PARK CITY 2000 INTERVIEW: The Freshman Class, 3 Filmmakers Share the Fears and Thrills of Attending Their First Sundance
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
They’ve heard about the myths, the hype, the buzz, the seven-figure sales, the jackal-like press, the schmoozy parties, and all that snow. They’ve heard that this is the place where careers begin, where stars are born, where a celebrity named Bob will shake your hand. They’ve never been to Sundance, but they sure have a few ideas of what to expect. indieWIRE talked with three filmmakers attending Sundance for the first time with their first feature-length films: Karyn Kusama (in Dramatic Competition with “Girlfight“), Josh Aronson, (in Documentary Competition with “Sound and Fury“) and Greg Harrison (in American Spectrum with “Groove“). Each comes from various backgrounds, with varying levels of experience in the business (Kusama went to NYU film school and worked as John Sayles‘ assistant, Aronson made commercials and rock videos for 15 years, Harrison has worked as an editor for 10 years), but each shares a common nervous energy and anticipation about what the next ten days will hold. Here, they speak candidly on the issues that face the incoming class of Sundance freshmen, from promotion to distribution, to finding an audience and people you can trust.
indieWIRE: Sundance is, of course, the premiere spot to get your film out there. All eyes will be on you in a week or so; the whole industry is there, scouring for product, looking for the next big thing — how does that make you feel?
Greg Harrison: Great. It’s an absolute thrill and also frightening at the same time. It’s probably true for most people at Sundance that it was a labor of love and something that was very personal and existed in only the minds of the very few who were close to the project. Often times the bigger companies won’t speak to you until you have something on the screen. So you’re going from this very small world that’s very personal and instantly exposing it to this large audience to be critiqued and judged both on its creative and commercial merits. And that can be really unnerving. I feel really vulnerable to that. But I also know it’s great for the film, because ultimately as a director, I want an audience. And we know we have an audience at Sundance, and hopefully there’s a life beyond Sundance in which the audience will grow, and that’s definitely my goal as a director, to communicate with that audience.
FINDING YOUR AUDIENCE
Josh Aronson: When you make the film and you spend so much time and energy making a film, whether it’s a theatrical film or a documentary film, finally you want it out in the world. You didn’t just do it to put it under your pillow. So what you are describing is that people will acknowledge you and the world comes at you a bit when you have a film at Sundance. I think that’s a means to an end. It’s a great way to get it out in the world, so I’m delighted by it.
Karyn Kusama: And the opportunity is a great one in that the festival audience tends to be a
more sympathetic audience and tends to be more open and supportive to a diverse body of work from a group of filmmakers. So it allows for documentaries to break out as stories that wouldn’t necessarily happen if they started as a half hour short on PBS. I think that visceral live reaction is very profound in terms of the business end of it, because unfortunately I think a lot of people in marketing and in distribution, certainly for dramatic films, don’t always have a sense of vision or imagination toward what the film is capable of doing until they hear an audience laugh, until they hear applause. And that’s what Sundance can provide. And it’s a great opportunity. I agree with you that it’s a very scary time for a filmmaker if you don’t want to be too involved in the business end of it, which I have to say I am not looking forward to. But I think that’s the tradeoff. I think that’s just what you have to do. I don’t look at Sundance as a great time as much as a combination of hopefully work and also seeing other great films and communicating with other directors and seeing movies from all over the world, seeing documentaries — an expansive spectrum of work that we’ll never get to see in the real world.
Aronson: It’s interesting, because I’ve heard completely contradictory things from people who’ve been to Sundance. My partner, in fact, said to me I’m going to have the best time in the world — it’s just great to be there as a director of a film, they’re all over you. Nobody cares about anything but directors and it’s just heaven. On the other hand I’ve heard from people that it’s a total zoo, it kills you spending every moment trying to get people into your screenings, and it’s just an exhausting and debilitating zoo to be in. So probably the truth is both and somewhere in between.
Kusama: I think it also has to do with one’s will to create an experience that is acceptable to you. I tend to be a reclusive person, and I’m not going to go out and work it every minute of the day because I’m not physically capable of it. I just can’t do it. I won’t do it. But I will do what I need to do, and I’ll try to be out there and do it, but I’m not going to try to become somebody I’m not. And I think the thing I’ll do is try to go to films.
Harrison: For me, I realize that Sundance and all of the business elements that come with
releasing a film to the public and the industry, it’s a necessary step. I kind of think of it as the film growing up; it’s something you definitely have to deal with for the film to have a life beyond the inception of it. And so I think for myself and my other producer Danielle Renfrew, we approach it that way, an opportunity to learn that side which I think wasn’t the first thing that attracted us to filmmaking, but yet is an incredibly important aspect of filmmaking. We want to be savvy on that side to help round out our careers as filmmakers. Especially in the indie world, it’s gotten to the point where you do have to know the ins and outs of the deals and how to market yourself and guerilla marketing. I don’t think it was always that way; I think the amount of savvy you have to have now in the indie world has grown incredibly.
YOUR PUBLICIST IS IN THE ROOM
iW: Let’s talk about that a little. Karyn, you’re saying that you don’t want to have to work that angle too much.
Kusama: It’s not that I don’t want to work publicity. But I don’t want to work myself, I don’t want to go to a party because there’s important people there — that’s just not who I am. I hope that my film can speak for itself. When it doesn’t, I’ll do what needs to be done. But for me, what I think the problem is with the publicity end of things is that you get asked a lot of the same questions over and over again, and sometimes you just want to talk about the creative issues and all that stuff. And occasionally in the indie world, especially now, there’s a move to always be talking about the business of filmmaking. Which is interesting stuff, but that’s not what I feel I’m here for.
iW: Josh, your publicist is in the room.
