Celebrating Black Artists // Sundance Grand Jury Winner on Genre // How to Take Exec Notes // Developing Your Characters

Dear Storyteller,

In honor of Black History Month here in the U.S., I revisited a powerful conversation from last month’s Sundance Film Festival. The panel, called The Story of Us, is about how films and other media can help reclaim or reshape the pervasive American story and acknowledge some of the darker truths of the parts played by colonialism and racism in building the country.

During the discussion, writer-director Nikyatu Jusu, whose film Nanny won this year’s U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, shared what drew her to the horror genre as opposed to historical fiction. "The people who are in charge of financing films are overwhelmingly white," she explains frankly, adding "Because the people who mostly maneuver this industry and are in positions of power, no one is prepared to tell the truth. And so, rather than dilute very important figures in history, I would rather maneuver fantasy, because I think you're able to hide really important messages in your storytelling."

Jusu believes, "You can tell the most truth in fantasy and fantastical genres" but she recognizes that "On the other hand, it's very hard to penetrate because it costs so much money to create the effects and the set pieces and the elements that speak to these fantastical pieces that you have in your film." Still, she's not alone. Several Black filmmakers in the SFF22 lineup explored genre, including the provocative, resonant filmmakers Mariama Diallo's Master and Krystin Ver Linden's Alice.

Moderator and legal scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw said of watching Nanny: "This is what happens when innovation meets the need to tell unspoken truths."

So, dear readers, what unspoken truths are you looking to reveal? Is there something you have a burning desire to write about that you feel the industry, the financiers or even your home country is not ready to hear? If so, how could you build another world through fantasy, sci-fi or horror to veil your direct target while also letting your message get heard? Black filmmakers like Jusu remind us that, in genre, you can let your creative fantasies run wild while also making some of the most pointed social commentary of our time.

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

See you on the page,

Director of Content
Throwing Muses
Writers on their sources of inspiration

Contributed by Victor Gabriel (Hallelujah, Black Boys Can’t Cry)
I’m inspired by Nina Simone and her live performance of "Feelings" at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. It is almost beautifully uncomfortable to witness her so lost in her emotion. In fact, Nina Simone appears to be so drawn within that for moments it feels like she is disassociating on stage. Whenever I watch her performance, I feel like I am intruding on something very personal and sacred. This very naked performance reminds me of what I am looking to do as an artist.
Getting Unstuck
Answers to common filmmaking questions

Q: What’s the best way to handle notes from studio executives?
A: For this vital question, we turned to our friends at In the Cut, who presented a Sundance Collab Master Class on Breaking into the Industry as a TV Writer. Diane Ademu-John (Haunting of Bly Manor, Empire) shares her notes strategy during the session, saying that she always considers the notes and “I will be conciliatory and I will genuinely look at it.” That doesn’t mean she always takes them happily, admitting “After I hang up on that notes call I yell and I scream, ‘Didn’t those idiots look at page 16?!’”

Of course, some notes can be very valuable, illuminating areas of the script where what you were hoping to communicate to the audience isn’t quite coming across yet, so Ademu-John will quickly get any frustration out of her system and then try to look at the feedback “with an open heart and open mind.” Then, if she still disagrees with the notes, she will come back to the executives and explain why or tell them, “‘I looked at that thing you said and I feel that I addressed that earlier in the script so I'll just make it more clear earlier.’ I still make it sound like I did something based on their notes.”
Diane Ademu-John (R) was a producer and writer on Empire (L)
In the Cut founder and Master Class moderator Rae Benjamin stresses the importance of getting notes from fellow writers in addition to execs, as executives are not usually writers themselves. Benjamin is in three writers’ groups herself and advises, “It's really important to form a community and get notes from people that you trust and respect. They're able to steer you in the right direction and you're able to do the same thing for them.”

Joining a writers’ group not only strengthens your personal network and sharpens your writing skills, but Ademu-John points out that it also helps you learn to take notes in general. She suggests, “Maybe you can start to say, ‘Okay, I actually didn't see the whole picture right, and here's how I can respond to my friend in a nice way, which will give me the skills to respond to studio executives.’”

Finally, Ademu-John reminds us that “Execs do a lot of reading and a lot of skimming and they might skip over that one line you wrote on page 16 that explained everything.” This may feel frustrating in the moment, but it’s helpful to prepare you for future audiences. “You have to take that kind of viewer in mind. There are people watching your show while they're doing 16 other things. You've got to be clear to the distracted person as well as to the person who hangs on your every word.”

Read More: Five Strategies to Help You Begin a TV Writing Career
When Inspiration Struck
How creators came up with their most notable ideas

Contributed by Darius Dawson, Sundance Collab Advisor (A Rodeo Film, The Now)
A Rodeo Film, the film that has started my career is a love triangle set in the world of Black cowboys. A lot of people didn't know that Black cowboys were a thing. Of course, this is something I've observed and have been observing for some time now. There's so much history there. “Cowboy” used to be a derogatory term for a Black rancher. The original American cowboy is the Black cowboy. It all started with pictures of a man that looked like me competing in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the only all Black touring rodeo in the US. From there it's grown to a love affair.
A Rodeo Film (2019) (R), written and directed by Darius Dawson (L)
Top Fives
Writers on their favorites from across the world of cinema

Contributed by Andrew Burrows-Trotman, Sundance Collab Advisor (The Porter, Frankie Drake Mysteries)
Views Into the Margins of Life
1.The Elephant Man (1980)
Screenplay by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch
“I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man.” What movie does an immigrant West-Indian mother take her grade school son to see for fun? How would she even know which movie to pick if she’d never watched one in the theater before? Just choose a catchy title I guess? The Elephant Man, a movie about a disfigured nineteenth century man whose humanity is reduced to being a circus sideshow — of course that must be for kids! How grateful I am all these years later for my mother’s innocent mistake. The climactic scene in the train station where Joseph Merrick is hounded by school children before getting cornered and unmasked by an angry mob is etched into my psyche. It isn’t much of a leap to see how I relate to this as a Black man but I’ll leave it to my therapist to assess how that cinematic experience shaped my artistic sensibilities. All I know is I still channel my inner Merrick to this day — bellowing out his indelible words when systemic racism cuts into me as if it were my battle cry: I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! A tragically evergreen allegory if there ever was one.
2. Amores Perros (2000)
Screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga

“Dog. Barking.” You know you done fucked up right? That’s what I want to say in my best Bill Duke voice to little Richie, the designer dog, after getting himself trapped underneath the floorboards of his bourgeois home. With one innocent and curious leap through the hole in the floorboards little Richie is transported from the lap of luxury into the horrors of life on the margins! Richie’s incessant barking builds from confident bark to terrified shrill to unnerving whimper as the scraping, scampering feet of rats the size of cats close in around him. Iñárritu creates palpable, unbearable tension as Richie’s owner tosses and turns in bed all night tormented by his desperate yelps for help. The crisis eventually ends with the amputation of Richie's supermodel Mommy’s leg as a result of trying to save her fur baby. I still find this movie white knuckle viewing almost two decades later. But why am I so drawn to this cruel, morbid tale? Because when you grow up treading the poverty line you have no room for error. One misstep and you spend the rest of your days scratching your way back to the starting line — better hope the rats don’t get to you first.
3. Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
Screenplay by Christine Olsen
“I’ve come for the girls”… Sound like a line from a chilling horror movie? Or some mustache-twirling super villain that holds all the cards? Nope, just plain old history. Phillip Noyce’s masterpiece about Australia’s heinous Aboriginal resettlement policy is all the more frightening because this isn’t ancient history we can distance ourselves from. This racist policy was law right up until 1967. So what do you say to the white man who has “come for the girls” with weapons and the backing of both federal and state authority? If you lived through the tyranny of Australia’s “Stolen Generation” you speak in the universal language of sorrow — repeatedly smashing your head into jagged rock. I’m inspired by the resolve of Molly and Daisy in this film who, after escaping the Native Settlement they were taken to, walk 1500 miles along the rabbit proof fence until they get back home. And I’m with them every step of the way as they reclaim their humanity, dignity and self-worth.
4. The Wire (TV series, 2002-08)
Created by David Simon
“Fuck it then, for another Pit Sandwich and some tater salad I’ll go a few more.” So what do you ask for when you’ve just been told you’re looking at life with no parole for the attempted murder of a police officer? A beef barbecue sandwich of course! Talk about dissociative trauma! Roland “Wee-Bey” Brice is eating away his stress (medium rare with a lot of horseradish) as he confesses to murder after murder with a disaffected apathy that disturbs even a jaded cop like Bunk who has supposedly seen it all. The brilliance of The Wire is not letting you turn away from the human cost of the drug trade that chews up and spits out those caught in its teeth. In Wee-Bey’s cameos in subsequent seasons, the finality of what LIFE NO PAROLE truly means is hammered home. Years after The Wire aired its final episode I find myself still thinking about Wee-Bey, wrestling with the stark reality that he’s still serving that sentence. Why do I keep thinking about this fictional man? Because if not for a few lucky bounces in my younger years — I too could have been Wee-Bey.
5. Gattaca (1997)
Screenplay by Andrew Niccol
“I never saved anything for the swim back!” In Gattaca, Vincent Freeman, a genetically inferior man who always aspired to travel in space, assumes the identity of a paraplegic in order to accomplish his goal. Of course, Gattaca’s exploration of eugenics and self-determination can easily be seen through the lens of systemic racism. This scene in question is where Vincent and his genetically superior younger brother Anton are playing a game of chicken in the water but when Anton reaches his limit Vincent finally beats his brother for the very first time. He. Will. Not. Lose. Vincent’s line of dialogue sums up how I’ve endured relentless rejection and disappointments throughout my entire writing career. Like Vincent, I wasn’t supposed to even be here let alone thrive but, when you’re expected to fail, therein lies the freedom. After all, what’s
the worst that can happen if I try? Well I could drown — well not really drown, but you get the point! So I blocked out all that noise and kept swimming toward my pipe dream of becoming a professional screenwriter. Quick update: I’m still swimming!

Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script

Contributed by Julia Camara, Sundance Collab Advisor (Open Road, Occupants)
The clash of opposing forces in a screenplay can be so fun to watch, but crafting a good conflict between your protagonist and antagonist can be challenging, so I always recommend spending some time with these characters and getting to know them intimately. Learning what makes both protagonist and antagonist tick will help you create situations in your script where they push each other’s buttons and heighten the drama of your work. Here are a few good ways to explore these opposing worldviews and forces in dynamic ways:

  • Write a scene where the protagonist and antagonist are stuck together in a room and have to work together to get out. Odds are, your protagonist and antagonist won’t necessarily share a lot of screen time together. Creating a scene where they have to work together will help you understand how they think and where they would clash the most.

  • Write a scene where the protagonist and antagonist know each other well. We never quite have the same level of disdain for people that we don’t know all that well. Think about the people in your life you’ve had conflict and arguments with in the past; most likely, they are people you are close to. Imagine that your protagonist and antagonist are close siblings, relatives, classmates or coworkers and write a scene where their friendship is demonstrated. Figuring out where they have common ground will help you understand and create some of these moments in the script.

  • Write a scene where they are forced to defend each other’s actions to other people.  This could be an extension of the previous scene. Now that you made them friends, imagine a situation where they have to defend each other’s choices or actions in front of other people. What arguments would they use? What qualities do they admire in each other?

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

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