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.
Ingrid Goes West
by Jeremy Kinser
Aubrey Plaza represents everyone’s worst fear about social media in Matt Spicer’s pitch-black comedy Ingrid Goes West. Plaza’s title character is an unbalanced young woman who, after pepper-spraying a bride on her wedding day, flees to Los Angeles to meet and mimic her Instagram obsession Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a lifestyle guru and social media influencer.
It’s perhaps unnecessary to mention that things go horribly awry for Ingrid after she manages to Single White Female herself into the lives of Taylor and her artsy boyfriend (Wyatt Russell). When Taylor’s obnoxious brother Nick (Billy Magnussen) catches on to the fabricated life she’s leading, Ingrid’s attempt to remain close to Taylor become shockingly more desperate. This tale has been told numerous times over the decades, from All About Eve through Desperately Seeking Susan. Still, Spicer uses internet obsession to make the story fresh and deftly balances the dark, creepy aspects of his film with insightful satiric humor.
After the screening, the director explained that he and David Branson Smith wrote the screenplay because they’re both obsessed with Instagram. “Even though we love it, it brings out this darker side in us,” he shared, adding examples of the envy it inspires in them. “It just makes you feel bad about yourself sometimes. We wanted to write something that allowed us to explore our conflicting feelings about social media.”
Spicer revealed that Plaza, who also has a producing credit on the film, was his first choice to play sociopathic Ingrid. The actress eschews her typically blasé persona to exhibit uncharacteristic vulnerability. Once she accepted the role, the other actors he wanted signed on quickly. “People want to work with her,” he suggested. “They didn’t care about me. They were giving me side eye, thinking, ‘I don’t know if I should trust this first-time director,’ but they like her.”
The director also revealed that he relied on both Plaza and Olsen to help flesh out their characters even more and make them fresh. “Aubrey and Lizzie brought a lot of ideas because they’re women and we’re men,” Spicer stated. “It always led to a better idea. It was a good learning process for me to just listen and use the best ideas. We tried to create a certain controlled chaos on set. There was enough improvisation to make it feel alive.”
Brigsby Bear: A VHS-Inspired Off-the-Wall Comedy
by Jeremy Kinser
In Dave McCary’s wondrously off-beat comedy Brigsby Bear, 25-year-old manchild James (Kyle Mooney) lives with his folks in an off-the-grid bunker. The passion of his life is a children’s TV show about a talking bear, which he watches obsessively on VHS tapes. But his sheltered life soon collides with the real world when he learns the people he believed were his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) abducted him as a child. Reunited with his biological parents (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins), he’s in for an even bigger shock to discover that his beloved series was produced by his abductor/father, with James as its sole audience. After some difficulties assimilating to his new world, James sets out to make a movie sequel to the show that meant so much to him.
During a post-screening Q&A at the Festival, McCary, who is also a writer-director for Saturday Night Live, revealed that he and Mooney, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kevin Costello (the three are lifelong friends) intended for their film to be disorienting. He added that it was their hope that five minutes into it, viewers would wonder, “What the fuck planet are we on?” He said they’re aware their film is very unconventional. “We just wanted to raise more questions than we answered,” he said with a laugh. “We wanted that break into the real world to feel like walking out into the harsh sunlight.”
Mooney revealed that the authentic low-rent look of the Brigsby videos was partly inspired by his own love of ’80s and ’90s television. “I have a deep children’s VHS collection,” he said. McCary added that when the three men toured the country with their comedy troupe, they would often visit towns in middle America and go to thrift stores and purchase “weird Christian community theater videos.”
Naturally, audience members were curious how Hamill became involved in the project.
“It was a tough role to cast,” Mooney said. “We knew we wanted somebody who could do weird voices, which Mark is so rad at.”
McCary said the actor initially had reservations about his character, who is a child abductor. He was ultimately won over by the script and the sympathetic qualities inherent in the character. “He’s clearly a lost man who cares for his son.”
Asked if the film was a comment on our current political culture, McCary said he didn’t gravitate to what’s happening in the world today. “We’re escapists and wanted to make everyone feel good,” he offered.
Ryan Simpkins, who plays James’s sister, Aubrey, added that it’s an important time to create art, and she hopes people who see the film are inspired to do so.
by Eric Hynes
You wouldn’t think that a film about illegal doping in sports could be among the most politically and culturally relevant movies in this year’s Festival. And it’s unlikely its makers thought so when they started to make ICARUS, which screened on Wednesday afternoon at the Egyptian Theatre as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition. The movie starts as a self-participatory documentary, in the Super Size Me mold, in which director and cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel makes himself a guinea pig for how doping can impact athletic performance. But once he connects with Russia’s leading anti-doping expert Grigory Rodchenkov, who enthusiastically helps Fogel dope and deceive testers, ICARUS starts to become a very different film.
