Heavy snow didn’t keep film geeks from trudging out to the 2018 Sundance Film Festival on Day, and they weren’t disappointed. Paul Dano went behind the camera to create a really wonderful yet understated directorial bow.
Personally, I’ve been a fan of Dano’s since seeing him in the underrated “L.I.E,” and he’s proven to be like Joseph Gordon-Levitt is following his instincts to keep from getting chewed up by the industry. It’s not easy to begin as a young adult and keep doing the projects you want.
Here are the highlights from Day 3 at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival:
Whenever an actor turns to directing, the endeavor is often met with equal doses of anticipation and skepticism. Festival Director John Cooper admitted feeling as much in his remarks before the world premiere of U.S. Dramatic Competition entry Wildlife. Familiarity with the artist’s work draws our attention, but whether or not the work in itself is worthy of that attention becomes an open and sometimes daunting question. But it was quickly apparent that Paul Dano’s Wildlife could stand up to such scrutiny, transporting the audience at the Eccles Theater away from such extra-filmic questions and to 1960s Montana, where a young couple, played by Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, and their teenaged son, played by newcomer Ed Oxenbould, worry over money and endure waves of restlessness that threaten to disrupt their family dynamics.
Before the screening, Dano talked about how discovering other independent artists while attending Sundance for his first film, L.I.E.(2001), helped trigger a love for and dedication to cinema, culminating in this directorial debut 17 years later. After the screening he talked about his attraction to this story in particular. “I read this book by Richard Ford, Wildlife, and was really moved by it,” he said. “I think something he captured that I loved was the feeling that family is one of the greatest loves of our life, and because of that it’s one of the greatest sources of struggle and possibly pain in our life. And so the compassion toward these flawed parents and witnessing them through the kid’s eyes spoke to me.”
Asked to describe what it was like to work with Dano as a director, after having known him as a fellow actor, the veteran members of the cast, each of whom either worked with him in the past or knew him as a friend, sounded similar notes of praise. “Paul was kind of everything you wanted in a director,” Mulligan said. “He’s encouraging, challenging, and inquisitive about things, understands when you get stuck in a rut or have a moment of self-doubt and knows how to get you out of it because he’s been in those ruts. I just knew he was going to make a brilliant film because he makes brilliant choices in his own work, and I could only imagine he would narrow all those instincts in a film that he made. I think he has.”
“I think you just experienced what it’s like to work with Paul Dano,” Gyllenhaal said to the audience. “There’s a persistent rhythm that is never-ending, and underneath it is a fire that is so sensitive and so loving, and full of empathy. And somehow still so quiet.” At which point the actor seemed to enjoy getting caught up in the moment. “And also he’s probably more of a man than I could ever be,” he said, before laughing and breaking the spell. “I mean, what are we supposed to say? He’s our friend. He’s a great guy.”
“Next question, there have to be more questions,” Dano said, projecting mortification.
But not before ace character actor Bill Camp, who plays a surprising rival for Mulligan’s affections in the film, weighed in. “Paul is very smart. He’s articulate. He’s tall,” he said, eliciting more laughs from Gyllenhaal. “I had an implicit trust of him. I was also 99.9% sure he knew what he wanted. So there was a wide landscape of freedom every time we’d start to go. And that’s very important to me. He’s stimulating. And that’s important for an actor.”
“And one more thing…” Gyllenhaal said with a smile, officially killing his director with kindness in front of a thousand people.
Sorry to Bother You
Though Boots Riley has been on stage thousands of times with his band The Coup, he was more nervous in the few minutes leading up to introducing the premiere of his debut film than he had ever been before. “[This film has] been something that I’ve been lying to people saying that I was going to do — lying until it really happened.”
A first-time writer and director (who attended film school before his band got a recording deal), Riley received initial support and mentorship for his Sorry to Bother You script through the Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Labs. The magic-realist story follows black telemarketer Cassius Green, who figures out the mysterious trick to moving up the ranks only to discover a sinister secret at the top. Meanwhile, his coworkers band together to demand better working conditions, and he is faced with the decision of getting ahead or standing up.
With a stellar cast that includes Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) and Tessa Thompson (Selma), Riley creates a wildly imaginative alternate universe with an eerie feeling of foreignness and arbitrariness that — though he downplayed it as simply “that stupid shit that you gotta go through to get somewhere, and it’s confusing” — coalesces into a reflection of race and class.]
Cast member Omari Hardwick explained, “We’re in a world where sometimes we don’t know what the fuck to do. … This movie is very much reflective of the present social climate we find ourselves in.”
Stanfield expanded on that parallel regarding the experiences of black Americans: “Shit feels foreign to us in this country still … so for us to operate in this world and be successful, sometimes that means moving away from your established identity.”
The conundrum of appearing to sell out when trying to become successful is an all-too-familiar theme for black stories. Stanfield said, “Double consciousness is something we have to deal with. It’s a unique issue. Especially for black males, it’s like you fit into two categories. There’s not really a gray area for us to be human beings. Trying to search for our identity is something that we have to try to establish for ourselves. … I kind of felt a hint of that from reading this script, trying to find a little space in the world being a black dude.”
