The Muse: Using Your Dreamspace, Personal Storytelling, Top 5 Memorable Movie Scenes and more!
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Using Your Dreamspace // Happy Accidents // Personal Storytelling // Top Five Memorable Movie Scenes
Dear Writers,

Do you check your phone first thing in the morning? This is a habit I’m trying to break, and it’s not just because science says that scrolling social media first thing in the morning can mess with our mental health.

It’s because those hazy morning moments before you get out of bed are your last chance to grab ideas from one of a writer's most fruitful playgrounds: the dream space.

Dreams were such a potent source of ideas for fantastical filmmaker Federico Fellini (8½ , La Dolce Vita) that he kept detailed notes and drawings on his nighttime imaginings, enough to fill what is now a published volume of more than 500 pages.

One of our Sundance Collab course instructors, Writer and Director Alex Smith (Walking Out, Winter in the Blood) suggests that you actively use your dreamspace to help shape your script. Try to picture the movie as you’re falling asleep, and see where your dreams take it. (Pro tip: If you fall asleep too fast, you might need to add more conflict to your story!)

Another way to capitalize on your subconscious mind: if you’re stuck on something, ask yourself a question about it before you go to bed. You might just wake up with an answer.

So my invitation for you this week is to experiment with what happens when, instead of grabbing your phone as soon as your eyes flutter open, you grab a pen and jot down everything you can remember about your recent visit to dreamland.

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

See you on the page,
Director of Content
Throwing Muses
Writers on their sources of inspiration
Contributed by Andrew Burrows-Trotman, Sundance Collab Advisor (The Porter, Frankie Drake Mysteries)
The image of the young Senegalese couple in Touki Bouki (1973, Djibril Diop Mambéty) driving in a fancy car, dressed up in Parisian high fashion, hoping to emigrate to Paris—a city they have never seen beyond their imagination. They desperately want to leave "dirty and backward" Senegal behind to achieve all their dreams in "civilized" Paris. What a powerful encapsulation of the colonial mind-fuck. For all their swagger, all I see is two Black people playing dress up who will never be Parisian no matter how hard they try. When I’m in need of inspiration or just a reminder to stay rooted, I pause for a moment and take in this image.
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Magaye Niang and Mareme Niang in
Touki Bouki (1973)
Getting Unstuck
Answers to writing questions from Sundance Collab experts
Q: If you’re telling a personal story, how do you keep enough distance from it to craft a compelling dramatic structure?
A: For this question, we turn to filmmaker and actor Justin Chon, who is keenly aware of trying to strike this balance from his experience directing Gook, which won the NEXT Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Chon not only based the screenplay on his family's experiences as Korean store owners in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots, but he also stars in it and directs his real-life father in a supporting role.

In a Sundance Collab panel discussion on Brave Storytelling, Chon says, “The constant question for me was: Why am I telling this story? Why now? What's the purpose of it? And that was kind of my guiding light.” If you are writing based on your own experiences, Chon advises that you come back to the answer to those questions when your own baggage starts to cloud your vision for the screenplay.

Chon suggests that it’s important to define your purpose early to help guide your writing process. There’s also more to it for him: “If I can't get behind why I'm making this, then it's commerce, it's just like, you're just trying to peddle entertainment.” In Chon’s case, there’s an overarching “why” that runs across several projects. He explains, “Being an Asian American storyteller, one of my bigger purposes for storytelling is to humanize and create empathetic characters that are Asian-Americans.” Ultimately, Chon says, it’s in this type of work where “Art and storytelling and personal experience really become synergistic.”

