Our Birthday = Your Muse // TV Directing Tips //
What Brownstone is Buying // Top 5 Food Scenes

Dear Storytellers,

I greet you dancing in my pointy hat, paper horn sticking out of my mouth, forkful of strawberry shortcake in hand. It’s our birthday!

Yes, The Muse launched one year ago. We hope you've enjoyed hearing from over fifty Sundance Collab advisors — the people who you read on these pages, who lead our courses, classes and events and who are working artists across all the disciplines of film and TV. We remain excited to share their wise words, sources of inspiration and professional advice with all of you in every issue!

No matter how you feel about birthdays (I love them, obvs), they are a touchstone to check in with your lives and think about where you've been and where you're headed. Thus, they can also serve as a great way to get to know your characters better. So many simple writing prompts spring to mind when I think about birthdays, such as:

  • How does your character feel about birthdays and why?
  • What were the best and worst birthdays of their lives?
  • What's their ideal way to celebrate now?
  • What would your character's birthday wish be? What happens if they get it — or if they don't?

This week, I encourage you to celebrate your characters' birthdays. Explore and see what you can learn about them.

Thank you for all your support this year, from the bottom of our hearts. My birthday wish for YOU is that you keep forging ahead with your creative work and find joy in the process, no matter what the outcome...and of course that you keep reading and spreading the word about The Muse!

Meanwhile, read on below for insights and writing tips from the storytellers of the Sundance network.

See you on the page,

Director of Content

P.S. In celebration of this occasion, we asked you to tell us the best professional advice you've received this past year. Thanks to Film Director and Screenwriter Sara-Jane Charles for this gem: "Hold on strong to the vision that you have for your project and retain ownership, as no one will know more or fight harder for your film, script or TV series than you will. This advice consistently came from many of the phenomenal women directors, producers, screenwriters and editors who gave their brilliant talks and Master Classes at Sundance Collab."
Storytellers on their sources of inspiration

Contributed by Trey Ellis, Sundance Collab Advisor and Instructor of Self-paced Screenwriting: Core Elements (King in the Wilderness, The Tuskegee Airmen)
I turn to the satires of Ishmael Reed. He has been my mentor since I began as a novelist and I try to infuse his irreverence in all my film work as well. His book Mumbo Jumbo just exploded my conception of what a novel could be and showed me the possibilities of Black satire. Everything I aspire to do in my screenwriting and fiction stem from his deep roots and I suspect the same could be said of other contemporary filmmakers like Donald Glover, Boots Riley and Jordan Peele and novelists Paul Beatty, Victor LaValle and Colson Whitehead.
Who's buying what from whom?
Featuring Alison Small, Head of Film, Brownstone Productions
What is your overall mandate and vision for the work you acquire or produce?

I've got to love it. We want to be in the business of actually making movies, and getting there is tough. It's really important to me that we feel passionate enough about every project we take on to put in the real time and effort it takes to get something made. I never want to be dodging a call because I haven't done the work, and for me that's only possible if I love and believe in something enough to commit real time. I'm also terrible at lying and can't sell something I don't believe in. In terms of what that means creatively, we generally gravitate towards projects that are accessible and bring a certain joy--whether that joy comes from an obvious comedic place or a more genre thrilling place.
What types of scripts or work are you currently looking for?

We're always looking for original voices, legit funny comedies, inclusive stories, a cool twist on a known story or a great book adaptation. I've been saying I'd love to find a sweeping romance for years. I'd also love to find the Brownstone-version of a horror movie.

How does someone get a script to you and at what point in development do you want to see it?

Usually scripts come from agents or managers. I ideally want to see it when it's as far along as possible, but we also get involved with projects all the time that show promise but need a little work before we show them to a buyer.

Do materials other than a script help you? What are you looking for in a pitch?

