Sundance London 2014


by Joanna Orland
with contributions from Ruth Thomson

The third Sundance London Film and Music Festival brought cinematic highlights and talent from the Utah festival to a British audience.  A festival for filmmakers as much as film lovers, Sundance has the independent spirit which is missing from larger festivals such as Cannes, Venice or Toronto.

The Sundance Institute founded in 1981 by Robert Redford is a great supporter and perpetuator of the independent arts.  The Sundance Festival formed in Utah in 1984 often showcases first time directors, low budget films and a lot of work that comes out of its educational Sundance Labs programme which runs annually in support of aiding the independent film community.

In recent years, The Sundance Institute has begun to form a partnership with Kickstarter, opening the doors for independent cinema to gain financial resources through crowd-funding.  Some festival film favourites including Blue Ruin and Obvious Child were funded partially through Kickstarter, further proof that this could be the future of film funding.

The festival not only showcases these independent gems, but it also holds panel sessions and discussions, becoming a resource for education and inspiration amongst new and seasoned filmmakers. While current filmmakers can share ideas and techniques, new filmmakers can find the inspiration and motivation to begin work on their early projects.

To get into the Sundance spirit and begin our review of Sundance London, a word from Sundance Festival organizers John Cooper and Trevor Groth:

John Cooper & Trevor Groth, Sundance Institute

Now it’s time to discuss what Sundance Festival is truly about – the films. Many films were screened at this year’s Sundance London. Our personal favourites include Fruitvale Station, The One I Love, Frank, Obvious Child, Blue Ruin, Little Accidents and They Came Together. But there was so much more on offer…

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Blue Ruin
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb and David W. Thompson

Blue Ruin is a classic and brutal story of revenge.  While the theme of revenge is at its core, Jeremy Saulnier’s thriller is not an over-the-top action piece like such revenge films as Taken, The Raid, Death Wish or Kill Bill.  Rather than huge action sequences, Saulnier uses tension building as the main narrative hook in this gripping thriller.  There is very little dialogue, very little exposition, but very little of it needed.  The physicality of lead actor Macon Blair alongside the slowed detailed pace, sound design and score, tells the story more empathetically than words or action ever could.

Dwight Evans is an outsider, living life on the fringes of society.  A turn of events leads him to return to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance.  As an amateur assassin who doesn’t even enjoy the act of killing, this revenge thriller is portrayed in a realistic fashion, on a small budget, with an indie mindset.

If the idea of an indie revenge thriller isn’t for you, well I think you need to see this film just to be proven wrong.  As one of the most tense films I’ve seen in recent cinema, one that uses little dialogue and exposition to build tension and tell a story, this is a film that needs to be added to all film buffs’ must-see lists.

Drunktown’s Finest

Directed by Sydney Freeland
Starring Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline, Kiowa Gordon and Shauna Baker

We didn’t have the chance to see this film, but…

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We interviewed Drunktown’s Finest director Sydney Freeland.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy

If you’re expecting a Frank Sidebottom biopic, you are watching the wrong film.  Even though it is written by Jon Ronson, a writer who was a member of Sidebottom’s band, Frank is so loosely based on the character that it should be considered as merely an homage.  Outside of the mask, name and eccentricity, you’ll be grasping to find an outright narrative connection.

The film itself is as eccentric as its title character Frank, a former mental patient who finds musical inspiration in everything, and also never removes his mask.  Never.  Not even in the shower.  Acclaimed actor and bonafied movie star Michael Fassbender is the man behind the mask in his best performance to date.  He is hilarious, endearing, empathetic and charming as Frank, without even a facial expression to aid his performance – except for the ones he describes.  Perhaps the mask is the secret to this excellent performance.  The lack of facial expression allows the audience to project their own emotions onto Fassbender’s Frank, reading what they want to read, much as main character Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) does in this film.

