Inside The Sundance Directors Lab: Why It’s So Valuable To Workshop Scenes

For four weeks at the Sundance resort fellows intensely workshopped their films under the watchful eye of Robert Redford and crew. Here's what they learned.
Directing Fellow Frances Bodomo and DP Pedro Gomez Millan on the "Afronauts" set.
Directing Fellow Frances Bodomo and DP Pedro Gomez Millan on the "Afronauts" set.
© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Art Brainard

Be prepared. Write, then rewrite your script until it’s perfect. Shot list, storyboard, create a visual plan for your cinematic universe.

There’s a myth, which often starts in film school and is perpetuated by dissecting the work of great directors, that up-and-coming directors can plan their entire movies in their head. Yet what so often happens when first-time feature directors get to set  —  and their movie exits their head and becomes reality —  is things are totally different than what they imagined. Previous concerns instantly become irrelevant, while problems never imagined become stark realities. Collaborations alter plans and bring new possibilities to the table, but it often becomes impossible to harness and adjust when low budget filmmaking, with its impossibly tight shooting schedule, is a race against the clock.

PHOTO GALLERY:  Behind the Scenes of the 2016 Sundance Directors Lab

At the heart of the Sundance Directors Lab is the ability for emerging directors to intensely workshop their promising stories (recent lab projects have included “Swiss Army Man,” “Birth of a Nation” and “Diary of a Teenage Girl”) so they can reach their full potential. Directing fellows work with an accomplished group of actors and production crews to shoot and edit key scenes from their screenplays. Throughout the process they are mentored, working one-on-one with creatives advisors — this year included David Gordon Green, Catherine Hardwicke, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mr. Robert Redford himself — as they make key discoveries about their scripts, collaborate with actors, find a visual storytelling language for their films and, most importantly, grow as directors.

Following in the footsteps of alums like Quentin Tarantino, Cary Fukunaga and Ryan Coogler, the eight Directing fellows for 2016 just finished this invaluable and immersive four-week creative process at the Sundance Resort. Six of those directors recently shared their experiences with IndieWire to bring us behind the scenes of what they learned.

Creative Advisor Richard Jenkins consults with Directing Fellow Annie Silverstein on the set of "Bull."
Creative Advisor Richard Jenkins consults with Directing Fellow Annie Silverstein on the set of “Bull.”© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Margery Kimbrough

Annie Silverstein: When you get into the lab, you’re encouraged to workshop scenes from your script that frighten or challenge you. I had several scenes I felt uncertain about, and one was how to shoot a dinner scene. Sounds simple, but I’d never done it before and it made me nervous. I wanted it to feel naturalistic, conversational, and not staged.

Boots Riley: I’d been obsessing with preparation, worrying that specific plans for scenes wouldn’t be able to be carried out. Storyboarding in a very crude manner, shot by shot, then trying to get a friend to re-draw everything in a much more intelligible way. By the time we’d shoot one or two set ups in each scene, I’d have a bunch of totally new ideas for shots that I hadn’t ever had before. In one case, this elaborate shot I had made drawings for and dreamt about got thrown out the window after five minutes because I saw that it missed the real energy of the performance that the actors were giving. So, I learned that the prep was very necessary, but I didn’t need to look at those initial ideas as written in stone. I could let the magic, the energy, take me someplace else. This is something that I knew from producing music, but didn’t really understand that it would translate into directing a film. I might’ve learned that too late had I not done the Sundance Labs.

Directing Fellow Boots Riley and Creative Advisor Chiwetel Ejiofor check the monitor during a shoot day for the project "Sorry To Bother You."
Directing Fellow Boots Riley and Creative Advisor Chiwetel Ejiofor check the monitor during a shoot day for the project “Sorry To Bother You.”Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Jonathan Hickerson

Eva Vives: I picked the hardest scenes in the film, the ones which were problematic and we workshopped the shit out of them with actors, advisors, and crew. It was and continues to be an incredibly valuable experience because you learn from both your mistakes and the things you did right, whether planned or not. I turned a whole scene by asking the actress to add one line. It might have not worked but among other things, I learned to trust my instincts.

READ MORE: Sundance Institute Chooses Eight First-Time Filmmakers and Projects For Directors Lab

Frances Bodomo: I used to go into rehearsal with an immovable shot list and figure out how to put the actors into that shot list. Now I see what the actors bring to the table, how they discover the physical realities of the scene, and it is exciting to come up with a shot list that helps that feel alive.

Annie Silverstein: I was also encouraged to push myself in new directions visually. I have a visual style I’m comfortable in, but it’s important to try new things, and see if they enhance your language. Why not try a zoom for the first time… I liked it.

Robert Redford and Eva Vives on the set of her final scene at the lab.
Robert Redford and Eva Vives on the set of her final scene at the lab.© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Annakarolina Abreu

Eva Vives: On the first scene I shot at the Lab, during editing, Robert Redford pointed out that we would have really benefitted from having a small “set up” moment for the main character. In this particular scene, she has accepted to go over to her love interest’s home for dinner, something she finds very scary to do because of her history with men. The scene starts with her walking into his house, but having a beat with her before where we see her get ready would have set up her expectations better for us. The next scene I shot, Redford stopped by the set and reminded me about emotional set ups again. This scene also needed one but this time I was able to shoot it and edit it into the scene. Because I learned by doing, not just being told, it’s a lesson I’ll never forget. And this is one of many.

Sandhya Suri: I gained a lot more confidence and understood the in depth knowledge required to direct your film well. Knowing each moment of your film beat by beat for each character.

César Cervantes: There are a lot of technical muscles I got to flex while there. Working with non-actors, improvising dialogue, and making meaning through composition, but none helped me grow as much as having an actor destroy my conception of a character I had in mind. At first it felt like a personal attack on my character as a person, and soon I started to doubt myself and the character in the film. I eventually ended up convincing myself that I hated the story. I tried to bring everybody down with me as I hit bottom like a bad breakup. I had to try to make sense out of all the broken pieces the following day, but that moment really forced me to remind myself why I had fallen in love with the story in the first place and see what elements of the story I had never fully appreciated. I felt more connected to the material afterwards and felt the story and I had just gotten over our first road bump and were well on our way towards rebuilding. Stories are living breathing things that need to be loved, protected, and cared for.

César Cervantes and Director of Photography Pedro G. Millan frame for a stunt sequence.
César Cervantes and Director of Photography Pedro G. Millan frame for a stunt sequence.Courtesy of César Cervantes

Frances Bodomo: The past few weeks shifted my focus towards process and away from result. I had made a short film version of this project (“Afronauts”), and was overthinking every single one of the feature’s details…  I expected to figure out some concrete things about tone, shooting style, and the like. I left with no such answers, and the feeling that pre-meditation often comes from fear. I’m willing to see what my actors/collaborators bring to the table before locking things in.

Annie Silverstein: I learned a lot more about the characters. It was incredibly helpful to bring some of the more challenging scenes to life, and workshop them with actors and advisors. It confirmed certain things were working, and signaled other things weren’t. It became very clear which characters felt developed, human, and whole, and which characters still need to be fleshed out.

READ MORE: Real-Life Bears and Advice From Tarantino: 7 Of The Craziest Stories From Behind The Scenes Of ‘Swiss Army Man’

Sandhya Suri: Putting on the director’s hat and interrogating every scene so thoroughly puts you in a great place to re-evaluate your writing. I had been struggling with my perspective on the lead character towards the end of the film. There are things you can hide in the writing but you certainly cannot hide your ignorance when you are trying to direct it.

Directing fellow Sandhyu Suri discusses her scene.
Directing fellow Sandhyu Suri discusses her scene.© 2016 Sundance Institute, Photograph By Brandon Cruz

César Cervantes: I had a couple of uncertainties going into the lab. Was the aesthetic I was striving for going to work? Was the story true to the culture it attempts to shine a light on? What’s the structure of the narrative sound? So many questions were answered at the lab, and so many more were brought forth. One major evolution was the structure of the narrative itself. I ended up ditching the third act, and will be reworking the film as a more episodic road trip film.

Boots Riley: I was originally concerned with making sure I struck the correct balance of tone. My film must straddle a line between comedy and drama. Shooting these scenes made the theoretical solutions practical.

Eva Vives: My film is a dark comedy. At its core it’s about someone learning to cope with abuse, which isn’t the easiest thing to deal with while still maintaining a sense of humor about it. After going through the lab, hearing it be read out loud, rehearsing, shooting and countless feedback meetings, I’ve learned that not only does it work but I can actually push both the humor and the darkness more. Huge relief and lesson.

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