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Labs foster fresh helmers and scribes

Hartsfield, Hubley, Jacobson, July, Mahlatsi mix pic potions in lab

Outside the festival, a major area of concentration for the Sundance Institute is its filmmaker labs. The Institute plucks projects early on to support and develop, holding filmmakers’ hands as they write, rewrite, submit, cast and seek funding.

In 2003, eight writer-directors participated in the June filmmaking lab, and an additional four scribes joined them for the screenwriting lab. (There’s another screenwriting lab held each January before the festival.) Mentors who helped them hone their projects included thesps Sally Field and Stanley Tucci, and filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Peter Hedges.

“The process is pretty rigorous,” says Michelle Satter, the Institute’s feature film program director, of admissions. “We’re looking for a film we haven’t seen before and want to see, and a fresh voice and story.”

Among the fest’s 2004 lineup, a number of films came out of Sundance’s Screenwriting and/or Filmmaking Labs, such as Josh Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace,” Enid Zentelis’ “Evergreen” and Debra Granik’s “Down to the Bone.”

At the right is a snapshot look at a few of the fresh voices from the June 2003 Sundance Labs..

Caran Hartsfield
Backstory: After making a couple of award-winning shorts, the 32-year-old recent NYU film school grad developed her feature screenplay “Bury Me Standing” with help from Cinefoundation residency in Paris. Script won awards, including the IFP’s Gordon Parks Screenplay Award and the Richard Vague NYU Alumni Screenwriting Award (worth $100,000 in production funds).
Project: “Bury Me Standing” is a comedic drama about five members of a family dealing with a young relative’s sudden death. “My cousin was killed a couple of years ago,” Hartsfield says. “Writing the script was essentially therapy for me.” The writer-director recently started to circulate the script to potential producers.
Lab lessons: “Different advisers have different styles, like different karate masters. One adviser, Tom Rickman, would ask you really hard questions about the core of your characters, things I just hadn’t thought of yet, that are so obvious, you’re like, ‘Oh, of course.’ Tyger Williams had this incredible way of making you feel like he walked around in your world, like it exists. He made it a much more tangible thing. Steve (Gaghan) was really good at calling you on your bullshit: ‘This is great, this is great, I don’t believe this.’ Then you have those people who just give you structure.”

Emily Hubley
Backstory: Forty-five-year-old New York native has been making animated movies since 1980 and created animated sequences for such films as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Blue Vinyl.”
Project: “The Toe Tactic” combines animation and live action to tell the story of a 25-year-old woman grieving for her dead father. When she visits her childhood home, she wakes a pack of animated underground dogs who start messing with her life. “They swap her objects around in the world to bring her in contact with similarly lost strangers,” Hubley explains. “The woman sees things taking place in a symbolic or playful way that may not be apparent to other people. The animation creates a heightened reality or magical realism that allows us to see her feelings.”
Lab lessons: “They had these great lunch meetings and I had one with Denis Lenoir, the cinematographer. Once he started talking to me about cinema as painting and framing the picture and selecting the images, I broke through,” Hubley recalls. “It was a great moment. It provided a way for me to filter my creativity into the live action medium by thinking in terms of still images and painting. When I draw, all my knowledge is in my hand. By getting away from the pressures of directing and sitting down to draw, I can figure it out. It’s a way for me to find my vision.”

David Jacobson
Backstory: L.A. native is a 41-year-old docu filmmaker, whose first narrative feature, “Criminal,” screened at Berlin and Toronto. His second film, “Dahmer,” was released theatrically in 2002 and nommed for several Indie Spirit awards.
Project: “Down in the Valley” is a neo-Western that takes place in the San Fernando Valley. Pic has interest from high-level talent, says Jacobson, who has sent it out to producers.
Lab lessons: “There were six different mentors and six completely different opinions,” Jacobson says. “You get very strong feedback. One of the mentors was Stuart Stern, who wrote ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ I was so in awe of him that it was hard to talk to him, but then he gave me this idea for my script that I was totally against at the time. He wanted me to see the script in a whole new way. Now, four or five drafts later, I’ve basically done what he said.”

Miranda July
Backstory: Twenty-nine-year-old performance and video artist’s works have screened at MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Rotterdam Film Festival. Creative endeavors include radio pieces for NPR; short stories published in the Paris Review and the Harvard Review; and Joanie 4 Jackie, a film distribution network she founded for femme indie filmmakers.
Project: July describes her screenplay “Me and You and Everyone We Know” as “a story about children and adults trying to figure out how to touch each other in every sense — both physical and emotional, both sexual and not sexual. It mixes tragedy and humor,” she says. “Sundance put on a reading of it, and there were all these different kinds of people laughing harder than I probably ever would.” With a producer and casting director in place, July is moving into pre-production.
Lab lessons: “I had some advisers who are still really key to making the project happen — Mary Kay Place, Michael Hoffman, Ed Harris, Miguel Arteta — and one thing they all had in common was they all thought I already knew how to make this movie. I just needed to know that myself,” she says. “That’s the thing I keep reminding myself: I’ve been making art that I like for a long time. Just because (film is) a billion-dollar industry doesn’t change the fact that I know what I’m doing.”

Teboho Mahlatsi
Backstory: Thirty-one-year-old filmmaker of two award-winning South African TV series and 1999 short “Portrait of a Young Man Drowning,” which won Venice’s Silver Lion.
Project: “Scar” is about a rising star of the South African rap (Kwaito) scene. Mahlatsi is finishing the script and plans to begin shooting next year. “I want to do it very low-budget,” Mahlatsi says, “very rough, really capture the rawness of township life in South Africa, like what ‘City of God’ did for Brazil or ‘The Harder They Come’ did for Jamaica.”
Lab lessons: “I’d just finished directing a season of a TV show about high school kids before I went to Sundance, and there was a lot of emphasis on style,” Mahlatsi says. “At Sundance, I rediscovered the method of really working with actors. I realized it’s not just about how clever you can be with the camera, but it’s also about the connection you have with the actors. When I came back to do the third season of the show, I used a lot of that experience. That’s what I’ll be putting back into ‘Scar.’ “

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