Highlights of Sundance: A Reel Rocky Mountain High
 By Laura Bernieri

 MONDAY, JANUARY 24, 2000

Landing in Salt Lake in January is always a breathtaking experience. The Rocky Mountains are so majestic and panoramic. Up the mountain we go to the former silver rush town. It is said in financial circles that it was not the people panning for gold that made the money, but the people that sold the miners their picks and shovels. So it is at Sundance, where dot com companies are emerging to help filmmakers market their films on the internet, grabbing attention of audiences and acquisitions executives alike.

Twenty thousand attendees, more than ever before, are expected to attend Sundance 2000. The word is that there are more socially committed films than in years past, AMERICAN PSYCHO notwithstanding. This year, the buzz is that the documentary competition is stronger than ever before, which must please the programmers and festival co-directors whose mandate is to get more attention for the non-fiction films. This year, there were 347 doc submissions, up from 210 last year. There is a documentary center set up called, "House of Docs," to invite more press opportunities. Soundtracks are also on Sundancers minds. The Music Cafe on Main Street features live performances to bring filmmakers and composers together. There is even a Gen Y Studio, open from 4-8pm, where high schoolers can test the latest in film and digital technology.

This is my fifth year at the festival. Having been here twice as an associate producer and co-producer with Brad Anderson (on DARIEN GAP and NEXT STOP WONDERLAND) it was a special thrill to attend the premiere of his latest film, HAPPY ACCIDENTS. The crowd was bustling outside the Eccles theater. Top film executives swarm around on their cell phones. Miramax, Lion’s Gate, Paramount Classics, Sony Classics, Samuel Goldwyn were all represented.

Jay Craven, the Vermont filmmaker (WHERE RIVERS FLOW NORTH, A STRANGER IN THE KINGDOM) shows up to check out the show. We discuss his next projects, among them another Howard Frank Mosher novella, DISAPPERANCES. John Pierson (author of SPIKES, MIKES, SLACKERS AND DYKES) arrives with his wife, Janet. I love John because he always admired the long running scene in Robert Patton-Spruill’s SQUEEZE (which I associate produced), needing no one to explain to him this nod to Truffaut’s 400 BLOWS.) And Janet and I were at Hampshire College together in the early 70s, along with Ken Burns (here in ‘98 with FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT), Michael Peyser (exec producer of last year’s SLC PUNK), Andy Shea (director of 1999’s CORNDOG MAN) and Ezra Swerdlow who produced two films here this year; the Dramatic Competition contender BACKROADS by Shirley Cheechoo and Anna Deveare Smith’s TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES which was shown in the Special Screening showcase.

 
Barbara Sted (Hollywood Film & Video), Jay Spain (Communications Group, Raleigh, NC), Laura Bernieri, Michael Rogers, Joan Quinn Eastman and David Kleiler at Laura's "Alternative Awards  Celebration

All 1200 seats in the Eccles are filled for HAPPY ACCIDENTS and the audience seems to give the film a thumbs up. David Kleiler of Local Sightings (whom Brad worked for as a projectionist years ago) and I both agree that the plot device distances us from true emotional involvement in the love story. The sci-fi element is quirky and quintessentially Brad, although inspired by Martin Amis. During Q & A, Brad explains that NEXT STOP WONDERLAND was about two people meeting up. HAPPY ACCIDENTS explores how they hash out a relationship based on trust. Brad amplifies the alien "other" fear by threading through the story a mysterious element: Vincent D’Onofrio tells Marisa Tomei that he’s a time traveler from the future. When asked how she prepared for the role, Marisa replied, "I’ve been involved in some strange relationships." Brad takes advantage of visual innovations, like the opening credit sequence where the action is played b ackwards. He utilizes some star-scaped opticals which make the film cinematically interesting. Whatever Brad does, he always is original in his vision of the story. There is an extremely personal quality to his Sundance trio of films. I look forward to what’s next.

  Laura Bernieri and actress, Pat Carroll, who plays Alden Quinn's Appalachian Grandma in SONGCATCHER, outside the Park City Library.

