Script sits down with David Rocchio of Stowe Story Labs and discovers a whole new path for screenwriting and filmmaking success... starting in rural Vermont.
Remember The Shining? Writer Jack Torrance heads to an isolated resort to be the winter caretaker, hoping to cure his writer’s block. What could possibly go wrong? Just a few ghosts, a psychic son screaming, “REDRUM!” and an ax-wielding writer gone mad, trying to slash his wife. Not exactly the relaxing atmosphere to create a masterpiece.
Now take a deep breath and imagine the opposite of The Shining and you have Stowe Story Labs, set in picturesque Stowe, Vermont with its gorgeous fall colors and locally-made gin. Now, that is my kind of block buster.
I’ve always been curious about this particular Lab, so last fall, I popped up to Stowe to see if it’s something I’d be interested in attending one day – minus the ghosts and axes, of course. I was so impressed with the uniqueness of the five-day event, that I asked the Founder and President, David Rocchio, if I could share his retreat with our readers.
Let’s explore the most glaring aspect first… why Stowe, Vermont?
“I’m originally from Vermont, but left for a long time to work in D.C. and then get a law degree and work for a large law firm in Boston. When I moved back, it wasn’t just to come home, but also to change my life. My last job as a lawyer was as Legal Counsel to then Vermont Governor Howard Dean. When the Governor announced he was running for President, I told my wife this was my ‘structured midlife.’ I had about a year to figure out how I could change my life’s focus from practicing law to writing and filmmaking. I decided to do consulting while I was understanding the film industry and writing. In 2010 or 2011, I took my first deep dive and got a badge for Berlinale and the European Film Market (EFM). The following fall I did the same at AFM. At each I got a badge, brought a polished script and a disc of something we had shot as a teaser. I started meeting with people, not knowing anything.”
This fearless man jumped right in, headfirst. I’ve only been to AFM once, and it’s a very different world than a screenwriting pitchfest. It’s where the big boys and girls play. David didn’t try to pretend he was something he wasn’t. He was honest. Humble. I greatly respect that.
“The first person I met, and the first time I talked with anyone about my writing, was Charlotte Mickie, who was then president of Entertainment One, I think. It was at EFM. I had done my research before going. I literally walked up to her and said, ‘My name is David Rocchio. I’ve written a story about a woman leaving a man when she still loves him, and I want to turn it into a movie. What do I do?’ She kind of laughed at me but we sat and talked for a while. She literally took the script out of my hand, threw it over her shoulder, and said, ‘That’s the pile I’m going to read.’ She actually did read it, liked it, and said here’s how to do it, go off and get started. We did, but like so many indie projects, it fell apart. The best thing about the experience was learning and the people I met, two of whom are now mentors at the Labs.”
Failed indie attempts are many. The trick is not to quit. Rocchio moved forward, creating films and got one into the Short Film Corner at Cannes Film Festival. Maybe France could bring the break L.A. couldn’t.
“As this green guy, I went to every workshop at Cannes to met as many people as I could, including David Pope, who was teaching one. I though David’s vision was great, so I made sure to talk with him after. Then I went to CineMart at Rotterdam with a feature, and I ran into David, who facilitates the Rotterdam Producers Lab. By then I had gone to a bunch of markets and festivals and had an idea. I asked David, ‘Why don’t we do this in Stowe?’ He agreed, and we started the first Lab in 2013.”
Amazing that in just two years, Rocchio went from his first trip to AFM to creating his own community of writers to nourish. Let this be a lesson to all that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams.
“The vision was to help emerging screenwriters, filmmakers and creative producers understand enough so they could go off and get good work made and seen by focusing on story, the process of collaboration and production, and go off a bit more prepared. We want filmmakers to understand what they need to know so they don’t just keep falling on their faces.”
What I appreciate most about Rocchio is he has walked the walk. He knows what it feels like to write, create and fail but still drag your sorry self back up and keep going.
“I had, by then, fallen a number of times on my own face. I had a number of opportunities to put together the project that I first showed to Charlotte Mickie. I actually started casting it with the help of Ellen Parks. Jonathan Grey, a phenomenal New York City production counsel and producer, attached as well to the project. We were moving forward and then it just fell apart. I had learned on my own from getting beaten up repeatedly and thought, you know what, I should bring people to Stowe and take some of the pain out of the process.”
