Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Park City Diaries: a Tale of Four Films (and one almost-film...)

I should be doing more.

This is what I'm thinking as I lounge in a club chair in my beloved Washington School Inn, just off Main Street in Park City. It's Friday, and I've already managed to take care of the majority of the meetings I'd scheduled while here.

I'd almost not come this year. If one has (or is involved with) a film that's here, the decision to attend the festival is a no-brainer. For me, the fact that I'd booked my accommodations far in advance ended up being the deciding factor-- that, plus the fact that (again) my pal Eliza has a whirlwind weekend scheduled.

But there's something else, too. I always end up seeing familiar faces while here; at the end of the day, there's a value in seeing which among your old acquaintances are still in the game (David Kleiler, from back in Boston, in line next to me for a film!)-- and, sometimes, to remind those same acquaintances that you're still in it, too.

And this year a free bonus: it's amazingly warm. Even now, in January and at 7,000 feet, the temperature rises well into the 40's each day. Better, I will not see a cloud for the entire time I'm here (and it's true that sunshine is a little warmer at altitude). Best: New York is still in the grip of a brutal cold front, and daytime highs in Park City are higher than those in New York City for the duration of my trip. (Yes, I check. You would too.)

Back in my chair, I come to a radical decision: this year, my priority at Sundance is going to be seeing films.

I know: crazy, right? Still, I warm to the idea quickly: late mornings, relaxing strolls, a few parties, a lot of new films. That's it. I'll focus on the "festival" side of Sundance and ignore completely its "market" side.

For the uninitiated, a lesson:


...they used to be different. Cannes began the fusion; Sundance completed it.

The New York Film Festival (the original, at Lincoln Center) may be the last of the pure film festivals: a prestige collection of what could only be called "art" films from around the world, selected to be shown for an audience whose only interest, in theory, is cinema. Prizes are given, sure, and there is the occasional Hollywood premiere among the films chosen (Mystic River is a good recent example), but, really, it's a prestige event that's All About The Work.

A film market, by contrast, is a Persian Rug Bazaar. The name of the game is rugs, and everyone there is either buying (HBO, Lion's gate, etc) or selling (EVERY filmmaker on the mountain). A rug bazaar is not a place for the uninitiated, or the slow-- but the cagey, the quick, can do well there indeed.

How? Simple. Wanna be a "player" at Cannes? Yes, you! A week in the south of France in May! All it takes is three things:

- spend some money,
- know someone famous,
- and lie. A lot. Lie lie lie lie lie.

BRAINSTORM RIGHT NOW! Tell you what: I'm going to do it. right now, as I write this. Ready?

Boston Souls.

Just came up with that. It's my title. Of what, you ask? Of my film. The one I'm... pre-selling. (sadly, this isn't done much anymore, but I digress). What's pre-selling, you ask? Why, it's just what it sounds like: I'm selling -- no, offering an opportunity to buy-- something that hasn't been made yet!


And, now, let's see.... The New York Film Company. (maybe "Village Films?")

Just made that up, too. That's the name of my International Production and Distribution company. I like it--- I'll bet that exact company doesn't exist, but it sounds like a company that DOES exist. You gotta use the word "film," and those business types like the word "Company," and who doesn't like New York??

So.... the New York film Company has a slate of five mid-budget (8-12 million) character-driven (read: cheap) romantic thrillers and romantic comedies, that are to be independently financed and structured for strong foreign sales (translation: no Baseball movies). NOOO, silly-- I haven't MADE any of these movies and in fact I really DON'T have any scripts. YET. But to quote Linda Obst: It's not a lie, it's just the truth that hasn't happened yet...

Anyway. Boston Souls is our first. It stars Dennis Leary, Chris O'Donnell, and Eliza Dushku, all of whom are committed; there's a terrific cameo for a aging-but-still-hot female police chief; both Meryll and Glenn are verrry interested but we can't officially say that, yet. If Meryll comes on we get Ed Harris, who wants to work with her, for the Uncle-- though I hear Dennis Hopper wants in. We're looking for pre-sale commitments in all territories. We're looking to start in May.

