Sundance Diary:
Dispatches from Park City, 2005

by Tony Phillips

Thursday, January 20, Park City, Utah

So there is a way to fly direct into Salt Lake City, but it involves a seven am flight out of New York on Delta, whose idea of in-flight entertainment is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I mean, how many airplanes blow up in that movie? Why not just run Airport 77 and call it a day. Of course, once you touch down in Salt Lake, you're still a good 45-minutes outside of Park City. In other words, Bob don't make it easy for the aspiring Sundancer. Uber-producer Robert Hawk — a guy who's had his hands in everything from The Deep End to Chasing Amy — confirmed my idea of arriving the day before by saying, "Everybody knows you get here a day early." So it was Ph-balanced, altitude-adjusted enough to make good use of our drink tickets and moisture-packed that we both gloated over all the suckas trying to beat it into town for opening night as an ominous fog bank settled over Salt Lake City delaying flights up to three hours.

On my way over to the Sundance HQ, I bumped into magenta-haired Carol Coombes, who programs the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Carol's hard at work on an "edge-play" program for this year's festival in April. After last year's double whammy of Todd Verow's Anonymous and Bruce LaBruce's Raspberry Reich, it's hard to imagine what she can do to top herself short of films where actors actually keep their clothes on, but she's hard at work trying.

After I checked in for my press credential, Thom Cardwell, Managing Director of the Philadelphia Film Society, practically ripped if off my neck, crowing that I'd been granted the festival's scrubiest access. I got back in line, ready to bitch, but overheard the following conversation directed at the person in front of me: "We're really sorry you came all this way, but we sent you at least two communiques stating that you were not credentialed for this festival." When the poor slob asked if he could at least borrow some screeners and set up a few interviews, the flack raised his voice, repeating, "You are NOT credentialed." I decided my festival press tag was better than nothing and we both skulked off the line, but the lesson learned is these Sundance types are not playing around.

I did manage to make friends with someone in the press department who put me on the list for both opening night parties. I ducked into the kick-off reception at the Legends Bar at the Legacy Lodge carved into the side of the Park City Mountain. I was intending to only stay as long as my two drink tickets would last and then dash to the press screening of Don Roos' opening night film Happy Endings, but alas I met fellow New Yorker Maya Corneille and wound up staying well past the start time of the press screening so I tagged along with Maya for the second public screening of the film.

Over at the Eccles Center — a glorified way of saying the auditorium of the Park City High School — the red carpet was cloaked in a white tent to keep out the elements. My idea of just ducking in to stand in the back of the house for the first 15-minutes of the film I missed when I was late for a pre-Sundance screening in New York were quickly nixed by Maya's friend who was house managing the venue. "I can't get anyone in," Maya's friend apologized, but then Maya came up with the brilliant idea of pulling "a CBGB," or transferring her handstamp to mine with a little bit of spit and ingenuity.

 

So it was thanks to the CBGB that I got to hear festival director Jeff Gilmore introduce the opening night film. Jeff quickly turned things over to Park City mayor Dan Williams, who was greeted with groans when he informed the audience that we were getting him, but the earlier screening had gotten Bob. Rattled, he quickly extolled the virtues of Park City — a place where the checker at Albertson's can give you a rundown and opinion of the festival lineup — and advised us all to "wear sensible shoes." Dan introduced director Don Roos who claimed his movie "almost didn't get made a couple dozen times" and his stellar cast — Lisa Kudrow, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Laura Dern and Tom Arnold — worked a 30-day shoot "for free." With that, the movie rolled. I caught my missing 15-minutes and ducked out for the opening night gala at the Snow Park Lodge in Deer Valley.

The party was fairly uneventful. Nacho chips and salsa don't exactly read "gala" to me, and the band, a local ska sensation from San Francisco called Spirit, was fronted by a cute lead singer with dreds, no shoes and, most probably, a cease and desist letter from Jamiroquai's lawyers. I decided to beat it back to the Eccles to catch the post-Happy Endings QA when someone in a wheelchair rolled over my toes. Only at Sundance does that happen and you think "asshole from Murderball," a buzz doc about quadriplegic rugby players that's wallpapered Park City with its poster.

