Day 3: Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan Shine in Dee Rees' Epic Pioneer Story, Mudbound

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Mudbound

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.

Mudbound

By Eric Hynes

For the second time in her rising career, director Dee Rees brought the house down at an Eccles Theatre premiere. Following her debut feature, Pariah, which played opening night in 2011, she came back with a primetime Saturday night bow of Mudbound, an ambitious but assured film about two families living uneasily on the same Mississippi farm during the tumultuous 1940s. The Jackson family works tirelessly and thanklessly as sharecroppers on land owned by the McAllans, Memphis transplants who struggle to adjust to the hardships of rural life. When World War II breaks out, one young man from each family leaves for an extended period of time, and then they both return as changed people to a culture of racism and degradation that hasn’t changed at all.

Suitable for a film that offers six distinct points of view, the post-screening Q&A allowed the cast and crew to describe their own personal connections to the material, as well as to one another. Author Hillary Jordan said that her novel, which was adapted for the screen by Virgil Williams and Rees, was loosely based on her own family, whose stories of owning a farm in the Deep South were passed along to her when she was growing up. Rees said, “There was a lot of there there” in Jordan’s book, and she was eager to “explode it out” for the screen. That partly included imbuing the material with her own family history.

“My grandmother was born in 1925 in Louisiana, and her parents were sharecroppers. She said she wasn’t going to be a sharecropper, that she wanted to be a stenographer,” Rees said, a detail that made its way into the film. “My maternal grandfather fought in World War II, and my paternal grandfather fought in Korea. Both men were from the country—one from rural Tennessee, the other from Louisiana. They both went away and came back and didn’t quite get what they should have gotten.”

Garrett Hedlund before the premiere of 'Mudbound.' © 2017 Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

Jason Mitchell, who plays Ronsel, a decorated sergeant in Europe who suffers racist abuse the moment he returns home, also connected deeply with the material, and with Ronsel’s resilience in particular. “I’m from the Deep South, my grandfather fought in the Korean War, and I always wanted to do a movie like this,” Mitchell said. “But I never wanted to do it with a character who put his head down, who ran and was afraid. I feel like there’s so much more to stand for as a black man even if it means your life. So when I saw this character I was like, yo. It blew my mind. The character felt right, and I think we did something right.”

Actresses Carey Mulligan (whose career took off in Park City in 2009 with her turn in An Education) and Mary J. Blige (the singer-turned-big-time-actress, thanks to this performance) talked about how they finessed playing characters who operate with a certain degree of mutual respect despite an obvious power disparity. The two had never met before working on this project together, and Mulligan said that on the first day of rehearsals, Rees put them across a table from each other, looking each other in the eye, “and it was awkward.”

“Right, because you were so tight,” Blige said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “It was very real. She didn’t come in trying to be my friend. She came in just like I came in, like, ‘Who are you?’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh, I love you.’ You know how it goes.”

“It got less awkward and then it felt very real, and interesting,” Mulligan said. “Mary is always really, incredibly truthful to act with. She’s just open.”

“As women we have a bond. This thing that people understand about each other—what it takes to be a woman,” Blige said. So we understand each other, and that’s what makes us connect. And that’s where the chemistry comes from, because automatically, if another woman is not being catty, and she’s open, the relationship is going to just fly.”

When a member of the audience asked Rees what advice he had for filmmakers just starting out, her answer resonated with what she accomplished with this film. “Don’t start with a message. Start with character. Start with a character that won’t get out of your head,” she said. “When you start out trying to leave a message I think it pushes people away. The thing I liked about this film was the opportunity to look at all of these relationships, these families constantly bouncing off of each other. Find characters that you love, find material that you love, and keep finding the core. That’s what makes people feel something.”

Wind River

By Jeremy Kinser

Having written the much-praised screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan makes a persuasive debut as director with Wind River, a sometimes stark, often brutally violent mystery about the search for the killer of a young woman whose body was found on a Native American reservation in the snow-covered mountains of Wyoming.

In his introductory remarks at the premiere of the crime drama on Saturday, Festival director John Cooper confessed his surprise about the director’s work—it is so accomplished, he couldn’t believe Sheridan didn’t already have dozens of films on his résumé.

In some ways, Wind River, which is titled after the rugged reservation on which it takes place, serves as the completion of a trilogy of Sheridan’s previous work exploring the American frontier. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife tracker haunted by the death of his own daughter years earlier, is forced to team with a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to uncover the truth about the young woman’s murder. Sheridan has again created a forceful drama melded with memorable characters, realistic dialogue, and scenes that go in unexpected directions, often resulting in explosive violence.

The cast of 'Wind River.' © 2017 Sundance Institute | Ryan Kobane

Sheridan explained that he chose to make his helming debut with Wind River because the story is deeply personal to him. “I was trying to find an entertaining way to highlight atrocities that exist in an area in the world that most people don’t know about, where some very dear friends of mine have suffered,” he revealed. “I couldn’t risk another director interpreting that vision differently. If it failed, it had to fail on my shoulders, and if the mission was misinterpreted it would be because of me.”

He succeeded, it seems. Actor Gil Birmingham, who plays the father of the murdered woman and is one of many Native American actors in the cast, noted that he appreciated that Sheridan’s film addressed a rarely discussed statistic that approximately 2,000 Native women have gone missing or have been murdered during the past decade. “The resources to solve these things [were] reflected in the film in a very realistic way,” he stated.

