Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"We are pleased to inform you..."

For years one of my goals has been to participate in the Sundance Labs. The Labs are some of the most important efforts undertaken by the Sundance Institute, the famous non-profit that Robert Redford founded for the purpose of discovering and developing independent artists and audiences.

The mission of the Labs is to provide a training grounds for What's Next in independent filmmaking. Alumni that have gone through the Screenwriting and Directing Labs include Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Miranda July and countless others. In order to be considered for the Producing and Directing Labs, you must first go through the Screenwriting Lab. So applying to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab is the first step in a potentially long and life changing journey...

To give you a taste of what it's like, here's a YouTube video that does a good job of conveying the feeling of participating in the Directors Lab:

It's with this awareness that I submitted my project, HAPPY FUNERAL, for consideration by the Lab. I emotionally prepared myself by remembering that the odds were against me, and that regardless of the outcome I would persevere in making HAPPY FUNERAL a film, no matter what.

So when I got an e-mail from the Sundance Institute and read in the subject line:
Sundance Feature Film Program Application - January 2010, I was pretty much resigned to the fact that it was going to read something like: "We receive many excellent submissions every year, and it was really tough to make our decisions and... Anyway, long story short, you didn't get in."

Imagine my surprise then when instead I read:

"Dear Samah,

We are pleased to inform you that your script HAPPY FUNERAL has been selected for the second round of consideration for the 2010 January Screenwriters Lab! Please send a hard copy of the complete script…"

I saw the words and instantly yelled out a joyful profanity. Thankfully no one was around...

After a few moments, the euphoria wore off and I realized how much work I had to do. Tomorrow I will begin the intense process of revising HAPPY FUNERAL with my co-writer, the poet and physician Daniel Spurgeon.

We have laid out an intense schedule for the next week and a half: Thursday through Saturday, we wake up at dawn, jog, eat a healthy breakfast and get our script into shape. Then, Sunday is our day of rest. My friend and Sundance Alumnus Tze Chun has agreed to read the script and give us notes by Monday morning. We will revise on Tuesday, have a handful of trusted friends who are also highly accomplished actors do a reading of the script, and pay close attention to how it sounds out loud. Taking into account the feedback we receive we will then work Wednesday through Thursday and revise, revise, revise and try to catch the lightning. Then on Friday, the day it is due (July 24th), we will edit for any errors or typos. And before the end of the day, we will release it into the universe- via FedEx that is.

To get to this point in the submission process, my writing partner and I first had to submit a cover letter, a two page synopsis, the first five pages of our screenplay and our bios.

Before we finished the packet, I made a valiant effort to find examples of the former that had gotten people into the second round, but couldn't find any.

Since i am a strong believer in studying precedence and NOT reinventing the wheel, I thought I'd share the two page synopsis we submitted to the Lab. In doing so, I want to say it's definitely not perfect, but it did help get us to the second round. Here it is below:

by Samah Tokmachi & Daniel Spurgeon

A while back, small-time hustler, Sulaymon Hakim, a.k.a. SULLY (27), made a desperate deal and borrowed a huge sum of money to pay for his mother’s medical bills. Now she is dead and Sully has to repay the $10,000.00 debt to UDI, (30), an underground mobster in his neighborhood. His best friend ROLLO (26) tries to get Sully to skip town, but Sully is so paralyzed by denial he doesn’t realize the gravity of his situation. Anxiety seems to be getting the best of him, with episodes of fainting spells and haunting visions invading his psyche.

Clutching at straws, Sully tries to find some money in a hurry. All of his connections, however, have gone legit, are in jail, or are just plain unwilling to help. Empty handed, Sully is on the lam but Udi still manages to track him down. Instead of killing him, Udi makes an offer Sully can’t refuse: a small job to repay his debt. It sounds simple enough-- just deliver an unknown package to a faceless client. But when Sully arrives at the rendezvous, the “package” turns out to be NATASHA (22), a forced sex worker from Eastern Europe. Sully tries to back out until Udi threatens him into submission. Sully departs with Natasha and tries to make small talk with her. She is in no mood for conversation. While driving, one of Sully’s episodes overtakes him. He slips between consciousness and unconsciousness. Natasha takes the opportunity and escapes, leaving Sully passed out on the side of a highway. While in his dream state, he has visions of RAFAELA (27), an ex-girlfriend he dearly loved, but badly mistreated.

Sully wakes up in the hospital with Rollo at his side. As he regains consciousness, Sully is overwhelmed with remorse for his past actions. After an MRI and a battery of tests, a doctor breaks the news to Sully—he has a tumor in his brain and only a few weeks left to live. Facing his impending death, Sully considers what to do with his last days. He decides he must find Rafaela and make amends with her. He finds her and discovers that she is now a mother. Even more shocking, he learns that ZION, her three year-old boy, is in fact his son.

