Sundance 2012: The 12 biggest stories of the indie film fest
Sundance 2012 took place over 10 days, featured 117 movies, marked the debut of 45 first-time filmmakers, and for film lovers there was no better place to be than Park City, Utah — even if not all the news coming out of the festival was happy.
Studio sales were strong, which means many of the most buzzed-about titles will make it to theaters, and — as usual – a few previously unknown storytellers emerged as stars, while a handful of Hollywood veterans faceplanted in the snow.
One high-profile death cast a sense of mourning over the gathering, but a particularly upbeat lineup of movies managed to keep spirits high overall.
Here’s a wrap-up of what went down at Sundance 2012.
It was a strange situation, but none of the movies in the Premieres section this year came into the festival with distribution already lined up. (Typically there are a few already prepped for theatrical release by one of the mini-major studios.)
With everything for sale, studios went on a buying spree. The festival’s first four days were quiet, leading some to speculate that it would be a slow year, but that lull is now common at Sundance, where very-next-day, big-dollar acquisitions (such as the record holder, Little Miss Sunshine, which sold for $10.5 million in 2006) are now rare.
Once opening weekend passed, every day brought new sales: The billionaires-in-crisis doc The Queen of Versailles was the first to get picked up, while Bradley Cooper’s The Words, Richard Gere’s Arbitrage, Rashida Jones’ Celeste and Jesse Forever, Frank Langella’s Robot & Frank (pictured left), and the dreamlike Beasts of the Southern Wild soon found homes, too. There were plenty of others. (See the EW.com Deal Report.)
Late festival acquisitions included FilmDistrict (the company behind Drive and In the Land of Blood and Honey) picking up the Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson, and Mark Duplass time-travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed (pictured right).
Meanwhile, the John Krasinski drama Nobody Walks, the Compliance, and the Julie Delpy-Chris Rock romance 2 Days in New York all went to Magnolia Films, while The Weinstein Company stepped in to rescue the gambling comedy Lay the Favorite, which suffered withering reviews but featured Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The biggest price tag of all, however, went to a film that sounded like the toughest sell: The Surrogate.
NEXT PAGE: The Surrogate — more laughs than tears
The Surrogate is such a big-hearted and (surprisingly) funny movie, audiences won’t believe it until they see it. The trick now will be getting them to give it a try.
At first glance, it sounds like a story of pain and despair: John Hawkes (an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone) stars as a severely disabled man who embarks on a journey to lose his virginity at age 38. But it’s based on the true story of the late poet and author Mark O’Brien, who had a razor-sharp sense of humor — the one weapon he only needed his voice to use.
“The torment of writing the script was to try to reproduce Mark as a talking, dynamic presence,” says writer-director Ben Lewin, 65, who is also a polio survivor, though he has far more use of his body than O’Brien. “Mark did have this self-deprecating humor, this view of life as an absurd — even though spiritual — event. Everyone who’s been dealt a sh—y hand in life have their moments of self-pity, but I didn’t want to reproduce them, and I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for the character.”
Helen Hunt costars as the sex surrogate (“I’m not a prostitute. They want your repeat business.”) who tries to help him understand his body, which has mostly been a prison to him throughout his life, while William H. Macy turns up as his priest (another apparent middle-aged virgin) who tries to help him with the spiritual hurdles of the enterprise.
Audiences who went in expecting a tragic tearjerker instead found themselves laughing uproariously throughout the screening. And if there were tears at the end, well … they were mostly happy ones. The Surrogate won the audience award for favorite movie in the dramatic competition. EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote: “Who knew a movie made out of such singular material could be such an uplifting but unsentimental, funny, and uncoyly sexual crowd-pleaser?”
Fox Searchlight, which has made hits out of previous Sundance movies such as Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite, picked up The Surrogate for $6 million – the biggest sale of the festival.