OK, everything I just wrote? A lie. Lie lie lie lie lie. How do I get away with it? Easy-- first, I've got a HUGE, professional-looking poster with the stars' faces in it (you walked past it when you entered my office/hotel room); second, I've got just enough people who will, sort of, back up this cockamamie story; mainly, though, I LIKE LYING. I'm good at it. And if you walked up, saw that poster, made a few calls and yes, this Peter Kelley guy checks out, we haven't heard of Boston Souls but you never know... it might never occur to you that it's ALL A LIE.

Unless, of course (and back to the Rug Bazaar) you've bought a few "fine Persian Rugs" that fell apart after a few weeks. In that case, you walk into my office/room with the assumption that EVERYONE'S lying.

(P.S.: welcome to my world. "Why so cynical, Pete?" Because I've bought a few Fine Persian Rugs in my day, that's why.)

So that's a film market. Like Toronto and Cannes (and, to a lesser extent, Berlin), Sundance is one of the few remaining festivals that is also a market, an open-air, Persian Rug bazaar-- just, you know, at high altitude and with ridiculous parties and swag-filled "lounges" and battalions of women in cowboy jackets and high-heeled uggs (and not much else) wheezing their way up and down Main Street (trolling for what, I always wonder... to be discovered? To sleep with a celebrity? To find a bathroom?) (But I digress.)

SO, like any market, there are mainly two groups of people in Park City: buyers and sellers. And if you ain't buying, and you got nothing to sell? Best just to get out of the way.

Which is what, come Friday, I do. Eliza's arriving, with an entourage, on Saturday morning;I have a friend who's arriving a little later that day. Thankfully, I've got tickets to three films, and I decide it's my mission to get more.

The following four days are entirely unlike what I'd expected them to be, back when I'd first scheduled this trip. There are late nights, sure, but a sense of leisure during the day, a few car trips, and, yes: seeing films. And that's pretty much it.

It's magical.

Looking back, now, I can't imagine attending a film festival (a good one) any other way... and there's much to be learned from my cinematic adventures. So let's get to it, shall we? Our four films....


Quick background: the Sundance film festival has grown to the point where fewer than half of the screening venues are actually in Park City. Of those that are, four have a certain cachet: The Egyptian (on Main Street, with that famous marquee that you've all seen pictures of); the Library (thanks to festival revenue, Park City has an impressive public library, and this close-to-town theatre, housed in the Town Library, is my personal favorite venue); The Eccles Auditorium (literally the auditorium at Park City High School--and, sure, why not have a 1,200-seat theatre with FULL DOLBY SOUND at a High School in the Utah mountains?), and, finally, Prospector Square, known mainly for its poor sightlines and Abu-Ghirab-style Seats of Torture. (not lyin 'bout that).

Even though You Won't Miss Me isn't on my must-see-list, it is at Prospector Square, and has a primo screening time (Sat nite, 8PM), so I feel good about taking a chance on it. Plus, two other factors guide my decision:

First, the description. In most festivals, those little blurbs in the festival guide are written by the filmmakers and are thus (for the most part) poorly-written propaganda and largely unhelpful-- but each Sundance film is lovingly "introduced" in the catalogue by a member of the selection committee. This, about You Won't Miss Me:

(The Director) creates and engrossing character portrait in this deceptively compact, but exquisitely layered, feature. (She) renders this depiction of intersecting dead ends with astute and exactingly measured empathy. Her searching, eliptical narrative structure and compact, concentrated mis-en-scene astutely underline the lonesome self-sabotage involved when self-relaince becomes an armor against intimacy... other words, a small, performance-driven human drama. Right up my alley.

Second, and more important: this could me MY film. It's not one of the splashy, must-see, "event" films of the festival, but it made it to the party nonetheless; this film had been CHOSEN, dammit, culled from those thousands of entries, that needle-in-a-haystack independent that had nothing going for it but merit and (hopefully) heart.

I have to go. In truth, I'm kind of dying to go. Isn't this, after all, the whole point of film festivals-- of independent film, really?

