Inside the Writers’ Studio

Sundance Institute Native Lab returns to Santa Fe with hopes for Southwest representation

Nobody looked up when the door opened. The kind of feverish excitement that most writers’ rooms achieve only in brief bursts propelled the feedback session for Rutherford Falls writer and co-star Jana Schmieding’s (Cheyenne River Lakota) new feature project, Auntie Chuck. A discussion of the comedic potential of horny Elders transitioned into collective quoting from My Big Fat Greek Wedding before circling back to suggestions for sharpening the main character’s downward spiral. Commentary that felt constructive rather than competitive made the process look effortless.

The five fellows for the 2023 Sundance Institute Native Lab gathered in a small conference room off the Indigenous-owned Hotel Santa Fe’s dining area earlier this month to read each other’s scripts aloud and provide peer support alongside the program’s mentors. In addition to Schmieding, this year’s circle included Eva Grant (St’át’imc Nation), Quinne Larsen (Chinook), Anpa’o Locke (Hunkpapha Lakota and Ahtna Dené) and Cian Elyse White (Māori)—only the second cohort in the program’s history composed entirely of women and nonbinary artists.

Despite the intensive workshopping process, writers do not edit a single page while in Santa Fe.

“There’s no actual writing involved,” Director of the Indigenous Program Adam Piron (Kiowa/Mohawk) explains. “We emphasize for them to just take in the feedback, take in suggestions or inspirations that they have and then sit with it. And then later on when they feel ready, to take another crack at what they’re working on.”

That instruction gives filmmakers the freedom to focus elsewhere during their six days in Santa Fe—such as on the relationships they build, both with each other and with the mentors hand-selected annually to best suit participants’ projects.

“Obviously, it’s a very competitive process, but we also do sort of curate the cohort,” Piron tells SFR. “We are building a community and an extension of all the alumni that have come before them.”

Formidable filmmakers from Taika Waititi (Māori) to Long Line of Ladies director Shaandiin Tome (Diné) to Jhane Myers (Comanche/Blackfeet), producer of the hit Comanche-language Predator installment Prey, have passed through some variation of the Sundance labs. But the Native program looked very different even four years ago than it does today. Under the guidance of former director N. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), the intensive served as a space for Indigenous filmmakers to shoot shorts and proofs-of-concept. The transition to its current focus on feature and episodic narrative screenwriting reflects changes in the broader film industry, according to Piron.

“Because there’s this boom that’s been going on in TV around Indigenous stories or Indigenous-led work, that’s something we’ve been able to incorporate a lot more,” he notes. “We’d gotten submissions for episodic stuff [before], but it was always a bit harder to figure out how to support it. Now that the floodgates to some extent have been opened, I don’t want to say it’s easier, but there are more people making those types of projects.”

Beyond the lab’s shifting content and structure, the program has moved physically as well. While it always took place in New Mexico, Runningwater initially hosted the gathering on his home turf at the Mescalero Apache Reservation. The move to Santa Fe initially made sense because of an informal agreement with the former Santa Fe University of Art and Design, which allowed fellows to use the school’s equipment in filming their shorts. In the wake of that institution’s demise, several other advantages to the Sundance/Santa Fe relationship emerged.

“We have the Santa Fe International Film Festival—they’ve supported a lot of the Sundance independent filmmakers—and the Jean Cocteau,” says Santa Fe-based Myers. “I think that having it here is kind of a reinforcement of Native people in the film community, because a lot of us are based here.”

Peshawn Bread (Comanche/Kiowa/Cherokee)—a 2019 Sundance Native program alum, director of Mistress Red and Myers’ child—goes even further.

“When you think about Westerns, New Mexico comes to mind, and that’s the epitome of Native stereotypes in film,” Bread notes. “But then you’re bringing actual authentic Native creativity to the area where our stereotypes are created. And you’re defeating the stereotypes by having these Native creatives in one space. It just brings a certain type of magic and everyone seems to glow in Santa Fe.”

Perhaps the setting also tacitly encourages Indigenous creatives to bring projects back to their home communities for production, rather than feeling confined to the industry’s coastal urban outposts. But whatever the reason for that particular Santa Fean sparkle, Bread, Myers, Piron and the current fellows are all in agreement that the program—which will begin accepting 2024 applications this winter—needs artists Indigenous to the Southwest to apply.

“If somebody is interested in applying, apply to all the labs.” Schmieding urges. “It’s important that we have Southwest representation at these labs, especially if we’re there.”

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