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Reminiscing about Sundance, from first word to Opening Night – A fan’s perspective
by Slyder

As I was prodding along at my usual workstation in the paper, I took a look at the paper’s entertainment magazine that was inserted inside every Friday. Immediately on the front page of the magazine, there was the announcement of the advent of the Sundance Film Festival next Friday. Soon, a wave of excitement channeled through my soul, but at the same time the doubts came about assisting the full festival, and if I would be able to attend all the screenings this time. You see, Sundance and me have had a bit of a spotty history; ever since I heard of it for the first time back in 2001, I was attracted and fascinated by it. The whole idea to make a festival to screen independent movies and give them a push for a wider release depending on the audience and critical raves they received was a great idea, and I still think it is.

Independent filmmaking remains pretty much the definitive bastion in which a filmmaker is able to exercise total control over a film that he’s making, develop a unique and artistic vision in his own right without any interference from any major studio. Not to say that studio-backed movies are mostly bad, but they don’t do themselves any favors by releasing commercial products that have no creative or artistic value most of the time. And indie filmmaking isn’t completely without blemishes of course, as there will be some films that simply won’t make the grade, and flat-out suck, but at least you can’t blame the director or writers and producers for trying. Much I had heard about the overlooked quality output of independent filmmaking, and I am always intrigued that even major Hollywood stars would appear to try help these upcoming filmmakers out by either starring on their roles or helping with the production and budgets. I’m glad that they do it, because at least in my eyes, they still have a space within them that hasn’t forgotten about where they came from.

For the longest time I wanted to be a participant of Sundance audience-wise, mainly because I was curious about this community, about this movement and their output. Of course, the main reason why this festival exists is thanks to Robert Redford, one of the screen’s most memorable actors. So I wanted to see what his “creation” was all about, but unfortunately the Big Money always had its say as well. I remember back in the day inquiring about getting a full festival pass which granted me access to the whole event, parties and all, and being appalled at the cost of it. Being a student and my dad being the only provider of income, it was clear that there was no way that this was the road intended. I was disappointed, but still held a hope that I would be able to at least see the movies there. In 2002, I scraped a measly budget to buy two tickets to watch two movies that were a part of the Sundance festival, The Dancer Upstairs and Narc. The first movie attracted to me since John Malkovich was directing and of course, every time an actor makes his directorial debut is always a curiosity. The latter movie attracted to me because it started Jason Patric and Ray Liotta, two actors who in my eyes had fallen on the wayside and I was pulling for them and this movie to be a good movie so that their careers would finally be back on track. I didn’t understand well at that time however the great pains that several of these filmmakers had to endure in order to get their movies made. The big downside of indie filmmaking is that since there’s no studio support, many of these filmmakers have to go to great lengths in order to bring about the budget necessary for their movies to come to fruition. As everyone knows, Narc was such a low budget film that it had more producers than actors listed on the credits; reading that statistic just simply amazes me the amount of passion several people have for their films or for somebody’s film. Anyways, I went to watch The Dancer Upstairs at the Tower Theatre if I remember correctly, in Salt Lake City, and left the theater happy, in part for seeing a good film (see my review here), and also for being part of an audience in Sundance, if at least only one movie. Unfortunately, a family matter prevented me from going to watch Narc on the big screen; a move that I regretted a lot, but at least I paid the ticket and wished that those $15, though meager, would help Joe Carnahan and company some in their efforts for gaining a wider release for their movie (2 years later, I finally saw the movie on cable, and I was glad that it ended being as great a thriller as I hoped).

My first Sundance experience, though brief, was one that I cherished, I was happy in part, but at the same time I was unfulfilled. I wanted to be more involved in the festival, and watch more movies. Circumstances however prevented me that, as well as a relocation from North Salt Lake to Ogden, and for 7 years my hopes of attending Sundance were washed off due to the fact that Park City and Salt Lake City were so far away (45 min. drive and almost 2 hr. drive from Ogden respectively) and that I could not afford it in my miserable budget. So, for the longest time I just followed the festival coverage here in the site and on other newsprints and catching the reviews as well. Work and sustaining the household after my dad retired made me focus on other more important priorities, therefore the chance of attending the movies or the festival itself was simply a pipe dream for the longest time.

