The NEXT FEST, which runs from August 7-10, allows the Los Angeles audience to catch a glimpse of a selection of films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This particular crop of films is defined by their creators’ bold visual styles and wholly original methods of storytelling.
With the zombie flick “Life After Beth,” writer-director Jeff Baena defies the preconceived notions of what a romantic comedy can be. In “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” David and Nathan Zelllner, the well-known filmmaking duo, crafted a compelling and touching tale about a lonely Japanese woman in search of meaning on the other side of the world. Existing closer to reality but equally as innovative is Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Phillip!” in which a New York-based self-centered writer struggles to get his next project off the ground. Similarly, while placing his characters in today’s Los Angeles, Malik Vitthal’s “Imperial Dreams” is far from ordinary as it follows a young father seeking a better future. The last two films bring it home with glorious genre elements elevated to new provocative heights. Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” borders comedy while offering plenty of disturbing scenarios as a family welcomes a dangerous visitor. Lastly, to close the festivities, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Farsi-language fairytale “A Girl Walks Home Alone Night” brings a mythical bloodsucker into a fictional Iranian town.
With NEXT FEST experiencing some major changes this time around, Sundance Film Festival’s director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth shared their thoughts behind this year’s film selection, the reasoning behind the updated version of the event and what attendees can expect during this weekend full of cinema, music, and discussions.
The format and location of NEXT FEST changed this year, and some films are paired with a musical performance. What inspired these changes?
John Cooper, Director, Sundance Film Festival: Last year we hosted our first festival in LA, and the reaction we got from filmmakers and audiences was really positive. It inspired us to be even more creative in thinking about what type of event we wanted to host this year. Our Founder and President Robert Redford has always encouraged us to consider how different art forms inspire and influence each other, and the recent growth in the crossover between film and music encouraged us to put film and music on equal footing. And when the new Theatre at Ace Hotel opened in January, with incredible space and facilities for both film screenings and musical performances, it all added up to NEXT FEST.
What do you perceive are the current challenges for filmmakers working in the digital age?
JC: Digital technology has completely revolutionized independent filmmaking and improved the technical quality of these films in previously unimaginable ways. From editing to sound design to special effects, these were so far out of independent filmmakers’ reach even a few years ago. Now I think the big challenge for independent filmmakers is to continue using these tools to enhance the most critically important piece of filmmaking: the story.
Do you believe the future of cinema will become more about realizing the artistic vision of the filmmaker or about figuring out ways to successfully find an audience in a crowded marketplace?
JC: Independent filmmaking has always been based in artistry and vision, and that continues to be true. It’s important to be creative in finding ways to connect your film with audiences, but to be truly successful in building a career and body of independent work, you need to be able to show audiences something unique and different — something that makes them excited to see your next film.
What do you think is the role of a festival like Sundance or NEXT FEST for filmmakers with bold and unique voices? Is it still as crucial as it was 10 or 20 years ago?
JC: With the crowded entertainment landscape, curation is more important than ever to help audiences find quality work. Festivals like Sundance and Next FEST do this, and in some ways they also help show the industry some films they might otherwise miss. We pride ourselves on the element of discovery we’ve become known for, and by continuing to highlight that in our work, I think we will always have something new and exciting to offer.
The festival opens with “Napoleon Dynamite.” Would you say the film was ahead of its time when it premiered 10 years ago? What connects it with the NEXT ideology?
Trevor Groth, Director of Programming, Sundance Film Festival: “Napoleon Dynamite” is a film that we have a real connection to, as we hosted its world premiere and consider it to be one of our big discoveries. With its 10th Anniversary this year, it seemed like the perfect choice for our NEXT FEST kickoff. I think it’s a film that audiences in LA want to see again and again. It fits so perfectly into the NEXT ethos precisely because even now — 10 years later — it is still so different from anything else we’ve seen.
The six feature films being shown at NEXT FEST are vastly different. What story elements or stylistic choices do you believe make a film fit in within NEXT FEST?
TG: The six films we’re screening all perfectly reflect the bold attitude that the NEXT <=> section of the Sundance Film Festival is known for. The films are pretty wide-ranging in terms of story and styles, but what stands out to me is how remarkable and unique each filmmaker’s vision is.
It’s also notable how stellar the acting performances are, including Aubrey Plaza as an ex-girlfriend who has returned from the dead in “Life After Beth,” John Boyega’s (who’s now acting in the next “Star Wars” film) breakout performance in “Imperial Dreams,” the bitingly funny Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss in “Listen Up Philip!”, the mesmerizing Rinko Kikuchi in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” and Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey” fame as you’ve never seen him before in “The Guest.”
You define the works in the NEXT <=> section of the Sundance Film Festival as “films that will shape a greater next wave of American cinema.” On this note, what has changed or evolved since the inception of NEXT <=>? And what is next for NEXT <=>?
In the five years we’ve had the NEXT <=> section of the Sundance Film Festival, it’s emerged as an exciting place for discovery, and that’s apparent with the list of films we’ve shown — like “Bellflower,” “Blue Caprice,” “Compliance,” “Obvious Child,” “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Sound of My Voice.” We want to keep NEXT <=> as a showcase for filmmaking on the edge, and we’re excited to see how filmmakers continue to push creative boundaries.