An Advisor’s Approach to the Labs

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Kasi Lemmons

Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons is participating as a Creative Advisor for the first time at this year’s Directors Lab.  A seasoned Advisor at other Sundance Institute Labs, she describes her experience working with the eight directing Fellows in the mountains this June.

It’s challenging to put into words an almost magical experience, but I’ll try. I’m here at the Sundance Institute Directors Lab. I’ve been here since Sunday. I’m happy and energized and exhausted. The feeling is familiar.  I always experience it on the mountain.  The mountain to me is Sundance and Sundance is the mountain. The mountain is always magical.  I’ve been here many times as an Advisor. Usually there’s at least three feet of snow on the ground.  I’ve been coming to the winter Screenwriters Lab for many years, when the light is blue and silver and gold, when the trees are bent with the weight of heavy snow. I’ve also had the opportunity to come in August, to the Composers Lab, when the mountain is rich in deep greens and warm fuchsia sunsets. But this is my first experience with the Directors Lab, in glorious late spring, when there’s snow on the peaks but the filmmakers are comfortable in t-shirts and denim jackets. The physical beauty of the place feels almost mystical. But it’s what happens here in the beauty of the mountains that makes the Sundance experience almost holy. 

Kasi Lemmons on set at the 2011 Directors Lab. Photo by Stephen Speckman.

Sundance is not a place to indulge in fantasy; rather it’s a place to turns dreams into reality and to delve into the hard work involved in doing so. Imagine taking your dreams to a stunningly beautiful locale and then, within a safe and loving environment supported by caring professionals, being able to focus on the hard work necessary to achieve them.  Exhausting work, courageous work, rewarding, heartbreaking, frustrating, illuminating work, where you develop the skills to define and realize your own intentions, to hear your own voice clearly. Learning to trust your instincts, to live in the possible—that’s the Sundance experience.

It’s true, I have Fellow envy. The select group of filmmakers invited to work through their process here are incredibly fortunate. But the reason I come back as an Advisor is to feel a part of a new generation of talent, to help foster the films I want to see made, to be inspired by new stories and new voices. And each year, I get back at least as much as I can possibly give. Through these emerging filmmakers I am able to once again live in the possible. That’s the gift of Sundance. That’s why I’m here.

I was nervous, perhaps as nervous as any Fellow on Sunday when I arrived on the mountain. As I said, I’m a veteran of the winter Screenwriting Labs, where each year we help a select group of talented screenwriters find their story and their voice, and where each year I leave energized and recharged and been able to look at my own art and career from a fresh and inspired perspective. My mind opens, I hear my own voice clearly again, without the filters of an often hostile industry. It’s an almost selfish endeavor. Yet it’s the power of the scripts, the vision of the writers and directors that keeps pulling me back.

This is my first time as an Advisor at the Directors Lab. The directors this year are visionary, diverse, and bold. They know what they want and many of them are well on their way to knowing how to get it. I hope to be useful to them in providing a fresh set of eyes, ears, and a shoulder to lean on if they need it. But it’s their individual process of discovery, their finding their own voice and fully inhabiting their own vision that is exciting and powerful and moving. 

The day starts early and goes long. Over the course of five weeks the filmmakers engage in strenuous directing exercises, cast their screenplays with talented actors, rehearse and block their scenes, learn to work with a crew and then shoot and edit select scenes—usually the scenes they’re most afraid of—and finally present these scenes to the entire group of Advisors and Fellows. The Advisors and the amazing staff and brain trust of Sundance are there for the filmmakers every step of the way. From the brilliant Michelle Satter and Gyula Gazdag, who lead the Directors Lab, to the original visionary Robert Redford to the endlessly hardworking and dedicated staff, the Fellows are supported but never coddled. Advisors are handpicked and rotate weekly to keep the outside perspectives fresh. But it’s the allegiance to the filmmakers’ own visions and voices that makes Sundance so invaluable. There’s time enough for the outside world to intrude. The mountain, with the constant roar of the rushing river, is a perfect place to find your own voice.

This blog was originally published by Filmmaker Magazine.

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