This is the first trip to Park City for director Hal Salwen, whose critically acclaimed debut “Denise Calls Up” premiered at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.
His follow-up effort, “His and Hers” which Salwen describes as a “romantic comedy about marriage and dismemberment” will get its first screening in the Sundance fest’s American Spectrum section.
The film, which stars “Denise” alumni Liev Schreiber and Caroleen Feeney, begins when Carol accidentally cuts off husband Glenn’s finger. On the way to the hospital, Carol is outraged to learn that Glenn is having an affair with her best friend Pam, so she drags the now-delirious Glenn to Pam’s house to confront her, and in a fit of jealous rage Pam’s husband threatens to deposit Glenn’s severed digit in an ATM.
That’s when the bank robbers show up
“I guess it’s more of a dark comedy,” Salwen says of the film, which was shot on location in New Jersey.
“Denise,” on the other hand, is a stylish and intricately concocted romantic comedy that takes place entirely on the telephone. In addition to a genuinely moving storyline, the film doubled as biting social commentary about a culture increasingly crippled by technology.
“I want to be a successful film director, but it’s not just about money,” Salwen muses. “If you make good films, interesting films, people will recognize that and you’ll continue to make films. Anyway, I believe that works some of the time.”
So far, it’s working for Salwen. While he raised most of “Denise’s” $750,000 budget from family and friends, Alliance Independent Films fully financed the slightly more costly “His and Hers.”
Unlike many Sundance directors, Salwen is no newcomer to the film industry. After completing two years of a three-year NYU graduate film program in the mid-1980s, Salwen dropped out to work as a production assistant on TV commercials and low-budget films. On the side, he wrote screenplays in the $300-a-month New York apartment he shared with a roommate.
“I would work for two or three weeks and then live on Tasty Kakes and coffee,” Salwen recalls. “It was a nice bohemian experience that I enjoyed for a while.”
On the strength of a student short, Salwen was selected to participate in an AFI internship program, which involved observing Sylvester Stallone direct the 1983 film “Staying Alive.”
Salwen admits the experience didn’t heavily influence his directing style, but it did give him his first introduction to Hollywood. Later Touchstone Pictures optioned Salwen’s script “Girls Talk,” in which Salwen says there is now renewed interest.
In the early ’90s Salwen collaborated with Canadian director Paul Ziller to write the thriller “Deadly Surveillance,” which premiered on Showtime. The pair reteamed to write “Probable Cause,” which aired on the cable network in 1995.
While he has remained a serious student of film, Salwen says he always kept up with the business side as well. “I was interested in the Hollywood sensibility as well as the art of filmmaking,” he says. “When I finally set out to direct my own film, I realized I knew a lot of stuff.”
The release of “Denise” provided Salwen with yet another learning experience: “If you have a film with a theatrical release, you learn a lot about marketing and distribution and the international markets.”
But Salwen says he can barely remember his trip to Cannes where “Denise” was the only American film to be honored because he was so nervous about the picture’s commercial prospects. “One of the investors was my mother-in-law, and I’m very responsible to the point of being neurotic,” he says. “Until it was clear the film was going to show a profit, I was pretty tense.”
The film, which grossed more than $1 million in France, did make money, though its U.S. release by Sony Pictures Classics was less than successful.
Like many filmmakers at this year’s festival, Salwen was in post-production in the week before the film was set to unspool, so Sundance will be the first time anyone sees “His and Hers.”
“Distributors keep making arguments for seeing a rough cut,” Salwen sys. “But there’s no upside for me. Yes, there are stories of early bids for films, but they’re very rare. It makes life a little difficult for distributors, but hey, it’s part of the fun.”
Looking ahead, Salwen is hoping to get another script, “Mankind,” set up, and he’s looking at some possible directing assignments.
“The hard work is staying true to myself,” Salwen says. “It sounds corny, but to me having it all is being true to myself and still having a career in filmmaking.”