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 Jeremy Kinser
First-time filmmaker Peter Sattler got the inspiration for Camp X-Ray, a gritty drama about soldiers watching over suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, after he watched documentary footage of a guard and a detainee discussing the books on a library cart.
“It was the most surreal, absurd interchange I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sattler told the audience at the Q&A following the film’s premiere Friday. “I saw this vision of a two-hander, one room-type of movie where these two characters just talk. I wondered what they’d talk about. To me, it was a cool way to address Guantanemo Bay indirectly.”
The writer/director said he didn’t want to make a propaganda movie. Yet Camp X-Ray is often sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners, specifically Ali, an innocent detainee, played by Peyman Moaadi, in the film’s strongest performance. Ali is watched over by a female guard named Amy (Kristen Stewart), who begins to question the abusive treatment of detainees at the camp. After some Hannibal Lecter-Clarice Starling-style banter, the two form an unlikely friendship over, you guessed it, the selection of reading material at the controversial U.S. prison camp.
Moaadi, a gifted, charismatic actor known to movie audiences for his searing work in 2011’s A Separation, discussed the preparation he underwent to play Ali, saying he spent many hours alone in his prison cell. “They only let me out to come here today,” he joked.
Stewart’s pouty sullenness has often characterized previous performances, but it serves her well here. The actress, also on hand for the Q&A, told the audience it was important for her to figure out exactly who her sometimes inscrutable character was so she spent hours watching numerous documentaries about the subject matter, which depicted “both sides of the coin.” Stewart revealed that she also trained for several days with a “really awesome Marine named JB who…whipped me into shape.”
Stewart effectively de-glammed herself to play Amy and Sattler added that just getting Stewart into the uniform resulted in a huge transformation in his star. Sattler said he initially intended for Stewart’s character to be male, but he changed to a female protagonist to create more conflict between the two main characters.
“And Muslims’ extremist relationship toward women complicated [the story] so I clicked into that,” Sattler revealed.
By Eric Hynes
In what is only the first installment of Sundance’s Mad Men invasion, veteran actor and Roger Sterling progenitor John Slattery premiered his debut film, God’s Pocket, which screens in the 2014 U.S. Dramatic Competition, at the Eccles Theater on Friday afternoon. Alongside him for the after-screening Q&A were his two leading actors, Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks and Academy Award-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom spoke of being swept up in Slattery’s passion for a project that took a decade to realize. (Slattery’s other Mad Men compatriot, Elisabeth Moss, appears in an additional two films at this year’s Festival).
Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, God’s Pocket follows Mickey (Hoffman), a melancholic smalltime criminal whose life is upended when his stepson is accidentally killed in mysterious circumstances. With his devastated wife (Hendricks) in mourning, he struggles to raise money for the funeral while negotiating the rough and tumble culture of his working class neighborhood. While navigating a host of genres and tones, from realism to noir to slapstick comedy to thriller to melodrama to intimate portraiture, God’s Pocket also serves as a showcase for lively performances from the likes of John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, Eddie Marsan, and Caleb Landry Jones.
After reading the book 10 years ago, Slattery discovered that the rights were unavailable, but persisted in putting together a screenplay until the rights were eventually cleared. “What I liked about it was the middle America quality, the no-nonsense quality of these people to be able to cut through the bullshit and just talk straight. To do what needs to be done to get what they want. There was a bedrock of straight talk and casual violence and mayhem that I wanted to be believable, so that it could become funny,” Slattery said. “And that quality is in the book. It’s believable as realism and as near-fantasy, absurdist storytelling.”
For Hoffman, Slattery’s commitment to the film convinced him to get involved. “You try to get involved with projects that are personal. And this was obviously personal, with John. And that kind of bled through the whole shoot. So you get on his passion train, and that translates. You show up and you’re exposed and you’re vulnerable, and you’re who you are. And John let that happen, and we let that happen with John. And that’s what you see in the movie. A lot of trust.”
Hendricks spoke of seeing a different side of Slattery, one that involved freedom to make the film he wanted to make. “It was 100% his story, and it was so exciting to get to watch him do that, and feel that energy with him,” said Hendricks.
Fishing Without Nets
By Jeremy Kinser
Director Cutter Hodierne believes there’s room for another Somali pirate drama such as his Fishing Without Nets, even just months after the release of Paul Greengrass’ widely acclaimed Captain Phillips. “The fact that there’re several films that tackle different angles I think is just a sign of how meaty the material is,” Hodierne said following the film’s premiere Friday night. “You could probably make six or seven films about this.”
Hodierne has expanded his fictional short film with the same title, which was awarded the top short film jury prize at Sundance two years ago, into intensely gripping first feature. The filmmaker said the idea came to him between 2008 and 2009 after reading numerous articles about piracy off the Horn of Africa. “I’d read all these stories and think there are so many angles to this, but what I cared most about was who are they and why do they do that,” Hodierne revealed.
The subtitled drama focuses on a fisherman who resorts to piracy to feed his family and ultimately hijacks and oil tanker and takes the crew hostage. Hodierne shot the film in Kenya using Somali actors who speak in their native language. He admitted that the language barriers he faced directing non-professional actors who don’t speak English was huge.
“I learned that there’s so much that can be communicated without words,” he said, adding that he was also very dependent on the translators. Hodierne would explain the point of the scene, but he left it up to the actors to write the dialogue in their native tongue. “They had a beginning, middle and end to the scene,” he said. “I think 99 percent of communication is tone and body language. I’d watch a take and not know what they said but I’d know whether it was good or not. It was an excellent exercise in knowing how acting works and what filmmaking is really all about.”
The writer/director also expressed the importance of the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, which he attended in 2012, in turning his short into a feature.
“I had an incredible group of mentors,” he remembered. “I’d say that more than fixing the specifics of the script they taught me how to think differently about the process. They encourage you to come at writing a script in a more pure way. Anyone who gets the opportunity to do that should jump on it because it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart
By Nate von Zumwalt
It may no longer reverberate with the affect of a Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, or Trayvon Martin, but for a certain generation the name Pamela Smart still evokes a shudder and a wince. Director Jeremiah Zagar, who premiered his U.S. Documentary Competition film last night for a rapt Park City audience, doesn’t beseech viewers to reconsider that response—they’ll do it of their own accord.
CAPTIVATED: The Trials of Pamela Smart revisits the first fully televised court case in history—one rife with sex and scandal—while cleverly meditating on the inescapable implications of the 24-hour tabloid-like reporting. How effectively did the media sensationalize and warp the realities of this tantalizing tale of adultery and murder? Zagar asserts that the film doesn’t endeavor to answer that question, but instead to merely propose it.
“The goal is for you to question [the trial], and you hope as an editor and as a filmmaker that you’re asking good questions and not giving answers,” he said. In making CAPTIVATED, Zagar employed his extensive editing background to craft a story that he acknowledged could be manipulated by doing “one thing to make Pam seem completely guilty, or one thing to make her seem completely innocent.” The irony is more than readily apparent; it all but smacks you in the face.
Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer David Courier, who introduced the film, solicited audience members to “raise [their] hand if they assumed Pamela Smart was guilty?“ An overwhelming faction of the audience lifted an arm. “How many people changed their minds after seeing this movie?” continued Courier. Nearly the same group of hands elevated toward the Library Centre Theatre ceiling.
“I think it’s clear that [Pamela Smart] got a really shitty trial,” concluded Zagar. “I don’t think in this case there was one specific person that was the enemy. I think it was an amalgam of all these circumstance and this phenomenon that turned everyone into someone that you could no longer trust.”
That does it for Day 2. Check out this Instagram Video roundup from @NowThisNews: