Written and directed by Sara Colangelo, “Little Accidents” had its premiere at Sundance almost a year ago to date. Today, just a week ahead of Sundance 2015, it hits theaters and VOD. It’s a soft, but powerful film about a West Virginian town that must deal with the aftermath of both a coal mining accident and a child’s disappearance, leaving its locals to pick up the pieces in order to move forward.
“There is a postpartum blues that sets in when you finish your first feature,” Colangelo, who just last week was nominated for a Spirit Award for best first screenplay, told Indiewire.
There is always a lot more than meets the eye when making films, and the Sundance-to-big screen path for an indie film is no exception. The people that came together to support Colangelo carried with them a salt of the earth attitude that meshed well with her vision for this story. We recently had the chance to ask her how it all began, and what she feels now that the film is being released less than a week before Sundance 2015.
What was the genesis of “Little Accidents”?
The original seed of the project came from my thesis film at NYU. “Little Accidents” (the short) was set in a completely different place with a different set of characters, but already from that point I was interested in the idea of setting a traumatic event or accident in the past and observing its effects on a community in the present. I was intrigued by the challenge of never visually depicting the accident on screen, but instead exploring its emotional ripples on characters who were trying to piece together their lives months or years later. I was also interested in exploring a one company town and the landscape of post-industrial America. And I think that came from growing up in a factory town in Massachusetts where you can see the divisions of the haves and have-nots, and you can unveil an American way of life that is rapidly changing.
The Sundance Labs had knocked on my door after “Little Accidents” (the short) screened at the festival in 2010, and they suggested I expand on it. I don’t love expanding on things literally. It’s not that I get bored, I just want to move on and stretch myself and see what else I can do. For some reason, this idea of a town going through a tragedy was still really compelling to me. At the time I was reading a lot of press and media coverage on mining accidents in Appalachia. I was really touched by some of these tragic stories and thought that this world could provide a good context or backdrop to the feature I wanted to write.
What was your writing process like?
You know, I tend to go to cafes now, but during that time period I was strangely able to concentrate and stay home. I would get up early, go on a run and then work in a pretty focused way from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course somewhere in there I was surfing the web and reading the Times or looking at Buzzfeed lists, but in retrospect I think I was pretty disciplined. Maybe the urgency over that summer (2010) came from the fact that I knew the Sundance Labs folks were vaguely interested in seeing something by the fall.
You applied and got into the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and Directing Lab. What were those like?
For the June Directing Lab you get the opportunity to shoot five scenes from your script, which is pretty cool because the scenes become dress rehearsals in which you can experiment with shooting techniques, performance, and even production design prior to shooting the feature. You’re able to play, and fail, and in some cases succeed, and it gives you a lot of perspective before jumping into production.
I brought Rob Hauer, the DP of the short film, to shoot my scenes at the Lab – Rachel Morrison shot the feature – and it was a lot of fun to work on our visual language together and see what we could get away with camera-wise, and how we could stretch our range with the visual storytelling. The Directing Labs also introduced me to Boyd Holbrook, who I ended up casting in the role of Amos for the feature. I think working together so closely in Utah allowed each of us to understand how the other worked, and I think we realized that we were a great team. I’m not sure if you know, but Boyd, apart from being a super talented actor, is also the son of a coal miner and grew up in the Kentucky coalfields. So he understood the world of the script in a visceral way. But I think the Labs allowed me to see how he prepares for a role, the amount of work he puts into every scene, and how much this particular story meant to him emotionally. I really feel like you can see it when you watch the scenes.
The Writing Labs are a little more cerebral. You have six advisors, and you have a two hour meeting with each one in which you are furiously taking notes as they give you very insightful feedback. Needless to say, it was an invaluable experience and I was very fortunate to have been invited to them.
Finding funding – the hardest part of making a movie?
Well, it is a hugely challenging part. I was incredibly lucky because the money came together quickly and it never fell apart.
It was summer of 2011 by this point, and I had started meeting with a few producers. About four or five people, separately and I think within a week, all told me I must meet Anne Carey, and that “Little Accidents” would be right up her alley. We met soon thereafter and just clicked. Anne grew up in Ohio, was familiar with the way of life in these small industrial towns along the Rust Belt, and I think the script resonated with her, which was hugely humbling to me since she was such an experienced, cool producer with so many films that I deeply admired. She came on board in November 2011.
Regarding funding, Anne really stressed that we not panic and start sending the script out to every Moe, Dick and Harry financier. She encouraged us to wait until the script was ready and shootable, and had credible interest from cast. I think this was such sound advice and part of the reason we never rode a rollercoaster of gaining funding, losing it, etc. By 2012, we were still trimming the script and simultaneously going through casting options. I wrote a few handwritten letters to (now that I think of it embarrassingly big-name) movie stars and went through the inevitable blow of not getting responses – or at best, “the script’s lovely, but the budget is just too small.” It was all a learning process and it forced me to start getting more realistic.
In early 2013, Jason Berman and Summer Shelton came on and more financing was in our reach. We were also locking in real cast options by this point. I should say that we were also hugely fortunate to have had the support of Chris Columbus who I had met at NYU a few years prior. Chris – who incidentally has coalmining roots in Pennsylvania – and his daughter Eleanor had just started a production company called Maiden Voyage, which finances first time features. They were interested in “Little Accidents” for their debut. So in a matter of a few months in early 2013, it all started to gel and come together pretty quickly.
How did you manage to nab Elizabeth Banks, Josh Lucas and Chloe Sevigny for your first feature?
