Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix How Indie Was It?

Hollywood harvests this year's crop at Sundance.

By Erika Milvy

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  PARK CITY, UTAH -- Skiing may be getting dangerous, but gambling on box-office success is the really stressful sport here. The stakes are high at the Sundance Film Festival, where movie moguls throw money at wide-eyed filmmakers, hoping to earn it back in spades. Some say Sundance has been co-opted by a Hollywood eager to show off its artistic side. Slamdance, then Slumdance, and now Slamdunk are the successively more renegade festivals reacting to the commercialization of independent films.

"Polish has been labeled a bad word," says Sydney Pollack, who produced Miramax's Sliding Doors, the opening-night film at this year's Sundance. Reacting to the notion that Sliding Doors is too slick to be an independent, Pollack asserts, "Making a polished-looking film is the goal of every filmmaker.

Sliding Doors, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow, is a complex gimmick in which we see two versions of Paltrow's life that unfold after she either catches her subway or misses it. Like the other Sundance Premieres -- David Mamet's Spanish Prisoner, Tom DiCillo's The Real Blonde, and The Misadventures of Margaret (starring that past and present queen of indie cred, Parker Posey) -- Sliding Doors is distinct from Sundance's grittier fare, not just because it shines with hefty coatings of polish but because it was completed with studio money and is going into the festival with distribution already secured. This is a far cry from rags-to-riches independents like Clerks and El Mariachi. In 1992, Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7000. Paramount's investor-funded The Real Blonde cost $10 million.

But it's not the premieres -- which tend to feature big stars, big budgets, biggish studios, and tried-and-true Sundance alumni filmmakers -- that draw crowds to Park City. Sliding Doors and the like will be released in a few weeks anyway. No, all eyes are on the 16 films entered in the dramatic competition and the 16 films competing for best documentary. These are the movies that get buzzed about on the shuttle buses, that create long lines outside the theaters, that may or may not be heard from again. These are the movies that acquisitions executives are biting their lips and cell-phoning over. Ever since the bigwigs from Miramax and Fineline locked horns (and were ultimately tossed out of a Park City restaurant) in a fierce bidding battle over Shine, the economics of Sundance have changed the very nature of the festival.

"Sundance is the worst place in the world to buy a movie," says Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. "Every filmmaker comes here planning to have a bidding war. A few of them won the lottery when people overpaid for their films, but most had their bubble burst." Festival founder Robert Redford has seen his pet project turn into a stressed-out circus of film acquisition. "You now have a stock-trader mentality where you get guys running onto the floor bidding after a 15-minute viewing," he tells the New York Times.

This year's bidding dwarfs the $2.5 million shelled out for Shine in 1996 -- and Boston comes in for its share. Next Stop Wonderland, a pleasing if innocuous romantic comedy about Boston's singles scene starring Hope Davis, is knocked down in a $6 million deal that also gives Miramax worldwide rights to the next two pictures by director Brad Anderson (whose first effort, The Darien Gap, played Sundance in '96). The film follows two parallel lives that ultimately converge thanks to the sleight of fate's hand -- think of it as a lower-budget Sliding Doors.

The other Boston-based lottery winner is Darren Aronofsky, whose black-and-white sci-fi thriller Pi gets acquired by Live Entertainment for slightly more than $1 million, though it cost just $60,000 to make. Aronofsky wins a best direction award for Pi, which Variety has called "a sci-fi, Kafkaesque B&W religio-mathematical thriller . . . a personal, visionary, hermetic art film par excellence."

But the biggest buzz on the slopes and in the streets concerns the brouhaha over Kurt and Courtney. The festival ostensibly canceled its screening of this documentary from Nick Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Spalding Gray's Monster in a Box) about Courtney Love and her late husband, Kurt Cobain, because copyright to a few songs was in dispute -- but most people are speculating that Courtney was responsible, displeased with what she saw as a negative depiction of her. Shown for distributors and VIPs at a super-exclusive Slamdunk screening, the film airs theories that implicate Love in Cobain's death, even suggesting murder.

