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Taking writers for a swell ride

January 25, 2008|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

SUNDANCE, UTAH — Two men were sitting on a scarred chairlift as it climbed a lower flank of Mt. Timpanogos, its towering 11,750-foot glacier providing a brown-green backdrop to their right. The bluffs off to their left arched down toward the wide, flat runway of the Salt Lake Valley. L.A. playwright Richard Montoya was listening to criticisms and observations about his screenplay, "Water & Power," and scribbling notes into a ratty notebook perched on one knee.

That is, until a sheet of paper suddenly whipped off into the air. Montoya gazed on as the mountain wind tossed his lost page down 70 feet of swooping zigzags into the unspoiled brush below.

"Well," Montoya said, with mock petulance. "This hasn't turned out to be a very fun ride."

That sentiment could double as the running crawl under many a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter's career.

But not in this serrated valley of the Wasatch Mountains in north-central Utah. This is Redford Country, the geographical and metaphorical home of the Sundance Institute and its prestigious Directors and Screenwriters Labs -- 800 miles from L.A. and a universe away from Hollywood.

These rigorous incubators of filmmaking talent have fostered early projects by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ("Half Nelson"), Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Hard Eight") and Tamara Jenkins ("Slums of Beverly Hills") -- these last two nominated for screenplay Oscars on Tuesday for their ambitious work, Anderson for "There Will Be Blood" and Jenkins for "The Savages."

And although it's unlikely that any participant would describe their lab experiences purely as "fun," they are designed to provide a creatively enriching environment that encourages the kind of innovative storytelling and artistic risk-taking that Hollywood generally avoids.

Mutually beneficial

Founded in 1981 by Oscar-winning actor-director-producer Robert Redford in this tiny town an hourlong drive southeast of Salt Lake City, the institute supports a multitude of film and theater programs internationally (including this week's film festival in nearby Park City). The intensive directing and screenwriting workshops that make up the core of its Feature Film Program -- guided from the start by the steady hand of program director Michelle Satter -- have become a creative mecca for both the aspiring writers and filmmakers who attend as fellows and the experienced advisors who come to help them improve their craft (and remind themselves what screenwriting unburdened by talk of "quadrants" and "set pieces" is actually like).

The institute holds its weeklong screenwriters lab twice yearly -- late June and in mid-January as a run-up to the festival, which often showcases projects developed at the lab. For instance, "Sleep Dealer," which premiered at the festival Saturday, was workshopped by writer-director Alex Rivera and his co-writer, David Riker, during a 2000 Screenwriters Lab.

More than 2,000 aspiring writers submit open applications, while others are recommended for the program by a network of institute staff, alumni and advisors. (Satter herself reads hundreds of scripts a year.) Only the January lab is open to any applicant; the June lab is designed for fellows to revisit their material after attending the three-week directing lab. Ultimately, a carefully selected dozen fellows are flown to Sundance to meet with a rotating roster of creative advisors for intense two-hour, one-on-one discussions.

These creative meetings take place on lush creek banks, at picnic tables shaded by groves of quaking aspen and, yes, on the nearby chairlift, with volunteer mentors such as John August ("Go"), Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal ("Running on Empty"), Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia") and Jeremy Pikser ("Bulworth"), the man who was giving Montoya his well-intentioned grilling. Since the writer retains ownership of his or her script, no suggestion is compulsory -- "not notes but a dialogue," is how Satter describes the advisors' input.

"The really important thing is that [unlike most film schools] this is not leading toward a 'calling card,' " says June 2007 advisor Atom Egoyan ("The Sweet Hereafter"). "This is all about process. This is all about trying different things and experimenting and feeling that you have the freedom to do that."

Unlike in L.A., he says, "there's none of the weird combination of despair and hunger. There's certainly ambition, but everyone understands what the game here is."

It's a nurturing but demanding atmosphere fueled by passionate artists that breeds both predictable and unpredictable results -- angst, tears and the occasional bruised ego are matched by the corresponding evolution of truly original storytelling. Or, as Satter puts it, "If they're not struggling, they're not taking risks. Being uncomfortable is a good thing."

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