Return engagements

Breaking up is hard to do for helmers, festival

For a festival that prides itself on discovering the new, there’s also a heavy sense of deja vu hanging over the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. It’s not just a matter of the usual suspects — the distributors, agents and journalists who return each year to Park City, Utah like snow-bound swallows — that gives the Sundance line-up a familiar cast. There are also plenty of familiar names among the chosen filmmakers themselves, for their ranks include a number of Sundance veterans returning to show off their latest wares.

Director Mary Harron — first hailed at the 1996 festival, at which she won a special jury award for her debut feature, “I Shot Andy Warhol” — is returning with her eagerly-anticipated film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ scabrous yuppie satire, “American Psycho.” Actor/director Stanley Tucci — whose first feature, “Big Night,” made him another prominent member of the class of ’96 — opens the festival in Park City with his newest, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” in which be plays a New Yorker writer who befriends a Harvard-educated drop-out. And Rob Epstein — whose first film, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” debuted way back in 1984, when Robert Redford’s annual showcase was still called the USA Film Festival — is marking his fourth visit, with his newest project, “Paragraph 175,” a study of gays in Nazi Germany, which he co-directed with Jeffrey Friedman.

Ability over familiarity

According to organizers, the abundance of returning talent speaks more to the abilities of the filmmakers themselves than to any organizational intent to round up familiar faces.

“To tell the truth, we don’t really take into consideration (whether a filmmaker has been to Sundance before),” says Sundance associate director of programming John Cooper. “It’s more a consideration of how the films that are submitted fit into the program. A lot of time the rough cuts we screen don’t even have their directors’ names on them. And it’s not until after we’ve seen them that we learn who submitted them.”

Though the Sundance programming team does informally track the progress of works-in-production during the course of the year — searching out new filmmakers while also keeping an eye on Sundance grads — Cooper says no special favor is given to fest alumni. If anything, he adds, “Every year, there are filmmakers we know whose films we pass on, but we never talk about that.”

Director Jim McKay — who was also feted in ’96 with a jury award for his “Girls Town” and is returning with another femme feature, “Our Song,” slotted into this year’s Dramatic Competition line-up — confirms that he didn’t pull any strings. “I don’t have a relationship with any of those people,” he insists. “We just kind of sent in a tape and hoped they’d like it.”

Still, dating back to 1980, the list of directors who’ve made repeated appearances at Sundance is extensive, including: Alexandre Rockwell, Victor Nunez, Robert Young, Barbara Kopple, Charles Burnett and Allison Anders, to name a few. And these are only the filmmakers who’ve won awards.

Feeding into frenzy

Filmmakers who’ve established their names at past editions of the festival don’t necessarily need Sundance’s imprimatur to win attention for their newest work. Harron’s “American Psycho,” for example, has been such a high-profile project — Leonardo DeCaprio flirted with it in the wake of “Titanic,” making it gossip column fodder for weeks — that a crush of hungry media is guaranteed when its world premiere is held Jan. 21.

But Harron welcomes the opportunity to unveil it at Sundance anyway, explaining, “It’s a hard film to categorize, so I thought it should have a festival launch. All the critics can see it, discuss it, determine what kind of film it is.”

For Epstein, whose “Paragraph 175” is already guaranteed an airing on HBO in 2001, Sundance represents an opportunity to demonstrate the documentary’s theatrical potential to distributors. “People ask to see it on tape,” he says, “but it’s always a better environment to show it front of an audience. It creates more energy if you launch it at the festival and it gets a good response.”

Most of the returnees already have distribution in place. Writer/director Lisa Krueger — whose first feature, “Manny and Lo,” unspooled at the ’96 fest — is bringing “Committed,” a romantic comedy starring Heather Graham and Luke Wilson, which Miramax produced, so she doesn’t have to undergo the anxiety of searching for a buyer.

But with her sophomore effort slotted in the Dramatic Competition, Krueger isn’t out of the woods yet. “The advantage for this film in being in the competition is that it just gives it more screenings so that people who do love it will be able to tell other people to go see it,” she says.

But Brad Anderson, who’s had to sweat out competition entries twice before — his “Darien Gap” played Sundance in ’95, followed by “Next Stop, Wonderland” in ’98 — is relieved to have graduated to the non-competitive Premieres line-up with his newest film, “Happy Accidents,” a time-traveling love story headlining Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio. “When you’re in the competition, there’s so much scrutiny,” he says. “It can be exciting and thrilling, but sometimes you feel gypped that you miss so much of the rest of the festival. Being in the Premieres is a lot more mellow.”

Having weathered the Sundance onslaught before, all the returning filmmakers vow that this year they’ll take it easier. “I want to do some skiing this time,” says Tucci. “I’m also going to be sure to bring some warm boots. Last time I was there, it snowed about a foot a day.”

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