Alexandra Reinnoldt is a producer and sound technician for Lunacy Productions. This year she was invited to be a crew member at the Sundance Directors Lab, an annual retreat designed to support promising young filmmakers as they workshop their first feature films. Taking part in the Sundance Labs is a unique experience that has a huge impact not only on the fellows selected, but also on the volunteers that help them hone their visions. Alex has been kind enough to share her experience with us here.
Is it crazy to fall in love in 25 days?
If you’re talking about The Bachelor, then I’d say absolutely, yes! But for me, I fell in love at the Sundance Directors Lab in Utah.
This summer, I volunteered as a sound mixer, and for 3 and a half weeks, spent almost every day with the same group of people — living, eating, working and playing together. Now you’d think that would be a recipe for drama (like The Bachelor). But it wasn’t. It was actually the opposite.
At the Directors Lab, eight fellows are invited to the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah to workshop their feature scripts. Supported by advisors, key crew, and actors, the fellows immerse themselves in their respective stories and dive into their roles as directors. On the surface, the labs are a hands-on environment where they rehearse, shoot and edit four scenes from their scripts. But when you dig deeper, it’s actually an extremely personal, individual journey. And nobody experiences the lab quite the same.
When I found out that I was chosen as a sound mixer, everyone kept asking me if I was excited. Most of the time, I said yes because what an opportunity! To be honest though, I didn’t know what to expect and that made me really nervous. Being an introvert, the idea of spending almost 24 hours a day surrounded by people scared the heck out of me. But right from the beginning, I felt welcomed and appreciated and understood. What amazed me is that everyone volunteering there has their own unique, incredible story, and is talented in their own right as filmmakers. But when it came to working on the mountain, everyone was so supportive of the directors and their journey.
Recent Sundance Fellows share what they learned at the lab.
Near the beginning of the lab, once everyone had flown in, we had a round of introductions. This included everyone, from the crew to the directors to Robert Redford himself. During this time, many returning volunteers expressed their gratitude to “Bob” and for Sundance, saying that there was a beauty there, a magic. This place, when you’re rundown from LA, replenishes your spirit and inspires you.
Inspiring speeches came from FFP Founding Director Michelle Satter, Labs Director Ilyse McKimmie, Artistic Director Gyula Gazdag and advisors Robert Redford and Ed Harris, as well as others. Bob reminded everyone to take a moment and look at your feet, where you’re standing, not just what’s ahead. Ed reminded everyone to breathe. And Michelle reminded everyone to be bold, take risks, speak your truth, and tell stories that need to be told — that need to be heard.
Following the introductions, we went to the middle of a field and stood in a circle for “The Blessing.” Ute Spiritual Leader Larry Cesspooch, individually and as a whole, blessed everyone, connecting us to the ancestral land and storytelling traditions. This took about 2 hours. He explained that each ceremony of theirs requires sacrifice and ours was comfort. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time that I just stood and did nothing, not thinking about anything in particular or stressing, or looking at my phone — just standing. It was weird at first, but then I entered a state of calmness. It became relaxing and powerful, listening to nature and feeling the energy of the group. I was struck by how different and unique every single person there was.
Once the blessing was over, we chanted and “danced” (aka shuffled clockwise very awkwardly) together. We were all connected, and some people hugged each other afterward, feeling that they had experienced something significant together. In almost every aspect of the lab, you can tell that this is a community, and everyone knows just how precious their time is there. Each summer is different because everyone brings their own personalities and experience to the lab, and the projects are big factors in that as well.
For the lab itself, the crew is split up into four groups, and each is assigned two directors to work with. The directors have a rotating schedule of rehearse, shoot, editing…and repeat. For the crew, while one director is editing, we’re shooting with the other. It’s a non-stop schedule that equally makes you feel like time flies and that you’ve also been there forever. I think one of the weirdest sensations for me was the fact that I could remember meeting everyone. I could remember them being strangers. But within such a short time, I also felt very close to many of them. You get to know people really quickly in that kind of environment.
Our first chance to work with the directors was filming for a half-day on an assignment called Osso Buco. The directors were all given the same generic script, and had to create a scenario around it, workshopping it during their meetings with creative advisors. For the crew, it was a way to test the equipment and workflow. For the directors, I think it was a chance to ease into working with the crew as well as to begin thinking creatively about shot choices and getting out of their comfort zones. Because we’re creating these locations at the resort in Utah, it’s also an introduction to the limitations and the necessity to not be precious about everything being perfect. In other words, it’s about the process, not the product.
Footage from Quentin Tarantino’s 1991 Sundance workshop of Reservoir Dogs.
While filming is rarely ever ideal, I think that one of the challenges of the labs is to look past your limitations with things like equipment and locations, and to get creative on how you can test your ideas with what you do have. Have the courage to try something out that may or may not work, and have the wherewithal to take what you learned from it and apply it elsewhere.
While I think it’s improbable to replicate the lab experience, I think that it’s worthwhile to find your own version of this. Find people that you like working with, and make things together. If you have a crazy idea, try to approximate it using equipment you have access to and your friends around you — you don’t need a whole crew to test an idea. I think one of the biggest takeaways for me (even as a non-director) was to not cover every part of the scene, but instead think of how the story can be told using specific, crafted and interesting shots. Instill each one with purpose and intention. This might seem basic, but at the same time, it takes courage not to spend time covering your butt because you’re afraid you’ll be in the edit room later, regretting it. So this is what I learned: Trust yourself. Take risks. Get creative. And find your Sundance.
As a first-year volunteer, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of what the returning volunteers were saying during their introductions. But having been through it now, and feeling more confident in my skills, I have an idea as to why they expressed such gratitude for the Labs. It really is a safe place to be bold and take risks. And It’s a place where people connect on a level almost unachievable elsewhere. During my time at Sundance, I fell in love with the people, the place, the stories…everyone and everything was working towards a common goal.
We were a mountain of misfits, united by our love of independent film.