I made it back to Eccles in time to catch the last question of the Q/A. Tom Arnold kicked things off by comparing his experience on an indie as paling in comparison to his headier work on Soul Plane and The Stoopids. After the laughs subsided, he relayed a 17-page memo Roos circulated on the first day of shooting that outlined "things not to do." Arnold joked that "after I quit smoking, lost weight, and whitened my teeth, I was ready to go."

 

Roos took a moment to clarify that when he said his cast worked for free he really meant they worked cheap and then Gyllenhaal chimed in to say that she had a trailer and there was Kraft Services. Having come off an actual half a million dollar film "where they laid out the makeup on the bathroom floor," she was in heaven. John Ritter's son Jason, then took the mike to enthuse about how supportive the rest of the cast was. "What's that word that a mother does with her child?" Ritter wondered aloud. "I want to say suckling, but I know that's wrong." Someone thankfully supplied "nurturing" and Jason quickly agreed, but then the rest of the cast chimed in to bust his chops by using the word suckling in their response and I'd have to agree that all in all, for a first night at the fair, it didn't totally suckle.

 

Tuesday, January 25, Park City, Utah

 

The question of where to eat in Park City is always a burning one, but after news of Paramount's big festival purchase made the buffet table rounds, most flacks were able to re-hinge their jaws just long enough to mutter The Spitfire Grill. Unfortunately, you won't be able to get a table there, but you can easily add it to your Netflix queue. You see, Spitfire is the 1996 Sundance Audience Award winner that also set a record sale that year and had a chilling effect on the next year's market when it tanked at the box office. Many people are feeling echoes of Spitfire with this week's nine million dollar sale of Craig Brewer's gritty pimps and hos movie Hustle & Flow. But where Spitfire had Ellen Burstyn, Hustle's got Ludacris on board for a whole other kind of chill effect.

Aside from big ticket film sales, Sundancers have also been buzzing about big ticket actresses slumming in low budge fare that gives them a chance to flex their actorly chops. I've been fortunate enough to make four such screenings so far and the most extreme example to date is Naomi Watts, who is here with her pal Scott Coffey's feature Ellie Parker. Naomi and Scott met on the set of Tank Girl, and while it's reassuring to know something positive came out of that mess, Ellie's going to need some work if she ever expects to have a commercial run. Cobbled together from a series of shorts that played the festival previously, Ellie is an up-by-her-strappy-sandal straps Angeleno who begins the picture bloodied and dumped in a gulch in Griffith Park and goes on to experience new lows in LA actordom. Naomi Watts is way out on a limb here, but if you can get past the video camera pulsing on auto-focus and the fact that her last name is the only lighting to be found on this picture, there are a lot of laughs to be had.

 

Another wannabee Norma Desmond out there in the dark is Liv Tyler, who plays Casey Affleck's love interest in director Steve Buscemi's third feature film behind the lens. Tyler may have still been preggers while this one was shooting — it's always so hard to tell with her — but in this murky film, it's nearly impossible. Still, as a pediatrics nurse who extols the extracurricular benefits of the hospital bed, she's hard to take your eyes off, even if you do have to squint to see her.

 

Elizabeth Shue is back at the festival with a feature that might have some red state folk seeing red. She plays the mother of a wayward boy who quickly trades little league for hustling local parks in what has to be the festival's most frank depiction of pedophilia: Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin. Okay, make that the festival's most frank depiction of pedophilia with UFOs. It seems that last year's Kevin Bacon starrer The Woodsman has opened the watershed on what festival programmer Jeff Gilmore calls "America's last taboo" and this year could practically be subtitled "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

 

But let's thank heaven for Elizabeth Pena. Let's face it, you've taken Elizabeth Pena for granted lately, and it's okay. In her festival showcase How The Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, everyone else in her family takes her for granted too. But she manages to shine in this multi-generational saga of three Mexican-American women and the men who teach them how to drive.

There's not a whole lot of driving happening in the ironically named Park City. Mostly because their no parking to be found anywhere in town, but on opening night, mayor Dan Williams extolled us all to "love the bus." Park City's public transportation is free, so what's not to love, but it's also the source of juicy industry gossip and a quick ride to town found almost everyone on-board bitching about the hopeless lapse of taste exhibited by Jib-Jab Media, the internet wizards behind the Flash Bush Bash This Land Is Your Land. New Yorkers were not as pleased with a Sundance bumper playing before that night's premiere featuring a Blackploitation diva running 'round town blowing shit up and leaving most Gothamites feeling 'been there, done that.'