Kleiler and I hook up for dinner at the Riverhorse Cafe with Boston filmmakers Mary Feuer, Gabrielle Savage, Mary Chiochios (COULD BE WORSE), Monika Mitchell and actress Christy Scott Cashman. The latter stars in Monika’s short, NIGHT DEPOSIT, which has just been featured on the front page of the arts section of the Salt Lake City newspaper. It is, essentially, a Robin Hood tale of robbing from the rich to give to the poor. Cast by Kevin Fennessy, NIGHT DEPOSIT has put us in a celebratory mood as the waiter brings out a birthday cake for Kevin. Producer’s rep Jeff Dowd, fresh from closing his deal for TWO FAMILY HOUSE to Lion’s Gate, tells us they all had a revelation about how to sell the film when they saw the reaction of the Salt Lake City audience: It is a ROCKY story with a strong rooting interest for the main character. Rooting interest improves marketability, e.g. THE FULL MONTY, WAKING NED DEVINE. Steve Buscemi says "hello" as he passes our table.

 TUESDAY, JANUARY 25, 2000

I wake up to find Shawn Colvin doing a photo shoot on the balcony of my Inn. The town ski lift passes directly above our heads, as we are on one side of the mountains, looking out across Old Town at the other side of the mountain range. The Angel House Inn used to be the bordello for the silver mining town. Now it is restored to its Victorian glory in pastels with antiques, chintz, and four poster beds. Each room named after an angel of special significance to travelers.

I run into Gloucester producer Sarah Green, who has just wrapped the Boston production of David Mamet’s STATE & MAIN. Her film GIRLFIGHT was the most sought-after film at the onset of Sundance 2000, selling to Screen Gems in a bidding war for a rumored $3 million. (Later I heard Sarah flew back to Boston in first class!) John Sayles, whose films she produced before Mamet, grandfathered GIRLFIGHT, having been impressed by Kusama when she worked as his assistant.

I rush down to see the documentary panel, but get sidetracked by Art Horan, v.p. of RKO Pictures who used to work at Palmer Dodge in Boston. I tell him how much I love the doc he partially financed, THE BATTLES OF RAMBLIN’ JACK, a contender in the Documentary Competition this year. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was the heir apparent to Woodie Guthrie. He was also the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s style. (This film won a prize for Artistic Achievement.)

 
Laura Bernieri, Gayle Fee and Tim Collins (Manager, Aerosmith)

In a documentary state of mind, I attend the screening of Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman’s LONG NIGHT’S JOURNEY INTO DAY about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. What a film! This is the kind of real life drama that documentaries live for. Because my husband runs a literacy outreach program that has brought Black South African teachers to Phillips Academy where I live, I have a personal connection to the content in this remarkable story. After wiping my eyes dry, I approach the filmmakers to help them in their request to get the film into South African schools. (This film won Best Documentary.)

Manager Tim Collins (formerly with Aerosmith) is checking out Sundance with an eye toward some of his own film projects. We have dinner at Juniper to discuss the Boston indie scene. Tim is exuberant. "I’ve always loved movies and it’s been great to see films that I might never have been able to see. This trip has opened me up creatively. LEGACY, the documentary about urban poverty, I found to be incredibly inspiring." We’ve also heard that DARK DAYS is a revelation about homeless people in New York City living in a subterranean subway shantytown by homeless filmmaker Marc Singer. Instead of being a "downer", the doc is a testimony of the community-building abilities intrinsic to human beings. Tim was also moved by JUST MELVIN, a powerful indictment of a child molester which is not so uplifting but an important, albeit unsettling film. And then there’s the surprise hit, EYES OF TAMMY FAYE, a judgment-altering view of the g oddess of eye gook, which was snatched up by Lion’s Gate. What is clear to me is the power of the thematic ideas lodged within the extraordinary array of docs this year; and the fervent desire on behalf of the filmmakers to get those messages across to an audience.

 

 WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 26, 2000

I trek up the hill to the Washington School Inn to have breakfast with Louise Levison. Louise, a writer and consultant and president of Business Strategies, wrote the business plan for THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Her book, FILMMAKERS AND FINANCING: BUSINESS PLANS FOR INDEPENDENTS, now in its second printing, is the best on the market.