So we go. It's my friend's first night in park City, and You Won't Miss Me will be her first-ever Sundance film. Thirty minutes into the film, we walk out.

Please know this: I have not walked out of a film in years. And I tried, really I did, to like the film. To give it a chance. So what was it, exactly, that pushed me over the edge? That caused me so much frustration that I willingly braved the wrath of my row-mates, as well as everyone behind me, and overcame my fear of being recognized ("...hey, isn't that Peter Kelley-- the "Acting Guy"-- walking out? What a tool..."), and left?

Well, let's see.

Was it the horrid acting and loose, pointless, wandering dialogue (oops, sorry... "fresh, improvisational feel")? Nope. Was it the endless endless ENDLESS, bad film-school, drunken-hookup-with-loser scene? (Heroine, to Loser: "What's that on your arm-- are you OK?" Loser: "oh.... I think it's a zit." Long Meaningless Pause. "Maybe I should pop it." Long Meaningless Pause.) Nope, that wasn't it. Was it the cliche-ridden Audition for the Off-Off Broadway Play, complete with narcissistic gay director, orgasm improv, and all? Nope. Was it the late-night drunken parental phone call, with its slurred, teary, "where are you, MOM?! I had a bad audition and I NEED YOU but you're never there.... MOM!!"

Actually..... no. In the end, it was this: I know this woman, the heroine of the film; in fact, I've known lots of her. They pop up every now and then in an acting class of mine, and here's what I've learned: this woman doesn't have a problem. She just needs to grow up. So why should I, or anyone, care? Why should we spend an hour and a half of our lives committed to her self-indulgent saga of delayed adolescence?

(By contrast, watch Frozen River, last year's prize winner. From the very start, Melissa Leo's character has problems-- real, unimaginable problems that require a succession of hard choices that only get harder, and the power of her performance lies in her never once allowing herself the emotional collapse she deserves, even though we feel it inside her. As a result, her performance stays with you long after the film has ended.)

So we leave. But in my haste (and in a typical jackass-PK move) I leave my brand-new scarf behind; I observe that returning for the scarf is best done in the few minutes of confusion between when the film ends and when the hated Q-and-A begins. We pass the ensuing hour in a restaurant nursing beers while discussing not just the film, not just our disappointment, but this: the vague, angry frustration that we both feel.

She's frustrated, I tell her, because the actress who was cast just wasn't that good. Me? I'm mad because... that film got in.

There is really no feeling quite like the frustration that arises from injustice, for It's an emotion fueled by impotence. You perceive a wrong and are powerless to make it right.

Over time, that impotent frustration grows in a person, as it has done and will always do to so many of you in this business. It's OK that the Hot Chick gets the role instead of you, or the producer's nephew or the Actor of the Moment or whomever... provided they're AT LEAST AS GOOD AS YOU. But if they're not, and you wanted that role...

That's the thing about injustice: the experiencing of it feels so much worse than we imagine. You hear the sentence "...let me introduce the star of this extraordinary film", and while you'd braced yourself for how badly you wanted that person to be YOU, we're entirely unprepared for that feeling after having endured a bad film. Every handclap of applause is a slap in the face, a confirmation that, you know what? Maybe this isn't the business for us.

To survive, one must reach a point where one can separate jealous admiration from the frustration of injustice.

Jealousy -- good jealousy-- occurs during those moments of core honesty when you realize that, by comparison, others may be better at the thing you so love. Like this: I am sitting in a theatre in DC somewhere (this is a few years back), watching Samuel Jackson empty a Smith & Wesson forty-four into some kid-- when suddenly that image smash-cuts to a shaven-head Bruce WIllis staring RIGHT AT ME just as the cannon-fire gunshots are replaced by the smooth, haunting opening of "Let's Stay Together". And all I can think is:

"how did Quentin come up with that? How? How???"

Maybe, Pete, at least today... he's, uhm... better than you. And we mature, as artists, by learning how to replace our jealousy with admiration and learn from our betters.

And if it had been his film here at Prospector Square tonight, all I'd feel is: I get it. I get why he got in. Good for him. And I like to think I'd be inspired to get back to work, and work a little harder, and get a little better. And I'd silently thank Quentin for the wake-up call.

