After Report: The Sundance Screenwriters Lab

I want to tell you what happened during the Lab. I do. I mean, certainly you can imagine some elements of it — we eat food, we sleep in rooms, we talk craft together, we break into meetings with advisors, we watch a flurry of films, we sacrifice goats and other noisy animals to Ancient Muses. It’s all to be expected.

But to tell you what happened?

Impossible.

Impossible in part because words cannot do it justice. How do you accurately describe magic? How can you plainly discuss the connection between people and the energy of the story? How do you put in words the truth of a miracle?

Impossible in part because it’s not fair to even try. It’d be unfair to [Choose Your Own Deity] to describe [That Deity] in the garbled, gutter-fed garbage tongue of the human language. Surely you know about that scientific principle that by examining an experiment you affect the experiment? Different but similar principle at work, now: by describing the experiment that is the Lab, you basically take a big effluent dump on the experiment that is the Lab and you steal some of its precious magic.

Put differently:

The First Rule of Screenwriter Club Is You Don’t Talk About Screenwriter Club.

So. Just know that it’s got all the magic and weirdness of a shamanic headtrip and that words will only muck it up. Just shut up and drink the tea, says the ayahuascadero.

Distilled down, our one advisor Erik Jendresen perhaps said it best (and I’m paraphrasing, perhaps): “It is a place of pure purpose and impeccable intent.”

That said, I can tell you some of the things I learned — or, at least, some of the things I think I learned since my brain is still combing through the sand and finding many gems — during this process. I’ll list these barking puppies in no particular order.

Ready?

Let’s do it.

Story Is King…

It’s clear that in “show business,” that term takes a special life. It’s often very much about the show, and very much about the business, but nowhere in there is this element of story. And so, often enough, story is lost.

And that’s sad. Story matters. Story is everything. It’s why we do this, it’s why we take ourselves and others on this journey: because we want to convey a story and through it evoke feeling and thought and other abstractions. Good stories are keenly experienced; bad or non-existent stories rest on the road like roadkill.

Every meeting was about getting to the essence of that story. Not that there exists only one way through to it: every advisor had his or her own way into the story, but no matter the path in, it’s a path you must carve yourself. What is it about? Why do you want to tell this? What is your purpose? What is the voice of the story? Story, story, story, story.

…And Characters Are Those Who Serve The King

I took that away from the process. Yes, story is everything, but something still has to shoulder that heavy burden, and the characters are the ones who do so. They are your voice. They are your puppets. They are the vehicle by which we take this journey. For our project, HiM, we did a great deal of work on the story world and the overarching story itself, but we clearly, plainly, obviously did not do enough work on the characters who operate in this story, who manifest the story for the audience. Sure, we’ve done a story bible, a game bible, we’ve done outlines and treatments and five drafts of the script…

But now? It’s time to do a character bible.

Nobody Tells Stories The Same Way

I come here to this blog and I give you Ways To Tell Stories. It may sound like I’m talking down to you — and, let’s be honest, I am, because I’m just a giant dickface. But let’s be clear: I’m only giving you a glimpse of the possibility, I’m only giving you a place to start — or, more specifically, a place to start asking questions.

One thing you learn is, there’s more than one way to tell a story. Or, put differently, there’s more than one way to sacrifice a bleating goat to the Ancient Muses. Hooked knife? Catgut cord? Hand grenade? “Skiing accident?” So many options!

Wait. Where was I?

Right. Stories.

The advisors are great, because they don’t agree with each other. And these are all accomplished creators, all people who respect one another’s work and craft. One approaches the problem with a hammer, the other with a wrench. One advisor doesn’t necessarily know what the story’s “about” at first, while another advisor must know the answer to that question before approaching the first blank page. This is true of beginning the story, of finishing the story, of rewriting the story. But, but, but…

But You Still Need To Constantly Revisit The Process

The advisors still examine the fundamentals. They don’t reject any one thing out of hand. They’re still keenly aware of the craft and the process and its many moving parts. A lot of writers will make a decision about telling a story by ignoring those many moving parts, those fundamentals, and that’s a way into disaster.

These people have made choices as to how to tell their stories, but these choices are made intelligently, with all aspects understood — further, they recognize that the process changes and shifts and may become a whole other thing when the next project comes along. What’s good for the goose is not always what’s good for the gander, but they damn sure still know what a “goose” and “gander” are, and they know all the things one can possibly know about those animals.

