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

To most of the world, at least those who love all things "E" (Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, and E!), the word "Sundance" means Robert Redford's indie-film festival, held each January in the snow-and-golden-sun-capped mountains of Utah. Newspapers, magazines, and TV shows have also wrapped another layer of creepy meaning around it--something intimidating like Power and Glamour. All those celebs-swanning-in-snow pix; all those show-biz reports about ego-driven distributors elbowing each other to slam down millions of dollars to buy movies, if only to shelve them and keep them out of the reach of other moguls looking to buy, or bury, The Next Big Thing.

Outsiders (that is, those without festival badges and expense accounts) see Sundance as a weeklong orgy of bidding and beering--Hollywood's annual retreat to the slippery slopes, where business is conducted on the bunny trails. Maybe some hot pic will get The Buzz and melt the snow for a minute or two, but for every sex, lies, and videotape (The Movie That Made Sundance, so They say), there are a dozen movies such as 1999's Sundance fave Happy, Texas--product that comes and goes so quickly it's not around long enough to forget. Everyone's hot before Sundance.

I've been going to Sundance for a few years, and I've known Redford for a few years longer--since he first became The Sundance Kid in director George Roy Hill's 1969 movie, the one that resurrected Redford's at-the-time stunted career. Redford is wacky and unpredictable--wacky, because for about five years, he actually paid for Sundance out of his own pocket, a little-known fact; unpredictable, because he keeps people hanging for an indefinite period of time before he commits to appearing in their movie. It's only appropriate the fest Redford founded two decades ago resembles its creator.

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.
No free news for nobody: Distributors would call New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell during the festival to find out what he thought about a movie before deciding to buy it.
No free news for nobody: Distributors would call New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell during the festival to find out what he thought about a movie before deciding to buy it.
Not your father's filmmaker: Roman Coppola, left, son of Francis and director of the forthcoming C.Q., epitomizes the Genius of the First-Timer. At right, The sweet smell of success: Perfume director Michael Rymer
Not your father's filmmaker: Roman Coppola, left, son of Francis and director of the forthcoming C.Q., epitomizes the Genius of the First-Timer. At right, The sweet smell of success: Perfume director Michael Rymer
The ladies man: Jeff Goldblum, with Perfume co-star Leslie Mann, hinted that he took his role as a talent scout to tweak his Hollywood rep as a womanizer.
The ladies man: Jeff Goldblum, with Perfume co-star Leslie Mann, hinted that he took his role as a talent scout to tweak his Hollywood rep as a womanizer.
Top: Jeff Goldblum and Carmen Electra share some punchy improv. Bottom: The stars of Perfume--from left, Jeff Goldblum, Rita Wilson, Carmen Electra, Joanne Baron, and Leslie Mann--gather for a picture-window photo op.
Top: Jeff Goldblum and Carmen Electra share some punchy improv. Bottom: The stars of Perfume--from left, Jeff Goldblum, Rita Wilson, Carmen Electra, Joanne Baron, and Leslie Mann--gather for a picture-window photo op.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em: The author, atop Sundance Mountain.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em: The author, atop Sundance Mountain.

Every year's going to be the Important Year at Sundance: The Year After Soderbergh, The Year After Reservoir Dogs, The Year of Miramax, The Year of the Digital Video Invasion. Everyone needs a peg, a storyline, some prefab drama. This was gonna be the year of...who knew? That's what makes it exciting: These days, the only Sure Thing is that there's no telling what's going to be The Next Big Thing. The biggest thing to come out of Sundance this year were pictures of a half-naked Courtney Love stumbling down the slopes--the very definition of "slow news week."

But under that "golden" exterior of Redford (and Sundance) lies the darkened core, the soul fighting to become complete. But this fight will never be completed, and this still-fighting core is what makes Redford and Sundance worth watching. For me, Sundance had always meant "struggle," in a lot of different ways.

In 1985, the first year I went to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, all there was was watching movies. I saw 42 movies in 11 days--even ducked out of the awards ceremony to hit some Australian punk movie. Sundance, way back in the last century, was like taking a long, stinging, soaking shower in movies-images-sounds.