This film is about mental illness, overtly so and subtley so.  Frank’s insanity makes him the sanest person in the vicinity.  We’re led to believe that the seemingly sane boy next door Jon is the only one not suffering from mental illness in Frank’s band.  After all, he had a happy childhood and isn’t tormented – he feels this has made him less of an artist and is envious of Frank’s suffering and the music it allows him to produce.  Jon’s sanity drives him insane, feeding off of social media and need for acceptance, ironically pushing his band members further away while doing so.

Jon is envious of Frank’s ability to sing about anything in the world and it inspires Jon to become a better musician… if only he could find some lyrics and melody of his own.  Jon’s desperate to be somebody through music and dedicates himself to Frank’s band as they spend months going to extremes to record their new album.  They are going to such extremes, that a safe word is needed in the form of “chinchilla” which of course has become #chinchilla in the world of social media and meta marketing.

On one level, Frank is a social commentary on how we view mental illness and how our self-worth has become so dependent on social media.  These deeper layers are buried beneath a charming and often hilarious oddball film which will of course be labelled as “quirky” or “indie” in the mainstream.  The opening sequence alone was one of the funniest and most original pieces of cinema I have seen in a long while.  It’s refreshing, meaningful, powerful and enjoyable.  What more do you need?  Well, besides a copy of the soundtrack which I would imagine to be entitled Michael Fassbender Sings About Threads & Things.

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Fruitvale Station
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz

This film is hard to watch, this review is difficult to write.  The true story of Oscar Grant is an important one that must be told.  Oscar was a happy, healthy, 22-year-old resident of the Bay Area.  He was a loving father, partner and son.  On the fateful New Year’s Day of 2009, his life was cut short due to a misunderstanding and police brutality.  A true tragedy.

Fruitvale Station is a snapshot of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, with the climax being his murder by an Oakland transport police officer who claims that he had intended to tase Grant, but accidentally shot the unarmed man instead.  The incident was captured on the mobile phones of bystanders, with some footage having been shown at the start of this film.  While the movie portrays this act as a second degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, the officer who shot Oscar Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.  This verdict sparked protests and riots in Oakland, resulting in this important movie honouring Oscar Grant.

Fruitvale Station is a huge critical success.  The film won the dramatic grand jury prize as well as the dramatic audience award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  There was also much Oscar buzz surrounding this independent first time feature film by director Ryan Coogler.  The parallels of Oscar’s story to something more recent like George Zimmerman’s trial and acquittal show how discrimination and right to bear arms are both destroying innocent lives of too many young Americans.

We interviewed Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.

The Frozen

Directed by David Cross
Starring Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Amy Carlson, Amy Sedaris, David Koechner, Michael Cera and more

by Ruth Thomson

We wanted to love this so much! Hits is the directorial debut of comic actor and writer David Cross (Arrested Development, Modern Family, loads of other stuff) who was at the O2 (lucky man) for this UK premiere screening. A comic depiction of small town America (Liberty, NY to be precise) with a few imported city hipsters to crank up the fun, the film’s themes are all pretty darn familiar – teenagers in crap places will do anything to be famous, you can’t do anything these days without some douchebag putting it on the internet, prod a straightforward upstanding member of a (small) community for long enough and it will turn out that he’s a racist homophobe etc.

There is loads of great writing (and improvising) and some good performances – Matt Walsh as everyman Dave, Meredith Hagner as his The Voice obsessed teenage daughter, and most fun of all (despite initial misgivings) James Adomian as think tank leader and hipster extraordinaire Donovan. Michael Cera and Amy Sedaris are present but almost completely pointless.

