PARK CITY, UTAH
-- Just two weeks before the Sundance Film Festival opened, founder
Robert Redford was in Fort Greene announcing a new arts initiative
with the Brooklyn Academy of Music [read article].
On that day, Jan. 5, he mentioned the large number of Brooklyn
filmmakers that are represented at Sundance each year. And it
is true; it has become impossible to keep track of all of them.
So this year, instead of an attempt to round up all the mediamakers from the borough who made the trip to Park City, Utah, here’s the news from a representative cross section of directors, editors and actors.
Prospect Heights resident Joseph Matthew came to Sundance with his second documentary, "Crossing Arizona," which looks at all sides of the illegal immigration issue, and landed a spot in the independent documentary competition. Along the United States-Mexico border, the film introduces us to men and woman who risk all to get into this country illegally.
From lack of water, many die while making the trek, so humanitarian volunteers roam through the area, giving water and food to the illegals who are usually hiding on the side of the road to Tucson.
But others are looking for these illegals as well. Vigilantes opposed to any aid for illegal immigrants are also wandering the border. Their plan is to send them back to Mexico. And of course, the U.S. Border Patrol is doing the same thing.
The idea of examining immigration came naturally to Matthew, who came to the U.S. from India. GO Brooklyn caught up with him in the Filmmakers Lodge on Main Street, where he spoke about his career change from finance to film.
"I always wanted to tell human stories," said Matthew. "I came to the U.S. to get my MBA, but being here was a great opportunity to change direction." So he studied photography and journalism instead. It was here that Matthew paid his dues and developed an artistic eye.
It must be said that it is not enough to document these ideas with a video camera. In order to have a film that will have an impact, it has to be put together in a creative, moving way, so that it will involve the viewer. To this end, Matthew worked with three editors because "when you’re shooting, you become emotionally attached and you can lack objectivity," he explained. Editors help to coalesce all the information into a work that moves as well as educates.
"If people aren’t moved, then the film isn’t effective," said Matthew. He found the film’s wide variety of subjects through some of the humanitarian movements in Arizona while studying international affairs at New York University, and this led him to more groups.
"You hang out with people you meet, and then you meet others," said Matthew. "You see the news and track those people down, and you go from there." And then he shot close to 200 hours of footage.
"In making a documentary, research and shooting are part of the same process," said Matthew. "You shoot and see where the story’s going and get a sense of what the bigger story will be."
Nick of time
James Ponsoldt has lived in Williamsburg for about a year, but he grew up in Athens, Georgia, and that’s where the idea for his film, "Off the Black," came from. The title is a baseball reference (to the border of home plate), which makes sense since Nick Nolte plays Ray, a divorced father who, instead of being a professional baseball player, has wound up an umpire for high school ball.
After a questionable call to end an important game, some of the kids vandalize Ray’s home as he sits inside. He catches one of the boys and they develop a father-son relationship that is disturbing at first but seems to fulfill both their needs.
"I saw the father of a friend in a grocery store once," said Ponsoldt. He knew his friend was having big drug problems, but he couldn’t bring himself to talk to the father, who seemed to bear it all by himself.
"I felt like a coward to not say anything to him about his own private pain," said Ponsoldt, who drew a comparison to all of those people that we encounter constantly as we go about our lives, but don’t realize that they have lives, too. "My friend’s father was an umpire, and he wore a mask while he worked. We never saw who he really was."
The film has a stellar cast, headed by Nolte as the messed-up umpire. Seeing as this is Ponsoldt’s first feature - he had only made shorts before, including his work at Columbia University, where he studied filmmaking - one has to wonder how he managed to snag Nolte. Did he have connections, or did Ponsoldt just rely on a crack casting agent?
"It was pretty much a combination of both," he explained. "I wanted to write a great part that would attract a great actor. Scott Macaulay, one of my producers, had produced a French film, ’Clean’ by Olivier Assayas with Nolte. So he went straight to Nolte with the script.
"And I had a really good casting agent to get everyone else on board." "Everyone else" includes Timothy Hutton ("Kinsey") and Sally Kirkland ("Anna").
So how does a young filmmaker, making his first feature, deal with such veterans on the set?
"It was a pretty egoless set," recalled Ponsoldt. "Once Nick was committed to doing it, he wanted to meet me - to make sure I’m not a jerk, I guess - and he took great pleasure in the part. He works like a child in that he finds the honesty in the role."
Ponsoldt based the male characters on men in his own life, such as his father and grandfather.
"They were taught not to express emotion, so they talk in roundabout ways," he said. "It was impossible for them to be emotionally honest."
Although Ponsoldt wrote the script in Georgia, it was shot in upstate New York.
