For most folks, the phrase "Sundance," besides the famous association with Robert Redford, invokes the annual well-covered film festival in snowy Utah. The larger Sundance Institute, founded by Redford in 1981, also puts on other events, including the new Next Fest in Los Angeles this weekend and a just-announced program in Hong Kong.
Yet arguably one of the most vital programs of the Sundance Institute is one that the public never sees and many people have little awareness of — its filmmaking labs. Though programs are put on throughout the year and around the world, it is the lab programs at the Sundance Resort in Utah that perhaps best capture their spirit, a mix of idyllic location, immersive intensity and creative support, with programs covering areas including directing, screenwriting, producing and documentary filmmaking.
Under the longtime guidance of the founding director of the Feature Film Program, Michelle Satter, the institute has amassed an impressive list of projects and talent that have come through its doors. Just a few who have participated over the years include Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Nicole Holofcener, Kimberly Pierce, Darren Aronofsky, Matt Reeves, Gina Prince-Bythewood and many more. At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, 13 projects supported by the Feature Film Program premiered, winning seven awards.
Potential fellows enter the process through an open submission process. Recent festival prize winners such as Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" and Behn Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" all came through the institute's programs, while diverse films such as Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Cary Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre," Dee Rees' "Pariah" Haifaa al-Mansour's "Wadjda" and Ritesh Batra's "The Lunchbox" were also shepherded in some way through the Sundance Institute.
Actor Ed Harris shot a role this summer in the feature film "The Adderall Diaries," adapted and directed by Pamela Romanowsky, whom he met at the Sundance labs last year. Though Harris has been to the Sundance labs numerous times as an advisor, he said this was the first time he's ever subsequently taken a role from someone right out of the program.
"You really deal with what their problems are," he said of the process at the labs. "It's just really fun, you're working in rehearsal, while they're shooting and in the cutting room. You're not telling them what to do, you're asking them questions trying to help them deal with their own shortcomings. I don't think there's anything like it."