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in Filmmaking
on Jun 17, 2009

It’s June, so that means it’s time for the Sundance Labs, where emerging writers, directors and composers hone their skills in preparation for their next films. This year, we’ll be featuring a number of Lab participants blogging from the Sundance Institute, and to launch the series we’re really happy to have actor and writer/director Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear, Mother Night, Waking the Dead) conveying his experiences as an advisor to the Directing Fellows. In this first post, penned in the middle of his drive from L.A. to Utah, he writes about the reasons he goes back to Sundance year after year. Check back regularly this month for more reports.

I’m writing this from a Comfort Inn motel in St. George Utah. This will be my ninth or tenth summer at the lab (I can’t remember which!), and part of my personal tradition is driving from L.A. instead of flying. The road trip allows me to slow my brain, and shed my preoccupations with my own work. I love driving through the California desert, and southern Utah’s red rocks, before arriving at the verdant beauty of the northern Utah mountains where the Sundance lab takes place. I stop in St, George as a halfway point.

Before I heading up to the lab, I do my prep work; basically reading the eight scripts for the summer’s projects, and looking at the earlier short films or features made by the directors. I try to take careful notes on both; what I liked in the scripts and shorts, and what seem like potential problem areas. For example, if a script relies heavily on naturalistic acting, and the short is weak in that area, or just isn’t applicable, like a documentary, I make note to keep an eye on that area with that project.

Obviously I’ll personally respond to some scripts more than others, but I try hard to separate personal taste from recognizing the quality of the work. Sundance chooses very carefully from hundreds of submissions, so it’s very, very rare that I ever think a project is truly mediocre (maybe 2 or 3 out of the 80 or so I’ve been involved with).

And sometimes, delightfully, I get fooled. A script that didn’t grab me on the page, comes alive in a talented young director’s hands.

I look forward to being an advisor at the lab the way a kid looks forward to Christmas. It’s literally my favorite week of the year, For many reasons…

First, in working with these young, passionate filmmakers, (called ‘fellows’ at Sundance) I’m reminded of why I want to make movies myself. Their lack of cynicism, and their focus on the art of film, not the business, helps me regain my own sense of perspective and priorities.

There’s also the joy of mentoring talented people in something you both love. Being able to share your knowledge and experience with the next generation is a wonderful, fun and challenging way to give back, I only got to be a director because others were kind enough to help me learn and grow, I feel a need to pass that tradition on.

Also, as I often say only half jokingly, I learn more than I teach, Watching and listening to the other advisors – some of the world’s best actors, writers, directors, editors and cinematographers – as they work with these young filmmakers is an incredible experience for me as well. If a young filmmaker wants to hear what Ed Harris has to say about rehearsing a scene, or Bob Elswit about how to shoot it, well so do I!

Besides, the people who run and work at the lab, and the other advisors are some of the nicest, kindest, most interesting people you could hope to meet and spend time with.

All this in a spectacular mountain setting of breathtaking beauty. Man, I’d do this as a full time gig, if I could.

Basically, as advisors, we work with the fellows as they rehearse, shoot, and edit a few scenes from their feature projects. The scenes are done in a rudimentary way, shot on video, with modular, theatrical sets so the focus doesn’t become on trying to produce something ‘slick’. We then screen the scenes and give criticism and feedback. We’re always trying to walk that fine line of giving advice and sometimes actively challenging how the fellows are working, without taking over their scenes, or not letting them follow their own vision, and make their own mistakes.

Indeed, failure is an important part of the Sundance process. As Gyula Gazdag, the lab’s kind, wise Zen master of an artistic director often points out, the fellows often learn more from scenes that don’t work than those that do. And failure is protected. The scenes shot here kept from public view, so the fellows will be willing to work outside their comfort zones, stretch themselves, and experiment with new ways of dealing with actors, script, camera, and editing. Every filmmaker here is talented. But letting them just show off what they already know how to do would be pointless. So we push them to the areas that scare them, to the places in the process that are the least comfortable for them.

It’s very different what works best with each filmmaker, and it often evolves as the lab goes on. Some need a very gentle hand, some thrive with more active collaboration, and some need a tough, almost confrontational approach to get them out of ruts or pre-conceived ideas.

Part of the genius of Michelle Satter who runs the lab, is the range of personalities she carefully pieces together in the groups of advisors. There are nurturers, and more tough minded advisors, good cops and bad cops, and everything in between, and Michelle and Gyula are always acutely aware of what each fellow needs, and tries to make sure they get time with the advisors that will best fit their challenges,

There are advisors from across the spectrum of creative movie jobs, so a young filmmaker who has a lot of confidence with the camera, but less with cast might tend to get more advisor time with actor advisors, or directors. A fellow who’s very comfortable working with their actors, but less sure of how to use the camera to tell their story might get more time with cinematographer and editor advisors. And this keeps changing throughout the lab, depending on what each filmmaker is grappling with.

Every morning the advisors meet, and we report what we’re seeing with each filmmaker; their struggles and their triumphs, where they’re making progress and where they’re stuck. Although I imagine some of the filmmakers are paranoid about these sessions, thinking we’re sitting around gossiping and bitching about them, it’s just the opposite, The empathy factor here is huge,; we always speak with care and understanding about what we see them going through. Because we’ve all been through these kinds of artistic struggles ourselves.

Based on this discussion, Gyula and Michelle will suggest which advisors might be most helpful to each filmmaker that day, and we divvy up who will go spend time with director A in rehearsal, director B who’s shooting, and director C in the editing room. We also chime in if there’s someone who’s problems we feel we have an understanding of, and would like to try and help.

Usually the day is designed so we spend a good part of the day with one filmmaker. This includes a lunch meeting, away from the time pressures of shooting or rehearsal, where we can privately discuss what we’re observing. Then we usually move onto another filmmaker the next day, so no filmmaker gets overloaded with one point of view,

One of the great beauties of the lab is the diversity of voices and opinions the filmmakers will hear, Sometimes it can be maddening for them, since they get so much advice, some of it contradictory. But that encourages them to develop their own sense of truth, to learn to listen for what speaks to, and works for them. It also makes it clear that the advisors have no monopoly on truth, just informed opinions.

For that same reason, there are whole different teams of advisors each week. As one group leaves on Sunday, the next group arrives. So there is really a whirlwind of input. But, Michelle and Gyula are there to provide continuity, and to fill in the incoming advisors on where each of the fellows are at.

In the evenings there’s a communal dinner in a big tent (all meals are group meals, adding to the world’s-greatest-summer-camp-for filmmakers’ feel. Then the day ends with either the screening of one of the advisor’s films, followed by a Q+A, or the reading of one of the screenplays being worked on, giving the film makers (and the rest of us) the chance to hear the projects in a complete way. They’re full long exhausting, rewarding days. We start with breakfast at 8:00 and I usually don’t get back to the little condo I’m staying in until 10 or 11 pm.

This only gives a basic feel of how the whole dance that is Sundance works. I could probably write a book about it all. There’s a magic to it that’s hard to define. But there’s a reason so many of us come back year after year for a chance to be part of a truly pure, creative, and kind artistic process. — Keith Gordon

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