Back in 2005 at the Sundance Film Festival, The Duplass Brothers‘ “The Puffy Chair” debuted rather quietly here in Park City. At the time, the low-budget indie reminded many of the sort of sleeper that specialty companies would have quickly plucked from the festival a few years earlier, yet it took some 18 months before the film would eventually make it to theaters. This year, things seem different. At a Sundance Film Festival in which buyers and audiences alike are seemingly rejecting a number of big-budget, star-driven films made outside the studio system, Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass‘ latest low-budget comedy, “Baghead” was quickly acquired for North American distribution just days after its Park City premiere. Competing against a number of other companies, Sony Classics swifty secured a deal for the film.
The story of a group of struggling L.A. actors and filmmakers who head to the woods to conceive a DIY feature, “Baghead” at times mixes genres when the foursome are caught off guard as the weekend takes unexpected turns. Reflecting on their first two rousing screenings in Park City, Jay Duplass noted that the film played more distinctly as a comedy during its first showing at the Prospector theater, while two days later at the more intimate Holiday Village theater, some tense aspects of the story came across more distinctly.
While “Baghead” is the second feature of note from the Duplass brothers, its their fourth visit to Sundance after a pair of popular shorts (“This Is John,” and “Scrapple“). They also directed an unseen feature more than ten years ago and tried to jumpstart other features at the time, finally finding their voice in 2002 with the first of a string of shorts. (Read indieWIRE’s profile of the Duplass Brothers from 2005.)
“Its probably the smartest dumb movie we have in the festival,” quipped Sundance programmer Shari Frilot, introducing the brothers prior to Wednesday’s showing. Later, during a Q & A, an audience member reacted to their distinctively loose, freewheeling filmmaking style with a simple question, “Was there a script?”
Laughing, the Duplass’ explained that while shooting their film in sequence, they rely heavily upon their actors to drive the story forward with improvised dialogue, as long as they hit certain key plot points. “Jay and I dont really fuss too much over dialogue because its kind of our belief that if you hire good actors who know the roles and you let them speak spontaneously about what they are feeling in the moment you will get something really fresh, better than what you could have written down and rehearsed,” detailed Mark Duplass. “We let the actors just run around in chaos and Jay holds the camera and i hold the mic and we follow them like a documentary team and try and capture some of that spontanity. A lot of the stuff you see, probably 30 – 40% of it is first takes that are unrehearsed.” [Eugene Hernandez]
Sadness and Struggle in “Ballast”
“Ballast” continued to receive positive word-of-mouth among Sundancers as the film screened again in front of a mostly full crowd at the festival’s large Racquet Club venue Thursday. Set in the rural Mississippi Delta, the moody feature uses first-time and rookie actors to present a portrait of sadness and struggle in the historically impoverished region. Twelve year-old James (Jim Myron Ross) struggles to occupy himself as his mother strives to earn a meager living. He seeks the attention of local teenagers who use him for their petty drug deals.
One day, he drives his motorcycle to the home of Lawrence and cruelly robs the middle-aged man at gunpoint. Though on the outset it is difficult to fully understand what motivates his behavior, the dialogue suggests familiarity between Lawrence, played by Delta local Michael Smith, and James. Later, when James’ interaction with the local teens turns violent, his mother, played by Delta native Tara Riggs, flees their home at night and stays in a small house on Lawrence’s property. The complex relationship is slowly revealed against a backdrop of loss, hardship, poverty and emotional upheaval.
“I wanted to capture the silence of the Delta and I wanted the emotions to be raw,” explained director Lance Hammer during a post-screening Q & A Thursday. “The Mississippi Delta was [foremost] in making this movie. I’ve been traveling there for ten years and I was moved by a profound sadness [there]. I still can’t even articulate what it is…”
In making the film, which was shot over 45 days in the Mississippi Delta, Hammer was adamant that the film reflect the complex and tumultuous spirit of the region. “I wanted people to play parts who were from the region, [and] I wanted to create a story that reflected the tone of the place… The fields are dripping in blood.”
Michael Smith as well as Tara Riggs drew large applause for their roles in the film. Smith had never acted before agreeing to the role, while Riggs, who does community theater, had only applied to do some background work in “Ballast” before winning the much larger role of Marlee. “I’d never done any acting before,” said Smith. “But after going through this, I have a new respect for actors.” [Brian Brooks]
A Sense of Family in “Momma’s Man”
Along with “Ballast,” another intimate indie here at Sundance featuring non-professional actors — an intimate look at family dynamics — and a setting that also doubles as a main character is Azazel Jacobs‘ excellent “Momma’s Man,” which tells the story of Mikey, a young man who returns to the comfort of his parents and the home where he grew up instead of rejoining his own wife and newborn baby in Los Angeles.
The Tribeca loft featured in the film became the initial inspiration for this unusual project that weaves autobiographical elements of Jacobs own life along with the familiar notion of regressing to the comfort of one’s childhood to avoid the responsibilities that we all gain by becoming adults. “A lot of the story came from trying to figure out how to hold onto that place,” said Jacobs in a Q&A after a screening earlier this week. “Everytime I go back there I stay at my folks house and I wake up to coffee and cereal and why did I leave here? I made this (film) to remind myself.”
Jacobs’ parents crowded, treasure of wonders loft is not the only thing from the director’s life to be featured in the film. Commenting on how he cast his own two artist parents, who are non-professional actors, to play the role of Mikey’s mother and father in the film, Azazel said, “The parents didn’t really come into it until later when I realized I couldn’t separate my parents from that place.”
Matt Boren, who plays the Mikey in the film and is a trained actor from NYU‘s Tisch School of the Arts, also felt the magic of shooting with Azazel’s parents. “When we finished shooting the film I would stay up late dreaming about this incredible loft. It was like I always visualized Aza’s Dad like a Willy Wonka and I thought if he pulled a book out that the walls were gonna change and I’d fall into something.” [James Israel]
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.