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In Memory of Frank Pierson

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Michelle Satter and Frank Pierson at the 1986 Filmmakers Lab.

Michelle Satter, Founding Director, Feature Film Program

Frank Pierson was just plain brilliant – as a screenwriter, educator and leader. He was never afraid to have an opinion and was always fiercely independent and ready for an honest debate. Frank began coming to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in the early days of the 1980s and was one of the founding writers of the Program. He was always generous and loved being part of the conversation about the art and craft of writing. Over the years, we showed his beautifully written films Dog Day Afternoon, Cat Ballou, and Cool Hand Luke. Frank’s unforgettable presentation of Dog Day Afternoon was genius and so revealing about what makes a good screenplay and what allows for real collaboration between writer and director and writer and actor. As we listened to Frank dissect his amazing work, we all felt that we were in the presence of one of the great minds in the history of screenwriting.

Over the years that Frank came as a Creative Advisor to the Lab, there was often one screenplay which he just didn’t respond to and he would wonder, very vocally, why it was at the Lab. Somehow we knew that if he just got into the meeting, he would find a way to work with that writer and that the meeting he most dreaded would become the meeting that he most remembered. It happened over and over again. It was always the meeting with Frank that the young filmmaker loved most of all and that meeting which Frank found the most inspiring and fun. After many years, I started to talk about the “Frank Pierson Rule” in my introduction to the Advisors. They needed to know that the meeting that they most dreaded was the meeting that would be the most meaningful, personal, and inspired! We all learned from Frank and when he spoke, it always got very quiet in the room.

Learning about his passing today was very sad for all of us at Sundance Institute and the hundreds of writers that Frank worked with at the Lab. His gorgeous work as a screenwriter and the inspiration that he shared with the next generation of screenwriters is a legacy that will always be remembered and celebrated.

Frank’s many friends, colleagues, and admirers are encouraged to add notes of condolence, memories, and other comments on Michelle’s post.

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