This article originally appeared on the Sundance Institute blog and has been republished with permission. Faren Humes is a writer, director, and educator from Miami who recently participated in the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive | Miami, which is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Her short film “Our Rhineland” has garnered broad acclaim, including a Director’s Guild of America Student Film Award and an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences College Television Award. Humes studied filmmaking at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts. She lives and teaches film in Miami, FL, where she develops stories inspired by her place of origin.
To paint the picture: it’s 9:28 a.m. on a Saturday in Miami. I walk into a nondescript building that’s hosting the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Intensive, which is supported by the Knight Foundation. I expected to be nervous; a ball of jitters once I walked through the door. But as I entered, I was greeted by a peculiar calm.
Everyone kept to themselves, nibbling on fresh fruit and danishes. I immediately spotted and approached our advisor Joan Tewkesbury. She was warm yet firm, affable but intense; the type of person whose impression is as effortless as it is severe. We shook hands and it was the lingering grip of a firm handshake that would be a harbinger of the day’s events. A signal of what was about to go down. It was her way of saying not only “Nice to meet you,” but, “Let’s connect.”
And connect we did.
Six hours of writing. Delving into ourselves. Sentiments, memories, secrets you believed tucked away in hidden corners, Joan excavated with grace and poise. If someone shed a tear, we waited. We waited for the anxiety to subside and the truth to rise. What we were learning was that authenticity was the goal and that…
It’s all about the story.
Forget the format. Get to the story. Hefty page count? Don’t worry about it, get to the story. What we should be concerned with is creating full and authentic characters. What’s their backstory? What’s their mother’s story? Their mother’s mother? It’s these layers of information that create robust characters.
We were given a series of questions that I’ll call “trait generators.” We were asked to recall a kitchen table. What made us laugh? Something we knew was wrong but did it anyway. We’d ponder, take those parameters and immerse our characters within them. What occurs is an organic rendering of true and complex personalities. And it’s these questions that ensure each quirk, flaw, and strength is justified and stems from another character or yourself. Because you better believe…
You inform your character.
What we all know is that our characters are derivatives of ourselves. But what was proven over and over again with each exercise is how indelibly tied our characters are to ourselves.
I shared a personal story of a homeless cousin who swore me to secrecy. I went back to that time and tapped into feelings of shame, destitution, and displacement. I arrived back at my own character, Macho, asking myself how he’d handle such a cousin’s misfortune. I discovered him to be a sympathizer; compassionate and without judgement. And though my cousin’s homelessness is not a central subject, she became a…
My fellow participant Teo Castellano’s “Third Trinity” screenplay tells the story of three brothers in a Miami rife with drug smuggling, street life and nationalism.
He knew the profile of those brothers through and through. So he was asked to forget about them and write about a peripheral character: the grandmother. As Joan put it, “if it’s only the scent of her perfume underneath the door,” afford your characters the opportunity to interact with divergent personalities. They’ll quite often extract something from your main character you never knew was there. An approach that generates a renewed spirit in your story and will have you writing feverishly as you…
Put it on paper.
I should note that these six hours of writing were on notepad. A practice I’ll continue hereafter. It’s so convenient to stick to the sterile confines of your computer screen. We were encouraged to switch it up and write a draft on paper. It’s visceral. It’s flowing. It’s a physical release that lends itself to a synchronized ebb and flow of stubborn thoughts and abundant release.
I walked away with a stronger sense of self and a firmer grasp of my characters. A therapy session and story generator all in one. I’m reinvigorated to tell a truer, bolder story.