"I really needed agrarian, post-industrial, former factory towns," he said, and he found them in New York state, in towns like Suffern and Haverstraw.
"Off the Black" screened in the Spectrum section of the Sundance Film Festival, which seems to cover most films not in the competitive sections. The premiere screening was in the 1,000-seat Eccles Theater.
"It was fantastic," said Ponsoldt. "The place was so packed, my friends couldn’t get in!" And much of his cast and crew were there to participate in the question and answer session after the screening.
While the public screenings are a rush, let’s not forget that Sundance is very much about the business of film.
"[Columbia University professor and ’Brokeback Mountain’ producer] James Schamus says that there are two parts to a film, making it and selling it, and that the two shouldn’t be confused," said Ponsoldt.
Clearly he hasn’t confused them, as his producer and sales rep have been talking to a handful of people regarding theatrical distribution. That’s so you’ll be able to see it in a theater near you.
Return to ’Gowanus’
Two years ago, Park Slope filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were at Sundance with their award-winning short, "Gowanus, Brooklyn," and the film’s talented young star, Shareeka Epps. Now that they’ve developed that short into the feature film "Half Nelson," they returned to the festival, in the dramatic feature competition.
And Shareeka is back, too.
Now 16-years-old, the actress plays the same character, Drey, a young student who tries to figure out her life with some not-so-hot father-figure role models to deal with, including Ryan Gosling as a well-meaning teacher with inner demons raging.
GO Brooklyn hung out with Shareeka at a party at Zoom restaurant on Main Street. Formerly from Red Hook, Shareeka now lives in upstate New York, but she did go home again, as the film was shot in Fort Greene, Red Hook, East New York and other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Here at Sundance, Shareeka was, again, having the time of her life.
The high point had to be when Terrence Howard, the current "it" man of independent film ("Crash," "Hustle and Flow," "Lackawanna Blues") walked up to her, shook her hand and said he liked her work.
"I looked at him and said, ’You’re Terrence Howard!’" she said. But she was also impressed with the "swag" available to Sundance "talent": she modeled her new jacket and cap for GO Brooklyn.
Crown Heights actor Anthony Mackie, who plays Frank, the drug-dealing friend of Drey’s incarcerated brother, had yet to find the swag, but he was having fun.
"There are lots of parties here," he said, "and more fun because the film was so well received."
Fleck and Boden were also enjoying the party, but they were in business mode. Fleck told GO Brooklyn that this Sundance visit, with a film in competition, "was nervewracking. So many people who love the film have invested money in it. We really need to sell it."
Their wish came true, as New York-based distribution company THINKFilm picked up "Half Nelson" for distribution by the festival’s end.
Making the cut
"The Trials of Darryl Hunt" follows the two-decade long search for justice of a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder in North Carolina. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg chose Park Slope editor Shannon Kennedy to put the film in its final form. Just as "Crossing Arizona" director Joseph Matthew spoke of the importance of editors in completing his documentary, Kennedy cast her fresh eye on the 400 to 500 hours of footage that was brought to her.
"You have to figure out how to tell the story," she told GO Brooklyn at a party off Main Street. "You find the most compelling stories by reading hours and hours of transcripts." As an editor, Kennedy had a basic idea of what she wanted to do, and the filmmakers left her alone for awhile to watch footage, but at the same time, there was a lot of pressure to get just the right mood. She feels that she and the directors got that, and that the film will speak to people.
GO Brooklyn spoke with Kennedy while the filmmakers were doing a television interview outside the party at Buona Vita restaurant.
"Now I get to just enjoy the festival," said Kennedy. "I’m very much behind the scenes here." Her work was clearly done, and she relaxed.
And so it goes for all the filmmakers plying their trade at Sundance. Actors and editors (at least most of them) don’t have to deal with the business end of the production. But for directors and producers, the festival is a non-stop ride: present your film to the public and have earnest conversations about your work, and then try to drive a hard bargain to sell your film to a distributor who will give it a life beyond the film festival circuit.
For Fleck and Boden, their job is done, with a distributor in place. For the others, discussions will go on, as will the hope for a deal. You can be sure that with or without distributors, most of these films and those by many other Brooklyn artists, will be on screens within the year. Some of them will be screened in Fort Greene, as part of the Sundance and BAM collaboration, "Creative Latitude" as early as May.
Marian Masone is the associate
director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center
and chief curator of The New York Video Festival also at Lincoln
"Creative Latitude: Sundance Institute at BAM," a series of film screenings, performances, panel discussions and special events that brings the selections from the Sundance Film Festival the Brooklyn Academy of Music, takes place May 11-20, 2006. For more information, visit www.bam.org.