Over the past two decades, the Sundance Film Festival has developed into two distinct events. The festival, as started by Robert Redford, has actually changed very little over the last 20 years. Despite the new programmes and categories, and the increasing number of submissions - 1,852 US features this year - the festival's focus on new documentary and feature film-makers stays true. As festival director Geoffrey Gilmore affirms: "From the start, the festival has been a platform for discovery, a platform for freshness and innovation in the independent world."
What has changed is the media and industry interpretation of the festival. Early reports of a small mountain enclave of like-minded independent film-makers have, over the last two decades, given way to visions of a 10-day orgy of hot-tub parties, Gucci parkas and Paris Hilton sightings.
For Sony Pictures Classics' co-president Michael Barker, "Sundance is really misleading. The films that everyone is talking about and going after are not necessarily the films made by the film-makers that are going to do something." While last year's festival excitement around Little Miss Sunshine proved well deserved, Gilmore points out that "it is easy to look back. At the time it was anticipated that a film like Thank You For Smoking could have done much bigger business than Little Miss Sunshine."
Nevertheless Sundance still remains an important barometer of tomorrow's film-makers and trends. Films such as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fictionand Christopher Nolan's Memento proved that audiences can enjoy experimental narratives. Other film-makers spearheaded niche marketing, with films telling African-American, Latino and gay/lesbian stories. This year, film-makers broaden concepts of national and US cinema. Films such as the Mexican-American thriller Padre Nuestro or the Korean-American melodrama Never Forever are part of what Gilmore sees as "a new global independence", films that speak to many cultures at once.
While Sundance has always championed new directors, the situation has changed for actors. Craig Chester, who first attended the festival as the lead in Tom Kalin's Swoon in 1992 - and returns this year as the screenwriter of Save Me - remembers the camaraderie of the early years. "I was part of this creative community," recounts Chester. "There were very few recognisable names. Liev (Schreiber), Parker (Posey) and Illeana (Douglas) got to play those roles because no-one else wanted them. A 25-year-old friend tells me that now you have to get a TV resume before you get into indie film."
For casting director Kerry Barden, the phenomena of new film-makers working with name stars is a symptom of the marketplace. This year, 60 of the 123 feature film-makers are first or second-timers, but few films cast unknowns in lead roles. As Barden says: "So many of these films are financed by having names attached. So it's difficult to have unknown talent." A new twist this year, however, is the appearance of foreign talent in US independent films - such as France's Melvil Poupaud in Broken English and Korea's Ha Jung-woo in Never Forever. Others, such as Korean-American David McInnis (one of our Sundance Stars of Tomorrow), established himself in Korea before being discovered in the US.
In the end, festival veterans remind new film-makers that the festival was initiated to cultivate a film-maker community. When pushed by a new director how to navigate the festival, publicist Jeremy Walker returns to basics: "I tell them to relish that they are officially part of a film-maker community, whether they are discovered or not."
To celebrate that community, Screen presents the second annual Sundance Stars of Tomorrow. After canvassing a range of players - from programmers to publicists to distributors - and screening a number of films, we created a list of some of the most interesting new film talent at Sundance. While all of the festival's programmes were considered, most film-makers came from the Dramatic Competition. The nine directors and three actors that made the list boast a range of experience and styles - but all deserve to be seen.
ADAM BHALA LOUGH - Director, Weapons, Dramatic Competition
In Weapons, Adam Bhala Lough mixes his multiple influences - Eastern philosophies, Hong Kong cinema, hip hop and youth culture - into a frightening vision of violence in the US. For his producer and financier Dan Keston: "This movie manages to be festival friendly and MTV-audience friendly at the same time; a feat I've never seen in a script other than Weapons."
In 2001, Lough made the stylised short Jes One, a free-form updating of Ambrose Bierce's classic story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge with the fight between graffiti artists and the police in New York replacing the story's American Civil War setting. He later adapted this short into a feature, Bomb The System, a high-energy production that was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.