Rocchio’s initial vision for the Lab was 20 people, regionally based because there’s nothing like this in northern New England. The first year, there were 16 attendees – half Vermonters and half from other New England states. As a New Yorker, I appreciate the East Coast love. By the third Lab they were receiving applications from around the world and worked hard to limit it to 40 attendees. They have now capped attendance at roughly forty-five and are heading into the fifth annual Story Lab this fall.
The community aspect the two Davids have created is impressive. In fact, it’s the first thing I noticed when I saw the Lab in action last fall. Even though the writers and filmmakers had only known each other for a few days, you could feel the energy of forever friendships forming, perhaps deepened by the intensity and challenge of the program. Trust me, there is no time for Jack to be a dull boy and linger in writer’s block. It’s hard work.
“It’s a rigorous process. I tell participants when they arrive to dig in and let it all wash right over them. When you’re here, the work is hard, but we try to create a very supportive environment so the participants can work together in a meaningful way. They can then process it all – and use it all – when they go home.��
The success of the Lab relies heavily on attendees having a collaborative spirit. Rocchio and his team specifically address that in the application process.
“We look for people who have the capacity to do really good work, but also show that they’re interested in the collaborative side of the business.”
While the benefits of some Labs fade after you get on your flight home, Stowe Story Lab uses their alumni bond to foster creativity all year long.
“We use a Facebook page, but we are working as well to build a virtual world just for past participants called Alumni House. People get together to go to festivals, make films and support each other. It’s a group of people trying to help one another advance their work, which is very hard, as you know. David Pope mentioned it this spring – how the spirit and sense of community developing through the Labs is phenomenal.”
When I think back on my own writing career, learning how to pitch was the hardest skill to master. I was fascinated to see the heavy focus on verbal pitching and articulating your story to mentors as well as to other participants. I’ve never seen a Lab structured like this. It’s terrifying and genius at the same time.
“There are three reasons we do that. First, there’s nothing more important than the ability to talk about your story conversationally, articulately, and meaningfully so you can engage someone. That’s the most important thing you can do when you’re trying to get your project off the ground, because other people have to love it as well. If you can’t explain it to them in a way that’s engaging enough to make them want to read it, you aren’t going to advance your work. There’re obviously other ways you can do that – you can send a query with a written pitch – but the ability to talk about it casually and meaningfully is really important. Some people are just gifted at it, but if you aren’t one of those people, the only way to learn is to do it. People are very uncomfortable doing that. We purposely create some discomfort. (That’s a phrase a doctor used when I had to get my nose rebroken after a car accident, ‘This is going to cause you some discomfort.’ It’s really a euphemism for ‘incredibly painful.’)
“The second reason is, when you’re having a conversation about your story, someone is going to ask you questions about it or interpret it in a way you haven’t thought of. It makes you think about your story. Why did you write it? What is it really about? ‘Wow, the way I described Joe, they don’t get Joe at all. That’s not Joe.’ So, It raises questions about your story that you need to address, either by nodding your head in agreement, or thinking about what you need to change to create a richer story.
“The third reason is this is a collaborative art. You’re going to meet a lot of people through this process of pitching and talking about story. During the process, David Pope really drives the point it is not pitching. We actually don’t use the term ‘pitching.’ David insists we talk about it in terms of conversation. You’re going to meet writers and producers who you really like and who really like you. Talking about story, not pitching it at them like a scene out of The Exorcist, is critical. Conversing becomes a tool to break down a lot of other elements of how you make your story better and talk about it in an articulate way to build relationships.”
Having a successful writing career requires so much more than a great script. An executive isn’t just buying your story; they’re buying you, as a writer, a person they’ll have to work with for potentially years before the film hits the screen. Being confident and comfortable talking about your story is absolutely essential to success. So put your big-kid panties on and get comfortable “conversing.”
Who are these mentors guiding the participants? I mean, really, this is Vermont, not L.A. How good can they be? Well, Let’s just say, when I saw them come piling in, I secretly wished I wasn’t there as a journalist but as a participant. Never underestimate The Davids (yes, I capitalized “The” because they’re now superheroes of the story). They worked their magic and got incredible mentors from Los Angeles to London to fly in. Don’t believe me? See the list here.
