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Sundance Screenwriting Lab Fellow: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.

November 7, 2018
7 min read time

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. knew he wanted to be “some sort of artist” growing up. He was a prose writer for years, then dabbled in photography and drawing before he even considered being a director. An avid movie fan since he was a kid, Corbine Jr. knew he wanted to at least try making movies, but, as he put it to FinalDraft, “How does a young guy from a reservation even try to accomplish that?”

That was before Bird Runningwater, who runs the Sundance Native and Indigenous Program, came to his reservation. Corbine Jr. was just out of high school when Runningwater showed up to screen a couple films by Native filmmakers.

“I didn't even know that there were Native filmmakers, so just learning that was important for me,” says Corbine Jr. While he had been a fan of Taika Waititi (Eagle Vs. Shark, Flight of the Conchords) for years Corbine Jr. only learned through Runningwater that Taika was, in fact, Indigenous, and that his first short film had been supported by the Sundance Native and Indigenous program.

“So I really learned that not only were there Indigenous filmmakers, but there were great Indigenous filmmakers.”

Now inspired, Corbine Jr. made over a dozen no-budget short films over the next seven years. “Everything from zombie comedies to crime thrillers to art-house romances,” he says. “And I spent a lot of time writing scripts and watching off-beat films, and learning everything I could about being a filmmaker.” After which, he felt confident enough to apply to the screenwriting labs and the Native labs at Sundance Institute.

“And I got rejected! A few times, actually,” he says. “But then I wrote a crime thriller script called Wild Indian and I finally got an interview with Bird. After years of trying, I was awarded the Time Warner-Sundance Institute Native Producer Fellowship, which helped me get a foot in door with the other programs.”

The Process

“When I was invited to submit my project Wild Indian to the June Screenwriters Lab, I thought, like, ‘well, they probably invite thousands of people to apply so it probably doesn't mean anything,” he says. “For me, the Screenwriters and Directors Labs were like the Holy Grail of film programs. They were the programs that seemed so far out of my league that I felt like ‘keep dreaming’ every time I thought about possibly getting in. They were the programs that helped so many of my idols! Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino, Taika Waititi, Cary Fukunaga, Miranda July, and so many other great filmmakers started off their careers there.”

Corbine Jr. submitted script in with a synopsis, a sample of his short film work, and some information about how he visualized the project. Soon after he landed an interview Ilyse McKimmie, the Feature Films Labs Director at Sundance. “We had a really thoughtful conversation about the piece and I left the interview feeling like we were both on the same page regarding where the project needed to go. And I heard from them a week or so later that I got in.”

In 2018, Corbine Jr. was then eligible to apply to the Sundance Directors Lab, which he was asked to do by the Institute. He submitted his revised script, which he had rewritten a few times since the Screenwriters lab, as well as some new short film work that he made. Another interview followed. This time with Michelle Satter, the founding director of the Feature Film Program.

“We had a long conversation about where I was with the project, and we spoke a lot of my filmmaking influences and how I saw the project visually and who I wanted to play the parts. We touched on a bit of everything. I don't think I have ever been that nervous for an interview!”

The Prep

Corbine Jr., after the nerves had settled, started preparation pretty quickly after that.

“The biggest part of the lab is that we get to shoot four or five scenes from our feature scripts. We were set up with a team and had calls with our editors and DPs and production designers and a casting director to prepare for the scenes,” he tells FinalDraft. “We went out to well-known actors, people I haven't met, and they actually agreed to come to the lab because they loved the script. That in itself was a wonderful experience.”

The Program

The first few days of the lab were filled with workshops run by Joan Tewkesbury, Joan Darling, and Gyula Gazdag in which directors learned a number of methods of working with actors as well as did a bit of acting ourselves and directed each other.

“It was all closed off and the groups were small, so you could feel safe in your failure as an actor,” Corbine Jr. says. “We also talked about each individual character in our script and rethought the story beats and experimented a lot with scene structuring and character motivations. Gyula Gazdag had a very useful workshop during which we deconstructed scenes from movies that we loved.”