Moving to Los Angeles, Lough had the idea for Weapons in 2003 after waking from a nightmare. "I had a dream about this scene, woke up and wrote it down exactly as I had dreamt it," he says. The film, which attempts to trace the roots of a particular violent weekend, weaves together various ideas to look at "how cruel teenagers can be to each other", says Lough. He also pulled together a unique cast that mixes indie regulars such as Paul Dano and Mark Webber, with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Weapons is being repped by Shaun Redick from The Collective.
Contact: Christina Bazdekis, CAA New York, (212) 277 9000
EBON MOSS-BACHRACH - Actor, High Falls, Shorts Programme
In Andrew Zuckerman's short High Falls, Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays Jack, the best friend to a married couple (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal) who each tell him a secret they do not want the other to know.
Moss-Bachrach was a sophomore at Columbia University when he tried out for a production of The Tempest. He insists he was "terrible", but he befriended Prospera (a young Gyllenhaal). This theatrical foray pushed him to keep acting throughout college and beyond. While a senior in 1998, he was cast in Gene Wilder's TV movie Murder In A Small Town. That summer shooting in Toronto, he met another up-and-coming actor, Sarsgaard, and the two quickly became best friends.
Since then Moss-Bachrach has slowly built a resume. While he has worked with film-makers as different as Rob Cohen, Wes Anderson and Alejandro Agresti, he landed his role in High Falls through director Andrew Zuckerman.
"Ebon is very intense," explains High Falls producer Alex Vlack. "He's also very funny. A lot of his smaller roles just haven't provided an opportunity to express the depth of character that he's capable of." With his performance in High Falls, and with four features coming out in 2007, Moss-Bachrach may well become as big a name as his two friends and co-stars.
Contact: Sally Ware, The Gersh Agency, (1) 212 997 1818
PATRICIA RIGGEN - Director, The Same Moon (La Misma Luna), Spectrum
The Mexican-American border that runs through The Same Moon also runs through the career of its director, Patricia Riggen. In the film, a young boy must cross the border to find his mother; Riggen had to cross the border to become a director.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Riggen had few opportunities to study film, and even fewer role models. She admits: "I had no idea I wanted to be a director myself. It took me several years and many different jobs to find out."
Hired by Guillermo del Toro's producer Bertha Navarro to develop a documentary series in Mexico City, she discovered a knack for producing other people's work. In 1996, Riggen became the executive producer in charge of short films for the Mexican Film Institute. But by then she was determined to direct, and in 1997 enrolled on a Columbia University Masters programme. Five years later, her thesis film The Cornfield (La Milpa) made clear she was a director. Travelling to more than 40 festivals, it won 21 awards (including the first Student Academy Award for a Mexican director), and was bought by HBO.
For her next project, she revisited an exercise she had started in her first year, a video portrait of a friend who had been the subject of a 1968 photo essay by Gordon Parks. With a new soundtrack and a new edit, Family Portrait won the Grand Jury Prize for a short documentary at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
The film also led her to screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos, with whom she teamed up to bring an element of magical realism to The Same Moon. While Riggen had amply demonstrated her directorial prowess, her producing stints proved invaluable in raising money for this low-budget road movie shot in California and Mexico. And having crossed many borders herself, Riggen brings a keen sense of cultural empathy to this moving story. The Same Moon is repped by Cinetic Media's John Sloss.
Contact: Brian Dreyfuss, Featured Artists Agency, (1) 310 286 3200, firstname.lastname@example.org
JASON KOHN - Director, Send A Bullet (Manda Bala), Documentary Competition
Jason Kohn describes eclectic documentary Send A Bullet as "non-fiction sci-fi". The label sums up the riotous combination of Brazilian characters, events and locations stitched together in this novel documentary.
For Kohn, the film looks at "how the poor steal from the rich, and then the rich steal from the poor". In following the money, Kohn manages to connect a corrupt politician who launders money through a frog farm, a plastic surgeon famous for re-attaching the severed ears of kidnap victims, the need for bullet-proof cars and helicopters, and the changing ecology of crime in Brazil.
While nothing in the film is technically a re-enactment, Kohn staged his scenes - a class on defensive driving, the reattachment of an ear - in the language of Hollywood action movies: clean, fast-paced and shot from all angles.
The creative inspiration for Kohn's work is Errol Morris, whose work he discovered while studying history at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. Determined to work with his hero whom he discovered was headquartered in nearby Cambridge, Kohn secured a summer internship with Morris' sometime producers Scout Productions. After working on several productions, including James Toback's Harvard Man and Brad Anderson's Session 9, Kohn then moved over as a researcher in Morris' office.
Kohn started shooting Send A Bullet with financing from friends and family, slowly accumulating additional backers with footage sent back from Brazil. In 2003, the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund stepped up with more money. After four-and-half years, Kohn finally reached the end of Send A Bullet. Morris, while not officially attached to the film, has followed the project from the start. For Morris: "The odd juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated themes ... comes magically together in the end. It's an unexpected portrait of a society and of ourselves." Cinetic's John Sloss is repping the film.
Contact: Jared Ian Goldman, email@example.com
DAVID MCINNIS - Actor, Never Forever, Dramatic Competition
In Gina Kim's melodrama Never Forever, David McInnis plays successful Korean-American Andrew, whose life is being split apart by the realities of his marriage to a white woman (played by Vera Farmiga) and the traditional expectations of his Korean family. For McInnis, this cultural split is both a lived reality and career trajectory. While director Kim cast McInnis from his work in Korean action films and commercials, the actor began his life in Antigio, Wisconsin. Born to a Korean mother and German-Irish father, McInnis spent his childhood flying back and forth between Wisconsin and Hawaii, where, as he remembers, "in one town there were no Asians, and in the other no whites".
McInnis came to New York in 1997 hoping to make it on Wall Street. Instead he was offered a part in John H Lee's 1998 indie crime thriller The Cut Runs Deep. When the feature was picked up for Korean distribution, McInnis found himself in demand halfway around the world. He moved to Seoul to work in commercials, television shows and small films, even as he was learning the language and studying martial arts. After he was cast in Korean blockbuster Typhoon, McInnis looked to find work in the US.
Kim, who had seen McInnis' Korean TV ads, knew he was her Andrew when she met him. "David is full of surprises and contradiction," says Kim. "He's shy and modest, but very playful and is willing to take chances." While his Korean persona was that of a hunky action hero, Kim believes that, based on his performance in Never Forever, he can do much more. "He had to execute this psychologically dense character with precision," says Kim. "He did a superb job."
Contact: John Crosby Management, (1) 323 874 2400, firstname.lastname@example.org
HOW TO SUNDANCE - RICHARD GLATZER AND WASH WESTMORELAND
Directors of Quinceanera, winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance last year
- What was your first experience of Sundance'
Richard's a Sundance vet. He was there in '94 with Grief when it was still wild and woolly. That was the year Kevin Smith and David O Russell were discovered. No-one paid any attention to Richard's film and he went home pissed off.
Wash's first time was in 2004. He saw lots of films, went to lots of parties. Sundance is actually a great place for a film-maker to go when you haven't got a film.
- Last year Quinceanera won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. How was the festival before winning' And after'
At the head of the festival, no-one was talking about our movie. We weren't in any of the 'what's hot' articles. Most of the attention was focused on the films with established Hollywood/indie stars. It wasn't until the first screening, which came quite late, that the buzz started. After that, various waitresses and taxi drivers told us they had heard people talking about our movie and it was going to win. We thought this was just a way of getting a good tip.
- You didn't get distribution until some time after the festival. How did that shade your view of the festival'
We won our awards the very last hour of Sundance so there wasn't a line of people waving contracts at us as we climbed off the podium. Two weeks later, however, we did start to wonder, "Why is no-one phoning' Is indie film dead'" What it made us realise is that although Sundance can shine a bright light on an indie, the film's fate is still dependent on the weather patterns in the marketplace. John Sloss, who is the best-known indie sales rep in the US, said the Quinceanera experience made him want to give up the business. He couldn't believe it. Luckily, Sony Pictures Classics came through and gave us a good home, but for a while there, we were left hanging.
- What advice would you give first time film-makers at Sundance'
Take thermal undies. Talk to other film-makers, because even though they're your rivals you may find some really good friends. And have a good time. This is a rare 10 days when indie film is king, so enjoy your time in the sun.
