Sundance Lab Spotlight: Brett Weiner and Emma Fletcher
Each year, Sundance Institute labs bring together aspiring writers and directors who want to take their projects to the next level. Notable projects that evolved in these labs include Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, to name a few.
Of the applications Sundance received in 2017, only 13 filmmakers were selected for the lab. Brett Weiner (co-writer-director) and Emma Fletcher (co-writer) were two of them.
Sundance is known for selecting projects with a global message; ones with voices that speak a universal language. It’s no surprise then that the focus of Weiner and Fletcher’s project, Social Justice Warrior, is communication.
“I’m obsessed with language; how it works and when it fails,” Weiner said.
Social Justice Warrior tells the story of a privileged, white college sophomore who clashes with her history professor and throws the campus into chaos when she attempts to turn it into a safe space, free from offensive language.
A background in creating web videos inspired Weiner’s interest in how online media allows people to connect; particularly, how users can be toxic while remaining anonymous.
Then, he considered places where people can’t hide.
“Exploring hate speech at college seemed to be the perfect place to play with these ideas,” he said.
“As a member of the majority, how do you act morally in an unfair world? It’s a question that I think about a lot, especially as someone who is a storyteller.”
Fletcher, who studied international relations with a focus in negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution, barely relied on her knowledge of these topics — until now.
“This script is the closest I’ve come to actually using my major,” she said.
Her own experiences — specifically, coming out in her late twenties — influenced her to tell a story about the power of language, too.
“I … was very cognizant of moving from being perceived as a member of the majority to a member of a minority,” she said.
“It made me more aware of the subconscious role marginalizing language had played in keeping me in the closet for so long.”
No strangers to Sundance
Verbatim, a digital series Weiner eventually expanded with The New York Times, was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival’s shorts program. In 2016, he was invited to speak on a panel led by Michelle Satter, the founding director of the institute’s feature film program.
Satter told Weiner about the institute’s labs — those for screenwriters, directors, producers, and others — and together, he and Fletcher applied.
Fletcher’s previous experience with Sundance, while different, was also life-changing.
“I was actually a driver at the labs over a decade ago so unlike Brett, I was very familiar with the labs,” she said.
“I was so blown away by the atmosphere of generosity and creativity that summer … I’ve been trying to [make] my way back … as a fellow ever since.”
Weiner landed representation when his first short went to Sundance in 2014 (upon filmmakers’ approval, the institute shares acclaimed shorts with agents and managers). The Gotham Group gravitated toward Verbatim.
But, Weiner said, it wasn’t only that his short was selected at Sundance that cultivated interest, but also how active he already was in the industry.
“I think my previous work on a web series, like co-creating Honest Trailers, helped them see that I’ve created stuff and will continue to create more stuff,” he said.
“Social Justice Warrior also came from a place where Gotham and my agents at Paradigm told me to write my own material if I wanted to direct a feature. So, this script is partly the result of that process that started in 2014.”
Two is better than one
For Fletcher, co-writing Social Justice Warrior with Weiner was a learning experience.
“[As a director], he is very concerned about how transitions between scenes work … Taking a little extra time to consider that movement has led to some really fun additions,” she said.
The project made her think about the meaning of collaboration, too.
“If our society valued teamwork above individual achievement more, maybe we’d have fewer narcissists in power,” she said.
As a comedy writer for television (her credits include NBC’s Parks and Recreation and Amazon’s Red Oaks), Fletcher understands the importance of realizing the showrunner’s vision — and the task’s limits.
“In that respect, I had way more creative freedom with [Social Justice Warrior] than in television,” she said.
“If we thought it was the funniest joke or the best idea, it went in the script.”
Brilliant minds in cinema
Both Weiner and Fletcher say they were overwhelmed by the wisdom and generosity of the instructors and mentors that worked with those in the Sundance lab.
“Danny Strong gave us page notes on our script, which was really above and beyond in terms of the work he put in,” Weiner said.
“Malia Scotch Marmo broke down screenplay structure in a way that suddenly made the oblique totally clear,” Fletcher said, adding that Joe Robert Cole has a “wicked sense of humor” and helped her and Weiner develop characters.
John August, Scott Z. Burns and Joan Tewkesbury are among others that mentored the writing team.
On a practical level, Weiner and Fletcher learned several lessons: Limit scenes to three pages (“anything more means you haven’t properly figured out the scene, according to Weiner and Fletcher’s notes). Show what a character does when nobody is around to review the character’s inner self.
But the overall lesson? Trust yourself.
A different league
It’s well-documented that projects that come through Sundance Institute are tracked from early development to premiere.
While Weiner and Fletcher both had experience and clout prior to the lab, they agree participating in it has positioned them nicely within the industry.
“It gives it a kind of instant street cred where people think ‘hey, this is probably not nothing,’” said Weiner.
“It also helps on the creative side because when you take a meeting about the script, you’ve already been battle-tested by some great writers.”
For Fletcher, the lab is a “badge of confidence.”
“I think I will always suffer from imposter syndrome so more than anything, this allows me to at least pretend for a bit that I’m a decent enough writer,” she said.
In 2017, six films from the lab screened at the Sundance Film Festival. This year, it was 12.
While Weiner and Fletcher say it would be a dream for Social Justice Warrior to premiere at the festival, their focus moving forward is simply to create the best film possible — the rest will fall into place.
Jacob N. Stuart is an award-winning and produced screenwriter. His films have been screened at over 50 different film festivals, in over 15 different countries. He is also the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing [www.screenwritingstaffing.com], an online screenwriting community that connects writers with industry pros. For more on Jacob: www.imdb.me/jacobnstuart