Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.
This morning I woke up with an aching body and an aching sense of regret – I’m leaving Sundance the morning of the awards ceremony. It’s another gorgeous day; I’m packing while the remaining Resurrect Dead team (Jon, his girlfriend Jen, Justin, Steve) get ready for a ‘pancake breakfast with the programmers’. I like pancakes! I like the programmers! But Jon sends me off with a bit of good news: ‘We have an offer’.
That’s right folks, a distribution offer. I think I’m happier than Jon is, because it’s a great way to end the narrative arc of this blog. Always start a story with a question that will have to be answered. Did you notice me doing that 9 days ago? ‘Will Resurrect Dead attract interest from distributors?’ And in my last hour here, Jon gives me an answer. Thanks buddy.
No, I won’t give you any details of this offer. You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.
In my shuttle to the airport, I meet some more filmmakers. One just got a Time-Warner grant. Another person in the shuttle skied the same mountain that I did, but fell forward and had internal bleeding and a lacerated kidney, spending two days in the hospital. (I myself saw two people taken down in stretchers. I soldiered on.) Another passenger wrote a TV movie that starred Piper Laurie. The writer is really kind and has some great advice – this might be the best connection I made at Sundance. I guess you never know when or how that will happen, if you just show up. I didn’t mean to endorse traveling to Sundance, but this last encounter leaves me feeling good about it. What I mean about traveling to Sundance is this: if you are here with a film, it’s amazing. But how often will that happen? If you can afford to buy credentials, that’s also pretty good. But if you just show up to watch movies, I wonder how much you can get out of the experience. Maybe you can introduce yourself to filmmakers after their screenings. But maybe you’ll just be able to tell people ‘I saw it first’. I only hope it’s worth the cost. Speaking of that, there’s definitely a wealthy class here at Sundance, people that I met often in lines and in screenings. Rich people, not in the industry, for whom the festival is a vacation or a cultural destination. For some, it’s an annual pilgrimage. For others, it’s one of many trips they take in a year. It’s funny, as a filmmaker it never occurred to me that some people would just show up here to watch movies. The more I think about it, the more that seems like one of the best things of all.
Hours later, my plane on the ground in Philadelphia, I turn my phone on and find a text from Jen. “Jon just won the director award for documentaries!” Jon texts: “!!!” What else is there to say?
Congratulations to everyone behind Resurrect Dead and all the other films at Sundance 2011. The only reason I felt comfortable missing so many is because I’m sure they’ll all be available someday, somehow, in this wonderful new Internet-assisted multi-channel on-demand post-distribution world we’re in. Justin and Steve were really affected by ‘The Redemption of General Butt Naked’. Jen was a passionate supporter of ‘Bellflower’. Colin’s girlfriend Becky came home from ‘The Black Power Mix-Tape’ full of energy and conversation. I really wanted to catch ‘Circumstance’ as well. Some of these won awards, and some didn’t, but there’s a struggle behind each one and they all deserve to be seen, so please check them out someday. Thanks for reading. And if you’re still interested, I have a great concept for a film that needs funding…
If I can deflect any criticism of my actions pre-emptively, I was definitely conflicted about going skiing on Friday. I promised myself one day on the mountain, and set my sights on Friday. After a day of rest, it took a lot of coffee, some Emergen-C and a bag of lozenges but I got myself up there on a pair of rented skis.
Meanwhile, everyone else was down in Park City as the festival ramped back up. Mid-week, it felt like everything had trailed off and it was just die-hards and volunteers left in town, and I guess I expected that to continue. But in the last day, I’ve overheard a lot of conversations about people coming into town for the second weekend, people bringing sleeping bags to spend the night in line at the box office, a lot of young people and students. When I went to sell my last ticket Thursday night, I noticed bigger busier crowds again. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t get Thursday tickets – I guess the best chances for seeing movies are mid-week. But that’s also when I’d recommend getting away from Sundance for a day. This festival is very long. I didn’t realize how turned around my head was until I cleared it on the sunny slopes. Darkness fell, and I looked down the mountain to see a long line of headlights coming into town.
When I get back to the condo, I hear that tonight is when the Sundance juries deliberate on the awards. Somewhere in town, Matt Groening and the other doc jurors are discussing Resurrect Dead and its peers. Earlier in the week, Jon caught a glimpse of Groening at the RD screening, but he’d already heard that Groening was being very strict about avoiding interaction with the competitors, to keep the process pure. I think the creator of The Simpsons will really love this movie. But Jon assures us that Resurrect Dead will not win any awards at Sundance.
