'Selah and the Spades' Director Tayarisha Poe: "Something Was Wrong with My Script"

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Tayarisha Poe (right) speaks with creative advisor Tyger Williams at the Screenwriters Lab.
© 2017 Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

When I applied to the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, I knew there was something wrong with my script. When I interviewed for the lab, I once again shared that feeling. And then when I got the call from Michelle Satter and Ilyse McKimmie welcoming me and my story (Selah and the Spades) into the fold, I felt a quiet relief—like finally getting an appointment to see a doctor after months of a very sore throat. So I entered the lab knowing nothing other than 1) even through those fleece-lined waterproof boots, my toes were freezing, and 2) my script wasn’t done, and as strongly as I felt that, I didn’t know why.

It’s a humbling feeling, to know that you’re presenting less than your best work, but oh my, is it a breath of fresh air. The labs give you a chance to enter a room knowing that you have work to do, knowing that everyone there has work to do, and knowing that all involved want nothing more than to help you do the best possible work that you can do. It’s freeing, this feeling. I actively seek out these spaces where mistakes and failure are expected and encouraged, where these things we tend to run from are viewed as necessary acts on a path to separating the art from the ego.

Tayarisha Poe and creative advisor Kasi Lemmons. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

The other fellows were as integral to the creation of this actively humbling space as our advisors, the brilliant staff, and the slightly surrealistic mountain landscape we found ourselves a part of. What hope! What kindness! What genuine, open-hearted truths we allowed ourselves to share.

Without this, this commitment to vulnerability, to being afraid (and being honest about being afraid), I don’t believe I could have reached the point of artistic honesty that I did—and that I witnessed daily in others. We created a community of active listeners whose eyes searched hungrily for the truth in the eyes of others. It’s a terrifying thing, to look into someone’s face, someone you barely know, and to feel them sharing their soul back to you. You can’t help but to do the same.

Each advisor, just by talking through the story, hit upon the same questions in their own ways: What do these characters need? What do they want? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? Sitting in front of the fireplace with Robin Swicord, she told me quite bluntly that my issues with the third act have less to do with the third act and more to do with the first: if you have a problem with your ending, you'll find it's because you have a problem with your beginning.

Since this was my first meeting of the lab, I carried this advice with me through each day, letting it shape how I approached our conversations. In Joan Tewkesbury’s workshops, she led us out of our scripts, off of the page, and deeper into the biographies of those characters we'd least considered. Through this, I discovered essential details of the emotional history of my main character, Selah, by writing about her mother's childhood. Kasi Lemmons taught me to take that a step further and spend my time understanding what took place three days before my script begins, and three days after.

So much of scriptwriting is in understanding a whole emotional and physical landscape that the audience will never see or hear of directly, but that undoubtedly influences and enhances the story itself.

Tayarisha Poe is a filmmaker and photographer from West Philadelphia. She was chosen as one of the 25 New Faces by Filmmaker Magazine in 2015, and in 2016 she received the Sundance Institute’s Knight Foundation Fellowship.

Lead photo:

Tayarisha Poe (right) speaks with creative advisor Tyger Williams at the Screenwriters Lab.
© 2017 Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz