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So, You Wanna Be A Movie Star?
or
What Happened to Britney Spears?

Sundance 2003


Is that Maggie Gyllenhall?
(No it's Cindy)
It's our last night in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival. My cinematic cohort Jon and I have waded our way through fifteen films in eight days. Looking back it doesn't feel like all that many, but when you're in the middle of it, fifteen is an impossible number. If I didn't hang on to my movie stubs I probably wouldn't be able to remember them all. We are joined by Taylor and Cindy a pair of precocious tricksters who have acted as our tour-guides and partners-in-crime. We have done it all; impersonated celebrities, tried to sneak into gala parties, seen world premier movies, overheard the most inane LA chatter, eaten at all the best restaurants, everything there is to do at a film festival. We've even gone sledding down a giant hill on inner tubes. We are having the time of our lives.

When I arrived in Utah, a week before, I already knew what this festival was all about. Parties and networking. Sundance is one those huge steps in a film career which, if handled properly, can catapult you into Hollywood stardom and the parties are where that happens.

The only reason to see the movies is in case you meet the director or one of the stars, so you can sound genuine in your praise. Sounding genuine - that's the real trick of it. 'Great fucking movie!' Doesn't quite work, 'That was the best use of the digital camera, I really like the atmosphere you created with it.' Much, much better. And I was here to uncover all of that. To worm my way into the thick of it all, and emerge with a gem of a story that reveals the slick greasy wheels that run independent film today.

That's what I had planned going into the whole thing. Then there was the first lesson I learned: Everybody is famous. Everyone at Sundance has something to do with at least one of the films there. Everyone has written, produced, directed, or starred in something. Walk down Main Street of Park City and everyone has a pass, a giant laminated thing about the size of a headshot with their name, and their picture and their film. These things are color coded too, like the uniforms from old star trek episodes so you can figure out at a glance who belongs where. Director, producers, actors, everyone-- they all have passes. One can even pay a thousand dollars and get a pass of their own; sure, it will get you into any movie you want to see, but more importantly, it gives you a pass, it makes you automatically famous.

While waiting for the first screening to start I was sitting next to some jackass pretending he was in a gunfight with the idiot next to him. He stops shooting long enough to ask me if I always take notes of the movies I see. He asks it as if to say 'don't you know this is a segregated festival? Critics aren't allowed into the screening rooms with the filmmakers.' As though I'm dark spot on his shiny world.


Cindy and Carter trying
hard to look drunk

And that's when I learn my second lesson of the festival: Everyone is more charming than I am, and you have only thirty seconds to make your impression. I am way out of my league here. I'm supposed to have a little speech planned if I'm to pass for an actual journalist; I should have a business card all ready for him. It would be best if I had them stashed up my sleeve in a secret compartment, I figure. Like a magician I'd simply have to flick my wrist and there would be my own small cardboard advertisement "BC EDWARDS!" It would say, "FREE WILLIAMSBURG!" Free it from what? He'd ask. From the tyranny of Greenpoint, I'd cleverly respond, as a subtle test to see which coast he was from, New York or L.A. I look up at the jackass and, instead of anything clever, I say, "Usually I do take notes. That's generally what I'm supposed to do." Usually? Generally? I had no idea I talked like such a wussie. The jackass returns to the idiot and they start talking about how good the cinematography is in the movie they are representing. "You did a really good job." The idiot says to the jackass.

Everybody's famous. Everybody's someone.

Cindy and Taylor are staying in a house up on the hills surrounding the town. From their vantage point Park City looks a lot like Alec Baldwin's model town in Beetlejuice - a little too quaint to be real. Picture perfect houses all built off of nineteenth century models, painted in a montage of yellows and whites and blues. A tiny main street running through the town dotted with over-priced boutiques and restaurants. And then as you move up the hills on one side there are dozens of houses each obviously priced in the millions of dollars, and on the other side of the valley are webs of ski runs and chair-lifts all grounded by huge hotels and resorts. It is the perfect environment for what is transpiring. These independent, low budget films, surrounded by a glitz whose magnitude boggles the mind.