The film’s main downfall is it’s basically a bit of a sprawling mess, with too many characters, sub plots, and mixed messages. The concluding scene in particular is – though funny at moments – basically all over the place. Cross confessed in the Q&A afterwards that he had vacillated back and forth as to whether or not Dave in his final outburst to the town council should cross the line into the previously mentioned racist homophobic territory and I for one felt disappointed that he did – in that moment it felt like every character was just a massive stereotype after all.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Directed by David Zellner
Starring Rinko Kikuchi

When the film Kumiko the Treasure Hunter said it was based on a true story, I thought it was simply a nod to Fargo.  It turns out that it IS based on a true story… and what a story it is…

Rinko Kikuchi plays title character Kumiko in this film that is essentially about loneliness.  Kumiko is a lonely Japanese woman, unmarried and childless at age 29.  She gets flack from her boss and from her mother, she has no real friends to turn to, and has a social anxiety so crippling that it would definitely require professional help if anyone cared enough about her to point her in that direction.

Dissatisfied and terrified of her own life, Kumiko blurs the lines of fiction and reality, becoming convinced that she will find the buried treasure from the film Fargo.  The treasure in question is the suitcase full of money that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in the snow by a fence in the town of Brainerd, Minnesota near Fargo, North Dakota.

Rinko Kikuchi is an amazing actress, captivating without need of speaking a word. She emanates anxiety, loneliness and isolation with subtlety and ease.  Kumiko is not merely an introspective character, she is also an eccentric.  Her behaviour is fascinating even with minimal dialogue, some of which in Japanese.  She is a woman who seeks a meaning in life, feeling a tighter grip on fiction than reality.

The Achilles heel of this film is the lack of backstory for central character Kumiko.   Kikuchi gives a fascinating performance as this desperate, eccentric and lonely woman, but why is she so?  The recurring message is that Kumiko is unmarried and childless whereas most Japanese women by age 25 are married, and with children by age 29.  Because Kumiko is neither of these things, SPOILER ALERT: does she deserve to die alone on the set of a Coen Brothers film?  Further exploration of Kumiko’s foundations are needed for full empathy from the audience, notably the over 25 unmarried / over 29 childless factions.

In spite of the anti-feminist overtones and lack of backstory, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a gripping watch, greatly thanks to a standout performance by Rinko Kikuchi.

Little Accidents
Directed by Sarah Colangelo
Starring Elizabeth Banks, Boyd Holbrook, Chloë Sevigny, Jacob Lofland, Josh Lucas and Nicholas Huddleston

Sarah Colangelo has made a promising first feature with Little Accidents.  A bleak drama with classism at its heart, the film truly thrives due to the strong performances given by its vast cast, notably Boyd Holbrook as Amos, a miner who is the only survivor of a serious mining accident that has left ten others dead.

As the only survivor, Amos is left physically crippled and unable to go on living his life as normal.  He wants to keep his job for the mining company, but feels pressure to stand up against them to get justice for the death of his peers.  Holbrook’s performance is quiet and subtle, yet effective and empathetic.  He is clearly one to watch as far as up-and-coming dramatic actors go.

While a small town in America is still reeling from the tragedy of losing 10 of its miners, as the film’s title suggests, yet another accident occurs – this one caused by Owen, a young teenager who lost his father to the mining tragedy.  Owen accidentally kills his classmate JT who happens to be the son of the mining company manager who is primarily responsible for the miners’ deaths.  Owen hides his secret from his fellow townsfolk while JT’s parents Bill Doyle (Josh Lucas) and Diane Doyle (Elizabeth Banks) begin a public search.

Diane’s grief overcomes her as does Amos’ and Owen’s.  They somehow come together to share in each other’s grief, forming unlikely interclass connections.  What unfolds is a bleak and well-directed story.  While predictable at times, the tone and performances hold up the film to make Colangelo a director whose future seems more prosperous than any of the characters’ she depicts in her film.

Obvious Child
Directed by Gillian Robespierre
Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann and David Cross

Obvious Child is an alternative rom-com that isn’t afraid to tackle real issues facing real American women in their 20’s.  Based on director Gillian Robespierre’s short film, this feature length debut not only makes a socio-political statement, but it showcases star Jenny Slate’s talent for both comedic and dramatic performances.  Best known to comedy fans for her role as Mona-Lisa Saperstein on Parks and Recreation, and for dropping the F-bomb on live TV in her only year as a Saturday Night Live cast member, comedian and actress Jenny Slate proves that she is more than a funny foul-mouthed Jewish girl.

