SUNDANCE DIRECTORS LAB 2013
I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend Sundance Labs for a week as an "advisor" to the 8 Directors who are selected out of more than 2000 submissions to workshop their fledgling scripts for a month at Sundance Institute.
Situated at 7000ft in Utah near Salt Lake City, the rarefied atmosphere, cool nights and sunny days immediately transformed the mood of this rain-weary Englishman. Despite the jet lag, the meeting-on-arrival introduced me to not only Robert Redford (with whom I had shot Unfinished Life some years ago) but also Walter ("Motorcycle Diaries") Salles and my editor friend Andy Mondshein who has edited all of the Lasse Hallstrom films that I have shot.
After a short intro, we were catapulted into the screening room to see the work-in-progress of the eight directors. It varied enormously in both content and quality, but the one thing uniting all the material was the passion and enthusiasm that shone through every frame. They shoot on Sony F55 cameras with small crews of young professional cinematographers who have at least one indie feature to their name. The structure of the month with the Directors and crew has slowly evolved over 20 years: the care and attention that has gone into its structure is a truly magical thing.
The steiner-like philosophy is to draw-out the Directors talents without the considerable gravitas and experience of the advisors grinding them down. Suggestions are made in circular meetings always in the spirit of creative endeavour: Gyula Gazdag and Michelle Satter carefully select advisors who have proved themselves professionally to the point that they have no need to impose their ego on the fledgling directors. The pattern is a series of meetings where the Directors show the edit from shoot days both at rough-cut stage and final edit, and the advisors comment at both stages. The advisors meet twice a day in their own group to share stories of their encounters with the Directors both on the set and at lunchtime meetings.
If it sounds like hard work.. it is! The best kind of hard work, that leaves you continuously inspired mentally whilst the surrounding mountains take care of your soul. I felt as though I had been there a month - yet it was only 5 days, but 5 days of continuous questioning about what makes the story better, what makes the scene better and what makes the characters work.
The Directors are a wonderfully eclectic group with 3 women and 5 men all of diverse backgrounds from Somalia to Mexico to San Francisco. They get on with each other very well and the atmosphere in the screening room is always full of catcalls and fun: as people shed a tear for those that are leaving they leap to their feet and shout and holler as only Americans can.
My main concern that grew during the week has been "set protocol" which seems to be rapidly disappearing in the Indie world, and some of the sets I visited had a very ad-hoc way of working with no line-ups, no floor marks and an altogether hazy way of planning the day. Of course some of this is good: the lightness of the cameras and ability to function at low light levels (native 1250ASA) enables shooting with a relatively clear set as far as lights and flags are concerned. But I found that DP's were not letting the AD and the Director know what they were doing and the crew had even less idea with a lot of chat and wandering about. One set called the actors in and 45 minutes later were still fiddling with sound and lights: however, another that was shooting a very difficult scene, was faultless both in its atmosphere and execution. It is hard for a DP like myself to know when to intervene and when to allow them to "make mistakes and learn from them" which is the instruction we had at the beginning of the week. Film-making is changing very rapidly for many reasons, and a lot of the change is refreshing and good - but the traditions of 100 years should also not be thrown away in the rush to a "shoot-it now" digital mentality.
Above all, everything was up for discussion in this almost sacred space without fear of Twitter and Facebook. Michelle had a screening of Redford’s new movie prior to release and said it was only allowed by the distributor on the understanding that it is a "family screening".. no social media. This is the trust and magic of the Sundance Family: a real break from the confusion of the real world.
Sundance is a very, very special and unique place and we all need to thank Robert Redford for having the vision to give back some of the fruits from his extraordinarily long and successful career. His gentle presence in meetings, on set and in the cutting rooms constantly reminds us all to check-in our egos at reception.
Thank you Robert, Michelle & Gyula and all the Directors, Actors and Advisors for an amazing and stimulating week at Sundance Lab. And last but not least, the amazing crew whose own talents were made evident on the night they screened "crew shorts" which was 2 hours of a very high standard of work.
More information on the Sundance Lab.