- How should they handle the media and industry attention' Or more importantly, what should they do if there is no media or industry attention'
We got hardly any media attention, so don't worry. Don't chase the media; they prefer to chase you. Films have different trajectories. You never know when, or if, you'll have your moment. But as far as distributors go, if you can twist an arm to get someone into your screening, do so.
- What would you have done differently at Sundance'
An alarming number of distributors had seen our movie on pirate DVDs prior to the festival. This was really annoying and it hampered our sales campaign. We thought we'd kept DVDs under wraps, but somehow they leaked out. Be extra vigilant.
GEORGE RATLIFF - Director, Joshua, Dramatic Competition
George Ratliff's chilling drama Joshua deals with a precocious little boy whose parents are forced to deal with their son's budding aptitude for evil. While this dramatic thriller is a change from Ratliff's previous documentary work, it nevertheless reaffirms his talent for finding creepiness in familiar places.
After growing up in Amarillo, Texas, Ratliff studied film and English at the University of Texas, Austin. He returned home in 1985 to make his Errol Morris-influenced documentary Plutonium Circus about a nuclear weapons plant located close to his childhood home. A few years later, Ratliff's documentary Hell House brought him national attention and critical acclaim for his straight-faced portrait of a Dallas church, which created scenes of abortion and Aids for its Halloween horror show.
His next project, an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel End Zone never took off. "I pursued it for years, had a script that DeLillo really liked, but I think that people thought it was too big for someone who'd made documentaries."
David Gilbert, his co-writer for End Zone, came up with the idea for Joshua. At the time, however, Ratliff admits, "I was not that into doing an evil kid movie since I was a new dad. So I kept upping the age until I felt comfortable." Excited by the wave of French noir films such as Harry, He's Here To Help and Read My Lips, and auteur horror such as Rosemary's Baby and The Shining, Ratliff felt he could do something new. He jokes that his film is not horror, but more like "Fatal Attraction for parents".
When Jonathan Dorfman from ATO Pictures stepped up with financing in 2004, they went into pre-production in four months. Ratliff cast Sam Rockwell - his first choice - and Vera Farmiga as the parents and found Jacob Kogan, his scarily precocious title character, through a friend at the cult MTV2 show Wonder Showzen. The low-budget feature shot for five weeks in Manhattan, and is being repped by UTA's Rich Klubeck at Sundance.
Contact: Julianne Hausler, New York Office, (1) 212 545 7895
JJ LASK - Director, On The Road With Judas, Dramatic Competition
For his debut feature On The Road With Judas, JJ Lask took an innovative approach to adapting his own novel. Rather than transpose the plot from one medium to the other, he deconstructed the book, with actors playing actors explaining the story of a man who cheats his way to the top by stealing computers. The film's ingenious hybrid of documentary and live action seems appropriate for Lask, who has consistently done things his own way.
Starting as a messenger in 1993 at post-house Crew Cuts, by 1999 he was a senior editor on big budget commercials at Go Robot. He eventually founded post-house PS 260 in 2002.
While Lask toiled the day away in a dark editing suite, he would come home to write. His career frustrations found their way into his novel On The Road With Judas. Lask explains: "While I worked late nights and weekends to succeed, my main character lies, cheats and steals to get there."
Determined to turn his book into a film, Lask struggled to pen a screenplay until he came up with the inspired idea not to write a screenplay at all. He remembered an ATT commercial he cut for Errol Morris. "We interviewed actual scientists," explains Lask, "and edited those interviews with scientists in their natural setting. This was a good model for what I wanted to do."
In 2005, he cast his movie, shot interviews with the actors, and then spent six months editing those interviews together before calling back the cast to shoot live-action sequences. It was a high-wire act that producer Amy Slotnick believed from the start that Lask could pull off: "He showed the confidence, an inventive point of view and the openness needed to inspire the actors and crew to execute his unique vision," she says. The film is being handled by Cinetic's John Sloss.
Contact: Amy Slotnick, email@example.com
JAMES STROUSE - Director, Grace Is Gone, Dramatic Competition
If Alexander Payne has Nebraska, then writer-director James Strouse has Indiana, or more generally the Midwest. His directorial debut, Grace Is Gone, a road film in which John Cusack takes his daughters on a trip to put off telling them their mother has been killed while on active duty in Iraq, takes place in Minnesota. But in Strouse's back story they come from Indiana, just like himself.
