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February 20, 2014

10 Takeaways from the (Life-Changing!) Sundance Screenwriters Lab

sundance screenwriters lab fellows 2014

It takes a village to make an independent film, and there are few villages as important and supportive as the Sundance Institute. If you don’t know the institute and its programs, you certainly know the films that exist because of the Institute’s immeasurable support. Previously I shared how I got into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and speculated about why I was fortunate enough to be selected this year after not making it in the past (hint: make a short – regardless of the labs, so many of this year’s festival features were adapted from shorts). Now that the lab and the festival are over, I’d like to share some things I learned at the life-changing (and I don’t use that term lightly) Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

First I'd like to thank the A3 Foundation for making me their inaugural Sundance Fellow, and second I'd like to thank the other fellows (pictured above) in addition to the amazing and generous advisors and staff! “What, exactly, is the lab?” is a common question, and thankfully there’s a brand new video that defines the lab experience much better than I can describe it. At this year’s festival (Sundance’s 30th anniversary) the Institute released this video, which gives a great overview of the Feature Film Program Labs:

The lab is a private, safe place, and “what happens there, stays there” (but in a non-salacious, completely opposite way from how they mean it in the Las Vegas commercials). Therefore I’m not going to write about specific quotes from the advisors, or the specific changes I’m making to my own script. But I do want to share some general takeaways that apply more universally to writing: notes I jotted down during Q&As, advice I received from advisors, conversations that took place over meals, words spoken during round tables, nuggets of wisdom I received from Sundance staffers, and ideas shared among fellows after hours.

Takeaways from the Sundance Lab

  1. Write from the heart out.
  2. Find your joy in the material!
  3. Audiences always respond to something done for pure purpose, and stories that move us emotionally.
  4. You have to write two endings — the ending that comes to pass, and the ending that could be. Therefore the audience is wondering throughout, “what kind of movie is this?”
  5. Your project should take you out of your comfort zone. What is it about the story, the characters, the themes, that make you uncomfortable?
  6. Make sure you’re always using a gray palette — take one lego block from one character and put it in the other.
  7. Wherever you are, think about what your protagonist would be doing and feeling. Let him or her live outside the screenplay, and insert your characters into your real life.
  8. Your act breaks are the least of your concerns. Only in passing did I ever talk about structure with an advisor – anyone can read a screenwriting book and come up with three acts, or fifteen beats, but good structure is not going to be the thing that makes your story unique.
  9. Write down, in a couple of sentences, what you want the audience to feel coming out of your film. What is your statement about what you want to accomplish with this film? Really get that down. Then as you go through the script, ask yourself about each scene — does this accomplish or contribute to that overall goal? If not, it goes.
  10. This final one is an instructive quote that resurfaced in my head during the lab. As William Faulkner said in his inspiring 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech (the audio of the speech is embedded below), “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself … only that is worth writing about.” The human heart. In conflict with itself.

How the Lab changed my life

2014-01-11-08.24.43During the last day of the lab, as I walked the grounds of the beautiful Sundance Resort (that's a hasty cell phone picture of my accommodations), there was a particular moment where I realized it had changed my life. The advisors had dove so deeply into my script that they had exposed flaws in my screenplay that were not just flaws with my writing – they were flaws with ME. While my MANCHILD draft was polished, intellectual, and precise – every single thing in the script was there for a reason, and I believed I’d painted a convincing portrait of a rich world – the overall project was opaque when it came to matters of the heart. As a result it lacked emotional availability – the same emotional availability that has been missing in my own life at times, due to my own faults. (There are plenty of other issues with the script, but this was the global one). Ultimately, the Lab is all about dropping your shields and allowing yourself to be vulnerable: vulnerable to your material, to your experiences, to your weaknesses, to others. As the week unfolds you can see everyone lower their shields – I certainly did, and as a result I couldn’t be more excited about the next draft of my screenplay, and the next draft of me.

This is possible for reasons that have less to do with who I am in particular, and everything to do with the particular environment of the lab, as cultivated by Michelle, Ilyse, Anne, Shira, Paul, Matthew, Cristen, Laura, Rebecca, and others -- not to mention the vision of Robert Redford. You won’t see any YouTube uploads from the Lab, any selfies with Redford (“Bob”) on Instagram, any salacious quotes from Quentin Tarantino on Twitter. The Lab is a private place for writers to share their motivations, their inspirations, and their struggles – and such vulnerability, from advisors, fellows, and staff alike, is only possible when it’s being shared in a warm, supportive, family environment.

sundance-whiplash-screeningThe lab is also a place you can always return to mentally – a place where writers rule (and there aren’t many places in this world you can say that about), a place where everything is about your creative, personal, emotional connection to your material. Your inspiration. Nothing else matters during the lab – not the industry, not your past successes or failures, not the box office, not the outside world in general. In fact, throughout the experience I forgot the rest of the world existed. This feeling carried on when the festival began (my first Sundance!) and tens of thousands of festivalgoers descended on Park City – because even then, everyone you meet is focused on Sundance. But a few days later, as I was walking up Main Street, I saw through the window of a bar a football game on TV. The idea that this sport was being played, live, somewhere else in the world, and millions of people cared about the result – it seemed almost absurd to me, that time had not stopped during the lab, and that the world had gone about its business, apathetic to such a formative, inspiring experience for me and my little movie. And so I enjoyed the rest of the festival, saw some great films, met a lot of talented people, and got very little sleep. And then I came home, opened my notebook, and returned mentally to a place that I’ll be coming back to for the rest of my life: the Sundance Lab.