 Laura Bernieri and film business consultant, Louise Levison at the Angel House Inn  

The mountains surrounding Park City have a frosty new dusting. Throughout the day, filmmakers thank audience members for coming to see their films when they could be skiing in that perfect powder. I am in the mood to see a romantic comedy, SNOW DAYS. It’s a sweet slice of life, aimed at a twenty-something demographic, that gets a bit saccharine in its climax: The female lead runs across the Brooklyn Bridge as she bolts from her wedding into the arms of the boy-next-door hero. It reminds me of WALKING & TALKING, which I saw four years ago at Sundance when it helped launch the careers of Anne Heche, Liev Schreiber, Katherine Keener and Kevin Corrigan. Often the buzz regarding hot films at Sundance is more about the emergence of bright new talent.

SONGCATCHER is the talk of the festival. Janet McTeer (who just won the Golden Globe for TUMBLEWEEDS) stars with Aiden Quinn and the irreppressible Pat Carroll. You may remember her as a comedian who did many sitcoms in her day and also was a regular on Hollywood Squares. Pat gives a breakthrough performance in this period piece where she plays Quinn’s Appalachian grandma. This is the great aspect of indie film; you can give an extraordinary opportunity for an actor whose career has been dormant and catapult that actor into a whole new realm of demand. Case in point; John Travolta in PULP FICTION. Legendary bluesman Taj Mahal enhances the film with a dynamite cameo.

SONGCATCHER, somewhat similar in genre to THE PIANO, is a period piece about a female doctorate of musicology at the turn of the century. When she is passed over for a position that she surely deserved at the small college where she is teaching in North Carolina for a male colleague, McTeer goes to visit her sister, a teacher at a rural mountain school. There she discovers that traditional songs, the roots of English/Irish/Scottish literature, have been preserved down through the generations by the illiterate mountain people as part of their oral tradition. She is mesmerized by the cultural style in which the people sing their songs and begins recording them.

What an extraordinary script by filmmaker Maggie Greenwald (BATTLE OF LITTLE JO.) It weaves important contemporary themes into the story of the timeless struggle between progress and preservation. Enrique Chediak is the much praised cinematographer whom I met when he was just out of NYU Film School. Enrique shot HURRICANE STREETS, which played at Sundance several years ago, and is here this year with yet another film, THE BOILER ROOM, which stars Ben Affleck.

From there I hop a bus to the screening of Boston’s own Zach Stratis’ film, COULD BE WORSE a mockumentary about his Greek family coming to grips with his sexual orientation. The film is a tour-de-force of audacity in that it is so highly personal. Yet, the home movie approach pays off in the intimacy it affords us as we get to know his family. Stratis, with help from producer Mary Chiochios and her brother George, as well as Boston animator Mary Kocol, has painted his operetta with the colors of the rainbow. In an opening photomontage of his family, dating back to his great grandparents in the Old Country, Zach establishes his proud heritage. Suddenly, Zach is riding his bicycle in a PeeWee Herman style rainbow fantasy land and breaks into song. His voice is not good, but his intention is so free that it’s very funny. This goes for his whole family–and we get to hear them all sing. Each has his or her serious moments, too. There is something fascinating about it. It’s like an amalgamation of cinema verite, soap opera and musical comedy. The audience is transfixed.

   Gen X revelers at Laura Bernieri's condo party. (Young man is an actor from THE TAO OF STEVE who plays the chronic masturbator)

What held the pastiche together for me was his reluctant father. Dad didn’t want any part of the movie; yet, over time, he yields some touchingly candid moments. By the end, somehow he’s leading the procession in the song and dance extravaganza. Mr. Stratis has had the greatest character arc. This magnificent range of change creates a rooting interest and becomes the spine on which the story hangs.

I go to the Treasure Mountain Inn where Slamdance is headquartered to see Austin filmmaker Jeff Stolhand’s film, WHAT I LIKE ABOUT YOU. Slamdance is the punk version of Sundance that slams up against it in the mosh pit of the media blitz. Jeff’s film is good, a fresh, likeable romantic comedy. Afterward, I suggest they submit it to Nantucket Film Festival because the script is so smart and funny, and Nantucket highlights the scriptwriter.