The crowds are frightening. Someone interviews Ron Livingston on a corner; the crowd sees the camera and starts to converge. More and more come until there's enough people to stop traffic. They flock to the celebrities; it's chaos theory at work-the larger the crowd, the more people want to see what's going on, the more they flock. It happens to J-Lo and Ben Affleck as they shop in a boutique, a crowd of screaming twelve-year-olds bangs against the glass screaming their names, around them a slightly more demure twenty something crowd leans in, trying to see what they're buying. The cars don't even honk their horns as the drivers peer out trying to see what's going on. Brittney Spears is even supposed to be somewhere in the town. What the fuck is Britney doing at Sundance? Somehow I feel actually offended by that fact. If I run into one celebrity while I'm in town, I hope it is Britney; just so I can laugh at the absurdity of her presence.


Dressed like this, no
one will notice you
stalking them

The celebrities are everywhere, but even more abound are the fresh faced kids. The ones who are waiting for their big break; you can pick them out of the crowd as easily as if their passes were specially colored. Excitement is stewed with fear and bewilderment. They glance around them at every face that passes by, hoping for some recognition. Praying for the adulation they know will make it all worthwhile. They have arrived at this strange crossroad of their careers. This is their chance to make it big, to quit waiting tables at Madison Square Garden and land gigs that are worth a damn. And at this point there is nothing they can do about any of it. Their fate is now determined by how well the director and producer can woo the backers into buying their film. And then by how well these backers promote their movie; and then by how well the audience likes them. It's nothing but perilous uncertainty and utter powerlessness from here on out. Good luck, kids.

Some of them handle the stress better than others. Jon and I are having lunch at a quietly over-priced bistro on main street with Alexis Pouledoras and her mother, who are both in Utah to root on Alexis' sister, Zoë and her film White of Winter, for which she composed the music and also stars. Zoë briefly joins us; she is loving the attention. Her film has premiered the day before and she is being swept up in the hurricane of photo shoots and interviews. People are stopping her on the street, she says, eyes gleaming, "They're shaking my hand," she says as though it's a brand new experience for her. She sits at our table for about five minutes talking about nothing with her family while her manager and her husband, Angel (yes, that is his real name) stand around flitting between Zoë and their watches; she is late for a hair appointment.

Alexis and Zoë and Bobby are all destined for the Project Greenlight Party later than evening. I am desperate to get into one of these parties. The parties, after all, are where Sundance happens. Jon and I have missed the White of Winter party, arriving in town a day too late but Bobby tells us all about it. "Everyone just stands around handing out business cards, and shaking hands. It's kind of creepy." It's exactly as I imagined, I think, hordes of suits milling slowly in a trendy ski-resort bar flicking cards out with one hand while they pocket them with the other. Every word in the air is plastic laced with superlatives. But these parties are invite only; the underbelly of independent film is only for selected eyes and the festival has neglected to issue me a press pass. I figure they're scared of what I might discover.


All you need is a pass
and everyone will love you

I'm trying to lay witness to the present state of independent film. It feels like with each passing year there is less and less of a distinguishing barrier between the mainstream and the independent, the two are becoming halves of a larger whole. The mainstream is becoming more artistic, while the indie is gearing itself up to become a moneymaking venture. We might be headed for a golden age of movies where films are made to both entertain and enlighten, or we might be in a downward spiral of overindulgence and megalomania. And these are the most pivotal years in this transformation. The movies themselves don't give you a clear enough picture of this, and all I get from the Q and A sessions after the screenings is how much passion the writers and directors have for their subject. This should be enough, I know, but somehow, it's not. I know there is more to this world than passion and talent, and I'm dying to see it.

Possessing no other leads, our only hope left for a front seat of the underbelly is the Camp party. Camp is a touching, hilarious movie about a straight boy who goes to a summer theatre camp and teaches the fags and fruit-flies to live again. It's full of amazing musical numbers, some damn-funny writing, and Danny (or is it Daniel Now?), a kid I know who works with my boyfriend and happens to be starring in the film.

But I forget the first rule: everybody's famous. Everybody has a manager. Everyone's life is being run by their publicist. Danny arrives the day before his premiere and is pushed through photo shoot after photo shoot and hob-knobbing after hob-knobbing. For the four days he is at the festival the only moments he has to rest, he tells me, are when he's watching his movie. "Which is rough" He says, "so fucking rough." Not because the movie is bad at all, quite the opposite. It's rough because this kid has never seen himself act before. Seeing yourself on screen for the first time must be a nerve racking experience. The marvelous world of cinema, one which you've taken for granted your entire life, is suddenly solarized as you have to watch yourself trip through lines and be cut out of scenes. Danny heads back to New York before the screenings of Camp are over. I don't talk to him till he's back in the real world trying to recover from the shock of Sundance.