Then a glimmer of opportunity suddenly arose in 2008. Honestly, I have never read the newspaper at all save for only very few occasions, but you could say that kind of changed somewhat when I started working for one for the latter part of 2007; mind you, not as a journalist, but as part of the customer service team in the classified ads department. It still gave me access to read the paper of course from time to time, so whenever there was nothing to do, I grab one and started reading. It was on one of the January 2008 editions of the paper where I got the shocking news that the Sundance Festival also had a good batch of movies that were screened at the local Peery’s Egyptian Theatre in Downtown Ogden. Now, I have been told that this had been going on for the longest time in Ogden, but since I rarely read a newspaper, I never actually heard of it, hence why it was a surprise to me. The dream inside me rekindled again, and once again I wanted to live this dream again, but then the usual story of money trounced that yet again, and I was left to follow the coverage and movie reviews on the Internet. It was frustrating but then again, we were coming out of a financial hole in 2007 that nearly left us in the ruin. We had moved and up till that time I’ve only had temporary jobs, and my father had retired at the beginning of the year. It was a very hard and trying year and the fact that I got a permanent (if not full time) job was a great blessing for me. Despite this however, it was a huge breakthrough, for not all was lost, I finally found a venue close to home and I knew that next year was one full year away; plenty of time to save for next year.

All said and done, next year arrived, and this time, I am in a much better financial position, and this time I did not let the opportunity slip by my fingers. 2 days after the magazine article, I went to the Egyptian Theatre and purchased tickets for 7 of the first 9 shows, with intention of watching 12 of the 14 movies at the festival. I wanted this time to attend the big opening night event, and I was willing to drive to Park City for it, but since it was an invitation only affair, I guess I was going to have to stick to the movies, which in the end, was what the festival was all about.

The premiere of course, was the main attraction and I was going to be there. I counted the days of a rather boring week in the office, waiting for the time that Adam Elliott’s Mary and Max was about to start. As the time neared, I got ready and had my dad drive me over there as he had other things to do, and arrived just in time as the line was preparing itself to move into the theater. The newspaper’s photographers were there taking pictures, and lots of people were also out there waiting to purchase tickets to get in. It’s a very beautiful theater, with several Egyptian style designs and decorations dominating the building’s landscape. From what I’ve read, it was first built way back in the 20’s, nearly a century ago, opening in the summer of 1924. The theater ceiling had a blue sky-ish paint with small lights as to try and present an “outdoors illusion” complete with a night sky with stars. The stage had a painting with what appeared to be the front part of the tomb of pharaoh Ramses II and a couple of other Egyptian statues which held round cylinder like bowls, which made me chuckle a bit since they looked a lot like the bowls of popcorn that several people in the audience had. There were pyramids in the background of the painting, which looked a tad clumsy but then again, art isn’t always perfect. As the minutes approached an old man in a red jacket playing a huge organ dominated the stage; the music he played was very soothing and sometimes dramatic and you could say that he was the opening act before the big show.

