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23 Dec 2021

Sundance Collab and Other 2021 Film Studies

In 2021, I took a ton of writing and film related courses, mostly (10 of them!) through the Sundance Institute’s amazing Collab program.

Screenwriting: Core Elements // Ron Stacker Thompson // Jan 2021

Before this class, I definitely had an aversion to structure – “3 acts, what?”

But I also landed in this class in a place where I had some interesting characters and a premise, and I could write scenes that interested me, but they didn’t seem to go anywhere.

In this class, I gained an appreciation for structure – outlining, beat sheets, tentpoles – tools to help you find a narrative arc that doesn’t drag.

The set of tentpoles we used in this class were:

ACT I

1. opening images
2. inciting incident / catalyst
3. status quo
4. dilemma
5. turn to act ii

ACT II

6. midpoint
7. end of act ii / low point

ACT III

8. hardest choice / rise back up
9. climax / showdown (delivers on the PROMISE of the story)
10. resolution / denouement

Not dissimilar to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet:

1. Opening Image
2. Set-Up
3. Theme Stated
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two)
7. B Story
8. Fun & Games / The Promise of the Premise
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three)
14. Finale
15. Final Image

The other important takeaway from this class was a way to think about the beats and arc, via my advisor Antonio Macia.

He recommended finding the emotional arc / beats at the outline phase.

I thought I understood this during class, but I now think I didn’t fully understand this until about 6 months and a few revisions of my screenplay later. Framing as an emotional arc rather than a story arc helps activate the protagonist (vs throwing obstacles at them).

Writing Workshop with Alex Johnson // Mar 2021

My friend Craig invited me to this weekly workshop led by Alex Johnson. It began in March and went throughout the year. It was mostly a writing workshop, but some unique things that made it cool:

(1) It was multidisciplinary – people were writing different things. Screenplays, poetry, personal essays, TV pilots, stage plays, career advice books, a manual for a new ritual based on locust brood X…

(2) We did some table reads of the material vs just delivering notes on the material. This was a ton of fun.

Screenwriting: Writing Your First Act // Deborah Goodwin // Apr 2021

The first of a 3-part series with Deborah Goodwin, an amazing instructor I learned a TON from over the course of the year.

The big takeaway from this class – that again took me most of the year to really learn:

CHARACTER drives EVERYTHING.

Sort of a riff on McKee’s “structure is character; character is structure” from Story.

Other takeaways:

Screenwriting: Crafting Your Short Film // Sushma Khadepaun // Apr 2021

The big takeaway from this class was how to think about what kind of story makes for a short film – it’s not just the length of the story.

Basically, a short looks at a character:

Lise Raven was my advisor for this class, and she was fantastic. I came out of the class (as a result of her feedback on a few revisions) with a script for a short film I plan to shoot next year.

Screenwriting: Writing Your Second Act // Deborah Goodwin // Jun 2021

Big takeaway:

A great way to think about a film is as an interrogation of a central dramatic question.

Every scene and sequence should seek the answer to this question.

And the answer is basically your premise.

The other (prolly bigger) takeaway was the “sequence approach” to outlining / structure. (Paul Gulino wrote a book about this, but I’m not sure he came up with it).

What I love about the “sequence approach” beats is they are all framed in terms of the key moments / dilemmas / decisions / transitions for the main protagonist (vs. Save the Cat beats like “fun and games” / “b story” – what are these beats?).

If instead of thinking about obstacles, you think about the decisions for the protagonist, you activate them, and give external form to their internal struggle.

These beats are CHARACTER-centric:

1. Hook (1-3) grabs your readers.
2. Mini-Event (10) holds their attention.
3. Inciting Incident (17) disrupts the status quo; it’s the catalyst that starts the main dramatic action.
4. Point-of-No-Return (30) is just that: an Act 1 break from which there’s no turning back for protag.
5. Step-Up (45) is a moment in which protag takes a significant step toward dealing w/problem.
6. Midpoint Pivot (60) is a major turning-point in which the protag makes a decision to take charge of the problem.
7. False Ending (75) can be thought of as “The quiet before the storm,” or as a moment in which fortune seems to turn in protag’s favor before misfortune strikes in The Big Gloom.
8. Big Gloom (90) is the Act 2 climax. Generally, it’s a moment in which your protag hits a new low prior to rebounding in Act 3. More importantly, it should be a moment in which the Main Tension or Dramatic Question of the story has been answered, setting up a New Tension for Act 3.
9. Resolution 1 (105) resolves one significant tension of your story.
10. Resolution 2 (120) is the final resolution of your story.

sequence approach notecards

Finally, I need to give a shout out to my advisor for this class, Harrison James – she was absolutely fantastic, not only at giving really insightful and precise notes on our drafts, but also at fostering a really safe and intimate space for our “pod” of writers.

