Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I had no idea what a huge scene it was here. They say it's a huge scene, but until you experience it, it's kind of like Vietnam. You have to have been there to really know what it's like.

--Actor Rainn Wilson, on The Sundance Film Festival

David and I are walking up Main Street. I use the word "up" quite literally, since it's a steep hill, and at 7,000 feet, I'm feeling it. My snow boots make scuffling sounds on the slushy sidewalk, but I can't look down or I'll slam into someone. I tuck my chin into my scarf, which is covered in snowflakes that have just begun falling. "I could use some coffee," I tell David. He's already been here a day to give a presentation with Adobe, but I've just arrived. I point across the street. "There's a place called Cows. They have coffee, and--I'm guessing--ice cream." We cross the street, which is narrow but packed with taxis, trucks and other jaywalkers like ourselves. I open the door to Cows, and a rush of warmth and sound pours out. We peer inside, and it's a sea of shoulders and heads. Quickly, it becomes clear that all these people have packed themselves into Cows for a reason, and that reason is standing in the center of the crowd, resplendent in a spotless, full-length camel-hair coat and a blazing diamond ear stud the size of my nose. It's P. Diddy, or whatever he's calling himself these days. He's on the cell phone. Lots of other cell phones are out, and they are pointed at Diddy. There's a lot of yelling and pushing. A chorus of girlish voices goes up: "We love you, Diddy!"

"Okay," I say to David. "This is seriously bizarre." It's 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 20 in Park City, Utah. I am finally at Sundance.

A woman came up to me and said, 'Oh, I'd like to gift you.' I didn't know gift was a verb, but apparently it is, and that's what people do: They gift each other here. So I got a Sonic toothbrush and a little photo frame and shoes. And a Timberland coat.

--Rainn Wilson

I can tell that a lot is going on just barely out of my sight. We pass storefronts that have been transformed into "suites" for the 10 days of Sundance--for magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Premiere, Las Vegas nightclubs, temporary outposts for clothing designers, cell phone retailers and high-end liquor, and even one suite dedicated to an unction with the tagline "Better than Botox." The latter is gifting pink snow hats with their logo, and we see them all over town on the heads of women who are also wearing three-inch Jimmy Choos in the snow. The giveaways are known as "swag," and the only swag I get is a film reel from Adobe that contains liquid breath mints and chapstick. It's pretty cute, though. Before the weekend is up, we have discovered all the spots in town to score free coffee, water and soda--each time we help ourselves, my non-celebrity heart gets a little thrill.

There's a lot of blah, blah, blah going on at a festival, and you can get lost in that.

--Diego Luna, Actor

David gets me a VIP pass from Adobe that says my name and "Sponsor" at the bottom. We wear them on lanyards around our necks in the hope they will get us into stuff. They don't, but apparently they do lend us some version of Sundance street cred because a lot of people approach us. Some of them ask for directions, or what movies we've seen, and a few just seem to want to chat. Like, "Are you here for the producers party?" or "What did you think of Hal Hartley's views on HD?" I am sort of snowed by what I take for small-town community spirit, but then my friend Jessica, who used to live near Park City and went to Sundance every year, says "You got Hollywood-ed."


"That's why everyone seemed so friendly."

"But they didn't seem to have any particular point in talking to me."

"Exactly." Apparently, this is what struggling actors and directors and producers do at Sundance: they make conversation with people in badges for as long as necessary to determine if they have something to offer, or for absolute certain that they don't. I have no idea if I made it difficult for them or not. Certainly the ubiquitous uniform of puffy parkas and Ugg boots is a great leveller, and the reason why the blond girls in rabbit fur and stilletos tend to make a statement that perhaps they don't intend.

As any Sundance veteran will tell you, debuting a movie at the snowcapped Rocky Mountain festival can be nerve-racking. You worry that people won't get your vision. That your film won't be picked up for distribution. That critics will eviscerate you.

--Missy Schwartz, Entertainment Weekly

David and I have lunch in Salt Lake City after I fly in, and while we eat he shows me the Sundance movie catalog. I'm amazed that nearly every film features actors I've heard of. David is excited that he snagged a couple VIP tickets to a film screening the next day; someone was handing them out at the Adobe event the night before. The film is The Year of the Dog, starring Molly Shannon and directed by Mike White (Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl) and it will screen at 8:30 a.m. You read that right. Unlike other film festivals, Sundance runs films throughout the work day and each one screens four or more times during the festival. For many attendees, it is a work day. I'm thrilled that we have tickets but sort of mystified by why they are otherwise so hard to come by. I learn that the tickets sell out months in advance, and by the time the festival actually starts, one's only options are to "know someone" or to take part in the arcane "Wait List" process. More on that in a moment.