Needless to say, we don't make it to the Camp party. Seeing Sundance from the outside in feels like the lowest form of tourism. Tourists usually outnumber their attractions by the thousands-to-one. But at Sundance, where everybody's famous, I'm the only tourist I see, desperately trying to attract a thousand celebrities. During the Q and A after the screening of Camp there are two actors on stage with the director. These kids are in a similar state that Danny must have been, standing up there in a huge theatre a thousand people staring at you with a thousand passes hanging from their necks. They're embarrassed at the applause but at the same time they glow with excitement, virtually jumping up and down with joy. Neither of them can really believe where they are. This is their slice of fame, and with a little luck it's just the first piece. Camp will probably be picked up for a serious release, and every fag across the country will dream about either being them or doing them. Fame, it seems, is much harder to accomplish when you're a writer. And the more I hang around Park City, the more I realize that I'm in this game for the same thing as everyone else here.

I'm hoping that I'll bump into just the right person as I walk down the streets. That mystical millionaire who owns every paper and magazine in the country and is desperate for a film critic whom he can make rich and famous. These kids are looking for a way out of their lives through their films; I'm looking for a way out through the coverage of their films. I might not have a pass around my neck, but I realize that I'm glancing at every face I pass stupidly thinking someone might come up to me and say 'Oh my god! It's you! I love your work!' And the more days go by, the more I realize it ain't about to happen.

That was when I realized it was time for me to get my name out there. I have some of those free business cards from vistaprints.com, with my first name and a stupid joke on it. No number, no e-mail, nothing else. I write my info on the back and approach Tim Graff, the director of Camp, after he finishes the Q and A. I take his hand, explain who I am, why I'm here and give him the card.


Jon mistakes Carter
for a celebrity

There's a look in his eyes when I tell him I'm covering the festival, or worse that I'm a critic for a magazine out of Brooklyn. The jackass from the first night's screening is right; I really am a mensch treading on utopian soil. They don't want to know that there are people scrutinizing their work, not yet, they aren't ready for that. 'For God's sake,' his eyes tell me as he takes my hand, 'I'm just three days off the high of my world premiere, give me some fucking space.' And he's right. What the fuck am I doing here? Trying to plug a story with plastic promises that he'll be mentioned? What does he need me for? Maybe in a couple months he'll want to suck up to me, but for now I'm just another jackass in his way, buzzing compliments in his ear.

I'm not giving up, though, not yet. After screening an excellent selection of Shorts in Salt Lake City, one of the directors, Patricio Serna, bums a cigarette off of Jon and I. Patricio wrote, directed, and starred in Tromba D'oro, one of the shorts. He's a little frightened of me, at first, when he hears that I'm covering the festival - he only meant to ask us for a cigarette, he wasn't planning on an interview. We quell his nerves with the suggestion of beer. Unfortunately there are no such things as Bars in Utah, if you ask the shop keeps where you might find one, they look at you with condescension in their eyes; apparently Mormons don't like drinking. We scour the mammoth, empty streets of the city searching for a 'private club' where, if you pay a membership fee, you will be allowed to drink all of the %3.2 beer you want. Gradually, as the night progresses, Patricio's look of fear dissolves into an achingly cute blend of bliss and alcohol.

Much like Danny, Patricio still hasn't come to terms with the idea of being at Sundance. He says he isn't taking any of this very seriously, it's is all a little too weird. Besides, he's much more concerned with his next semester at Tish. Still, there's a glint in his eye, subtle but apparent, that hopes this is his big break.

Days later, as we leave Dot The I, one of the best films at the festival, Cindy and I notice Mathew Parkhill, the director who has just wowed us with both his movie and his wit as he answered our questions. He holds the door for his audience as they stream past him, a Brit decked out in a red, Russian mafia style tracksuit, but no one seems to be acknowledging him. I guess everyone has that problem of not being able to talk to someone who has just shown them art which is so far beyond their means to create. I swallow my nerves and pull out a makeshift business card, already scrawled with the web-sites info. I shake his hand and start talking; all of a sudden I realize that I have this schpeel thing down pretty well. I talk to him for probably 30 seconds lay on the praise and the superlatives and give him my card. He throws out some knee-jerk promises to check out the web site, we shake hands once more and he's onto another rubber-necker, shaking hands taking cards, making promises. All I have to hope is that when Mat wakes up the next day and shakes off his hangover he sees the card and actually keeps it. I just might actually make it in this world, I think.