Directing: Core Elements // Rebecca Murga // Jun 2021

Rebecca Murga was an amazing teacher, and this directing 101 was probably one of the most valuable courses I took this year.

Not that the writing classes were not valuable – I learned a ton about screenwriting in them, but I at least I went into them knowing something about writing broadly. Directing on the other hand was a sort of black box to me.

My absolute favorite tidbit from Rebecca was this:

Change into a fresh pair of socks during lunch when you’re shooting – you’ll feel like a brand new person.

As a lover of fresh socks, I really appreciated this gem ;)

The other awesome thing about this class (that I didn’t fully process going into the class, tbh) was our final project.

Everyone received a generic 1.5pp script and had to:

This was the first time I worked with professional actors, did a casting call via backstage.com, ran auditions (virtually), ran a rehearsal, and shot with professional actors.

Doing all of this on a really short timeline was pretty daunting, so I chose to focus on the emotional depth of the performances (and working with the actors), at the expense of going deep on things like production design, lighting, fancy camera movement, and other more technical things.

I think this ended up being the right call – I learned a TON from the exercise (and I think working with the actors actually made me a better writer, as a bonus).

One of the recommended reading books for this class was Judith Weston’s Directing Actors, and I have to say this book was indispensible to giving me the confidence to work with professional actors.

It was amazing to see the diversity of the short films created by our class, given that everyone started with exactly the same 1.5pp script.

Asher Jelinksy, my TA for this course (as well as several others I took later in the year), gave feedback on the editing and cinematography of my final project for this course (and we got to watch the feedback sessions on all of our classmates’ projects, too). I learned a ton from these feedback sessions. (Also, worth checking out Asher’s awesome short film Miller & Son.

Screenwriting: Crafting Your Comedy Feature // Lindsay Stidham // Jul 2021

This class was very similar to the Screenwriting Core Elements class I did at the beginning of the year, but it was an opportune time to go back to basics for me.

Going into it, I had written a 90pp vomit draft for my screenplay and a 150pp follow-up draft. I knew I needed to do a big structural rewrite, tighten a bunch of sprawl, and zero in on the emotional arcs for the protagonists.

So it was a great time to have some deadlines for beat sheets / outlines.

And my advisor for this class was absolutely amazing – Jennifer Sharp. She shared some of her work with the class, that was inspirational in the way that watching Burden of Dreams is inspirational – it really energizes me to watch someone who will do whatever it takes to make their project happen. Her feature Una Great Movie and accompanying documentary The Chasing of a Great Movie are forthcoming, but her youtube channel gives a sense of how epic her work is.

Also, she had a killer tip for the beat sheets – think of an IMAGE for each key beat of the story. (This is surprisingly easy not to do, especially when framing beats as the emotional arc of the protagonist.)

Learning Cinematography: 1 Narrative Fundamentals // Bill Dill // Aug 2021

I had some downtime between Sundance courses at the end of summer, so I did this class to dig into some of the more technical / visual elements that I did not focus on as much myself in the Directing Core Elements Class.

Directing Actors Workshop // Harrison James // Sep 2021

I mentioned above Harri was my advisor for some writing classes – and she was the main instructor for this awesome class.

My key takeaway:

NEVER JUDGE the character; instead JUSTIFY their wants, needs, and behavior with backstory.

Harri’s tips on what to bring (eg the exquisite quality of your childhood self) and what not to bring (eg guilt, shame, imposter syndrome) onto set were all PURE GOLD.

Another gem: you will crash and burn, because this is unavoidable if you are being creative. Know this and just keep pushing forward.

You get the vibe of this – very inspiring.

The structure of the course was great – in our breakouts, there were professional actors, and each of us had to prepare rehearsal exercises for a Sam Shepard play, take the actors through them, and then solicit the feedback from the actors.

We came out of this with tons of great rehearsal strategies.

This was another class where even though it was focused on directing and working with actors, I also learned a ton about writing.

Film Producing Core Elements // Summer Shelton // Sep 2021

Going into this course, I did not have a great sense of what a “producer” – or rather “the producer,” cause there are a lot of meanings of this, but usually there is one main producer – for a film does.

My understanding is now that “the producer” is kind of like the CEO of the film. They are on the hook for making sure the film gets made, at high quality, on a budget.

They do a bunch of the fundraising, pitching, legal paper work, they are the employer of record, the person people go to when they are having issues on set, etc.

Basically this course (1) gave me a deep respect for all the work a producer does and (2) helped me understand that this is not a hat I want to wear.

One of the great exercises for this course was to practicing pitching a project, which I had kind of been avoiding up to this point because I felt I still was far off from nailing down all the details of the story for the feature I was working on, but going through it kind of made me wish I had been pitching my story even before I was outlining and writing it. My TA, Ramfis Myrthil, gave me a bunch of great feedback on making my pitch more compelling (and he was really generous with his time and advice about next steps for getting stuff made, where to find collaborators, etc).

Directing Visual Storytelling // Bill Dill // Oct 2021

This was kind of like a cinematography 101 that covered things like composition, color, lenses, camera movement, lighting, etc.

My key takeaway was this idea of what is the story of a film? Particularly given that many screenplays go under many many (10 or more is not uncommon) where the events in the story change, but the story is consistent. As an example, the story of The Godfather is something like, “family is the ultimate value, and if you lose that, you lose everything.”

The assignments for this class were great – we had to make a visual lookbook for our project (I learned a ton from seeing the lookbooks of classmates), and we also had a lot of still photography assignments that just got me observing the world in a different way.

The other awesome lesson from this class was about the “final pre-production meeting,” where you block out an entire day for the heads of all departments to meet, and read through the entire script. It’s the venue where everyone commits to the feasibility of shooting every shot in the script, and you flag potential issues and schedule sidebar / follow-up meetings to talk through any details that still need to be figured out. It is basically the most important meeting, critical to ensuring the successful technical execution of the project.

I got a bunch of great feedback on my visual lookbook from my TA for this course, Asher Jelinksy.

Screenwriting: Writing Your Third Act // Deborah Goodwin // Oct 2021

My key takeaway in this class was:

Prioritize the emotional truth over the historical or logical truth of the story.

Why I think this makes sense for a story is because as the author, you set the rules of the world and can bend them to the emotional truth of the characters.

So you can reverse engineer everything – the causal logic, the rules of the world – to most effectively convey the epiphany of the protagonist or deliver the premise of the story.

Other tidbits:

Something I realized in this class, thinking about the emotional high points / lines in some of my favorite movies – they are often pretty “on the nose.” For example, in Kill Bill 2: “Because I’m a bad person / You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favorite person.” In Boyhood, “I just thought there would be more.” Harry’s mom’s speech in Requiem for a Dream. All of these moments that bring a tear to my eye are totally on the nose lines, but what makes them payoff is every moment in the story before them that sets them up – that “earns” them.

Another gem – when you are struggling to write, BEGIN THE DAY DETERMINED TO DO JUST ONE THING

And end with GRATITUDE for doing that one thing.

Other Noteworthy Film Learnings

Paul Schrader on Story

This lecture by Paul Schrader was one of the better things I watched on screenwriting this year.

Most interesting was his idea on how to find a compelling story: you start with a problem, then find a metaphor for that problem.

His example of this approach was Taxi Driver – his problem was “young male loneliness,” and the metaphor was:

I got this image of the taxicab. It came to me, this yellow rectangular metal coffin, flowing through the open sewers of a metropolis. And inside that coffin is trapped a young man. And it looks like he’s surrounded by life. In fact, he’s absolutely alone. And the power of that metaphor just overwhelmed me.

Also noteworthy in this lecture is his point that all stories come from an oral tradition, and Schrader tells a story over and over verbally to test it before he writes a single scene.

Finally, (and this sort of goes to his idea of the story coming from a personal problem), he says for him writing is a form of self therapy.

Judith Weston’s Directing Actors

I said above that Judith Weston’s Directing Actors was totally indispensible for my directing 101 class. See here for all my notes and favorite bits.

Robert McKee’s Story

“Structure is character; character is structure” is, for me, the central important of Story.

Also, “every scene must turn.”


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