Sundance kids aren’t kids anymore.
While the festival may be known for launching the careers of tyros such as Darren Aronofsky and Karyn Kusama, Sundance’s competition section has featured an increasing roster of venerable talent, ranging from indie mavericks like Christopher Munch and Maggie Greenwald to studio screenwriters like Henry Bean and Peter Hedges.
“We tend to make archetypical judgments about what an independent filmmaker is,” says Sundance topper Geoffrey Gilmore, “that they’re a twentysomething first-time, out-of-the-garage kind of guy. I think the independent world is more diverse than that. I think you have filmmakers with more mature and more varied backgrounds.”
This year’s competition, for example, includes a number of directors that counter the myth of the fresh-faced film-school grad, from actor Steve Buscemi (47) and playwright Craig Lucas (52) to Sundance returnee Ira Sachs (39) and commercials director Mike Mills (38).
But Gilmore is quick to point out the ratio of known commodities is concurrent with past years. “I think you’re really stretching it if you tell me how well known people like Tim Kirkman, Scott Coffey or Miranda July are. They may have certain reputations in other fields, but it certainly isn’t different from last year. If anything,” he adds, “I think it’s less of a visible group.”
These filmmakers may already have an agent, manager, or had a prior Sundance slot, but they say it hasn’t made it any easier for them this time around.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a studio that would have backed a picture such as ‘The Dying Gaul’ up-front, or to find anyone in their right mind who would have invited a 52-year-old untried hand to direct his first movie,” says Lucas, who first came to Sundance as the writer of “Longtime Companion” in 1990.
Further, Lucas hopes that the festival — and the industry, at large — doesn’t get “lost in the rush to find the next hot young thing,” he says, “just because he or she looks better than I in a wet T-shirt.”
Not exactly a “hot young thing” himself, Buscemi is hoping his third feature, “Lonesome Jim,” affords some recognition for the film’s first-time screenwriter James Strouse and cast members such as Mark Boone Jr. “I have been working with (Boone) for almost 20 years, and I think people are going to respond to him here,” Buscemi says.
Sachs, whose debut feature “The Delta” competed at Sundance in 1997, says he doesn’t feel like a known commodity: “That would imply somehow that it would be easy, or that the money was easy to find. It’s such a struggle.”
Seven years in the making, Sachs’ second feature, “Forty Shades of Blue,” eventually found the good fortune of big-name backers Sidney Pollack and Diane von Furstenberg. Other established names, from directors Wes Anderson and John Singleton to actors Laura Linney and Keanu Reeves, have lent their support to this year’s Sundance competition pics.
One advantage to being a veteran is to know how to assemble the right strategists when going into the fest. After making two documentaries that received distribution (“The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” “Dear Jesse”), helmer Tim Kirkman says he’s now relying on a number of industry stalwarts, including sales rep Andrew Herwitz, to help him maximize the potential of his narrative debut “Loggerheads.”
“Obviously, we want to sell the film, so we’re putting a team in place to make the most of our days there,” he says.
Kirkman is not alone. Nearly every one of this year’s dramatic competition films is available for distribution. With industry connections and know-how, this year’s more veteran Sundancers are well suited to steer through the market mayhem.
“There’s no difference between directing actors and dealing with distributors,” notes Sachs. “And you either succeed or fail on both those terms.”
Director Noah Baumbach may be making his first trip to Sundance, with “The Squid and the Whale,” but Baumbach says experience with his prior pic, “Kicking and Screaming,” gives him an edge. “I know who the distributors are. I know a little more about what to expect.”
And like a number of Sundance’s more experienced competitors, Baumbach feels a greater confidence in not only his industry savvy, but his artistic abilities as well. “The more that you’re around, the more you find what you’re comfortable doing,” he says. “When I was 25, and I made ‘Kicking and Screaming,’ and people invited me to pitch, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it all.’ But I didn’t fully know who I was yet as a filmmaker. What’s exciting for me this time around is that I feel more connected to the work and I’m clearer on what I’m doing.”
Echoes Kirkman, “I’m really happy that whatever movie I would have made at 28 is not being viewed by anyone. I’m so much more forgiving of myself and the world than I was 10 years ago.”
“Everybody hits their own stride at different times,” agrees Baumbach. “And that’s ultimately what the festival should be about honoring.”