The Sundance Kidder

With his own movie in tow, Dallas' indie-film guru goes to Robert Redford's festival, falls in love with the First-Timer, and embraces the hype

Or maybe here's a better way: Early in shooting The Usual Suspects, which debuted at Sundance six years ago, Stephen Baldwin decided to test young director Bryan Singer. Singer tested him right back.

Baldwin: "I like to shake it up, mess around, so I'm gonna change things around when we shoot, OK?"

Singer: "Not really. I've been thinking about every angle of every frame of this movie for five years. OK, y'know?"

Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.
Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.
Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.
Tearlach Hutcheson
Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.

Nobody blinks, but Baldwin (who tells this story a lot) laughs--and goes back to work. Actors are acting--that's what they do--and testing is part of acting.

Aside 2: Chilling The Crew

Fact: A rookie director (name deleted) wants the crew to applaud whenever he walks onto the set. Then, he rushes around the set--arms outstretched with his thumbs and forefingers locked to form a frame--sighting up hundreds of shots he'll clearly never shoot. The crew looks on, unamused. (P.S. Overdirector-ing is not a "cool" way to meet girls in the movie and get "hot" dates.)

Or check it this way: Early during the shooting of Taxi Driver, young Martin Scorsese shows up in a snappy black three-piece suit. He's wired up to play the role of the Sadistic Psycho in The Back Seat of The Taxi, and the crew jitters as Scorsese keeps laughing nervously as he climbs into the back of the cab, behind Robert DeNiro, who is gripping the steering wheel. The camera rolls, and Scorsese quietly calls, "Action." The director puts out a performance ice-cold perfect--no vanity here. Scorsese disarms himself of any protection, and he goes so deep into the character's wild darkness that the crew gets shaken totally onto Scorsese's side.

If the filmmaker is open to gut-piercing for the work of the movie--if the filmmaker is fearless for the movie--the crew is going with that filmmaker. Anywhere.

Setting Sundance

John Pierson is a master collaborator in the launch and development of the careers of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, among others. He wrote the book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, the bible on recent Indie Filmmaking. He hosts a show on the Independent Film Channel called Split Screen, in which he interviews the wizards behind the curtain--writers, directors, producers. He is Mr. Sundance. He was, anyway.

Nowadays, Pierson doesn't go to Sundance. Why?

"On the one hand, I had such an original first First-Timer with Spike Lee--doing She's Gotta Have It," he says. "It was all adrenaline, the greatest experience of my life to that date: It was, in fact, life-forming...But on the second hand, 16 years or so later, now it's of no interest to me to watch some unformed first-time director expounding after his first movie how oh-so-brilliantly he has a grand understanding of the world."

January 28, 2001

Yeah, but on the third hand, John, you gotta admit that Sundance is still a rush when it works. It wipes you out. And it makes you feel like Mr. Big Shot. Ah, yesss...

So on this night, Mr. Big Shot flies back to Dallas and drives to the local 7-Eleven, in the cold Sunday-night rain, to get cat food. I go in and note there's an erratically screaming crazy lady at the checkout counter--no big deal for Mr. Big Shot, y'know? I set the cat food on the counter and step back out of her way. She makes a final cursing-screaming outburst and grabs a bunch of stuff off the counter before dashing out into the rain. I pay for the cat food, head to my car, poke my hand into my pocket for my car keys...only, no car keys. I go back inside, and the counterman and I look all around for the keys. We go outside to look, in case I dropped them. Nope. Now, the counterman glances at me, rain in his face. "That lady," he says. "When she grabbed everything off the counter, she grabbed your car keys." Yep.

So I wait at the 7-Eleven for four hours, until 1 a.m., when a tow truck comes and hauls my car away. Yesterday, I was a King on the Sundance Mountain. Tonight, some crazy lady stole my car keys at a 7-Eleven. So long, HypeLife. Welcome back, real life.

In 1975, Dallas-born L.M. Kit Carson wrote a story forEsquire in which he predicted big things for a few then-unknown directors, writers, and producers--Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Towne, to name but a few. His first film--1968'sDavid Holzman's Diary, a black-and-white mockumentary he wrote and starred in--sits alongsideCitizen Kane,It's a Wonderful Life,Star Wars, andCasablanca in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Carson, who co-founded the USA Film Festival in 1970, also penned the 1983 remake ofBreathless, starring Richard Gere, co-authored (with Sam Shepard) the screenplay for Wim Wenders'Paris, Texas in 1984, and co-produced Wes Anderson'sBottle Rocket. His work has also appeared inRolling Stone andFilm Comment.

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