No.10: July 2021
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Find Your Breath Out // Industry Insights: NEON // Edit Your Script Visually // Top Five Necessary Sequels
Dear Writers,

Director Jamila Wignot’s beautiful film Ailey is being released this week after its Sundance premiere earlier this year. The documentary illuminates the life of pioneering African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey and the cultural legacy he left behind through his New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Near the end of the film, the company’s Artistic Director, Emerita Judith Jamison, drops this simple but profound statement: "Alvin breathed in. We are his breath out." I take this to mean that she and the other dancers led or influenced by Ailey are the product of his existence; they would not be who they are without his having been who he was in their lives and in the world.
We are all someone’s "breath out." And so are the characters in your screenplay, which can be easy to forget since you’re usually writing about a specific moment in time. Still, your characters wouldn’t be who they are without those who came before them. Even if those ancestors and influencers don’t appear in your work, knowing who they are will help you create a more authentic and believable cast of characters.

So, this week, I invite you to consider who had to breathe in for the people in your story to become their full selves. Who shaped them, for better or worse, and how does that show up in the actions they take on the screen?

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 Pam Davis, Sundance Collab Advisor (On Becoming A God In Central Florida, House)
A creative inspiration is Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach (Six Cello Suites). There's something about the range of emotion and the cycles of repetition. This is the one thing I can listen to at any stage of the writing process, and it'll always bring me to something unexpected and push me to go a little deeper.

Industry Insights
Who's buying what from whom?
Featuring Mason Speta, Director: Development, Production & Acquisitions, NEON
What is your overall mandate and vision for the work you acquire or produce?

At NEON we’re approaching development and production very similarly to how we build our acquisitions slate. The theatrical experience is a high priority for us, so we’re looking for films that are original and singular enough to draw audiences off their couch and into the cinemas. That goes hand in hand with working with filmmakers who have original, singular, cinematic voices.

What types of scripts or work are you currently looking for?

We're agnostic on genre, flexible on budget, and love working with first time filmmakers as much as established auteurs. As long as it hits the marks above, we're very open!

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

Typically, the earliest we get involved is when there's a near-complete script and a director attached. We've evaluated material at earlier stages when there's an original pitch or piece of IP tied to a writer, director, or producer, but because deep development isn't our core business, those are very selective cases. There's no one way we source scripts, but, usually, it's either through our own tracking or incoming calls from producers/reps.

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

Generally, the more information we can use to evaluate a project, the better. A visual component or directing sample alongside the script is always helpful. For projects without a director attached, any additional materials that give us a sense of the intended look, tone, and world of the film is great.

Showing Up
How do you get yourself in the space to write?
Contributed by Jessie Keyt, Sundance Collab Advisor (Skin)
To write, I must turn off the internet! I have to really discipline myself. No email, no texts, no real-estate sites (my online porn). When I find myself googling answers to life questions, it's time to shut it down.

When my kids were little, I used to set a pot of coffee to brew every day at 4:30 a.m., and the smell would lure me out of bed. As long as I managed to pour the cup and sit down at my desk, the rest would come. Now that my kids are older, and I have more autonomy over my time, my approach is much more flexible. I don't actually write every day. I trust myself to know when to write and when to ponder. I usually write longhand when I'm starting a project, so the ideas can flow more freely. Even better if it's unlined paper. I like to be able to circle words and slash out text and draw arrows. Film is visual; my creative approach is visual, too.

When I’m stuck on a script, I do a first person POV journal entry for each of my characters from the beginning to the end of the story. Most of the content never makes its way directly into the script because it's so internal, but the exercise helps me find my characters' voices, motivations, and defining moments.
Top Fives
Writers on their favorites from across the world of cinema
Contributed by Chris Courtney Martin, Sundance Collab Advisor (Charcuterie, Pale Horse)
Movies That Need a Sequel
1. Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Screenplay by Julie Dash
In Julie Dash's historic portrait of a Gullah Geechee community, we're lost in dreamy tableaus as the lens honors true descendents of the Flying Africans. I think tying the original narrative into the current importance of ancestor work in the culture would just be phenomenal.
2. Four Brothers (2005)
Screenplay by David Elliot, Paul Lovett
My favorite of Director John Singleton's iconic catalog is one about family bonds defying all. To date, this is one of my most-watched movies of all time. I especially want to drop in on Andre and Taraji's characters and see how they're doing.
3. Parasite (2019)
Screenplay by Jin-won Han
This watershed hit highlights one of my favorite subjects: how the inherent inhumanity of inequality turns us into monsters. It's a perfectly contained narrative and a masterpiece on its own, but parasites usually spread. I feel like there's another story in there somewhere.
4. Gang of Roses (2003)
Screenplay by Jean-Claude La Marre
Yes, there is a nearly 20-year-old Black cowgirl cult cinema gem out there that is tons of fun and that we don't talk about nearly enough. Yes, the only way to amend this is to make another one. The main thrills of the film are largely rooted in camp and cameos, but a refreshed take could make a grand offering in the exciting wave of Black-led Westerns.
5. Eve's Bayou (1997)
Screenplay by Kasi Lemmons
Kasi Lemmons’ sumptuous feature directorial debut is an elegant Southern Gothic about the secrets of a Louisiana hamlet's Black elite and a little girl's macabre methods of dealing justice. I've talked about this movie since I was a kid, and I'm a little appalled it's not widely considered mandatory viewing for filmmakers. The child cast of Jurnee Smollett, Meagan Good, and Jake Smollett is incredible. I'd love to pick up with them as grownups.
Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script
Contributed by Ioana Uricaru, Sundance Collab Advisor (Tales from the Golden Age, Lemonade)
Playwright and filmmaker David Mamet famously quipped, "Scenes are like parties: you have to come in late and leave early." Starting in the midst of action keeps things interesting and the audience alert and engaged. If one of your scenes is feeling too drawn out, try pushing the start of the scene as late into the action as possible and ending the scene as early as possible.

Things to think about:
  • Starting the scene late might make it seem like we "missed the beginning". How much of that beginning do we really need? Can we get caught up during the scene?
  • Ending the scene early might make it feel like it lacks resolution. Could that be an advantageous ambiguity? Can the resolution be suggested earlier?
  • Could you create a hook and payoff, where the beginning or resolution that you cut appears in another scene?

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

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