Everybody has a story to tell, but not everyone has the tools needed to get their story out to a mass audience. Sundance Institute Directors & Screenwriters Lab provides a bridge from screenwriters and directors to the public, shining a spotlight on voices that aren’t often given the amplification that they deserve. Earlier this year, the Sundance Institute announced thirteen new independent feature projects from Cuba, Chile, Kenya, the UK and the U.S.
The Director’s and Screenwriters Lab are part of the Institute’s year-round support of emerging independent artists. Feature Film Program Founding Director Michelle Satter said, “Our Lab brings together a community of artists from the U.S. and around the world to learn, discover and take risks in a pure workshop environment. These 13 artist-driven projects will advance through our year-round support system, with the June Lab as a centerpiece of our program. Each artist brings a personal voice, unique worldview, and deep humanity to their work, creating an exchange of ideas and distinctive storytelling that resonates profoundly in today’s world.”
Shadow and Act spoke with four of the fellows, Radha Blank, Colman Domingo, Reinaldo Marcus Green and Tayarisha Poe. We discussed their selected projects, influences, and what they took from the Lab.
Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It scribe Radha Blank’s The 40-Year Old Version tells the story of a down-on-her-luck New York playwright who decides that the only way to salvage her artistic voice is to become a rapper…at age 40.
The film is Blank’s first feature which she aims to begin filming in 2018. This would be a massive feat in itself, but she’s also writing, directing and starring in it as well. She said, “[The 40-Year Old Version] is loosely based on my life as Playwright in New York. And so yes, I am nuts.” For Blank, the Lab was an opportunity to explore the tone of her screenplay. “I got to experiment with improvisation as well as with storytelling that wasn’t on the page, “ she explained. “I’m coming from working as a playwright where dialogue is the force that propels a story forward, but at the Lab, I was reminded how powerful images and silences are in expanding my storytelling beyond dialogue.”
The daughter of a New York cinephile, Blank was influenced by Sidney Lumet, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Spike Lee and Shmoody Shmallen. “I’ve always wanted to see a New York comedy where the New Yorker at the center of the storytelling looked, felt and sounded like me and my friends, “ she said. “Not sure I’ve seen it so maybe I make it?”
Actor Colman Domingo’s work is something else entirely. Domingo is ready to bring Corey Miller’s City on Fire to the big screen. The film tells the incendiary true story of an escalating conflict between the city of Philadelphia and the radical group MOVE, which led to an armed siege in a residential neighborhood and one of the most shocking decisions ever made by a city against its citizens.
Miller and Domingo go way back, so this is a story they wanted to tell together. “Corey Miller and I are both from Philadelphia,” Domingo explained. “We’re homeboys, born and raised. And the history of this story is very close and near and dear to our hearts. At 15-years-old, I watched from ten blocks away the clouds billowing above the city, watching a part of my neighborhood burning. I was filled with many questions — questions about the MOVE members, questions about the government, questions about what was the right thing to do, and that left me with questions about the actions of our first black mayor, Wilson Goode.”
This was a story that Domingo was compelled to tell. “The piece is in our DNA, ” he emphasized. “It’s something that we’ve been inquiring and wanting to interrogate for a long time and wanting to find the commonalities of all the people who are connected to the piece and trying to find a way to really give everyone their humanity.”
Domingo’s time in the lab helped make City on Fire more cinematic, “I think the questions, the comments, the push to help us to have a bit more pulse to it, to fight for someone very clearly, and to find out what was in the center of it,” he reflected. “I think our Lab experience helped inform that, especially our workshops with Joan Tewkesbury. I’m especially indebted to her, because I’ll be using these lessons for the rest of my career.”
Domingo was influenced by titans like Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. “I think they bring that sensibility to storytelling with them, and it elevates the work and the conversation,” Domingo said. Though no solid timelines are in place just yet for City on Fire, things are already coming together. Domingo even let us in on his dream casting choices for the project which includes, Regina King, Ron Cephus Jones, and Isaiah Washington. “I have a lot of comrades I’d love to work with, like Armie Hammer, Liev Schreiber, and Robert DeNiro,” he explained. “I’d like to populate [the film] with a cast of very intelligent artists who are not only interested in doing work that’s meaningful but questioning and bringing all they’ve got to really try to find some answers in this event, that sometimes feels like it may not have easy ones.
Writer/Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men hit close to home for the New York native. After capturing an illegal act of police violence on his cellphone, a Brooklyn street hustler sets off a series of events that inexorably alters the lives of a local police officer and a star high-school athlete. Though timelines and attachments are in the works, the film has already garnered support from the Spike Lee Production Fund, Cinereach, Tribeca Film Institute, Rooftop Films, and Los Cabos Film Festival.
For Green, the Lab was about giving a crispness to what he already had on the page. He said, “The Lab experience definitely helped with preparing how to communicate with actors and how to manage many creative voices — mainly how to listen, simplify, and how to trust our instincts.”
Though Green had a laundry list of film influences for Monsters and Men, music was also a vital component in his writing process. “I listen to music,” he explained. “I walk around my city and I sit on random benches. I try to write in the places I am working in. It’s hard to sit in a cafe in Williamsburg and write about Bed Stuy. So I went there, I spoke with people. I try to make new friends and build genuine relationships. And I try to include as many folks as I can in the filmmaking process. It’s their story, not mine.”
Filmmaker and photographer Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and the Spades tells the story of a girl named Selah who ruled Pontomic High School’s most merciless gang: The Spades. Captivated by the pleasures and dangers of power, Selah is both charming and callous when deciding who to keep close and who to ruin. Poe is passionate about the girl who stands at the center of her story. “Sela is a teenage girl who doesn’t apologize for being self-serving, who doesn’t waste energy convincing others of her inherent worth, who allows each of her actions to be judged themselves, and not against some unproven claim of universal goodness,” she revealed. “[She] embraces her own contradictions of self. Who forges her own path.”
The Lab helped the West Philadelphia native discover exactly what Selah and the Spades would be. “It fast-paced, sonically vibrant, and cinematically exhilarating,” she expressed. “We were able to try stuff I’d never have considered before (like having the camera move 360 [degrees] around two girls in conversation who are also circling each other) because the environment is true to itself: it’s a Lab, a workshop. Try and fail and fail again, that’s where the successes are.”
Though Poe had various film and television influences including Lemonade, Heathers, and The Knick, her true influences can be found in the written word — books. “I read fiction more than I do anything else,” she explained. “For Selah and the Spades most recently I’ve been re-reading: Oreo by Fran Ross, The Instructions by Adam Levin, The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler, Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Election by Tom Perrotta, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, and Geek Love by Katharine Dunn.”
For more information on the Sundance Institute please click here.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami