The first Saturday morning of Sundance I crowd into the back of a theater loop shuttle at the Yarrow Hotel stop and somehow nab a seat towards the back of the bus. At the next stop – Eccles — dozens more festivalgoers pour onto the bus. Among the crowd is a group of sixteen-year-old girls, badges around their necks, all looking as if this is most definitely their first Sundance experience.
One of the girls is especially pale, flustered and shocked at just how crowded one bus can get. I offer her my seat. She declines.
A few minutes later, the girl mumbles to her friends, “I can’t do this,” and promptly sits down right on the slushy floor of the bus. She gets a few eyebrow raises from her friends as she crosses her legs and buries her head in her hands.
We’re crowded in so tightly that her back is essentially propped up against my legs. She starts to shake. I think she’s crying.
I resolve to spend as much of my Sundance as possible on foot.
Pale faces are no new phenomenon to bear witness to at Sundance. This, my second year at the festival representing IFP, I resolve not to stress too much about plans. Yes, there are several movies that I want to see that are all booked against each other. Yes, there are three parties (and one celebrity poker tournament) happening on different ends of Main St. at the same time. And yes, I was supposed to be at that important meeting forty-minutes ago. But in order to maintain any sanity, one’s just got to kind of roll with the punches.
I chat with filmmaker Desiree Akhavan at our IFP & Vimeo party on Sunday. She’s at Sundance with her first film, Appropriate Behavior, which participated in our Emerging Storytellers screenplay program all the way back in 2012. At that time it had a different title and bore only a passing resemblance to the wonderful film that it would eventually become.
The finished Behavior is warm, hilarious, and often surprisingly devastating. Desiree surprises both behind the camera and in front of it, delivering a lead performance that, if there’s any justice in the indie world, will make her a star.
It’s rewarding to catch up with her, and to chat about how much the script and the project has evolved since she came to IFP two years ago. The exhilaration of seeing an artist truly come into her own is a feeling that just doesn’t get old.
Many of the best films I see at Sundance in 2014 embrace a sense of narrative adventure.
I was enamored with Tim Sutton’s debut film Pavilion to the point where I convinced him to let me visit the set of his sophomore film, Memphis (funded through the Venice Biennale, and an alum of our No Borders International Co-Production Market). A fluid blend of documentary and narrative filmmaking, Memphis’ tone and style matches its subject matter – the increasingly desperate writers-block of its lead (musician Willis Earl Beale). The film ebbs and flows down the streets of Memphis, breaking away from Beale for several narrative diversions, painting a vivid, widescreen portrait of a city caught between cultural epicenter and ghost town.
A similar narrative structure is utilized in Alex Ross Perry’s magnificent third feature Listen Up Phillip, which stars Jason Schwartzman as an ego-driven writer sabotaging his own life in the wake of his second novel’s release. The film’s structure feels more literary than filmic. Perry lavishes in narrative cul de sacs, often leaving his lead behind in an effort to flesh out the interior lives of his supporting characters.
And then there’s Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater) and Yearbook (dir. Bernardo Britto), two breathtaking works that couldn’t be more different in size, scope, and style, but which share common thematic ambitions. The former is Linklater’s 3-hour magnum opus, a film twelve-years in the making, following one actor (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen as he comes of age in rural Texas. The latter is a wonderfully caustic five-minute short about a man who’s faced with Earth’s imminent destruction, and tasked with cataloguing everything significant about human history in eighteen years time.
Both films take a kitchen sink approach – working furiously to encompass as many aspects of the human experience as possible within their runtimes. Both employ the rapid passage of time as a narrative device to get at the overwhelming fragility of life.
This year’s crop of American indie films – especially those that make up Sundance’s always-adventurous NEXT section – signal just how to bootstrappy and creative filmmakers need to be to get their works out into the world. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a microbudget vampire movie like you’ve never seen before — hyper-stylized and set on the abandoned streets of Iran. It’s a treat, and the signal of a keen-eyed new filmmaking talent.
And then there’s Michael Tully, who’s third feature, Ping Pong Summer is a knowing throwback to the coming-of-age comedies of the 80s. Tully, who first wrote the script for Ping Pong Summer (an alum of our No Borders International Co-Production Market) two decades ago, has literally been trying to realize this project for the better part of his life. Tully’s ultimate success is testament to the fact that yes; it’s deeply difficult to get a unique project off the ground . But it’s also an example of hard work, tenacity, patience, and faith in one’s own vision paying off.
Ultimately the tone of this year’s Sundance was one of cautious optimism. Though this past fall saw the disheartening collapse of James Schamus’ Focus Features, though prominent critics have recently questioned the vitality of our current indie film market, and though the Sundance sales haven’t been flying in quite as furiously as in recent years, there are plenty of signals of good times ahead.
I briefly crossed paths with IFP friend and Advisory Board member Dylan Marchetti, and he was glowing with excitement about the possibilities of his just-announced new distribution company Amplify. It’ll be wonderful to watch how Marchetti and his team will grow this new venture, and how he’ll continue on a larger scale his track record for dreaming up creative release strategies for unique titles (It Felt Like Love, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty).
Similarly exciting are the early successes of Mynette Louie’s new Gamechanger initiative, a production company dedicated specifically to funding female-directed films. The company’s first production, Land Ho (co-directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, the latter a two-time IFP alum), is a smart, funny, and fully realized crowd-pleaser. Sony Pictures Classics scooped up distribution rights to the film, a signal that even major distributors are still willing to take risks on small but winning projects.
And then there’s Gillian Robespierre’s hilarious romantic comedy (with an abortion) Obvious Child, an alum of our Emerging Storytellers program, which sold to A24 for seven-figures. One the most well received films at the festival, it’s heartening that Obvious Child managed a relatively mammoth sale without an established cast or director. Instead, A24 is putting their faith in the three young but exciting creative forces behind the film – Robespierre, actress Jenny Slate, and producer Elisabeth Holm.
Any overview of Sundance couldn’t possibly get across the dual excitement and exhaustion of the fest, nor the impressive array of new films and filmmakers showcased.
So for now a blanket congratulations will have to do – to our alumni with films at the festival, to our colleagues and peers who are working hard to support our ever-changing industry, and to anyone who braved an early-morning shuttle and lived to tell the tale.