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in Filmmaking
on Jun 28, 2009

Leaving the Sundance Lab is always a melancholy feeling. I’m happy and excited about seeing my wife, but not about re-entering the “real world” of Los Angeles, where the deal is the thing, and where projects are judged on potential economic return, not artistic merit.

The week is full of great memories, watching young filmmakers take steps — sometimes leaps — towards defining their voice and material.

Some bravely challenged their whole script, re-writing as they worked, and adding whole new scenes to their pieces that gave them more depth.

Others found ways to integrate their desire to create a specific cinematic style, with a way to maintain the emotion of the story.

Directors of pieces with divergent elements and styles made strides towards seamlessly integrating their scripts’ humor and sadness, so within one scene they could leap nimbly back and forth in mood.

One filmmaker learned that scenes she dismissed as ‘exposition’, could be very emotional and important if she approached them with passion.

Every filmmaker grew, stretched and challenged themselves. I think (I hope!) they all leave with a greater sense of clarity and confidence then when they started. I only wish we’d had even more time with them.

They’ve had so much thrown at them by so many people, they’ll be a lot of processing to do. And it will be fascinating to see what the films themselves are like when they actually get to make their features (a surprisingly large numbers of the fellows do, with Sundance’s help). That part is often delightful,

A few years back I worked with Miranda July on Me and You and Everyone We Know. I loved her script, but while I was at the lab — early in the process that summer — she was still struggling to deal with her actors and crew to get what she wanted, and to find a visual language that would capture the quirkiness of her script, without being self-conscious. It was a major thrill to see her final film in the theater, and realized how much she had triumphed to create something whole, special and unique.

It’s funny, sometimes the most important thing you can give as an advisor are small bits of advice that help lead to directors thinking in new ways. On one set, I pointed out that the actor whose close-up was being shot couldn’t see the person he was talking to, because a lighting flag was in the way. The director hadn’t felt comfortable challenging their DP’s needs, and so said nothing. But once he mentioned it, they quickly came to an accommodation that worked for both the actor and the image. After that he was more aware of what his actors needed, and that as captain of the ship he had every right to try to get everyone what they needed to do their best work.

Other times it’s hour-long, sometimes tearful talking sessions, that go way beyond filmmaking into the challenges these young people carry from their personal lives that are affecting their work. Someone who felt judged and belittled as a kid, can either be too meek on a set, or too much a bully — either way a form of self-protection. Sometimes we have to be amateur psychologists to get at the issues underneath their struggles.

I’ll leave off with a document I created at Sundance a few years ago. I was working with a young director who was very talented, but who was also prone to panic — causing her to lose her perspective and clarity (an issue I’ve had to deal with myself at times). So I wrote this “cheat sheet” for the fellows to carry with them for when they felt lost. To be honest, I created it just as much for myself…

Check back tomorrow for Gordon’s Sundance Director’s Cheat Sheet.

For part one of this series, click here. For part two, click here.

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