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.
“I made this movie with my best friend Jimmie,” director Joe Talbot said before the rousing world premiere of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a film about two native San Franciscan men trying to navigate a gentrified city. In the film, Talbot’s childhood friend Jimmie Fails plays himself as a young man determined to return to his childhood home, a majestic Victorian house now occupied by an older white couple. Estranged from his parents, Jimmie crashes with his best friend Montgomery, played by Jonathan Majors, who lives with his blind grandfather across town. The loving friendship between Jimmie and Montgomery serves as the heart of Talbot’s visually ripe and tonally distinctive debut, which he co-wrote with Fails.
“Jimmie and I met as preteens in San Francisco, and we would go on these long walks and just talk. We’d talk about life and love and girls and music and sports and girls, and sometimes we’d talk about pasts and our families and where we came from. And those conversations would become the basis of this film,” Talbot said. After the film, Fails talked of going away to college in New York but returning after a year to live with Talbot and his parents, which is when their screenplay started to take shape. “Through being in that house and around him all the time, and in that house with so many creative people—both of his parents are writers—all that creative energy allowed the script to happen,” he said. The central quest of the film hit close to home for Fails, who said that the house in the film was a stand-in for a house that is “the only place where I had a family—family dinners. So when I lost the house, the family went with it,” he said. “We’re not really in contact anymore.”
“Jimmie has been starring in movies that my brother and I have been making since high school. And he’s always made them better than they would be otherwise. And this was obviously the most personal movie for him. There’s no one else that could play Jimmie Fails than Jimmie,” Talbot said. According to the rest of the cast, the co-writers' longstanding rapport fostered an atmosphere of intimacy as well as an enveloping creative energy. “The family was built into the production,” said veteran character actor Rob Morgan, back for his fifth Festival as Jimmie’s wary father. “You got on set and you saw the level of talent that was there, and you just wanted to play. You see this brother, Jonathan [Majors]—the first time I saw him, in rehearsal, I was like, oh shit. We need to put in some work. These brothers are bringing it.”
“The people on this stage had built a very unique world,” Majors said. “And Montgomery Allen is a unique character. He was an integral part of that world, almost a mirror of it. Just existing in the script, in the play, in the frame, allowed me to be with Jimmie in San Francisco.”
For as much as Talbot and company created a world unto itself—thanks to striking set design and costuming in addition to the performances and writing—they were also honoring their beloved San Francisco, led by the spirit of their home city while also mourning what’s been lost and changed within it. The characters in the film are caught between trying to hold on to what’s precious and endangered about their community, and learning to be at peace with what’s gone, focusing instead on the relationships that can remain and sustain them. Talbot thanked the more than 70 collaborators in attendance for the premiere, many of whom joined him on stage for the Q&A. “This film that started as a conversation between two boys now feels like it was made by an entire city,” he said.
Always in Season
By Jeremy Kinser
Always in Season, Jacqueline Olive’s ambitious first feature documentary, offers a harrowing, multi-layered exploration into the history of racial violence and, in particular, two somewhat related stories that take place many decades apart: a brutal 1946 lynching in Georgia and the 2014 death of a black high school football player in North Carolina.
Following a very rudimentary investigation, the hanging death of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy was ruled a suicide by the local police in conservative Bladen County (a region that’s made headlines recently due to allegations of voter fraud and suppression). Lacy’s mother, Claudia, and brother, Pierre, believe that Lennon, who’d been dating an older white woman, was lynched by white locals to send a message to the town’s black community.
The director veers away from this compelling story to go back seven decades and shed new light on the 1946 Moore's Ford Lynchings in Georgia, in which four black people were pulled from their automobile and horrifically murdered by a group of white people. The case even drew the attention of President Harry Truman because one of the victims was a World War II veteran. Equally disturbing as the original crime is footage from the annual reenactment of the murder by locals, which draws a huge crowd of onlookers each summer. Olive also incorporates the story of Claude Neal, who was lynched in Florida in 1934; producer Danny Glover reads graphic and truly firsthand accounts of the murder in voiceover narration.
Olive began work on this project a decade ago, but when she learned of Lacy’s death, she returned to her home in Mississippi and saw a collection of lynching photographs. “With the ordinary people in those photos posing and smiling with the lynching victims I had a call to understand the stories more deeply,” she shared. “I started to research and develop the project and I started to look at the faces and eventually the stories of the perpetrators and then the spectators. As I started to learn more, I really was drawn in by stories of people who were doing the reenactments [and] people who were on a grassroots level looking at how they might repair the damage.”
During the Q&A that followed the premiere, a visibly distraught Claudia Lacy told the audience that watching her son’s story retold had helped her heal. “This is my process for grief,” she said. “They’re thinking they got away with it, but this story needs to be told.”
Some in the audience questioned the decision behind the graphic reenactment of the Moore's Ford Lynchings, which involve a fetus being ripped from the womb of a pregnant woman.
Sherrilyn Ifill, an author of an investigative book about the history of lynching, offered her answer: “For people who feel disquieted by the reenactment, it’s really vital to remember that the history of lynching and the reason that you don’t know the names of those people you saw is because there was a deliberate effort to keep it quiet,” she said. “I think this film is important and powerful because it’s another vehicle to expose this history. The focus of this is not a whodunnit; it’s about why a process wasn’t followed that would have honored the humanity of Lennon and his family and allowed them to feel respected.”
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
By Jeremy Kinser
Director Joe Berlinger returns to Park City with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, his seventh film to premiere at the Festival. The story of serial killer Ted Bundy also marks the veteran documentarian’s first narrative foray and what will likely be a career-altering role for former Disney heartthrob Zac Efron.
Berlinger’s film and Michael Werwie’s script isn’t a traditional serial killer thriller. It begins as a love story in 1969, when handsome Ted Bundy (Efron) meets single mother Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) at a bar in Seattle. The two begin a relationship out of a rom-com until Bundy is pulled over for running a stop sign and is soon jailed as a suspect in a slew of murders of young women. The director then runs through a series of events that sometimes plays like a greatest-hits version of Bundy’s life behind bars and in the courtroom. Many moments seem improbable and outlandish (young female groupies who swoon over his good looks and more than one escape from a high security prison) until you realize they all really happened.
Efron, who was Berlinger’s first choice for the lead, delivers a solid, effective performance with his natural charisma and a glint in his eyes. He allows audiences to see and understand the pull Bundy had with young women, including Liz. The actor told the audience that he didn’t want to glamorize or glorify Ted Bundy in any way. “The most intriguing thing about the character for me was at the end when he looks at Liz and says, ‘I’m not a bad guy,’” Efron said. “He wants to believe that.”
Collins delivers what might be her strongest performance to date and revealed that she met with her real-life counterpart. “She pulled out family photos that no one has seen. We looked at a happy Ted dangling Molly [Liz’s daughter] that seemed like a happy family,” She said. “But knowing everything that was happening at the time was deeply disturbing. She handed me a box of handwritten love letters. You could feel love and anger.”
Her research only went so far though. “I did not look at pictures of bodies or bloody images,” she shared. “I didn’t do any of that because Liz didn’t believe he did it and she didn’t see the images.”
Berlinger, acclaimed for true crime docs such as My Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost, is also responsible for Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which is currently streaming on Netflix. He said that both projects just happened to fall into his lap simultaneously.
“It’s actually fortuitous that the Ted Bundy doc is a deep dive into the mind of a killer,” he told the crowd. “If you want to know all the things Ted did and how evil he was, that’s the place to go.”
He added that Extremely Wicked represented the other side of the coin. “I wanted to explore how it feels to be deceived,” he stated. “This is a movie about how victims become victims. Liz is a victim of his deception. This movie is about how that pathology exists.”
By Dana Kendall
Even though writer/director Minhal Baig’s film Hala is based on many of her own experiences and those of her family, her mom didn’t know about the movie until Minhal called her in front of the audience right after the premiere screening.
