Star Light, Star Bright
By Mary Dickson
JANUARY 25, 1999: Let the hustle begin. The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing this week in Park City with filmmakers, actors, agents and distributors clamoring for deals and instant fame. Spectators strain to spot celebrities in the crowd and try to pick the next Sundance hits.
Spot a star. Pick a winner. Take your chances on a spectacular line-up of 58 shorts and 114 feature films, including 69 world premieres, eight North American premieres and 16 U.S. premieres. They're all part of what makes the 11-day festival not only the No. 1 international showcase for independent film, but a major happening expected to draw 12,000 film lovers to the snowy mountains of Park City again this year.
You can count on seeing stars, but the true spirit of Sundance is caught in the faces you won't recognize--all those up-and-coming filmmakers you've never seen or heard of before. First-timers like Salt Laker Alex Beckstead, a KUED-TV production assistant and 1998 University of Utah film school graduate, will be screening their films. Beckstead's 18-minute sXe about Salt Lake's Straight Edge movement was one of 58 shorts chosen from 1,700 entries to screen at Sundance.
First-time filmmaker Reverge Anselmo, a former U.S. Marine from New Mexico, had never seen a film camera, talked to an actor or read anything about film before shooting The Outfitters. "He'd simply written a script based on his own experiences in New Mexico," says Leonard Morpurgo, who is helping Anselmo promote the film. "When he couldn't get anyone to produce it under his terms, he said, 'What the heck! I'll make it myself. How hard can it be?'"
Anselmo and Beckstead are probably happy for the chance to rub shoulders with the big boys and have their work noticed in an intensely competitive industry, but most of the filmmakers premiering works are hoping for one thing: a hit. Sundance has become famous for launching independent films into the mainstream where they've defied box office odds.
The Full Monty not only won over audiences a few years ago, but won an Oscar nomination as well. Whether they become box office gold or not, an increasing number of Sundance films are picked up for theatrical release. Gods and Monsters, Smoke Signals, Out of the Past and Last Stop Wonderland were just some of the films to come out of last year's festival. Many films premiering this year already have distributors. Miramax, Fine Line, October, Gramercy and smaller studios all have films they've been hyping in the weeks leading up to the festival.
While it's anyone's guess what this year's break-out hits will be, the first shows to sell out include American Pimp, an entertaining documentary from Albert and Allen Hughes (the brothers behind Menace II Society and Dead Presidents) that tries to set the record straight and tell you everything you always wanted to know about pimps.
Michael Polish's feature debut, Twin Falls, Idaho, also sold out early on. A delicate and unusual love story about conjoined twins searching for love, it stars Michael and his twin brother Mark, who co-wrote the story.
Festival insiders have pegged a German import, Run, Lola, Run by Tom Tykwer as this year's Full Monty. "It's had this slow, steady buzz building for the past several months," says R.J. Millard, the Festival's executive media manager. "Everyone who's seen it here loves it." In a program guide write-up Rebecca Yeldham called the mix of romance, thrills and action "a sure-fire hit with audiences."
Another promising foreign offering is Black Cat, White Cat, a farcical comedy about Gypsy life on the Danube by Emir Kusturica, the Serbo-Croatian director of Underground. October Films has already picked up that import, while Miramax is banking on Glen Goei's Forever Fever, a comedy set in 1977 Singapore about a man smitten with disco craze, which might prove to be another Shall We Dance.
Already a box-office hit in Great Britain, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a Gramercy offering, is Guy Ritchie's wildly funny, fast-paced film rooted more in the Pulp Fiction tradition. On the quieter side is David Riker's La Ciudad, a beautiful film about the uprooted, which reveals the hidden world of the new Latin American immigrant community. Former Utahn David Moreton's first feature, Edge of Seventeen, is an unsentimental and uncompromising coming-of-age story about a young boy who doesn't admit he's gay even to himself.