But this.... sitting in a packed theatre in Park City, cringing at something more poorly-shot and poorly-acted than most of what we do in class, and knowing the adulation that awaits the creator of this... whatever... there is nothing I can teach you here, for this is a lesson for which there is no shortcut to learning:

Injustice is harder than you can imagine. It may, in fact, be the truest test of how badly one wants a thing: the continual decision to stay in the game, knowing how it may turn out-- worse, that how it may turn out has little to do with merit or desire or discipline or any of those things we've been taught, rightly, to respect. (Still want in? Are you sure? OK then.)

Even so, in the thin, rapidly-cooling night air, I see a silver lining in the experience: movie-wise, I've got no place to go but UP.

And I get my scarf back! I take it as a sign.


I Love You Phillip Morris is one of the blockbuster titles of the festival, one of the "must see" films that's impossible get into. Thankfully, Cragslist has become something of a Sundance Equalizer, and I happen to log on at the right time and score a pair of tickets to the film.

Even though we arrive stupidly early, the Ticket Holder line already fills the snaky, cattle-pen gates that have been set up. By the time we're let in, it will extend the length of the theatre and around the corner into darkness.

After what we've come to call The Unmentionable Film (see above), we decide that whenever possible it's aisle seats for us, and we manage to snag a couple in a good spot, and settle in. Shortly before showtime, Jim Carey and Ewan MacGregor are hustled in, surrounded by a scrum of security-- and are immediately assaulted by seemingly half the theatre, all armed with digital cameras. Watching this awful spectacle -- I would guess, conservatively, that five hundred photographs of the stars are taken in the ensuing three minutes-- all I can wonder is, how do the paparazzi make any money at all? What are the odds that a "professional" photo is better than all of those hundreds of shots? But I digress.

The house lights dim. I Love You Phillip Morris is a difficult film to categorize-- Jim Carrey and Ewan MacGregor play gay men who meet in prison and fall in love-- but whatever it is, it's everything that The Unmentionable Film is not. They've spent money on this film, and spent it well; it feels professional, and smooth, it moves, it surprises.... and about halfway in, it has a Moment.

I love Moments. More, I think, than almost anything. I won't ruin this particular Moment beyond saying it involves Jim and Ewan, sharing a prison cell at night, dancing to "Chances Are"-- when suddenly everything works, and the film... elevates. It rises to that magical place that films can take us and so seldom do. It's romantic and sweet and yet tears are streaming down my face I'm laughing so hard... and I'm back. In Park City.

For this moment, these filmmakers are better than me. So many things had to work so perfectly to make this moment, and every one of them does. The moment is un-improvable, and they've got me. I'm in. I'll go wherever the cast and filmmakers want to take me.

Problem is, they try to take me to too many places. They want to make two movies, which might be OK, except that one of them is a Jim Carrey movie.... and the other one isn't. One is a Gay Comedy, John Waters gay, and the other one isn't. And my finely tuned dog-ears can hear the thoughts of the buyers, sprinkled throughout the theatre: "What do we do with this?"-- and later: "There's nothing we can do with this."

There's nothing we can do with this. Jim Carrey, folks. The twenty-million dollar man. With Obi-Wan, no less. A 1200-seat theatre, filled to capacity. Wild applause.

As of this writing, I Love You Phillip Morris has not sold.

LESSON: there are no guarantees in this business. None.


So I'm at the Variety party (you knew there had to be a few parties, right?) and I see Emerson Bruns, an old business friend from New York. We're talking films, and it ends up that another friend is somehow involved with Once More With Feeling, which is screening the following afternoon at Prospector Square. There are no tickets to be had, but one generally has a better shot at wait-listing daytime events (especially with this weather!!), so I go.

The film stars Chazz Palmintieri, Drea DeMateo, and Linda Fiorentino; not surprisingly, it's a Quirky-Family Film about how dreams and romance never die. This from the Sundance catalog:

...brimming with heart, and music, and featuring fine performances from its ensemble cast, Once More With Feeling perfectly captures the strength of family bonds in the face of life's temptations and trials.

