From the Archives: Director Keith Davis Recounts His Sundance Lab Experience

man looks into camera at sundance labs

Keith Davis

Writer/director Keith Davis is currently at the Sundance Resort in Utah developing his screenplay The American People as one of eight fellows at this year’s Directors Lab. Each fellow has the opportunity to rehearse, shoot and edit selected scenes from his or her screenplay in a workshop environment, where the focus is completely on creative exploration and discovery. We’ve asked Keith to share a glimpse into his process at the Lab in a couple of blog pieces, the first of which is below.

I’ve been staring at my laptop for about 20 minutes now.

I sat down here to encapsulate what this experience is like. Above all else, I’d like to be brutally honest with you. But I can’t. Not so much because of what happens at the Directors Labs itself, but rather because of what seems to happen to you at the Directors Labs. You change. Immediately. And it’s difficult to nail down without maybe sounding muddy or like you’ve “drank the Kool-aid.” (Disclaimer: I drank the Kool-aid.)

Almost ten years ago I was an actor fresh out of drama school, enjoying the beginnings of a career in New York City. On September 9, 2001, I walked out of my gym on 45th and 6th and listened to a voicemail from my sister (back in Alabama).

“Keith, call home!”

I did. She picked up and told me our little brother was dead. He’d suffered a sudden heart attack at home (in front of our mother and other brother). I collapsed right there in the street and hot tears jumped and fell as I ran down 6th Avenue and back to my tiny room in Times Square. Two days later, back in Alabama, I saw my brother’s small body laid in a casket before me. Simultaneously, but a world away, the Twin Towers were being attacked in New York City.

We buried my brother the following day.

It took years to find our way again as a family. I went back to acting, but I was changed. I wanted to be more than an actor… to share and create more. I thought back to how our intense personal grief set against the backdrop of the nation’s public grief from 9/11 held so much conflict for us. Back then I couldn’t know it, but I was already writing the screenplay in my head.

I already had a title: The American People.

My experience here at the 2011 Directors Labs has proven (so far) to be mostly about seeing myself as a director/creative person more clearly. Yes, we had a workshop about directing actors. Yes, we made shot lists on the spot and talked about how to use the camera. Yes, I staged and shot scenes from my script with a full crew, DP, and professional caliber actors. It’s also true I cut those scenes with an editor and evaluated them with accomplished and insightful Advisors.

But I’ve done more than that.

When we worked on directing actors, we started by being actors ourselves. When we made shot lists, I was encouraged to use it to think about my own visual tendencies with a camera. Where was I being clear with my visuals and where was I muddy? How do I instinctively communicate those ideas to crew and cinematographers? How can I improve the collaboration? What parts of this script were undeveloped or muddy because I was muddy in my thinking or feeling about them?

You see, the secret of the Labs is that they mount incredible resources and talent around you to do one thing: to begin to show you… you. Once they’ve done that, it’s up to you to use what you’ve found (though they guide you through that too of course), and then pour all of that back into your directing/writing/creating.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. I told you it was impossible to explain.

Next time I’ll just tell you how quiet it is here at night and how you see so many stars in the sky. Or how everyone from the drivers to the artistic staff have read your script and talk passionately about it. Or how cool it is to have a reading with Tim Blake Nelson (here as an Advisor) playing one of the parts. Or how each member of the crew (not just the key positions) are filled with talented and accomplished filmmakers in their own right. And how dope it is to be on set and have the world’s best and most accomplished actors, cinematographers, directors, and editors (all here as Advisors just for you!) to turn to when you get stuck. Or how deeply Robert Redford reads your script and then talks at length with you about it and your approach to directing it.

Yeah. I’ll start there next time.

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Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in 'Miss Juneteenth,' coming to digital platforms June 19

Channing Godfrey Peoples on a Bittersweet ‘Miss Juneteenth’ Release and the Urgency of Portraying Black Humanity on Screen

After premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut feature is hitting digital platforms this Juneteenth—the day for which the film is named and which is very close to the director’s heart. “I feel like I’ve been living Miss Juneteenth my whole life,” she says.
The June 19 holiday—which commemorates the day slavery was finally abolished in Texas (more than two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was issued)—is celebrated in her hometown of Fort Worth with a deep sense of reverence and community, with barbecues, a parade, and a scholarship pageant for young Black women.

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