Last year's local color came from Trey Parker's whacked-out comedy Orgazmo about a Mormon missionary turned porn star that went on to become the Tower Theatre's highest grossing film. This year, James Merendino's opening day premiere takes another paradoxical look at local culture with SLC Punk!, a subversive comedy about two punk-rockers during the Reagan years. First-time filmmaker Merendino (who hails from Los Angeles) placed his story of youthful rebellion in Salt Lake for comic effect, no doubt, much the same as Parker wagered that clean-cut missionaries in porn flicks made for a hilarious contrast. SLC Punk! could become another local favorite.
World premieres with their well-known directors and stars always generate audience excitement. The festival opens with Cookie's Fortune, Robert Altman's comic mystery/drama about an eccentric Mississippi family. Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, One Night Stand) pulled out of the Venice Film Festival to bring his new film, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, to Sundance. The Festival's Director of Programming Geoffrey Gilmore calls it the director's "most personal and probably most visionary film." Starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Julian Sands, the film follows a man through various stages of his life.
One of today's most visionary filmmakers, Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) returns to the festival with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., a fascinating documentary about the "execution technologist" who claimed that the Holocaust never happened. More than a portrait of Leuchter, Morris' investigation becomes an examination of the origins of evil in vanity and self-deception.
Doug Liman, the director of Swingers, the cocktail comedy that introduced Vince Vaughn to moviegoers, brings his edgy comedy, Go, following the misadventures of a group of young people who collide in L.A.'s raucous underground scene. It's already set for a March 26 release date by Columbia Pictures.
Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan, whose short film, Swinger, played at Sundance in 1996 and took a Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, makes his feature debut with Two Hands, to be released by Beyond Films. The comedy follows the misadventures of an aspiring 19-year-old hooligan who has to pull his first bank robbery after losing $10,000. Jordan promises a supernatural twist with Australian humor in full force.
Hampton Fancher's The Minus Man, one of 16 films in the dramatic competition, and Nancy Savoca's The 24-Hour Woman are both scheduled for release by The Shooting Gallery Pictures, a company with a good track record at spotting winners. It produced Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade. Fancher, who wrote the screenplay for the sci-fi cult classic Bladerunner, makes his foray into filmmaking with The Minus Man, a chilling psychological tale of intrigue uncovering what lies beneath the surface of normality. A seemingly placid drifter rolls into a quaint coastal town to start a new life, but as he weaves his way into the lives of a fragile couple (Mercedes Ruehl and Brian Cox) and a townie (Janeane Garofalo), things get strange.
Nancy Savoca (Dogfight and Household Saints) returns to Sundance on the 10-year anniversary of winning the Grand Jury Prize for her directorial debut, True Love, which established her as a filmmaker on the rise. The 24-Hour Woman, a provocative comedy about the trials and tribulations of having it all as a woman in the late '90s, stars Academy Award-nominated actresses Rosie Perez (Fearless) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies). Perez plays a successful television producer whose personal and professional lives are thrown into chaos when her first child is born. Tony Award winner Patti LuPone also stars.
Sundance's Millard notes that this year may be the year of the woman at Sundance. "One thing we noticed are the number of films by women directors or about women," he says. Not only is Savoca back, Sundance veteran Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging and Mi Vida Loca) returns with Sugar Town, a collaboration with Kurt Voss that looks at the music industry in Los Angeles. Rosanna Arquette and Ally Sheedy star in the film, which is getting a lot of buzz. Antonina Byrd will be at the festival with Ravenous, a film being distributed by Fox 2000. Starring Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), it follows a small group of soldiers lured into the web of a cannibal who is stalking their snowbound mountain outpost.
Established screenwriter Audrey Wells brings Guinevere, her lyrical film about a young woman on the brink of adulthood whose life is changed by a photographer she meets. Starring Sarah Polley, Stephen Rea and Gina Gershon, it's been picked up by Miramax. Lisanne Skyler, whose documentary No Loans Today, premiered at Sundance in 1995, turns to feature films with Getting to Know You. Based on the short stories of Joyce Carol Oats, it's about a brother and sister abandoned by their parents who wait for buses going in different directions.
Helen Mirren returns to the festival to portray the philosopher/author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in Chris Menaul's The Passion of Ayn Rand, co-starring Peter Fonda. Gavin O'Connor offers a portrait of another kind of woman with Tumbleweeds, a film based on Angela Shelton's childhood memoirs about a white-trashy sort of woman looking for romance and self-definition. Tony winner Janet McTeer stars. Titanic star Kate Winslet stars as a young woman living with her two small children in Marrakech in Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon's Hideous Kinky.
Sundance again showcases the works of Native American filmmakers in its Native Visions series. Chris Eyre, who co-wrote and directed last year's widely acclaimed Smoke Signals returns with Things We Do, a music video featuring Indigenous, a four-member band from the Lakota nation. Gary Farmer, the Native American actor who played in Dead Man makes his directorial debut with The Gift, a cross-country look at the reverence for corn in tribal culture.
Like Farmer, several actors turn filmmaker this year. Aidan Quinn and brothers Paul and Declan collaborate on Sony Pictures Classics' This is my Father, a last-minute addition to the festival. A multi-generational drama about a Chicago schoolteacher who returns to Ireland to find the father he has never known, its marvelous ensemble cast includes James Caan, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea and John Cusack.
Tim Roth, who has starred in Sundance films such as Gridlocked and Reservoir Dogs, goes behind the camera to make his directorial debut with The War Zone, an unsettling exploration of family dynamics and dysfunction based on Alexander Stewart's novel. Actor-turned-director Frank Whaley's Joe the King, is a touching portrayal of a young boy ashamed of his father, first because he's the school janitor, then because he's an abusive alcoholic.
Any film student worth his salt can quote Jean Luc Godard's contention that through documentary realism you arrive at the structure of drama, and through drama you arrive at the reality of life. While feature films draw the biggest crowds at Sundance, the documentaries are consistently excellent, with many ending up on television, likely on PBS.
A special documentary screening worth seeing is previous Sundance Grand Prize winner Jennifer Fox's epic nine-part documentary, An American Love Story, following the intimate and moving story of a black man and white woman who struggle to keep their family together amidst racism, alcoholism and disease. An American Love Story will be broadcast as part of American Playhouse on PBS next September. In the vein of A Farmer's Wife, filmmakers moved into the interracial couple's home for five years. When a reporter asked the wife why she'd allow strangers with cameras into her home, she quipped, "I always thought we'd have some nice home movies."
Sixteen films featured in this year's documentary competition range from stereotype-breaking explorations of Appalachia and pimps to a historical portrait of the Black press, a film homage to Hitchcock and Selznick (already scheduled for PBS's American Masters series), a look at society's fascination with the Internet, a cultural history of the Beats, a behind-the-scenes look at making low-budget films, as well as profiles of a musician dubbed "the bad girl of the violin" and a woman who vowed to have sex with 251 men in one 10-hour day.
Several documentaries are by returning Sundance filmmakers like Oscar winner Jessica Yu whose Living Museums, to be broadcast this summer on HBO, looks at the intersection of art and madness. If you're curious about the inclusion of the documentary, The Kindness of Strangers, as a "special premiere," take a look at the producer's last name: Redford--as in son of Bob. James Redford's first effort is an emotional look at organ donation and transplant.
Last year the Sundance Institute teamed with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to launch "The Sundance Collection at UCLA," a living archive for independent film that will preserve independent films for the next generation. Sundance will screen two of those films, the 1983 classic El Norte, about a brother and sister from Guatemala and their harrowing journey to the American dream, and A Hard Day's Night, the 1964 rock-'n'-roll comedy about a day in the life of the Beatles.
The festival continues to broaden its scope, presenting an eclectic and varied program with films for every taste. Which ones will win the big prizes? Which will be the next big hits at theaters or make it as far as the Oscars? Only time will tell.
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