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PARK CITY ’06: Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg: “It’s…a gift to find a subject that truly inspires yo

PARK CITY '06: Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg: "It's...a gift to find a subject that truly inspires yo

Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg directed “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary section. According to Sundance, their documentary examines the “impact of crime, race and law on a community divided along racial lines” in the case of Darryl Hunt, who was wrongly convicted in a 1984 North Carolina rape and murder. Stern and Sundberg also collaborated on the 1998 documentary “In My Corner,” about a community boxing club in New York City.

“The Trials of Darryl Hunt” director Ricki Stern. Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

Please tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What jobs have you had? Where do you live?

Ricki Stern: I grew up in New York City and went to college in New Hampshire. When I graduated I came back to New York and have lived there ever since — except for a short stint in graduate school in theater in North Carolina, which is how I originally learned about the Darryl Hunt case.

Right out of college I worked several jobs in production and in editing, including a production job on the film unit of “Saturday Night Live.” I was given the very important (ha, ha) job of delivering the finished fake commercials at 3 a.m. to NBC. During late-night edit sessions, I watched the 30-something-year-old producers obsessively smoking and ordering sushi at midnight and decided this was not my destiny. Shortly [there]after, on a winter day, as I was making my way through yellow snowy mounds to deliver a commercial to an ad house, I was drenched with muddy NYC water by a passing bus; as I considered the sludge covering me I had to wonder why I had ever bothered with a college education. Eventually I learned to look at each job as an experience — whether bad or good — as something to learn from.

After producing and directing an independent documentary for PBS, I was really burnt out on fundraising and bouncing checks, so I took an in-house producing job at HBO and stayed for five years. I love working for HBO, the people are great, but my heart is in directing my own films. I’ve made three — and each has taken no less than four-five years to make. Darryl Hunt’s story took 12 years! For me it has been essential to have a producing and directing partner to keep inspired and motivated. Annie Sundberg and I have done two films together. We complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we are still friends! I think that’s why we’ve been able to make these films work. Occasionally my day-to-day job is writing children’s books, but my most important job and present “day job” is being mom to my three kids. It is a struggle at times, but I think having a film, or a book, to work on makes me a better mom.

Annie Sundberg: Age? Hmmmm. Is it important? I’m 36.

Day job — a variety of things at present. Writer, dog sitter, apartment provider for friends who are visiting for the holidays. Most recently, television producer/director, which in this day [and age] in New York City means often shooting and producing and writing and directing. Reality television has changed us and our skill sets.

I was born in Minnesota and grew up in a suburb called Edina. I spent a lot of time battling a minus-40-degree windchill and loved to make igloos in the enormous snow banks at the end of our driveway. I also grew up with a great appreciation of film, as it got dark early, and my neighbors had one of the first Betamax decks (the precursor to the VCR). The first movie I ever saw on tape? “Grease.” We watched it at least 10 times. Followed by a bootleg of “Star Wars,” complete with the tops of audience members’ heads in the frame.

I have three older siblings, now all married with children, and my parents are also still married. Maybe it’s because we were all raised in the Midwest, but there’s a sense of throwing in for the long haul. Everyone else in my family has made a different career choice. My sister worked in arts development for nonprofit theater companies, my brother is a surgeon and my other brother publishes outdoor magazines that focus on fishing and hunting. I love my family dearly, and they have given me a lot of inspiration and support as I have made what sometimes feel like dicey choices in terms of career and a freelance life. Is this too much information?

I live in Manhattan, in the West Village. Being so close to the Hudson reminds me of the lakes in Minneapolis. I kept thinking I was going to live somewhere else, but I remain in New York. There’s so much life, and so many different stories, that come together in this city.

What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets have you explored?

RS: In high school I did theater, and in college I studied filmmaking and made my first documentary about a teenager in the Special Olympics. I found I liked the creative uncertainty of documentary filmmaking, and I liked trying to find a story but having to remain flexible as the story evolved. When I made my first 20-minute documentary in college, I didn’t know what to expect. How open would the subject be? How comfortable would she be in front of the camera? What I found then, and through the years, is that people find comfort in processing their lives on film. I am still constantly amazed at how natural and open my interviewees are.

