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The Trailblazers of Sundance

By Kevin Nelson · January 24, 2022

These scripts definitely capture the independent spirit of the Sundance Film Festival.

The Sundance Kid was an outlaw, a wrangler, a train robber, and an explorer of lost horizons. He rolled with a posse known as the Wild Bunch and many feared his name. Yet, in his day, there were many others just like him. Even members of his own gang had higher prices on their heads. 

So what makes him so special? What sets him apart from other outlaws of the Wild West? 

His legend lives on through his stories.

Perhaps that’s why Robert Redford was such a natural at playing the kid. Using money made from his roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Downhill Racer, Robert Redford invested in a ski resort not far from Salt Lake City and renamed it Sundance after his infamous turn as the quick drawing outlaw. Redford sought to create a haven where filmmakers of different disciplines could come together and develop their projects in peace. 

Within that same spirit, The Sundance Institute was born. Co-founded by Redford, the nonprofit organization’s mission became to discover and champion new and exciting independent voices with the aid of labs, programs, intensives, fellowships, grants, and a festival to showcase their work to the world.

Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival

Sundance became revered as an incubator and launching pad for writers, directors, and other film creatives who would later become household names. 

After all, the institute’s visionary statement is simple:

“We believe that a story-driven by an individual, authentic voice can awaken new ideas that have the power to delight and entertain, push creative boundaries, spark new levels of empathy and understanding, and even lead to social change.”

Here are some of the breakthrough screenplays that, with the help of The Sundance Institute and Film Festival, transformed their creators’ careers from humble beginnings into proper legends.

Scripts from this Article

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Coming out of the University of Southern California School of the Cinematic Arts, writer and director Ryan Coogler was deeply affected by the shooting of Oscar Grant in his hometown of Oakland in 2009. Coogler wanted to tell the story of Grant’s last day and allow the audience to get to know the man beyond the media’s spin. The film humanized Grant because as Coogler said, “When you know somebody as a human being, you know that life means something.”

In order to accurately portray and give justice to Grant’s life, Coogler worked closely with Grant’s family attorney John Burris and his family directly. In 2011, Forest Whitaker was looking for young filmmakers to mentor through his production company.

Coogler met with Head of Production Nina Yang Bongiovi and worked with the Sundance Screenwriters Lab to develop the project through their tiered development system. The film also received partial funding through The Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program. Coogler’s voice would prove to reign supreme as he’d go on to create one of the most monumental superhero films ever made, Black Panther.

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Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Before Reservoir Dogs premiered at Sundance, not many people could tell you who Quentin Tarantino was. His first screenplay, True Romance, had already sold and was in production, but wouldn’t come out until a year later. Planning on using the money made from the sale of True Romance, Tarantino planned to shoot the film on 16mm. Producer Lawrence Bender gave the script to his acting teacher, whose wife knew Harvey Keitel. Keitel hopped on board as a co-producer and gave the project a new life.

The film is Tarantino’s take on a heist film and serves as a homage to all the classic films he grew to love while working at Video Archives. It’s full of references and cues from other movies. Tarantino has defended his stylized riffs on his favorite flicks — it’s more akin to the sampling of classic R&B music into hip hop — it’s a remix of sorts.  

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Winter’s Bone (2010)

In 1997, filmmaker Debra Granik directed her first short film, Snake Feed, as her thesis for the mentorship of NYU film professor Boris Frumin. The seven-minute documentary was accepted into the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, where she developed the short into a feature screenplay with creative partner Anne Rosellini. 

This would become Granik and Rosellini’s first feature, Down to the Bone, and provide Vera Farmiga with a breakthrough performance as a woman facing addiction. The film premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival where the film won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Directing and Acting. 

Six years later, their relationships with the Sundance Institute still remained strong when Winter’s Bone was released, where they again won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Winter’s Bone was a labor of love that took years until finally being produced and released. It is based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell.

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Take Shelter (2013)

Take Shelter is a fantastic slow-burn psychological thriller written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It’s his second feature film with Michael Shannon playing the lead to searing perfection. Nichols wrote his first feature, Shotgun Stories, with Shannon in mind and was able to contact the actor through a former teacher from the University of Northern Carolina School of the Arts. Shannon has since acted in everything made by Nichols, including a music video. 

Take Shelter is a script that you should read and study if you want to learn how to build suspense through subtle dialogue and action lines. The ambiguous ending is concrete in Nichols’s mind, yet has created quite the debate amongst the film’s cult following. Like the film itself, Nichols’s writing sticks with you long after you finish reading. 