When he finished, he received a standing ovation from the audience and a deserving one. And the presenter appeared to thank us for being here in the first screening of the festival. You know, all of us have big wishes of meeting famous people for one reason or other (mainly the people that inspire us of course). I was always fascinated by the stories that my dad told me when he was working within the Mexican government back in his days and having the honor to meet several prominent people there, amongst them no less than 4 presidents. So I always wondered what would it be to meet somebody famous. I had done so a couple of times when I met race car driver Brendan Gaughan when he was doing a sponsored presentation on behalf of his sponsor at a nearby NAPA store in North Salt Lake back in 2000, and also meeting renowned Latin preacher Pastor Alejandro Bullón in Mexico back in 1996, courtesy of my mom. But I never met anyone in the filmmaking business, and I would love one of these days to meet Daniel Day-Lewis or Russell Crowe, but of course, they are just wishes, like anyone else would have. So, with that said, it wasn’t expecting anything special here since the main premiere of the movie happened in Park City and therefore all the big names, whether related or not related to the films, were going to be there. Imagine my surprise then, when the presenter suddenly announced to the stage Mary and Max’s Writer/Director/Designer Adam Elliott and Producer Melanie Coombs. They received a round of applause and both Mrs. Elliott and Miss Coombs were very happy and eager to be there with us in the screening of their film. Mr. Elliott remarked at the arduous process of making the film, 5 years of his life, using Claymation and hand animation techniques in order to create the characters and the settings in the movie. He also joked at how the tears and water shown in the film was made of sexual lubricant (!) Mr. Elliott also gave us a special insight about the film industry in Australia, and how small it is compared to the huge multi-million dollar industry in the US. According to him, the Australian film community is totally independent, and an average of only 20-25 films are released in Australia, and filmmakers there get a good bulk of financial help from the local government. I was amazed at such insight, since I do favor the local government supporting artistic endeavors which are for the country’s benefit, and with that I was certain that I was in for something special with this movie. Mr. Elliott also remarked how honored he was that his film was selected as the festival’s opener and that it was the first animated movie to have ever been selected for the festival.

I’ll be honest, due to my previous small experience in 2002, I just expected a presenter and then on to the film, but to have both Mr. Elliott and Miss Coombs on the stage and even have them available for a Q&A session for the film left me flabbergasted. This was already exceeding my expectations. One could ask how come I was very excited having both the director and producer present, when one could be more excited to have had Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Toni Collette present. I have always held the view that it’s the filmmaker that makes the star and not the other way around. The actor of course, contributes to bringing the character to life in the most realistic way possible, but it’s the director and writer who conceive the idea, rehash it, pitch it and ultimately, with his crew create it and mold it to its final form. These people were for me the true stars of any film, and for me it was a joy that they were here present in this town of Ogden supporting their film.

The movie exceeded my expectations; it was a wonderful rumination about the flawed nature of man in the extreme and hilarious point of view of animation and the power and importance of friendship. When the end credits rolled, the audience and I roared in applause, and we waited for our new rising stars to arrive. When Mr. Elliott and Miss Smith arrived, we gave them an even bigger round of applause and then offered themselves for a round of Q&A with the audience. Mr. Elliott remarked that our audience in Ogden was the 2nd audience they have had for their movie and that the response from us was the best they have had so far. During the Q&A session, several people asked them mostly about the semi-autobiographical aspect of the movie as it was based on Mr. Elliott’s pen-pal experience with an autistic man from New York City whom he had never met but had kept in contact via letters for the longest time. He mentioned wanting to meet his friend but had just recently an operation and was unable to meet him, and also the fact that actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who dubbed the voice of Max) was willing to arrange the meeting between him and his friend at a later date. A woman from the audience remarked how similar this movie was regarding her own personal experiences with her autistic son, and how she related to the movie’s theme. It was quite an emotional comment that made Miss Coombs shed some tears in the stage. Then the focus turned towards the film’s chances of distribution, and they hoped that they would be able to find a distributor soon for a wider release coming this summer. Within me I sincerely hoped they would be able to.

