Wanna Be A Movie Star?
What Happened to Britney Spears?
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.
Is that Maggie Gyllenhall?
(No it's Cindy)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Sundance Film Reviews here