Special Report

My Week at Sundance

Was there anyone here who was not a budding filmmaker?

By 2.2.11

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I literally crawled off the airport shuttle van at Park City, Utah, on Day One of the Sundance Film Festival, rested one knee on the snow-blanketed terra firma to regain equilibrium and thanked God I had not spilled my cookies during the driver's thirty minute re-creation of Jackie Stewart's run at the 1967 Monte Carlo Grand Prix. I was that close. Fortunately the journey was the nadir of my excursion; the next seven days at Sundance were equally dizzying, but delightfully so.

What brought me to the Festival (which wrapped last Sunday), and what has been the reason for my absence from The American Spectator's pages these last few years (you've missed me, right? right? hello?), is a feature narrative film I have produced, written, and directed: Moonhair. (More of which in due course).

No, Moonhair was not in the 2011 Festival lineup. In fact, it requires a few more months of editing to finish. But as we near completion I thought it was time to venture into the marketing of the film, the exercise of which I admit I am a babe in woods. But one must start somewhere, and why settle for the Cleveland Film Festival when one can visit Sundance? With luck, I thought I might even bump into Robert Redford, the Festival's founder.

Along with Moonhair's primary investor, his wife, his two secretaries, and my Director of Photography, we descended each day from our multi-room condo on the hill armed with DVDs and iPads and iPhones to present our 30-second teaser to anyone and everyone we could corner. Call it the blind shotgun networking approach. Keep firing and eventually you'll hit something.

The four or five block stretch of Main Street that is the historic part of Park City that you see in photos lies at the southern top of a slow rising gulch. This gulch grows mysteriously steeper and steeper in relation to the minutes left to the start of shows at theatres at the top of the hill. Main Street is filled with swank fur shops, art galleries, ritzy clubs ($150 entrance fees), and restaurants ranging from the posh to the casual. Not that casual implies inexpensive: I paid $40 for two gyros sandwiches at an order-at-the-counter, clean-your-own-table joint. Call me tight, but ouch! Park City descends to the north and west, melding into modern subdivisions and malls and massive buildings until, thirty miles later, it blends seamlessly into Salt Lake City. It is not an isolated mountain retreat, but an expensive suburb.

Actually, it proved more difficult to miss a budding filmmaker than to hit one. Turns out that darn near everyone at Sundance is a filmmaker. I kid you not. I soon discovered that I could stand in any line, sit in any movie theater, eat at any restaurant, and the person next to me was not a mere movie-goer, but either had a film in Sundance or was presently producing a film he or she hoped to have in next year's lineup. This is not hyperbole, but God's Truth. The Festival would more appropriately be called the Sundance Young Filmmaker's Convention.

Emphasis on young. I felt very very old (I'm not saying exactly how old) for a guy making his first independent feature film. I look more like a middle-aged Alfred Hitchcock; the surrounding hordes looked more like 26-year-old Federico Fellini clones, sans smoldering cigarettes. Trim black coats, stylish haircuts, black rectangular glasses, tidy little configurations of facial hair. Even some of the women filmmakers.

But, surprise and joy to me, everyone was amazingly friendly and eager to offer assistance and advice. And I mean everyone! There was no sense of competitiveness. Egalitarianism ran rampant, and I was inspired and rejuvenated beyond belief. (Struggling for years to put together a low-budget film will take it out of you, believe me.)

Here's how it worked.

I'd spot someone on the sidewalk, or in a movie line, or maybe the guy sitting next me before the film started. The filmmakers officially part of Sundance wore name badges.

"Are you a filmmaker? Do you have a film here?"

"Yes!" Being young, they were excited to be there and happy to share that excitement.

"I'm in post on Moonhair, a micro-budget action/adventure/historical/fantasy with an all Native American cast, the first in U.S. cinema history. Possibly the first micro-budget epic film ever produced. Set in the Dog Days, before the white man and horses. A girl with white hair and magical powers fights off the Dung Eaters -- the bad Indians -- and tries to save her people from extinction at their hands. Along the way she interacts with mythological figures like Whirlwind Girl, who flies through sky. Falls in love. Our motto is "NO WOODEN INDIANS." We use contemporary cinematic language to tell the story. We appeal to young Indians who are embracing the Internet and pop culture. We use TECHNO-POWWOW music. We think the film has universal appeal. Want to see the teaser on my nifty new iPad?"

"Whoa! I'd love to!"

And they really do love to!

"Wow! That is so totally cool and new! That is so perfect for Sundance! Who's your distributor."

"Don't have one."

"Here's my card. Call me next week and I'll put you in touch with my rep. He's looking for this sort of thing. Want to have lunch? What did you think of my three million dollar horror film?" He really did want to know, too.

This scenario played out time after time. Some of the best help I received was from film directors from Rwanda, India, and Norway. What a happy, optimistic, eager-eyed conglomeration of young people. Where were the shallow celebrities? The jaded cutthroat agents? The paparazzi?

I confess, I played my own paparazzi when someone announced, "There's Robert Redford!" I turned on my Canon HD in 24i Cine Mode and recorded forty seconds of Robert Redford walking across Main Street. You can't see his face, I shot him from the back side. Cinéma vérité. But you'd recognize his slight figure and black coat and beret .

I sat two seats over from James Franco at the screening of Prairie Love, produced by a 26-year-old film school grad from my alma mater, Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. When I was 26 we did not have HD digital cams or laptops on which to easily edit and add sfx. I recall that film labs charged at least $50 for a simple dissolve. Do these kids know how lucky they are?

Rutger Hauer charged down the aisle of the Egyptian Theater screaming and wielding his real shotgun at the premier of Hobo With a Shotgun. He was having a grand time interacting with the crowd during Q & A, filming questioners with his Flip camera. No pretense. None. Just a regular guy who was obviously happier than hell to be in a fun movie. Like a little kid!

The world's greatest living cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Deliverance, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Deer Hunter, dozens of others), was present at the world premiere of Summer Children, a 1965 film he shot that has never been released. During the Q and A after the screening, he lamented what digital cams have done to films. No one cares about lighting, he said. No one even knows who Rembrandt was. They think chiaroscuro is an STD. Most film today is crap. I couldn't agree more. But then, with future film distribution depending on iPhone viewing, who needs lighting?

In the lobby, I purchased the one remaining DVD of Summer Children, turned around and found myself facing Vilmos. He looks more like a healthy 62 than his 82. I shook hands, expressed my sincere admiration, and asked if he'd autograph the DVD. Puzzled, he signed it.

"Where did you get this?" he asked. "I didn't know they'd printed them. I don't even have one."

"I bought the last one off the table. I'll sell it to you, but it'll cost. It's the only DVD autographed by Vilmos Zsigmond." He laughed.

And so did I laugh. Aside from overpriced gyros sandwiches, how wonderful and inspiring to spend a week hustling my film in a charming mountain setting, surrounded by friendly masters and future masters of the art of cinema. This is why I chose to struggle and sacrifice to make Moonhair: To aspire for beauty, to share visions and dreams with like-minded souls, to encourage and be encouraged, to share camaraderie.

Political differences aside, thank you Robert Redford for the vision and realization of Sundance. With a bit of luck and a ton of persistence, I'll be back next year with Moonhair in the lineup, offering what I can to another newbie.

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