Aronson: And I’m glad to have her in my life, I’ll tell you that. As soon as we started thinking about Sundance, everyone I knew said, who is your publicist going to be? And I didn’t even know you had a publicist when you went to Sundance; I was that naive. And I checked around and everybody said you must, because it’s just so impossible without one. So we started making a list of people and researching, and we’re really fortunate to have Donna Daniels, who is in the room as you said, and is doing an amazing job for us. We also have a producer’s rep, Peter Broderick from Next Wave, who is very reputable and knows everybody, and he’s representing the film for us. And I just feel like we’re structured very well. Between my partner and I, we have a whole team going with us –our two coordinating producers, and our composer has another film at Sundance, “Well-Founded Fear.” My editor has another film in Sundance, so we’re going to have a real entourage. And I’m looking forward to it because I feel very insulated and we’re just going to do whatever it takes.
iW: How do you feel about personally selling yourself out there?
Aronson: I’m with Karyn. I don’t like it. I’m not comfortable doing it, but I’m just going to dig down and just do it 100% because I’ve been working on this film for years, I believe in every frame of it. We’ve had amazing screenings already and I know what it is and I know how powerful it’s going to be. Aside from my career and my growth in selling this product, this movie, it’s an issue that I care about, that I’ve been involved with for a long time. It’s about a controversy in the Deaf world, and really it’s about how to raise children and how to make choices about children. I’ve done children’s programming since I was a baby director. The most interesting area of film for me is working with kids. So these are issues that are really part of me, so it’s easy for me to sell it, because I want it out in the world and I want as many people to see it as possible, both hearing and Deaf.
Harrison: I would agree with you. I think that’s a huge factor with picking a project, having that personal passion Because it’s so difficult to make a film, to push it through every stage, pre-production, production, post-production, marketing, you have to have that spark, that you’re caring about this film so personally that it does motivate you into those areas that you might not know as much about, or that you’re fearful of or that you’re not comfortable doing in terms of the marketing or business side. But certainly, it’s something I’ve felt as well. It’s something I feel very committed to, getting the film to an audience. And, like you say, whatever that takes, in terms of interviews and promotion of it and pushing the various elements of the film, I feel really ready to do that. And we tried to prepare as much as we can with our publicist, Nancy Willen, and also a producer’s rep who can help fill in the gaps of what we don’t know. Ultimately, the main goal is to get the film out there and to be known and hopefully to speak to an audience.
Aronson: In every way we’re lucky because the fact that we’ve been chosen by Sundance and we’re in Sundance, already there’s a stamp of approval, of quality and so on, so it’s easy to push people to come and see it because we’ve been given this stamp of approval. Plus in our case, we’ve screened it enough times that I’m very confident of people’s reactions, so I feel great pushing people to see it, because I know once you’re in, we’ve got you.
THE CATEGORY DOESN’T MAKES THE FILM
iW: You are three very different filmmakers, and you’re in these different categories at Sundance. I wonder if you have any perspectives or self-reflection on being in each of the categories that you are. For instance, there is a strange thing with documentaries at Sundance. They are always hailed as the best films each year, and yet they are in some ways ignored in the industry. And Dramatic Competition is the be-all-and-end-all. . .
Aronson: Well, it’s an industry, and it’s money. And there’s the least money in documentaries, so that’s the simple answer, I guess. As filmmakers, we want to go to each other’s films and support them and have an audience for them. But from an industry perspective, I know the reality of releasing my film. If I’m in 15 theaters, I’ll be delighted. And if we, as producers, make any real profit, I’ll be surprised. And still, that won’t be a losing proposition for us, because we’re making our money elsewhere. But that’s the reality of documentaries.
Harrison: I think maybe there is some sense early on, the different films in different categories is the way to judge them. But if you look at films that appeared in all different categories, it ultimately comes down to the film, I think. And that’s an exciting aspect of Sundance. There’s a ton of buzz and hype prior to it, and people are trying to position and figure out what the films are like and maybe taking account of the categories. But for us, we’re glad to be present at Sundance no matter what category it is, because it is access to an audience, access to the people in the industry, and I think ultimately each film does stand on its own. A lot of American Spectrum films, or even midnight showings, end up being some of the biggest films. It’s really unpredictable, and for us, we’re very glad and proud to be part of the Sundance experience, and really don’t take much stock in the categories per se.
Kusama: I didn’t really follow the festival enough to know that the Dramatic Competition was sort of the cherry on top. I don’t even know if that’s true. From my perspective going to the festival, I want to go to the World Cinema films. I want to see the documentaries. I feel like a festival is only as good as how far it reaches out into the world, and I think that’s what makes any kind of major festival great. I have to say that I’m not thinking about competition films as competitive with each other or separate. The thing about documentary, the reason that documentary is it’s own category and perhaps the strongest category at Sundance is because it’s stories, it’s people who already found the story. And at this point, and maybe things are changing, but documentary might be where the compelling stories really are. And perhaps it’s always been that way. It’s very hard to tell a fictional story.
WINNING MEANS MORE THAN JUST AN AWARD
iW: What are your ultimate hopes for your film at Sundance? What do you want to experience with your baby in Park City?
Aronson: I always tell people our goal is not to win. And I really feel that. If I win something