Where to start with Once More With Feeling?

How 'bout with the fact that the viewer is treated to... Chazz Palmintieri Sings! And sings again! And again! There is, conservatively, an album's worth of Chaz singing in this film-- and no "a few bars then cut to the next scene," no...these are full songs.

Or maybe it's the fact that we're asked to buy into a simmering Chazz Pamintieri - Linda Fiorentino romance that leads, cringingly, to The Big Kiss (and Chazz, of course, is a Married Man, and Linda, of course, is single). Full Disclosure: after The Last Seduction (IMDB it), there was a period where Linda Fiorentino played a major role in my fantasy life-- and to see my Linda like this, buckled into the front seat of a car, in a stiffly-written and awkwardly staged scene where she is meant to wait, aching, for friggin' Chazz Palmintieri to lean across and make his move... how times change, all I can say.

With this one, we can't leave. I have friends in the audience, and since we got in from the God-help-me WAITING LINE, we were the last to be seated and I have no way of knowing where they are. So here we are again, asking how did this get in? Except this time, there's an answer: the director, that's how.

Jeff Lipsky is something of a legend in Park City: a well-known and well-repsected producer who, it must be said, helped shape and nurture the entire independent film movement in America. So: a pedigree director, an indie-film all-star cast... what's not to love?

The film, that's what. Sadly, none of it really worked, starting with the script. The cast struggled mightily to bring the words off the page but in the end, and lacking the presence of a strong director (and even that may not have helped), there was simply nothing to be done.

In the men's room afterward, a publicist at the urinal next to me: "well, that's two hours we won't get back-- can you believe what a piece of garbage that was? So disappointing, my GOD..."

He does not notice that one of the stars (not Chazz, thankfully) has sidled up to the urinal on the other side. Ahh, Sundance.

LESSON(S): I see two here. 1) Just because you WANT to direct doesn't mean you CAN direct. No one is immune to this, not even if you're a legendary producer, and 2) I've said it before and I'll say it again: great movies --all of 'em, every single one-- come from GREAT SCRIPTS. No exceptions. None. This movie was DOA before the first frame of film was shot.


Back at the Eccles on Monday night.

The Messenger is not an easy film; worse (for the filmmakers), it's an Iraq film, attempting to find a foothold in a tough market at a point when Iraq Film Fatigue is a known phenomenon.

It's a simple pitch: Ben Foster is an Iraq combat vet who's sent back to the states to serve the remainder of his tour, where he's partnered with Woody Harrelson, and Woody's job is to teach Ben to be an "Angel of Death"-- Ben and Woody are the First Notifiers of the relatives of soldiers killed in duty. (Note to my Monday Night peeps: throughout the film, I'm thinking that I could have made the same movie with Conan McCarty and young Tim Rouhana. Or Eddie M and Tim, or Chris Coffey. Or Gerry Urcioli.)

And that's it. Sure, there's a love interest (Samantha Morton, brilliant in the Laura Heisler Role as a widow who begins a quiet relationship with Ben), and sure there are stories of friendship and dislocation-- but like any beautiful small film, descriptions really don't do it justice.

Even so, two moments stand out so much:

The first is pretty much smack in the middle of the film, and is the core of one of the film's story lines-- the developing relationship between Ben and Samantha. Ben, a mechanic, has helped repair Samantha's car, and she invites him in for coffee.

And we watch. We watch these two quiet souls move slowly, respectfully closer, negotiating propriety with desire, trying to figure out what they should do and what they want to do. They kiss... they stop. They talk a little, they stop. They hug, they stop. It feels, as I'm fond of saying, just like life. Oh, and did I mention it's covered in a single wide shot?