Baig took advantage of the opportunity to introduce audience members to her mom, and she noted that it was surreal to be at the Festival with this project. It was only a year ago that she was still working on the film and came to Park City with Lulu Wang, whose film The Farewell also ended up premiering at this year’s Festival (and was also kept a secret from certain family members).
As Baig brought to life her coming-of-age drama about a 17-year-old Muslim Pakistani American girl, she was thinking about the young women who need to see themselves represented on the screen: “When I was growing up, I didn’t really see this character, and I really wanted to see her; it would have made me feel less alone.”
More than one audience member at the premiere screening affirmed that Baig had accomplished her goal—one even commented that if she had seen a film like this at 17, it would have been “life changing.”
Hala, played by Geraldine Viswanathan of Blockers fame, goes from dutifully obeying her parents’ wishes to challenging their expectations and exploring her sexuality while defining her own terms for her faith and her future. But apart from the teenager, the film also tackles another coming-of-age storyline of sorts, as Hala’s mother, Eram, grapples with the conflicts of the traditional lifestyle she is leading and comes to the realization that Hala will treat herself after the same pattern she sees from her mother.
For actress Purbi Joshi, who plays Eram, the film is very personal. “I’ve seen Erams, I’ve experienced Erams—sometimes I’ve been an Eram. And I wanted to fight for Eram,” she explained. “I come from India, and it’s a beautiful culture and I feel very privileged to be where I am and experience this freedom and stand here and talk amongst all of you—but there are Erams out there who are never allowed to. And I think that’s why we wanted to create this and feel Erams and feel Halas. … Hala is all heart.”
By Eric Hynes
In the contemporary political thriller The Report, which had its world premiere at the Eccles Theatre on Saturday afternoon, Adam Driver plays U.S. Senate staffer Daniel Jones, who in the wake of the war on terrorism led an investigation into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, focusing especially on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included waterboarding. Jones received support and encouragement from the likes of then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Diane Feinstein (played in the film by Annette Bening), but consistent evasion and resistance from officials within the CIA itself imperiled the report to which the indefatigable Jones had dedicated several years of his life—potentially keeping hidden an especially dark chapter in recent U.S. history in which prisoners were subjected to extreme measures that the CIA itself had determined to be ineffective. Director Scott Z. Burns, who’s best known for scripts he’s written for Steven Soderbergh (who serves as a producer on this film), balances Jones’s fight with flashbacks to the conception and implementation of these techniques.
“We went back and forth a lot” about whether to show those acts, Burns said during the post-screening Q&A. “I felt the movie needed to be about the torturers—us. I wanted that to be the focus. But on the other hand, if you didn’t show some of it, people really wouldn’t understand what this is,” he said. “I wanted to show enough so that people got it without making torture porn.” After the film, Burns posed a question directly to the audience. “How many people here believe that coercive measures work?” Actor Jon Hamm, who plays White House staffer Denis McDonough in the film, joked that he saw a single hand raised. “Just that one guy. Okay,” he said. “Keep an eye on him.” But it was Burns who supplied the kicker: “There are surveys that say that half the country still believe that it does,” he said.
Driver, who was joined on stage by Bening and other co-stars, talked about being inspired by Jones’s fortitude in the face of resistance and pressure. “We had this conversation before we started, where Scott was saying Dan Jones is who you hope is in a basement somewhere working against the odds, fighting a heavy bureaucracy, given the responsibility of what equates to a library of information, plodding along with little resources, demanding a lot of time and patience, led by a strong moral conviction,” he said. “It’s easy to lose faith in institutions—especially when someone is given instructions to build something and winds up building his own noose. That can be demoralizing, but in spite of it there’s somebody doing that work. I felt proud to be part of something telling that story.”
Jones himself was on hand, standing next to Driver, the much taller man who played him in the film. “It’s such a pleasure to share this story for the first time at Sundance,” he said, before updating everyone on the private and nonprofit investigative work he’s been doing since he left the office of the Senate soon after the release of the report in 2015. “Thank you for your service,” Burns said, inviting a wave of sustained applause usually reserved for movie stars at the Festival.