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Sundance: Giving artists freedom to fail

Published January 20, 2014 12:02 pm

Sundance Film Festival • Learning to embrace failure can help artists succeed, author Sarah Lewis argues.
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Failure isn't usually a hot topic for filmmakers touting their work in the screening and dealmaking rooms at the Sundance Film Festival, but it is one of the intellectual obsessions of art curator and writer Sarah Lewis. She has spent 15 years exploring the roadblocks, U-turns and detours that are part of the creative process. Now she's bringing the ideas from her new book, "The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery," to the festival, where she's headlining Monday's Free Fail day, a series of panels and workshops devoted to exploring the often-taboo topic.

Overlooking 'Bottle Rocket' • For Sundance festival director John Cooper, the topic of creative failure prompts mention of Wes Anderson's 1996 film "Bottle Rocket," which launched the director's iconic vision and the careers of Luke and Owen Wilson.

In retrospect, the film seems a perfect example of the Sundance indie ethos, underscoring the way festival programmers praise the singular visions that might not suit mainstream box-office tastes.

The only problem is that "Bottle Rocket" didn't screen at Sundance, even though Anderson's short of the same name was shown two years earlier. Programmers turned down the feature. "We are a film festival of discovery,"Cooper says, taking institutional blame for the decision. "How come we failed to discover Wes Anderson in that moment?"

That's why, as part of Monday's free fail events, the festival will screen "Bottle Rocket" as a reminder that sometimes even Sundance programmers make mistakes.

Cooper says he spends much of the rest of the year encouraging filmmakers who aren't yet festival alums. "I always try to position Sundance as a fast-track to get to where you're going," he says. "You can't let not getting in change the course of your passion."

That's not an easy lesson, according to Lewis, who says artists often perceive that failure, or even talking about it, is taboo. "The message comes to us from every single outlet we have, starting with schools. Every school champions achievement and success," Lewis says. "No one teaches you to aspire to the setback. People teach you to avoid them."

Her book offers an intellectual re-examination of the creative process, and it's rich with ideas, brimming with thoughtful examples from sports and history, as well as from creative artists.

Learning to fall — or fail • It can be hard, and expensive, if you're a filmmaker who has experienced public failure. Box-office failures can make it difficult — or impossible — to secure funding for your next film.

It might be easy for filmmakers to envy visual artists, or others, who might have the luxury of quietly putting aside failed artworks or just slapping new paint over the canvas, Cooper says. To help replicate that experience of public vulnerability, Sundance organizers included workshops — including learning a kick sequence with a Rockette or how to take the worst Instagrams ever with the company's co-founder — where attendees are certain to fail.

Not everyone finds the topic easy to talk about, but one filmmaker who jumped at the chance is Stacy Peralta, whose documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys" wowed audiences at the 2001 festival. His first film tells the story of how he and his friends invented professional skateboarding in the 1970s by learning to skate in concrete swimming pools.

"You can't go head-on into concrete and survive, so we learned to roll out of our falls — it was the underpinning of our success," Peralta wrote on the Sundance website. "It was the one skill that allowed all of our other skills to flourish. The secret to following my dreams has been my ability to navigate and manage failure. I fail more than I succeed. And in order to succeed, I needed to understand how to fail."

The paradox of creativity • Talking failure as part of the conversation about creativity is important, says Lewis, who is returning to Sundance after moderating a New Frontier exhibit about digital storytelling in 2011. "Creativity and mastery are about messy drafts."

But it can be difficult for the filmmaker or the artist, alone in the editing bay or in their studios, to see through the mess. In addition, artists need grit to achieve mastery, but they have to learn when to quit, when to reorient themselves and when to buckle down.

New work requires artists to create without judgment, to set aside their internal critic or editor, says Lewis, formerly an art curator at the Museum of Modern Art, now a critic on the faculty at the Yale University School of Art. And yet the paradox is that later in the process an artist needs both vision and grit to be able to push through to the next steps.

It might be helpful for artists to adopt the idea of the near-win from athletes, who consider looking at the game tape as a way to tweak performance, Lewis says.

"Ultimately, I wrote this book about the capacity of the human spirit, what we're able to create, endure and achieve, and what our life stories teach us about this. The title, 'The Rise,' is meant to convey that dynamic. The rise is what we're all hoping to be on in so many different ways."


facebook.com/ellen.weist Talking about failure at Sundance

For information about Monday's events, search for the hashtag #freefail on Twitter. —

Filmmakers on failure

Sundance filmmakers explain what they learned from their biggest creative failures.

Stephanie Soechtig, director of "Fed Up," in the U.S. Documentary Competition • "In this world, we measure success by money earned. And my first documentary, "Tapped," didn't get into Sundance and it wasn't a great box-office success. But it has been shown on hundreds of campuses that have now banned bottled water. So there were times when I thought "Tapped" was such a failure and I was really down in the dumps that I made the movie. But I don't feel that way anymore. It's had such a social impact. What it has accomplished socially is a great success. This sounds [like a ] cliché, but every bad thing becomes a learning experience."

Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, filmmakers of the Nick Cave documentary, "20,000 Days on Earth" • "The thing we never told anyone while we were making the film was that we were always prepared to fail. There's a freeing up that happens when you accept failure as a very real option. The most important thing to learn from failure is how to fail better next time."






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