Vincent Gallo (Palookaville), this month's cover boy for Filmmaker magazine, wrote, directed, and stars in Buffalo 66, an eccentric charmer with a marvelous turn by Anjelica Huston as Gallo's football-crazy negligent mom. It's one of the festival's most original movies and would, according to one jurist, have received a special jury prize had it not been for Gallo's prima donna behavior during the festival.

Comedies crop up in great abundance, some of them clearly indie in spirit. The Castle -- a quirky comedy from Australia that is already hugely popular there, running neck-and-neck with Shine -- focuses on the peculiar Kerrigan family, who enjoy one another's company immensely and take pleasure in the oddest of small things (they are perhaps overly interested in the "used merchandise" section of the classifieds). "Films like this and Gump make a mockery of our sophistication and preoccupation with wealth and position and influence," says first-time director Rob Sitch, who maxed out his credit cards and made the film in 10 days. "People call these things Capra-esque because they don't know how to describe that feeling that they get." Having passed on the film when it was available before Sundance for just $200,000, Miramax buys it during the festival for $3 million.

Life During Wartime, an accomplished effort from first-time director Evan Dunsky, is likewise both funny hah-hah and funny peculiar. Stanley Tucci shines as an alarm-system salesman who makes a bigger profit by instilling some fear in his would-be customers. Under Heaven (a modern Wings of the Dove), Hav Plenty, a buppie romantic comedy, and Wild Man Blues, Barbara Kopple's documentary about Woody Allen as touring jazz musician, are all enjoyable if unexceptional.

Despite the favorable 3:1 ratio of journalists to filmmakers at Sundance, filmmakers and publicists still have to scheme and maneuver to attract attention to their projects. Most enterprising this year is the makeshift publicity machine for Cube. The movie's promoters hoist a white sheet at various sidewalk locales around town and project a preview in the streets. Michael Moore (Roger and Me), on the other hand, resorts to throwing money at filmgoers. Those who attend screenings of his new documentary, The Big One (about Nike), receive checks for 80 cents. (The specific amount makes sense once you've seen the film.)

Saturday night's award ceremony offers a few surprises in a year with no obvious frontrunners. The Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film goes to Slam, a vérité drama from Marc Levin, who till now has been associated with documentaries. The film concerns the travails of a poet-rapper sent to prison on a minor drug charge. When Levin et al. take to the stage to accept the award, actor Saul Williams, who plays the poet/prisoner, offers an impromptu rap of thanks.

The Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary is split between Frat House and The Farm. For the former, directors Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland went deep into the trenches of spilt beer to expose the militaristic juvenilia that is fraternity life. The film takes a bemused, sardonic look at college fraternities; letting the frat brethren and their antics speak for themselves, it's humorous in its very restraint. The Farm, directed by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, is about the Louisiana state prison at Angola, one of America's largest maximum-security prisons.

After each screening, zealous volunteers shove scraps of paper into exiting filmgoers' hands so they can vote for the Audience Award -- which this year goes to Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals. The film, about contemporary life on an Native American reservation, is based on Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. Smoke Signals also takes the Filmmakers' Trophy.

The Audience Award for Most Popular Documentary goes to Out of the Past. Directed by Jeff Dupre, this one tells how 17-year-old Kelli Peterson attempted to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at her Salt Lake City high school last year. Her efforts were suppressed by the Utah State Legislature, which went so far as to pass a law banning all extracurricular clubs in order to prevent the Gay-Straight Alliance from convening.

Gay themes are screened in abundance this year, since playing a lesbian in an independent film has apparently become the new sure-fire way for floundering actresses to jumpstart their careers. Jennifer Tilly did so in the dyke noir flick Bound two years ago; this year Ally Sheedy and Brooke Shields both play gay to garner credibility. Sheedy's film, High Art, about heroin and photography, wins its screenwriter, Lisa Cholodenko, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Shields's film is that Parker Posey vehicle, The Misadventures of Margaret.

And finally, actress Frances McDormand (Academy Award winner for her role in husband Joel Coen's Fargo) receives the Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision. McDormand will appear next in Madeline, an adaptation of Ludwig Bemelmans's children's classic. She says that this new movie will be the first one made by either herself or her husband that her three-year-old son will be able to watch.

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