Midnight in Park City and Old Town is shakin’ and a groovin’ with the drums of a powwow at the foot of the mountain. We definitely borrow from some great Native American spirit that coarses through filmgoers veins as we walk around Park City. I fall asleep to the sound of people laughing and talking joyously as they wander the streets late at night.

 

 THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2000

The Massachusetts Film Office breakfast at Zoom, Robert Redford’s western-style restaurant, has become a tradition. Our presence, as a state, has burgeoned over the past few years. The Film Office does a great job bringing people together with their hospitality. I meet L.A. lawyer Michael Donaldson who wrote the book Copyright for Dummies. MFO Director Robin Dawson introduces me to public relations exec Lynda Dorf, who invites me to a press conference for Resort Theaters of America, a company that specializes in building new screens in resort areas.

 
Monika Mitchell and Rusty Osgood of Velocity Magazine from Chicago 

I blow off THE TAO OF STEVE, which I’m dying to see, because Lynda wants me to comment at the press conference from the filmmaker’s point of view. Representing Resort Theaters of America are President & CEO Ron Leslie and Chairman of the Board, Brad Krevoy, formerly with Motion Picture Corporation of America; and representing Sundance are Festival Co-Directors Geoff Gilmore and Nicole Guillemet. After RTA unveils their plan to open a new ten screen theater in Park City, I submit that low-budget "homegrown" films can be a bonanza for local exhibitors. I cite the Ciotta brothers’ THE NORTH END, which broke records at the Showcase Revere, Maureen Foley’s HOME BEFORE DARK, which broke records at the West Newton and NEXT STOP WONDERLAND which played at the Kendall Landmark from August 21st-December 24th, 1998. I urge Ron and Brad to begin a dialogue with local filmmakers, much to the delight of Nicole and Geoff and Sundance Institute Executive Director Ken Brecher (formerly of the Boston Children’s Museum!) who thank me and say, "Let’s keep in touch." For me, this becomes a high point of my Sundance 2000 experience: I’ve thrown a spotlight on our vibrant indie film community in Boston and reinstated my desire for exhibitors to consider booking low-budget films that have a particular draw in areas around the country where they were conceived and shot.

I’m in the bathroom with Heather Graham while she is adjusting her stockings. If my husband were here, this would be the highlight of Sundance 2000 for him.

I drop into Dolly’s Bookstore for a booksigning with senior reviewer for Variety, Emanuel Levy. I met Emanuel at his Harvard Coop booksigning, which actually turned into a mini-lecture by this sensitive, astute professor of film at Arizona State University. In his book, CINEMA OF OUTSIDERS, a compendium on independent film, Emanuel has a section on regional filmmaking, and cites Brad Anderson and Lyn Vaus’ THE DARIEN GAP as well as NEXT STOP WONDERLAND. I pick up a copy of SUNDANCING, hot off the presses, which is an entertaining and informative mosaic of Sundance 1999. The author, John Anderson of Newsday, introduces himself and offers to autograph it for me. It turns out the book has a picture of and quote from Michelle Le Brun, whose film I was with last year in the documentary competition, DEATH, A LOVE STORY.

   Robin Dawson (left), Zach Stratis and his family , and producer Mary Chiochiostat in the Riverhorse Cafe

