A few months before the second annual Sundance Film Festival -- held in January 1985 -- Joel and Ethan Coen, chain-smoking Camel lights in the tiny editing room I shared with sound designer Skip Lievsay, said in a very offhand manner, “Redford has this festival in Utah where you ski all day and watch movies all night.” They mentioned it because BLOOD SIMPLE had been accepted to compete at this very odd venue. Lifelong schussmeisters from Minnesota, the Coens seemed more excited about the days than the nights. For Skip and me, their announcement simply meant we had to be ready to mix the film’s sound in time for festival presentation.
We were. The boys skied, BLOOD SIMPLE won the Jury Prize… good times! Exciting times! Independent cinema was an embryo.
Now, for better or worse, it’s a grownup. The festival has become a sales venue – a place where agents sell independently financed films to studios, large and small. There’s a Fred Segal franchise at the foot of Park City’s chairlift. In a town where drinking was illegal, after-screening parties are now sponsored by booze manufacturers. A tiny room in a tiny cabin, miles from Park City, can be more expensive than a suite in a trendy New York hotel.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that it’s incredibly exciting to have a film in competition at the festival. So I’m very excited, again this year, indeed.
INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, written and directed by Maya Forbes, which I edited, has its worldwide premiere on January 18th, during opening weekend of the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival. It was delightful working with Maya on the film.
I met her about a year ago – a few months before the start of principal photography – after reading and falling in love with her screenplay and “mission statement.” The script tells the tale of a manic-depressive father who, in the early 1980’s, becomes the primary caretaker of his two young daughters. He must rise to the daunting task of raising the girls regardless of his mental illness.
What I loved about the mission statement was Maya’s clear intention to make comedy an essential part of the film’s overall tone. It would be too easy and probably too dark, she said, to focus on how bleak the narrative of a mentally ill father could be.
While cutting the film, I was reminded of an interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis that appeared in Premiere Magazine many years ago. Gordon, with whom I was privileged to work on MANHATTAN and STARDUST MEMORIES, said that an essential part of his job was reminding the director of her/his original goals. A given location might make it impossible to shoot what had been planned, for instance, but Gordon had to find alternatives that were in sync with the director’s vision.
And so, in the POLAR BEAR cutting room, as we shaped scenes in which authentic and beautiful performances by Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana captured the seriousness of the father’s situation, I found myself -- along with Maya – mining material to enhance the lighter tone originally intended.
I think we pulled it off. At least well enough to be one of the 16 films selected, from more than 12,000 submissions, to compete for the jury prize at the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance is my favorite of all the galas, because it’s still, basically, a Mecca for motion picture lovers. Over the years – having edited seven “official Sundance selections” -- I’ve met film fanatics from all over the world who trek to frigid Park City just to see what’s fresh and new and non-formulaic in contemporary American cinema. The marketplace notwithstanding, most people attend Sundance just to enjoy themselves at the movies. It reminds me of what rock musicians love about playing far-flung venues: audiences don’t come, as they might in Los Angeles or New York, to “be impressed.” They come to have a great time. I know that this year, once again, they will.