With the current crop of Oscar nominees just announced, Hawkes’ performance here is already considered a sure-fire contender for next year’s award season. Hold on to that stovepipe hat, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Searchlight also picked up another festival highlight …
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Going into the festival, the description of this ethereal fable was enigmatic in the extreme. “Waters gonna rise up, wild animals gonna rerun from the grave, and everything south of the levee is goin’ under, in this tale of a 6-year-old named Hushpuppy, who lives with her daddy at the edge of the world.”
The film had no stars, though that’s likely to change now. Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin cast all non-professional actors for his story of people trapped in a fairy-tale bayou as the world teeters over into the apocalypse.
Quvenzhané Wallis, now 8, stars as Hushpuppy, the little girl who faces down melting ice caps, rising floodwaters, and prehistoric creatures come back to life, and she proved to be a force of nature in her own right when introduced to an audience. (See EW’s “Meet the fearsome cutie-pie of Beasts of the Southern Wild.“)
The movie ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic feature, and also took home the award for best cinematography.
Fox Searchlight acquired Beasts for distribution, and all eyes will now be on Wallis to see what the formidable little actress does next.
NEXT PAGE: The death of indie champion Bingham Ray
AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT, LOST
Some unwelcome drama happened off screen at the festival as word spread in the gathering’s early days that Bingham Ray, the beloved indie-film executive who championed many Sundance films and filmmakers over the years, had collapsed from a stroke. He later died at a Salt Lake City hospital. He was 57.
Ray cofounded October Films in 1991 and championed such independent projects as Breaking the Waves, Secrets & Lies, and The Apostle. In 1999, he sold the company to USA Networks, and later became president of United Artists, which released Bowling for Columbine and Hotel Rwanda.
At the Sundance closing ceremony Saturday night, festival director John Cooper eulogized Ray by saying: “He was incapable of not speaking his mind, almost to a Tourette’s level. As you’d imagine, this led to many legendary beefs with many people. This is also reflected in the astounding number of companies at which he worked over his career, a career that almost perfectly paralleled the rise of independent film in America.” (Read the full eulogy at MovieCityNews.com.)
The festival was marked by some other illness, though — thankfully — far less grave.
NEXT PAGE: Tracy Morgan collapses at Sundance
THEY ALL FALL DOWN
It proved to be nothing too serious, but two other collapses also shook the festival. Tracy Morgan was hospitalized midway through, suffering from what his representative called a mixture of exhaustion and altitude sickness. He was released the next day after staying overnight, but left the festival before the premiere of his comedy Predisposed, in which he plays a drug dealer.
Morgan, who also has diabetes, was reportedly back at work on 30 Rock two days later, so he most likely would not have been able to stay for the late-festival premiere anyway.
The very next day, an ambulance was called to a midnight Tuesday showing of the horror anthology V/H/S when a particularly gruesome scene nauseated a couple who had been operating on too little sleep, too much alcohol, and suffering from a little altitude light-headedness. After EMTs checked them over (and the woman vacated her stomach) they were fine – and given tickets to a later showing.
Producers for the movie were initially unnerved by the incident, but it soon became part of the lore of the horror movie.
Finally, illness overtook Parker Posey, the so-called “Queen of the Indies,” during her return to the festival this year with the horrible-boss comedy Price Check. Posey had been slated to host Sundance’s closing ceremony, but when a voice-over introduced her to much fanfare at the start of the proceedings, festival director John Cooper walked out shaking his head. “I have some bad news,” he said.
Meanwhile, some stars didn’t have to get sick to leave the festival with a queasy feeling …
NEXT PAGE: Spike Lee’s Sundance meltdown
SPIKE LEE’S ‘TIRADE’
Anticipation was high for Spike Lee’s latest Brooklyn-based story, but critics were already bristling at its aimless plot and bizarre final-reel twist, when Lee took to the stage for a post-screening Q&A and went off on a self-described “tirade.”
“I didn’t need a motherf—ing studio telling me something about [the neighborhood of] Red Hook!” he shouted to a hushed audience. “They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they’re gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? F— no!”
As negative reactions to the movie piled up on Twitter, overpowering the few raves, Lee’s shocking remarks only fueled divisiveness over Red Hook Summer. He held his tongue during interviews the next day, apparently reluctant to stir up more controversy.
Red Hook Summer’s co-writer James McBride later posted a statement on the movie’s website, saying Lee had only lost his cool briefly (though those present in the theater might dispute that.)
Lee wasn’t the only one to stir hard feelings …
NEXT PAGE:Tim & Eric face angry moviegoers
TIM & ERIC’S HOSTILE AUDIENCE
While Spike Lee had a more explosive Q&A, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of the ultra-raunchy Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie seemed to enjoy it more.
The duo, known for their bizarre Adult Swim series on Cartoon Network, faced off with cranky and wisecracking moviegoers – at least those still left in the theater after the movie ended.
The first question: “What the f—-?”
Their reply: “F—- you. Next question…”
In the film, the two guys lose $1,000,000,000 making a Hollywood movie and try to earn back the money by taking jobs at an apocalyptic shopping mall full of vagrants, wolves, and weirdos. After enduring a graphic (and fake) penis piercing, assorted plumes of bodily fluids, and some other vile gags, nearly a third of the theater cleared out before the credits ended. One angry guy even shouted back at the screen as he left.
Tim & Eric seemed to love this. “What’d he say?” Heidecker asked.
Though some weren’t amused by Tim & Eric’s antics, comedies actually made a strong show of force at the festival, which has sometimes been accused of focusing on the grim and miserable.
Not only did The Surrogate turn out to be a wickedly sharp comedy, but the time-travel saga Safety Not Guaranteed and Frank Langella’s sci-fi friendship tale Robot & Frank also managed to tug on heartstrings while generating laughs.
Meanwhile, Sleepwalk With Me — about a comedian whose stand-up act gets funnier the more catastrophic his life gets — claimed the audience award for best movie in the low-budget NEXT category. It was the debut film from stand-up star and This American Life radio contributor Mike Birbiglia (pictured here grappling with TAL host and the movie’s producer, Ira Glass. Watch their EW video interview here.)
Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts got back-to-back standing ovations in its first screenings with its lighthearted tale of a thirtysomething trying to fit in again among the students at his old college.
There was a lot of praise for darker stories at the festival. Moviegoers were riveted by director Craig Zobel’s Compliance, about things going from bad to worse when a young girl is detained at fast-food restaurant and accused of stealing, and Middle of Nowhere, a drama about a woman trying to maintain her marriage to a man in jail, also moved audiences.
Still, 2012 turned out to be year when laughs overwhelmed tears.
And we haven’t even mentioned yet …
NEXT PAGE: … all the comedies starring women.
Some of the biggest films at the festival were about women behaving badly, many of them created by female writers or directors.
Melanie Lynskey (pictured left) kicked things off with Hello I Must Be Going, written by Sarah Koskoff (and directed by her husband, Todd Louiso), about a divorced and depressed 35-year-old who finds romance with a similarly lost and alone 19-year-old guy.
Meanwhile, Julie Delpy directed and starred with Chris Rock in the witty relationship dramedy 2 Days in New York, about a family who disapproves of her mixed-race romance.
Writer-director Leslye Headland steered Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, and Rebel Wilson into ever-deepening depravity in Bachelorette. “You’ll laugh, maybe a lot, but you probably won’t feel great about it in the morning, because the movie looks at love the way a bulimic looks at food,” wrote EW critic Owen Gleiberman.
Caplan turned up in another female-centric comedy, Save the Date, as the unlucky-in-love younger sister of Type-A bride-to-be Alison Brie, while Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller costarred as roommates who pay the bills by starting a phone-sex hotline in the comedy For a Good Time, Call…
Finally, Anne Heche starred as a chain-smoking, drunk, troublemaker in That’s What She Said, from director Carrie Preston (best known as the besieged waitress Arlene on True Blood) and Kellie Overbey.
It wasn’t all silliness…
ALL THE SERIOUS LADIES
Ava DuVernay became the first black woman to win Sundance’s Best Director prize for her drama Middle of Nowhere, starring Emayatzy Corinealdi as a woman trying to maintain her marriage to a jailed husband. (It was picked up for distribution just a few days before.)
Gina Rodriguez starred as an up-and-coming Latino hip-hop singer in the drama Filly Brown, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead took the lead as a happy drunk trying to quit alcohol in Smashed, only to find her marriage (to Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) on the rocks, too.
Katie Aselton directed and starred in Black Rock, in which she, Lake Bell, and Kate Bosworth face down three former soldiers who are stalking them in the woods during a camping trip. Though the midnight movie had its roots in B-movie sexploitation, Aselton said its eyebrow-raising nude scenes also gave the characters a kind of primal power. “It’s me playing by the rules of the genre, and abiding by those rules on my own terms,” she says. “It’s like, okay I’ll do nudity, but it’s not going to be in a super sexual way.”
With Nobody Walks, director Ry Russo-Young collaborated with Tiny Furniture scribe Lena Dunham on the family, relationships, and sex drama, which starred Olivia Thirlby as a houseguest who fractures the marriage between John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt. Andrea Riseborough (Madonna’s W.E.) impressed in Shadow Dancer with her turn as a single mother from a radical Irish family pressured to reveal information about the IRA.
Speaking of bombs …
NEXT PAGE: The worst movies of the festival were …
RED LIGHTS, LAY THE FAVORITE, and RED HOOK SUMMER
Every film festival has a few strikeouts, and at Sundance the catastrophes are often ones that sound the most promising on paper.
Bad word of mouth began to circulate quickly about Red Lights, a mystery-thriller starring Cillian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen, Robert De Niro, and Sigourney Weaver, about supernatural debunkers facing off with a world-famous psychic. It was written and directed by Rodrigo Cortes, who previously thrilled Sundance with the Ryan Reynolds get-me-out-of-this-coffin movie Buried.
Millennium Entertainment still picked up the film for distribution, but the reviews were painful. At one point, a group of distribution executives were overheard in another Sundance screening talking about the moment when a whole crowd of potential buyers stood up and exited the theater during its premiere.
Lay the Favorite, a comedy about professional sports gamblers in Las Vegas, entered the festival with promise, featuring Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall (pictured, right), and Catherine Zeta-Jones among the cast and director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) at the helm. The film website Collider slammed it with an F, while devising numerous colorful theories about why it turned out so badly.
Meanwhile, Spike Lee – another filmmaker expected to make a splash at the festival – instead belly-flopped with Red Hook Summer, which EW’s Owen Gleiberman annihilated thusly: “Red Hook Summer has some great gospel numbers, but aside from that, it’s a messy, disorganized dud … The movie he’s come up with is a barely edible casserole of attitudes.” (Read: “Spike Lee does the wrong thing.“)
Even more promising were some of the amateur offerings of Sundance. Those arrived courtesy of …
NEXT PAGE: Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns on Sundance
HitRECord Joe’s Homemade Spectacular
Sundance is known as a place where a nobody can become a somebody overnight. A place where Steven Soderbergh (this is true) can go from driving a Sundance shuttle one year to being the toast of it the next with sex, lies and videotape.
But the barrier to entry can still be steep for those hoping to make their own movie. Kevin Smith did it with Clerks, but he had to sell his beloved comic-book collection. (He can afford to replace it now.)
If there is one single person kicking down Sundance’s gates and inviting the masses in to play, it’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt – star of past Sundance favorites (500) Days of Summer, Mysterious Skin, and Brick, and ringleader of the crowd-source moviemaking enterprise hitRECord.org.
Gordon-Levitt hosted a live, interactive short-movie screening, sing-a-long, and Q&A in the middle of the festival, which was also live-streamed online to anyone who wanted to watch around the world.
Unlike most screenings or events, which come with ominous warnings to “shut off all recording equipment,” Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord circus started with an admonishment to the crowd to “turn ON all recording devices.”
The dark auditorium immediately became an undulating sea of glowing, handheld screens.
Gordon-Levitt asked the crowd to help him define “independent,” but the event did that itself.
If there were future Sundance filmmaking stars in the audience, they may count hitRECord’s gathering as the night they got their start at the festival.