A Safe Place to Fail

A Safe Place to Fail

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Nate von Zumwalt, editorial coordinator at Sundance Institute, recently visited the Directors Lab at Sundance Resort for the first time to capture the unique stories of this year’s Fellows and participants.

As I arrived at Sundance Resort last week for the 30th edition of the Directors Lab, I hauled with me a convoy of nearly unattainable expectations. It was the product of a year’s worth of incessant praise by my colleagues for this mountain retreat that one “just had to experience” to understand. The Directors Lab spans the month of June, and I recognized that my short weekend stay there was an unlikely chance to truly assimilate. After all, I am about as well-versed in the technical aspects of filmmaking as most filmmakers are in the proper use of nominative case nouns and predicate adjectives.

It took approximately three hours for all of my preconceived notions to flee as they were met with the most genuine, nurturing group of people I’ve ever been around in any field. I immediately grasped the “it” factor that so many associate with the Labs.


Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.

The Directors Lab is first and foremost about the eight promising directing Fellows that have arrived from around the world to hone their skills and workshop their projects. But it’s also about every other person who makes up this community at Sundance—from Feature Film Program Director Michelle Satter, to each crew chief and his or her team, to the volunteer drivers, and yes, even to me. It’s a chance for all of these people to challenge themselves, embrace their insecurities and then kick them to the curb, and leave the mountain not only having sharpened their craft, but having bettered themselves as human beings. There is nothing more powerful than a group of people who are utterly indebted to the same cause—that’s what the Directors Lab is.


Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.

It’s a million different things all at once. It’s a place where pressure comes in droves because each moment is unique and precious; but it’s also an artist’s sanctuary. It’s a place that at times moves at an overwhelming pace, and at other moments stands still. My colleague Jessica Buzzard may have most aptly defined the experience when she referred to it as a “manufactured creative crisis.” The Lab is designed to instigate failure, sometimes over and over again, but all in the name of progressing as a filmmaker and a person. It’s why Creative Advisor Tim Blake Nelson urges other Advisors to provide the Fellows with “tools that are specific, but then allow them to do what they want.” This is the precise equilibrium between shaping the talents of each director, and letting their artistic instinct run its course.

To be completely candid, I left Los Angeles last week with an indifference towards whether or not I became entirely immersed in the Lab environment. By the end of the weekend, I was intensely grateful for being gently forced into joining the Directors Lab family. This is a place where failure and success are not always in balance, but where there is an unfaltering support system. Thanks to everyone whom I met at the Labs and greeted me with such sincere warmth, especially those who kindly allowed my team and me to invade their sets!