Last summer, I had the incredible opportunity to spend two weeks in Tzintzuntzan, a tiny town in the state of Michoacán, Mexico bordering Lake Pátzcuaro, site of the Cine Qua Non Lab. I had originally heard about this opportunity when, at one of our Film Fatales meetings, I asked which screenwriting labs other members could recommend. Filmmaker Olivia Newman raved about this workshop. She encouraged me to apply to Cine Qua Non, telling me how much her script had benefitted from the two-week program.
Artistic Director Jesús Pimentel Melo founded the lab with Christina Lazaridi, Ladimer Haluke, Sarita Khurana and Lucila Moctezuma in 2010. Each summer, they receive ten filmmakers and the global perspective is reflected both in the applicants and in the founders. When I attended, I was in the company of fellow filmmakers from Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica and Brazil. Having been raised in France but living in the U.S. for the past seven years, it was refreshing to be surrounded by so many different points of view. We were evenly split, five women and five men, with widely different levels of experience. Some were fresh out of film school while others were filmmaking veterans. We came from the documentary world, from television, and from animation and experimental work.
The lab actually started before we arrived in Mexico. We were sent each others’ scripts, and it was productive to read the nine others before getting to know the writers themselves. No two scripts were alike: Dramas, comedies, magical realism, sci-fi, coming-of age. The one common thread, if any, was a humanistic sensibility. Christina, who was our facilitator for the workshop, spoke of an underlying spirit when she said over dinner one night that everyone at the table had a story that was deeply personal.
This year the lab will take place August 7-20, 2016. If you’re selected, you need to pay for your airfare to and from Mexico but housing and meals are covered – and the food is truly one of the most glorious perks of the whole workshop. At breakfast, lunch and dinner we got to know each other, swap ideas, enjoy each other’s company and share some of the most incredible dishes I’ve ever tasted.
We lived in two cozy houses and walked every day down the road to another space right on the lake where we would workshop our scripts. Each filmmaker’s script is presented to the group three times over the course of the workshop. Everyone’s full focus is on that script alone for the full hour. Christina sets the tone for a supportive environment so that participants give constructive feedback. Some sessions were electrifying. These were times when we all felt that our ideas led to breakthrough moments in pushing a script to new depths.
The workshop was also a valuable opportunity to reconnect with what sparked our interest in our own scripts in the first place. I had been writing “The Short History of the Long Road” for several months before I came to Cine Qua Non. Sharing with my fellow filmmakers what initially made me want to tell this story really helped me strengthen parts of that I was struggling with. “The Short History” is the story of teenage Nola who has only ever known life on the road. When her father Clint suddenly passes away, she’s forced to decide if she wants to keep living in the van she was raised in or set off on her own path.
I felt very strongly about the structure of my piece – it turns the traditional “road movie” on its head by focusing on the prospect of getting off the road. But I was uncertain how much to reveal about the relationship between father and daughter. Encouraged to hone in on Nola’s changing relationship with her father – both before and after his death – really allowed me to explore the deeper, darker parts of my story that I had been shying away from. In that way, Cine Qua Non definitely has some aspects of group therapy: We were all writing personal stories to a certain extent and being able to have the time, space and peace of mind to reflect on our problem areas helped us work out our characters’ issues, and by extension our own.
Christina’s method was incredibly insightful. She’s written several books on screenwriting and teaches at Columbia and Princeton. Within the workshop, she first started out by having us answer ten initial questions about our scripts. They ranged from the general theme and plot line to our specific protagonist’s needs, wants and conflicts. Working from the outside in and taking a huge step back allowed me to focus on the big picture. We had all been so wrapped up in the details of dialogue and language that it was refreshing to remember the original message and meaning I was hoping to communicate. I then rewrote my outline, beat by beat, once I restructured my script so that the crucial turning points pivoted on my main character’s evolution and internal growth.
Outside of the workshop, we also had one-on-one meetings with Christina that were tremendously helpful in creating action plans for our scripts. As a counterbalance to the group sessions, spontaneous “mini-workshops” happened daily. They really opened up my thinking to many new possibilities regarding my characters and their arc. Other people’s scripts became more and more vivid in my mind as we wrestled with tough questions, whether they were focused on the right, emotionally true actions for a character or what might be a satisfying ending, even if it were to be a starkly different outcome than the one initially plotted. Intense friendships developed as we gained confidence in each other and ourselves. Working together, we all found a new kind of clarity in regard to the stories we were trying to tell and how to bring them to the screen.
The greatest takeaway for me has been joining a community of international filmmakers. Despite all our differences, our perspectives feel very much aligned. Since the lab ended, I’ve kept workshopping my script with my fellow participants and also have had the chance to read their latest drafts.
The final gesture of each year’s workshop is planting an olive. Much like the hard work we put into the workshop, the trees will take time to bear their fruit. And as Artistic Director Jesús Pimentel Melo explained to us, we are always welcome to return Cine Qua Non. This two-week gathering is but the beginning of a lifelong connection both to this place and to each other. The lab was founded six years ago, and since that time several projects have emerged as success stories. Diego Quemada-Díez’s “La Jaula De Oro” premiered at Cannes in 2013 and went on to sweep the Ariel Awards in Mexico. Maris Curran’s “Five Nights” in Maine starring Dianne Wiest and David Oyelowo premiered at Toronto this year and is still on the festival circuit. And Olivia, who first encouraged me to apply, is working towards a summer shoot with her script “First Match.”