PARK CITY 2001: The Leap, Debuting Directors Jump from Shorts to Features
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/01.20.01) —Martin Scorsese‘s “The Big Shave,” Spike Lee‘s “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” Jane Campion‘s “Peel” — all great directors have to start somewhere. No filmmaker, no matter how masterful, begins with a “Raging Bull” or “Do the Right Thing” or “The Piano.” Short films can be the testing ground for grand ideas, the distillation of key themes, or as Patrick Stettner — director of Sundance 2001 competition film “The Business of Strangers” — says, “a haiku, that’s the obvious comparison.”
Several filmmakers in this year’s Sundance Film Festival have made the leap from haiku to epic poem, returning to the festival circuit with highly anticipated debut features. Along with Stettner, Todd Field (“In the Bedroom,” Dramatic Competition) and Joel Hopkins (“Jump Tomorrow,” American Spectrum) return to Sundance after their acclaimed long-form short films, “Nonnie and Alex,” and “Jorge,” respectively, showed at the fest in prior years. Corey McAbee (“American Astronaut,” Dramatic Competition) had three shorts in a special Midnight program at Sundance ’95. And actress Christine Lahti took the acclaim (and Oscar) she received for her live action short “Lieberman in Love” and parlayed it into her first film, “My First Mister,” which opened Sundance 2001 on Thursday night. There are other leapers in the Premieres section, too: music video maven Jonathon Glazer arrives with “Sexy Beast,” and Daniel Minahan made documentary news segments before making his reality TV-infused debut, “Series 7.” With all these evolving filmmakers, you could say Sundance 2001 is the year of The Leap.
“I was ready,” says Stettner about his jump to “Business of Strangers,” a minimalist thriller starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles. “That’s not to say that I didn’t love doing shorts,” he adds, “But I really hated the fact that you always feel like you’re at the kids table at film festivals.”
Stettner’s 14-minute Columbia University thesis film “Flux” played at over 35 film festivals around the world, winning Best Student Short in Palm Spring, Nantucket and Uppsala. Stettner says that he probably couldn’t have made his feature without first tackling “Flux.” “It gave me confidence in regards to playing the fence,” he says, referring to the delicate balance between goodwill and menace that he achieves when an elderly man befriends a woman who thinks she has breast cancer. “I allowed myself to feel confident with those kinds of fine lines,” explains Stettner.
Similarly, Todd Field and Joel Hopkins speak less about production challenges in going from short to feature, and more about issues of confidence. “Nonnie and Alex,” Field’s AFI thesis film about a young boy dealing with the death of his mother over Halloween, won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 1995, First Prize at Aspen, and Best Dramatic Short from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, so he’s got some big expectations surrounding “In the Bedroom,” his portrait of an upper-middle-class family in New England. “If there’s anything I learned from ‘Nonnie and Alex,'” says Field, “it is that I tried to be braver this time, ‘tried’ being the operative word.”
Hopkins’ “Jorge” — his Masters Thesis at NYU, which played at Sundance last year and won Best Short at Cleveland — was important “less from a practical, production shooting level,” he says, “but more on a script level. The shorts I had made before were more slices of life,” he explains. “I don’t think they were totally successful in telling a whole narrative. And so, structurally, ‘Jorge’ gave me the confidence to do something bigger.”
“Jorge” also provided Hopkins a proving ground for his protagonist, George, a 20-something shy black man played by Tunde Adebimpe, a non-actor who stars in both short and feature. Hopkins’ feature is the most closely linked to his short, with many of the same characters and plots. “But it’s not an extension,” clarifies Hopkins, “I didn’t just tack on another hour.”
But he did change the film from black and white to color, marking perhaps the biggest aesthetic difference in the two films. According to Hopkins, the film’s financier Film Four would not approve black and white. “It was a non-starter,” explains Hopkins. But better to change the film stock than his lead actor: “If someone had said to me, we want to make the feature, but you have to use Chris Rock,” says Hopkins, “I was obviously talking to the wrong people. Film Four got Tunde and that was great.” In the end, Hopkins decided that the move to color was worthwhile. “It was more of a challenge and I’m happy that I was forced to do it,” he says.
For Patrick Stettner, another aesthetic difference in moving from short to feature was welcome: shifting from the box-like 16 mm frame to the wider 35. “I loved the aspect ratio,” he says about “Business.” “I could establish tension more with spaces that weren’t there. It was something that I really discovered while I was shooting, linking scenes with negative space.”
However much the filmmakers may have learned from their shorts, it apparently wasn’t enough. Both Stettner and Field relate stories of the same sort of slip-ups while making both short and long films. “I didn’t learn my lesson,” says Stettner. “I had all these complicated dolly shots planned in my short, and because of the amount of light in the day, I couldn’t do it. And in ‘Business of Strangers,’ I had studied Polanski a lot for his more complicated master shots and then I realized that I couldn’t do them, because I was running out of time.”
While Stettner couldn’t keep to schedule, Field couldn’t keep up with the weather. He shot “Nonnie and Alex,” in Northern California, where,” he says, “it rains every other day in the springtime. It was really a disaster waiting to happen.” And when tackling “In the Bedroom,” he says, “Again, we were in another environment, Maine, where the skies change every ten minutes, from open sky to overcast to rain to sun.” Because of the similar challenges — be they location, weather, time, or performance — Field argues that directing a feature isn’t that different from working in the short form. “Just because a film is longer doesn’t really change anything,” he says. “You have the same amount of people, the same cast, you just have more to shoot.”
As Hopkins, Field, and Stettner head into Sundance 2001, you’d think they’d at least have learned their lessons about navigating the festival: Hopkins was just there last year, after all; Field is an old hat, having visited the festival with a couple of shorts and a number of films he’s acted in, including Grand Jury Prize winner “Ruby in Paradise;” and Stettner attended the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 1999. But this group is far more nervous than you’d expect from Sundance vets.
“With the short,” says Hopkins, “I wish someone had tapped us on the shoulder and said, ‘Just relax and have a good time, because it’s not really about the shorts.'” Now, he notes, “I got it wrong. I should have enjoyed it last time. I’ll attempt to chill out,” he adds. “But I know I won’t.” Similarly, Field worries, “By the very fact of having a film in competition, as much as you try to fight it, there’s always a fear of it potentially becoming something of a sporting event.”
Field also sums up perhaps the biggest concern for a director graduating from short to feature at the Sundance Film Festival. “Watching a film with any audience, but in this case, a very film-savvy audience, is enough to make you feel like you’ve jumped off a cliff and you don’t know what’s going to happen when you get to the bottom,” he says. “It’s terrifying. Your stomach is churning; you don’t breathe the whole time. Last time, I only had to hold my breath for 30 minutes. This time, whenever someone hiccups, coughs, goes to the bathroom, or gets up to leave, I’m going to die the death of a thousand screams.”