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Looking back at Sundance 2007

EW gives you a handy guide on who’s who from Park City’s latest bunch of independent films

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As any Sundance veteran will tell you, debuting a movie at the snowcapped Rocky Mountain festival can be nerve-racking. You worry that people won’t get your vision. That your film won’t be picked up for distribution. That critics will eviscerate you. But none of those concerns could compare to the grief that consumed Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, and Nathan Fillion before the world premiere of their movie, Waitress. A bittersweet comedy in which Russell plays a pregnant woman desperate to get away from her jerk of a husband (Sisto), Waitress was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was killed last November in New York City at age 40. Celebrating without Shelly, who also costarred, would be tough. ”We’re going to try to enjoy it,” Hines says, forcing a smile. ”But I know it’s going to be emotional.”

It was. Yet the movie turned out to be surprisingly upbeat, with an audience of 1,200 laughing and applauding throughout. Reviews were positive, and by the next morning, mini-major Fox Searchlight had scooped up Waitress for $4 million. ”It was everything we ever hoped for,” says producer Michael Roiff. ”Not being able to hug Adrienne on a snowy Park City street corner and celebrate our premiere was horrible, devastating. But I know how over the moon she would be right now…. The best way I can honor her memory is by making sure people see her film.”

The happy ending for Waitress helped ensure Shelly’s legacy and proved that the 23-year-old festival founded by Robert Redford is still a powerful platform for worthy little films in need of a boost. Sundance has been criticized for having outgrown its purebred indie roots, but this year the marketplace was as fertile as ever, with distributors eagerly gobbling up 18 movies for more than $50 million in less than 10 days. And while Park City’s Main Street once again bustled with swag suites doling out everything from lightbulbs to $6,000 vacation packages, the focus seemed to have shifted back to the films.

”It’s really satisfying to me, [as someone] who’s been coming here for so long, to see people like Zoe Cassavetes or Jim Strouse having their moment,” notes Steve Buscemi of the directors of the romantic dramedy Broken English and Dramatic Audience Award winner Grace Is Gone, respectively. (Buscemi was promoting Interview, which he directed and co-wrote, starring Sienna Miller.) ”There’s a great sharing of ideas.”

Here, some of Sundance 2007’s standouts share their thoughts on this year’s fest.

John Cusack’s performance in Grace Is Gone, as a grieving man afraid to tell his daughters their mother has died in Iraq, generated some of the best buzz and helped the film snag one of the first distribution deals (by the Weinstein Co., for a reported $4 mil). Still, even he had trouble scoring seats. ”We couldn’t even get tickets to our own premiere — only two!” Cusack says.

Garth Jennings, writer-director of the British comedy Son of Rambow, left Park City with an $8 million deal from Paramount Vantage — the year’s highest price tag — for his movie about two Rambo-obsessed kids in the 1980s. ”I feel like we were the Cinderella story,” says Jennings (2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). ”Ours is a film with no stars and wasn’t a sure thing. I had no idea what to expect…. It hadn’t been seen by more than 10 people before the festival.”

Parker Posey is ”pitch-perfect.” That’s how Variety described her turn as a lonely Manhattanite in Broken English. ”Yeah, I heard that all day from the publicist!” laughs the fest vet, also promoting the Hal Hartley drama Fay Grim. ”I’m happy my work is acknowledged because Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with me,” she says, shrugging. ”It’s not easy for me to get parts in the so-called indie movies produced [by studios] now.” Posey even has a term for them: stindies.

Speaking of stindies, Mike White arrived with his Paramount Vantage-backed directorial debut Year of the Dog, starring Molly Shannon as a pooch-lovin’ secretary. ”Because I’m here with a studio, things feel more cushy,” admits White, who recalls nervously ”vomiting in the snow” before the premiere of his first Sundance film, 2000’s Chuck & Buck. More relaxed this year, White made time for some obscure stuff, like the well-received doc about storytelling, Protagonist. ”There are still really cool movies…and real artists doing what they want. I dig it.”

And then there are the winners, which include Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound), director of the quirky Rocket Science; the gripping Mexican-immigrant drama Padre Nuestro; and Jess Weixler, who won a special jury prize for her turn in the daring vagina dentata horror flick Teeth. ”I’m glad that people connected to a woman with teeth in her vagina!” she said as she accepted the award. Further proof that Sundance really does reward the boldly offbeat.