I’m sick. This was my day to watch three movies at the top of my list and tell you all about them: ‘The Woods’, ‘Kinyarwanda’, and ‘Hell and Back’. Sorry everybody. I lie in the condo all day trying to get healthy for Friday. I guess it was lucky that I couldn’t get those tickets yesterday. Around 11 pm, I bundle up and take a bus over to the theater to try to sell my ticket, but there are no takers.
There’s another Resurrect Dead screening today, which is maybe the best yet. An even bigger group of of people crowds around after the Q&A, and Justin sells even more art. The other night, walking back from a screening, we ran into someone from the audience who bought a poster right there on the corner. This movie seems to be building good word-of-mouth. Someone said they came because it’s “all over Twitter”. In fact there have been amazing tweets from FilmThreat, and really positive tweets from Huffington Post and a writer with the NY Times. There are a lot of little (but very good) mentions out there; the tough thing has been to get a big mention. Only one screening left.
At the box office, they’re sold out of everything I want, except tomorrow’s 11:30 pm screening of ‘Hell And Back’. I’d met the editor of this doc at a PIFVA event in Philly just days before leaving for Sundance, and it was already on my list to watch. I guess I’ll be trying out the waitlist system (once again, that’s when you show up in the 2 hours before the screening to get the last available seats). It had already worked for ‘Shut Up Little Man’ – we got great seats that way. My friends are off to participate in some interactive storytelling activity, based out of the New Frontiers exhibits, and I need to go sleep. Starting to feel run-down. But Jen tells me about a filmmaker-and-press reception that lasts for another hour, just a few blocks away. Purely out of guilt, I drop in. I’m a filmmaker and I need to network, a voice in my head tells me. It’s a swanky spot; I check my coat (the free coat checks at these things are really nice) and immediately bump into the director and producer of ‘Shut Up Little Man’, who I’d just seen do the Q&A the night before. Their doc had a really impressive budget and post-production effects. We talk about gun violence in Philadelphia and other topics for about ten minutes. After that, I wander around with a free beer (it’s almost always Stella Artois) but I start to feel like a big yellow freak (the color of my hoodie). My advice: don’t go to parties alone.
Later at home, I woke up with a sore throat that felt foreboding. It takes a lot to head out but I really want to catch a Slamdance film this week. I’m going to see a presentation of fragments and films by the little-known avant-garde and trash-filmmaker J.X. Williams. Things seem slower in Park City now – there are lights strung up all over Main Street, but there are far fewer people, at least in the early evening. Little two-man crews run around all over the place with cameras and gear.
Of course Slamdance is smaller than Sundance, but at some point you realize how much smaller, or maybe just how big Sundance is. Slamdance’s box office and all the promotional stuff is in a really small lobby in its hotel. The screening rooms are down a little hallway. It takes a few minutes to shake off the daze of Sundance’s scope and polish, and remember that these guys are really more my speed. The film selection and the whole vibe have a specific taste: a little wild, less concerned with tastefulness, embracing camp and outsiders and violence. Every time I go in the building I see the same people. Once again, it’s a bit shocking to see how small the audiences are, because Slamdance is such a well-known fest, at least in my world. I happen to duck into their filmmaker’s lounge and see they’re having another free happy hour. The mood is awesome – a dense crowd of people my age, who all seem friendly and mellow, and a dim warm space like when you turn off everything except the Christmas lights.
When I get my ticket for the J.X.Williams show, I realize there are signs up all around: This show is for ages 21 and over due to extreme content, please have your ID ready. While I wait in line, a policeman comes to the desk to make sure that ID’s are being checked. Going into the theater, one of the Slamdance folks videotapes us all as proof that we are presenting our ID’s. The show really does live up to all the caution, I have to admit. Most people were averting their eyes at certain points.
Rushing from the J.X. show to my next movie, Lord Byron, was a test for the whole Sundance waitlist system. Lord Byron started around 30 minutes after I walked out of the J.X. show, at the far-away Prospector Square theater. But I got in and got a great seat. I was feeling even worse, definitely getting sick.