All this is in the past, however, all this is what Sundance has been. Now it is two nights before the closing ceremonies, and a day before we leave Utah. Jon, Cindy, Taylor and I have decided to hit this town with everything we've got. As a last ditch effort I fashion my own press pass out of a lanyard I've stolen from the press office, and a folded 8 X 10 piece of paper. 'PRESS' I write across it in purple sharpie.

We hop in the white Ford Escort, which we have rented from the charming people at Hertz. On a whim we roll the windows down and turn the Abba up. As we roll through the bumper to bumper traffic clogging Main Street past all the parties and cinema folk decked out their nightlife skins Dancing Queen pours out of our car and stops them all in their tracks. Some of them bop along with us, some stare at us with worried expressions, some try to ignore us completely. Cindy leans out of the car and screams "What Up Park City! Hell Yeah! It's The Abba Mobile!" A week into the festival and we've finally arrived. Now it's on to the bars… uh, private clubs. Everybody's famous, I realize, and that's me too.


The cool kids sit at
the back of the theatre

For once I don't have to tell people why I'm at the festival-- the makeshift pass says it all. Suddenly they are treating me as though I'm actually someone, not just a stain on an otherwise perfect festival. I might be press, but I've got something no one from LA does - an imagination. People laugh and clap my back; some drunkenly try to press my press pass and we all laugh at the pun. Others even hiss at me through jovial smiles "Watch out! It's the enemy!" Amid a flurry of flaming lemon drop shots and cauldrons of low alcohol beer we manage to get invited to a party. Finally! A Party! It's for a short we saw two days earlier, we had to drive down to the actual village of Sundance, a place that doesn't exist according to MapQuest. It's nothing more than a ski resort with a screening room an hour drive south, but both the short, The Occularist, and the accompanying documentary, A Certain Kind of Death, are excellent.

When we get to the condo which houses the party everything is thumping and the beer is flowing with abandon. Neal, a dashing PR guy is trying to manage the whole affair, "Beers in the fridge, ice in the freezer, liquor on the counter, coats on the bed, head on up." There is a smile to him that says just how many times he's done this sort of thing before. It can't be that bad a job, I figure, acting as a goatherd for a bunch of drunken movie types. I'm sure it gets old after a while, though.

The Ocularist is a documentary short about Fred Hawin, a doctor-slash-sculpture who creates custom fake eyes for those who have accidentally misplaced their real ones. Directed by Vance Malone and accompanied by a cool soundtrack by Keith Schreiner, it's a surprising look into a world that I never thought to explore. Vance, and Fred, in the flesh, mill about the party, each a little surprised by the support and recognition the short as garnered them. No one is really networking though; no one is handing out cards. People are just enjoying themselves. Keith is DJ'ing, laying down some amazing sounds and Neal keeps wandering around making sure everyone's having a good time. At one point he grabs me around the shoulder and has Taylor (my official photographer, since he's the only one smart enough to bring a camera) take a picture of us. "Make sure you get the Press Pass," He says, still smiling. "That's the best part."

I meet a kid named Taylor (not my photographic cohort, a different Taylor) wandering around with an amazing tan pleather coat. He's at Sundance trying to build a name for himself. He wants to make movies, and is trying to get people to know he exists. Nearly every person I run into has a similar story. Even Vance, the director, had that tale last year. He came to Sundance associated with someone else's film, and now, this year, he's presenting his own.

There is some networking, I suppose, some exchanging of names, but it feels more like friends exchanging phone numbers, rather than business associates exchanging information. There are no suits, but there are some terrific outfits. People are simply trying to enjoy themselves, and it looks like no one has to try all that hard. Maybe this isn't the perfect representative of Sundance parties in general, but I leave Utah with a newfound faith in independent movies. Indie is still cool, breathe a sigh of relief.

Maybe the indie and the mainstream are converging, but it's not happening any time soon. There are still people out there for whom the passion of the art is their only driving force. And there is still a camaraderie that runs through it all. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed, since they themselves are a part of that 'Everyone.' People are genuinely excited at each other's ideas; they shake hands and say 'See you next year.' Not everyone's famous, it turns out, but everyone wants to be.

For my own part, in the end, no one may have told me how much they loved my work, and no traveling millionaire offered to make me famous and rich and I never got to tell Britney off. But I did walk out of Park City with tons of fake plastic promises and guarantees that I'll be seen the next time around.

Read our Sundance Film Reviews here

--B.C. Edwards
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[email protected] | February 2003 | Issue 35
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