We wake at dawn the next day because we are staying five miles out of town, and because Park City is so small we have to park far away and then ride the free shuttle into the center of town. We get very good at this. On this morning, we luck out with a parking space right near the theater because it is so early. It's called The Library Theatre, and that's because it's actually the Park City library with a Sundance makeover. Most of the theaters are multi-taskers. Another one, according to a volunteer I meet, is actually a converted basketball court. As we rush towards the entrance, I feel like a VIP for the first and only time. We flash our shiny tickets and volunteers wave us through while unlucky people pace the sidewalk shouting "Tickets? Extra tickets?" and we swoosh past a white tent bulging with a hundred people or more behind a barricade. Did I mention it's six degrees this fine morning? Inside, we are greeted by several more volunteers who motion us towards the back of the theater. Once we nab seats, I go out a side door to use the bathroom and get a bottle of water, and when I come back I'm allowed to by-pass the line. I hear the door volunteers telling a bunch of people with tickets that the screening is full, sorry about that, better luck next time. I sit down just as an organizer comes out to introduce the film.

It's weird to sit in a theater with 400 people and watch a movie and think OHMIGOD, I'M AT SUNDANCE because you're still sitting in a crowded theater watching a movie, just like always. The movie is very strange. It begins with several establishing shots of Molly Shannon and a Jack Russell terrier named Pencil so we understand that the dog is her life. The audience is howling in a strained way that kind of freaks me out--I don't find it very funny. It's like they're trying to be ingratiating or want to feel they're having the full Sundance experience. The movie shifts sharply with the introduction of John C. Reilly, who is very funny, and Peter Saarsgard, who's kind of creepy but I love him anyway. The whole time I'm watching, I can't figure out the tone--is this a movie celebrating animal rights activism, or is it a satire about animal rights activism? It seems wrong that I don't know. When the movie comes to a theater near you, you'll have to explain it to me. The most exciting part is that Molly's brother is played by Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed The Station Agent (put that in your queue--it rocks) and is also an actor (the brother-in-law in Meet The Parents) but also appears in my college photo album. I attended the University of London on a Junior Year Abroad program, and so did Tom. All the Americans used to clump together in the campus pub at night, drinking gin and tonic and talking about whatever 20-year-olds with gin and tonics talk about. Tom used to say that when he graduated he was going to Hollywood. "To do what?" I asked. "To become an actor," he said, without apology or braggadocio. "Good luck with that," I said. Clearly he didn't need my best wishes, since he did just fine with his plan, and even wrote a movie in his '30s that I'd rank with my favorites. My hat's off to you, Tom. Just briefly, because I'm freezing without it.

After the movie, the director and nearly the entire cast file in for an Q&A, and that's where I really feel the magic of Sundance. Famous people don't parade into the theater when you see a movie at home. I am thrilled to discover that Peter Saarsgard is just as adorable without a script, and experience a weird sensation being in the same room as Tom McCarthy, 20 years later, both of us with completely different lives now. It's a tad depressing, to tell you the truth.

Waitress was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who was killed last November in New York City at age 40. Celebrating without Shelly, who also costarred, would be tough. 'We're going to try to enjoy it,' Cheryl Hines says, forcing a smile. 'But I know it's going to be emotional.'

Not really understanding what we are getting ourselves into, David and I decide to try our luck with the Wait List system for a 4:00 screening of Waitress. The movie has good buzz, but it's showing in the largest venue--more than 1,000 seats--so we figure we've got a shot. The rules, as detailed in the film guide, are to show up two hours before a show to receive a number. Then, line up again before the film in order of these numbers. We arrive 2 1/2 hours early and barely make it into the indoor pen, which is then closed due to fire regulations. Hundreds of people are left out in the cold, never to be seen again. The pen is hot and crowded, with no chairs. The high altitude makes me feel like I'm on sedatives, and I end up huddled in a corner for nearly 45 minutes while David stands in the line. Finally, we're given the numbers 155 and 156, which means after everyone with tickets is seated, this is our position. We walk to the hospitality suite, where we read and drink free beverages for a long time. Then we hike back to the theater, and this time we wait in line for an hour, not really sure where to stand. We end up getting into a lively discussion with a mother-daughter quartet who have driven in from another Utah town and have successfully seen a few movies on the Wait List system. They are optimistic about our chances. We enjoy the conversation, but the updates from the volunteers grow increasingly grim. Finally, with about 20 people in line before us, the announcement comes that the film is starting and there are no more seats. Still, no one budges. If the others are like us, they just can't process the fact that we've waited in line for several hours and still aren't going to get in. David and I end up slumped in the lobby with a banana and a brownie, gathering our strength for the long walk back to headquarters. Several volunteers guard the theater doors.