The next year, they put me to work on the jury, which is charged with handing out awards to films entered in the fest's competition. Tony Safford, the festival director that year (he's now an exec at 20th Century Fox), said it was because he'd spotted me going to more movies the previous year than anybody else; he tagged me "The Yoda of Sundance." That year, Newsweekfilm critic David Ansen and I were outvoted by the rest of the jury and didn't get to give the Grand Prize to director Tim Hunter's brilliant film River's Edge (which contains Keanu Reeves' best performance). Instead, it went to some movie not even available on video today. Time has proven Ansen and Yoda were right.

The last time I attended the festival, in 1997, Cynthia Hargrave (my wife and producing partner) and I brought along a movie we'd produced, writer-director Morgan J. Freeman's Hurricane Streets. It won three awards--best director, best cinematographer, and the coveted audience award--and we sold our no-budget indie movie about New York street kids to MGM/UA. It was a week-and-a-half frenzied ordeal of creaming and screaming distributors bidding to buy the movie, ticket mob-fights to see the movie, and the chance to see no other movies (except Shine). FWupfh! Figured we'd never need to go back there again except...for fun.

No such luck. Sundance wanted our new movie, Perfume, for the end of the 2001 festival. Perfume--for which I had co-written the story that allowed the actors to fill in the blanks--contains a funnily interlocking set of stories about the folk in the New York High Fashion demimonde, and it features (for me, at least) stunning, improvised performances by Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sorvino, Omar Epps, Rita Wilson, among so many others. Long before the fest, people kept telling us: "C'mon, c'mon, it won't be so crazy this time. You don't need to sell your movie, Lions Gate has already bought it, so you'll just go in-out, just a couple days of parties..." For fun? OK, for fun.

But then, you forget. It's not only a film festival anymore. It's also about Sundance-ing. The HypeLife is coming, charging up and blurring out the distinction between your real life and your movie's. HypeLife, 24/7. And you can't stop it. You gave your life to the movie when you made it. And it never stops taking.

How the HypeLife Works

January 11, 2001

The HypeLife jump-starts hard and fast, seven days before the festival begins. Perfume is Hot News! CNN wants to shoot a fake at-Sundance interview with our director, Michael Rymer, and actor Jeff Goldblum in Los Angeles. I'd first met Rymer at (of course) Sundance in 1995, when he brought in his first movie, Angel Baby; he was now in L.A. shooting extra scenes for the Warner Bros.-backed sequel to Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice's rock-and-roll bloodsucker tale Queen Of The Damned. Michael and Jeff haul out to some smokehouse in Burbank to lounge in front of a fake roaring fireplace. It's already starting to blurrr: Real life is becoming HypeLife. CNN shoots on January 11 to broadcast on the 16th or 17th during its first Sundance news feature. CNN asks Rymer and Goldblum to wear "attractive snowy sweaters." I wonder: Will CNN sprinkle fake snow on their shoulders?

The HypeLife isn't bugging me. Yet.

January 15, 2001

Then it starts. HypeLife hits my computer in a blizzard of e-mails, all asking about Perfume. As recently as five years ago, the main purpose for going to Sundance was The Search--for the surprise and excitement of catching the great indie movie that no one (but the Sundance programmers) had yet seen. But today, the press and distributors and agents and filmmakers frenetically start Internetting each other prefest to make and shape and squeeze the Pre-Sundance Buzz into a Tip Sheet of What's Hot To See. Today: No Search needed, dude!

Hollywood Players have gimmicked and devolved the old real thrill into a prefest pseudoscientific guessing game (What'd the agent say? Who read any pages of the script? Did Al Pacino really visit the set? What's the gossip? No, thejuicy gossip). What purpose does this game serve? Easy. Power, that kind of arched-eyebrow Hollywood In-The-Know-ness. It's a cruel joke, but the jokiest aspect of this game is that no one has seen 99 percent of the movies being babbled about. (P.S. The Buzz Game works if you play it smart: Perfume notches into the top 10 of one Internet list, and all three of our Sundance screenings instantly sell out; and, yes, still no one's seen the movie.)