Note: I did not do a very good job of actually describing the configuration of the lab, so for more on the lab in general, and this year’s experience in particular, please see this great post by my fellow… well, fellow, Nicole Riegel, and this great post by advisor Bill Wheeler. If you have any other questions about the lab I’ll do my best to answer them in the comments!

Your Comment

34 Comments

Great write up, Ryan. Can't wait to see the final cut of MANCHILD.

Also, are you ready for the beat down Duke is going to put on your Heels? haha. I know you guys have like a 6 game winning streak but Duke is coming in hot as well. I'm just glad Syracuse finally lost though. Should be a good game tonight.

February 20, 2014

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Jason Dunphy

I have full confidence in my Heels being absolutely unpredictable, just as they've been all year. Meanwhile Duke actually has a really fun team this year... man does it hurt to say that.

February 20, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

I can understand. It's suppose to hurt haha. Should be a good game though. It never seems to matter how the teams are ranked, both show up. Carolina has been on a roll recently and seems like they've figured themselves out.

February 20, 2014

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Jason Dunphy

As a fellow Tar Heel, doesn't the world seem like a brighter, more beautiful place this morning? In light of all the recent turmoil and disillusionment at UNC (themes which obviously tie together with Manchild), that game can almost make you put it all aside for a couple hours.

February 21, 2014

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David Anderson

That was a great game and an unexpected surprise!

Growing up in NC, showing up to high school the day after after the Duke-UNC game was either a wonderful experience and a time of great gloating, or a time to hang your head in shame (and potentially fake being sick to stay home, because you didn't want to hear about it). Congrats to all the UNC fans who got to go to school today and lord this one over the dookies.

February 21, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Yeah, school was either great or horrible. You would even have teachers getting on your case. It was a good game though. Duke had a chance where both teams were stuck at 53-49, but couldn't make anything. Tough to win any year in this rivalry, but it still hurts to be on the losing side. Got to think about Syracuse tonight!

February 22, 2014

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Jason

Fascinating. Thank you for this. Could you give a little more insight into: 4. Write Two Endings... it's the only takeaway I don't agree with. Maybe I'm not understanding it properly. I feel like a great (non-experimental) story can only have one true ending. Obviously, you never want it to seem predictable but I can't understand how you would write towards two possible endings without seriously compromising the story.

February 20, 2014

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Mak

Right, I get what you're saying -- here's how I meant that: dramatic tension comes from the audience not knowing what's going to happen next, and so we as writers need to map out the alternative to what actually happens in our script. If you think of life as a branching storyline, we have to know what COULD'VE happened. You can feel that your story only has one true ending -- let's say your hero dies in the end -- but it's a good exercise to also write what would've happened if she or he lived a long life and achieved their dreams. Even if it never shows up on the page.

February 20, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Thanks for taking the time to clarify. I agree that you—the writer—needs to know what would happen at any given moment and for any given set of circumstances that arise. As the writer you should be an expert of your story world and the characters that inhabit. Making yourself see the story from a completely different perspective would certainly be a good exercise. A well constructed story can (and maybe should) hint at the possibility of a completely different ending. I just feel that if you write a story where the protagonist can either die or live happily ever after without changing the tonal, emotional and philosophical content of most of the scenes leading up to those alternate endings then there is something fundamentally wrong with that story.

February 20, 2014

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Mak

Hi Ryan,

I've been reading for a while, but this might be my first comment. (If I did comment before, it was a while ago.) The technical information on your site is quite useful, but it was nice to see some heart come through in this post.

Hope your project is coming along. Cheers.

February 20, 2014

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Thanks so much Nick!

February 20, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Thank you Ryan for the following write up and the 10 takeaways from the Sundance screenwriters lab.

Once you are selected to the program you get inveited back every year?

Thanks,
Ray

February 20, 2014

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Ray Gorbea

No, unless you're invited back as an advisor years later... new batches of fellows every time!

February 20, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Thanks for the reply!

February 24, 2014

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Ray Gorbea

WOW....Sundance Lab sounds..ahhhl....sounds
alot... like....yep.......FILM SCHOOOL..............
..someone please start a No Sundance Lab site now....

February 20, 2014

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Sammy

You are fundamentally misunderstanding why this site is called "no film school." Film school costs (usually) a lot of money and not everyone in the world has access to it. You can learn a lot online; we try to be one of those sources. We are not "No Education!"

February 20, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Congrats on completing the Sundance Lab! And thanks for sharing an overview of the process and the personal impact that it's had on you. It sounds like an amazing experience! Very inspiring! I'm certain that you will emerge with an even better script and that you have grown as a storyteller as a result of the risks you have taken. It takes guts to fully commit to this type of soul bearing process. I commend you for it. I'm looking forward to hearing more. Best of luck!

February 20, 2014

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Great post. It makes me think of personal therapy. They say if your therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist hasn't worked through a certain issue or issues, he/she will prevent you from working through that same issue.

Also, are there other notable "labs" that one can apply for if they don't make it into Sundance?

February 20, 2014

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earnest reply

For sure! Scroll down here, there are a number of screenwriting grants/competitions/labs:

http://nofilmschool.com/2014/02/massive-list-upcoming-grants-filmmakers-...

February 21, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

I'm so envious, I bet it was amazing. Number 9 is the key for me. Very few screenwriting books ever talk about that. It's the job of the director, blah, blah, blah. No it's the writer's job. I've gone further trying to create a readable map of the viewer's emotional journey for my new feature project. I find that's almost more important than the character's journey, really designing the most poignant, affective route through the material. For me, cinema is a masochistic activity and that's a great joy to be able to play with.

February 20, 2014

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No real questions about the lab as of yet, just wanted to say- What a great post! I found it through the Nicholl Fellowship Facebook page, and I'm so glad I did. Poking around the site I think this is going to be a great resource for me as a writer. Thanks for the insight, and I wish you all the best with your project.

February 20, 2014

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Michael E Stuart

A great read with some good thoughts to take with me into this weekend of writing & solitude. Thanks for sharing from the heart, you're already heeding #1. Awesome.

February 21, 2014

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
writer, director, dp

Ryan, could you please elaborate a bit more on what you mean by saying that your project lacked emotional availability? Thanks.

February 21, 2014

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Robert B.

Speaking about my draft specifically, I think we can get wrapped up in making sure our page count is right and there's no fat in a script... and in the process lose how the events make our characters FEEL. I had done so much trimming that many of my characters had been gutted, and rather than try to fit everyone in and only let vestiges of each of their emotions come through, my goal is to cut several characters to let the others breathe... and explore their feelings more deeply in the process. If that makes sense!

February 21, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Thanks Ryan!

February 25, 2014

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Robert B.

I came here for inspiration as I'm in the process of writing my own screenplay and what do I find? That something I do in my day job inspired you. My day job is taking care of all the video material on nobelprize.org. Thanks for linking to us, and for giving me personally inspiration to continue writing.

February 21, 2014

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Rob

That's awesome, Rob! Question: any chance we'll be able to embed video from nobelprize.org? I actually wanted to share the audio of Faulkner's speech but I couldn't find any way to embed it, as seen here:

http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1397

Thanks for your great work either way!

February 21, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Hi Ryan, thanks! We're actually in the process of upgrading our video CMS and hopefully will have a new, embeddable player soon. In the meantime, I'll upload the Faulkner speech to our YouTube channel and let you know when it's there so you can embed it. Around 650 videos are available at youtube.com/thenobelprize, but it looks like the Faulkner speech is unfortunately not one of them.

February 21, 2014

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Rob

Thanks for the post Ryan! The Sundance commitment towards nurturing creative minds is unparalleled.
I had a chance to participate in the Screenwriters' Lab that happened in India a couple of years back, and it proved to be a turning point in my journey. Here are my thoughts, if you'd like -

http://moifightclub.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/notes-from-a-script-lab-whi...

February 21, 2014

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Vikas Chandra

I’m interested in applying to the 2014 Screenwriter’s Lab with my feature screenplay. But before I go through the rigamarole, is it honestly worth going through the application process knowing I have no significant attachments or progress towards production (i.e. nothin’ but a screenplay)?

I say this knowing that it’s probably not a bad idea to work on supplementary material (artistic statements etc) just for my own edification. However, I also work a full time job, raise two kids, and struggle enough as it is to find time to write. Producing a short is not an option for me. Not sure I want to spend my writing time plowing through application materials if I have no realistic shot. Thanks in advance for your frank response!

February 21, 2014

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Sleepydude

It's a marathon, not a sprint... regardless of making a short, I think it's worth the application process and getting on their radar even if you don't get in this year.

http://nofilmschool.com/2013/12/how-i-got-selected-sundance-screenwriter...

For me personally, I realized I had a problem with my story when I'd changed my script significantly so that my old logline didn't apply anymore, but I also couldn't come up with a totally new one. That's the kind of thing that I think going through an application can help with, regardless of the outcome (getting in or not).

February 21, 2014

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Thanks, Ryan! I'm definitely aware of the "marathon" as I've been running it for 11 years with this project. The application process sounds like a worthwhile endeavor.

February 21, 2014

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Sleepydude

Make sure you’re always using a gray palette — take one lego block from one character and put it in the other.

This is number six in the list. Anyone know what this means?

February 28, 2014

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Rich

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posts. In any case I'll be subscribing in your rss feed and I'm hoping you write again soon!

May 28, 2014

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