request | Filmmaker Magazine

By Bergen Swanson

"TO GET ANYWHERE you have to be a little scrappy and accost people in the parking lot of Ralph’s," laments actress, screenwriter and director Kamala Lopez-Dawson on the difficulties faced by independents trying to get their films made. However, after progressing through the various Independent Feature Project/West (IFP/West) labs, her attitude is a little sunnier: "Now I know people, and they take my calls."

Connections – independent producing is supposed to be about building and maintaining them, but too many independent films embrace the concept of networking only after their film is completed. They exist in a vacuum for much of the initial creative process, which is when decisions affecting a film’s originality, viability and marketability are made. It is at this point that the IFP/West filmmaker labs come into play. These programs force filmmakers to examine – and justify – their projects on creative levels as they connect with industry professionals who can help get them made.

In each of the three labs, 10 aspiring producers, directors or writers work with a professional instructor in a seven-week program consisting of three to four meetings a week. Individual work is discussed in a group setting, the instructors lecture on specific topics and, on the weekend, filmmakers attend larger IFP/West seminar events that are open to the public. After the labs, lab administrator Josh Welsh hooks the graduates up with professional mentors who offer advice as their projects move towards production.

And astonishingly, the program is free to its participants.

Although the structures are similar, the three labs offer very different experiences appropriate to their individual disciplines. The Directors Lab, which has been taught by such helmers as Allison Anders (Things Behind The Sun), Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing), and Michael Steinberg (Water Dance; producer, There’s Something About Mary), allows filmmakers to select scenes from their screenplays and guide them through a "mini production." Jim Frohna describes bringing his project, Hunting Season, to the Lab. "It was great to start seeing it as a movie," he commented. "The process involved cracking open a couple of scenes from the script and workshopping with actors. It made us distill our scripts to their essence. In deciding which scene to shoot, we were forced to examine many scenes and uncover the one most representative of the whole story." For shooting, the program provides filmmakers with Canon XL1 cameras and access to Final Cut Pro editing stations.

The goal of the Producers Lab is to whip a project into shape before it is presented for casting and financiers. Darcine Wdowczak Thomas took Bob Byington’s A/d/d through the process in 2001. "We covered all aspects of making the picture, from developing the script, casting and talent, through pitching, financing, physical production and post," she says, " there was tremendous value in our discussions, which were led by talented people from the industry – Matthew Greenfield (The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck) and Jasmine Kosovic (Just One Time, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole). And, it was terrific to talk and share with the other producers in the Lab." Participants also receive a complimentary copy of Movie Magic software to assist in their work.

Writer Gerald Jones describes a portion of the process his script, Ballpoint, went through in the 2001 Screenwriters Lab. "Half of one Lab evening was devoted to peer review of Ballpoint," he explains. "The nine other Lab participants each gave his or her detailed development notes in turn, and then mentor Lee David Zlotoff [The Spitfire Grill] gave his. The opinions were frank and friendly, not all the same and insightful." Writers also are given the opportunity to give a formal pitch to IFP members and other industry guests. Says Zlotoff, "For me, writing can be a solitary experience, so this is a chance to be around an enthusiastic group of writers who are full of ideas." Indicative of the close relationships that can develop over the two-month process, Zlotoff has remained in contact with several of his students, maintaining his mentor role as their projects navigate their way through production. Others who found sustained mentorship through the program include Lopez-Dawson – her personal advisor Effie Brown (Real Women Have Curves, The Stranger Inside) is on board to produce her feature.

Although the purpose of the Screenwriters Lab is to develop a good script, it doesn’t hurt to have one going in. "The script is all important," stresses Walsh of the selection criteria. While the review board considers all types of projects, they tend to be "looking for people with a unique vision and who are serious about independent film from an aesthetic sense." Most projects fall into the $1- to $3-million category, but some are attempting to work with budgets as tight as $200,000. Although the script is the launching point, applicants are also scrutinized through interviews with the program’s organizers. "People who had follow through, who could respond to criticism and actually rewrite, got the most out of the Lab," says Eve Annenberg, the first instructor of the Screenwriters Lab.

Consistently praised by all the participants we contacted was Walsh, who oversees the selection process, hires instructors, lines up guest speakers and advisors and helps lab participants with whatever else they might need. As he puts it, "that can mean anything from reading a new draft of a script to holding the boom on a shoot!" He also keeps in contact with participants after they leave the program so he can determine how the IFP can continue to help with their projects.

Although the IFP/West labs share some similarities with the Sundance lab program, the Sundance labs are short and concentrated (five days for the Writers Lab and three weeks for the Filmmakers Lab), while the IFP/West labs are seven-weeks long. But this is not to say that the pace is relaxed. In fact, one of the only complaints is that there is not enough time to get everything done. Could this be the most important lesson these filmmakers learn about the world outside the classroom?



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