Desiree Akhavan and advisor Murray Miller at the 2014 Episodic Story Lab. © Sundance Institute | Fred Hayes
I’ve been encouraged by Oprah and Deepak Chopra via my mother to keep a journal. On the evening of my arrival at the Sundance Institute Episodic Story Lab, I wrote the following entry: “This evening was kind of rough and soul-crushing and made me feel like I have no place in this industry.”
I was never good at summer camp, or college, or any of those supposedly fun, nurturing places that outcasts are expected to flourish in. When I was invited to the labs, the initial reaction was euphoria over having been selected to the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory–style answer to my deepest desire: to create a television series.
Once that settled, my go-to emotion of crippling fear set in. Most group activities are not for me. I’m only at ease when I get to be in charge of the show—as is the case when I’m directing, writing, or hiding in bed for days locked in a cycle of sleep, Netflix, and masturbation. Outside of those pursuits, life can be a scary place and I blame my self-imposed social anxiety for my discomfort that first night.
The next day I sat down for my first one-on-one meeting with advisor Amy Lippman. It was spectacular. That meeting and ones that came to follow filled me with a warm happy glow usually reserved for suburban white kids on Christmas because the people and stories I’d been struggling with on my own felt real for the first time. That’s because they all took the time to trudge through what makes the work special as well as what makes it conventional and/or stupid. As we spoke, the show began revealing itself to me.
The biggest takeaway I got from the lab was a much deeper understanding of my answers to the following questions: why this story, why now, and why should I be the person making it? Here are some of the notes I got that have stuck with me.
1. Be more specific. Milk every opportunity you have to reveal history/personality/relationships.
2. Defy convention. Don’t fall into plot devices you can spot from a mile away.
3. Take your time establishing the characters and their situations. Don’t reverse their course of action too soon. In TV, you have more time to let character arcs breathe.
4. Most people are in denial and think they’re doing great. Keep that in mind when you’re revealing your character’s flaws.
5. Does the course of events make logical sense? Do you buy it?
6. Determine the following for each character: What are their needs? Achilles heels? Strengths? Once you’ve identified that, you can use it to drive story.
7. “I LOVE the title”/“Definitely change the title.” If you consult more than one person, you’re going to end up with conflicting advice. Go with your gut.
By the end of the one-on-one meetings, roundtable discussions, and shared meals, I came to the realization that all of this – conceiving a show, breaking story in the writers room, dealing with egos on set; it’s all therapy. I think what draws people to telling stories is a shared sickness – a magical one, but definitely an illness in that there’s no cure and it can hold you back from a normal well-balanced life. We’re all obsessed with people’s behavior and interior logic.
The Lab provided an environment where I was surrounded by a group of wildly talented peers and advisors devoting themselves fully to helping other people with their projects because we’re all intrinsically linked through our shared illness. I will always be grateful for my time in the same sandbox with the fellow diseased.