Inside the Sundance Labs: Michelle Satter, Director of the Feature Film Program

Reservoir Dogs. Boys Don't Cry. Requiem for a Dream. Those are just a few of the striking films that had their start in the Sundance Labs Feature Film Program, which nurtures a handful of fledgling filmmakers every year in a workshop environment shepherded by some of the best minds in the business. Still, for as much attention as is lavished on the January film festival, the summertime Labs operate in relative seclusion.

Movieline decided to shed a little light on things with a five-part series in which we'll interview key figures at each step of the Sundance Labs process in an attempt to better understand how the program works. It's a group of people as eclectic as the festival's typical crop of movies: a former gang leader, an actress who's leaping from television acclaim to the big screen, a creative adviser who directed one of the most seminal teen films ever, and a duo who's among Hollywood most sought-after screenwriters.

First up? Michelle Satter, who's been director of the Feature Film Program since 1981.

You've had some big names as fellows at the Labs back when they were practically unknown. Were there any interesting mentor/student relationships then?

I think of Paul Thomas Anderson with John Schlesinger, Michael Caton-Jones, and Richard LaGravanese -- three mentors who had a big impact on P.T. Anderson, both in his writing and directing. With Quentin Tarantino, Terry Gilliam was there at the time, and they had a very interesting conversation. I also think of Darren Aronofsky and Robert Redford working together and having discussions about his script. The impact can come from the most unlikely places, in terms of the work.

What's the biggest misconception about the Labs?

I think people think that there's a bunch of Sundance notes on a screenplay or that there's a certain kind of project that Sundance supports, and I think what's important to know is that there's no such thing. It's very individualized and everybody gets to say what they want to say. There's a lot of different debates and disagreements about things, which we encourage.

It is used as a pejorative sometimes in film criticism: "Oh, this project smells like it was developed at the Sundance Labs." What do you think that means?

I don't know. To some extent, it could be about the idea that there's some sort of homogenization happening here -- that there's a Sundance way of doing things -- but there's no vision imposed on the project. Everyone gets to make their own choices -- we're not about dictating a way to write a screenplay or direct a scene. What's exciting it to get into somebody's head and help them achieve what they want to achieve. Also, for anyone to say that these projects are all the same, they're not looking at how different these projects are. From Sin Nombre, to Requiem for a Dream, to Amreeka...Hard Eight, Reservoir Dogs...I could go on and on and name films.

So take me through the Labs. Where do they begin, and how do the Fellows flow through them during the year?

Looking at a calendar year starting point, we do a Screenwriters Labs each January. The intent of the lab is really for the advisers to embrace the individual vision of each writer that they work with and help them get the most compelling version of the story that they want to tell. There's a series of meeting with working screenwriters, and our advisers range from Chris McQuarrie to Scott Frank to Walter Mosley to Susannah Grant.

So, that's the Screenwriters Lab and we bring twelve projects into that in January. And then, all these writer/directors go on to the festival and we do a world cinema program there -- it's not mandatory, but it's an incredible opportunity for them and the festival begins the day after we end. Obviously, that's something that's deliberately planned.

The next lab that we do is the one that we're in the thick of right now, the Directors Lab. It's a hands-on experience and it's giving the writer/directors the opportunity to rehearse, shoot, and edit scenes from the scripts they have written. Scenes that are made during the lab are made for the lab only, so it really allows for discovery and risk taking and experimentation that is so crucial to the learning process. The Directors Labs are populated primarily by projects that we've already supported in January, and again, this is our commitment to the continuum of year-round support.

In what circumstances would something from the Screenwriters Lab not move on to the Directing Lab?

If someone is going into production before June or the timing doesn't work. Sometimes a director's not attached to a project, and sometimes life gets in the way in of our calendar year. One of the directors we're considering just had triplets, so...[Laughs] We also support Screenwriters Lab projects that represent the second film of a filmmaker. For instance, when Darren Aronofsky was here with Requiem for a Dream, we didn't support him at the Directors Lab because he was on his second movie [after Pi] and the support that he wanted and needed was in the writing but not in the directing.

And then directly after that Directors Lab, there's a second Screenwriters Lab?

Yes, most of the directors are writers and they stay on for the Screenwriters Lab at the end of June. For some people, it might sound strange -- why are you doing a Screenwriters Lab at the end of a Directors Lab? But what's actually kind of exciting is that the script has been read by actors here, scenes have been done, and it's an opportunity to look at the script and take that information into a series of meetings coming out the other end. They can have a clear idea of continued work to do on the script.

Are you still in touch when and if the films eventually get made?

I can't tell you the ways we've supported films at the end of the process. A lab that we don't do here at Sundance but where we provide a huge amount of support is at the rough cut stage. We bring in groups of advisers in LA and New York and provide them with feedback at a critical stage of their process.

How international is this year's group of Fellows?

It's evolved over the years. It went from a lab that only supported American filmmakers to a lab that's open to voices from other parts of the world. We have projects here from India, we have a filmmaker here from the UK who grew up in Egypt, we have a project with a filmmaker from Morocco, another filmmaker from Alaska whose short film won the jury prize at Sundance...

And should I assume that they'll all be English language?

Actually, they won't all be. Out of the eight projects at the Directors Lab, three of them will be foreign-language films.

So how do you deal with it when you bring in mentors or instructors who may not speak the foreign language of, say, the Moroccan film?

Oh, very easily. All the scripts are translated into English, the movies will be subtitled, plus there's this kind of universal language of film. The conversations with the [Moroccan filmmaker] on set, working with her actors who are more French-speaking than English-speaking, there's an incredible communication that's going on. The director speaks English, but if she didn't, we'd have a translator with her. It's very fluid, and kind of a great challenge. Language is actually not getting in the way of the work at Sundance.