Boyd was the first person we signed on. In late 2012, we had sent the film out to agencies and we heard that Elizabeth Banks was very interested in the role of Diana Doyle [the mother of the son who goes missing]. Elizabeth and I ended up meeting over Skype a few days later and I was really impressed with how smart she was, and how sensitive she was to the material and interior world of this character. I was intrigued that she wanted to go back to her roots in drama and try something wildly new. Josh had read the script and I think was interested in the dark territory of the Bill Doyle character and in the fact that this man was guilty of fraud but that I wasn’t depicting him as a villain. Chloe had read the script and contacted me, saying that she really wanted to play this mom who is reeling after the accident, and just trying to keep her two sons happy at all costs… It was a crazy moment in which I had to pinch myself since I’ve been such a fan of her work for so long. I’m not trying to be schlocky, but it was a first time director’s dream come true.
Directing your first feature must be terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
At times it was really terrifying. This script was by far the biggest thing I’d written, and for a low-budget feature – not to mention a first feature – it has a lot of moving parts. We had an absurd amount of locations, including an operational coal mine that required that we all go through rigorous safety training. And due to the three intertwining storylines, there were three hero houses and three hero cars that we had to move between. Every department had a ton of work to do. It was all a tremendous learning curve for me, and I think it drove home the importance of preparation, of keeping positive and managing expectations, and also of going out on set every day and keeping yourself and others inspired. For sure, there were some good days and some trying ones. On a low-budget feature you will be making concessions but also pleasantly surprised by the fortuitous things that can come from those concessions.
My first week (July 12, 2013) was the hardest, but it got easier every week even as I was getting more tired, and somehow living on three hours of sleep a night. It definitely takes that first week to get used to the frenzied pace and rhythm of it all.
For all its beauty and charm, working in West Virginia had its challenges too. We went down for prep right as a few of documentaries had finished filming in the nearby communities. They were both formidable documentaries, but one was critical of mining practices, and the other highlighted the terrible drug epidemic in the area, so people felt like a microscope might be held over them, or that they might be judged.
Once we explained that we were making a narrative film and that we had neither a pro nor anti-coal agenda (or trying to make Buckwild), that seemed to ease some of the anxiety. We encouraged people to read the script as well, because we knew if they did they’d immediately understand the humanity of the story. Appalachians have historically been misrepresented by the media and by Hollywood, so I actually did empathize with all of their worry. It was smooth sailing once we were down there for a few weeks.
What was the editing process like for you on a feature?
I was very lucky to have worked with Suzy Elmiger, who’s such a seasoned and smart editor. She worked on Shortcuts, which is one of my favorite Altman movies. She’s a wealth of editing wisdom and story wisdom. I can’t tell you how much I learned from just sitting next to her in the editing room! But it was definitely a challenging edit, and probably the fastest edit I’ve ever been a part of since we were racing to get a cut into Sundance by the end of October. I believe we started editing September 1, 2013 and a cut had to be overnighted to Sundance November 1 at the latest.
Did you have expectations about getting into Sundance?
I was super proud to have even gotten into the festival. I’m a huge fan and supporter of the Labs and the festival, but I also realize that it is harder and harder to get in with each passing year. Every year that I’ve attended I’ve been so impressed with range of films that I see, so it’s clear that the programmers are aiming to keep the bar high and to surprise and push the envelope of what’s expected of them. The reality is that even if you’re a Labs-supported project, it doesn’t mean you’ll get in, which is probably a good and refreshing thing. So I went into the submissions process crossing my fingers and not taking anything for granted.
The fest itself is such a whirlwind. I’d never done press or photos or red carpets. The first few days are the craziest, but once you nail down your talking points, you relax into it. I really enjoyed the Q&As; it’s by far the best part of these fests.
What about the sales aspect of Sundance? What was it like trying to secure distribution there?
It was weird. We weren’t getting a lot of bites that first week. But we also heard that it was a slow year, and that apart from three or four films, no one was getting bites. There was a lot of interest, but no cigar. It was a really scary, to be honest, and I wondered if my financiers would ever talk to me again. There is such a huge responsibility that you feel as a director toward everyone – cast, crew, investors, producers. Everyone’s put so much time and work into the film, so you want to make them proud when the film premieres and when you’re on the cusp of distribution. Our sales agent gave us sage advice though, and told us not to worry, that we shouldn’t shove the film down people’s throats or get anxious. And luckily within a month or two we sold to Amplify, which ended up being a fantastic match.
What’s it like to be on the cusp of Sundance a year later?
Well, it’s an exciting time because we’re premiering today. It feels vaguely similar because we’re once again taking a leap and putting our film into the world, this time on a much bigger scale. When I look back at the year and remind myself of how hard we all worked (and bit our nails) through the editing, premiere, and sale it does all feel like an incredible ride and hugely worth it. I’m nostalgic and weirdly envious of all the folks taking their films to Sundance though. I suppose it’s time for me to start shooting again.
Any tips for filmmakers headed to Sundance for the first time?
Celebrate the achievement! It’s so easy to get bogged down with press and self-promotion, but really relish your moment in Park City and take the opportunity to connect with audiences and speak to them, and actually observe whom the film is resonating with. The festival is a maelstrom of energy that is impossible to harness so I would advise relinquishing control and letting go a little, which is hard for a director, I know. And in terms of distribution expectations, know that there is no one way to get your film out into the world. There are so many exciting avenues of distribution now, and so many non-traditional paths to getting it seen. So trust that even if Fox Searchlight doesn’t want it, you have a wealth of options. Oh, and bring three things: Emergen-C, good lip balm and Theraflu!