Brooklyn-based comedian Donna gets cheated on, dumped, fired and accidentally impregnated all before valentine’s day.  Donna is not afraid to make the tough choice she needs to make and decides to have an abortion, all the while getting to know the baby-daddy as well as herself.  Her journey is a raw honest examination about the modern woman and the choices they are faced with in life.  The film is not afraid to tackle taboo subject matter and portray it honestly and openly.

Most would think the subject of abortion would be an anti-rom-com matter, but Obvious Child does something very clever with its premise – It takes this politically charged subject matter and humanizes it.  It also definitely has a pro-choice agenda that will leave anti-abortion movement supporters up in arms.  By humanizing the idea of abortion and watching a woman’s journey as she makes this tough decision, it widens the argument for pro-choice even further.  What are the alternatives of not having an abortion when you are unable or not ready to be a parent?

What is also genius about this story from a socio-political point of view is that while Donna is greatly affected by her decision to have an abortion, she is also allowed to move on and lead a normal life in spite of this tough decision.  While I could go further into the debate of Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life, this is not really the outlet to do so.  This movie makes a much better argument than I will anyway.  Either way, it will certainly be the subject of some heated debates to come.

Back to the film and its stars – Jenny Slate finally gets the chance to express her vulgar comedic genius balanced with her emotional fragility which is a beautiful pleasure to watch.  The supporting cast is rounded out nicely with Gaby Hoffmann as her best friend and Jack Lacy as her love interest / baby-daddy Max.  Jack Lacy as Max is charming, endearing and the perfect gentlemanly romantic foil for Jenny Slate’s foul-mouthed hilarious Donna.  Also, he is the American Nicholas Hoult – the resemblance is uncanny.

Not far off from being the filmic version of HBO series Girls, Obvious Child speaks to a generation of women, putting tough subject matter such as abortion into the spotlight, and dramatizing it in well-rounded realistic terms.  Presenting the film as a comedy rather than a serious drama is a socio-political statement in itself, reinforced by Jenny Slate’s  realistic, comedic, dramatic and overall excellent performance.

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Reservoir Dogs (22 year’s on!)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and Tim Roth

by Ruth Thomson

Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature, a now legendary ultra-violent crime thriller about a jewellery heist gone wrong, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 1992. It was shown this year as part of Sundance London’s ‘From the Collection’ series – a number of modern classics premiered at the festival over its 36 year history. Nattily dressed Sundance Director John Cooper introduced the screening with some of his own memories of working with the fledgling director over two decades ago, and conjured up the manic nervous energy of the then 29 year old – all hands flailing and food flying as he convinced those in charge to screen his movie.

As a thirteen year old in 1992 I didn’t see Reservoir Dogs on the big screen – in fact over the years I have to confess to never having seen it at all!! Until now… It’s almost impossible to judge it afresh on its own terms, separate from its posthumous reputation and from what Quentin has done since. But I’ll give it a go. The performances are largely flawless (apart from QT’s own – he’s a terrible actor) with Harvey Keitel (Mr White), Michael Madsen (Mr Blonde), and Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie) in particular conveying the full range of the humanity (or extreme lack of it) of this gang of colourfully named criminals. Tim Roth’s (Mr Orange) accent leaves a little to be desired but the stand out performance is Steve Buscemi as the extremely overwrought and questionably named Mr Pink. Interestingly, John Cooper mentioned the fact that Buscemi hadn’t been officially cast and was just put in place by Sundance Labs at an early workshop of scenes.

The structure – starting with the chaos and working backwards in flashbacks is excellent and the writing (QT’s greatest strength) is immaculate: one of the highlights is the opening conversation in a restaurant where Mr Pink reveals that he routinely ‘doesn’t tip’. The uber violence feels less shocking than you’d imagine with twenty years of hindsight – in fact if it wasn’t so sick (you know the scene I mean) it would be straying towards comical – that ear looked distinctly plastic to me.