Read more from the Brave Storytelling panel: How to Fail at Filmmaking (and Why You Must)

When Inspiration Struck
How writers came up with their most notable ideas
Contributed by Semi Chellas, Sundance Collab Advisor (Mad Men, American Woman)
The opening shot of my movie, American Woman, was an accident. We were waiting for the actress (the incomparably wonderful Hong Chau) to sit into her blocking at a table in an empty prison visiting room but she took a moment to look out the chicken wire window. The light was perfect and we quietly rolled. She had perfect public solitude. You could see that the emotion of the scene she was about to play—the climax of her story—was roiling in her. The shadows of distant leaves were playing on her face, and we had this whole motif of finding her character in woodsy, leafy settings before prison, so the shadows felt so right that it actually veered towards some pretentious-Plato's-cave shit. But it was perfect.
Semi Chellas (left), and Hong Chau in American Woman (right)
That wasn't supposed to be the first shot or even the first scene of the movie, but it was a quiet, centered, compelling moment that captured her character and created a mystery around what would happen to her. Of course, when the editor showed it to me, I didn't agree. I had shot a whole elaborate opening sequence! But then nothing could beat it, and I gave in, and people always mention it after they watch the film.
Top Fives: Memorable Scenes
Writers on their favorites from across the world of cinema
Contributed by Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten, Sundance Collab Advisor (Call Girl, Ragnarök)
1. Nostalghia (1983)
Screenplay by Andrei Tarkovski and Tonino Guerra

Oleg Jankovski enters his bedroom in the foreign land of Italy, beginning a long dream sequence related to the title theme. The ambient heavy rain outside, the man alone in his room, the dog arriving and lying down: the sound and cinematography work to create such perfection of cinema that it’s hard to even understand how it’s conceived, no matter how many times you experience it.
2. Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Screenplay by Elaine May

The end scene of Elaine May’s masterpiece, with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, two actors who never let you relax. You’re with them every intense, paranoid moment. This over-one-night drama about two childhood friends/small-time mobsters ends in the scene where a pleading Cassavetes tries to enter and hide inside Peter Falk’s house. Falk and his shaken-up wife barricade their front door with their flowered sofas, while Falk’s childhood friend Cassavetes is shot down in cold blood behind it.
3. Hour of the Wolf  (1968)
Screenplay by Ingmar Berman

The magic of playful cinema: Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman play a couple trapped on a deserted island—and inside the troubled mind of von Sydow’s character, a successful painter. Past and present, real and unreal meld together. Von Sydow's encounter with his past comes in many forms. One is the wealthy, betrayed—but still admiring—husband played by Erland Josephson, who walks upside down on the ceiling, exclaiming: “Oh, don’t mind me, it’s only my jealousy.”
4. The Headless Woman (2008)
Screenplay by Lucretia Martell

The inciting event: Three indigenous kids and a dog play along the road. Maria Onetto, the protagonist, an upper class woman, drives, listening to music, with her sunglasses on. Suddenly she hits something. Was it a kid, a dog? (Does it even make a difference in this world of extreme class differences?) The cheery music still plays from the radio, a handprint (in fact from another privileged child in the previous kindergarten-scene, but we’re likely to "misunderstand" it as something more ambiguous on the first viewing) lingers on her window glass, as she puts her sunglasses back on and drives off.
5. Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
Series written by Alfred Döblin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Although it is a TV series, I once watched the entire 15 and a half hours consecutively in a beautiful cinema, in one weekend. Simply mesmerising. There is a moment when Franz Biberkopf, the main character, has lost his arm. In a very long and winding scene, Franz struggles to get some much-longed-for love. The illusion of cinema here is striking. As a viewer we are so hypnotised, that even though we can clearly see that the actor has only hidden his fully functional arm inside his shirt, we just don’t care. Fassbinder trusts that we are so eager to experience whatever is going on in the character’s life, that we overlook the small fact of being openly cheated. A marvelous display of confidence from an eccentric filmmaker who never lets you down.
Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script
Contributed by Ioana Uricaru, Sundance Collab Advisor (Tales from the Golden Age, Lemonade)
We often overwrite in early drafts. A good exercise is to go over a scene and check which lines you can take out without losing the meaning or the information that the scene is supposed to convey. Try removing elements like in a game of Jenga blocks to see if the scene still holds—you might gain in concision, dynamism or subtext.

Things to think about:
  • Explore what happens if one of the characters in an exchange doesn’t say one of their lines, instead staying silent. What would the other character do in response?
  • Can you replace any words or lines with an action, gesture or shift in body language?
Try getting out of the scene early. Maybe one of the characters storms out without saying their final line, or maybe we don’t yet find out what decision they made in the scene.

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

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