Refusing to talk, Rafaela shuts the door in his face. Sully is about to explode with anger-- but remembers how his own abusive father treated his mother-- and instead restrains himself and patiently waits for Rafaela to open up. After telling her that he’s dying, Rafaela lets him inside. For the first time in a long time, the two connect. Rafaela slowly lets go of her anger and Sully falls in love with his son.

Back in town, Udi discovers Sully and brutally beats him, threatening to kill him for his failure. Already facing death from cancer, Sully is at first indifferent to Udi’s threats, but then thinks of his newly found son. He convinces Udi to give him another chance.

But that chance is dashed when Rollo reports Udi’s trafficking to the police and Udi is arrested. Enraged, Udi sics his thugs onto Sully and rats him out to the cops. With time running out, Sully prepares to leave town… But looking at his son, he remembers his lost father. And so, with Rafaella and Zion at his side, Sully sets out to find him. On the road, Sully has his final episode and passes away, leaving Rafaela and Zion to complete his journey for him…

I hope that was useful in at least providing perspective on one project that has managed to make it at least this far in the process...

And now I conclude this post to begin my journey into the Land of Story, a scary and magical world of astonishing sights...

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Sundance Director's Cheat Sheet

Keith Gordon is an actor-turned-director whose work has been extremely varied, and lately he's been directing episodes of Dexter. But one really cool thing he does is work as a mentor for the Fellows at the Sundance Labs. As part of that experience, he wrote a great 'cheat sheet' for filmmakers working on set:

I was working with a young director who was very talented, but who was also prone to panic — causing her to lose her perspective and clarity (an issue I’ve had to deal with myself at times). So I wrote this ‘"cheat sheet" for the fellows to carry with them for when they felt lost. To be honest, I created it just as much for myself…

The Unofficial Sundance Shooting Cheat Sheet

You may never need this, but if you’re feeling a little lost, or out of control, or not sure, remember…

1. Breathe. Calm down. Fear and anxiety are the enemies of complex, open, creative thought. A calm leader inspires confidence. If you need a minute to clear your head, or decide what you want, take it. Everyone can wait.

2. Slow down — rushing is not the same as efficiency.

3. Remember what your scene is really about: Why is this scene in your film? What do you want the audience to feel or understand from it? What are you trying to achieve emotionally with your use of camera and image? What do each of the characters want in this scene? How are they trying to achieve it? Which character’s scene is it? What is their journey in this scene?

While all of the above SHOULD seem obvious, there isn’t a director alive who hasn’t lost sight of some or all of the above while they were shooting a difficult scene.

4. In both rehearsal and shooting — try giving your actors actions — things their character is trying to achieve in the scene, instead of emotional states to play. Get back to what the character WANTS.

Let’s say you’re doing a scene where one character wants to intimidate another.

If you tell the actor "yell" you may just get a general, obvious performance.

But if you give them something to DO (e.g. ‘try and scare the crap out of the other character’), you will allow them into the creative process, and they may find ways of achieving what you want that weren’t what you expecting, but that are more interesting. Maybe instead of the screaming you imagined, you’ll discover they’re more frightening with a whisper. Maybe a chilling smile is more effective than a glare.

Be brave enough to let your actors (and your crew) make you better. No one is genius enough to do it alone. Then you can gently guide those creative impulses, picking the ones you like best, and helping the actor shade what you find together

5. When you have the scene on film the way you think you want, if you have a little time, do an extra take or two in a different way. Why not see what happens if you try something a bit different. If your actor has been intimidating the other with a lot of outward emotion and intensity, suggest they try one with everything held in, like a snake. See what you get.

What’s the worse that happens? You hate it and don’t use it. What’s the best that happens? Unexpected magic. Plus, a good actor will often have something they want to try, but are scared it might not work or will look foolish. Give them their chance to go out on a limb.

6. Remember the scene will NEVER be just like it is in your head. It may be better, it may be worse, it may just be different. But if you get stuck trying to make it "just the way you imagined it" you may well get stuck on the road to hell. Remember what Truffaut said: "The secret of good directing is knowing exactly what you want, but having no ego about giving it up the second anyone has a better idea."

Remember the script is a blueprint, an outline. But when building a house you often deviate from blueprints to make things better. — Keith Gordon

7. Remember to thank, praise and take care of your cast and crew. They’re your team. They’re your army. If they feel unappreciated and ignored you will not get their best efforts and thus your best scene. Don’t leave your actors standing out in the sun, wondering what’s going on while you talk to your DP for a half hour.

8. Have fun. Breathe. Smile. There are so few people lucky enough to have the adventure you’re on.