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Bottle Rocket (1994)

Wes Anderson teamed up with Owen and Luke Wilson to create a thirteen-minute short film called Bottle Rocket. Anderson and Owen shared writing credits and Owen and Luke star as two bumbling criminals. The short film was shot in black and white in their hometown. The short film premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival and they were tapped to turn it into a feature. The short kickstarted the three filmmakers’ careers.  

It’s okay if you read a Wes Anderson script in deadpan. His writing reads just like it’s delivered by the actors — dry witty humor that is carefully constructed.

Fun story: Many years ago I was working as a mover in New York City. We were moving a bunch of stuff from one storage unit to another and I noticed something weird about the person’s wardrobes. What’s this person doing with boy scout uniforms? And old telephones. And, holy crap! I realized that I was moving most of Anderson’s movie props that he must have kept from previous movies, including the miniature model houses. Yes, I geeked the hell out. 

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Whiplash (2014)

After graduating from Harvard, writer and director Damien Chazelle moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of his filmmaking dreams and was having a hard time getting his big-budget musical La La Land off the ground. Studios just weren’t going to fork over the money for a jazz musical to an unknown writer/director. What audience would pay to see that? Are you kidding me?

So Chazelle adapted and controlled what he could, by focusing on a concept that he could sell and produce on a limited budget. He made an intense eighteen-minute short film to act as a teaser for Whiplash, featuring a scene with a drummer under the oppressive tutelage of a commandeering instructor. He tapped into his real-life experiences and the short premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning the Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction. This attracted investors which allowed him to develop the short into a feature.

The success of Whiplash proved the doubters wrong and provided Chazelle the creative freedom to make his big-budget jazz musical. 

And wouldn’t you know it — it almost won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards.

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El Mariachi (1992)

Sundance recognizes the hunger and tenacity that it takes to get a film made. They admire writers and directors who buck against the odds and ride into town in a blaze of glory. Robert Rodriguez is one of those celluloid slingers.

Robert Rodriguez redefined shoe-string budget filmmaking with El Mariachi. The legend goes that Rodriguez was able to shoot the feature film for $7,225. There was no film crew. Actors helped out on set. Instead of a dolly, he used a wheelchair. Instead of shooting multiple takes, he’d shoot one long take, freeze the action of the actors, and readjust the camera’s position. 

The film was meant to be used as leverage for a bigger budget and a better film. Once the film hit the American market, he was given the chance with 1995’s Desperado. Robert Rodriguez went from holding the camera himself to out-of-this-world filming technology with his latest turn as director of the Disney+ series, The Book of Boba Fett.

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Hustle & Flow (2005)

While working as a manager at Barnes and Noble, writer and director Craig Brewer had the idea for his first feature film after his co-worker’s car was stolen. He’d go to the P&H Cafe to write it out. When he asked what the P&H stood for, people would jest — The Poor and Hungry.

Intending to max out his credit cards in order to finance the production of Poor and Hungry, his father gave him some advice. Weeks later, his father suffered a heart attack and tragically passed away. Brewer funded his film with the inheritance money in honor of his father. The film caught the attention of legendary director John Singletary. 

After years of “this might be it” moments and outright rejections, Brewer kept struggling to get his second feature, Hustle & Flow, off the ground. Singletary eventually offered to fund the film because he was tired of his friends not getting what they deserved. 

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Garden State (2004)

Zach Braff’s breakout role on the comedic television sitcom Scrubs provided him with the opportunity to learn firsthand on set and eventually graduate to directing several episodes. This gave him the perfect training to direct his debut feature Garden State. He initially wrote the script in six months, long before finding success.

On his blog, Braff reflected:

“When I wrote Garden State, I was completely depressed, waiting tables and lonesome as I’ve ever been in my life. The script was a way for me to articulate what I was feeling; alone, isolated, “a dime a dozen” and homesick for a place that didn’t even exist.”

Producers were initially reluctant to finance his endeavors, but his passion and vision for the project convinced them otherwise. He’d go on to win a Grammy for the soundtrack, which if you haven’t listened to before, “it’ll change your life, I swear.” 

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Blood Simple (1984)

Blood Simple marks Ethan and Joel Cohen’s directorial debuts. Once they finished the screenplay, the two novice filmmakers shot a trailer in hopes of raising funds for the film. It was a simple short with a complex image of a man dragging a shovel towards a man he’s going to kill. It perfectly captured the pulpy neo-noir of rural crime that they were going for. 

It did the job, and producer Daniel Bacaner invested in the project and introduced the brothers to other financiers. The film marked Frances McDormand’s debut and was a critical success. 

