It was 8:30 p.m. on a recent Monday night in Los Angeles and eight directors were gathered in the assembly room at the Film Independent offices. They are the 2014 Directing Lab Fellows. The Lab is an intensive eight-week program that’s designed to help emerging directors who are prepping independent feature films. For some, it’s their first work after film school. For most, it will be their feature film debut. Under the guidance of a Lab mentor—this year’s mentors are Zal Batmanglij (The East), Zoe Cassavetes (Paris), Kat Coiro (A Case of You) and Mark Tonderai (House at the End of the Street)—the Fellows receive script feedback, discuss their vision for their films and workshop short scenes from their scripts.
On this particular night two of the Fellows are workshopping scenes from their screenplays with actors they have cast. After a run-through with his actors, the first director up sends his actors out of the room and then leans against a table, script in hand, as he listens to Batmanglij, tonight’s Lab mentor. Mainly, Batmanglij offers advice on connecting with actors and giving them what they need from their director. The discussion naturally opens up to include the other Fellows in the room.
Before this evening’s session got underway, Batmanglij shared his own mixed views on mentorship. On one hand, he said, “some of us move here to Los Angeles and are shocked by how little mentorship there is in this community.” He also feels that too much advice can get in the way of building the courage of conviction in your own ideas. That said, Batmanglij was one of the lucky ones who was able to form a relationship with an established pro. “Gill Dennis the filmmaker in residence (at AFI, Batmanglij attended in 2007) who wrote Walk the Line and Return To Oz, he was a really great mentor to me.”
Batmanglij also points out that the approaches that are successful for one filmmaker on a particular project at a specific time may or may not be relevant to someone else at another time. “Another Earth, Like Crazy, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Sound Of My Voice were all shot within five months of each other in the Spring and Summer of 2010… I think it was just the right time and place… whatever worked (then) wouldn’t work in 2012, let alone today.”
The value of the Lab experience, for Batmanglij, comes from becoming a part of a community. “I think just being a part of a Lab is really important, any Lab, any community, any organized setting, and feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’ I think that part is important.” And he hopes that what people get out of the Lab is the importance of connecting with other filmmakers out there—no matter how established they may or may not be. “The mentor is just the bus driver, the person sitting next to you at the back of the bus, that’s where it’s at, that’s where the next wave is going to be.”
Go to the Directing Lab page on Film Independent’s website for more info on the Lab. The 2014 application period opens in July.