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Sundance Diary: Day Five (or, It all went dark for a second there)

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Smartpeople_l

Smartpeople_lI have to apologize, PopWatchers, but Sunday night I had to take you out of my pocket for a bit. It had been a pleasant enough day: I interviewed the creative team behind U2 3D (more on that tomorrow), saw Nick Cannon grow up in American Son, even caught a little football and barbecue at the ESPN House (which, you’ll recall, was one of my favorite places last year).

But then I went to go see Smart People, a warm, tweedy comedy starring Dennis Quaid (pictured, left) as a cantankerous English professor, Sarah Jessica Parker (at right) as the ER doc who accidentally loves him, Ellen “Juno Schmuno” Page as Quaid’s daughter, and the eternally brilliant and hysterical Texan Thomas Haden Church as Quaid’s adopted brother. And after the film, which comes out in April and which I enjoyed quite a bit, my colleagues and I went to the party and ate some food. And after I ate the food, it all went to hell.

So I’d like to thank the fine folks at Miramax for poisoning me, and I’ll spare you the details except to say that the Marriott bathroom is no place to spend the night. When I woke up this morning, I’d missed a screening of Chronic Town — a movie whose star, JR Bourne, I was supposed to interview — and basically wanted to curl up in a ball and die.

addCredit(“Smart People: Bruce Bermelin”)

The bad news about Sundance, though, PopWatchers, is that no onereally penciled in room for dying. So instead, I hauled my sad self tothe Library to see North Starr, went back to the EW photostudio to interview poor JR (his Q&A will run after I’ve finallyseen the film on the 24th), went back to the Library to watch a documentary about Laotian refugees called Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), got stuck on the slowest bus in Park City history while trying to make it to the Yarrow to interview the North Starr guys, walked to the Eccles to see the premiere of Diminished Capacity, then sprinted back to Main Street to join my co-workers (and boss) for dinner. They’d already ordered by the time I arrived.

I wish I could give you more details, but honestly, that’s my day,exactly as I remember it. I think I ate some crackers. At one point, Ihad a conversation with an old college buddy that was so awkward, hisfriends were convinced I hated him. Etc.

But there was one special moment from that frigid, grumpy Monday, and strangely, it came courtesy of the movie I liked the least. North Starris a ponderous film about a rapper/poet from the mean streets ofHouston’s Fifth Ward, who, after witnessing a horrific event, leavesthat life behind to wander into the plains of West Texas and findhimself while cleaning out barns and dealing with seriouslyinstitutionalized racism. It didn’t do a lot for me. But when I met theguys behind the movie — Matthew Stanton, the writer, director, and oneof the film’s two leads; Jerome Hawkins, who plays Demetrius, theprotagonist; and David Haley, first A.D. and a small but vitalcharacter in the movie — I was completely charmed and moved by theirenthusiasm and obvious affection for one another. Amidst all the swagand parties with dodgy food and women in high-heeled snow boots andendless cell phone calls, these guys were a terrific reminder of whatindie filmmaking is supposed to be about. (It should be noted at thispoint that most of the cast and crew went to college together, and thatStanton currently lives out of his car.)

Below, I’ve reprinted a bit of our interview. I hopeyou’ll read it and agree that, even if you’ve not seen (or didn’t like)the movie, there’s real power to the things they have to say. Andthat’s Sundance, Day 5: The day I stopped puking and remembered whyI’m here.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Obviously, I can’t be familiar with where the character of Demetrius comes from. I mean, I’m from Houston, but the part of town I came from might as well be on a different planet. Likewise, I’ve never been accosted by someone just for setting foot in their small West Texas town. But this movie features a sort of magical realism, so… does the kind of racism we see in North Starr really exist these days? Is this film exaggerated at all, or is this a true portrayal of what’s going on?
MATTHEW STANTON:
I say this all the time: Sometimes we think we’ve advanced a lot further as a society and as a culture and as a nation than we actually have when it comes to race relations. [With North Starr,] we’re digging into these pockets that truly exist. What we have to accept — and what we have to recognize — are customs, viewpoints, perspectives, and traditions. And the biggest challenge is to be able to make this story as authentic as possible and not insult the people of that region with a stereotype.

They’re not just rednecks.
Right. This goes beyond that. It’s not just black and white, and it’s not just the hatred and bigotry. It’s the lessons learned through the relationships that transpire. And that’s what the people of that region have responded to. I had to actually send the script two years before principal photography started in order to get permission to even shoot this film in that region. Texans are very proud [laughs]. But once the community accepted this film, they were so supportive.

Have you screened it for them?
Yes I have. I had a rough cut just to show them, and 65 people came out of the woods and packed into one room just to watch it on a television.

How’s the response been from the crowd here at Sundance?
JEROME HAWKINS:
You know, it’s really awesome to see enthusiasm in people’s eyes. It’s really awesome to, after having screened your work, look out into an audience that’s eagerly listening and paying attention.
MS: There was a lot stronger response to humor today [than when it premiered].
DAVID HALEY: I think people were a little more relaxed. There’s the irony of it being Martin Luther King Day. On CNN, they’re running this special about Martin Luther King and it says, “I am a man.” And one of the last things of the entire film that Matt wrote, the end quote, was, “I am a man.”
JH: It was also interesting to sit in the very back, behind a full audience, and observe the gestures. There was a woman in front of us who was very expressive with her hands at the end, the way she responded and covered her mouth, the shock that she experienced. For me, that sends it home. It makes me feel like people got something. They traveled along with this character, and they followed him along on this journey, and they saw him overcome certain things. And to see the audience respond is very powerful, I think.

You guys really are the epitome of indie film, as opposed to maybe some of the films with the big shiny celebrities in them. How has your experience been here? You’re definitely running under the radar.
MS: [Nods] Maybe by design. Our power is in our group. Our power is in our collaboration. And I think one of the things no one can ever take away from us is our energy, our passion, our creativity, our reliance on each others’ talents, collectively. We fought. We challenged ourselves. We made something beautiful and positive together. Nothing came easy for us. We fought. There was blood, sweat, and tears.
DH: Literally. [Laughs] I think it was Stanislavsky who said, “Our work begins when most people say, ‘That’s enough.'” Matt’s determination to not quit, it fuels us on a day-to-day basis. I mean, we’re going from press to screening to press to screening and we are arm-and-arm, moving forward.
JH: Matthew kept me in mind for this role for years. I went through three apartments from the time I got the script to the time the film got made. We have a solidarity. We have a loyalty. We were walking down the street yesterday and this lady, she didn’t know us, and she said, “You know what? There’s an energy around you that’s amazing. And it’s visible.” When we’re in the streets, when we’re sitting down together — we’re so close, we’re so connected, and I think it’s what made this film come alive. The characters you see become so real because of the relationship that flowed underneath and between and over and around us. Darring and Demetrius’ relationship was a lot about Matthew and Jerome’s relationship. Justice and Demetrius’ relationship was a lot about David Haley and Jerome Hawkins’ relationship. When he told me that David Haley was gonna play my best friend, I said, “That’s one of my best friends!”
DH: He did! [They do a cute little handshake] He did!
JH: I think Matthew hit it on the head. It’s all about this team. Low budget or no budget — whatever you want to call it — what made this thing happen is the blood, sweat, and tears of a team that worked really hard to make something amazing.

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