Day Nine: Ashton Kutcher is jOBS, Jonathan Groff Inhabits Adapted Sedaris Story
Sundance.org is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for roundups from the previous day's events.
By Eric Hynes
“It think this is the largest crowd that’s ever watched anything I’ve ever done,” director Kyle Patrick Alvarez said to the 1,200 plus audience members at the Eccles Theater on Friday afternoon. It’s a sentiment that many directors have echoed over the years, having gone from the honeycombed isolation of the editing and color-correction suite in December to this epic two-tiered cruise ship of a venue in late January, where fledgling films are hatched into the world and futures are literally decided on the spot. It’s enough to give a young filmmaker the bends. Which, as it happens, isn’t unlike the sensation that young David experiences going from tweedy Connecticut to rural Oregon in C.O.G., Alvarez’s filmic adaptation of David Sedaris’s celebrated essay and a selection in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Festival.
The film follows David (who goes by the name of Samuel, and is played by Jonathan Groff) as he tries to disappear into a world that’s vastly different from his own, first working in an apple picking and processing farm and then apprenticing as a stone-carving craftsman. He struggles to make friends, and to become anything other than himself among people whose differences from him prove to be both endearing and obstructive. In the post-screening Q&A, Alvarez described the film as a fictional version of Sedaris’s non-fiction story. “I read the story when I was 15, a little after it was first published, and it always stuck with me,” he said. “I didn’t seek out to make a David Sedaris movie, I sought to make C.O.G., and I think that’s what appealed to him.” Many filmmakers have sought to adapt Sedaris essays over the years, but Alvarez’s isolation of this particular essay, and his own personal take on it, seemed to make the difference. “Part of his attitude was, ‘why don’t you go and make it your own?’,” Alvarez said.
Which is exactly what Alvarez did, eschewing the story’s first-person approach with a more even-handed look at the people amongst whom David lived, and employing a very present percussive soundtrack that the director provocatively described as “overscoring” rather than underscoring the action. After having minimal discussions with Sedaris during production, the moment of truth came at the beginning of the Festival. “He didn’t know anything about what the film was going to be like until last Sunday when he was here for the premiere. He was very positive, which is great. He said a lot of it felt really real to him, which is interesting because I wasn’t really going for accuracy.”
By Nate von Zumwalt
Friday night’s world premiere of jOBS, a film more laden with hype than any other in recent Sundance memory, was a decisive step toward silencing its reflexive detractors.
Joshua Michael Stern’s ambitious third feature premiered at Eccles to a packed house of Festivalgoers and an inevitable expanse of expectation. jOBS takes on the colossal task of capturing the almost sacred life and accomplishments of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple. In that pursuit, Ashton Kutcher (Jobs) and Josh Gad (Steve Wozniak, Apple Co-Founder) smartly inhabit their respective characters with the finely nuanced and boundless complexities that define each as men. As Stern and Kutcher both noted following the film’s premiere, jOBS is an endeavor that will inevitably be marked by criticism, but also could serve as the defining film about the life and time of Steve Jobs.
“A lot of people have different things invested in different parts of his life,” explained Stern. “I think one of the goals for the movie was not to necessarily answer every question, but to sort of put you in a place, and hopefully the cumulative effect of the film will give you a feeling of what happened.”
Kutcher, speaking bluntly about his approach to the role, conceded that portraying our generation’s true iconoclast was as daunting as it might appear. “This was terrifying. This was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever tried to do in my life,” Kutcher blurted with his trademark enthusiasm. “Because I admire this man so much, and what he’s done. I admire the way he built things.”
In fact, Jobs’ indelible imprint on mankind—hardly an embellishment—was on showcase all over the theater, with countless audience members recording the Q&A with their iPads and iPhones. So why agree to such a challenging assignment?
“He’s a guy who failed and got back on the horse,” said Kutcher. “I think we can all sort of relate to that at some place in our life.”
Shorts Program 5
By Jeremy Kinser
A bittersweet family drama, a bizarre horror-comedy, and a stop-motion animated documentary are among the films that compile Shorts Program 5. The half dozen films were among the 65 short films selected from a record 8,102 submissions for Sundance 2013’s Short Film program.
In Palimpsest, a U.S. entry from director Michael Tyburski, viewers are introduced to a man (Joel Nagle) with an unusual occupation — he provides a unique type of therapy by “tuning houses.” The filmmaker explained to the audience that he and co-screenwriter Ben Nabors became inspired when they realized they were both fascinated by the subtlety of sounds in their homes. Earlier this week Nagel was awarded a Short Film Special Jury Award for Acting.
In the animated documentary Irish Folk Furniture, which was honored with the Short Film Jury Award: Animation, 16 pieces of traditional folk furniture are repaired and returned home. Director Tony Donoghue says that after seeing people throw away 19th century furniture they associated with the country’s poverty, he set out to “make a propaganda film that said ‘This is your heritage. Hang onto it!’”
New Zealand director Zia Mandviwalla makes her Sundance debut with the unexpectedly poignant Night Shift, which follows a Maori airport cleaner as she begins another long night shift. Mandviwalla said that having spent a lot of time in airports, she’s found them to be really interesting places of exceptional human drama. After the screening she addressed the challenges of filming in an airport. “We wrote a very specific script andacknowledged that we wanted to shoot in the real environment of their airport,” she recalled. “In order to do that we had to be very flexible with the needs of the airport. When we were actually shooting, there were times we had to stop what we were in the middle of because we were being moved along.”
Other films in the fifth program include The Apocalypse, a bloody comedy from the U.S., which depicts a group of friends who face a unique challenge when they try to come up with an idea for how to spend their Saturday afternoon. From Israel, Summer Vacation co-directors Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit deliver an erotically charged drama about a man whose relaxing getaway with his family is tested by the appearance from someone from his past. In Russian director Philipp Yuryev’s bleak drama The Song of the Mechanical Fish, unexpected consequences greet a fisherman who travels a long distance to make amends with the son he abandoned as a child.
Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)
By Eric Hynes
At the conclusion of this intensely emotional film that begins with a clandestine romance and turns into an impossibly conflicted family drama set in contemporary Afghanistan, the first question for director Barmak Akram was about the seeming discord between the tragic elements of the story and the film’s title. “Why did you call this a love story?” a member of the audience at the Prospector Theater asked on Friday night. “I had done a lot of research on woman and self-immolation,” Akram said. “Often in those stories the women are really in love. This is where a lot of love stories can be found. In Afghanistan a lot of weddings are organized by families, so there isn’t a lot of love there. Instead the love can be found in these stories gone wrong.”
When asked if his intentions were to help change the laws in Afghanistan that violently limit women’s freedoms or to present a cautionary tale for women who might run afoul of the law, Akram replied that his goal “was to show a complex situation in an archaic society. While I’m not a politician, I hope to point out this situation so that people all over the world can understand the situation in Afghanistan.”
Though Akram’s two lead actors, Wajma Bahar and Mustafa Abdulsatar, are professionals who he discovered in a French stage play, most of the rest of the cast was comprised not only of non-professionals, but the lead actors’ immediate relations. “Wajma’s mother is Wajma’s real mother, and Wajman’s grandmother is Wajman’s real grandmother, and Wajman’s brother is Wajman’s real brother,” he said to escalated laughter. “And Mustafa’s mother is cousin, and Mustafa’s grandmother is his mother.” The litany only reinforces the sense of the film as a family affair, with themes that hit very close to home for everyone involved. And thanks to the power of film, to everyone in the Festival audience as well.