Fortunately Lord Byron is my favorite film at Sundance so far (if I ignore Resurrect Dead). This is exactly what I came here to see. It’s a film that takes its low budget as a given and rides its exceptional storytelling, acting and construction. If more filmmakers contented themselves with working in this scope with such straightforwardness, maybe more audiences would accept it. It wasn’t even shot ‘film style’ with film lights, a tripod, etc. In fact, it takes video, with all its commonly-perceived ‘flaws’, as the premise of its aesthetic – it manipulates its base with layering, time distortion, strange sound effects and melodramatic music: this is the movie that Inland Empire wanted to be. The story is minimal but the characters and performances are incisive without aspiring to ‘say anything’ or delineate any social ‘types’. And at the same time, it doesn’t content itself with a good foundation: it really embraces the visual medium. And it’s funny on top of everything else. Its intent seems to be a portrait of people seeking meaning, in various fumbling ways recognizable to anyone who’s been in high school or the suburbs in the last ten years. A lot of people were leaving during the screening; I’m not sure why.
On the way back from the film I buy oranges and chicken soup. At the condo, everyone’s back from Salt Lake City. The screening there was great. There is some discussion of the film’s reception in the press, but people seem to be taking it in stride. Jon, Justin and Steve go to a ‘competition dinner’ – an event for the filmmakers of anything in competition, an event they all really like, citing good conversations. I’m lying at home – dying?
Now that I’ve been to four or so panels, I’d advise filmmakers not to attend. The first third is spent on introductions, there is usually little information of value, and I’ve always wished I’d been at a film or home sleeping. I suppose they would have value for people totally outside the filmmaking process, like curious fans or students. But once you’ve been through the process yourself, you’ll just be hearing echoes of your own experiences. The smart thing is to get some patsy (like me) to go for you and condense the information in blog form.
The panel reminded me that the separation between an insider and outsider is very thin – there’s so little difference between those in front of the crowd and those in the crowd. In fact, one major takeaway from this panel (a round-table of directors and composers) is that the essential thing for career or getting anything done is personal contacts, connections, and friendships. In other words, it’s who you know. That being the case, the discussion feels like those reality shows about cooking or remodeling – there’s never enough nuts-and-bolts substance, all the focus is on the people and their relationships.
The first bad responses to the film came in today. Jon and company were down in Salt Lake City all day for the screening there (most of the Sundance films have a screening in SLC), so it would be many hours after reading these articles until they came back. I spent the day wondering how they would react. As bad reviews go, these weren’t horrible. But somehow, in a way hard to explain, it was the novelty of the experience that was the shock – like a splash of cold water in the face. You’re suddenly high-profile enough that someone would want to take you down instead of help you up. But it brought me down to earth a bit – there’s now a ceiling to the film’s ascent, and you can looking around instead of up, and appreciate where you are. Playing for big happy crowds at Sundance feels like the important thing, instead of the road ahead.
It’s still hard not to look at the tone of the criticism and wonder, what is this person’s motivating force? I can be very critical of film work, even well-intentioned work by emerging artists. To me it feels like a hope that the work will get better. But you can get a sense that some people are doing their job, and some people smell blood and want to score points. The worst (and really the only roundly critical notice) was some columnist from Houston who had to fallaciously insert a line into the movie (‘another dead end’) to tie into a lamely snarky zinger at the end of her piece. The other article was from the Hollywood Reporter – it was even mostly positive, but called the film ‘anticlimactic’. That is definitely arguable, but it’s a legitimate point to bring up. This calls to mind the strangeness of Sundance, an indie fest that collides with the ultimate industry perspectives. Could the Hollywood Reporter not write from out of conventional wisdom? Ultimately, after reading all this, it was my first thought that stuck with me: A choice can’t be admirable unless there’s someone else who’d make a different choice. And sometimes that other person is going to be in a position to pass judgment on you.
Woke up to thin snow that got heavier and heavier until the air was thick with it. Jon was rushing down to Main Street for an interview at the Sundance Co-Op. I caught a ride with him, then slogged up the inclined street to the top, where Slamdance is held at a hotel called Treasure Mountain Inn. On my way up, a guy with a camera runs across the street and almost knocks me down as goes past. I look back to see where he goes – he joins a line of four or five photographers standing outside the ‘Bing Bar’ where supposedly all the celebrities have been hanging out. It’s been strange to keep hearing about big ‘premiere’ events and celebrity sightings – it feels like some different Sundance happening somewhere else. Maybe it’s the films I’ve chosen to go see. Now as I watch, the photographers start snapping pictures of someone in sunglasses going up the steps and into the bar.
I went on in to the Slamdance building for a 3D panel, which was a bit of a disappointment. It was focused exclusively on one piece of color correction software, which was nice but pretty high-end for an indie director. I would have been surprised that this pitch was being made at Slamdance, because it involves an expensive hardware-and-software package, except there was a pretty rapt audience that seemed to be tech guys or editors or people who have production studios. I went because I’ve been working for years on an idea for ‘the first 3D arthouse film’. When I started, I thought I’d have to build my own rig of two cameras and do everything from the ground up. Now I can’t believe how much is automated.