But, suddenly there's a break in The Buzz Game when a picture starts rocketing around the Web: a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire sitting in a hotel room, sporting matching (open) bathrobes. This causes the Hollywood Web-sters, with their tiny attention spans, to pause for a couple of bytes to stumble around and analyze and discuss whether the pix-file was faked. Finally, some pixel expert declares that a precise deconstruction of the scan lines reveals alterations in the photo: Fake! Still, this diversion has taken some heat off The Buzz. It kind of fades out. Nobody seems to really get back into it.

Later, a Web rumor insists the pix-file originated from Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia, still a revolutionary saboteur). Yeah, maybe. Maybe she was just as sick of The Buzz Game as other e-mail victims.

January 21, 2001

While I'm eating chili and half-watching the Golden Globes in Dallas, Roman Coppola calls my cell phone. He's inviting me to the first screening of his first movie, C.Q. It's at the MGM/UA screening room on the corner of 56th Street and Sixth Avenue. In New York. At 6 p.m. Tomorrow.

Odd, but even in the middle of scrambling to get to Sundance, I fly in the opposite direction. I do so partly because Roman has taken the main character out of my first movie--David Holzman's Diary, a mockumentary about a young filmmaker shooting a diary of his life falling apart, which I made in 1968 with director Jim McBride while I was still in college--and plopped down our "David" as the main character in his first movie. Roman has described his movie as "David Holzman accidentally directs Barbarella": It's set in 1969, and it's a movieland tale of a young American editor who takes over the finishing of a cheesy Euro sci-fi flick after the old-guy director gets fired and almost kills his young-guy replacement. This is too good a twist to miss--my first movie sequel-ing right into Roman's first movie.

C.Q. (i.e., "seek you") works: The young editor shoots a black-and-white diary of his own real life falling apart, while at the same time, he's shooting this absurdly colorful sci-fi pic on a hokey "moon set." It's full of the heartbreak, dopiness, and human knowingness of movie people that Roman's picked up by being around his father's moviemaking since childhood.

After the movie, as the screening-room lights fade up, Roman's father, Francis Ford Coppola (y'know, The Godfather? Apocalypse Now?), stalks around and starts quizzing the 25 people in the room about theme and style and...

Roman edges onto the arm of Cynthia's seat. He motions toward the exit with his head and whispers: "We gotta get out of here before my dad turns this into a film-festival seminar."

We exit quietly with Jeremy Davies, the young actor from Saving Private Ryan and director Wim Wenders' new Million Dollar Hotel, who plays "my role" in Roman's movie. Jeremy looks me over with mock-studiedness.

"Carson? You were there first with David Holzman's Diary, then you were there with Wim on Paris, Texas, and now you're here with us on C.Q. You've got a lot of explaining to do."

Roman's life is about to get weird. He will get no break, because for the next year, he's going to be angled up in the HypeLife of the First-Timer and his father's own status as Legendary Director. He will have a lot of explaining to do.

But make this clear: The main reason I go up to see C.Q. is that I'm a sucker for First-Timers. It's also the main reason for going to Sundance.

The Genius of

the First-Timer

Up on Sundance Mountain, it hits me again: the history of discovering all the First-Timers whose movies screened here. Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape); Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi); Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs); Boaz Yakin (Fresh); Darren Aronofsky (),and many others...

Like most moviephiles, I've always been a sucker for First-Timers. They break Tomorrow's News, The Update, The Next Joke, The New Surprise! They just jolt you.

Since the early 1970s, I've been lucky enough to be with friends making their first set of movies. With George Lucas joking around in John Milius' editing room. With Paul Schrader writing Taxi Driver, with a bottle of Myers Rum on one side of his desk and an (unloaded) gun on the other side. Pre-Sundance.

Post-Sundance, the early '90s. With Tarantino workshopping Reservoir Dogs, writing in his script "empathy frame" instead of "empty frame" at the end of the infamous ear-slicing scene. With Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson scratching to find an unexpected conclusion for Bottle Rocket ("Maybe the wanabe crooks all sail off in a big boat to the Caribbean...?").

I'm hooked on the first stories people tell--OK, hooked right in the heart--because these stories are always about what it feels like when you first tangle-ass with The World. They're always gut-wrenchingly naive and human (from François Truffaut's 400 Blows to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets to Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich)--about how You-Win-You-Lose. About how this first struggle is a lot trickier, and it costs a bigger piece of your soul.

