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Darby has ‘Contact’ at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival is overpopulated with young artisans, but one of this year’s most unusual is director Jonathan Darby, whose short film “Contact” played late Wednesday night.

It’s not just that Darby is a senior veepee of production for TriStar Pictures, or that the 29-minute “Contact” stars none other Brad Pitt and Elias Koteas (“Moon Over Blue Water,””Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”). It is the sheer scope of production and wry humanistic theme that has put “Contact” on the map.

So how did Darby direct “Contact” and hold down the fort at TriStar? The pic was shot in Yuma, Arizona, in six days with postproduction done “mostly on weekends and at night,” Darby said. Those in attendance at Wednesday night’s screening said the results are astonishing, given that Darby’s moonlight tack and scheduling constraints with Pitt and Koteas left the director with no room for error.

Based on a real-life encounter between a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi soldier in the early days of the Persian Gulf war, “Contact” has put Darby near the top of every agent’s hit list.

“I’ve always been interested in both” studio production work and directing, Darby said. “And after seeing the film, people might just say ‘you know what, don’t quit your day job.’ ”

That’s actually a highly unlikely scenario, since “Contact”is eligible for this year’s Academy Awards as best short film. Financed by Chanticleer Films’ Discovery program, “Contact” was considered a prime contender for an Oscar nomination by those who saw the film on Wednesday night.

In fact, Darby’s foray into directing was sparked by his TriStar experience. A Fulbright scholar and founder of the Oxford Touring Theatre before coming to Hollywood roughly three years ago, Darby acted as chief liaison between TriStar and the late director David Lean, who was developing a “Nostromo” for the studio before his death. Darby wrote the “Contact” screenplay at Lean’s house in Europe and acknowledges that the “Lawrence of Arabia” director championed the screenplay and wrote a letter on his behalf to Chanticleer.

TriStar chairman Mike Medavoy said that he was not surprised by the reception for “Contact” at Sundance, since Darby directed a couple of documentaries for British broadcasters before coming to work at the studio. Medavoy said he was confident that Darby would “one day go on to direct important motion pictures.”

At TriStar, Darby has also tapped nonfiction material for development, including “American Commander in Spain,” which is the screenplay adaptation of Warren Lerude’s book about the life of Bob Merriman.

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