Watching anything with twenty years of hype to live up to is a tough one and whilst it didn’t 100% blow me away (though given half the chance I’m sure Mr Blonde would) there’s no denying the impact of Reservoir Dogs and its place in cinematic, and Sundance history.

Shorts Programme

Sundance Festival has a strong shorts programme where directors can showcase their short film work.  This year saw the likes of actress Rose McGowan making her directorial debut with the short film Dawn.

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We interviewed Dawn director Rose McGowan.

The One I Love
Directed by Charlie McDowell
Starring Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson

The One I Love is a surreal comedy thriller about a couple seeking therapy for their marital troubles.  Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are trying to reignite their love for each other with the help of their therapist played by the ever-brilliant Ted Danson.  They go on a doctor-prescribed weekend retreat where some of the magic starts to return, but then something very strange occurs.

Citing Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as influences, Charlie McDowell has made an incredible directorial debut with The One I Love.  It’s confident, bold, quirky, interesting, and showcases outstanding performances by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss.  I almost can’t believe they’re not a couple in real life.

Much of the joy of watching this story unravel comes from not knowing the central plot before it unfolds.  McDowell will have quite a task on his hands figuring out an intriguing marketing campaign without revealing too much detail of the plot.  The key theme of this film is couplehood and how we are 20% better versions of ourselves when we first meet that special someone.  Over time, we no longer are trying to impress and some of that initial magic depletes.  TOIL also explores how when in relationships, we often try to relive the past rather than create our futures.

The One I Love finds the perfect balance between comedy, drama and surrealism.  Duplass and Moss are equally skilled in both the comedic and dramatic, and display their talents as the key central cast in this film.  As a first time filmmaker, Charlie McDowell tips his hat to Spike Jonze, and places himself on the map as a director with talent and something unique to say for himself.

They Came Together

Directed by David Wain
Starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Ed Helms, Bill Hader, Cobie Smulders and many funny cameos

Paul Rudd is the Tom Hanks and Amy Poehler is the Meg Ryan in what is the ultimate RomCom film of all time.  Imagine if Mel Brooks wrote When Harry Met Sally, or if The Naked Gun hijacked any pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey film.  Now you can imagine They Came Together.

David Wain is no Mel Brooks, Paul Rudd is no Leslie Nielsen, but David Wain is David Wain and Paul Rudd is Paul Rudd in one of his best comedic performances to date.  Amy Poehler on the other hand IS Leslie Nielsen, or at least channeling his spirit.  While both lead actors are performing ingenius slapstick throughout the film, Poehler is a bit more overt in her physical comedy and deadpan reactions while playing out some of the most over-the-top on screen moments.

They Came Together is a  simple slapstick parody of the romantic film genre and all of its tropes.  You have the guy Joel (Paul Rudd), the girl Molly (Amy Poehler) and New York City as the third central character.  There is nothing deep, meaningful or complicated about this film, it is just outright silly and hilarious.  The first half of the film had me in physical tears of laughter, so much so that I could barely see what was going on.  The second half did wane a bit, but only because I had tired myself out from laughing so much in the first half.

There are excellent cameos from the American comedy scene including Jack McBrayer and Ken Marino as two of Joel’s basketball-playing friends – Swish!  Ken Marino practically steals this whole movie with one of his scenes.  Practically, but not absolutely because of one particular scene between Paul Rudd and a bartender.  David Wain was at Sundance London for the post-screening Q&A of this film and discussed a few alternate outcomes for this epic bar scene.  The end result which you see in the film was actually achieved during the editing process and tested on audiences before being kept in for as long as it plays out on screen.  To avoid spoiling too much of the joke, I won’t tell you about it.

