Day 4: A Moving Tribute to Roger Ebert, Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig are The Skeleton Twins

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Sundance Institute 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.

Life Itself
By Jeremy Kinser 

While introducing Life Itself, a gripping, moving look at the life and career of Roger Ebert by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Sundance Festival director John Cooper confessed that it was “absolutely, positively the easiest film to program” in the Festival’s history, primarily because “it’s about a man we all knew and loved.”

This sentiment was evidently shared by the audience, which gave the film a lengthy standing ovation and frequently erupted in laughter and sobs during the premiere of the documentary. Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, is more of a frank and fearless portrait of the beloved critic, rather than a fawning tribute. James’ film traces the Pulitzer-winner’s story from his somewhat decadent bachelor days to his verbal on-air sparring with rival Gene Siskel on their popular TV series that made household names of both men. Outtakes from their review program that show the two engaging in insults with each other drew raucous laughs from the audience.

James doesn’t hold back when depicting Ebert’s long battle with cancer, which eventually claimed his life last April. There are scenes in Ebert’s hospital room that are often challenging to watch, but as Chaz, Ebert’s devoted wife revealed during the Q&A that followed the premiere, her husband found “warts-and-all” documentaries offered a more authentic experience to moviegoers. She recalled a note Ebert wrote for James that asked him to “show the man, not the icon.”

It’s impossible to watch the film without wondering which direction the late critic would have turned his famous thumb. Ebert’s devoted wife Chaz said that it would definitely be “two thumbs up, way up.” Marlene Iglitzen, the widow of Siskel, who died in 1999, noted that her late husband would also have loved the movie, but “of course, he would have wanted a little more of himself in it.”

The heated banter between Ebert and Siskel and their unabashed passion for cinema undoubtedly inspired generations of moviegoers and filmmakers. But was their rivalry real or just put on for the cameras? Chaz told the audience the relationship between the two men evolved. “In the beginning it really was contentious,” she said. “For almost 5 or 6 years they worked together and they didn’t speak to each other outside of [work]. Their relationship became like brothers with them fighting like brothers. In the end they did love each other.”

The Skeleton Twins
By Jeremy Kinser 

Ahead of its Sundance premiere on Saturday, The Skeleton Twins had been billed as a non-comedy starring Saturday Night Live vets Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig as estranged siblings. This description isn’t quite accurate. While the film is at times a very affecting and penetrating drama, it also contains as many genuine laughs as any film in recent memory. Director Craig Johnson, who cowrote the screenplay with Black Swan’s Mark Heyman, effortlessly balances the film’s tricky tone.

Hader is a revelation as Milo, a gay, depressed struggling actor and Wiig delivers perhaps her most impressive work as Maggie, a dental hygienist dissatisfied with her marriage to her uncomplicated husband (Luke Wilson, in a fine comic performance). The siblings live on opposite coasts but reconnect after a decade when both contemplate suicide on the same day. The well-honed chemistry between Hader and Wiig comes to a head in what will likely become known as the film’s set piece — Hader’s epic lip-syncing performance set to Starship’s power ballad “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now” in an attempt to reaffirm the bond between the siblings.

Hader, who will likely find himself an in-demand film actor upon the release of the film, wasn’t Johnson’s first choice to play Milo. “We were thinking about some people and I must say, Bill wasn’t on my initial radar,” the director revealed during the Q&A after the premiere. Johnson said it was casting director Avy Kafuman who suggested the comic after she was impressed by a dramatic reading opposite Kate Winslet.

Johnson said he and Hader met at a bar for a drink and soon realized they were both big movie nerds. “We kind of geeked out a little talking about directors, and I kind of had this idea that Milo is a little bit more of a nerd,” he explained. “Then I thought, We’ve found our nerd.”

Asked by an audience member if he had difficulty distinguishing Milo from Stefon, his gay club kid character Stefon on SNL, Johnson answered for his star. “The saying the only trait shared by the two characters share is that both are gay,” he stated, adding “It was never a problem.”

A Most Wanted Man
By Eric Hynes

From the Labs to the Festival itself, Sundance has always put a strong emphasis on storytelling—crafting compelling narratives for personal tales as well as genre explorations and documentaries. At the Eccles on Sunday afternoon, the audience was treated to a form of storytelling so classically compelling that it seemed to have emerged from a different era. Instead, it was the world premiere of Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, an adaptation of master of the international thriller John Le Carré’s 1998 novel of 21st century espionage that unfolds with the disorienting seductiveness of a page-turner. Set in Hamburg, Germany, it follows German spy Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he fends off both German and American colleagues to solve for a situation in which a Chechen defector, who may or may not be a terrorist, seeks to claim an inheritance from a shady banker (Willem Dafoe) with the help of a leftist attorney (Rachel McAdams).

“I wanted to make something that was relevant to our lives after 9/11. The way the world changed so quickly, how we judge people so quickly, how it’s all black and white,” Corbijn said at the post-screening Q&A. Indeed, even after the film comes to its conclusion, it’s still hard to get a definitive read on any of the characters’ intentions.

The film presented a unique challenge for the largely American cast in that not only were they all playing non-Americans, but that the crossroads nature of Hamburg meant that the accents and origins of their characters weren’t easy to peg.  

While McAdams described a process in which she studied with a coach and watched films to adopt an accent specific to Hamburg, Dafoe was confronted with the more complicated task of divining the speaking style of a banker transplanted to Germany. “For me, Tommy Brue is a guy that’s been kicking around in Europe for a while. He’s probably Scottish, but you don’t want to go with a Scottish accent. He’s not German. You want to take away my Midwest honk, so you don’t have an American in there,” he said. “So I found someone who had a similar background and job, and I taped him doing my lines. And I basically copied him and worked from there.”

“There are certain things that have to happen for me to believe it. I’m not even thinking about you guys yet,” Hoffman said, referring to the audience. “For me to actually believe that I could speak at all, there are certain things that I have to work on. With this character, he’s not just German—he’s an international man. He’s a guy who’s been around and probably speaks many languages. He’ll change himself when he has to. So I went from there. It’s just hard work. And it’s what you have to do to do your job.”

When a questioner marveled at his performances in both Corbijn’s film and God’s Pocket, which premiered at the festival on Friday, Hoffman winced a little, revealing the high standards to which he measures himself.  “I was watching and I had some issues today,” he said, referring to his performance. “That shows you what it’s like actually.”

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