Figuring It Out at the Festival

Ramona Emerson was a 2010 Sundance Institute Native Program Fellow and participated in the 2010 Native Lab with her film Opal. Below she discusses her 2011 Festival experience and the arduous task of finalizing her screenplay.

“So… what is your film about?” It’s a question that dogged me from day two of the Festival on. When I arrived, I thought in my own mind that I had that question figured out. My script was on its thirteenth rewrite and I was seemingly ready to prepare for shooting… but then someone asked me that question. I was unable to come up with a short, quick, tight description of what my film was about, and I began to obsess over it. Had I come to the Festival without even being able to describe my film?

The next night, I had a nightmare where the main character of my film, Opal (or the actor I had picked to play her), walked up to me on the set and asked me what I was doing. Cue: waking up covered in sweat, in a quandary of filmmaker's panic. But I kept talking about it anyway: to producers, to my family on the phone, to other Lab Fellows. The words of encouragement and the belief in where I was going shined through each conversation, and as the Festival moved on, and I watched more films, the story I envisioned slowly began to emerge. On one day, I went to see Pariah and Being Elmo – two films that I thought to be so far from my film that I looked forward to the break of thinking about Opal. But as I sat in those theatres by myself and watched two very different but incredible stories, I was inspired by their beauty and their simplicity. The flickering images of passion—the beautiful but simple look of Pariah and the story of dreams that was Being Elmo—kept me on track for what I needed to do. My story needed to be simple, and I needed to keep that passion for Opal – giving her a strength that was always underneath, but which I had hidden behind a thin veil of music and fandom.


I walked the streets of Park City with the screenplay in my head constantly. I couldn’t stop thinking about her, I couldn’t stop writing and rewriting in my head. I felt ready to get home and do some rewrites and felt like I had worked through some of the issues within my own head. Then, while at the Native Forum Party on our last night in Park City, a gentleman asked me what my film was about. Without thinking I blurted out, “It’s about a punk-rock Navajo girl who takes down the town bully.” Did I just say that? “Wow,” he said. “I can’t wait to see that film next year!”

So I returned home, anxious to write and finish the eternal opus that is Opal. I have to say, when I first started writing, I added another page and immediately got mad at myself – “less is more, less is more.” I took the next day off and then sat down the next morning and cut every bit of excess from my screenplay: no adults, no music woes, no complications, just a great story. I’ll have plenty more time to obsess when I turn the film into a feature.

Lead photo: