Some folks come to Sundance, show their movie, win raves, grab a distribution deal, and feel artistically satisfied. Some arrive with distribution already in hand, pick up some early buzz for their film, and leave with momentum. And then there are the people who manage to do both.
Okay, I don’t know how many people were in the third category this year, but I’d venture to say it’s a small fraternity. So when director Mark Pellington (pictured) walked into the EW photo studio on Tuesday — just hours after Variety reported that Henry Poole is Here had sold to Overture for $3.5 million, and just hours before U2 3D (which he co-directed with Catherine Owens) was to open wide on IMAX screens around the country — I knew I had to pull him aside for a chat.
After the jump, my Q&A with one of Sundance’s big winners.*
* “Winner” here referring to Pellington’s all-around festival success, not any official Sundance awards. I keep forgetting there’s an actual competition buried somewhere in this snowbank.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats on your massive, massive Sundance.
MARK PELLINGTON: It was fun.
Walking in, which film did you think was going to be more successful?
What is success?
Ah. Nice. Obviously, U2 already had a distributor, and Henry Poole did not. Was that more of your baby?
Yes. I mean, I co-directed U2, and was really a friend of the band and a midwife to Catherine Owens, the director. So to be involved with them as part of their family was exciting and cool. This film [Henry Poole] was far more personal for me as far as why I did it, what it’s about, the impact that it could have, the themes and subject matter. And I worked four years to try and get it made. Obviously, this is the one that I have a deeper passion for.
Talk about those themes for us.
It tackles really big things, but in a non-didactic or dogmatic way. All the central characters have dealt with loss in one way, shape, or form, and they’re changed or transformed through the course of the movie. A hopeless man finds hope, and a faithless man finds faith. Giving ourselves up to the ideas of letting life happen outside of ourselves — sometimes we end up in places despite our actions. So it deals with it on that abstract level, but it’s also funny and tender and human. Terms of Endearment was my model for it, a movie that can really make you laugh, and touch you emotionally at the same time. But you don’t go in with some calculated sense of what you want the audience to feel or anything like that. When you exhibit it to people, it’s really out of your hands. I control my actions and what I do as a filmmaker, but once it’s out there, it’s really for the audience — and sundry commerce hype — to process that information and digest it and spit it back out. But a woman crying this morning, hugging me because she lost her granddaughter — I lost my wife — that’s what I’m about, and that’s what the movie’s about. That connection.
So when you get the call that it sold for $3.5 million…
It’s gravy. Somebody asked me the other day, said, “Oh, isn’t it overwhelming to be here with two films?” Overwhelming is when my five-year-old daughter wants to wear a tank top when it’s 40 degrees outside and I’m trying to get her dressed in the morning. This is nothing. This is fun. Frosting. What I care about is you and you and you watching the movie and being moved, the way you’d be moved by a piece of music or literature or something like that. That’s why I made it. But to see George [Lopez] and all my friends, that’s fun.
I mostly know you as a music video director — your video for Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”, for example, has hung with me for like 15 years. Is the approach to the story of a three-minute video the same as the approach to a feature?
It’s emotional truth. When I listen to a song and come up with images, it’s a different set of tools I use. In a video, you’re not really bound by narrative. I just did the Springsteen video for “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” and you know, it’s a meditation on longing, and memory. So [directing videos] is about compressed image-making. A movie is a longer haul, and the characters are telling the story less than me… What frustrated me is when people would say, “Oh, well, we need to make these movies about the world we live in now.” It’s implying that there’s only negativity in the world. Okay, we’re at war. We’ve been at war before. There’s been corruption before, there’s been f—ed-up s— all the time. But there’s also been human kindness and love and connection, 24/7, every day, around the world. So why can’t you make a movie about that? I think it’s a weak excuse to say, “I want to make movies about the times,” and they’re all f—ed up.
Now that you’re a big fancy feature director —
I’m not a big fancy feature director.
Are you done with videos?
I will always do videos. Love to do them. Will never give that up.
Were you at the U2 premiere screening? People dancing in the aisles?
It was great. Look. If you’re a fan of U2, you’ll love it. If you’ve ever seen them live, their lighting, their set, their show is amazing. So to capture that and the energy of 80,000 people, that’s a pretty religious experience. That’s why we specifically chose Latin America. The band hadn’t been there in eight years, and [the fans are] nuts. I mean, think about it. It’s like a totally different, religious, spiritual fervor that goes on. It’s in the blood. It’s in the DNA of the culture, differently than it would be in Eastern Europe or Australia. It’s inherent in the generational history of the culture, and its relationship to music.
And unlike all these other movies, folks can walk out their front door right now and see it.