Screenwriters find inspiration at Bread Loaf
On the evening of Jan. 17, up in the snowy hills of Ripton, a group of screenwriters gathered in the main dining hall of the Bread Loaf Inn. They clinked wine glasses and munched on bacon-wrapped scallops — their collective effervescence the product of a successful week-long retreat.
It was the concluding event of the Middlebury Script Lab, in which six emerging screenwriters — the fellows — were chosen (out of 160 applicants) to workshop their projects-in-progress with advisors already established in the field. Thanks to funding from the Ron and Jessica Liebowitz Fund for Innovation, tuition, lodging and travel expenses were free for the six fellows.
The program, several years in the making, is the brainchild of Ioana Uricaru, assistant professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College.
“A few years ago, Middlebury faculty received the news that the Bread Loaf Inn was going to be winterized, and we were encouraged to think of projects that could be done up there. My immediate thought was: screenwriting lab!” Uricaru said. “Based on what I heard from participants, it was a smashing success.”
One of those participants was Oregon native Emma Piper-Burkett. Her script, called “Sweet Relief in Crystal Palace,” is about a woman who experiences lapses in linear time. Piper-Burkett has a background in documentary films, and has written several scripts before this one. “But this is the first feature I’ve wanted to do something with,” she said.
Piper-Burkett agrees with Uricaru — the program worked. “For me, it’s been so nice to have this time, where we’ve had really intense one-on-one conversations about our work. Four or five people have read our scripts, and then you sit and talk with them about it for two hours. I think that that’s a huge gift, because in this industry, there’s so much vying for attention. Here, you don’t have to do that, so you can actually focus on the work.”
Christopher DeWan, a fellow from Los Angeles, workshopped a script about a man who tries to win back his estranged son by taking him to find Bigfoot.
“For me, it’s been invigorating,” he said. “Life as a screenwriter in LA is hard, and demoralizing. This has given me a chance to step out of that and remember what I love about it.”
The fellows started the week with a bootcamp-style two-day workshop about structure. After that, they had one-on-one meetings with advisors where they received detailed feedback. As the week continued, they practiced pitches, attended classes and participated in group meetings with independent filmmakers and producers.
“What the Middlebury Script Lab is able to offer is a temporary ‘bubble’ where the writers can do nothing but focus intensely on their craft — we’ll take care of everything else, from food to transportation to lodging to logistics to fireside relaxation,” Uricaru said. “Even the fact that up at Bread Loaf there’s almost no phone signal helps stay focused.”
The 11 advisors were handpicked for the program. “Middlebury College has a superb track record when it comes to alumni success in the entertainment industry,” Uricaru said, “so we first reached out to them. We had a lot of support from Shawn Ryan, one of our prominent alumni, and we ended up with a nice balance — about half of the advisors were Middlebury alumni and half were from the larger entertainment industry community.”
Uricaru drew inspiration for the Script Lab from similar labs that she had attended as an emerging screenwriter herself: the Berlinale Script Station in Berlin, the Sundance Screenwriting and Directing labs in Utah, and the Torino Film Lab in Italy.
From her experience, she understood how to create a program during which the six fellows would make qualitative progress on their scripts, network with the other fellows and advisors, and be immersed in an environment that closely represents the world of professional screenwriting.
But the Script Lab had one marked difference from other national screenwriting programs: Middlebury College students. Uricaru’s January-term class overlapped with the Script Lab during the week that it was held, allowing her students to attend the workshops and classes, and begin to understand film in a professional setting.
“It’s been cool, because we don’t always get the business side of things [in class], or the nitty-gritty of how to write a screen play” said senior film major Sierra Jackson. “We’ve been able to get information that even our peers in our department aren’t getting.”
Though Uricaru’s role at the Lab was more organizational than instructional, her presence still inspired the fellows. Her films, including “Tales from A Golden Age” (2009), “Stopover” (2010), “The Witness” (2012), and “Lemonade” (2018), have been screened at Cannes, Sundance, AFI and Berlin film festivals, as well as on Netflix, Amazon and several TV stations. At the final dinner, the six fellows gathered at the front of the hall, presenting Uricaru with a bouquet of flowers and several bottles of wine.
“We just wanted to say how grateful we are for Ioana,” one fellow said. “We came in for a short time, and she’s created this really safe and welcoming environment for all of us.”
Uricaru said she’s trying to bring the Script Lab back again in the near future.
“I’ll work hard and do my best to find funding for the next edition,” she said. “I know that all the advisors want to come back and more want to join us, and the people at Middlebury and Bread Loaf who helped making it are on board and ready to do it again. Fingers crossed!” Advisers, students and fellows who participated in the Middlebury Script Lab at Bread Loaf pose for a photo at the week-long event’s concluding reception on Jan. 17. The Lab, in its pilot year, allowed six emerging screenwriters an opportunity to workshop their scripts with advisers who are established in the field. Chosen from a nation-wide pool of 160 applications, fellows included: Emma Piper-Burkett (second row, third from right), Myra Paci (first row, second from left), Jingjing Tian (first row, third from left), Christopher DeWan (second row, fourth from right), Barry Dorsey (back row, third from right) and David Seamans, a Middlebury alumnus (second row, fifth from right).
Photo courtesy of Gail Borden
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