Even in this, my 17th year of covering Sundance, I encountered something that had never happened to me before, first thing on Friday morning, officially Day 2 of the prestigious independent film festival.
I arrived at the Sundance Festival Headquarters at the Sheraton Hotel in Park City just after 8 a.m., finding a parking space George Costanza would have bragged about for hours, right across from the hotel. After checking in at the press office, I hurried back to a nearby shuttle stop in an effort to get to my first screening — the 9 a.m. showing of the new Taylor Swift documentary, “Miss Americana.”
With the anticipated popularity of the film — even though it had premiered on opening night — I was gearing up for a packed, possibly standing-room only shuttle ride to nearby Eccles Theatre. The next shuttle came roaring down the road, and actually would have completely blown by the stop had not an official volunteer exuberantly waved the driver down.
The shuttle doors opened, I mounted the one big step up and entered ... a completely empty bus. It was kind of a bizarre feeling — as anyone who has ever ridden a bus in Park City during the festival can no doubt attest.
Even better, it was just the bus driver and I for the next two stops. Again, an almost bizarro world experience. Kind of like my own personal Uber driver, but without the charge.
Bearded Cumberbatch sends his regrets
Before Friday night’s debut of his period thriller “Ironbark” at the Sundance Film Festival’s Eccles Theatre, English director Dominic Cook told a story from the only previous time he had been to Utah.
Cook said it had been several years ago, when he happened to bring a project to work on at the Sundance Institute. Worn down by jet lag and suffering a bout of altitude sickness, Cook said he was at his first Sundance Institute gathering when he was introduced to someone named Bob.
“I was talking to this guy and he was very nice,” Cook said. “I suddenly realized about two minutes into the conversation that I was talking to Robert Redford. Of course, (then) I clammed up.”
“Ironbark” is based on the true story of British businessman Greville Wynn, who was recruited by MI6 to smuggle classified information out of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Wynn in the film, but he appeared onscreen as himself in an introductory video played for the crowd just prior to the screening.
A personal message video is a Sundance rarity, but Cumberbatch wanted to relay his regrets for not being able to be there in person for the premiere. Cumberbatch is in New Zealand, where filming for his latest project, “The Power of the Dog,” begins shooting Monday.
“So I have a good excuse — not that I need one,” a bearded Cumberbatch said from New Zealand. “Godspeed, and see you next year, maybe?”
Serious moment incites giggles
There was a scene in “Ironbark,” the Cuban Missile Crisis period piece which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, where Russian military intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky was describing Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as being unstable and not the type of person you want handling nuclear weapons codes.
It was a serious scene, but it didn’t stop an immediate ripple of laughter from coursing through the Eccles Theatre crowd, with many in attendance drawing a connection to current affairs in the United States.
But the humor was initially lost on Georgian actor Merab Ninidze, who played Penkovsky in the film and was sitting in the audience at the time.
Ninidze appeared quite nervous onstage before the full audience when fielding a query earlier in the post-screening Q-and-A. But a later question asked him what he thought upon hearing laughter during the serious scene in question.
“My English was bad in that scene,” Ninidze said, “that’s why I thought the audience was laughing. They (his costars) had to explain to me why the audience was laughing. Then I said, ‘Now I now.’ “
15 minutes of fame downgraded to 10
At the end of Saturday’s world premiere screening of “Four Good Days” at the Eccles Theatre, director Rodrigo Garcia called members of his talented cast — including stars Glenn Close and Mila Kunis — up on stage.
“Get up here, people!” Garcia said with added gusto. “Let us have our 15 minutes!”
I don’t know if there’s new post-screening protocols in play, but if the first three days of the festival are an indication, then the sessions seem noticeably shorter this year. In previous years, the question-and-answer period seemed to time out from 13 to 15 minutes. This year, for every screening I’ve attended but one, the Q&A has been cut off at the 10-minute mark.
Having attended so many of these over the years, you develop an innate feel for just how long they should last. You can kind of sense when the moderator is going to jump in with the obligatory, “I’m told we have time for one more question” mandate. That moment’s arrival definitely seems accelerated and a bit forced this year.
It’s too bad, because these sessions are something that really sets Sundance Film Festival screenings apart from the norm, and make the experience more impactful. With some films over the years, I end up remembering more about what was said afterward than I do about the movie itself. I’ve got to believe the same proves true for other Sundance-goers as well.
Not only do you get to learn insights about the specific project itself, many things you probably wouldn’t be aware of otherwise, but it’s interesting to see the personalities of the actors and directors at play.
With a record number of films screening at the festival this year, maybe this is just a sacrifice that was made to keep the giant cog of machinery running on time. But those extra five minutes of interaction time are missed.
I guess what I’m saying is, I echo Garcia’s sentiments. “Let us have our 15 minutes!”
Breaking from the Q&A no rm
Just when it seemed like the post-screening Q&A’s had settled into a comfortable, albeit shorter, routine, there were back-to-back sessions on Sunday night that took things in a different direction.
First, co-writers and stars Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin spiced things up while Covino (who is also the director) was introducing their movie, “The Climb.” The real-life best friends wrote a movie about, what else, a lifelong up-and-down relationship between a pair of best friends. In his intro, Covino mentioned Marvin, who then stood up in the audience and made his way down to the rostrum at the Ray theater. Harvin, however, fake stumbled and fell, sending his bucket of popcorn flying everywhere.
After the movie ended, the pair rode into the post-film session on bikes and sporting riding attire. (A pair of key plot sequences at the beginning and ending of the movie occur while the two are riding bikes.) It was fun to see such personality on display.
Immediately after that, I hustled over to the Eccles Theatre for the premiere of “Downhill,” starring Julia Luis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. Directors and writing partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash came out and it was immediately like comedy night. The two had a distinct rat-a-tat with hilarious delivery. Very funny.
Faxon and Rash then did something way out of the ordinary, bringing the entire cast in attendance out on stage. (This never happens before a movie.) They then had the cast improv working in a bakery. With comedic talent like Luis-Dreyfus, Ferrell and Zach Wood, it’s easy to imagine how fun this turn of events was.
Crazy little thing called misinformation
When you are jam packed into tight quarters with a bunch of other people, you can’t help but overhear conversations.
So it was on Sunday afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival, as it was standing room only on a shuttle bus trapped in dense traffic heading from Main Street to the theater district by the Fresh Market in Park City.
A very energetic bus driver was playing a personal playlist of songs over the speaker in the front and talking up a storm with a group of nearby riders. As this was going on, Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” began playing.
That’s when the bus driver dropped this nugget on her semi-captive audience: “I don’t care what anybody says,” she confidently stated, “this cover version is way better than Elvis Presley’s!”
Nobody within earshot called her on it, but let’s be clear about one thing: Freddie Mercury wrote “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” himself on acoustic guitar (albeit as a tribute to Elvis) — amazingly, within 5-10 minutes. So the King most certainly did not play the song before Queen, so there was no sharing of ... er ... royalties.