Lab fellow Keith Davis on the set of The American People. Photo by Fred Hayes.
Nate von Zumwalt
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the summer of 2011. It has since been updated.
It’s been 30 years since Sundance Institute President and Founder Robert Redford gathered his friends and colleagues in the idyllic mountains of Utah to escape the pressures of the film industry for a natural setting that encouraged artistic growth.
That summer, Michelle Satter came to the Lab and has been an integral part of Sundance Institute ever since. She founded the Feature Film Program and continues to lead the Directors Lab, the cornerstone of the program and a workshop for filmmakers to freely rehearse, shoot, and edit scenes from their scripts.
Under the guidance of an accomplished group of creative advisors and professional production crews and actors, lab fellows are encouraged to take risks and test their artistic boundaries as they develop skills in a structured but safe environment.
Thirty years and more than 500 filmmakers later, the lab exists as an incomparable experience as the Program has extended its global outreach and year-round, in-depth filmmaker support.
Today the Feature Film Program consists of a series of annual Labs including the January Screenwriters Lab, the June Directors Lab, the June Screenwriters Lab, the Composers Lab/Feature Film Program, the Creative Producing Lab, and the Creative Producing Summit.
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Feature Film Program and the Directors Lab, Sundance Institute also honors the tireless work ethic and passion that founding director Michelle Satter has exhibited over the life of the program.
Perhaps no one can speak to her commitment better than Hungarian filmmaker and Directors Lab artistic director Gyula Gazdag, who has partnered with Satter at the lab since 1994. Together, they have shaped the skills of filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Kimberly Peirce, Darren Aronofsky, Debra Granik, Miguel Arteta, Cary Fukunaga, and many others.
Gazdag arrived at the 1994 Directors Lab not long after moving to Los Angeles from his native Hungary. Surrounded by a revered collection of advisors, he recalls doubting himself during that first summer.
“Just looking at the group of advisors, all these people with huge histories, I thought that there must be a mistake—I don’t belong here,” he says. “Michelle was the one who found a way to get me relaxed, but on the other hand, when I saw what was happening here, I was so enthusiastic by the end of the week that I told her that I would do anything—if they needed me to sweep the floors, I would do that.”
He traces this generosity and devotion back to the Feature Film Program’s director, whom he describes as a “a fearless leader in the best sense, but at the same time a very sensitive human being.”
The lab is in a perpetual state of progression and development, requiring a unique personality at the helm: “I think that Michelle is the perfect person for it in the sense that she’s caring and loving, but she knows what tough love is. She knows what the fellows need, and it doesn’t get muddled with personal feelings; it’s always about figuring out what’s best for the fellows.”
Even as Gazdag focuses on the reach of Satter and the nurturing community at the Directors Lab, he acknowledges what the lab has provided him. “It’s not even a give and take, because I know that it has become such an important part of my life that it defines who I am, how I think, and the relationships that I have,” he says. “Being able to spend time with these people is the greatest gift I can imagine.”
The monthlong workshop is a life-changing time for the fellows at each year’s lab, and the countless challenges and breakthroughs ensure that each director leaves the mountain with thicker skin and more developed skills. “Failing is not always just failing—it is succeeding in some things, failing in other things, and taking that information and using it the next time,” says Gazdag. “I think that’s mostly what the lab process is about.”
In the end, the Labs represent a community of support for everyone involved—a safe haven of sorts for filmmakers to equip themselves with the tools to succeed. The Feature Film Program has developed a holistic filmmaker experience with the Directors Lab, and placed it on sacred land tucked away at the Sundance Resort.
What exactly it means to be part of such a collective passion for filmmaking is difficult to convey, but Gyula Gazdag seems to capture the spirit of the lab with his words: “I’ve gotten so much from the Institute. That’s the nature of it. I’ve got friendships, I’ve got unforgettable experiences, I’ve got relationships that I cannot imagine anywhere else. When I’m here I don’t want to be anywhere else.”