“Be Open to the Process,” and Other Lessons From the Sundance Screenwriters Lab

Advisor John Lee Hancock and fellow Yung Chang at the Screenwriters Lab. © Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

Yung Chang

The tone was set early on. Even before I set-off on my journey, Paul Federbush and Matthew Takata, the inimitable international director and manager of the Feature Film Program, respectively, emphasized that the Lab would not require any writing. “No writing?” I naively thought to myself, “Isn’t this a screenwriting workshop?”

“Be open to the process. Observe and listen. Take it all in,” they replied.

In defiance of their advice, I didn’t want to be caught with my pants down. I studiously purchased a box of new Bic Velocity Gel pens, highlighters, and notepads in preparation for writing seclusion. Besides, wouldn’t I want to get some writing done while it was fresh in my mind? I had never before written a feature-length screenplay. This was new territory for me.

As far as I was concerned, the act of being accepted into such a prestigious program was like willingly submitting yourself to being hanged, drawn and quartered by 17 of the top screenwriters in the world. In my worst nightmares, I envisioned their scowling, dramaturgic expressions, as each fellow was torn apart limb-from-limb, while ashes from our burning scripts floated in the air like falling snow.

On the flight to Salt Lake City, I peered out the window onto the landscape below. Rippled mountains folded into one another like wrinkles on an old man’s face. There’s something about mountains that reminds me of wisdom. A certain calm had descended upon me. As if I had resolved to myself that there was no turning back. “Be open to the process,” I whispered. In the seat next to me, a Latter Day Saints Elder turned to me, flashing an awkward smile.

On the road to the Sundance Resort, the driver pointed out details of the region: the Timpanogos caves, the Bridal Veil waterfall, Adobe’s Lehi Utah Campus. I rode in silence. Taking it all in. “Did you know one of the largest open-pit mines in the world is in Utah?” she asked. “It’s been operating for over a hundred years. The pit is over half-a-mile deep and three miles wide.”

Surrounded by tall mountain ranges, I couldn’t visualize the opposite trajectory downwards. How deep could you dig before you reached nothingness? “You should see the size of their trucks. The wheels on those!” I hadn’t even arrived at the resort and my imagination was in high gear, the eager driver filling my supple brain with oversized images.

The road narrowed into a quintessential canyon path where the mountains squeeze up against you, so close, you could reach out the window and touch it. We had arrived. I was struck by the silence. In the distance, skiers swished down the mountainside. River Run stream babbled through the setting. It felt as if I had been welcomed into the private ranch of Robert Redford. I wandered around in an adrenalized daze.

And so it began: in a process of hyper-connectivity, sharing, and listening. The Sundance Screenwriters Lab folded us into their arms and took us on a whirlwind odyssey. It was the polar opposite of being hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Now I’ve returned home, far away from the comforts of my little lodge off the Mandan Knoll. No longer can I rest in a plush downy bed while a rustic fire crackles and lulls me to sleep. But in fits of fever dreaming, I hear fragments of dialogue from those master advisors, their careful words encouraging my subconscious:

“Poetry is the sister of cinema.”

“Convenience should only work against a character.”

“You don’t need to know structure but the beginning and the end. Feel your way through a script.”

“Fear is the drive. Wait until the story percolates.”

“Be specific with your words.”

“Never stop when you’re stuck. Go somewhere where you can go. Then go back to the stuck part.”

“Let it settle, then sneak up on it.”

“The notes that stick are important.”

“Good structure is invisible.”

“Go to the open door.”

“Fish where the fish are.”

“Be a finisher.”

The schedule, on paper, may read as mundane and straightforward. Between eating and sleeping, there are screenings and one-on-one meetings with your advisors. But the real “doing” doesn’t happen in the schedule. The conversations with your advisors can be revelatory and cathartic. Their words may be deceptively simple, and yet often, when triggered, you feel as if the earth has shaken beneath you.

This year, on our first morning together, Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville) conducted a workshop entitled, “Designed Obstacles.” We were collectively thrown into writing exercises that forced us to dig deeper into our characters and into ourselves. It was a thrilling confessional and emotional introduction to the Lab.

Early into the process one of the Lab staff, Kathleen Broyles, while chatting over delicious apple crumble, described to me her first experience stumbling upon the Sundance Resort way back in the day. She told me that when she arrived in the canyon, she had the distinct feeling of losing all sense of direction. On my daily hike to the Lab, I, too, had the feeling that my internal compass was adrift.

The Lab is all encompassing. It’s about timelessness, disorientation, and experimentation while a fortified safety net catches you and puts you back on your feet. For over 30 years, these selfless organizers have been honing and refining a writing retreat that encapsulates all that is necessary to help a screenwriter find their path. Most often that path is twisting and illogical. You may walk away feeling upended and in despair. But somehow it works. Everything falls into place. Nowhere else in the world is there an opportunity that exists like this… an atmosphere of creative engagement with like-minded creators who understand the intricacies of writing. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced a workshop where the whole package from beginning to end is the essence itself.

The Sundance Screenwriters Lab is an experiential and nebulous process. You may not know it, but it begins when you make that first bold step to submit your screenplay for consideration, it marinates and manifests continuously onwards, after that initial phone call with Paul and Matthew, onto the airplane over the Wasatch Range, and into the mythical Mount Timpanagos where the hearts of Utahna and Red Eagle beat together forever.

On the last day of the Lab, we sat in a listening circle, just as we did on the first day, and each of us shared a thought about our experiences. Peter Straughan (Frank, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) quoted Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

Thank you, Sundance Institute, advisors, and fellows.

Based in China and Canada, Yung Chang (张侨勇) is known for his feature documentaries, Up the Yangtze (2008), China Heavyweight (2012), and The Fruit Hunters (2013). Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to garner numerous awards, including two Taipei Golden Horse Awards. Eggplant is his first narrative feature.

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