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Writing Low-Budget Scripts // Maya Angelou’s Perseverance // When Inspiration Struck: Equity // Top-Five Eye-Opening Lines
Dear Storytellers,

If you follow news out of the Sundance Institute, you will have heard that Bird Runningwater is leaving us after 20 years of service, most recently as Director, Indigenous, DEI and Artist Programs. During his tenure, close to 300 Indigenous creators/projects have been supported in some way by the Institute and festival.

It’s no surprise that there is a robust indigenous filmmaking community given the rich histories of oral tradition and ceremonial ritual among the many Indigenous nations from around the world. One thing that consistently made an impression on me in Bird’s work here is beautifully articulated by the man himself in his parting note: "I’ve tried to imbue my work with inflections of my own Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache cultures."

He reflects further, "I saw the work of supporting Indigenous artists as a ceremony of transitioning storytellers into their full potential, much like my Mescalero community does when we ritually sing our young women into womanhood and into our matriarchy."
  Still of the Mescalero Apache Coming of Age Ceremony from Earth's Sacred Wonders
I imagine that viewing your work in such a poetic and expansive way can help soften the grind of daily tasks and remind you of why you show up every day. Bird’s statement at once turns his job into a meaningful ceremony and ties it to a greater purpose—and it seems relevant to every filmmaker and storyteller. What are we doing if not transitioning ideas into words on the page and ultimately into fully realized visions on the screen?

So, this week, I encourage you to take a cue from Bird and direct some of your creativity toward putting your own role into a more meaningful context. For example, are you merely a producer creating spreadsheets, or are you a gardener who plants seeds, nourishes them, and shepherds their growth into beautiful stories that can be appreciated for years to come? Are there rituals or traditions from your own culture or others that you could draw on as metaphor and motivation to describe your own work?

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 Ron Stacker Thompson, Sundance Collab Advisor (America's Dream -Trilogy, Funny Valentines)
For inspiration I turn to Maya Angelou, whom I was fortunate enough to have as a friend. On a constant basis she reminded me of what intellectual elegance was all about, as well as basic emotion. She inspires me to always embrace both. Though Maya has "passed on," I am moved and encouraged by her many books about her life ("I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" among them), how she persevered as a writer and a storyteller no matter what, how she knew she had a story to tell....and had to tell it.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Getting Unstuck
Answers to common filmmaking questions from Collab experts

I’ve heard that if I want to get a film made, I should write a lower budget script that’s easier to produce. How do I go about doing that?

A: Halloween isn’t until later this month, but we’re already starting to get in a spooky mood, so we turned to Jason Blum, who has produced some of the most notable horror films in recent history (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Get Out) through his company Blumhouse. In an online event on Entrepreneurial Producing in Horror, Blum discusses why horror, in particular, is historically an economical genre to write in.

However, you don’t have to be writing horror to keep some general low-budget principles in mind. According to Blum, you can save a lot of money by limiting speaking parts, locations, stunts and special effects. He asserts "When I talk to a director, I say, ‘You get to pick one. If you want 12 speaking parts, you better be in two locations…When you're writing and looking to do your movies independently, you must think about budget."

  Jason Blum (left) produced Get Out (right) among almost 200 other movies and TV episodes
The key to doing this well is to be creative and resourceful in your treatment of anything that would normally require a bigger budget, rather than trying to pull off Hollywood-style feats on a smaller budget. Blum advises, "If you're making a micro-budget film and you're doing a car chase or doing effects cheaply, it looks cheap. Don't make a car chase, don't have a fight. If you're trying to do things that are in more expensive movies cheaply, you're going to fail, because the money is going to make those things look better."

Again, use your creative writing prowess to get around these hurdles. As Blum says, "You're going to do it in a new way. I promise you, a fight in a Marvel movie is going to be better than a fight in your movie. So what you want to do is not compete with what studios do so well. Don't try and do what they're doing." Ultimately, you want to make choices that serve your characters and your story best, and even lower budget scripts need to display artistry, a singular voice and a unique perspective. However, if you follow some of this advice on how to keep a modest budget in mind while writing, you may have a greater chance of moving your story from script to screen.

Read more: Jason Blum’s Five Recommendations for Launching Your Film Producing Career

When Inspiration Struck
How writers came up with their most notable ideas
Contributed by Amy Fox, Sundance Collab Advisor (Equity, The Conners)
A lot of people have been curious about the moment in [financial thriller film] Equity when Anna Gunn's character says: "I like money." That moment came directly out of the first research interview I did with a woman who had worked on Wall Street. She was describing a sexist and challenging work environment at her firm, and when I asked her what kept her going, she said quite simply: "I like money."
Equity (2016) (left), co-written by Amy Fox (right) and directed by Meera Menon.

I was really struck by how matter-of-factly she said this. I had never heard a woman own a desire for money before, and it became really important to me to show that moment in the film. The monologue continues with the character explaining more about what she means and that she likes being able to take care of others, but she is also quite clear that she believes it's okay to admit that she wants money for herself.

Top Fives
Writers on their favorites from across the world of cinema
Contributed by Jennifer Sharp, Sundance Collab Advisor (Una Great Movie, I'm Through With White Girls)
Eye-Opening Lines
1. Grand Canyon (1991)
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan
Danny Glover describes how he felt when he saw the Grand Canyon for the first time: "I felt like a gnat that lands on the ass of a cow that's chewing its cud next to the road that you ride by going 70 mph." WHY? Because it's such a great summary of how insignificant we are and has helped me put my life in perspective many times.
2. American Movie (1999)
Documentary directed by Chris Smith
Uncle Bill: "It's alright, it's okay, there's something to live for... Jesus told me so! " WHY? If you have to ask why, then you just need to go to your nearest streaming service and rent the movie. GO!
3. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman
Dianne Wiest talks Philip Seymour Hoffman through his death: "As the people who adore you stop adoring you, as they die, as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your beauty, your youth, as the world forgets you, as you recognize your transience, as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one, as you learn there is no one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving—not coming from any place, not arriving any place—just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are...Gone."
WHY? This, to me, is the greatest movie ever made. The most honest and accurate portrayal of the human experience of life in one masterpiece. And these lines sum that up.
4. School Daze (1988) & Do the Right Thing (1989)
Screenplays by Spike Lee
The last line in the first film and the first line in the next: "Wake Up!!!"
WHY? That's exactly what Spike Lee's movies did to an entire generation, and his clever use of that line throughout his movies is the type of attention to detail and messaging that great filmmaking encompasses.
5. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Screenplay by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle & more
"Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate?"
WHY? I love the absurd, and this line encapsulates the absurdity of that and many other Monty Python movies. It refers to the coconuts that are used to make the sound effects of a horse galloping throughout the movie. Instead of using actual horses, the actors ride imaginary horses with someone following them, banging coconuts together to make these sounds. In this scene, they are confronted by a guard who asks how they even got the coconuts as they are not native to England. The conversation goes down in an absurd spiral and this funny line is said. Movies that normalize absurd things can brilliantly depict the absurdity of our own realities.
Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script
Contributed by Deborah Goodwin, Sundance Collab Advisor (Justine to a Fault, The Pastor)
In the last issue, you worked on your characters' changes. But what if your story isn’t about your protagonist changing, it’s really about the changes around them?

Unlike real life, characters in your screenplay are intentional. You construct them in order for us to understand, empathize with and realize things about your protagonist and your story world. While your protagonist may not inherently change, how they are viewed by others around them should, and that reflects your reader and audiences understanding of your character’s journey

So let’s see what can "change" when you write a scene from:

  • THE AUDIENCE POV: Your protagonist may appear passive on the surface but, in fact, they are witnessing and reacting to events in your story, just like we do as audience members. This allows for empathy for your protagonist, because we see them struggling the way WE WOULD, if confronted with the same problems.
  • THE VICTIM POV: Your protagonist is manipulated by circumstances, or persons around them. They are forced into action as self preservation. Casting them (your protagonist-in-peril) as the victim at the center of your story can keep them urgently active throughout the narrative even though they may not be driving the plot.
  • THE SECRET KEEPER POV: Your protagonist has a secret or is bound to keep a secret throughout the story, which limits their actions. Any wrong move and they could break their promise. The conflicted need and desire of keeping a secret can be extremely active (in a seemingly passive way).

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

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