Sundance's Class of 2004: Meet The First-Time Feature Competition Directors
by Wendy Mitchell
With so many first-time feature filmmakers headed to Sundance this year, indieWIRE decided to get to know a bit about these new faces. We contacted the 12 narrative competition first-timers and the 6 documentary competition first-timers to learn a bit more about them before the festival kicks off. (Of course, there are more first-time filmmakers whose works are playing out of competition and at other Park City festivals.)
We asked these newcomers about their backgrounds, their Sundance projects, films and filmmakers they admire, their thoughts on Sundance 2004, and what's next for them. Below are brief introductions to each filmmaker.
Morgan Spurlock, director of the fast-food doc "Super Size Me" seemed to sum up everyone's feelings in the days before the festival: "I'm so overwhelmed and excited just to be there. But I really hope to meet some other filmmakers that share my mentality and personality. Also, sell my movie and get out of debt. Is that to much to ask???"
Without further introduction, meet the new faces in competition at Sundance 2004:
NARRATIVE COMPETITION FIRST-TIMERS
Zach Braff, 28, Los Angeles
Writer/director of "Garden State," described by Sundance as "a quirky romantic comedy" about a man who returns to his Jersey hometown for his mother's funeral and finds a few surprises. Braff stars alongside Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, and Rob Liebman.
Braff is best known for his starring role as J.D. on the hit NBC show "Scrubs." He started acting in theatrical productions at age 8 and later starred in TV productions, theatrical works, and films including "Getting to Know You," "Manhattan Murder Mystery," and "The Broken Hearts Club."
Braff could be drawing on his own experiences in the "Garden State" for his first feature -- he was born and raised in South Orange, NJ. A graduate of Northwestern University's film school, Braff previously directed the 1998 short "Lionel on a Sun Day" and other shorts, PSAs, and one music video. In addition, he says he has "PA'd on anything and everything." Braff cites directing influences as Todd Haynes, Hal Ashby, and Woody Allen. Ahead of Sundance, he says he is "excited and trying to sleep!"
Alan Brown, New York City
Writer/director of "Book of Love," about a young married couple in contemporary suburbia that befriends a lonely high school boy.
Brown is a journalist and novelist ("Audrey Hepburn's Neck") who came to Sundance last year with his narrative short "O Beautiful." He says that trip last year helped spur him to return this year. "Being there was what inspired me to get 'Book of Love' done," he says. "Everyone was so supportive and enthusiastic about independent films. So I'm excited to be going back to Sundance and being a part of that community." Because he is a veteran, he's already stocking up on a new parka, some sweaters, and plenty of trail mix.
His past honors include a Fulbright journalism fellowship, the Pacific Rim book prize, a National Endowment for the Arts award, and the future filmmaker award from the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival.
Next, Brown is working on another feature film that he's written and will direct, entitled "After You."
Shane Carruth, 31, Dallas
Writer/director of "Primer," which he says was "shot for about the price of a used car." The film is about four men working on technical devices who discover a mechanism that changes their lives.
Carruth says his influences are Coppola's "The Conversation," Pakula's "All The President's Men," Soderbergh's "The Limey," Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love," and he's also a huge fan of the brilliant BBC show "The Office."
In advance of Sundance, Carruth says he hasn't had time to worry or get nervous, just getting the 35mm blowup ready. He says he's looking forward to seeing his film projected on the big screen and he's "curious to see what other people think of it."
He is currently writing his next project, which is describes as "an intimate epic romance."
Rodney Evans, 32, New York City
Writer/director of "Brother To Brother," a drama that looks back on the Harlem Renaissance from the perspective of an elderly, black writer who meets a gay teenager in a homeless shelter. The film is six years in the making. It is an ITVS-affiliated project that will air on "Independent Lens."
This graduate of Brown and CalArts has worked with some top indie names -- serving as assistant editor for both Tom Gilroy and Harmony Korine, and he's also made several short films. He's received awards and grants from the IFP, NY Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, ITVS, and other organizations.
Evans says his favorite films of 2003 include "Raising Victor Vargas," "Love and Diane," "American Splendor," and his influences include Robert Frank, Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, Greta Snider, Marlon Riggs, and early Gus Van Sant.
Debra Granik, New York City
Writer/director of "Down to the Bone" (co-written with Richard Lieske), about a woman struggling with a cocaine habit, her stale marriage, and a dangerous affair.
Granik is a graduate of NYU's graduate film program and a former high school media instructor as well as a producer of educational and industrial videos. She has also directed shorts and worked as a cinematographer on documentaries. Her first short "Snake Feed" won several prizes including best short at Sundance 1998.
Her next projects are a video diary of a young man coming of age in Brooklyn and a film set in Mexico.
The week before the festival, she confesses she's "nervous as hell" as she prepares: "I'm gathering my thoughts about the making of the film, the origins of the project, what I've learned along the way. Buying a warm hat. Figuring out how many air mattresses we need to squeeze the cast and crew into the Park City accommodations."