 

The local supermarket Alberton's is another such venue for dish, and it's where I bumped into actor John C. Reilly in the cookies, crackers and rice cakes aisle. After I pointed out that cellophane was on aisle seven, Reilly told me that not only does he not ski when he's at Sundance, but that he doesn't even like to be outdoors.

 

Later that same day, I bumped into Boys Don't Cry producer Christine Vachon who almost single-handedly established the new queer cinema at 1991's festival with her production company Killer Films and was doing time as a juror this year. Christine was shocked to learn of a Latin American production company with the shingle Killers Films who have a short called Matalo! at this year's festival. She assured me her lawyers would be just as interested as she was, but she'll be in fringe again when she rolls out Todd Haynes follow-up to Far From Heaven, the unlikely Bob Dylan documentary on which they're hard at work.

Public transportation got another boost from photographer David LaChapelle and former New York Doll Arthur "Killer" Kane as both feature the dreaded Los Angeles bus in their films. I had a nice chat with LaChapelle the day after he and Pamela Anderson kicked it at the premiere party for his krumping doc Rize and there'll be more on him in an upcoming report, but Kane, who used Santa Monica Blvd's #4 bus to get to and from his job as a librarian at LA's Church of Latter Day Saints is beginning to feel like one of the unlikely heroes of the festival. This pioneer of glam rock was rediscovered by The Smiths' frontman Morrissey and this clever doc maps his journey from the halls of the LDS library to London's Royal Albert Hall. New York Doll is just one of many rock and roll films — from the real life Jack Black of Rock School to the Austin Rocker who does Buddy Holly one better and downs his own plane in The Devil and Daniel Johnston — making Sundance feel like SXSW with parkas this year. But if it gets Alice Cooper, who rocked last night's Rock School party, to town, I say rock on. Even if you have to rock the bus.

 

Sunday, January 30, O’Hare International Airport, Chicago

 

I’m sitting at the United gate in O’Hare after one missed connection and two delays. If my advice at the beginning of Sundance was arrive a day early, then my advice at the end is definitely leave a day earlier than planned. That would have avoided the complete, flipping nightmare of my last day in town, which bled over into the 5am airport pickup the next day. I’m currently shoving the oatmeal chocolate chip bite-lettes used to promote Rebecca Cutter’s short Eating into my mouth three at a time. I’m thinking three bite-lettes probably equal one actual cookie, so I’m not worried about ending up in Eating Two: The Eating Continues. In addition to this delicious piece of swag, which surfaced relatively late in the game, my diet for almost the entirety of Sundance has consisted of Moviephone-branded caramel corn, individual pieces of fudge packaged to trumpet Power-Up’s short Billy’s Dad Is A Fudge-Packer and, of course, the ubiquitous Aquafina flavored-waters.

 

I did shell for one meal at Main St. Pizza and Noodle bringing my grand total for food to $12.45. Still, the 3:1 bite-lette ratio or even my eleven-day food budget pales in comparison to the astounding numbers World of Wonder’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato present in their titillating doc Inside Deep Throat. In 1972, Gerard Damiano released this legendary film he shot for $25,000 and it has gone on to gross $600 million. Still, that 1: 24,000 ratio didn’t come up on a Sundance panel Bailey and Barbado sat on promising “sex, taboos and pushing buttons.” To be fair, a computer malfunction did float the words “press any button” on the screen behind the panel, but the other film-makers were too busy defending their “art” and dissecting Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction to notice, much less address the idea that maybe one or two of them are using sex to sell their movies. Now there’s a revolutionary idea.

When I bumped into panelist and Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell on the bus, I told him I thought his point about Japan was an excellent one. In that country, porn is contraband and yet it permeates their entire culture. I can remember having dinner at an expense account steakhouse in Tokyo and after the plates were cleared, a video monitor built into the table broadcasting a really tight shot of a vagina was revealed. Pass the Pepsid.

 

Later that day, I interviewed OBIE-winner Craig Lucas, who brought his directorial debut The Dying Gaul to Sundance, and the outspoken man of the theater had much to say on the subject. After spilling the tea about his on-screen couple Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott being a couple in real life, along with co-star Peter Sarsgaard and fellow Sundance attendee Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lucas told me he liked Cameron Mitchell’s script for the sexually explicit film Shortbus so much that he’s jockeying for a part.