I think having a base in the theater and acting has helped me tap into my films’ characters. I try to understand what motivates and inspires them, what obstacles they have to overcome and what stands in their way — usually finding the root of this conflict becomes the film’s tension. Growing up I studied plays and attempted playwriting. Finding a story’s dramatic arc, and helping it along in editing, is something I try to apply to documentary storytelling. Most importantly, I want to make documentaries that capture the audience and bring them along for a journey in the same way a good fiction film does.

AS: My first direct experience with filmmaking was at Dartmouth, in Professor Maury Rapf’s documentary filmmaking class. It was an incredible experience, especially as I was fortunate to partner with a grad student who was in her 40s and had great life perspective. We made a mocumentary of sorts, on the practice of dowsing, which is a very common way to source a well in New England. We shot on a combination of 8mm, 16mm and the very progressive super VHS.

The first time we screened the film, I felt sick to my stomach. Screening a film for an audience is a horrible, nerve-wracking experience. You have made a collective bargain; an entire group has agreed to give your film a certain amount of time and attention, and you better give them something that makes it worth their while. And I started to understand how the film experience can be a catalyst, both for the filmmaker (through the process of making the film and becoming immersed in another life or subject) and for the audience as well.

I was an English major in college, and did some theater along the way. But it was Maury’s documentary class that made me realize that filmmaking combined so many things that I love and respond to — it can combine the urgency of good journalism with the emotional honesty in good writing and performance, and then you get to play with music and visual imagery. In documentary, the delicate relationship between filmmaker and subject can teach you a lot about being human and what your personal moral code is when it comes to sharing another person’s real life on film.

I was also inspired by the use of video documentation when I was working in Nairobi. The World Food Programme was among the first — Witness [an international human rights organization] now bases a lot of their media work around this — to train groups to use video to document and offer evidence of human and civil rights abuses.

As far as other creative outlets, I write. I am also trying to revive my rusty piano skills. I never realized how much I would miss music in my life until I moved into a small one-bedroom and found that it’s not that easy to share with other people anymore. So I have a keyboard with headphones.

How did you learn about filmmaking?

RS: I went to Dartmouth and at the time my film professor, Maury Rapf, who was an old-school Hollywood writer and producer, told me not to go to film school, rather to get experience in the business so I took a job delivering packages for an edit house, and as I worked my way through different jobs I realized what I liked, which was working independently on stories that meant something to me personally.

In college I had a close group of friends who were all making films — we would work 24-hour days helping shoot, direct and edit each other’s films. We ended up living in the film studies department. When we graduated, we came to New York and continued helping each other. William Rexer, who shot the Hunt film and is a producer on it, has also shot and produced two other independent films with me, and one of them was also done with Annie Sundberg, a college friend who co-produced and co-directed “Hunt” with me. Filmmaking is a constantly changing medium, especially today. When I started out we shot in 16mm, ran 1/4-in. Nagras [amps] and had to synch everything by hand. We didn’t even have computers. Forget cell phones. So for someone starting out today, I think getting work experience and learning in the field can be a great way to go. A lot of the film business is about having good connections — so it makes sense to take a production job and start meeting people. Making independent films has been a dance between working pay jobs and shooting at night or on the weekends. Raising money is of course the greatest challenge. For the Darryl Hunt film and my other two films, we raised money through film grants, fundraisers, state and private funds.

How did you finance your own film?

AS: We financed “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” just as Ricki and I financed our previous film — through grants, fundraisers and individual donors. We worked with Arts Engine, a great group of friends and colleagues, who helped us by serving as our fiscal agent for this film.

We also worked with many of the same kind and talented people we have known for years. William Rexer was our primary DP, and is someone who we’ve known since college. John Foster shot “Tully” for me, Brad Bergbom has done sound now for me on three different projects, and our editor Shannon Kennedy was a good friend from high school who was known for her photography but had never really edited a film before. Our composer, Paul Brill, and producer Katie Brown came through personal connections — and they knew each other from working together at the East Harlem School. Sometimes it’s luck that brings people together, at the right time, and we were able to get some great people to join us in this film.

Where did the initial idea for your film come from?

RS: In 1993, a friend, who was a private investigator on the case, called me in NYC to ask if I would come down with friends to film a court hearing. He believed Darryl Hunt had been wrongly convicted twice and that the hearing he wanted us to shoot would prove Darryl’s innocence. Annie Sundberg, William Rexer and I drove down with borrowed film equipment and donated film stock. We stayed at a local Motel 6 for a couple of weeks. Honestly, it took a long time to figure out what was going on in Darryl Hunt’s case — both sides were very persuasive, but once we examined the facts removed from the emotional appeals and rhetoric it was clear that the case was flawed and that Darryl Hunt’s case deserved attention.