Jared Hess, 24, Salt Lake City, Utah
Director of "Napoleon Dynamite," which he co-wrote with wife Jerusha. The film is about a quirky guy by the name of Napoleon Dynamite growing up in Preston, Idaho (the director's hometown). Hess introduced the character in his short film "Peluca," which played at Slamdance 2003.
Hess studied film at Brigham Young University and has worked as a camera assistant. Next, he's working on another comedy feature and a TV series. Before the fest starts, he says, "Nerves usually get the best of me and I dry-heav every so often, but other than that I'm very excited."
Nicole Kassell, 31, New York
Writer/director of "The Woodsman," about a man who returns to his hometown after 12 years in prison. Stars Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, and Benjamin Bratt.
Kassel is a recent graduate of NYU's Graduate Film Program where she wrote, produced and directed three short films. One of those shorts, "Jaime," won the 1999 DGA Best Female Student Filmmaker award, and her thesis film "The Green Hour" won a Warner Bros. award and was shown at Sundance 2002.
Kassel says her influences are Sam Peckinpah, Milos Foreman, Nicolas Roeg, Jane Campion, and Lynne Ramsey. Her next project will be a psychological thriller.
Joshua Marston, 35, New York City
Writer/director of "Maria Full of Grace," about a defiant 17-year-old rural Colombian girl who undergoes a harrowing journey when she naively agrees to transport a half-kilo of heroin to the US. The film is affiliated with HBO/Cinemax.
Marston is a veteran of the 2002 Sundance screenwriters lab; he has his MFA in film from NYU and also studied at the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley. He has directed shorts including "Bus to Queens," "Voice of an Angel," and "Trifecta." He worked as an editor in New York after film school.
Marston is busy writing his next projects: "a humorous drama set in Tennessee and a piece about memory."
Writer/Director of "Chrystal," about a man who returns home from prison and must come to grips with his past. The film stars Billy Bob Thornton and Lisa Blount (the director's wife) as the ex-con and his damaged wife. McKinnon also co-stars in his feature debut, playing a drug lord named Snake.
On his company Ginny Mule Pictures' website, his profile says that McKinnon was born in a small Georgia town and has appeared in more than 50 films and TV shows as an actor, including "Apollo 13," "Goodbye Lover," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" As a writer, he has finished several feature screenplays and has others in development.
McKinnon is an Oscar winner for his short film "The Accountant." [McKinnon didn't respond to interview requests by press time.]
Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson
Writer/directors of "One Point O," described by Sundance as a "Kafka-esque nightmare set in the not-too-distant future." The film follows a computer programmer (Jeremy Sisto) whose life changes when he starts receiving mysterious packages. The film also stars Deborah Unger, Udo Kier, and Lance Henriksen. [Renfroe and Thorsson didn't respond to interview requests by press time.]
Jane Weinstock, Los Angeles
Writer/director of "Easy," a funny but touching film about a sexually adventurous woman who ends up in a triangle with two worthy suitors.
Weinstock has studied at Princeton and in Paris and London, and spent time at NYU, where she says she "did everything for my PhD except for my dissertation." She has taught at CalArts, UCLA, and other schools, and written art and film criticism for Art in America, Camera Obscura, and other publications. Her shorts include "Sigmund Freud's Dora," "Voice of Silence," and "The Clean Up," which played at Sundance. Weinstock was also a fellow at the Sundance Director's Lab.
She says her influences are early Cassavetes and the French New Wave, and that she also likes old romantic comedies. Next, Weinstock is "working on a contemporary adaptation of a classic novel," as well as looking for scripts.
Enid Zentelis, 32, Newburgh, NY
Writer/director of "Evergreen," which she says is about "a young girl who longs for everything she doesn't have and tries to become part of a wealthy boy's family."
Zentelis has degrees from Hampshire College and NYU (MFA in Film). Her past shorts include "Dog Race," "Sounds of Morning," and "Man With My Nose," and she's also shot documentary shorts on musicians Wilco, Eric Clapton, and Three Doors Down. Past awards include the New York Film Festival Grand Marnier Award and the Scorsese Award and Entertainment Weekly Awards at NYU. She has previously attended the Sundance Filmmakers Lab.
Next, Zentelis will work on another original screenplay, with the working title of "He Who Struggles Against the Wind Will Find Himself Flattened Against a Rock," about a man and morality.
The week before the festival, she said she was feeling "sleep deprived and mildly insane. In preparation for the festival I am trying to finish my film."
DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION FIRST-TIMERS
Eric Chaikin, 36, Los Angeles
Co-director (with Julian Petrillo) of "Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit," which follows the lives of four top tournament Scrabble players making their way to the national championship. The film has deals with the Discovery Channel and 7th Art Releasing.