 

No such luck with Heights star Glenn Close. The last time I talked to her, she was on a similar panel with Cameron Mitchell at the Tribeca Film Festival and she told me the trend of explicit sexuality in film is something that terrifies her, but she takes projects based on that fear factor so it’s something she’s trying not to think about. After the premiere of her Being Julia turn as contemporary, New York stage actor Diana Lee in Heights, I asked if she made any progress conquering her fears. She laughed, but told me she was too busy wrapping her part in Chris Terrio’s directorial debut.

With no offense to Patty and Campbell or Peter and Maggie, my favorite Sundance couple was Elka’s Visit director Morgan Dews and his finance Sarah Lamgley. These two ex-pats came all the way from Barcelona with Morgan’s sexually explicit short about a moody train ride in which, um, shit happens. Let’s just say Eurostar won’t be picking it up for on-board entertainment anytime soon, but Sarah gets the Stand By Your Man award for letting Morgan appear full monty in his film opposite another actress. This short was paired with Michael Winterbottom’s feature 9 Songs. This sexually explicit film, which presents Margot Stilley and Kieran O’Brien alternately screwing and going to rock concerts — hence the title — does a nice job of unifying this year’s festival themes — sex, drugs and rock and roll — and while I appreciate the fearlessness of the actors, the gorgeous cinematography, even the cheeky 69 minute runtime, this film felt less like art and more like stag.

 

It’s all in the zooming. That’s how I’ve always translated the Supreme Court’s “you know it when you see it” guideline and this film’s got enough zooming in to make an audience member feel underdressed without a trench coat. Still, the film is breaking ground in Winterbottom’s notoriously prudish England and in terms of genial, “I’ve used all my drink tickets, can I have some of yours?” bon homme, no one came close to that film’s star Kieran O’Brien. I bumped into him trying, unsuccessfully, to get into a Blender party Juliette Lewis and her band were performing at — yeah, that Juliette Lewis — so I had to ask him, given that the sex and the rock and roll in the film are real, what about all that cocaine the characters snort up. After jokingly asking, “Why, you got any charley?” he vacillated between being offended by the question and intrigued he’d never been asked it before. I told him Ice Cube was on the record about the trees in all those Friday movies being real, so he kept his friend’s waiting in a taxi by the curb to give the most amazing insight into the actor’s process, wrapping it all up by saying, “Everything in the film is real.”

From ballsy to ballroom, the cast of Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School showed for lunch, but unfortunately their film didn’t. Because of a Fed-Ex screw up, we fumbled through a press conference guided only by flat screen monitors showing the trailer of the film on a loop without sound. Still, the cast, including Marisa Tomei, Sean Astin, Robert Carlyle, Mary Steenburgen and Donnie Wahlberg, were amiable enough and being a fan of the “nontraditional” body in dance — from Tracy Turnblad to Mark Morris — I wasn’t about to let the opportunity to ask John Goodman if he can move pass me by, though I hesitated slightly because the only glimpse we got of him in the trailer was being loaded onto an ambulance with various tubes coming out of his nose.

 

“I don’t even walk in this movie,” the plus-size actor laughed. Marisa Tomei talked about the dance film finally catching up to the pace set by musicals like Moulin Rouge and Chicago with Hotchkiss and the Paramount acquisition of Mad Hot Ballroom over at neighboring festival Slamdance. And even though she dances with a slight limp due to her characters prosthetic leg, she promised to show me a few moves later at the party (she didn’t). After a few more questions, Goodman piped up with, “Oh wait, I do walk.”

We almost had to walk to a party way out of town at a venue dubbed “The Levi’s Ranch” during Sundance. Fortunately, there was a platoon of Volkswagon’s new, ridiculously-priced, luxury sedans to squire us up the ranch’s long, curving drive for an intimate, if freezing, tented crowd of about 50. Band of brothers Aqualung and solo singer songwriter Nellie McKay got up and did their thing and after the gig, Aqualung’s Hales brothers talked about navigating the festival with the unlikely names of Matt and Ben. Aqualung, all the rage in the UK, but known here primarily for providing the music for VW’s “I Put A Spell On You” Beetle spot, hopes to change all that when Columbia combines their first two UK releases as a “new” album in March. Matt then dashed all hopes for a flute solo by saying the band takes their name from one of his earlier UK releases whose sound he described as “very submarine.”

