Doing It All

By Nelson, Tim Blake | National Forum, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Doing It All


Nelson, Tim Blake, National Forum


The Sundance Labs and Festival

When I arrived at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in January of 1996, I had little understanding of the challenge in store for me as a writer/director. I certainly didn't imagine that just a year later I would be sitting at the Egyptian Theatre about to watch my first feature, Eye of God, developed at the Sundance Institute's Screenwriters and Directors Labs, in competition at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. I had not directed a frame of film in my life.

I began my career as an actor, but a restlessness - which took root while I was in college and grew during my four years of acting conservatory - compelled me to stop viewing acting as an exclusive pursuit. I started to write plays, and like many performers, I harbored the secret, naive desire to direct movies. Luckily for me, the opportunity came quickly in the person of my brother, Mike Nelson, a Hollywood line producer who saw my second play (Eye of God). He decided that it would make a powerful film, which I should have the opportunity to direct. When a second producer, Wendy Ettinger, was brought on, the two suggested that I pursue a place in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab immediately. Here's the first confession: we were barely concerned with what I might learn at the Lab, or how the script might change as a result. Like many, we pursued the Institute for the cachet of the Sundance name. This wasn't just baseness on our part. The Institute does little to define itself publicly, so initially the name conjures visions of the Festival, not of the tutelage which also goes under its banner. Once at Sundance, I found that many of my "Fellows," as the accepted are dubbed, came fueled with the same misdirected, but understandable, motives. It takes only a few hours of merciless and accurate criticism for this to wear off, and for you to realize you have stumbled into one of the greatest opportunities in your life as a creative person.

The Screenwriters Lab subjects the Fellow and his or her script to four days of 360-degree assault from professional screenwriters. Only one (sometimes extremely challenging) demand is made on the Fellow: that you listen. There are as many Advisors as there are scripts, and each critique comes from a different, unanticipated direction. As an example, Callie Khouri loomed on the penultimate day as my most feared Advisor. I had a huge amount of respect for her first script, Thelma and Louise, but I did not want to meet with this woman. I questioned her ability to be fair to a young male writer who'd written a female protagonist. I could hear the onslaught of "how dare you's" and "this doesn't ring true's," and I could feel them getting to me, because this woman's words would probably be accurate. I anticipated an evisceration that would not so much compel change as the pursuit of some other line of work. But in our meeting, she hardly mentioned this female character, shrugging off my incredulity with a "please, get over it." Instead, she gave me some of the most astute advice I received about my male lead character. Alice Arlen (Alamo Bay) learned of a death in her family minutes before our meeting, but insisted we confer as a distraction before she was picked up. She refused to get specific about the script, opting instead for some of the most lucid, and purely philosophical remarks about screenwriting I've ever heard.

Meetings with Advisors go on for the entire four days, and very little is repeated, partly because they confer each morning with one another and are careful not to flog you with what you might only need to hear once. They also often don't agree among themselves. This astonishing variety is the Lab's greatest strength, as it forces you, and not the Advisors, to decide in which direction you'll take your script. There are, given this multiplicity, the duds as well. One writer, whose credits did not include a single film I admired, nearly drowned me in idiocy. He criticized what to me were my script's strengths. …

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