Chaikin has a B.S. in cognitive science from Brown University, and he is the creator of a stock market analysis system. He has also "acted a bit" and worked as an assistant to famed Czech director Jiri Menzel.
Chaikin has attended Sundance for the last three years. He recalls, "In 2000 I saw 'Dark Days' and got inspired to make a movie. But the only thing I knew about was Scrabble. So I roped in Julian and "Word Wars" was born." In 2001, he was back with five-minute trailers, and in 2002 he says he came back with a half-hour cut.
For his next project, Chaikin says he is "open to possibilities," and is looking into getting the rights to a certain artist's story and a certain children's book. As a language buff, he also says, "I think it would be fascinating to examine some aspects of human cultures through language."
Shola Lynch, New York City
Director and producer of "Chisholm '72 — Unbought & Unbossed," about Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and her campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1972. It is an ITVS-affiliated film that will air on "P.O.V." in 2004.
This is Lynch's first directorial project, but she is an industry veteran who has worked at Ken Burns' Florentine Films ("Frank Lloyd Wright" and "Jazz"), HBO Sports ("Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team"), and ROJA Productions ("Matters of Race").
She says that her "most important filmmaking skill has come from competing 15 years as a track athlete -- perseverance in pursuit of a goal."
Asked about her future projects, Lynch says, "There are many ideas in the hopper. There are many untold stories."
Ivy Meeropol, 35, New York
Director of "Heir to an Execution," about the director's grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed fifty years ago for "conspiracy to commit espionage." The film takes the Rosenberg story from the public eye to the private world of the children and families they left behind. The project is affiliated with HBO.
Meeropol has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and she previously worked as a speechwriter and legislative aide for a U.S. congressman and also a freelance journalist and screenwriter. She's been a production assistant on Jim Jarmusch's short "10 Minutes Older" and a reader for Kopelson Entertainment and Columbia Pictures.
Meeropol says her influences include Robert Altman, Errol Morris, George Eliot, Mary McCarthy, and Jon Stewart. Her next project will be a film adaptation of Dawn Powell's "The Happy Island" and a documentary set in a nursing home.
Tobias Perse, 34, New York City
Director (with Allison Maclean) of "Persons of Interest," a documentary about the detention of Muslim and Arab men after September 11 on minor immigration charges.
Perse is a former editor at Rolling Stone and a television writer and short film and music video maker. His future projects include an adaptation of Martin Clarke's novel "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living," and possibly shooting a follow-up documentary to "Persons of Interest," concentrating a subject that was deported to the Gaza Strip. He also plans to make a collection of short documentaries about people and work.
Of his hopes for Sundance, Perse says, "I want people to see the film, to know this thing that has been secreted away by the Justice Department. You never know how much influence a film can have, but telling these stories, these truths in the face of propaganda has it's own import, and if it becomes part of a climate which addresses the appalling practices of the Justice Department -- in this case, the illegal detain people for indefinite amounts of time (in some cases more than a year) without access to their families or legal representation -- then the film will have served its purpose."
Morgan Spurlock, 33, New York City
Director of "Super Size Me," a film about America's obesity epidemic.
Talk about donating your body for science -- Spurlock says he personally "tested the true impact of fast food on the human body by subjecting myself to a McDonald's-only diet for 30 days straight."
His former jobs include a beach volleyball announcing (at the Olympics, mind you) and directing shorts in college and afterwards, plus writing the award-winning play "The Phoenix" and directing a corporate film for Sony.
He says the best advice he's gotten about Sundance so far is to "take time to step back and look at what you've accomplished. You're at Sundance and that's a pretty cool damn thing."
His production company The Con, which is responsible for MTV's "I Bet You Will," is working on various projects.
Carlos Sandoval, 52, Amangansett, NY
Catherine Tambini, New York City
Directors of "Farmingville," about a small town that becomes the epicenter of the immigration debate in the wake of the attempted murder of two Mexican laborers. It is an ITVS-affiliated project that will air on "P.O.V." in 2004.
Sandoval has degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School, before turning to filmmaking he says he worked as a "lawyer, diplomat, and policy wonk."
Tambini has degrees from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the University of Oklahoma. She co-produced the Oscar-nominated doc "Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse." She has also worked on Richard Kaplan's "Varian and Putzi: A Twentieth Century Tale," and the off-Broadway play "Two Good Boys." She worked in production on HBO's "Connie and Ruthie: Every Room in the House," the doc "Best Man" and Hollywood flicks including "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," "Steel Magnolias," and "The Secret of My Success."
Sandoval is a true-first timer, having not directed any shorts before. He cites his influences as "Mother Teresa and Harvey Fierstein (not necessarily in that order)." His next project is "American Colonial," described as a family memoir in four parts.
Tambini's next project is a doc about the 2001 USA Patriot Act, which she says is a "very dangerous and under-appreciated law that has already restricted the civil liberties of many in this country."