This Young Filmmaker Learned the Most When Everything Fell Apart at the Sundance Directors Lab

Photo: Jonathan Hickerson/Sundance Institute

César Cervantes is a first-generation Chicano filmmaker from Maywood, California. His skateboarding do-it-yourself background and whatever-it-takes approach to filmmaking got him into the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival, led him to create an after-school film program for inner-city youth with the help of CAA, and put him on tour with the Grammy-winning band La Santa Cecilia as their lead videographer. A Vassar College graduate, Cervantes will make his feature debut with Hot Clip.

Earlier this year, he was selected to participate in Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab, which helped launch the careers of award-winning filmmakers Cary Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Marielle Heller, Benh Zeitlin and Quentin Tarantino. Taking place May 30 – June 23 in the mountains of Sundance Resort in Utah, the Fellows worked with an accomplished group of creative advisors, professional actors, and production crews to shoot and edit key scenes from their screenplays. Below, Cervantes shares his reflections on his hardscrabble upbringing in Southern California, dealing with self-doubt, and learning from your darkest days.

It’s been a week since I left the Sundance Directors Lab and the experience has yet to fully sink in. On the mountain the days seem infinite, but looking back at the experience, it all went by in a flash. I am left with a dizzying plethora of emotions, advice, and relationships that have only just started to settle. But the words of the Lab’s Founding Director Michelle Satter — “Your worst day at the Lab could very well become your best day” — continue to ring true.

I come from a tiny working class immigrant community where I occasionally sleep to the lullaby of gunshots on a torn 4’ x 7’ foam slab, so when they told me that everyone ends up having a “worst day” at what I thought was essentially film camp, I wondered, “How bad could it be?” After all, at the Lab I had my own queen-sized bed and was getting acting pointers from Chiwetel Ejiofor. Rodrigo Prieto even held a bounce board on my set! Worst day? How could there possibly be a worst day? And even if there was one, I felt I had tough enough skin and enough youthful bravado to carry me across the lab unscathed.

Sure enough, though, it came.

On what would become the worst 3 days on the mountain for me, I was to shoot a scene where three skaters are caught trespassing in an abandoned ditch by a police officer. Unbeknownst to the officer, the three friends carry a stolen police firearm that they use to take him hostage.

All of the projects at the Lab get a full screenplay reading with the ensemble of actors on the mountain, and the night before our rehearsal I had an incredibly difficult experience with the script reading of my film. One of the actors read his character in a way we had not rehearsed and felt antithetical to the vibrant, larger-than-life image I had in my head. It felt personal, and I slowly started to fall out of love with the character and the story. The seed of self-doubt had been planted.

“Rather than submitting to my self-doubt as a director, I chose to spite the production.”

On set, everything that could go wrong did, and I eventually picked a fight with the universe. Rather than submitting to my self-doubt as a director, I chose to spite the production. I thought: “Okay universe, you want this story to be a piece of shit, then let’s make it a piece of shit.” I did the best job at being the worst director I could be. I was passive-aggressive, uninterested, and made a game of provoking people. I had fallen out of love with my story and was going down fast. I tried to get the crew against me, but what I really wanted was someone to stand up to me and show me they still cared about the story, even if I didn’t.

Eventually, my lead actor asked to talk to me in private. He said I could fuck the scene up as much as I wanted to, that was my right, but the only thing I owed the crew was my full respect. He was right — they had managed to follow me up to this point and were still willing to go to the end of the world with me. I gathered my thoughts and calculated the minimal number of shots needed to tell the story in editing. I went back on set, apologized with all sincerity, got three shots and called it a day. I reflected on all the broken pieces I held in my hands and found nothing.

Photo: Jonathan Hickerson/Sundance Institute
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The next day I talked through my experience with editor-advisor Nancy Richardson, who easily put the pieces together and held them for me to see. Suddenly, the characters and story made sense again. She had helped me find the through line of the film — the reason the characters behaved the way they did, the thing I had been unable to express to my actors.

The scene ended up being my weakest scene at the lab, but the lessons learned from it proved to be the most insightful to me, both as a person and as an artist. The magic of Sundance is that they have a great support system that encourages failure and mistakes, because they’ll be there to pick you right back up when you hit bottom. And true to Michelle’s words, I ended up gaining the most from my biggest loss.