Fielding a hit at Sundance means you've arrived

Director David O. Russell tells the story with bemused indifference now, but in 1994 at the Sundance Film Festival he admits he was practically apoplectic.

He had brought his first and only film, “Spanking the Monkey,” to the festival and suffered a screening so technically inept it made his handiwork look like something he shot in his basement with a Super 8.

“At our first screening, the projectionist screwed up the aspect ratio and you could see all the booms and the mike,” Russell remembers. “We just kind of went nuts. It was our very first screening and distributors were there and critics. I was beside myself.”

Russell says Sundance chief Geoff Gilmore was sympathetic, however, and “really shellacked” the projectionist.

“Spanking the Monkey” went on to win the audience award and it led to a plethora of studio offers for Russell. In 1996, he came out with “Flirting With Disaster” for Miramax Films, and Russell took his place as a darling of the indie film world.

As Sundance has grown into an institution in its 16 years, the festival has become a breeding ground for hot new indie directors. Hollywood, now more than ever, is looking to Sundance to bolster its directing ranks. Invariably, agents and studio execs will crash the festival for a few snowbound days seeking out talent. Such helmers as Quentin Tarantino (“Reservoir Dogs”), Ed Burns (“The Brothers McMullen”), Bryan Singer (“The Usual Sus-pects”), Allison Anders (“Gas Food Lodging”), Steven Soderbergh (“sex, lies & videotape”), Ross Marks (“Homage”), Gregg Araki (“The Doom Generation”) and Spike Lee (“She’s Gotta Have It”) all got their start at the wintry fest.

Tarantino had never been out of the state of California before bringing “Reservoir Dogs” to Sundance in 1992. He was working in a video store at the time and couldn’t afford a flight to the fest so he and a group of friends drove from L.A. to Park City.

“It was my first festival and it was really exciting,” he remembers. “I loved the Sundance workshop. It’s really cool and launched my entire career.”

“Reservoir Dogs” was a surprise hit at Sundance and put Tarantino at the forefront of what would turn into a new generation of modern-day thug pics. His “Pulp Fiction,” which insiders say would never have been made without the success of “Reservoir Dogs,” went on to gross more than $100 million for Miramax.

Anders was another crony of Tarantino’s from 1992. She was there with “Gas Food Lodging” and she points back to what she calls the “class of ’92,” which included Tarantino, Alexandre Rockwell, Araki and Tom DeCillo among others.

“We were all right there. It was awesome,” she says. “To me, it was like graduating high school, which I never did in real life. It was kind of like a group of people all graduating in a way. There is a special bond I think you have with people who are in your class. We all referred to it that way.”

While Anders remembers the good times with her “graduating class,” she also says there was extreme competitiveness that was often unnerving. “At some point, people were saying some pretty horrific things,” she says.

But Anders concedes: “Nothing could have really happened (in her career) without Sundance.”

Russell admits a similar allegiance. “I went out there as a complete unknown and I came out baptized by the New York Times. Caryn James (the Times film critic) led her whole story with a paragraph about me and ended the story with a paragraph about me.”

Only a few films were picked up for distribution by studios the year Russell attended, so the buzz generated by the good press was essential, Russell says.

After the debacle screening, “Spanking the Monkey” had two “really explosive” showings, one of which was eye-opening for Russell.

“That was my first experience ever sitting in a theater watching my own work,” he says. “They were living with the movie beat to beat. It was extremely exciting. I was prepared for the worst.”

Marks, a 29-year-old helmer, came to Sundance in 1995 with “Homage,” which led to a handful of studio offers. He stuck with his indie roots and is back this year with “The Twilight of the Golds,” which is showing in the American Spectrum sidebar with Garry Marshall producing.

“The one thing that Sundance always reminds me is that I have to really try and stay true to my voice,” Marks says. “The temptation to sell out is always enormous and you’re constantly trying to resist that.”

John Dahl is one director who many assumed got his start at Sundance, but he actually was turned down, despite the Sundance flavor of his films “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction.”

” ‘Last Seduction’ was submitted toward the end of the month that submissions were due,” he says. “They say they watched it, but …”

Once “Last Seduction” became a ferocious indie hit, Dahl was asked to come to Sundance as a guest, to present Nicolas Cage a career award.

The director says he never bore any grudges toward the fest for the original oversight.

“It’s a great format for the independent film,” Dahl says. “Obviously it’s done very well for a lot of people. It’s exciting that the indie film has come into its own.”

But Dahl laughs when he and his career are confused as having been spawned by Sundance. “I met Robert Redford and he said, ‘I loved your movie’ and that’s about it. It’s funny because maybe I’m associated with Sundance, but I really have nothing to do with it.”

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