“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.
“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.
© 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
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
Director and Screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Feature Film Program Screenwriters Lab, Catalyst Forum, Creative Producing Summit, Feature Film Program Fund granting
Director and Screenwriter: Matt Ruskin
Feature Film Program Editing Intensive, Feature Film Program Fund granting, Post Production Advisory Support
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
Director: Jiu-liang Wang
Sundance Institute/CNEX Foundation Limited Documentary Lab
Director: Yance Ford
Creative Producing Summit, Edit and Story Lab, Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Catalyst Forum
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Catalyst Forum, Sundance Documentary Fund Grant
“City of Ghosts”
Director: Matthew Heineman
Sundance Documentary Fund Grant
Director: Peter Nicks
Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Catalyst Forum
Director: Jennifer Brea
Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Fellows Program, Documentary Edit & Story Lab, Catalyst
Director: Sabaah Folayan
Documentary Edit & Story Lab, Music & Sound Design Lab: Documentary, Creative Producing Summit
Director: Kitty Green
Sundance Documentary Fund Grant, Art of Nonfiction Fellow
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