And it's a hard shot to get this r-i-g-h-t onto film--getting this real feeling (we're not talking about any cornball action-movie roller coaster) that grabs you, shakes you, jukes you around. It's tough to spill your soul onto film.

But especially here at Sundance, this First-Timer stunt is goofishly tough to pull off--and survive sane. After the filmmaker has done his/her work and put up the movie, now--now--he/she has got to go through this 11-dayandnight-long hyper hybrid rush of attention-and-hustle-and-blast, and it can take away anyone's cool.

And then maybe the filmmaker will morph from the fun of being just an ordinary First-Timer stomping around the snowy hillsides into a...Sundance Genius. (Understand, this tag is not exactly swanky.)

This is The Dark Side of Sundance.

I've watched this metamorphosis in action and tried to pick up some tips on ducking the shadow-fall from the Dark Side of Sundance. Fact is, this changeover is not too subtle. All of the following anecdotes are real; only the names have been deleted to protect the clueless.

Tip 1: Check Your Memory Loss

Instant "fame" on the Main Street of Sundance Mountain can regularly cause massive memory loss for the First-Timer. Once this snaps, you can become psychotically unable to remember any person who worked on your first movie. Thank who? Did you really make your movie all alone?

Fact: A rookie director can forget even that there are actors in the movie. One First-Timer (name deleted) got caught denying to the press that the main role in his movie was played by...anyone.

(P.S. The best memory-jog cure for this degree of amnesia is the threat of stressful legal action, such as a breach-of-contract lawsuit, but only if this threat could cost the rookie at least $1 million.)

Tip 2: Check Your Sleazeball

Overnight buzz across the Sundance party circuit can regularly cause sudden Agent/Manager/Public Relations Sleazeball clusters to be hanging all over First-Timers. Blabbing about "strategizing" career moves. (And this puzzles the young filmmaker with the sad question: Do Sleazeballs rule Hollywood?)

Fact: A rookie director (name deleted) can OK some strange Sleazeball to lurk around Sundance lying about the next major studio deal he's setting up for this hot new talent. It's called the "strategy" of maybe getting any deal, any place. But what really happens next is that the Sleazeball lies so hard that the First-Timer ends up doing endless cable-television development deals.

Fact: A rookie director (name deleted) does get offered an actual deal, but Sleazeball keeps sniveling that he's already got this deal leaked to be printed in tomorrow's issue of Varietyat a "strategically" higher price. Sleazeball pressures the First-Timer not to sign the deal memo until the price goes up. Deal-Maker gets insulted at the lying and slowly begins to pull the deal memo off the table.

First-Timer squeals, eyes all lit up: "Oooooooo! That's so-o-o-o-o Mafia! You can't really do that!"

What really happens next is the Deal-Maker really can do that. And does. And the deal leaves the room.

(P.S. Banks rule Hollywood. Not Sleazeballs.)

Tip 3: What's Most "Sundance Genius" about a First-Timer? You can turn into a Last-Timer.

A Baldwin to the Rescue

January 25, 2001

We get to Sundance only one day before the premiere screening of Perfume. Part of why we're delayed is setting up the Press and Parties with sponsors such as Lalique, VH1, and Nokia. This means overcoordinating Party Lists with everyone's approval; designing the parties (Lalique actually hires a party designer to make the rooms look, uh, extra-ultra, which he does); booking the band Everclear for a VH1 concert that will be Webcast in honor of Perfume; etc., etc.

But, of course, just when we arrive, we're caught in a perfect Sundance first-day minicrisis. Standing in a snowstorm on Main Street in Park City, Cynthia and I are trying to figure out how to quickly put together gift bags--a professional respect/courtesy gesture--for the stars of Perfumedue to arrive later today: Jeff Goldblum, Carmen Electra, Rita Wilson, Harry Hamlin, Mariel Hemingway, etc. It's a typically crazy last-minute movie-producer problem, because no actor would confirm if he/she was coming.

Just then, Stephen Baldwin saunters up. He stands between us, grinning his loopy grin.

"What's wrong?" he asks. "You guys got a hot film here...so...you look fried?"

We break the emergency to Stephen. He listens, nods without a word--then bolts away up the street. Huh? Was this too crazy for him? Now he's signaling frantically to us from a Roots store uphill. We go in, and Baldwin starts handing us bags of Roots stuff (strap-on leather body pouches, leather business-card holders, etc.). But what? How? Uh, Stephen? Baldwin whispers gleefully: "No problem. It's all free. Don't you know? One of the few good things when you get famous is that people will give you free stuff if you just ask!"

He raises his right foot, waggling the large red tennis shoe he's wearing: "Check this out--it's free!" It's a bonus of being a Baldwin.

At a late dinner that night, a friend introduces a First-Time director, Billy Corben. Billy, a former child actor, looks like a Poster Boy for the indie First-Timer: He's 22, way too shaggy-haired, sort of out of it, and jittery-boyishly shy. He dropped out of college to make a tough controversial documentary about an alleged rape at the Delta Chi fraternity house at the University of Florida, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent. Billy bravely insists that the local prosecutors fumbled and dropped the case, in which a bunch of frat boys videotaped the rape of an exotic dancer they hired for a wild frat party. Already, this documentary set off a Sundance spin when the victim, Lisa Gier King, showed up (unexpectedly) for the first screening; photos of this young woman at Sundance made the front page of the New York Post under the banner headline "RAPE, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE!"

We start to chat when Billy's cell phone beeps. He snatches it up; now he's staggering back from the table. Billy listens intently to his phone--starts wobbling strangely, nervously, giddily, rubbing his face and his teeth with his fingers as he mutters into the phone. Next to me, New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell leans confidentially close.

"Watch Billy," he whispers. "He's been waiting for this call--they're buying his movie."

"What? Who?"

"Can't tell you," Elvis says, sagely. "But a key distributor phoned me this afternoon asking to preview my review of Billy's film." Elvis laughs. "Told 'em to buy the newspaper tomorrow and read it--journalistic ethics, y'know. No free news for nobody."

Suddenly, Billy slams shut his phone. He nearly falls down, literally. He's gulping for air, choking out: "That was Artisan [distributor of The Blair Witch Project]...They just bought...my movie..." He shakes himself, amazed. He blurts: "Now! I can! Get a haircut!"

So here's this kid who's never made a movie (wait, he still hasn't made a movie--this is a documentary) and who's just sold his first (not movie) documentary to a major independent-film distributor. Who buys a documentary? Understand: This is about as likely as a fragment of space dust spiraling off one of the rings of Saturn and zooming all the way across the universe and nicking you on your left index finger. It's a classically real end-of-the-day Sundance Moment.

The Smell of PERFUME

January 26, 2001

10 a.m., News Conference

Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance festival director (and a Perfume fan--he wrote the glowing capsule review in the fest's 312-page program-cum-catalog) quickly intros the news conference. In front of the Nokia and DEFMAN (Deep Ellum Festival of Music, Art, and Noise, a co-sponsor of the news conference) banner, it quickly turns into a scene from the movie, a punchier brand of improv than the usual prefab improv of Sundance. The actors take over, while director Michael Rymer keeps pointing to who should jump onto the microphone next. Jeff Goldblum does his special self-mocking mumble-chuckle delivery, hinting about how improv gave him the freedom to reveal more about himself in his role. He slyly reveals that at the last minute, he switched roles--from the struggling hipster photographer (played in the film by Jared Harris) to the seductive fashion scout--and Goldblum further hints that his performance is a mock-acknowledgement of his industry rep as a woman-fancier.

Carmen Electra catches everybody off-guard by spelling out the innocently elaborate back story she built for her character (she plays a poor little rich girl who's trying desperately to be cool). In the movie, she's a Jennifer Lopez-type girlfriend of a mega-rap star, played by Omar Epps, who's doing his own version of Sean "Puffy" Combs. This is why some writers love actors: They expose more than you write. They expose their own secrets.