AS: I think Ricki answers this one well, as it was her friend from grad school who was the initial contact to the film. Richard McGough was a private investigator who was working with Hunt’s defense team, and we were intrigued by the fact that after 10 years, an entire team still fully believed in this man’s innocence, and they were pushing for a motion to test the DNA. This was possibly the first DNA exoneration in the U.S., and we were thinking, wow, we could get this on film.

What are your biggest creative influences?

AS: Creative influences come from many different areas for me. Gerhard Richter’s photography is incredibly cinematic and haunting, and the way things are blurred in his work allows an emotional access. Richter’s work allows you to step in and have an intimate reaction that isn’t logical.

I also love Tim Hawkinson, the sculptor, for his dry whimsy and amazing physical invention.

I originally thought of going into journalism, but I love the subjective and dramatic elements of film, and I love the fact that film can allow me to inhabit another person’s skin for a time. It can be fully encompassing, psychologically, emotionally, physically — from the sound, the music, the framing of images and the darkened room, the communal audience experience. I still admire the early reportage and the incredible dramatic immediacy of Maysles’ “Gimme Shelter,” the subtle character revelations in “Salesman,” the psychological guts of Herzog and the visual poetry of Malick’s features. Caro’s “Whale Rider” was a beautiful feature that had elements of documentary — of living inside another culture. The forms — dramatic and documentary — aren’t that far apart. In the end, it’s about working to get to the truth of an experience, of a character, and that’s what keeps you engaged. It’s also a gift to find a subject that truly inspires you to achieve something lasting. In the case of Darryl and Mark [Darryl’s lawyer], their faith and commitment to each other had a lot of influence on the making of this film.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the
project or making the movie?

RS: Our film team was made up of three college friends — Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg and DP William Rexer — and one of our college film professors who helped record sound. From 1993 to 1995, we drove back and forth between New York and North Carolina with borrowed equipment and donated film stock, documenting a case we believed would draw to a climactic close. In 1994, when the DNA test results were announced excluding Hunt as the rapist, we were shocked by the judge’s decision to uphold Hunt’s conviction; the case was closed.

We returned to New York, and the film shot that day was put into storage in our DP’s freezer where it remained, exposed but not processed, never seen for 10 years. We didn’t have enough money to handle the lab costs. Eventually, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Darryl Hunt’s final appeal, and all funding leads dried up, we put the rest of the film and sound into storage and we went on to other films, other jobs and forgot about the frozen film.

On Christmas day in 2003, we learned that Darryl Hunt might be released from prison. Once again, we were back shooting (this time on digital video).

We recovered the forgotten film from our DP’s freezer and sent it for processing, hoping that the images were okay and not hurt by years in a freezer. We tried to remember exactly what we had filmed. We put the 16mm film onto an old Steenbeck [editing equipment], and with great anticipation, we watched as the silent images started to play from the moment when Mark tells him through tears that the case has been rejected by the North Carolina State Supreme Court. It was moving, it was in good shape — we were thrilled! But it was silent.

Now that we had the film, where was the 1/4-in. sound? Our best footage — and we had no sound!!! We searched for over 10 months, pulling apart personal storage units, unearthing basement lockers and neighbors’ attics where we had stashed old film over the years, and finally we convinced DuArt to organize its vault in search of the missing sound. We remained convinced that the sound was living somewhere in a dark corner on its 10th floor, hidden behind 1981 prints of classic “after-school” specials.

When nothing turned up, we lost hope and started to work creatively with the silent footage, building dreamlike sequences, visual montages, adding in new interviews from Mark and Larry, trying flashback reflective moments with voice-over. Then unexpectedly William called to say he might have found something. In a mislabeled box in our DP’s loft, we located the 1/4-in. reels — it was the missing sound. Our greatest mishap may have turned out to be a hidden blessing as it forced us to work creatively with the verite footage (rather than for straightforward storytelling) ultimately influencing our use of visual imagery in the final film.

