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Sundancing with the Kids of South Park City
by Doniphan Blair
Downtown Park City A crowd gathers for a late show in front of the Egyptian Theater. photo courtesy Global Event Partners
Like an inverse Burning Man, which draws much of the West's media youth to the Nevada desert for an unscripted event in August, the Sundance Film Festival lures them to the freezing mountains of Utah for narrative at its most refined. "I like to go to both," Jeffery Davis, a Bay Area actor recently in the indie "Love on the Line," told me. Sundance runs this year from January 21st to 31st in Salt Lake City, Ogden, and the tiny hamlet of Sundance, as well as at its center stage, Park City, Utah.
Of, by and for the West, Sundance was started in 1978 by Robert Redford and friends to showcase independent films, especially from the Western US, but soon enlarged to encompass Hollywood- it's the home of the West's film industry, after all - and then the world. Cannes may be the world's most prestigious festival, and New York and Toronto are dealmaker centrals for the fall line-ups, but Sundance, the youngest of the top five international festivals (Berlin being the fifth), is the premier place to premiere your "Mumble-core" feature, edgy Hollywood epic, or enviro doc.
A cinema carnival extraordinaire, Sundance is the place to see and be seen by the shakers, bakers, and celebs of film's future. With the addition of the independent organization Slamdance in 1995, and a new director this year, John Cooper, Sundance retains its progressive sensibility even as it becomes hookup central for film genius beauties, distributor johns, and Oscar-obsessed paparazzi.
The Bay Area will be well represented this year on screen, notably with opening-nighter "Howl," a film about Allen Ginsberg (see article p1), but also in the streets by Bay Area talent - including Cheryl Fidelman, a spoken word artist as well as an actress. Fidelman has yet to do the 'Dance, but she will be among this year's approximately 50,000 attendees.
"Three of my films were submitted," says the physically slight but emotionally substantial Fidelman, pausing for dramatic affect: "None of them made it." She's referring to the local features "Fell," by Christopher Rusin, and "The Dabbler," by Reid Gershbein, as well as a short by Jade Chen, "Stay With Me."
"But I am getting into the world of film festivals," Fidelman continues."I plan to hobnob with the bobs and give them my card. I plan to make sure any director, any producer, any person - on any crew whatsoever! - takes my card and watches my reel. And I wouldn't mind seeing some great films at the same time."
Hopefully that will include "Howl," which combines arty animation and intense live action in what some are calling a "hipster 'Fantasia.'" This is the debut feature of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who took an Oscar for their "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt" and they do a great job of directing James Franco (also in Sean Penn's "Milk") as Ginsberg and "Mad Men"'s Jon Hamm as his attorney. "Why would a poet need an attorney?" some may wonder, but Ginsberg's provocative poem triggered an important obscenity trial. Breaking new ground is a perennial Western theme but Epstein and Friedman also appear to have cracked the code of the "hipster" film, telling a visionary story without alienating audiences or diluting deeper meanings.
Crazy Cinema Kids KariWishingrad, actress, Paul Martin, director/writer, and Kate Melia, actress. (l to r) photo courtesy K.Wishingrad
Also from the Bay Area are the Butcher Brothers, Mitchell Altieri, and Phil Flores, accomplished indies who did the spooky and stylish "The Hamiltons" in 2006. True to their moniker, they're debuting "The Violent Kind," replete with "blood-soaked sex." The film features a bunch of young bikers at a deserted farmhouse attacked by a mysterious being. Considering it was produced by Jeffrey Allard of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" fame and by Andy Gould and Malek Akkad, who did "Halloween," as well as by Michael Ferris Gibson and Jeremy Platt, the Butcher Brothers may have cracked the "B to A Film Code:" i.e. transmuting "B" story dross into "A" film gold.
Bay Area documentaries will also be on offer, notably "Utopia in Four Movements" by Sam Green, who got a 2003 Oscar nod for "The Weather Underground." Billed as a "live documentary" and featuring sound design by San Francisco musician Dave Cerf, it explores "the utopian impulse" - again not an uncommon Western theme. Also making an appearance will be Kari Wishingrad, one of the harder-working actresses in the Bay Area, who was also in three submitted but not accepted films: Rob Nilsson's "Sand," "Fell" (with Fidelman), and a short by Tony Knott, "The Italian Women's Club." Having done Sundance the last two years, Wishingrad has developed a strategy.
