American Splendor Filmmaker Recalls a Sundance Debut Marked by Her Own Jitters, Warmly Enthusiastic Crowds...and Al Gore

We were mildly terrified as we drove up the mountain to Park City for the first time. Prior to American Splendor, we had received several rejections for shorts and docs; so the Sundance Film Festival became some mythical, unattainable thing for us. We were just getting over the excitement of getting into the Festival (and the Dramatic Competition section no less) when we realized we had to face skeptical audiences, tough jurors, and scary critics.

The film’s financier, HBO, had been amazingly generous flying out the whole cast and crew. This included Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Danielle, and Toby. Harvey was suffering from serious depression at the time and was practically catatonic. We really didn't know what to worry about more -- the film's reception or Harvey's mental health. He hated leaving Cleveland and was obsessing about everything. He was in absolutely no shape to take center stage at one of the world's premiere film festivals. Still, Joyce assured us he would be fine and she is a very convincing person. The whole American Splendor gang stayed in two condo units next door to each other and we were like a total freak show. We felt like we were going to be laughed out of town with our crazy hybrid movie and its even crazier posse of characters. Still, there was so much love and support from our team: Maude Nadler, our HBO exec; Ted Hope, our producer; Laura Kim, our publicist; producers Christine Walker and Julia King that we had some kind of impossible belief in the film.

Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

Splendor was one of the last films to play in Competition, so we had to suffer through many long days of waiting and worrying. The one miraculous thing that happened during that time is that we watched Harvey evolve from a suicidal zombie to a charming raconteur. The more fans he met and the more interviews he did, the more his depression lifted. The attention was like water for a thirsty plant. We all watched Harvey bloom and he was amazing! By the time the movie premiered and Harvey received a standing ovation, we literally saw a new man before us.

We literally screened a "wet" print when the film premiered. Our post super had to hand-carry the print from Deluxe because there was no time to ship. We had locked picture a few months earlier but were having huge problems matching the animation with the live action. Believe it or not, the digital intermediary was a pretty new technology in 2002 and it was very expensive. As Splendor was very low budget, we tried to finish the film without a digital intermediate (DI). It turned out to be impossible. In the end, we had to pay extra overtime money to finish the DI and almost didn't have a print in time for Sundance.

 We premiered at the Library, which is a very intimate and unassuming venue. It was also across the street from our condos so we walked over en masse. There was total mayhem outside the theater. People were buzzing and begging for tickets. There was excitement in the air.

Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in American Splendor.

I thought this was unique to Splendor, but I later discovered that this is just par for the course at all premieres.  Still it freaked me out.  When I got inside, Hope Davis ran up to me to ask why Al Gore was in the audience. I peeked my head in the theater and there he was in all his (almost) presidential glory. Now this was several years before An Inconvenient Truth, so the Sundance Film Festival was one of the last places one would imagine finding Al Gore. Somehow having Al Gore in the audience sprung my last nerve. I popped the Xanax burning a hole in my pocket and settled in for the show.

We sat in on the screening and it was initially torture. First of all, the theater was like 110 degrees. We were convinced that the audience would be severely dehydrated or fast asleep by the end of the film.  Then there was the issue of Harvey Pekar sitting a few seats away from us. Harvey was a nervous wreck and was not very good at hiding his emotions. I couldn’t stop staring at him and then glancing over at Al Gore for some sign of approval. I could barely watch the movie. Luckily, Splendor has a big laugh early in the film when a frustrated Daniel Tay as Young Harvey morphs into Paul Giamatti as a frustrated Adult Harvey. Once this moment worked, I relaxed a bit and was able to stop staring at Harvey and Al.

I am a fairly negative person, so I didn’t really believe that the film went over well until the reviews started rolling in the next day. I thought the praise was politeness and the standing ovation was out of respect for Harvey. There was, however, one tough critic I knew we had pleased. At the end of the film, Mr. Pekar was beckoned down to the front of theater for the Q&A to a resounding ovation. There was so much love that he actually was smiling ear to ear. He then went on to take over the Q&A, charming everyone in the theater. It was magical to see. Having Harvey’s approval meant the world to us so we were pretty thrilled. The general feeling at the dinner afterwards was giddy.

The very next day we had our big screening at the Eccles and it was surreal. All the same good will but on a much larger scale. It was wonderful. We were also busy doing lots of press. This was pretty exhausting but we were feeling a lot of love from the journalists. Also, we were doing press with our Splendor family so it was fun. I can’t remember much because the whole thing is a bit of blur. I remember a condo party with excellent deviled eggs made by our animators and a fancy dinner paid for by HBO.

Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in American Splendor.

Then Bob and I got sick and could barely get out of bed. We felt so awful that we wanted to skip the awards ceremony. I remember John Cooper giving me a huge vitamin in the hopes of a miracle cure. HBO forced us to go; and then we won the Grand Jury Prize, so it was worth getting out of bed for. Either the vitamin or the victory worked and we felt much better at the celebration afterwards. My final words of advice: Bring Ambien, Xanax, and vitamins.

Shari Springer Berman co-wrote and directed American Splendor (2003 Festival) with Robert Pulcini.

Lead photo: