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Programs Tue 8.25.2015

5 Ways Directing Labs Can Set the Scene for Your First Feature

In 2012, Film Independent Fellow Andrew Ahn’s short film Dol (First Birthday) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to play festivals like Outfest and the Los Angeles Film Festival. After the success of the film, which deals with queer Korean-American identity, Ahn was looking for another way to explore being gay and Korean. One night, Ahn was hanging out with a few of his friends when one of them mentioned he had a “hot hookup” in a Korean spa. And just like that, the wheels in Ahn’s head started turning on his next project.

“I was really shocked by it, but then I was also like, ‘It sounds really hot,’” he said. “I felt like that was the perfect location to set a coming-of-age story about a gay Korean-American figuring out his sexuality.”

Spa Night is currently in post-production and Ahn hopes to premiere the film at festivals in 2016. But in the three years between the premiere of Dol (First Birthday) and production of Spa Night, filmmaker labs—specifically the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab and the Film Independent Screenwriting and Directing Labs—played a major role in Ahn making his first feature film. Here five ways the labs helped him—and could help you too.

Labs made the project real for him
When Ahn started developing Spa Night back in 2012, he wasn’t completely sure he was going to make the film.

“As a filmmaker who’s only made shorts before, a feature—even if it’s a small feature—feels like a daunting, impossible challenge,” he said.

But when he started applying to labs—and getting accepted—Ahn said he had an important shift in perspective. “I realized that, ‘Oh, people are responding to this story and they’re supporting the project; I’d better fucking make this.’”

Throughout the lab process, Ahn was able to wrap his mind around what it takes to make a feature, and was also able to feel like he had enough support to do it.

Labs connected him with collaborators
The next key to getting the project off the ground was finding the collaborators to make it with him. Ahn said the labs were also helpful in that regard.

“Through conversations with producers and people at the labs, I realized that what seemed really impossible was actually totally doable if I just found the right people.”

One of Spa Night’s producers, Kelly Thomas, was Film Independent’s producer-in-residence when Ahn was accepted to the Screenwriting Lab. She and her producing partner David Ariniello came on board after meeting Ahn and played a key role in helping him understand what his budget needed to be to realize his vision.

They joined Ahn’s collaborators from film school, Giulia Caruso and Ki Jin Kim, to form the producing team for the film. Ahn said that without so many people who believed in the story, Spa Night may never have happened.

They gave people a reason to believe in him
And when it came time for crowd-funding, Ahn’s participation in the labs gave backers a degree of assurance that their money would be well spent.

“I think that opportunities like Sundance, the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, and then Film Independent’s Screenwriting and Directing Labs, I think that these really were stamps of approval. People were like, ‘Okay, this is going to be a quality project.’”

They provided opportunities to talk to filmmakers who had been in his shoes
At the Film Independent Directing and Screenwriting Labs, filmmakers are given advisors who provide feedback throughout the workshop. Ahn’s advisor for the Screenwriting Lab was Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). He said her enthusiasm for the project really helped push him forward.

“I remember at one point telling Robin that I was really afraid of making this film,” said Ahn, “It’s a really daunting task and I was really afraid of the reaction from the Korean-American community. And she just looked at me and she said, ‘You just have to make it. Don’t worry about that. You have to keep your vision.’ And that was really huge for me.”

Ahn said the feedback he got at the Directing Lab was less encouraging, but just as helpful. His advisor was Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice, The East).

“He was really tough on me. And I think that was great because throughout the entire process, so many people were being really, really easy on me,” Ahn said. “And then he was one of the first people that was really trying to push me to make it even better and to not rest on the fact that it’s a unique story. And for many reasons that tough attitude prepared me for the shoot because the shoot was going to be really difficult.”

Labs gave him the opportunity to shoot a scene (before he shot the scene)
But Ahn said his experience in the directing lab made the shoot a little easier.

As part of the labs, filmmakers are required to shoot a scene from their film. They crew up, cast the roles, shoot the scene, edit the material and present it for fellow lab participants and advisors.

For his workshop scene, Ahn chose particularly challenging sequence from his film. “In Spa Night, there’s a long karaoke sequence with six characters in it, and I realized during the Film Independent Directing Lab, that I’d never directed a scene with that many people in it before. There’s so much dialogue and movement and choreography that I just wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do it.”

Ahn said he was thankful for the opportunity to work through the scene in an environment where it was okay to take risks and make mistakes. He also said editing the karaoke scene helped him understand it in a whole new way.

“At first, I thought [the karaoke scene] was really just about this environment and then what I realized was that it was actually a mini love story, that my main character had a crush on this guy. And I didn’t realize that until I was editing the scene,” said Ahn. “So when it came time to shoot the scene for the actual feature, I was able to focus the coverage on them.”

“I think what was nice about the Directing Lab,” said Ahn, “was that you were given the opportunity to not just visualize it in your head, but actually put it to the screen and get to react to that.”

Applications for the 2015 Film Independent Directing Lab are now open. The deadline to apply is September 14.

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger

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  • Sounds like just where I’m at. Please send more info about the screenwriting and directing labs. I’m in the UK so anything you have here will be great but I maybe able to travel. Thanks, James