This was the year Sundance elders marketed a mantra--FOCUS ON FILM--in an effort to clear a festivalgoer's mind of the distractions of celebrity sightings and rampant swagnation. And the mantra became a freebie button--which is a form of swag, no?

--Lisa Schwarzbaum, film critic

David and I have been talking about attending Sundance together ever since we met. Movies were our first common ground, our first shared passion. And Sundance is movie nirvana, the place where it all comes together--the business, the craft, the stars, the movies available around the clock. For years we talked about volunteering, which would get us free passes to all the screenings--when we weren't working in sub-zero temperatures, that is. But lots of other people want these jobs, too, and we never got our act together to apply. Now that we have a kid, the idea of 10 days running errands and seeing movies three states away is no longer practical. This year, David was surprised to get an invitation to Sundance from Adobe, and the offer of a (fabulously swanky) place to stay on top of that. I was fuming and bitter until Paul and Mary offered to take Jarrah for the weekend and man, do we OWE them. It is the first time in a year that David and I are alone together for longer than five hours.

I knew I was going to see famous people--it's impossible to avoid them in a town so small. After the Diddy sighting, we happen upon William Baldwin signing autographs down by the ski lift (I tell David he's the only Baldwin the years have been kind to) and we think we see Sienna Miller getting interviewed on a balcony across the street while we are noshing at Main St. Pizza & Noodle. Then there's the cast in the flesh at The Year of the Dog, and a surreal encounter at Rite-Aid, while I am deliberating over a selection of gel inserts for my boots. Suddenly, there stand Dick and Logan from Veronica Mars, which is doubly weird because a) they are obviously in need of ablutions and b) they film in San Diego! We also get up close and personal with the director Hal Hartley, who speaks at "HD House" (oy, that name) and seems like a very nice man. There is an awesome moment when David asks the check-in gal if the Hal Hartley panel is seating yet, and she rolls her eyes and says "No, the astronaut Buzz Aldridge has been in there forever and won't stop talking."

"Do you mean Buzz ALDRIN?" inquires David, in the high-pitched voice he reserves for special examples of moronity, and--wait for it--adds, "...THE MAN WHO WALKED ON THE MOON?" She is non-plussed.

"Yeah, that's him. I can't remember everybody's name."

So, the Sundance Festival is both exactly like and nothing like I expected. I expected lots of gawking and gazing and swag and suites and stars, and in that sense it delivers. The glamour quotient is high. At the same time, there's a very charming way in which the freezing weather and the proximity of a small town create a certain coziness--while the air is chilly, the vibe is not. But I definitely thought I'd attend more films, and it's frustrating that fulfilling this intention is totally out of my control. I know that this is hard for David, too. I also have an unsettling feeling when we walk by doorways with white curtains and credential-checking booth babes, knowing that just behind those curtains rich, famous people are frolicking with other rich, famous people, not to mentiion receiving the gifts they can actually afford to buy on their own. In the weeks that follow, I read coverage of Sundance in several magazines and marvel at photos snapped in the exact locations I'd been, often on the same day and time, of people and events I did not see. It's as if there had been a wrinkle in the time-space continuum and David and I attended a parallel version of Sundance.

And yet I didn't really want or expect to feel like a celebrity at Sundance. I wanted to see movies, and wanted just to be there, for a short time, in the fulcrum of the filmmaking world, experiencing that energy. In this, Sundance does not disappointment. And I'm glad that I was a part of it.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Sam! That was great! I feel like I have been there! I can hear the Uggs crunching in the snow!

So glad you both could go!



Anonymous said...

I only believe that P.Diddy's earing was as big as your nose because your nose is quite small for a nose.

Love you,

Alleen said...

Very cool!!!!!!!!!!! We were in Park City a couple of years ago and I'm just trying to picture it all abuzz with celebs!

Kim said...

Sam, you are so cool. And I say that with not the slightest bit of sarcasm. I could never be as cool as you. Jarrah's lucky--she's going to have the coolest mom on the block! My poor kids are going to have the moms that give out apples for Halloween... :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, Sammy -- now I will never have to wonder what Sundance is really like! Awesome post. Loved reading it. xxx, Lix

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

Thanks for taking me to Sundance with you, which is exactly where it felt like I was while reading. Whew! I needed that.