I might have gotten up to take the microphone to ask them a question or two regarding the movie and more about themselves, but I was so overwhelmed that I wasn’t able to even formulate a decent question. In the end, the Q&A session finished and we sent them off with another big round of applause. I wasn’t too disappointed at not being able to ask a question, and settled myself in the fact that at least I had seen them and their movie. I went towards the lobby and called my dad on the phone letting him know that the movie had finished and that I was ready to be picked up. In the meantime, I made my way towards the bathroom and as I opened the door, another surprise befell me: right there in front of me was Mr. Adam Elliott standing in front of me. I was completely shocked that I even forgot his name. He was finishing from washing his hands when I approached him and asked him if he “was the director of the movie,” to which he enthusiastically said yes. I went ahead and congratulated him on a fine feature he had made and took the opportunity to ask him (finally) a trio of questions, to which he happily took the time to reply. I asked him about his condition he had, I had read that he had a tremor on his hand which was hereditary from his mother, and if it presented itself a challenge during the drawing process. He told me that it didn’t, and also that he ultimately didn’t draw the scenes in the film and had hired 5 animators instead to do the drawings, earlier he mentioned that the sets were very small that it would’ve occupied the entire theater, and that later were ultimately destroyed for one reason or another. He also made mentioned to me that he had more fun directing a movie than drawing for it. I also asked him about his biggest influences, to which he cited an animator from Australia and also an American photographer and artist whose names I don’t remember very well, but appreciated their works and held them in high regard. He also was a big fan of Nick Park, the director of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I had to admit that I never seen both films, but promised him that I would see them. I finally asked him if he already had something in mind for his next project. He said that for the moment he still had an idea, a “lame idea” he said, going around his head but that nothing had materialized. I told him not to worry that even from the dumbest ideas came the best movies and he agreed. He had to go so I shook hands with him and wished him the best of luck with his movie and that it would find a distributor for release in the near future as well as wishing him luck in his future projects.

As he left, and I tended to my needs, I was in Cloud Nine; I had met Mr. Adam Elliott, the director of Mary and Max, I had never thought that possible. As I started to walk outside the theater, Mr. Elliott was at the entrance inside the theater meeting with some people and volunteers of the theater, answering their questions; the man was a very polite and sincere person and always with a smile in his face, clearly showing how much he enjoyed his work, and I was honored to have met him. As I walked outside and waited for my dad to arrive, there was a Sundance-owned SUV parked in front of the theater and a couple of people talking there, and there came another shock, in front of me was Miss Melanie Coombs, producer of the film, and yet again I was so overwhelmed that I even forgot her name, and approached her with the same stupid question. “M’am, excuse me, are you the producer of the film?” To which she replied, “of course I am!” I went ahead and congratulated her on the film and wished her the best of luck in finding a distributor. We did some small talk, and mentioned the fact that I had seen in the movie that ICON Productions was involved with the film and proceeded to ask her if Mel Gibson was in anyway involved? She said that the company had been involved since the inception of the project and that Mel Gibson bought into the company later on; they provided financial support for the movie although neither she nor Mr. Elliott had met Mr. Gibson. I then asked her from what part of Australia they were from, and I was excited to hear that they were from Melbourne. Being the race car fan that I always am, mentioned her about the Formula 1 race held there, and she said that she had of course heard of it but wasn’t a big fan of it since it was held a the park (Albert Park) and it was pretty noisy. She had though some friends that had attended there of course. Miss Coombs then had other personal things to do as well as snatch Mr. Elliott and get him in the SUV so we shook hands and waved each other goodbye and again wished her the best of luck. As she walked back to the theater, my dad then appeared with the car to pick me up and whisk me back home.

And as we drove through the cold dark streets of Ogden back to our apartment, I was in awe and amazed at my first full-fledged Sundance experience. It had been more than what I had expected let alone asked for. To have gone to a movie as good as this and to have met both it’s writer/director and producer and actually speak to them as if I were speaking to a regular person was something I never thought of, at all. My brief conversations with both Mr. Elliott and Miss Coombs lasted for a combined 3 minutes, but these 3 minutes I will forever cherish in my memory for years to come. Mr. Elliott might have only done one full feature film (although he won an Oscar for his short Harvie Krumpet), but to me, he’s already a star and I was honored to have spoken to him and to have shaken his hand and Miss Coombs’s as well. This is a moment that I will forever be proud of in my life and from here on till the festival’s end and for the rest of my days, will continue going to the movies with even more passion that I have had ever since I was introduced to them… or at least continue doing the rental circuit like I have always done before. Hey, you do what you can, right?


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2651
originally posted: 01/19/09 15:28:58
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