Part 2: Clay Jeter and Charles Spano Dialogue

Charles Spano and Clay Jeter at the 2012 Screenwriters Lab. Photo by Fred Hayes.

Clay Jeter and Charles Spano, Screnwriters Lab Fellows

Clay Jeter and Charles Spano recently attended the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab in the mountains near Park City, Utah, with their project IO, a screenplay about a teenage girl surviving as one of the last humans on an abandoned planet Earth. Below is Part 2 in a blog series chronicling their experiences. Click here for Part 1 of their blog.


CHARLES: Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) confronts us with a lightning basic training on precision in writing. Stewart Stern is going to put us through a three-hour spontaneous prose writing exercise from the point of view of our antagonist and protagonist. This is far more daunting than script critiques.

CLAY: Stewart Stern wrote Rebel Without A Cause, The Ugly American, and Rachel Rachel. He talks about spending time with Marlon Brando in Manila, and he tells a great story about a kid there who spoke virtually no English but could quote the entirety of Rebel Without A Cause accent-free. Apparently, after he saw the film for the first time, he seized every chance he could to see it, always begging his parents to attend. But they never did, until the 29th time. They told Stewart that seeing this film together brought them closer as a family.

His writing workshop has been a staple at the Lab for years. It’s a “method” technique self-psycho-analysis kind of thing. We will be writing as fast as our pens can move without stopping. The idea is to write faster than our conscious minds can follow.We write until our hands are cramping, shake it out, and keep going for hours.

CHARLES: We are suffering for our art. Day Four definitely feels like boot camp, writer-style!

CLAY: We’ve got a bit of free time before dinner, so Charles and I take the chair-lift up to Ray’s Summit at 7,150 feet. We hop off and climb up to the peak for a 360 degree view of the valley and surrounding mountains. Before heading back down, we balance a couple of rocks on an existing cairn.


CHARLES: When it seemed we couldn’t find anyone kinder and more generous with their creativity than our previous Advisors, we sat down with Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam), who crystallized the essence of our story.

CLAY: The day before, one of Jessie’s closest friends passed away, and she was planning to leave that evening to be with the family. But she had resolved to channel her emotions into our project, which deals with loss. This becomes one of our most productive meetings of all. In a poetic turn of events, at the end of our final Advisor meeting, we discover the final image for our movie.

CHARLES: A perfect conclusion to our Advisor meetings!

CLAY: In the afternoon, we finally have a 2.5 hour free period. We take the opportunity to hike up to the impressive Stewart Falls. At the base of the falls, there isn’t much of a pool, so we scramble up to the next tier. Again, no pool, so it looks like we’re in for an icy shower instead of an icy plunge. At nearly 7,000 feet, where the snow above is not very far away, the water is freaking cold. Needless to say, other hikers are looking at us like we’re totally insane, and maybe we are. But we have to do it, and it’s worth it.

CHARLES: We came up with the story of IO while hiking (like five years worth of hiking), so it is fitting that we top off this week of creativity with a hike. As Herzog says, “walking is pure virtue.”

CLAY: It’s the last night. We all take shuttles up to an extravagant mountain chalet. In winter, this is definitely avalanche territory. After dinner on the deck, the incumbent Fellows set up a ping pong table in the main room. Apparently there’s a table at one of the Fellows’ houses, and they’ve been playing regularly. Team Ari & Mari are the undisputed champs, unbeatable for the past four weeks…

Until they are challenged by team Charles & Clay. We win the first game. They request 2 out of 3. Being gentlemen, we oblige. They win the second. Now we have everyone’s attention for the heated third game.

CHARLES: Clay and I are triumphant in doubles ping pong, overcoming previous unbeaten-on-the-mountain duo of Ari and Mari, two games to one.

CLAY: Later, as is customary at the Lab, all Fellows take turns tossing their scripts into the fireplace and taking long pulls of Mezcal from the bottle. Eventually, we reluctantly head back down the mountain. Charles has an early flight tomorrow, so he heads home. I don’t, so I go to the after-party at another house. More ping-pong, alcohol, and foosball leads to a luke-warm hot tub at 2:30am. Mari, Cutter, and I are the last to leave. We walk home together in the cool dark quiet.


CLAY: On the flight home, I had time to think about what had just happened to me… Before I went to the Lab, it seemed absurd that these Oscar and Pulitzer winning writers and directors would be reading and dissecting and pouring over this early draft of our clunky, amateur, terrible screenplay. It seemed I must not have a real understanding of what actually happens there. Now, after the Lab is over, looking back, it seems equally absurd that that’s exactly what happened there. The generosity of these accomplished writers, the emotional and intellectual investment from them in our project seems unfathomable. But the real trick, that I must attribute to Michelle and her amazing team via the atmosphere they manage to create, is how natural this all seems while the Lab is actually taking place.

When I imagine the writing process, I picture a sad lonely person isolated in a cabin somewhere, struggling with writer’s block, and eventually going completely insane. While actual writing during the Lab is discouraged for the most part, the experience there still serves to present an aspect of the writing process as a highly collaborative and communal endeavor. Before the Lab started, I was terrified of attending. I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony and promptly removed from the group. Instead, it soon became clear that everyone there, even the most accomplished of the Advisors, struggles with the writing process… every scene, every page. This realization served as a much needed source of confidence for me. Ultimately, as a Fellow, you come away with the impression that you’re not alone… and maybe even that you’re no more lost, inadequate, or ill-equipped at this writing thing than anyone else. Maybe I didn’t come away feeling like I was a better writer than I originally thought, but seeing that I wasn’t alone in my struggle left me with the sense that I belonged among the rest of them. My presence there wasn’t a mistake after all.

CHARLES: I think what we all felt as Fellows at the conclusion of the Lab was an overwhelming sense of gratitude in the face of immense generosity. Here is a group of Advisors and Staff who care about our little project making it to the screen. They care about our script not just being good, but great. They spent several hours each morning discussing all of our screenplays. That is nothing short of amazing. I haven’t been so excited about our script since the moment before we started writing the first draft!

In our final meeting with the entire group, one thing we heard again and again was what a “magical” experience, removed from the machinations of the “real world” the Lab was. Clay and I decided to take this as a call to action. We can continue the values of this Lab–to all be less selfish and guarded with our creative work, to expect more creativity from ourselves, and to give the same generosity that we were so lucky to receive. In the frenetic, ecstatic, devastating, subjective pursuit of writing and filmmaking – of any art – everyone just needs one person to believe in them, and that can make all the difference. Well at the Lab, we got more than just one – we got a whole room full of them. Maybe, in turn, we can each be that believer for someone else.

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