Yes. We have lots of projects based on books, and a few based on articles. I'm not loving taking pitches right now, but if there is a director and/or meaningful actors attached or the pitch is undeniable, we've made exceptions.
Answers to common filmmaking questions from Sundance Collab experts
Q: What are the main differences between directing for series television and directing a feature film?
A: Many in our community are looking to expand their practice to include both directing features and television. For this question, we turned to the director who literally wrote the book on the topic, Dan Attias, a five-time DGA Award nominee with 88 screen credits including The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Here's what he told us:

Directing an episode of television and directing a feature film are, in many ways, identical jobs. In both formats, the director is the one in command of the set and assessing, moment to moment, how the story is working and how best to tell it. The biggest difference however is that the television director must blend their vision with that of the showrunner's, not vice versa. While the director is empowered in many meaningful ways, the showrunner's vision is the one that everyone serves. But that vision has to become your own, for you to bring your best directing skills to the work, with finding your connection to the material being your most important task.
While the script is, of course, a constant touchstone, it has to be interpreted. That is the director's job. An audience's experience of an episode comes from a wide variety of elements, not simply the story as written in the script. It's the result of all the ways you have chosen to present the material, including, among many other things, the performances you're able to draw from your actors, blocking and integrating those performances with one another, the camera work you supervise, and all the contributions from the various departments that seek your input and approval.

Though the job of guest director in series television can often feel like trying to make the best possible version of somebody else's show, the answer to "How creative can the episodic director be?" is: very. The tightrope you walk is incorporating all that is important to the showrunner at the same time that you take responsibility for the storytelling, and find what's compelling about it for you.

To learn more from Dan Attias, check out our upcoming Directing Television Weekend Intensive (April 1-3) where you'll gain expertise on the world of directing television and how to bring your own unique voice to the job. Applications close on March 16th.
Artists on their favorites from across the world of cinema

Contributed by Tim S. Kang, Sundance Collab Advisor, Documentary Filmmaker, Cinematographer (Special Blood, Snakeeater)
Top Five Food Scenes
1. Goodfellas (1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
This movie has so much food in it. Stirring the red sauce (East Coast Italians call it "gravy'') during the big climax, slicing paper-thin garlic for red sauce with razor blades while in prison--what's not to love?
2. Oldboy (2003)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
The live octopus consumption scene plays so differently to American/European audiences. I'm a Korean-American son of immigrants, so I know first-hand the appeal in the delicacy of raw octopus. I don't think the scene is meant to cause a gross-out reaction (as Western audiences generally have). Rather, it's meant to be a scene of pure, raw, voracious intensity.
3. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Directed by John Badham
In the opening scene, the lead character Tony Manero double stacks two slices of pizza and chows down while walking along a Brooklyn avenue. This brings me back home to NYC so hard. I'm a pizza fanatic--so much so that I reviewed New Jersey pizza for a popular food website in my past--and completely relate to the vibe and feeling of that iconic opening.
4. Chef (2014)
Directed by Jon Favreau

When the Chef, played by Jon Favreau, is making grilled cheese for his son, he swirls the bread in clarified butter on the griddle and the detailed process of such a simple dish says everything about the character's flow and state of mind. It's how I feel when I cook. This is an ok movie in my opinion, but I think about this scene a lot, especially when recalling the BTS video of Roy Choi, the consulting chef that inspired the movie, showing Jon Favreau how to do this exact swirling motion and why, before Jon does the take.
5. Lady and The Tramp (1955)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske

You know the scene. The movie has racist cats and an overly "Italian Chef" stereotype, but even as I first saw it as a kid, the moment when the two dogs find that single noodle entranced me. My wife still refuses to reenact this with me, but a man can dream.
Honorable mention: Hook (1991)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
The food fight scene. Even as a pre-teen, I found myself really really really really wanting to eat all that icing and pie.
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script

Contributed by Julia Camara, Sundance Collab Advisor (Open Road, Occupants)

[Editor's Note: Congrats to Julia for launching a Seed & Spark campaign in support of her new indie thriller Stronghold. Check it out!]

Switching genres might feel like a big challenge. We tend to gravitate to writing certain genres, themes and types of story. So, face this challenge head on and work on a one page synopsis or even just a scene where you change your screenplay's genre. If you're writing a drama, what would that story be like if it was a comedy? What about a horror film? Or even sci-fi or fantasy? What elements would stay the same and what would need to be changed? Next, take a look at the themes you were hoping to explore and the character journey you had plotted for your protagonist. Does it still work? Remember, you don't have to stick to this new genre, but I guarantee you will find something new and interesting about your story by trying this out. Things to keep in mind:

  • Every genre has its conventions, obligatory scenes and audience expectations. What are those moments in your screenplay? How will these scenes be different when you switch genres?
  • Take some personal inventory of why you gravitate towards one genre or another. The better you can articulate why you write, the more you can focus your efforts in the right direction. As you explore different genres ask yourself: Why do I write the genres that I write and what does that say about me as a writer?

For more prompts in a live setting, join our free Writers' Cafe each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


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