On my way back down the street, I walk back past a line of what seem to be paparazzi. The thing that catches my eye is that they all have this stone-cold expression – they look like grim soldiers with the thousand-yard stare. It’s disconcerting, and the unsettled feeling sticks with me down the street. Overhead, it’s gloomy and gray, with clouds hanging around the mountain peaks. I head into the Filmmaker’s Lodge and get gouged for an 8-dollar turkey sandwich, and I randomly run into Jon. He was about to have one of his most important interviews, but the journalist had a family emergency and had to rush to the airport.
Starting this morning, whenever we’re all together we have been constantly checking Twitter and Google for responses and articles about the movie, laughing at ourselves the whole time. I think most of us have never looked at Twitter or a Tweet before. Resurrect Dead premiered last out of all the competition docs, and there hasn’t been much press yet, and there were other counterproductive events – Oscar nominations were announced yesterday morning (the morning of the premiere), and some article about Sam Raimi ‘resurrecting’ his Evil Dead movies has been retweeted about a million times, which is sucking up all the searches for the movie. There have been maybe a dozen VERY positive tweets. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
Jon and I hit the ‘New Frontiers’ building, with film- and video-related installation artwork. There were some amazing pieces, like electronic bugs projected from the ceiling onto a sandbox; when you carve lines into the sand, the bugs follow them. There were some truly beautiful installations. But we had to get back to the condo to prepare for the second screening of Resurrect Dead. Jon and crew are expected to be at very screening, as far as I know, and this one will be at the Prospector Square theater. It’s very large, much bigger than the first screening – we think 300 or 400 people. We stand out in the lobby and just gawk at the unbelievable crowd of people who have showed up to watch this film. Just months ago I remember Jon wondering if anyone would even care about this topic, if anyone would ever see this film – and now this mass of total strangers are waiting, not just showing up but waiting in line, to see it. It’s kind of a surreal, sleep-deprived euphoria as we take pictures of the crowd, walk down the length of the line videotaping, taking pictures with the official poster. I feel a simple total happiness seeing my filmmaker friend live this moment which is everything I work toward, to play to a big expectant audience. There’s talk that two current or former NY Times writers are in the audience.
During the show, the audience seems even more responsive and pleased than at the premiere. There are some wonderful questions, even after the Q&A – another film composer thinks Jon used a live orchestra for the music (he didn’t – it came from electronics in his bedroom) and another filmmaker asks if he shot on the Red camera (he didn’t – it was a frickin DVX-100.)
After the show, Jon and several others went to his friend Peter’s film ‘How To Die In Oregon’ (Peter gave us the ride home after the opening night party). I met up with them immediately afterwards to see the doc ‘Shut Up Little Man’. There are some ironic parallels between ‘Shut Up’ and ‘Resurrect Dead’: both deal with exposing a somewhat-unwilling subject to the wider world. However, ‘Shut Up’ was a portrait of people who seem totally unbothered by ethical concerns thanks to self-justification and greed. If the Toynbee investigators didn’t already come off as Boy Scouts, they don’t suffer by comparison. It’s not unexpected that some people are raising ethical questions about the Toynbee film, and though it’s a valid question to pursue, the answers are ultimately cut-and-dried. And though it doesn’t take a hidden motive to raise those questions, I think they will be pursued mostly for their sensationalism. As those questions do come up, I wish people could see what I’ve seen this week. Just minutes after their incredible world premiere, and often again in the following 24-plus-hours, the Toynbee team have had many many discussions on the repercussions of the film for their subjects, and the ethical choices they made in the process (they unarguably erred on the side of ethics). These discussions aren’t taking place out of self-concern, or strategic wagon-circling. These filmmakers are some of the most thoughtful and scrupulous people I’ve met. They seriously care about the subjects of their film, they seriously care about the repercussions of their film, and although they finally believe that their work and process were correct, they care enough to be conflicted, and they are aware of the questions that will come up. One of the toughest things is that Jon is often the first to identify with his critics, to take their perspectives to heart and concede everything to them. I often find myself arguing his own case against him. It would be tough for me to persevere like that.
Getting to bed around 2:30am, the condo was a lot emptier. Colin and Doug have left for the airport, and someone else is catching their shuttle in a couple of hours. Upstairs in the loft where my sleeping bag is now, there’s a sweeping view of the mountains over the town. The last thing I saw dropping to bed were the lonely lights clinging to the slopes, sleepless drivers grooming slowly up and down the mountains.