AS: There were a lot of challenges along the way. Darryl’s case itself, his appeals as he battled for a new trial, were challenging — emotionally for Darryl and his team, and also for us as filmmakers because everywhere we went for funding there was a “so what?” response. Darryl was serving a life sentence, most people assumed he was guilty, and when his appeals were denied, it cemented possible funders’ reactions. Darryl’s story wasn’t worth pursuing, we were told.

“The Trials of Darryl Hunt” director Annie Sundberg. Image courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

While shooting, we were always close to running out of 16mm (back in 1994-2000) and resorted to funny frame rates to try to get more out of our 400-ft reels. This footage never quite transferred back to feel like smooth 24 fps as we had hoped, but gives some of the courtroom waiting moments an edginess that in the end works really well.

We also faced the challenges of balancing the film and our day jobs (Ricki was just about to have a baby, a big job, and I was working on a new television series) when this story came back to life at the end of 2003, and documentaries don’t wait for you.

We then had almost a year of searching for lost 1/4-in. sound reels that were crucial to certain scenes — sound that was misplaced years ago when our DP William Rexer put the shot film into his freezer for “safe keeping.” We didn’t have the money back in 2000 to even process the exposed negative much less transfer it, and so had never finished the audio layback at the time. Thankfully we found the sound, and the film survived the deep freeze.

Like most filmmakers, we also didn’t have any money. It was all about trying to figure out how much we could personally carry in the initial months to get back into the story and cover what we absolutely needed to cover — events like Darryl’s release from prison pending the hearing that would potentially exonerate him — and how to convince people to come on board with no promise of pay.

I got fired because of this film, for the first time in my life. And I felt horribly about letting down the people I was working for when Darryl’s story came back to life, but in the end, I realize that the experience forced me to recognize that you can’t always do it all, and I had to face up to what was really important to me. I was clearly making choices that favored the film, and they did me (and their company) a favor by letting me go. They are wonderful people, and I wish I had been able to work with them at a different time.

Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.

RS: I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. When I hung up the phone I let out a little scream, and my 6-year-old son, who was in the other room, called to my daughter, “Does she look happy or sad?” We are extremely happy to have an opportunity to take “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” to Sundance. I think we’re most excited because Darryl Hunt and Mark Rabil, his attorney, will be coming for 10 days to speak with the audiences. They are both moving, powerful speakers.

AS: I was standing in a very cold kitchen, in my West Village apartment, where we hadn’t had heat for a few days (not because I couldn’t pay for it, but something was screwy with our boiler). I was dog sitting for my friends who had gone to LA for the holiday, and Puck (the dog) is blind and deaf and was sleeping on my couch.

It was just past 7:30, and I had just finished a phone call with Ricki, telling her that if we hadn’t heard anything that it was likely we weren’t going to Sundance, and that it would be okay, that there were other festivals, that the film would find an audience.

Moments later, the phone rang. I saw the number of the Sundance Institute light up on the phone, and my heart was in my throat. Caroline Libresco gave me the good news — she had just spoken with Ricki — and I think I at first froze, and then did some jumping, and like Ricki, I too think I yelped with excitement. Whatever I did woke up Puck, and he actually got off the couch and looked up at me with what I imagine to have been the best experience of shared dog joy he could muster. I was over the moon and stayed that way for several days. It has been a dream come true, to be able to bring this film to Sundance, and especially to have the opportunity for Darryl and Mark to speak with audiences at this kind of event.

What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the

AS: My goals are pretty simple — I am really looking forward to being there when Darryl and Mark speak and connect with the Sundance audiences, and I am really curious to see how people are going to react, and how Darryl and Mark will feel about it all at the end of the experience.

I am also really looking forward to seeing other films. It feels like a festival that, this year in particular, rewards persistence. Christopher Quinn’s documentary [“God Grew Tired of Us”] has also been a long time in the making, and there are some other features that I know have taken heart and years to pull together.

We have other projects we are working on, and like everyone else, we’d love to get a theatrical distribution deal for “Hunt” (or a feature development deal based on his story), but the real focus is on this film with this Sundance audience and seeing how people respond to the film.

What is your definition of “independent film”?

RS: Independent filmmaking means a constant struggle, thousands of scraps of paper with “to do” notes, obsessive fundraising, making mistakes seem intentional but getting to do things your way — most of the time.