“Our mentors are really fantastic. The opportunity to work with these industry people, and the way we structure it, makes it really meaningful. We look for mentors who are operating at a very high level in the industry and who want to give to emerging talents. The mentors either physically come to Stowe and do a presentation, join the roster of ongoing mentors, or do a Skype interview at the conference if their schedule doesn’t permit making the trip.
“We’re all very genuine and sincere about this. Since it comes from a good place, and driven from there, it’s pretty easy. We really want to change the landscape and help people get their work out there. The mentors respond well. We don’t separate them from the participants. We’re all mingling, staying in the same inns, and having dinner together. The participants are very chill. Participants know they can’t walk up to people and ask them for a read. The chill atmosphere works. And I know the mentors love it because they recommend more mentors. It’s a wonderful, organic cycle.”
That organic camaraderie all comes across. I’ve been to many events before as a speaker, and there was one where they literally put up velvet ropes between the speakers and the attendees. I hated it. The attendees felt so slighted. I felt slighted as a speaker. So, I spent all my time on the attendee side of the ropes just to hang with other writers. I love that Stowe gets the value of connecting people at all levels of the industry.
“I have the mentors over for dinner the night before. The new ones meet us all for the first time and others reunite – it’s like Thanksgiving without family dynamics. During the dinner, I ask them that they not spend the Lab in a pod with each other but to mix with participants and talk with them. It sets the tone of what we’re trying to create here. And the mentors are really lovely people. Like Alex Boden. He’s on our board now. He’s a producer of Netflix’s Sense8. He truly wants to hang out with the people who are here. Like the Tangerine Team [Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell and Elizabeth Kaiden]. We’re all trying to get our work made. It doesn’t matter if you’re David Magee [another mentor] or someone with no credits. We’re all people trying to make movies and shows.”
Being around artists who have not only succeeded but also want to pay it forward and share their lessons and knowledge with those at the earlier stages of their careers is so inspiring. If they can do it, so can you! But make no mistake; it’s not easy. You need a network and you need a leg up.
“It’s obviously a really difficult industry. I named my production company .03 Percent. I stole the idea from an op-ed in the Times I read about a hundred years ago, about the hard math about the chance of anyone’s script ever seeing the inside of a theatre. I extrapolated for the 21st century, and figure there’s a 99.97% failure rate. I don’t mean it as a literal number, but I think, given how much content there is out in the world, each of us should be aware of how hard it is to get work made and seen. I get of course it’s also an unfair number, because there’s a lot you can do if you’re willing to do the work and are smart and talented, to change those odds, have your work break through and find an audience. Maybe not in a linear way, meaning on a time line, and maybe not a straight to 100 screen theatrical release, but there are a lot of ways to find an audience for your work.
“Three ways you change the odds are to develop relationships, learn meaningful information that opens doors and your eyes to process, and really work on story. I think we’ve come up with a successful approach to help you learn those things.”
Price point is always an issue for writers. The Lab may seem pricey at first, but I think it’s important to understand the big-picture value. I asked David to speak to the practicalities of cost.
“We’re trying to create a community while trying to charge as little as we can. We have, I think, ten fellowships this year, and want to get to a place where we can offer more scholarships, but until then, the costs have to be covered. Our lodging partners also give steep discounts because we run the events off-season. Most people get breakfast through those partner lodges. We supply lunch and dinner everyday, so once you physically get here, it really doesn’t cost much. Part of my vision for this year and next year is to really push for grants, donations and sponsors since we’re a non-profit. We have not had the time really to focus on that until now, so we are fee based. Having said that, of the forty-ish participants each year ten or more are on fellowship.”
A fellowship typically covers the fee to attend the Lab. Each one is different and there are other benefits. You can read about the fellowships here.
“And in July, we’ll announce a new fellowship with SAGindie, to further the critical goal of diversity in film. The fellowship will be aimed at emerging creative producers looking to collaborate on innovative, character-driven stories for the international, independent film and TV markets. I’m very excited start the process on this one."
Stowe Story Labs does rolling admissions, open now and closing on July 16th, which is a Sunday night. I can feel all of you counting on the weekend cram! Hey, I’ve done it more times than I can count. But don’t. Admissions are rolling!