"I grew up in Goshen, Indiana, and the Midwest is a big part of my writing and aesthetic," explains Strouse. After studying literature at Goshen College, he took up writing, publishing his first short story in 2000.
In 2004, he wrote the screenplay Lonesome Jim which found its ways into the hands of Steve Buscemi, who signed on to direct. Moving from short story to screenplay, Strouse set his sights on directing. "As great as my experience on Lonesome Jim was, film is a director's medium, so that seemed like the natural next step for me."
Strouse read everything he could on directing, talked to everyone he knew, watched lots of DVD commentaries and relived being on the Lonesome Jim set. "Working with Steve was my film school," Strouse admits.
While Strouse was honing his directorial acumen, his writing attracted Cusack for the lead role in this sympathetic portrait of a family in crisis. While spotlighting the tragedy of the Iraq war, the story keeps its focus on the plight of this one Midwestern family, one that adamantly supported the war.
Strouse was assisted by his wife, Galt Niederhoffer, a partner in New York's Plum Pictures, which produced both Lonesome Jim and Grace Is Gone. At Sundance, the film is being repped by Cinetic.
Contact: Mike Eisner / Sara Bottfeld, William Morris, firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
ANDREW WAGNER - Director, Starting Out In The Evening, Dramatic Competition
In Andrew Wagner's drama Starting Out In The Evening, Frank Langella plays a 70-something writer whose complacency is disrupted by a young graduate student. What drew Wagner to adapting Brian Morton's novel for the screen was it "being about struggle and the sacrifices one makes to create". This is a theme that Wagner, who struggled in Los Angeles for nearly two decades before making his first feature The Talent Given Us in 2003, knows all too well.
After graduating in 1985, Wagner moved back home to New York to attend film school at NYU. But he left in the second year when his uncle, director Mark Rydell (The Rose, On Golden Pond), coaxed him out to Los Angeles to write a feature for United Artists.
Wagner, however, soon discovered that his uncle and he "had a different sense of what the script should be. I was more interested in the ordinary and everyday, and how drama comes from that." After the film stalled, Wagner decided, "I had much more to learn about the language of film." He enrolled in the American Film Institute in 1989, graduating in 1992 with an award-winning short, The Last Days Of Hope And Time.
For the next 12 years, Wagner struggled to launch his projects before turning to his family for help. His micro-budget The Talent Given Us, a road movie that starred his actual family, showed at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Award at CineVegas.
In 2004, Indigent's Gary Winick approached Wagner about doing a project, and Wagner turned to his friend Fred Parnes, who held the rights to Brian Morton's novel Starting Out In The Evening, and introduced him to the writer's output. The two worked together for the next two years. For producer Nancy Israel: "Andrew was relentless in his quest to intensify the drama and sharpen the thematic core of the story. When the film finally shot, Wagner was able to bring to the story and the characters a complete mastery of the film's theme." Cinetic's John Sloss is repping the film.
Contact: David Lubliner, William Morris, DLubliner@wma.com, (310) 859 4465
HOW TO SUNDANCE - GREGG ARAKI
Writer-director Gregg Araki has been a Sundance regular since he made a splash with his road film The Living End in 1992. This year he's back with pot-fuelled comedy adventure Smiley Face.
- Your first time in Sundance was in 1992 with The Living End. What was it was like showing your film'
I was pretty blown away by the frenzy of it and the media chaos. It was intense and exciting - and it only gets bigger and crazier every year.
- How often have you been to Sundance'
I think Smiley Face (screening in the Midnight section) will be my seventh film in the festival and I'm more amped this year than I've ever been. I can't wait to screen Smiley, and definitely am not feeling jaded and, 'Been there, done that.' I'm as thrilled as a first-timer with his debut feature in the competition. It's definitely a departure for me, a total 180 from the seriousness of Mysterious Skin (which appeared at Sundance 2005).
- What advice would you give to debut film-makers at Sundance'
Try to take a breath and enjoy the experience as much as you can. It's so easy to OD and get sucked into this insane vortex of press and industry. Take some time to have a beer with your buds and chill out.
