By Michelle Satter
Walter Bernstein, the brilliant dramatist and one of our founding creative advisors, passed away on January 22, 2021, at the age of 101. Erudite, political, and fearless, Walter’s words always mattered; his stories mattered and his truth mattered. Walter was a powerful presence at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab for over 25 years, and he made an extraordinary impact on the work of independent filmmakers and the stories they told, bearing witness and challenging the world we live in.
Walter took his role as a mentor seriously, focusing on screenwriting as an art and a craft, and never giving up on a writer. He strongly believed that everything begins with and is defined by character, and his starting point in a meeting was “What’s it saying? What is this about?” He delighted in a well-told tale, and there was no slowing Walter down.
All of our fellows wanted to meet with Walter, but they were also very nervous. Would their vulnerable egos survive the meeting? Would they be too overwhelmed by the work ahead. In all Walter’s directness, he was incredibly kind and generous, and he knew the scripts better than the writers who wrote them.
Walter was also our secret weapon at the lab, when we had a writer who was struggling to listen, needed to defend their work… After meeting with Walter, there was no denying the work ahead.
Marielle Heller and Walter Bernstein at the labs. ©2012 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ryan Johnson
We screened the award-winning film The Front multiple times, and it was very powerful to hear how Walter’s personal story was the inspiration for the film. And for all the writers, often too young to really know the devastation of the blacklist, for them to understand the privilege of devoting a life to writing, free expression, and, of course, using your real name, this would be an unforgettable evening.
During a conversation with advisor Doug McGrath after a screening of The Front, Walter spoke personally about his experience of the blacklist, including this one story he told.
And I quote from Walter: “My agent called me and said would I do a script for an advertising agency, at that time, the ad agencies produced a lot of the shows. So I wrote the script—I forget what it was. He came to pick it up and bring it to the advertising agency and he said, ‘Put another name on it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve heard things around. You’re on some kind of list or something, I don’t know what it is. But no use looking for trouble, put another name on it.’
“So I thought up some name and put it on, and sent it in and got paid, and I forgot about it. And I got a call back from him saying, “The producer wants to see you.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, he wants to see the writer, he wants some changes.’ And I said, ‘I can’t go up as this other guy. People know me as me up there.’ I had known some people there. He said, ‘Well, he wants to see the writer. He’s got a right, he paid for it, he wants to see the writer.’ I said, ‘Forget it, I can’t go.’ And he got very angry. And I forgot about it. Then he called back and said, ‘I fixed it!’ And I said, ‘Well, how’d you fix it?’ And he said, ‘Well, I fired this other writer who was on it, and I hired another writer to do the changes.’
“I said, ‘Great, who’d you get?’ He said, ‘You!’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘I got Walter Bernstein to come up and do the changes.’ And I said, ‘Why couldn’t you do that in the first place?’ And he said, ‘Never mind that; just go up and meet.’ So I went up and I met the producer, and I had to listen while he told me what a shit the other writer was, and he gave me the notes, and I did the changes, and he was very happy with it. And he said, ‘He should have gotten you in the first place because you’re a much better writer than the other guy.’ And that was my first indication that there might have been something wrong.”
Michelle Satter is the director of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program, a post she has held since the Institute was founded in 1981.