“The reason we do rolling admissions is we’re small and need to be reading submissions right away. We hope to keep the process open through the closing date, so we will have slots until the 16th. In addition, because PAGE Quarterfinalists compete for two fellowship slots and PAGE won’t announce the Quarterfinalists I think until the 15th, we will take PAGE Quarterfinalist applicants after July 16 for a short time, and will reserve some paid slots for them as well.”
The application fee is $35, and there is a charge for people to participate if selected, but again, they offer a number of competitive fellowships. Their fellowship partners are a big part of the process. Be sure to take a look at the Fellowship page of the site to see what Fellowships are out there. But before you start busting your hump polishing a script, take a deep breath. The application process is as unique as the Lab.
“We tried to make the application process streamline with straight-forward questions. It shouldn’t be a heavy lift to apply. For the Lab, we aren’t looking for the best possible draft. We’re looking for a really good idea to begin with. Of course, applicants need to demonstrate the capacity to turn an idea into a really great script. We take screenwriters, filmmakers and creative producers. We take people who have never done it before, and we take people who have very strong credits already. If you have a 5-page treatment or a story and you can explain why you have the capacity to turn that into a really polished script, that application is just as meaningful as a really polished script.
“My vision for it remains to bend the world a little bit by getting content out, getting it made and seen, and having character-driven story about identifiable characters a part of main-stream cinema.”
Beyond the fall Lab, they also offer a very different experience for their spring Writers Retreat.
“Mentors don’t give notes on particular projects in the fall Lab, but in the spring Writers Retreat, each participant gets meaningful feedback from three different mentors. That process is fantastic. Starting this year, if you are admitted in the fall, you will be invited to a retreat – there is not a separate application process for the retreats. In the past, we’ve had to select people by invitation only. This year, we’ll do retreats to cover all the people who want to go. So that’ll be a nice change.”
It’s so valuable to get your work dissected by people who understand the journey of creating art. Rocchio’s vision doesn’t end with two events. Starting this fall, he’s creating a yearlong process.
“You don’t have to come to all, knowing a fee for each piece can be costly, but if you come in the fall, you’re invited to the retreat and ongoing mentoring. There’s no cost to participate in the Alumni House. In the end, we’d like to either help you develop a pitch package for your polished script to go to market or help people figure out how to work together to create films. With Seed&Spark we will build a curated crowd-funding page and give other tools to help do that successfully. With partners like Seed&Spark and Roadmap Writers, we’re providing content our alumni can access whenever they need it. We have other ideas up our sleeves as well, so stay tuned.”
So many writers feel stuck if they are in their 40s or 50s. They get attached to their professional label. Rocchio is a great example of how to give it a shot and go for your dreams. I appreciate that. It’s very inspiring. Since I’ve walked the same walk, and I know many of our readers have too, I asked Rocchio if he could go back in time and talk with his 18-year-old self, what advice would he give him?
“First layer would be to make sure you do with your life what you need to do so you can live the life you want. I have an 18-yr-old son. If he wanted to be an actor, I’d say, ‘That’s fantastic,’ and then ask, ‘How can you support the life you want?’ For me, I needed to be a professional first.
“Second is who do you want to be, and why are you? Not what but why? That’s something I knew about myself at that age but I didn’t have the guidance in my life at 18 to say, ‘You know why you are; you should pursue that.’ So I put that on a backburner for a long time. I wrote a lot of movies with my eyes, but I never wrote any down. I wrote my first script on paternity leave – which Governor Dean insisted I take – when my now-eighteen-year-old was in a bouncy seat. I can’t not do this. Don’t ignore why you are and try to make that part of who you are.
“The third piece of advice would be, if you have the capacity and time and you’re young, f*ck it! Go for it. The worst thing that could happen is you end up 26 or 27 and have to change course.
“For people who are reading this and mid-life and living a career but have this desire and passion to try this, do it, but realize that time is going to come out of something else. I try to get up at 4 every morning to write as my kids are up by 6. I get up and write and do my film stuff really early in the day. It’s not an easy thing, and the chances of any one project seeing the light of day are very low, but you can bend that a little bit and spend time on it. Make sure you have a meaningful way to do it and something meaningful to say.”
I think it’s fair to say, The Shining would have been a very different movie if Jack Nicholson’s character had followed David Rocchio’s advice.
UPDATE: This year, the Lab runs from September 7 - 10, 2019. Apply to Stowe Story Labs here.
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