Yes, one may choose to begin the story by first understanding the characters, while another may begin the story by first understanding one of the story’s greater concepts (“What’s It About?”), but these are conscious, informed choices. They know character. They know dialogue. They aren’t ignorant of the choices, of the constituent parts.

They have become masters of the craft by mastering each element.

Only then do you have the tools in your toolbox from which to pick and choose.

Criticism Is Best When It Is A Conversation

I expected the criticism to be hard. Even though I intuitively understood some of the areas that weakened our script, I knew there’d be other criticisms, and further, criticism is really never easy to hear.

Except…

At the Lab, it was easy to hear.

It took me a little while to figure out why that was.

First, it’s because we engaged in the critical process as a conversation. We sat with one advisor at a time, and they didn’t begin rattling off issues — we began a conversation about… well, who knows? Sometimes about the project. Sometimes about something related, or something unrelated. It was never a lesson plan, it was never a pedantic or pegagogic experience. They treated it like a conversation between peers, between storytellers. Yes, implicit in that is how one party is more experienced than the other, and thus it was about engaging and transferring wisdom more than it was “telling” or “teaching.” As such, the critical elements came out naturally — it drew it out of the work and out of our own mouths rather than as something “delivered from on high.” Their job was to help us tell the story we want to tell. Further, their job was to facilitate on our own the understanding of the frailties of the work.

Second, criticism is easier in person. Reading something has no context, no emotion. Sometimes, that’s necessary — but here you have aspects of body language and laughter and periods of thought glimpsed through furrowed brow. Text on a page is cold. A conversation is warm. Text is passive. A conversation is active. You learn more through conversation. Compare it to being handed a picture of a forest, or being able to walk through the same forest. One will do it some justice, but the other is a fuller, richer experience. You find things you don’t expect. You kick over logs. You find what lies beneath and what takes wing above.

Third, the advisors were clearly willing to learn about us and the project rather than just approaching it straightaway. That give-and-take really matters, and it helps to draw out the problems in the script the same way you might milk a snake of its venom. (And “milk a snake of its venom” is not a euphemism for masturbation, unless you really, really need it to be. I leave it in your capable hands. Erm. Yeah. Shut up.)

The criticism was not hard to hear.

It was challenging, yes.

“Challenging” not as a synonym for “difficult,” but as an expression of, “I’d like to challenge you on this point, and I’d further like you to challenge yourselves.”

Sometimes, You Need The “Pause” Button

As a freelancer, it’s always go, go, go. It has to be. You need to eat. You need to get work. You need to ABW: Always Be Writing (put that coffee down, coffee is for penmonkeys only).

You don’t ever really slow down or stop.

And that’s a bad thing. Especially for big projects, projects of personal paramount importance. The Lab offered us that opportunity. It offered us the chance to exile ourselves from all the bullshit, to extract the signal from the noise just by dint of taking the time to really listen for it.

It’s womblike.

It’s a safe haven.

It’s a place to hit “pause” and do nothing but eat, drink, sleep and shit your story. (Okay, yeah, “shit your story” sounds a little egregious. But, fuck it, it’s right on. You can’t take in the story and process it without somehow purging it back into the world, and that’s what I’m talking about. Unless you’d prefer “vomit your story,” but I don’t think that’s a helluva lot better.) Really — that’s the process, that’s the trick. We took five days and lived with our work. We lived with the things we love about it, and we lived with the things we didn’t like, and through that, we gained focus, clarity, energy, and even frustration. But frustration is good. The bees stir, and when they do, you know you’ve done the right thing. Sometimes, you have to kick over the hive and live with the consequences of that.

Writing Is Rewriting Is Rewriting Is Rewriting

Writing is the easy part.

Everything else is rewriting.

You better learn to love that.

You speak to these master storytellers, these professionals, and the one thing you talk about most is how the story lives in the rewrite. We’re talking about people who have written classic films and stories — Out of Sight, The Fisher King, Band of Brothers, Cronicas, Menace 2 Society – a whole goddamn insurmountable hill of brilliance that I’m barely cresting.

And those stories were all born in rewrites. Sometimes drastic rewrites. The process of how The Fisher King came to be is one where the script changed in dramatic ways, pinballing here and there until it arrived at the great film it became (a film that could not be made today, mind). You talk to these writers, and it’s five, ten, twenty full drafts — not “I wrote two, and then stopped.”

Now, what’s funny is, I might take back that aforementioned nugget: “Writing is the easy part.” I don’t know that it is. Writing that first time is a place of unending potential, and thus, of limitless fear and uncertainty. But rewriting is just an arrangement of those elements you worked so hard to put in play.

I’m starting to wonder that if, for me, rewriting is now the easy part.

Because, I gotta tell you, after this whole process? I am fucking geeked to rewrite this script with Lance.

Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

This is just the beginning. I haven’t even begun to process all the little miracles that glommed together to form the Screenwriters Lab. I have a notebook full of possibility (thanks to Rob Donoghue), but that notebook does not comprise the total animal. I’m the blind man feeling the contours of the elephant. Right now, I’ve just got the trunk, the eye, the tail, or some other unfortunate part that we won’t talk about lest the elephant get a good lawyer and sue me for sexual harassment.

I could write you a thousand thoughts about the last five days, and I’d still have only grasped a part of the elephant.

What I do know is this:

The process feels unrepeatable. It feels as precious as a lightning strike.

It isn’t.

I know it isn’t, because they do this year after year, and they bottle that lightning every goddamn time. Hell, a number of our advisors were once fellows going through the program like us. It works. It works again and again.

And that’s one thing I take away from this.

Future projects need to experience a process like this.

You need to hit “pause” and get inside the skin and bones of your story.

And you shouldn’t do it alone.

I think we all need to find a collective of writers. Not just virtually — obviously, a number of you are gifted creators and friends at the same time, but the virtual space is good for only so much.

I wonder if that’s a step that could be taken: a once a year thing, a thing out there in the real world in a place of exile, a safe haven to embrace story and the creation of it.

Every project I have, I want to put through these paces.

I told a story the last night we were there that I think best exemplifies my experience –

When I was a kid, I saw a bird in a field. I thought something was wrong with it. It looked sick. I went to the bird intending to pick it up, sure of what I was seeing, and then my hands found nothing but a gray rock sitting in the dirt and grass.

Later, they gave me glasses, and the world came into focus. “You just needed spectacles, dumb-ass.” Oh.

That’s how I feel about this. With our project, we just needed a pair of eyeglasses. A way to focus. A way to find clarity.

We were so sure that our project was a bird, and really, it was just a rock.

It’s time to make this motherfucker fly.

(Don’t think I’m done talking about this process, either. I’ve got a billionty more thoughts on the subject. I want to work through it, to constantly hold it up to the light and see what it is. Further, I’ve got to pimp the great people I met, from the advisors to the fellows — I was honored to be in refined company and rarefied air. Lance’s 2-year-old son said a great thing about his father: “Daddy’s going to Sundance to dance with the big kids.” That’s a beautiful thing, and is wisdom from the mouth of innocence. I feel like I got a chance to dance with the big kids, and what a dance it was. Lance will also be putting up his thoughts over at Filmmaker magazine, so I’ll link to those elements when they appear.)

21 comments

    • No friction at all — Story is Story. Genre trappings can be used to enhance that, or detract from that. The goal is, no matter the project, to have a good story with good characters, whether they live in downtown Los Angeles, or downtown Moonopolis (next to the Werewolf Hut).

      — c.

  • Fantastic. What an amazing experience to be able to be in a group like that and LEARN. Really learn some shit.

    Most of my gang is leaving today (or left yesterday) to get up there for their films. If you can, check out “Lovers of Hate” and “My Mom Smokes Weed.” One is really amazing storytelling and the other is really hilarious story telling.

    Love these posts, C.

  • What a great experience. I’m jealous, but so thrilled for you. I do believe that the best criticism is a conversation….and that you need a group of people you trust to help shed light on the weaknesses and the strengths. Their ideas might not be the ones that fix the problems, but the conversation is the important part….once the conversation starts, the brain continues to look for new and better ways to tell the story. That’s where the magic happens.

    Thanks for the rundown. I’ve been dying to hear how it went!

  • Awesome, man.

    Chuck, can you write a bit about how you got into the Sundance Lab in the first place? (or have you already, and I missed it?), and any advice for those of us who might wish to try to dance the dance ourselves?

    Also wonder about the notion of the “collective of writers.” I’m often trying to find people locally (and may have just done so again) but I also wonder about a “mini-[TerribleMinds]” convention where a half dozen/dozen friends get together for a weekend…somewhere isolated but stocked with good food & liquor…with a plan to help each other work through some of these projects.

    • Joelle: Indeed, it really is the conversation. It provokes so much.

      Jesse: Sure, I can speak to that. Our producers suggested we submit, given that we have a unique project with special underpinnings (the transmedia side), and the Lab had never put through a project like that before. It’s an open submission, and we went with it, and heard in December that we were chosen. Well, it was a bit more than that — the Lab met with Lance a few times out in LA/NYC to discuss the project first, which I assume they do with every potential candidate. I know they get several thousand scripts, and they pick 12.

      The collective is a really interesting thing. I’d love to do that, and find a way to make that happen in both physical and virtual space.

      — c.

  • Badass, Chuck. You almost lost ten points for calling it indescribable, but then you made a zillion points by describing it.

    It’s interesting to me, though, to see your language shift toward the reverent and almost spiritual — where once you were blind, now you see birds is rocks — when ordinarily you’re so workmanlike. How much do you think part of the value in this sort of conversation comes from the glorification of the process (not the over-glorification) in time with demystification?

    I ask, because it sounds like you’ve had some mystique put back onto the process by this, in a good way.

    • I think there’s always mystique in the process — the act of creation is a very weird and fundamental thing. The mystique in the Lab, though, really comes from the way people deal with one another, and the way they think of Story.

      Someone actually in the lab staff said it best, and I’m paraphrasing:

      The art is in choosing the story you want to tell, but the craft is in the telling of it.

      So, for as mysterious as the Lab itself is, I still come away with a very workmanlike attitude, because these people see themselves as crafters above artists. The art is in choosing the tools, but you still have to know how to use them. You still have to master the craft. The fact that so much of this is spent on rewrites, and how to work through them, gave me greater clarify on that.

      The mystique is really in the understanding of the process, and our place in it. The work is still the work, at the end of the day.

      If that makes sense?

      — c.

  • It looks like you came away from this with some fantastic tips, encouragement and criticism that’s going to make your script even more awesome than it probably already was.

    I love this look at the process, and it’s something I’ll be keeping in mind as my own moves forward.

  • Next week I’m heading to my first writing retreat ever. Four days outside Burlington, VT to dance with the big kids (newberry winners and national book award people and big time publishing pros). I’m a little nervous. Your words here are a big help. Thanks.

    • Paul:

      That is awesome. I think you will be really engaged by that process.

      Further, I found it amazing how unintimidated I was once the process began; the advisors here were all very accepting and embraced us as peers, and the conversational aspect of it really squashed the tension.

      Good luck with it! You need to give us a full report.

      — c.

  • A) Dude. Awesome.

    B) Conventions are awesome, and they can get some of this, but they’re business. I sometimes wonder at non-conventions, just vacation weekends to the same hotel. Do it in the off season, maybe at a less-fancy place, and it’s not even terribly pricey. Just enough of a step outside of home to make it more than “having a friend over” but not so much as to make it into a public event demanding the game face.

    C) My nerdy heart is intensely curious to know which notebook ended up getting used!

    D) Dude. Awesome.

    -Rob D.

    • Rob:

      The notebook is the little red one — Writersblok or some such? It was handy; fit in a pocket, no heft or burden, totally portable. My writing doesn’t do well with lines, so the fact it has a light dot-grid pattern made it awesomer.

      Conventions are good, but they’re really about business. “Business” was largely anathema at the Lab. There remains an implicit understanding that business is there, it exists, it’s unavoidable — but for purposes of understanding craft, business is a different axis. It was largely about the love of the process, then. Which is critical, I think. Again, it’s not that business is a bad word, but business is The Thing you think about the rest of the time. This omphalos needed no such conversation, then.

      — c.

  • At first all I can muster is “Thanky!”

    You are a $100 dollar bill in a jeans pocket after going 2 days without food, sir.

    I am very happy you had such a great experience, but kind of because I got so much out of it. Thank you for sharing.

    You would have to chain me in the basement with Mr. Carlson and a crippled cat to not like you any more.

  • Sounds totally AWESOME!

    And like you got a lot out of it. Sweet! And yes stories need characters. Without characters you can’t get that person to person commitment from the audience.

    Will be interesting what you do with all this. Woot!

  • Hi Chuck,

    Great post! Glad it was such a magical experience and that you were kind enough to share it. Quick question my screenplay made it to the 2nd round, and in addition to submitting the full script I have the option of submitting a director sample. I have a director, but would like to know if the director also attends the lab with you if you get in, or if you go alone.

    Thanks!

  • Thanks much for sharing! I also just got shortlisted to the second round – Wondering if you may be able to offer any advice on how to best prepare the script before sending it off – i have only 2 weeks and am in overtime mode in terms of revising, of course it’s not much time but i’m doing my best to get it to it’s strongest state possible! Would love any advice!

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds