TWO men were sitting on a scarred chairlift as it climbed a lower flank of Mt. Timpanogos, its towering 11,750-foot glacier providing a brown-green backdrop to their right. The bluffs off to their left arched down toward the wide, flat runway of the Salt Lake Valley. L.A. playwright Richard Montoya was listening to criticisms and observations about his screenplay, "Water & Power," and scribbling notes into a ratty notebook perched on one knee.
That is, until a sheet of paper suddenly whipped off into the air. Montoya gazed on as the mountain wind tossed his lost page down 70 feet of swooping zigzags into the unspoiled brush below.
"Well," Montoya said, with mock petulance. "This hasn't turned out to be a very fun ride."
That sentiment could double as the running crawl under many a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter's career.
But not in this serrated valley of the Wasatch Mountains in north-central Utah. This is Redford Country, the geographical and metaphorical home of the Sundance Institute and its prestigious Directors and Screenwriters Labs -- 800 miles from L.A. and a universe away from Hollywood.
These rigorous incubators of filmmaking talent have fostered early projects by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Half Nelson"), Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Hard Eight") and Tamara Jenkins ("Slums of Beverly Hills") -- these last two nominated for screenplay Oscars on Tuesday for their ambitious work, Anderson for "There Will Be Blood" and Jenkins for "The Savages."
And although it's unlikely that any participant would describe their lab experiences purely as "fun," they are designed to provide a creatively enriching environment that encourages the kind of innovative storytelling and artistic risk-taking that Hollywood generally avoids.
Founded in 1981 by Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Robert Redford in this tiny town an hourlong drive southeast of Salt Lake City, the institute supports a multitude of film and theater programs internationally (including this week's film festival in nearby Park City). The intensive directing and screenwriting workshops that make up the core of its Feature Film Program -- guided from the start by the steady hand of program director Michelle Satter -- have become a creative mecca for both the aspiring writers and filmmakers who attend as fellows and the experienced advisors who come to help them improve their craft (and remind themselves what screenwriting unburdened by talk of "quadrants" and "set pieces" is actually like).
The institute holds its weeklong screenwriters lab twice yearly -- late June and in mid-January as a run-up to the festival, which often showcases projects developed at the lab. For instance, "Sleep Dealer," which premiered at the festival Saturday, was workshopped by writer-director Alex Rivera and his co-writer, David Riker, during a 2000 Screenwriters Lab.
More than 2,000 aspiring writers submit open applications, while others are recommended for the program by a network of institute staff, alumni and advisors. (Satter herself reads hundreds of scripts a year.) Only the January lab is open to any applicant; the June lab is designed for fellows to revisit their material after attending the three-week directing lab. Ultimately, a carefully selected dozen fellows are flown to Sundance to meet with a rotating roster of creative advisors for intense two-hour, one-on-one discussions.
These creative meetings take place on lush creek banks, at picnic tables shaded by groves of quaking aspen and, yes, on the nearby chairlift, with volunteer mentors such as John August ("Go"), Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal ("Running on Empty"), Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia") and Jeremy Pikser ("Bulworth"), the man who was giving Montoya his well-intentioned grilling. Since the writer retains ownership of his or her script, no suggestion is compulsory -- "not notes but a dialogue," is how Satter describes the advisors' input.
"The really important thing is that [unlike most film schools] this is not leading toward a 'calling card,' " says June 2007 advisor Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter"). "This is all about process. This is all about trying different things and experimenting and feeling that you have the freedom to do that."
Unlike in L.A., he says, "there's none of the weird combination of despair and hunger. There's certainly ambition, but everyone understands what the game here is."
It's a nurturing but demanding atmosphere fueled by passionate artists that breeds both predictable and unpredictable results -- angst, tears and the occasional bruised ego are matched by the corresponding evolution of truly original storytelling. Or, as Satter puts it, "If they're not struggling, they're not taking risks. Being uncomfortable is a good thing."
"It's very intense," says June 2007 fellow Sophie Barthes of absorbing input from half a dozen impassioned, idiosyncratic creative voices. "But I believe it's the feeling you have when you're going to face an audience after your movie . . . and I would rather this take place now than after."
"They disdain consensus here," says frequent advisor Keith Gordon ("A Midnight Clear").
For this very reason, the fellows are advised not to do any actual rewriting during the lab but to take a few weeks after leaving to let all the input sink in and filter down to the 10% to 20% that they may actually apply to their next draft. And anyway, it's inevitable that not all the creative personalities are in sync -- one combative fellow decried an advisor's philosophy of how film is there to please the audience as "fascism."
"What you find with these mentors is they're very much believers in the Socratic method," says James Ponsoldt, a 28-year-old Athens, Ga., native who brought a devastating drama called "Refresh, Refresh" to the June 2007 lab. "Where it's not about 'I'm the teacher, you're the student, this is what you should do.' It's very much about enabling the writer to come to conclusions on his own but planting the seeds."
Togetherness is key
Everyone -- even the volunteer drivers who fly in from around the country to chauffeur attendees back and forth from the airport -- eats, drinks, thinks, talks and breathes movies. They stay in cozy, wood-paneled cabins scattered around the hills above the little town and eat three catered buffet meals daily under a giant white pavilion.
Satter, the ever-present, warm, pixieish den mother in sneakers, jeans and faded blue "Comfort of Strangers" sweatshirt, wanders around the tent, taking stock and talking process with her writers and advisors.
One afternoon, 85-year-old Stewart Stern ("Rebel Without a Cause") holds timed writing exercises for fellows and advisors (something he flies in specially to do every year). At night, anyone interested can attend a screening of an advisor's movie or that of an attending fellow -- for instance, 2007 attendee James Ponsoldt's "Off the Black," which had screened at the 2006 festival. Animated post-screening Q&As with the writers-filmmakers often spill over into late-night deliberations at the nearby Owl Bar.
The advisors claim to be as revitalized by the experience as the fellows. Many of them thrive on the "therapeutic" nature of the interactions and flush with the potential of artistic license, wonder why they couldn't bring some piece of Sundance's communal oasis back to L.A. with them. (Former advisors Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen are trying to do just that with their writers collective, 1*3*9.)
Some, like lab artistic director Todd Graff ("Camp"), first came as screenwriting fellows, graduated to the directing program and then returned to the Institute as advisors. Several build their coming year's assignments and shooting schedules around making sure they can attend the lab. Satter says that as early as 1991 she had to start turning down volunteers for advising slots.
"These people, they're exhilarated," says Barthes, a French documentary filmmaker who entered the program with her deadpan existential comedy "Cold Souls," which had already attached Paul Giamatti as producer and star. "They're like, 'This is what we went through 20 years ago. I can see it in you -- everything!' "
Although the Sundance screenwriting lab exists in a kind of magical bubble outside the cold realities of Hollywood filmmaking, many determined fellows have successfully made the transition. And the institute sustains its support for years, offering to help secure financing, make advisors available to read future drafts, stage public script readings and provide small fellowship grants.
"It's a real utopian view of what the industry could be," says Egoyan. "We sometimes forget this sacred responsibility that film has to communicate a world that we wouldn't see otherwise. And it seems that Sundance is really dedicated to that, to telling the stories by individuals who are committed and passionate and are prepared to take risks."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times