. We shot the first scene on a nearby hill. TJ Doctor, the production lead for all teams and the Lab, privately shared that the Daniels’s directing team were the only other directors to have used that hill for a scene. 


Spent the day editing the second scene! I pulled a couple of pranks on some of my fellows. Knocked on their editing room doors and ran away a few times. Daysha Broadway and Sean Wang pulled a prank on me by hiding in my editing room and scaring the shit out of me when I returned. 

We had our send-off dinner for all the crew and teams. It was a beautiful tribute to everyone’s generosity. Such incredible people. 


Screened the second scene for my advisors and got some really great feedback from everyone. Walked out of the session floating. 

We screened everyone’s scenes tonight and then partied in The Owl Bar. I heard it was the first time there’s ever been a mosh pit there. The karaoke really got people out of their seats! I sang an Usher song with the help of others and danced the night away at someone’s mountain home with most of the fellows and crew. Gemma, our DP, was busy texting me songs from a different room that she wanted to hear. Haha. 


Last full day on the mountain. Was pretty sad to know that so many of the people that I connected with had already left. The elation and exhilaration of the past two weeks was beginning to wear off.  We had a nice closing dinner at the restaurant and spoke about the things we were grateful for. 


Left the mountain today. Malik, the person who I cast for my Osso Bucco drove us back to the airport. Another sad day, but what a beautiful experience. One of the best two weeks of my life. I’ll never forget the people, the mountain and the directing lab for as long as I live. 

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