This film is for fans of silly American slapstick comedy and the country’s most prominent comedic actors.  Perhaps it is tailored for more of an American audience than a British one, but anyone with a silly sense of humour should be able to appreciate this film with its hilarious moments, even if in the end the film itself does at times meld into what it is parodying.

The Trip to Italy
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon

The Trip to Italy is a sequel to 2010’s The Trip, which in turn is a sort-of sequel to 2006’s A Cock and Bull Story.  In the same vein as The Trip, The Trip to Italy is a 6-episode BBC television series edited into a film.  Comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite on screen playing exaggerated versions of themselves for the third time with Michael Winterbottom at the helm.  While they have fake families and romantic interests for the sake of the film, the main reality of their characters is their dynamic and brilliant comedic improvisational skills, as the majority of this film was conceived in the moment based on what conversations Brydon and Coogan were playing out.

The general concept is that Brydon is writing restaurant reviews for The Observer and has invited his friend/rival Steve Coogan to join him on this road trip to Italy.  They bicker, chat, have impersonation competitions, and generally continue to be hilarious throughout the entire trip.  This all occurs mostly over delicious-looking 3 course Italian meals with beautiful scenery in tow.

The conversational topics and improvisation throughout are genius.  They play up their characters / selves to heighten the tension between them and the hilarious situations they envision through their words.  You can sense the contention between them, and rightfully so as Brydon is a particularly grating character.  Subject matters go beyond mere celebrity impersonation competitions, to the artistic merit of Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill, and further exploration of the genuine rivalry that is clearly present in the relationship between Coogan and Brydon.  The directorial style could easily become a high-end travel programme, but manages to capture the chemistry between Coogan and Brydon as well as it does the food and scenery.

While this is technically a sequel, The Trip to Italy is also a standalone film and TV series.  It helps an audience if they are previously aware of the comedians as personalities, but beyond that, the film has mass appeal and is a work of improvisational comedic art.  Italian landscapes, food and improvisational comedy – it’s basically the perfect recipe.   I can’t wait to see where Coogan and Brydon holiday next.

The Voices

Directed by Marjane Satrapi
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Jacki Weaver and Anna Kendrick

Unfortunately I didn’t see this film at Sundance London.  But…

We interviewed The Voices Director Marjane Satrapi.

The Art of Film Music
Panel featuring Alex Heffes and Javier Navarrete
Moderated by Peter Golub

by Ruth Thomson

This panel discussion on the functions and processes of film music was chaired by Peter Golub, Director of the Sundance Film Music Program: the contributors were composers Alex Heffes (Last King of Scotland, Red Riding Hood, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth, Wrath of the Titans, The Sea, Byzantium).

It took a little while for the discussion to warm up but eventually we got into some interesting territory. Navarette observed that the majority of films you have to work on as a composer are less than inspiring, but every so often a great one comes along (Pan’s Labyrinth for instance) that makes up for it. Heffes discussed the reality of the director’s approach to music which is often the very last thing to be added after months/years of stressful and tortuous work – they ultimately need the music to breathe life into the film but are often intimidated by their inability to articulate what they want. One of the many composers in the audience asked about directors trying to use musical vocabulary to express what they’re looking for – Heffes insisted that it’s actually better for a director to talk to him like he’s an actor – so what he thinks the scene is about or how he wants the audience to feel at a certain moment. The misuse of a musical term can set the composer off on totally the wrong track.

Peter Golub (whose own approach is to initially write a ten minute suite to reflect the themes of the film which he then uses as source material) also brought up the subject of temp tracks – music the director adds as a guide to where cues are whilst editing etc. Although composers often find this distracting, Alex Heffes was more pragmatic, insisting that to him it just inspires him to write something far better.

With clips from State of Play, Last King of Scotland, Long Walk to Freedom, and Pan’s Labyrinth to illustrate, there was plenty of food for thought.  However, another panellist (potentially a more colourful character – all those taking part were a tad laconic) might have added a few more sparks and brought the event to life.