The other is near the end of the film. Woody has finally confessed the truth to Ben-- that while he was indeed sent to Desert Storm, he never saw action. In response, Ben finally tells the wrenching story of what happened to him in Iraq, how he came to be wounded and receive his medal. It's direct, underplayed to the point of plainness, and powerful. After a silence (they're sitting side-by-side in Ben's living room), Woody asks for a beer. Ben goes to get it and, once alone, Woody starts crying. Tears that turn into silent, wracking sobs. This is never explained. Better... we cut to Ben, closing the fridge, hearing something... then peeking around the corner into the living room and seeing Woody in tears. He ducks back and remains in the kitchen, silent, holding Woody's beer. Waiting for the storm to pass.

Every man in the theatre is devastated by this. By not just Woody, but Ben, standing in the kitchen. It's a moment of power and honesty that one so seldom sees on film, an emotionally courageous moment that affects me still. Every man wants to turn to any woman in earshot and say: "THIS is what it's like to be a man-- all this silence, all this isolation, all this pain-- and there's a part of this that you will never, ever understand."

To which the woman might reply: "maybe I understand it a little better, now."

Which is why we make movies. They tell us, sometimes, what we can't tell one another.

And this film will never find its way into a theatre. It'll air on cable somewhere, and when it does, see it, please. Make the effort.

We stay for the Q-and-A. I want to see the director, to hear what he has to say (interestingly, he's a bald israeli dude who towers over both Woody and Ben). Anyone who's sat through a few Q-and-A sessions learns quickly to expect the worst-- the stupid questions, the rambling pretentious questions, the inevitable "what was your budget?" question. So I'm pleasantly surprised when:

"how long was the kitchen scene?" (the Ben-and-Samantha scene I mentioned above) The answer: nine minutes.

I'm stunned. Oh, it was long --daringly so-- but I had no idea. On 35mm film, the longest roll you can get has about eleven minutes worth of film. They had one take per roll. It's ballsy, and I'm impressed with this director.

Question two, a follow-up: "how many takes of that did you shoot?"

Two-- well, three, really.

Question number three is the best yet: " which take did we see?"

Before you read the answer... guess. Go ahead.

Think you've got it? OK...

"Well, I didn't tell the actors, but we rolled on the rehearsal. That's the take we used."

The rehearsal. They used the rehearsal.

LESSON: this is why I train FIRST TAKE ACTORS. Because your best stuff is so often THE REHEARSAL and if it's not RECORDED ON FILM then it DOESN'T COUNT.

Got it? Good.


An Education was the film at Park City I most wanted to see. It's from a Nick Hornby novel (About a Boy or High Fidelity, etc), stars Peter Saarsgard and Alfred Molina, and the buzz was that the female lead would break out with this performance. Two problems: A) this was premiering at the Egyptian, the smallest of the Park City venues, and B) I only have one ticket, and my friend expressed an interest in seeing it as well. Bummer. But, again, it's a daytime screening (did I mention the weather is wonderful?) So I head down to the Egyptian to wait in the standby ticket line.

I arrive over two hours early. There are already sixty-seven people in the line; the theatre seats about 280; this is one of the "big buzz" films at all of Sundance this year. You do the math.

I decide to be the Good Friend and repay the Scarf Karma by offering her the single seat. As the screening approaches, I offer to be the BETTER friend and actually hold a place in the line (she's "getting ready."). But I'm clear: it's a 3PM screening and they'll start letting people in at 2:30 SHARP. The line will move at 2:30 SHARP.

2:30 sharp: the line begins to move. I immediately send a text.

2:38: I am at the front of the line. I text again. No word back, so I've got no choice but to cringe and let people behind me in line go ahead. As each one passes, they look at me, at the ticket in my hand; they glance up with expressions of confusion and pity.

2:44: the line stops. That's cool, though, because A) I'm about six people away from the front of the line, and B) they always do this, to get a seat count at crunch time, and C) my friend is JUST NOW ARRIVING.

We swap places. I loiter around the front of the theatre, just to check out the scene, and... oh, to to hell with it. I'm not going to drag this out: two more people are let inside. My friend isn't one of them.

Remember: I let about THIRTY people pass in front of me.

LESSON: sometimes in life the fine print counts. In this case: A TICKET DOES NOT GUARANTEE ADMISSION.

So there you go. Beautiful weather, and a few films. Not bad. Not bad at all.


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