- What do you say to directors who feel their entire career is resting on how well they do at Sundance'
Sundance is one of the most important festivals in the entire world but ultimately, it's not about the hype and frenzy and craziness. It's really about the movies themselves and how they move you and your own private experience with them. It's important to try to keep that in perspective in the eye of the storm.
CHRISTOPHER ZALLA - Writer/director, Padre Nuestro, Dramatic Competition
On paper, Christopher Zalla's Padre Nuestro - about an undocumented Mexican worker and an identity scam - could read like a well-meaning social-issue drama. But the film, with its double plots and ever-changing characters, turns out to be something darker, deeper and far more entertaining. For producer Benjamin Odell: "The social realism is the meat, but the bones of the film are pure thriller. Chris created this incredibly suspenseful tale that was simultaneously intelligent and moving."
A former assistant to producer Cary Woods, Zalla says he "read more than 2,000 scripts, which helped me understand the craft but I wasn't learning how to make a film". So in 2000, he started the MFA programme at Columbia University. After graduating, he attracted Brad Pitt's Plan B to an adaptation of cocaine memoir Marching Powder.
Since 2001, however, he has been developing Padre Nuestro. Rewriting the script and revising his production plan, Zalla attracted Ben Odell to produce. With a series of high-participant private-equity investors in place, the mostly Spanish-language film shot for 38 days on Super 35 during the spring of 2006.
The film is being repped by Andrew Hurwitz (of Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz and Weinstein) and Rich Klubeck at UTA.
Contact: Eryn Brown, Industry Entertainment, firstname.lastname@example.org
JESS WEIXLER - Actress, Teeth, Dramatic Competition
The character of Dawn in Mitchell Lichtenstein's Teeth gave newcomer Jess Weixler a role with bite.
As a young woman awakening to her own sexuality, she also discovers she has 'vagina dentata'. When she is threatened sexually, the teeth are bared - as is her talent.
For many, such a role could easily slide into horror or comedy. But Lichtenstein credits Weixler's "pure heart" as the reason she won the role. To ground the myth, he describes how "both Jess and I were very careful to keep Dawn's extraordinary journey based in emotional reality". For Jess, "she is not a monster. She's just learned to protect herself."
Weixler moved to New York City to study drama at Juilliard. "Originally I thought of myself as the ingenue," Weixler says. "Juilliard helped me discover there are many more characters, more complex ones, that are still me."
After school, Weixler remained in New York, working in regional theatre, television (including NBC's Criminal Intent and CBS's Hack) and independent films. But her role in Teeth will prove a powerful breakout.
Contact: Rhonda Price, The Gersh Agency, (1) 212 634 8139
CRAIG ZOBEL - Director, The Great World Of Sound, Spectrum
In 2004, Craig Zobel had reached a fork in the road - either cement his career in production by becoming a first assistant director, or make a film. The result of his decision, The Great World Of Sound, an inventive, soulful caper about a talent-search scam, has its world premiere at Sundance.
At college in North Carolina, Zobel befriended a cadre of like-minded film students - including David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, Danny McBride (The Foot Fist Way) - and with his high-school friends Mike and Matt Chapman he created the website Homestar Runner (www.homestarrunner.com), a quirky flash cartoon channel.
After graduating in 1999, Zobel worked with Green on several features including All The Real Girls and Undertow), as well as continuing to work on Homestar Runner.
In 2003, Zobel moved to New York, continuing to work on a range of production jobs for commercials and independent film, but by 2004 he turned to The Great World Of Sound. The original idea came from his father, who as a young man was involved in a scam in which he travelled to small towns as a talent scout, convincing young hopefuls to lay out cash for bogus demo records.
Zobel (with writing partner George Smith) updated the story - partially for aesthetic reasons, partially because his production experience had taught him the cost of period pieces - and then moved south to start production.
Borrowing from the Maysles brothers' Salesman and modern reality TV, Zobel used documentary methods to capture the painful lure of fame to unknown hopefuls. To finance the film, he turned to family and friends, and later secured private equity to finish the production.
William Morris' Cassian Elwes is repping the film.
Contact: Phyllis Kaufman, Fish & Richardson, (1) 212 641 2264, email@example.com.