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How I Got into Sundance

Sundance BadgeIn 2003, I was selected for the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. The Sundance Institute does not just put on a massive film festival every year; they have fabulous all-expenses-paid artistic development programs in film, poetry, theater, and more, and provide a kind of fertile creative soil which I never knew existed and might not have believed had I not been lucky enough (and believe me, it’s more luck than talent) to get planted in it. You’re housed for a week in the Sundance Village in Utah, surrounded by woodfire cabins, forested mountains, and Academy Award-winning screenwriters. The airfare is paid, the expenses are paid, and there are three grade-double-A buffet meals a day plus social events and—if you stick around a few days beyond the Lab—some free Film Festival tie-ins. There is no industry talk except around informal dinner tables, no producers, no worries, no focus on anything except the art and craft of screenwriting. Plus there’s a THX theater where you get to watch prior films by your fellow participants, and get sneak-preview 35mm screenings of films that are about to premiere at Sundance. It was among the very best and happiest weeks of my life.

How did it happen?

Still exhausted from the years of constant struggle to make Moving, the feature-length indie comedy movie my brother and I made (and he directed), I was sitting at the kitchen table, with very little to eat and little hope of affording the groceries to remedy it. I saw a teeny blurb in the celebrity section of the newspaper announcing something about “Seeking Screenplay Submissions” and very nearly threw it in the recycle pile in frustration.

Apparently I didn’t, because I went back to it later with a sigh and read the damned thing.

Apparently Robert DeNiro’s production company (which puts on the Tribeca Film Festival) was partnering with something called the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and was seeking screenplay submissions for a $60,000 writing-fellowship prize. The prerequisite? The screenplay had to portray a scientific theme, or scientists or engineers in prominent roles. Right up my alley. I am a science fanboy. I watch NOVA. I read science books. I got into UVA as a Physics major, and got a perfect score on my Chemistry AP exam. (I couldn’t even ace the English AP exam, and I’m a fracking writer.) Anyway, I figured a fledgling writer who loves science could write a better science screenplay than a great writer who hates it. So I thought to myself, standing there in the kitchen, dirt-poor after spending five years of my life writing and making a feature movie comedy I’d never get a dime from, “Why should some other schmuck get the $60,000 writing a crappy science screenplay when I can write one just as crappy?”

Why should some other schmuck get the $60,000 writing a crappy science screenplay when I can write one just as crappy?

So I started to pace and brainstorm. I needed to write something about a scientist, which was easy; I had plenty of ideas there, I just didn’t think anyone would actually give a shit! I needed to put a big role in there for Robert DeNiro, because then his production company would get excited about it. I remembered an article I read in The Atlantic a few months back about complexity theory and artificial societies, and knew what branch of science I was going to write about. It had to be something new, something exciting, which had implications for understanding the human condition, which would mean the screenplay would have them too. It had to be exciting so it stood out from other submissions, so I added a plot deadline (character X has to complete Y by date Z!!!) and a suicide attempt. It had to have touching human relationships, because independent film demands an emotional focus, so I added a father-son relationship fraught with conflict but rich with love. It needed some romance, because audiences won’t go see a science movie without it (think about it: Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind), so I added a girl. Initially it was going to have a science heroine, but once I discovered the father-son relationship was the center of the story, I needed to change it to a boy because I only had a month to write it and needed to stick with what I best understood.

ScreenplayNow it was time to write! I knew I’d have to be mobile, because the deadline was looming and I hadn’t started yet. I’d need to write wherever I found myself, whenever it struck me. So I charged a used laptop computer on a credit card, and got busy. I wrote in my room when I had a break from design work; I wrote in the car on the way to UVA football games; I wrote whenever I had spare minutes on duty at the rescue squad. Most importantly, I enlisted the help of my awesome writer friend Rob the Fantasy Scribbler, and we began what would turn into a long tradition known as the “Writer’s Retreat.” We retired to my dad’s little old house in the Charlottesville mountains; I worked on the screenplay, he worked on his novel Luthiel’s Song, and we critiqued each other’s work. We were a searing cauldron of productivity.

