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Film Workshops: A Diary Of The 1997 Sundance Filmmakers Lab

Film Workshops: A Diary Of The 1997 Sundance Filmmakers Lab

by Theodore Thomas

With all the pressure and frenzy that now surrounds the Sundance Film
Festival it is all too easy to overlook the Institute’s Feature Film
Program, the oldest and, in many ways, most integral part of the
Institute’s activities. Each year, for the past sixteen years, a handful
of fortunate filmmakers have sojourned in Provo Canyon at the Sundance
Resort to rehearse, shoot, edit and critique scenes from their current
projects. In this mecca for indies, unusual projects find a clearer
voice, experiment with style, focus themes… it’s a creative test-run.

Sunday June 1st: Opening day of the Sundance Institute’s Filmmakers Lab.
As the Ute Medicine Man works his way around the circle, fanning sweet
grass smoke over each of us with an eagle feather fan, I count heads.
Over one hundred people: actors, crew, staff, and the current group of
creative advisors — all there to bring ten “creative visions” to life.
Our creative visions. I look around the circle at my fellow
writer-directors, thinking, “Well, we’d better make it worth their

Monday June 2nd: I start rehearsing. Tomorrow I shoot, and the day after
I edit. I’m leap-frogging with Kim Pierce and her project — we share a
DP, script supervisor, editor and crew. The keys all have feature
credits. We’re shooting on digital Beta and projecting 16:9, editing on
Avid. Looks like we’re in good hands.

Tuesday June 3rd: I like my actors, the casting directors have done
well. We shoot a straight-forward scene in the morning, in the afternoon
it’s monologues. The place is humming now. Each lunch is a sit-down with
a different advisor, evening is a reading of a Lab project or a
screening of a film.

Thursday June 5th: I am the first to go before the advisors review
meeting. I am congratulated for making my
charming material boring to watch, and my straight-forward scene is not
so straight-forward after all, it seems. The other directing fellows
have similar experiences. We bond. Dinner is Japanese food trucked up
from Provo. The night ends in the Owl Bar.

Friday June 6th: Everyone has food poisoning. I’m shooting at an
exterior location with no toilet facilities. We all take turns
disappearing into the bushes. I have fifteen extras, my actress is testy
(I have an idea why), it’s a tracking shot — handheld on a western
dolly because we have no track, walking a 6x silk over talent as we
go… I have been reminded that the process is more important than the
result, that this is my sketchpad, that I should take risks. Agnieszka
Holland, Allison Anders, and Mark Rydell have each told me that they
might drop by my set. I’m glad they don’t.

Sunday June 8th: A day off. In the evening everyone’s work to date is
screened. It goes down well with cast and crew. A new group of advisors

Tuesday June 10th: It’s a good thing it looks like paradise here. The
days start at 6 a.m. and end long after midnight. Somehow, in addition
to working on our scenes we’ve had an acting seminar with Joan Darling,
a session on casting/rehearsing and running the set with Jon Amiel, and
scene analysis and use of camera with Michael Apted. Time blurs. Some of
the directing fellows think we’re being lured into a cult.

Saturday June 14th: My second review meeting. I’ve tried to assemble as
many elements from my film as possible so that the advisors will be able
to address the big picture rather than getting hung-up on the different
story-telling devices. It works. The criticism is still quite strong,
but at least we’re all pointed in the same direction. A new group of
advisors arrives tomorrow.

Wednesday June 18: My actors left today. Sad to see them go; there are
fewer and fewer people in the meal tent. I’m editing my last two scenes.
Victor Nuñez saw me rehearse one of them on Monday. We talked about it
at lunch. And then I shot it in the afternoon. Now he drops by the
editing room, so does Michael Miller, so does Martha Coolidge. They all
have their ideas about how to play the scene. I have my own. It’s a good
give and take.

Friday June 20: My final advisors review meeting, I’m leaving this
evening. They all like the way one of the scenes plays, I’m complimented
on my handling of actors. I’m wondering what’s changed from the first
advisors meeting, and wondering when else do I get to experiment like
this? Next time it’s live ammo.

I’m on a plane back to L.A., with an eight hour turn around and then off
to New York where our film “Frank And Ollie” is opening. The fellows have
been told it may take a month to decompress before they can work on
their projects. I’m now on week two, and I believe it. I saw my editor
in New York. I’ve seen three fellow directors and bumped into an actress
since I’ve been back in L.A… but I still don’t think it’s a cult.

I think too many films of promising potential get made before they are
truly ready to go before the camera. The Sundance Filmmakers Lab
provides the forum to bring work along and give it a leg up; with luck
you’ll see all ten of these projects in the theater and each of them
will be a better picture for having been through the Lab process. The
other impact of the Lab, and it certainly cannot be undervalued, is that
it helps build the independent community — and it’s awfully nice to
know you’re not alone out there.

[Theodore Thomas is the writer/director of “Frank And Ollie,” board member
of IFP/West, and one of the founders of FILMMAKER Magazine. He spent the month of June working on his new film “Baby Photo” as a directing fellow at the Sundance Institute’s Filmmakers Lab.]

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