Before the directors got to shooting scenes from their own scripts, each directing fellow was tasked with shooting and editing a short scene called “Osso Buco” which is a scene that every directing fellow has done since the very first lab.

“It's a funny, strange scene with dialogue and set direction that could be interpreted a lot of different ways. Some directors adhered to the dialogue word for word. Some gutted it and cut it down. Some rewrote the scene and made it their own - which is what I did,” he says. “We all just had fun with it. They put together a screening night where they showed all eight of the fellows' scenes. It was really interesting seeing all of the different styles and voices interpreting the same dialogue. It was a great time.”

According to Corbine Jr., that was the easy part. Then the labs advisors started arriving and the directors embarked on a three-week mission to shoot the scenes from their scripts.

“This is when things picked up quite a bit. There were a hundred people running around, driving up and down the mountain in vans, fixing every little problem on any one of the sets, and advisors popping in and out of your set or in your edit room,” he says. “It was such a hectic, fun atmosphere; a beautiful chaos. Nothing keeps you on your toes like Robert Redford or David Lowery or John Toll or some other legend visiting you on your set to give you their thoughts.”

During every lunch, Corbine Jr. would meet with a new advisor. “And I'd try to not geek out about their work,” he says. “I had lunch with Robert Redford two or three times. Just he and I, one-on-one. It was insane! He is truly one of the great men of our time, and I got to know him and be mentored by him. I really can't describe how special the whole experience felt.”

Almost every night, the advisors would either screen some of their work and have Q&A sessions or hold panel discussions touching on a variety of topics. Corbine Jr. says it was useful to hear the wide scope of knowledge and experience that the advisors had to share, “especially in a setting where there are only a hundred or so people.”

At the end of the week, the directors would screen our finished scenes for the crew and the staff and advisors. Get-togethers to help let off all of the steam from having ten to twelve-hour days all week would follow. On Sundays, the directors would get a half-day break and a new group of advisors would come in “and we would start the process all over again.”

What He Learned

Corbine Jr. says every habit you have as a filmmaker is put to the test at the lab. “One of the most important things for me was learning a more effective way to draw out interesting performances from actors,” he says. “I learned the kind of language that is best to use with actors and how to work with talents who have different needs.”

However, the biggest thing that inspired Corbine Jr. at the lab was “seeing firsthand the temperaments of filmmakers whose work I greatly admire. I met and got to be mentored by the writers and directors of movies and TV shows that affected me through every stage of my life, so I had the chance to observe and try and see how they operate,” he says. “There's an element of calm and kindness and passion about the work that they all had. Passion and drive are infectious, so it was hugely inspirational to be around people like that. I learned something profound about leadership by being around them. For a director, I think having leadership skills are equally as important as all of the various technical things you can learn.”

Post-Sundance

Corbine Jr. says Sundance’s support doesn’t stop at the lab.

“After the lab, Sundance keeps in touch with you and keep tabs on the project and are there to support you in whatever way they can, whether it's giving additional notes on the script, providing notes on cuts of the film, referring your project to other organizations or companies or agencies or film festivals,” he says. “More than anything, they want to see you succeed, not only with your project but in your career as a whole. They only select a handful of directing fellows every year, so they really make you a priority and advise you in every manner every step of the way.”

As for what’s next for Corbine Jr. 

What's next for you with the film? 

We have pre-production funding for Wild Indian from Cinereach, a wonderful company based in New York. My producers and I are in the process of casting the film and scouting locations and reaching out to key creatives right now. It's really exciting! We are planning to shoot this coming Spring.

What’s Next

Post-Sundance Corbine Jr. is working on a few things, including a TV series about Las Vegas and Minnesota casinos that takes place in the 1990s. He also has preproduction and development funding for Wild Indian from Cinereach. Him and his producers are in the process of casting the film and scouting locations and reaching out to key creatives with a plan to shoot in the coming spring.

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