A Coupla Funny Davids: Wain & Cross
A Coupla Funny Davids
Panel featuring David Wain & David Cross

A highlight of the annual Sundance London programme is the panel discussions, notably the free ones.  This year has been a particular delight for comedy fans as comedians / filmmakers David Wain (They Came Together, Role Models) and David Cross (Hits, Arrested Development) appeared at the Brooklyn Bowl venue to discuss their careers and their artform.  They were under an extreme amount of pressure to entertain as the title of the event itself suggests that they must be funny during this set.  The Davids are seasoned pros and comedy quips came naturally and in abundance.  Not only were they on form comedically, but they were also very informative on how they approach comedy acting and filmmaking and how various aspects of their careers led them to where they are today.

David Cross discussed his career path from his days as a writer on The Ben Stiller Show, to how he and Bob Odenkirk teamed up for their HBO sketch show Mr. Show.  David and Bob were an unlikely duo of comedians who travelled in the same circles, but never truly liked each other.  One evening at a party they began riffing comedy ideas, and their partnership and television show was born.  For those who remember, another comedian, Jack Black, was also an occasional feature on Mr. Show.  David Cross discovered Jack Black and Tenacious D when he was looking for a band to fill segments for one of his standup sets.  He walked into a bar and found Tenacious D playing one of the only two songs they had written by that point in time.  Tenacious D stepped up to the plate and the rest is history.

Filmmaking is at the heart of Sundance, and to hear two comedy veterans discuss their stories and their art was an inspiration as well as guidance for the aspiring comedy filmmakers in the audience.  This is what the Sundance spirit is about.  And the fact that they come from the top circle of American comedians (Janine Garafelo, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bob Odenkirk, Ben Stiller, etc.) only made the name dropping and stories that much more enjoyable and relevant.  

Guts To Glory: Panel
Guts To Glory: How Do You Find Your Story?
Panel featuring Marjane Satrapi, Ryan Coogler, Lenny Abrahamson and Jon Ronson

Guts To Glory was an informal panel discussion about filmmaking and featured Sundance’s top three high profile directors Marjane Satrapi (The Voices), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), and Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) who was joined by his film’s screenwriter Jon Ronson.  Each filmmaker discussed their processes, inspirations, challenges and fears as filmmakers.  Anecdotes were informative, educational and often hilarious.  Marjane Satrapi was particularly entertaining to the point of even Ryan Coogler turning to her with a grin on his face to declare, “You’re awesome!”.

Marjane discussed that even as an atheist she would often find herself praying on a set of one of her films when her limits were being tested.  She sang praise for Ryan Reynolds and his black beady eyes and charming smile, describing his penchant for hilarious improv which made him the perfect choice for the role of Jerry in The Voices.  Marjane is nothing if not passionate, especially when discussing her love of making a film, with her first day on set being a joyous occasion, and her last day one of her worst moments as she does not want the process to end.  She is full of insight and entertainment.

Ryan Coogler is also a passionate filmmaker who discussed the daily stress he faced on the set of Fruitvale Station.  Even though he’s made one of the most critically acclaimed and successful films to come out of Sundance in the past two years, he admitted to freaking out every day on set, unsure of what he was making.  He also inspired the audience who were mostly comprised of filmmakers, by saying that his time at the Sundance Labs taught him one very important thing – nobody knows what they’re doing.  He was working alongside professionals with twenty years experience who were still needing reassurance and guidance.  Filmmakers belong to a community and they must help each other with their art.

Another key lesson learned was brought up by Marjane, but heavily agreed upon by Lenny Abrahamson.  You must never be afraid to drop your shit.  You can plan all you like as a director, but things will inevitably go wrong, or inspiration may strike in the moment.  It is better to be a spectator than director when filming, letting the movie breathe on its own without forcing shots or narrative.

The panel was encouraging and inspiring to young filmmakers.  So much so that perhaps I’ll even try my hand at filmmaking using their advice as guidance!  You never know what may happen!

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