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American Psycho (2000)

The rights to Brett Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho were bought by producer Edward R. Pressman in 1992. After several years of shuffling directors and talent, including an attempt by Ellis to adapt his own work, Pressman entrusted the property to director Mary Harron, who developed the screenplay with Guinevere Turner.

Their take on the material was inspired by Italian Giallo films, which were stylized after cheap Italian mystery novels printed on yellow paper. The studios still needed to be convinced to give Christian Bale a shot at the starring role though. They were holding out for Leonardo DiCaprio after his massive run with Titanic and Romeo + Juliet, and were concerned that Bale wasn’t famous enough to fill theaters. DiCaprio chose The Beach instead.

Fun fact: Christian Bale based his character Patrick Bateman’s mannerisms on Tom Cruise after seeing him on Late Night with David Letterman. Harron told Black Book magazine that Bale was fascinated by Cruise’s energy, “and intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes.”

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Get Out (2017)

Horror and comedy are closely related in that they produce a visceral physical reaction from the viewer. To laugh is much the same as to jump in fear. People often laugh after a harrowing situation. It’s human nature from opposite ends of the same emotional spectrum. So, when Jordan Peele surprised everyone with a hair-raising midnight screening of his directorial debut, he sure turned a lot of heads.

After being introduced to producer Sean McKittrick by his comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele, Peele pitched the idea for Get Out over coffee, and to Peele’s surprise, McKittrick bought the idea right then and there. 

The script is a satirical examination of racism in America masterfully crafted in the conventions of the horror genre. The story was personal for Peele and it emanates from the pages.

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Passing (2021)

The feature adaptation of Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name, Passing, was written and directed by Rebecca Hall. After a long career as an actress, Passing marks Hall’s directorial debut. It premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where Netflix quickly purchased the distribution rights. 

After learning about her own family’s history, Hall began to develop the screenplay for Passing. Whether adapting another writer’s work or creating an original piece, it’s important to write about subjects that speak to your personal experience. A writer can access and emphasize with their characters more when they’ve actually walked in their shoes. By being true to yourself, you will be able to deliver authenticity that sets you apart from others trying to tell the same stories again and again.

Dealing with themes of racial and gender identities, community, and class inequality, Hall captures all of the complex human emotions that drive these characters toward their tragic end. 

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Sin Nombre (2009)

Sundance has helped take many filmmakers to the next stage of their careers. Before being known for directing and/or writing films and television shows such as Beasts of No NationIt, No Time to Die, and True DetectiveCary Joji Fukunaga wanted to become a professional snowboarder. In his mid-20s, he wisened up and got his first job as a camera intern. He soon enrolled at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film Program.

While at NYU, Fukunaga wrote and directed the short film, Victoria para China, that went on to premiere at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. He continued to make shorts until his debut feature, Sin Nombre, the harrowing adventure thriller about a gang member trying to escape from the consequences of his actions with immigrants trying to reach America for a better life. 

As noted on the second title page, the shooting screenplay is written in colloquial Spanish that reflects the urban slang of the characters. Fukunaga traveled throughout the Americas and enlisted the help of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, to make sure the language was authentic. This sort of fearless storytelling is what sets Cary Joji Fukunaga apart from his peers.

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Memento (2000)

Written by Christopher Nolan and based on Memento Mori, a short story by his brother Jonathan Nolan. The brothers developed the idea during a cross-country road trip from Chicago to Los Angeles. In 1997, Christopher’s girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Emma Thomas, showed the screenplay to Aaron Ryder, a development executive at Newmarket Films. He was blown away by the script’s innovation, and so were audiences at Sundance, which was the final stop for the film’s festival run.  

The thing that made the film stand out is Nolan’s creative structuring. The script features dual storylines with events in black and white happening in chronological order while the black and white storyline is ordered in reverse. Both are clearly marked in the script. The color sequences appear as a normal courier font on the page, but the black and white sequences are italicized and in a different font. 

The storylines are interweaved but if one wanted to view the entire film in chronological order, the black and white sequence comes first and the color sequences come after. A clear transition between the storylines occurs through the use of a polaroid being developed. The film shows the Nolan brothers’ classic mind-bending genius. 

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Since its official founding in 1981, The Sundance Institute and Film Festival have provided a nurturing space for trailblazing filmmakers with strong and independent visions to thrive. Future classes of Sundance alumni will not be the exception — they’ll be just as exceptional. Keep your eyes out for them. 

Like the sun, they rise.

Scripts from this Article