The Mass. Film Office gives a reception at the Riverhorse Cafe atrium in honor of COULD BE WORSE. The MFO really know how to choose the best locations. This room in this restaurant is the best in Old Town. Everyone is feeling festive. Andrew Mudge’s CHICKEN POX PAL is one of a handful of shorts bought by the Sundance Channel for their new program Short Stops. Andrew attracted the attention of Salt Lake City TV crews by recruiting elementary school kids with red-speckled faces to pass out fliers. Indiewire is calling Boston adman Jonathan Bekemeir’s short TITLER, "the most shocking, entertaining and hilarious entry of the festival." Former Brookline resident, now Los Angeles soundtrack supervisor Michael Rodgers is here, having worked on the opening night film, WHAT’S COOKING? We’re proud to see our numbers swell each year at Sundance. I tell producer Nick Paleologos (QUIZ SHOW, GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI) here acting as producer’s r ep for COULD BE WORSE, that a clip from his film MISSISSIPPE BURNING played a pivotal role in changing an Afrikaaner policeman’s attitudes about apartheid in LONG NIGHT’S JUOURNEY INTO DAY. Zach’s family leads the dancing, their Greek zest for life is contagious. Gaffer Ken Perham has joined in the revels. NEXT STOP WONDERLAND cinematographer Uta Briesewitz is here, having shot the Anne Makepeace documentary, COMING TO LIGHT: EDWARD S. CURTIS AND THE NORTH AMERIACN INDIANS, which I hop a bus to go see at the Yarrow.

 
Business consultant/author, Louise Levison; Cinematographer, Uta Briesewitz and Music Supervisor, Michael Rogers at the Riverhorse Cafe 

The bus is packed, people standing in the aisles. The driver is blaring vintage disco music. One guy yells out, "Next he’s gonna play YMCA." The song comes on! Everyone is surprised at this instantly filled request. One woman starts dancing down the aisle. The guy yells out, "This is Debbie, ladies and gentlemen..." She turns it out, every one is laughing. The bus driver starts blinking his lights like a strobe. Crazy things like this happen at Sundance. It’s like Mardi Gras in Park City.

The Native element emerges strong again in Makepeace’s opus on photographer Edward S. Curtis. Curtis published 20 volumes documenting the North American Indian tribes in pictures of staggering beauty and reverence. In Q & A, it is revealed that the composer completed his work in three weeks so that the film could qualify for Sundance 2000. After, I seek him out, compelled to thank him for such a great accompaniment to those indelible images. It truly provided a powerful emotional build.

I have a ticket for HUMAN TRAFFIC at the Egyptian which is part of the "Midnight in Park City" program. But after experiencing COMING TO LIGHT, I’m not in the mood to see a film about "intricately plotted debauchery." Miramax is releasing it in the spring.

 FRIDAY, JANUARY 28, 2000

I go to the Hospitality Suite at the Sundance headquarters and seek out Keith Arnold of the Berkeley Fine Arts Theater in Berkeley, California. Keith is a champion of art house split screen programming; an outspoken maverick. I hope not the last of a dying breed. Although as he explains the politics of his end of the business, I realize that although Landmark and Resort Theaters of America are excellent for indie filmmakers, the corporatization of the exhibitors can put the squeeze on independent venues like his and our own beloved Coolidge Corner Theater.

I’m lucky to have a ticket to YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. I sit with Charlie Herzfeld of Technicolor in New York, who did lab work on the film, Boston entertainment attorney John Ives, and Barbara Sted, vice president of marketing for Hollywood Film & Video in Los Angeles. Charlie tells us about the wild Hugo Boss/VH1 party the previous night. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, explores the relationship between a wandering loner and his sister, whom he comes to visit. Laura Linney, Mathew Broderick, and little Rory Culkin (MacCauley’s brother) give great performances but Mark Ruffalo as the brother is a stand out. The editing enhances the sharp humor of the script. Lonergan has a wry, droll wit as witnessed in his hit ANALYZE THIS. (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and split the Grand Jury Prize in a tie with GIRLFIGHT.)

 Laura Bernieri with Variety Senior Reviewer, Emmanuel Levy, signing his book for Lyn Vaus at Dolly's Books on Main Street in Park City  

Dinner at The Gamekeeper. John Ives and Charlie Herzfeld share a plate of ostrich. Formerly from Boston, Charlie lives in New Jersey, works in Manhattan, but grew up in Belgium. A much beloved figure in the independent film world, he has handled the prints of the majority of Boston’s filmmakers. At one point, John teases him, "Look, Charlie, fuck all this lab shit. It’s going to be obsolete!"

 SATURDAY, JANUARY 29, 2000

The absence of Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, who is in a New York hospital recovering from a viral infection, has had an effect on the bidding climate at Sundance 2000. According to Clint Culpepper, executive v.p. of Sony Screen Gems, who purchased GIRLFIGHT, it has "leveled the playing field."