"I want to get a core group of four or six committed people," Wishingrad tells me, "To get my condo together [which runs about two grand a week]. Last year, I put my money down but a couple of people flaked." Heading up to the snow with Wishingrad will be Laurie Lobe, the casting director for "The Violent Kind," Simone Nelson of Bay Area Film, and Matthew Wood, a developer for the preproduction software Syncronize.
"I wait 'til the new year to get cheap tickets," Kari continues. "The longer I waited, the more prices went down. People will negotiate. There is so much housing, for skiing, for the festival - there'll always be a place. Some people leave because they can't take the noise and craziness."
Speaking of which, she says, "The parties can be fun. 2009 was exceptional; not only was it the beginning of the recession, but [the festival] came around the [Obama] inauguration. Attendance was way down and security was not as tight. I was able to get into a couple of hot parties. I was invited to a USC party, nicely catered, in a beautiful restaurant, with swag - I got a great back pack," adds Wishingrad, smiling mischievously.
The Violent Kind, from the Bay Area's stylish Butcher Bros, world premiers Park City midnight. photo courtesy The Butcher Brothers
"I went to IndieGoGo," she says, "They had good drinks and Redford came. You couldn't get near him, everyone wanted a piece, poor guy, he probably wanted to just go to a party."
"Elitism and indie exist side-by-side," Wishingrad notes, "And sometimes they cross a little. The more "Hollywood" parties you can't get into unless you know someone. William Morris throws a big party every year with heavy security. If you go to the Frontier or the Filmmakers Lodge, you see celebs. I haven't gone - too many people trying to get into one room. It's a multiring circus."
"I have to pace myself. My first year I was like a kid in a candy store and I got burned out. I can only handle six or eight films during the week. The first year I went, my sister was there [Dara Wishingrad, a New York set designer]. She was on 'Death and Love,' with Jacqueline Bisset. I got to go to that party, which was really fun. This year I went to 'La Mission,' shot in the Bay Area. Debbie Brubaker [the respected Bay Area producer] got us in. It's definitely a case of who you know."
"There was another party, the SWAN, the women's media. I got into that one because I dropped enough names and finessed it right at the [velvet] rope. Jeffery [Davis] and I have a game of how many cards we can get. We'll go to a party and schmooze, and then compare notes and introduce each other to who we met. A good wingman is essential. As outgoing as I am, I'm a little shy. Another strategy is to find parties beforehand - like the SF Film Society, they also had a nice party."
Wishingrad recommends getting a place with a kitchen and buying groceries. "Not only do you save on food, but the crowds at the restaurants. Another tip is drinking lots of water, because of the altitude [7,000 feet]. Last year one of my roommates got altitude sickness."
Sundance changed under longtime director Geoffrey Gilmore from exclusively for American indies, with retrospectives and panel discussions, to the international indie scene, with almost 20% of its films finding distribution most years. The acceptance criteria remains a mystery.
"I tend to talk about a range of different trends or things I enjoy or find interesting," Gilmore told the Hollywood Reporter (1/18/07). "That doesn't mean we have an agenda. What constitutes 'best' when you're dealing with films that are sometimes flawed but may be fresh and unique? Unlike festivals like Cannes or Berlin which feature work from veteran, sophisticated auteurs, we're often dealing with filmmakers who are really new to the arena."
Kari Wishingrad finds doing Sundance a good career move and not that expensive. photo courtesy K. Wishingrad
New festival director John Cooper noted that last year's Sundance was successful in attendance and creativity despite the economy. "Ticket sales didn't drop and people liked the movies and Geoff left so happy." Moving on, however, he wants the festival to evolve. "We will look to independent filmmakers and see what kinds of films they are making and how they're telling their stories, because that is what our mission is."
To do this better, Sundance will separate church and state: the festival and the programming directorship. "We're a discovery festival, we're not launching Academy Award campaigns."
This will include a bunch of new initiatives. The Sundance Institute Art House Project is inviting theater owners from around the country to a discussion on how to improve their operations. Following the festival, Sundance will dispatch eight filmmakers to eight cities to screen their films with audiences, including San Francisco, where there is already a Sundance Cinema at the Kabuki Theater, and where Redford recently moved from New York City.
Meanwhile, Kari, Jeff, Cheryl, and the other crazy kids of South Park City, Utah, will be bringing the Sundance experience directly back to the Bay Area to continue the all-important process of expanding contacts, bridging genres, and storming the gates of the inevitably hierarchal film business - for the benefit of all.
Posted on Jan 11, 2010 - 12:09 PM