AS: For me, independent film is a loose definition. Often it is based on story content, which can’t be financed within a major studio. Sometimes it means taking a risk on a new director or filmmaking team. Independent film also implies that the filmmaker isn’t simply a gun for hire, but someone who is crucially involved, driving the vision and expected to be fully involved from start to finish. Sometimes this is because the person making the creative decisions is the same person who brought the first funding to the table.

More importantly, independent film is also about the community that has developed to help these films come to life. We all sort of grew up with each other, and it’s exciting to see that there are more distribution options now than even a few years ago. Independent film is about a spirit that says, in the end, this is the most important story to put out there, and I’m going to do it even if you say you can’t give me the money right now.

What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance and why?

RS: I would like to see the Sally Mann film [“What Remains,” dir. Steven Cantor]. I find her photographs [to be] hauntingly beautiful portrayals of the innocence and vulnerability of childhood. “Wide Awake” [dir. Alan Berliner] interests me since I have bouts of insomnia. … I can’t even begin to list the films. All the films look amazing.

AS: I can’t wait to see Jeff Lipsky’s “Flannel Pajamas” and Maria Maggenti’s “Puccini for Beginners,” because Julianne Nicholson (who was in “Tully”) is in both, along with Justin Kirk, another Minnesotan and an actor I really admire.

As far as the docs go, I hope I can see all of them. I really want to see Christopher Quinn’s film because I have known about it for so many years and saw early material. I am really drawn to the Sally Mann portrait of her recent work, “What Remains” [dir. Steven Cantor], and to be honest, I’m still digesting the rest of the catalogue. I am hoping to stay through Sunday night so I can spend time on Sunday watching the films that play that final day.

Who are a few people that you would most like to meet at Sundance?

AS: That’s a good question. I should probably think about this. Right now, I want to meet the programmers at Sundance and ask them about the films they are keen on and why.

If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you
spend it?

RS: I would make the feature film version of the Darryl Hunt story.

AS: You’re kidding. Ten million? Immediate thoughts — we’d make the feature film of Darryl’s story.

Then again, I’m also developing a novel that is set between New York and Peru, and I think both films could be made for around $5 million.

There’s also an appeal to setting up something that could be sustainable, or a foundation to support and develop other projects. You could take a part of that $10 million and create something akin to the Radziwill Documentary Fund, which provided a crucial grant for our film. It helped us bring “Hunt” back to life, and we used this grant to create a trailer, which helped us raise the rest of the funding.

What are some of your favorite films? What is your top 10 list for

AS: For 2005, I am amazed by the number of documentaries that I really enjoyed AND had good distribution: “Murderball,” “Grizzly Man,” “Enron” and “Darwin’s Nightmare” among others. I also really liked “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” but I only saw it at festivals.

2005 dramatic films that I really loved: “2046,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “The Downfall,” “A History of Violence.”

I think that’s 10 from 2005. I will likely think of others after I send this interview in to indieWIRE.

Specific longtime favorites: “Gimme Shelter,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Errol Morris’ “Stairway to Heaven” (about Temple Grandin [an autistic professor]), “Badlands,” “The Apartment,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “All the President’s Men,” “Harold and Maude,” “Nashville,” “The Celebration” and — please forgive me — but “Tootsie” is on my list. It’s way up there for me as one of the best films of a certain time.

Some people, especially filmmakers, carry a “top 10” list at all times. Sometimes I walk in to the video rental store and am stumped. Why can’t I remember the films I keep telling myself to see?

What are one or two of your New Year’s resolutions?

RS: Not to make New Year’s resolutions because I always break them — and to spend time enjoying my family.

AS: I resolve to see as many films in the theater as possible and pay for my ticket. It’s the only way to really keep the collective cinema experience alive.

In general, I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s is no different than any other day of the year — if something needs your attention, you should probably start dealing with it now and not wait till some arbitrary date.

Then again, maybe I could benefit from a few resolutions, but that would betray bad personal habits, and I don’t want to go there in a public interview forum.

If you took President Bush’s job, who would you hire/fire and why?

AS: I don’t know if I would focus on new hires in the Justice Department, or if I would go straight for new blood with the Interior, with a focus on energy issues. I don’t understand why we can’t put into place a proactive sustainable energy policy that would result in better technologies — and perhaps a rise in new jobs/economic incentives — and offer some hope that we haven’t brought our climate to a point of irrevocable change.

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