But with recent years seeing an increase in black artists bringing their stories to the forefront, Tessa Thompson expressed her optimism for the impact of these creators: “I’m really grateful to filmmakers like Boots … that decide, If I don’t see a space for myself, I’ll just create it. And I think we’re seeing that with so many black artists in particular right now, and that’s so good and so necessary.”
With Bisbee ’17, director Robert Greene returns to the Festival with another exploration along the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking. Just two years after his last film, Kate Plays Christine, took home a Special Jury Award for writing, Greene is back with his most ambitious endeavor to date: an exhumation of a long-forgotten dark moment in American history in which a sheriff and an army of armed deputized citizens deported more than a thousand striking miners, most of whom were foreign-born, from the near-border town of Bisbee, Arizona. What became known as the Bisbee Deportation was buried by the victors, a.k.a. the local mining company, who made sure the story wasn’t discussed. Greene’s approach to remembering the event is to enlist the current citizens of the town, which has become a charming bohemian enclave, to reenact the deportation on its 100th anniversary.
Greene said it was a story he’d long wanted to tell, ever since visiting a relative who moved to the town and picking up a book of local history, also called Bisbee ’17, which recounted the events and the radical union uprising that preceded it. The coming of last year’s anniversary served as a catalyst for alighting upon the town and its diverse array of residents. Greene talked about the townspeople’s initial wave of skepticism, which he managed to both overcome and utilize in telling a story defined by conflicting opinions and feelings.
“Like a lot of small towns, when outsiders come in they’re like, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” he said. “And that’s healthy, especially because documentary filmmakers are, like, creeps. So we just took a long time. We started filming in October of 2016 and made multiple trips. I think everybody was mad at us at least once in the beginning. It was a long process of gaining trust.” He said that with a town full of artists, others had pre-existing ideas and designs for commemorating and even reenacting the deportation, which he needed to navigate delicately. Some of those initiatives were incorporated into and captured by the final film, and “by the end, I feel like we came together,” he said.
“One of the things I love about this movie is it felt like all of the subjects were making the movie with Robert,” senior programmer David Courier added, a sentiment echoed by one of the more prominent subjects of the film, Sue Ray, whose grandfather was deputized and actually deported his own brother.
She recounted how her own research was prompted by her daughter’s middle school assignment to recount a historical incident, and their reckoning with the fact that it’s not a well-known incident in their town. “No one would talk about it. People kept it quiet; it’s not a discussion that goes on in most homes in Bisbee. I don’t know if they’re ashamed or if there are so many bad feelings,” she said. “So I started keeping my own history, and it was my desire to one day make this story public. This has been the most wonderful experience for me, to see my grandfather and uncle Archie’s story given life along with all the others who were involved on the right and the left. If only those who were involved in the deportation could see what’s happening, that they are remembered, and that it has changed our lives to be able to put it out there, and make it into Bisbee ’17.”
Jane Fonda in Five Acts
It’s impossible to think of a more fitting time to world-premiere Jane Fonda in Five Acts than on the day that millions of women around the globe march together for social change. Few women have been as synonymous with becoming emancipated from men and strong in their own right as Fonda. In her new documentary set to debut on HBO later this year, director Susan Lacy has created an unflinching portrait that illuminates the icon’s journey from a young girl of privilege to a woman who’s made a culturally significant impact on the world.
The film begins with Richard Nixon asking, “What in the world is the matter with Jane Fonda?” As we learn over the course of the film, there are many things wrong with her (an eating disorder, an inferiority complex), but probably not what the disgraced former president meant when he posed this question at the height of Fonda’s controversial political activism and her infamous visit to Hanoi, which is fully and honestly explored here.
The five titled acts of the story, which could have easily been named in reference to phases of a lengthy career in which she evolved from girl next door to sex kitten to brilliant actress to fitness guru, instead refer to various periods in which Fonda was dominated by the prominent man in her life: her movie star father, Henry Fonda; first husband, libertine filmmaker Roger Vadim; second husband, liberal politician Tom Hayden; and third husband, unconventional billionaire Ted Turner. The fifth act bears the title “Jane,” indicating that Fonda has finally come fully into her own.
Lacy, who has directed compelling documentaries about Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, used hours of interviews with Fonda, her ex-husbands, and her son Troy Garrity (who sheds light on a most unusual childhood), as well as an incredible collection of home movies and vintage photographs — including well-chosen clips from Fonda’s movies that show her development as an artist — to create an updated and cinematic version of the actress’s candid memoir My Life So Far.
During the Q&A, Lacy said that she wanted to make the film because she thinks Fonda has become even more reflective over the years since her book was published in 2005, and she’s now out in the world as a fully realized Jane.
Fonda, in turn, thanked Lacy for “making sense out of this crazy life of mine,” but she added that she’s not fully realized; rather, she’s still very much “a work in progress.”
She’ll undoubtedly continue to lead the way on her terms.