The Feature Film Program ended last year on a high note, producing installments of our Screenplay Reading Series of Works in Progress on both coasts. In November in Los Angeles, we featured Carson Mell’s Ajax, an existential comedy set in outer space, with a cast including Mark Duplass, Gil Bellows, Vinessa Shaw, and Brandon Maggart.
In December in New York, it was Keith Davis’s The American People, with a cast including Tonya Pinkins, Curtis McClarin, Charles Turner, Venida Evans, Dante Clark, JaQwan Kelly, Brandon Gill, Yvette Ganier, Adepero Oduye, Marisol Sacramento, and Bruce Faulk. In both cases, the Sundance Institute community came together to celebrate these vibrant and exciting new voices as they continue to develop their debut features.
With the perspective offered by the dawn of a new year, we asked Carson and Keith to share their perspectives on the experience.
Carson Mell, writer/director of Ajax (2011 Screenwriters Lab)
Sometimes I think the main job of a writer is manufacturing enthusiasm for whatever they're working on. And when you spend a year or longer working on a feature script, the more and more challenging this gets. Things that once seeme fresh and spontaneous start to feel belabored, and once you've re-read jokes a hundred or more times, there's no way you're going to find any humor in them. One of the best things that came from having my script performed before a live audience with professional actors, was that it made me enthusiastic about the work again, and wanting more than ever before to see it manifested as a completed film. Also, seeing dialogue spoken aloud, the flaws in it became glaring. The same is true for the asides, anything extraneous popped right out, and it became very easy to get rid of anything that felt redundant or over-described. Working with Sundance Institute on casting also provided some insight to what casting for the actual feature will be like, and made it more clear exactly what types of personality traits each actor should have to really make each of the film's characters complete.
Throughout the whole process of working on my script with the Institute, it has become more and more clear to me what the function of the scenes and sequences in my movie are, and how I can write the most direct, entertaining script possible.
Keith Davis, writer/director of The American People (2011 Directors and Screenwriters Labs)
Somewhere they say theater is an actor's medium. I agree. They also say film is a director's medium… agreed again. But what can you say about a theatrical reading of a screenplay?
It's a little bit of both but not enough of either, right?
After a reading of my feature The American People at the 52nd Street Project (a wonderful space), I think I found an answer...
After not having slept for twenty-four hours (I was trimming), I worried how helpful I’d be as the director. I was tired. I'd done what I could. Entertaining and moving the audience was up to the actors.
And here's where I remembered a wonderful thing: It's always about the characters (i.e. the actors). Always.
Now, I helped, sort of. I slashed description in the first 30 pages. We rehearsed a bit. But that's it. After the lights dimmed, it was on them.
I realized reading my precious screen descriptions was really just about pushing the action forward. It's what the actors/characters did from moment-to-moment that became the heart of it.
They lifted the writing off the page and made it live. They became the characters: They talked to each other; gave each other their eyes; were honest and opened up emotionally (with tears even) when the characters required it.
It was a good night. I heard the film in a new way. Specifically, the thematic and visual elements in the film are really just an outgrowth of the ups and downs of the characters. What they want and what happens to them as a result of pursuing those wants is the real heartbeat of the story. Going forward the script will reflect and express this even more.