By the time I’d gotten to the second page, I realized that this was no longer a “contest entry” screenplay. In thinking about the story, in brainstorming and conversing with my brother and with Rob, I’d come to know the characters in a very short time, and come to love them. I wanted to save them from their fates, but knew I couldn’t; I cared too much about them to hurt them, but cared too much about the film I was writing to spare them. This had become an actual piece of my life. I wanted to make it great, and tried.

A month later, I was done. I called it “All of Creation” and submitted it to the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab. In my research into this Sloan Foundation fellowship, you see, I discovered that they funded groundbreaking scientific research, educational outreach, PBS and NPR programs, and honest depictions of science in film and other arts. Not only were they founding the Tribeca program that I saw being announced in the newspaper, they were also chartering a Sloan fellowship for the Sundance Institute, and so I figured I’d submit to them as well—couldn’t hurt. Their deadline was before Tribeca’s, so I had even less time to finish than I originally thought.

I printed it out, wrote a cover letter, and got it to them Next Day Air without a day left to spare. A month or so later my phone rang.

Fast-forward through a couple of heart-pounding phone calls and an informal interview (“Who are your favorite writers?” “What are you trying to say with your screenplay?”) to which I gave flustered seat-of-my-pants answers, and then a voice mail message saying, “please call us when you can; it’s good news.”

I’ve considered that message. I like suspense; I like a little dread of anticipation before announcing good news. If I were calling someone to tell them they’d been accepted to a once-in-a-lifetime fellowship program, I’d be like one of those asshole game show hosts who says he’ll tell the contestant what they’ve won… after these messages. It’s partly the showman in me and partly the passive-aggressive little shit who likes to see people squirm just a little before giving them great news. (You’re not like that? At all? So you’ve never gift-wrapped a present?)

But I only like a little squirming. Kind of like Howie Mandel on “Deal or No Deal.” I am not like those scumbags on “America’s Next XXX” shows who gleefully dangle dreams of grandeur before hard-working contestants before yanking them brutally away with the old “if we said to step forward, too bad, you’re going home” trick.

Sundance ReelsContrast that with the phone message I got from Sundance. That was the first real evidence I got that these people were not assholes, and that maybe all the cynical anti-Sundance backlash I was beginning to hear might in fact be misplaced. They went out of their way to not fuck with my head. Michelle and Lynn (who recently passed away) were considerate and from the beginning treated me like an artist who deserved respect. Not like a kid who needed to be banged down a few times to prove he had what it took to get up. Which, if you’re looking for a filmaking career, is the way nearly everybody else of any stature is going to treat you. They were kind, they listened, and they were serious.

The Synopsis

How did I get into Sundance?

  1. I wrote something I felt strongly about and tried to write it well. This meant taking hard criticism from friends whose opinions I valued. It also meant sacrificing a lot of personal time and emotional energy.
  2. I paid a lot of attention to getting the details right—from technical details like spacing and screenplay formatting (I highly recommend this amazing cheatsheet), to a thoughtful and well-written cover letter and application, to my spelling. Nothing screams “don’t read my screenplay” like a cover letter that looks like it was written by 1) a fourth-grader, 2) a teenager writing an all-lower-case email to her BFF, or 3) Kevin Federline.
  3. I wasn’t an asshole. (Note: from what I hear, this one can be faked.)
  4. Even though I didn’t know anything about Sundance and was pretty new to screenwriting to boot, I knew what I wanted to get from the film I was writing. I knew it was weak and was ready to work with people who could help me make it strong. I understood several of the problems the script already had, and knew what I wanted it to say to the audience. So when Michelle and Lynn asked me about both points, I had an answer. I was serious about the work, ready to do it, and perfectly willing and capable of enduring the vivisection I knew the screenplay would receive.

So the next thing I knew, armed only with the rough first draft of my first character-drama screenplay, I was on a plane to Utah, sitting down with Academy Award winning screenwriters, having one of the most emotionally and artisitically fufilling weeks of my life, then spending the next week trampling through the Sundance Festival just for fun.

Oh, and that $60,000 Tribeca prize that inspired me to start writing in the first place? I submitted to that too. It turns out that they awarded it not just to one favorite, but to their top three screenplays. Mine, according to an inside source, was merely in the “top five.” Goddammit!

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