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Johnny Ma at the Sundance Directors Lab

Johnny Ma on set (Photo by Ashley Lindsey)

It’s Sunday morning, a rare day off during the Sundance Directors Lab to sleep in. Yet once again as the sunlight fills my room at the crack of dawn, I’m wide awake and my mind is ready to go.

Back home, whether it is LA, NY, or Shanghai, I am rarely up before 10 am unless it’s a shoot day or I have to meet someone in the real world. However, up here on the mountain, I found a version of myself that didn’t need to check my emails and Facebook or keep up with the latest Buzzfeed post to start the day. Every morning begins simply with a ten-minute walk down from the mountain. The air is brisk but always fresh. Yet this alone time is precious as I use it to collect my thoughts and plan out the goals to achieve for the day. When I sit down to breakfast with my collaborators, my mind is clear and my heart is open for new discoveries. All my life I’ve been looking for this version of myself, and up here in this magical place called Sundance, I have finally found him.

However, this particular Sunday morning, I must confess, not everything is so great. I am a little hungover from dancing till 4 am last night. We all need a release from time to time. We’ve been up in the mountain for three weeks now. My body and mind are completely exhausted as each day the fellows are pushed to probe deeper into the world of our characters and stories, exploring the unknowns that we can feel in our bones but are not yet written on the page. They took a photo of all of us directing fellows on the first day of the lab, and called it the “before” photo, as if a physical change is expected as we begin the five weeks of lab marathon. I would like to see that “after” photo when all this is finished, to see if in fact the change that we feel is happening deep inside ourselves could really be detected on a photograph.

Johnny Ma with editor Alex O’Flinn (Photo by Ryan Johnson)

Johnny Ma with editor Alex O’Flinn (Photo by Ryan Johnson)

The truth is that last week was a tough one for me. I got beat up pretty badly, emotionally and mentally, in the shooting of one of my workshop scenes. In the Sundance world, the only way to work is to push yourself to take risks, and the bigger the risks the bigger the fall. And it is only when you fall, and fall hard, that you can truly learn something about yourself as an artist, so that you will be able to stand on your own filmmaking feet when the situation arises again. Every fellow here seems to have gone through their own versions of hell in the toughest day or week at the lab. And I knew it was coming; if you do the research and talk to people who have been here before, you know that something will inevitably happen during the experience to shake you to the core. Yet so far I’ve been fast enough, smart enough, strong enough to handle it all. But still when it does come, just like in the real world, it’s completely unexpected and you fall backward and hard into self-doubt. Yet this is where the Sundance Institute shines, as they step in with their incredible web of support. A filmmaking army of over a hundred crew members, creative advisers, Sundance staff, all with their hearts wide open, ready to help in any way they can. In the real world, such a fall could have real repercussions on your film, career and mental health. But in the safe space of the Sundance Lab, when you fall, you fall into the arms of the advisers, staff and crew. This is what family is for.

I am reminded of Michelle Satter’s words to us at the beginning of the lab, that your worst day at the lab could very much become your best day. As I sit here in bed this moment, starting to climb out of rock bottom, I have to believe her, and I do. Tomorrow is Monday, I will wake up early once again and make my way down the mountain. I will breathe the fresh air and collect my thoughts. I am rehearsing the last scene I will be shooting here at the Lab. I don’t know what will happen, I just know here at Sundance, I am never alone and that fills me with courage.

P.S. If you get a chance, seek out Gyula Gazdag’s film A Hungarian Fairy Tale. If you think you are taking risks with storytelling, watch this film — it’s absolutely batshit crazy, and simply brilliant.

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