“He is an extraordinary character, and he’s extraordinarily mischievous,” Fogel said of Rodchenkov, whose willingness to help Fogel with the project comes as something of a surprise, particularly after a U.S. colleague pulls out of the film for fear of compromising his reputation. “I’d spent a couple days with him in Oregon, drinking vodka, and that process I do believe formed a friendship,” he said. “It was a spectacular thing how this guy was helping me. He’s smuggling my urine back to Moscow! But as it turned out, Grigory had a bigger plan in mind.” What that eventually entails is Rodchenkov becoming the central figure in revelations of widespread and systemic doping among Russian athletes, and his fleeing to the U.S. to avoid apprehension by the Russian FSB. In a Skype conversation that Fogel captures on camera, Rodchenkov asks for help in fleeing.
“At that point we’d had a year-and-a-half friendship, and my friend was telling me that he was going to be killed. I had no reason to believe he was lying. I said, ‘I’ll get you a ticket,’ and he was on a flight out of Moscow 12 hours later,” Fogel said. “It went from me being the subject and seeking his advice to me being his protector.” And from there it became, according to Fogel, how to do Rodchenkov’s story justice, and to make sure that his whistleblowing isn’t silenced by either government. Though Rodchenkov successfully went public with his experiences, via The New York Times and this film, he faces an uncertain fate with the U.S. in transition.
“I don’t think that you can say that it’s uniquely Russian,” Fogel said, regarding the doping of Olympic athletes. “But I think that it’s also not right to point the finger at others without having that evidence. In the case of Russia, this has been corroborated. I don’t think there’s another country that could have masterminded with such complexity what Russia did,” he said, referring to a system during the Sochi Olympics in which athletes got away with using performance enhancers during the games themselves, which Rodchenkov testifies to implementing. “It goes all the way back. There never was anti-doping in Russia. It didn’t exist.”
Officials in Russia have denied wrongdoing, making Rodchenkov the scapegoat and necessitating his emigration. “Nothing has changed from the Cold War,” Fogel said. “The Russian system is to deny, deny, deny, deny. And now we have alternate facts. This has been going on for a very long time.” ICARUS references George Orwell’s 1984, and the maintenance of parallel realities to make the truth false and falsities true. That 1984 is currently the top seller on Amazon suggests that these ideas are on a lot of people’s minds and go beyond the issue of sports doping. “Suddenly the world is waking up to doublethink. Our leaders are essentially saying, ‘That’s not true; I don’t care what this dossier says.’ And I don’t think it’s that shocking when what’s at stake are billions and trillions of dollars.”
When faced with evidence of Russia’s actions, the Olympic committee still allowed a majority of Russian athletes to participate in last summer’s Olympics. Fogel spoke forcefully against that decision. “I think it was a spectacular fraud against every athlete in the world,” he said. “If you’re a clean athlete and you’re trying to compete? And you know that the Olympics, this organization that stands for fair sport, and they do this? Why should any athlete go to the Olympics? Why should you train? Why should you put your heart into it if they’re not going to respect you?”
Walking Out: A Boy, a Man, and a Mountain
by Dana Kendall
“This is a film about two people turning blue in a red state,” joked co-director Andrew Smith, about the story in which a father and son encounter tragedy in Montana’s frigid wilderness.
“But it’s really about a boy and a man and a mountain. … This is a story about primal knowledge. It’s a story about love as a form of survival.”
Andrew and his twin brother and co-director, Alex, grew up in Montana themselves, and they spent their younger days making Super 8 movies together. Walking Out is their third feature film based in their home state, following The Slaughter Rule (2002 Sundance Film Festival) and Winter in the Blood (2013).
This latest project is based on a short story of the same name by David Quammen. When they read the story as teenagers, “it just haunted us,” Alex said after a screening during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
In the story, 14-year-old David goes to Montana to visit Cal, his distant, tough father who’s eager to take his son hunting for his first kill. David, though unsure and stubborn, wants to please his dad and goes along with it. But after Cal gets wounded in the middle of the freezing Montana woods, unprepared David is forced to take on the overwhelming task of saving his dad.
The story stayed with Alex and Andrew until they met filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia in 1998 at their first Sundance Institute lab. Garcia, knowing they were from Montana, asked if they had ever heard of the short story, and from there the three of them made plans to make it into a film. After Garcia hired the brothers to write it for him to direct, he eventually got pulled into other projects, and he graciously handed it over to them.
As Alex and Andrew searched for their cast, which had to be perfect because the story rests squarely on the shoulders of the two lead characters, they spoke with Josh Wiggins for the role of David. Wiggins’s first take was so perfect, they didn’t even ask him to audition. Then they met with Matt Bomer, who they could immediately tell understood the depth of Cal’s character, and their cast was set.
The pair of brothers put Montana’s breathtaking scenery on full display in this heart-wrenching story with unforgettable harrowing scenes. In explaining what it’s like to work with his brother, Alex said it happens pretty organically, and they don’t necessarily split up the duties. Because they have such a long history of collaborating, they work well with each other while filming — and then “the big fights are in the edit.”