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How These 20 Sundance Festival Films Got Their Start in the Sundance Labs

Among the Institute alumni who made the transition to the big show are "Casting JonBenet," "City of Ghosts," and "Patti Cake$."

Casting JonBenet

“Casting JonBenet”


“I don’t have religion, but if I did it would be probably be the Sundance labs,” said “Patti Cake$”writer/director Geremy Jasper.

“Patti Cake$” is one 20 films premiering this week at the Sundance Film Festival that got their start, at least in part, at the Sundance Institute. (In Jasper’s case, he participated in both the Feature Film Screenwriting and Directing labs.)

The labs are the highest-profile aspect of the Institute. Filmmakers find it invaluable to be in Utah for two to three weeks, removed from their day to day concerns and immersed in their films while getting advice from some of the most talented instructors and filmmakers in the world. In Jasper’s case, the first person he sat down with to discuss the problems in his script’s second act was none other than his hero Quentin Tarantino, who workshopped “Reservoir Dogs” at the Sundance Labs 25 years ago.

For most filmmakers, the formal help they receive in the lab is not limited to the days on the Sundance campus. Once a member of the Sundance Institute family, a film is nurtured and guided all the way through distribution.

Gerard McMurray, "Burning Sands"

Gerard McMurray directing “Burning Sands”

William Gray

“Burning Sands” director Gerard McMurray said two of the Institute’s principal instructors, Joan Darling and Gvula Gazdag, played huge roles in helping the first-time feature director through all the creative decisions he’d have to make.

“I feel that their guidance was an essential part of crafting this film into what it is today,” wrote McMurray. “They both have helped guide me through the process of making ‘Burning Sands,’ from providing detailed notes on the script, workshopping scenes with actors, to being there for me during principal photography of the film, and into the post-production process.”

Both McMurray and Jasper both also received grant funding from the Institute to help make their films. The financial side is key, according to Michelle Satter, director of the Feature Film Program. However, that’s not limited to giving money or helping the filmmaker find funding, but in playing a protective role in that ensures that the financing process doesn’t encroach on the filmmaker’s creative process.

“It’s not just about honing skills, we do everything we can to protect these directors’ voices, which means financing,” said Satter.

Both Satter and Tabitha Jackson, director of the Documentary Feature Program, have a reputation of not only being active advocates of their filmmakers, but also being fiercely protective of their visions. The women and their staffs become key advisers well beyond whatever has been officially awarded by the Institute, and powerful allies who can help bring in top talent to a production team, but also help fend off potentially damaging forces.

It’s a power that in no small part comes from the Institute’s track record of nurturing some of the greatest filmmakers of the last two decades: Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino, Laura Poitras, and Ryan Coogler; their alumni is a great directors’ who’s-who. The Sundance Institute pedigree puts a film and a filmmaker on every publication and studio’s “must-watch list,” and the film is religiously tracked until its premiere.

Ryan Coogler getting some advice for "Fruitvale Station" at the 2012 lab.

Ryan Coogler getting some advice for “Fruitvale Station” at the 2012 lab.

© 2016 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ali Barr

Making documentaries is a protracted process, and Jackson said it’s key to have the flexibility to support when the filmmaker needs it most. In the case of Yance Ford and “Strong Island,” she said, it was about giving support that allowed the filmmaker to step back from his current version of the film and realize it needed to go in another direction, eventually finding a completely new team and reinventing his film.

“I think Jennifer Brea’s film “Unrest” is another example,” said Jackson. “It felt like we witnessed Brea find her voice through this whole process, particularly up close and personal in the labs. She literally found her cinematic voice. That’s what we want to both nurture and protect.”

Both Jackson and Satter say they feel like proud parents this week and admit that the 20 filmmakers unveiling their films at Sundance does add a little extra meaning. That said, Jackson warns being in the Sundance Institute and then playing in the Sundance Film Festival isn’t always the best path for every film.

“Not everybody gets into Sundance and that’s ok, because in some cases another festival might be a better fit for a particular film,” said Jackson. “We see it every year and I’ll be just as proud when our films premiere at Tribeca, Cannes, wherever.”

Below is the list of the 2017 Sundance Festival films that received Sundance Institute support.

Sundance Institute Feature Film Program

“I Dream in Another Language”
Director: Ernesto Contreras, Screenwriter: Carlos Contreras

Feature Film Program Screenwriters Lab, Sundance Institute, Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award, Feature Film Program Annenberg Grant

“Patti Cake$”
Director and Screenwriter: Geremy Jasper

Feature Film Program Screenwriters Lab, Feature Film Program Directors Lab, Creative Producing Summit, Catalyst Forum, Feature Film Program Fund granting

“Beach Rats”
Director and Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman

Feature Film Program Screenwriters Lab, Catalyst Forum, Creative Producing Summit, Feature Film Program Fund granting

“Crown Heights”
Director and Screenwriter: Matt Ruskin

Feature Film Program Editing Intensive, Feature Film Program Fund granting, Post Production Advisory Support

“Burning Sands”
Director: Gerard McMurray, Screenwriters: Christine Berg, Gerard McMurray

Feature Film Program Fund granting, Post Production Advisory Support

Director: Amman Abbasi, Screenwriters: Amman Abbasi, Steven Reneau

Feature Film Program Fund granting

“Deidra & Laney Rob a Train”
Director: Sydney Freeland, Screenwriter: Shelby Farrell

Sundance Screenwriters Intensive

Director: Shakti Bhagchandani, Screenwriters: Shakti Bhagchandani, Emre Gulcan

Sundance Screenwriters Intensive

Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

Director: Ramona Diaz

Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Creative Producing Summit

“Plastic China”
Director: Jiu-liang Wang

Sundance Institute/CNEX Foundation Limited Documentary Lab

“Strong Island”
Director: Yance Ford

Creative Producing Summit, Edit and Story Lab, Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Catalyst Forum

“Chasing Coral”
Director: Jeff Orlowski

Catalyst Forum, Sundance Documentary Fund Grant

“City of Ghosts”
Director: Matthew Heineman

Sundance Documentary Fund Grant

“The Force”
Director: Peter Nicks

Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Catalyst Forum

Director: Jennifer Brea

Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Fellows Program, Documentary Edit & Story Lab, Catalyst

“Whose Streets?”
Director: Sabaah Folayan

Documentary Edit & Story Lab, Music & Sound Design Lab: Documentary, Creative Producing Summit

“Casting JonBenet”
Director: Kitty Green

Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Art of Nonfiction Fellow

“500 Years”
Director: Pamela Yates, Writers: Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, Peter Kinoy

Documentary Fund Grant, Creative Producing Summit

Director: Garrett Bradley

Sundance Documentary Short Film Fund

“Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry”
Directors: Laura Dunn, Jef Sewell

Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Fellows Program

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