 

Nellie McKay wondered aloud from the stage how streets were named Karma and Payday in such a notoriously conservative state (they’re ski runs) and then launched into her song about her “the only lesbian crush I’ve ever had” called “Teresa” dedicated to the also-ran ketchup queen. The last time I saw McKay was a few weeks ago in New York when she was starring as Polly opposite Alan Cumming’s track-panted McHeath in a workshop production of Threepenny Opera that the Roundabout hopes to have on the boards next year. I caught up with her co-star, who was in town to promote his screen to stage and back again musical Reefer Madness, at the local Starbucks. Having already heard his co-star Neve Campbell’s heartwarming tale of blazing up under the Christmas tree with grandma in their native Amsterdam, the Scottish Cumming added to the “international cast” flavor by remembering seeing his mother topless all the time when he was a kid. Those crazy Europeans and their semi-nude beaches.

Texan Shelby Knox, who was at the festival starring in the doc The Education of Shelby Knox, answered my description of her as “Erin Brockovich without the halter top” by opening her blazer to reveal, natch, a halter top. Proof that good things can come out of Texas, this spunky teen fought to change her school board abstinence-only sex ed. policy and the film’s lensman, Gary Griffin, picked up the jury prize for doc cinematography. Grand Jury prizes also went to Eugene Jarecki’s doc Why We Fight and Ira Sachs’ drama Forty Shades of Blue in the American category and Leonard Retel Helmrich’s doc Shape of the Moon and Zeze Gamboa’s drama The Hero in the world cinema competition in a ceremony that was so boring I skipped out to see the Australian Texas Chainsaw Massacre called Wolf Creek that Miramax bought during the festival.

 

Moreover, I was glad I did as watching these bouncy Aussies being butchered was way more bang for the buck than a closed bar ceremony that Sundance wasn’t even bothering to broadcast this year. And while I’m complaining, if Sundance reminded me of anything this year, it was high school. After all, what has more sex, drugs and rock and roll than our formative years? And I’m even okay with it, but just like high school, it’s the cheerleaders I could do without. If a film-maker is savvy enough to write, shoot and edit a film, not to mention get it into competition, then don’t you think they’ll be able to figure out where to stand during a press conference?

My worst encounter with talent-free industry bottom feeders happened on the last day of the festival, which went off without a hitch up until then. That’s the day I had my run in with MPRM’s Michael “Helen” Lawson trying to get Mysterious Skin director Gregg Araki. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to fall since MPRM closed their New York office and went LA only, but I’d been in contact with this film’s distributors since they bought it and talking to Araki seemed like a foregone conclusion. They also told me they weren’t happy with the job that Helen was doing — seems he skipped one of the film’s screenings completely — and he would be off the account when the film went into general release in May which is why I was so surprised when Helen told me Araki’s scheduled was completely booked, but I could get him in May when the film was released. Fine for someone who didn’t schlep all the way to Utah, but that’s just the kind of place Sundance is.

 

Talk to Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei and five-time nominee Glenn Close (and what’s wrong with that picture?) until the cows come home, but you want Gregg Araki? Are you joking? Needless to say I went straight to the two distributors I’d been talking to for months and they both told me not to worry, I would get my interview. Cut to a bunch of unreturned phone calls later and I decide to take distributor number one up on his offer of “just grab Gregg when you see him.” So there he was, checking out of the Yarrow. I approached and he told me he was on his way to his screening, but if I came to it, he’d be happy to talk to me after the Q/A. I missed two screenings of films that came to the festival without distribution to do just that and then Helen body blocks the interview telling me they’re rushing to get Araki to the airport after just saying, in front of me, that Araki’s car was coming in two hours and they were all going out for a long, leisurely lunch.

 

At this point it became clear that Helen set up an exclusive with a direct compete to one of the magazines I write for, which is fine. It happens all the time. It has nothing to do with editorial merit and guarantees a cover, but it’s fine. It’s also not very in the spirit of the festival, especially considering it caused me to miss two other films that are decidedly more independent than Araki’s. But after seeing his film a second time, I decided I didn’t like it all that much anyway. Scott Heim’s 1995 book of the same name is a wonderful read, but the film is just a mélange of montage and voiceover meant to cram a 350-page novel into a 90-page script. And you do you really need to see young boys beaten and raped for a couple of hours? I don’t. But then my high school was private.