The Hero

by Dana Kendall

It’s a role that only Sam Elliott could play, and director/screenwriter Brett Haley confirmed that he and co-writer Marc Basch wrote The Hero specifically for the legendary mustachioed actor, noting, “There’s no other man on earth who could’ve played Lee Hayden.”

After a decades-long career as a Western movie star with an iconic voice, Lee finds himself doing radio commercials for barbecue sauce and not much else, besides smoking weed with his friend and drug dealer, Jeremy (Nick Offerman). But when he finds out he has pancreatic cancer, he goes in search of a way to make meaning of his life before he dies. He dreams of making one final movie; he tries to patch up his relationship with his long-estranged daughter, Lucy (Krysten Ritter); and he begins dating a much younger woman, Charlotte (Laura Prepon).

Sam Elliott and Nick Offerman. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Marisa McGrody

The age disparity between Lee and Charlotte is reminiscent of Haley’s previous film, I’ll See You in My Dreams, about a friendship between an older woman and a younger man. After the premiere screening of The Hero, Haley explained that he is drawn to stories about older people in part because of the ageism in Hollywood and in the world. He also told the audience that he didn’t want this romantic relationship to be seen as the typical scenario in which an older man goes after a younger woman.

“Marc and I really tried to make this a specific relationship. ...It challenges you and it might be like, that’s weird, that’s different, but that’s what I want you to be thinking about. Why is it so weird or different? … I try not to judge too much and I try to just ask questions.”

The premiere drew many of the Festival’s more grownup crowd, and several attendees thanked Haley for his depiction of aging people, complimenting him for beautifully capturing something that is rarely seen on screen, and something that spoke to them directly. Elliott, in turn, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to play a role like this, which doesn’t come around very often.

Haley revealed that he didn’t just have Elliott in mind for the movie; he also wrote the part of his ex-wife for Katharine Ross. And he was lucky enough to get every one of his top choices for the other main roles in the film. When the cast members were asked why they were drawn to this project, Nick Offerman joked, “Brett got a hold of me and said, ‘Would you like to play Sam’s boyfriend?’” and with that, he passed the mic.

The Yellow Birds

By Eric Hynes

Four years after his acclaimed debut film, Blue Caprice, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, French filmmaker Alexandre Moors returns with his follow-up, the intense Iraq War drama The Yellow Birds. Based on a novel by Kevin Powers, which was adapted for the screen by David Lowery and R.F.I. Porto, The Yellow Birds tracks two young men, Murph and Bartle (Tye Sheridan and Alden Ehrenreich), from boot camp to battle ground, where they face extreme combat, tragic losses, and the unpredictable behavior of their sergeant (Jack Huston). Thanks to recurrent flashbacks, it becomes apparent that Bartle is holding onto a secret from the final days of deployment, a secret that might help explain why his fellow soldier has gone missing.

During the post-screening Q&A, Moors said that when he read Powers’s book, he “was crying by page ten.” When asked how he accomplished the realistic battle scenes, he said his goal was less realism than communicating the strong emotional impression the powerful material made upon him. “I wanted sometimes to go beyond reality,” he said. The war scenes were shot in Morocco, with the cast and crew relocating to, and immersing themselves in, the remote desert region.

“It was hard as hell to shoot,” Sheridan said. “But I’m so happy we shot it there. At times I did feel that isolation, being in a foreign land, and not speaking the language. I think that really translates to the screen.” Sheridan also described several nights during which the actors pitched their own tents and camped out under the desert stars.

“We went to a boot camp for about two weeks, which got us into a pretty tight unit,” Huston added. “It gave us the slightest glimpses into what it might be like to prepare yourself for war, and gave us a newfound respect for guys who actually go and do fight.”

“For those two weeks during boot camp, we just became brothers,” Sheridan said. “It’s easy to see how you can form those bonds when you have nothing but the guy standing to your right or your left.”

Chasing Coral

By Jeremy Kinser

Five years after Chasing Ice, his documentary about melting glaciers, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, environmental activist/filmmaker Jeff Orlowski returned to Park City with another, equally valuable nonfiction film about climate change. Chasing Coral records underwater expeditions by a group of divers, photographers, and ocean scientists who set out to provide visual proof of coral bleaching, the destruction of coral reefs.

Orlowski creates a stunning narrative that focuses on Zackery Rago, a self-proclaimed coral nerd, and Richard Vevers, a former ad man who left his advertising career to become an underwater photographer, traveling to reefs around the world over the course of three years. The two team with various marine biologists and battle technical malfunctions and nature to record the unprecedented 2016 coral bleaching event at the Great Barrier Reef’s Lizard Island off the coast of Australia, ominously noting that 22 percent of the reef died during 2016 due to global warming and pollution.

Utilizing the first time-lapse camera to record coral bleaching, the film offers visuals of rarely seen underwater life that are breathtakingly beautiful.

Following the screening, the film’s team of scientists joined the director on stage and were unanimous in their praise for the documentary and the possible impact it will have on taking their decades of work to the next level. “This has to be the path that will get attention from the world,” one said.

Orlowski stated that he hopes Chasing Coral will serve as a call to action and plans screenings of the film in cities around the country. “We want this film to be a tool,” he said. “With our resources and team, we hope to develop the infrastructure to support campaigns in cities and states across the country. We want to go broad with existing groups and really deep in places where we can have the most meaningful impact and leverage.”

Lead photo:

Mudbound