"Harvey is the most important person in this world," says John Sloss, the New York attorney and producer’s rep–who is also one of the most important people in this arena. "He drives the market. And people at Miramax will always tell you, ‘If he likes it, we’ll pay more than anyone else.’ "

Jonathan Dana, the producer’s rep who sold SPITFIRE GRILL for 10 million back in 1997, told the Los Angeles Times, "...people are kind of confused about what to buy right now and what to pay for it."

There is hesitation on the part of the buyers to bid too high because time has shown that general audiences still don’t always react with the same enthusiasm to indie films as Sundance cineastes. Low box office grosses have had a sobering effect on acquisition executives.

Still, as Mark Ordesky, President of Fine Line, points out in Variety, "I believe there is more private money out there," explaining the shift in the marketplace where studios find it safer to be in the acquisitions business as production costs have risen. "If a studio made SAVING GRACE, it would have cost 12 million to 15 million. We can buy it outright for $4 million. We think that makes sense."

   Filmmaker, Monica Mitchell and Producer Mary Chichios at The Riverhorse Cafe

This year, the "800 pound gorilla" is Blockbuster who made video "dream deals" for LOVE AND SEX, Val Breiman’s debut film with Famke Janssan and SHADOW HOURS, granting producers high cash advances against revenues.

Jeff Dowd comments, "What’s remarkable this year is the distributors have all gone after films that suited their specific strengths and tastes. It’s a much broader field as a result, and that’s a huge positive."

Trimark has certainly changed their taste over the years. Previously known for sell-through (direct to video) deals, they enjoyed good domestic success with EVE’S BAYOU and, at press time, are the frontrunners for what is to be sure an arthouse favorite, SONGCATCHER.

Artisan made a modest purchase of Michael Arteta’s CHUCK AND BUCK. When asked if they were eyeing any other acquisitions, top gun Amir Malin commented, "We’re pretty monogomous."

Sundance 2000 has experienced a bit of a correction in the marketplace, but like in the stockmarket, this can ensure more robust growth in the long haul.

Monika Mitchell calls to say she’s won the Anarchy Award at Slamdance. I have an open house party from 9pm to 3am. About 100 people come through the door. Someone brings a bottle of "Fire In De Hole Erotic Rum." (Was it the chronic masturbator from THE TAO OF STEVE who arrived with two cute gals?) I’m intrigued...I’ve never seen this stuff before. Thank God my better sense prevails and I do not partake. Mass Media Alliance founder Joan Quinn Eastman crushes up frozen Bailey’s in the blender at around 2am as a nightcap. Luckily, nobody has to drive home, just slide home.

 SUNDAY, JANUARY 30, 2000

A cross-section of headlines that sum up Sundance 2000:

"SANE SUNDANCE SEALS REEL DEALS" (VARIETY): "Sundance shoppers this year are back to safe and sane bidding ..." I love this inside sub-head: "‘DANCE LESSON: ZEAL FOR SANE REEL DEAL."

"FEST IS WIRED, BUT ALL IS CALM."

(HOLLYWOOD REPORTER)

"BRISK MARKET BUT WHERE’S THE FRENZY?" (NEW YORK TIMES)

"HARVEY’S ABSENCE IS A BIG PRESENCE" (L.A.TIMES)

"YEAR OF THE SUNDANCE WOMAN" (USA TODAY)

This, to me, is the biggest milestone of all. The Directors Guild has always had the fewest female members of all the Guilds. This year, of 112 films that were screened; 40 were directed by women! Perhaps this is no anomoly, but indication of a sea of change.

Festival Founder Robert Redford reiterates every year that the programmers program for vision, not marketability. Perhaps Sundance 2000 is a vision of what’s to come in theaters, too, since as the festival wraps with an unprecedented 23 titles with deals in play. And what’s next from Boston? That is the big question. I can’t wait.


Laura Bernieri is the President and Founding Partner of Brighton Avenue and the co-producer of NEXT STOP WONDERLAND.

 
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