At 6 p.m., it's time to premiere Perfume; all roads lead to the Eccles Theater, in the twirling twilight snowfall. The theater contains 1,200 seats, which makes it the biggest house at the festival, and it's completely sold out. We're giving a few extra tickets to friends, including Deep Ellum Film Festival founder-director Michael Cain and the group from DEFF. (Cain jokes that the group is "infiltrating" Sundance to track down filmmakers carrying cans of unfinished film stock under their arms, in hopes of luring them toward next fall's festival in downtown Dallas.) So we're openly standing in front of this sold-out movie with extra tickets in our hands (P.S. Don't ever do this at Sundance!), and others spot us--we get mobbed. We're suddenly surrounded by four huge guys who look like out-of-work wrestlers.

"Hey, yeah, you know us," one of them quietly threatens. "We're old friends of...of that guy--your director, remember? He sent us over to pick up these tickets from you. Remember?"

Sure. No doubt, hereyago. Later, we point out to Michael Rymer his old roly-poly pals.

"Who?" he asks. "Who the hell are those guys?"

Surprisingly (to us, anyway), there's a lot of laughter bursting from the audience throughout the screening--at the right places, too. Cynthia keeps bonking my arm: "We made this funny a movie?" Actually, the movie plays very light tonight. And, yep, the following week's Peoplemagazine does tag Perfume as a "comedy"; Entertainment Weekly, in its Sundance wrap-up, notes our "light-fingered observational glee"; while Newsweek names it "seductive." Who knew? Additionally, this kind of dynamic of audience-play comes from the Sundance we-get-it! bug biting the movie's viewers. Sundancers hungrily want to "get it."

But this is partly why you go through the pressures of Sundance: to find out how your work works.

As the crowd finally puddles out the doors, Cynthia and I get tapped by a representative from the Cannes Film Festival. The rep congratulates us, tells us how much she loved the movie. And then she "unofficially" asks us if we would please offer Perfume, formally and officially, to the director of Cannes for consideration in this year's fest, which takes place in May.

"Would you be ready to go to Cannes?" she asks with a smile.

Wait, thisis why you go to Sundance.

The post-screening party, held at the curiously named Synergy Spa House, does look extra-ultra: Thousands of multisized candles and a horde of small, snappy translucent glass animals from Lalique are scattered about the chateau's various rooms; DJ Paul Sevigny (brother of Boys Don't Crystar Chloe Sevigny) spins records in an adjoining room. (In its post-Sundance report, Entertainment Weekly rated this spa-cum-mansion with an "A," referring to it as an "ostentatious party manse.") The press and the actors circle each other warmly, intimately. Plus, there's this mingling group of Rich-Looking People whom none of us know. They all mingle especially close to Carmen Electra, remarking: "How cute she is! How tiny!"

At a certain point, I'm informed there are too many Rich-Looking People here, so I don't have a seat at the dinner celebrating this movie I've put a long year of my life into. It is a comedy after all, yep.

I just wander outside onto the snow-packed porch, and I glance at the moon and revel in this top joke. Cynthia fixes the problem shortly and brings me back inside to sit next to the director. But while I'm out here in the mountain snow, I kind of muse across a festival wrap-up: The good movies here this year (including writer-director Henry Bean's Grand Prize-winning modern-day Nazi tale, The Believer, and even the short-film honorable mention-winner, the mock-doc Delusions In Modern Primitivism by Dallas' Dan Loflin) were serious and smart and human--not trendy. They make this year's Sundance feel a lot less like a Hollywood audition than in recent years. Unless the next trend in Hollywood is toward smart and serious and human, which is not exactly likely.

The Genius of

the First-Timer?

It's time to come down from the mountain, and it strikes me that shooting a movie may be the most crazy action humans ever thought up. But shooting the first movie is always the Model of Chaos, because of this simple, necessary question: How is the filmmaker going to get anyone to trust him/her? That is, how is the filmmaker going to learn to chill out two very unlikely groups: The Actors and The Crew. (The filmmaker should consider dropping all that auteur vanity, because both groups don't need the filmmaker this first time around the same way that the filmmaker needs them.)

Aside 1: Chilling The Actors

Fact: A rookie director (name deleted) complains to the actors that they ask too many questions and have too many opinions. The actors half-joke back: "What'd you expect us to do--just jump into your little storyboards?" The First-Timer threatens the actors with quitting. (P.S. Once a movie starts shooting, nobody quits.)

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?"

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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Dallas Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...