When it comes to getting into Sundance, indie legend Tom DiCillo is batting 1.000. Seven features, seven trips to the big dance. In the 18 years since he first came to Park City with hipster fantasy romance “Johnny Suede,” the man who started his career as Jim Jarmusch’s cinematographer has seen it all.
“My first film was received with a chill that was only matched by the weather outside,” says DiCillo with a laugh. “Then, when I came back a second time with ‘Living in Oblivion,’ everyone loved it. Unlike other festivals, Sundance is really about survival, because you can’t survive as an independent filmmaker if you don’t make money, and Sundance is where the money is.”
This year DiCillo makes his first showing in the competition section since 1995 with a debut documentary, “When You’re Strange,” about the Doors. “Some people have pigeonholed my films as being odd or quirky, but I’ve always felt that there was a big audience for them,” DiCillo says. “In my opinion, there’s definitely an audience for one of the greatest bands of all time.”
In 2006, comedian-turned-actor-turned-live TV helmer Bobcat Goldthwait made his infamous Sundance debut with “Stay” (later retitled “Sleeping Dogs Lie”), a no-budget black comedy about a woman whose relationship is seriously threatened when she reveals to her boyfriend that she once performed a sex act on her dog.
“I really had no idea what I was doing,” says Goldthwait, who shot the film in two weeks with a crew he found on Craigslist during a break from directing “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” “When (Sundance programmer) Trevor Groth told me we were in the dramatic competition, I was like, `Dude, it’s a comedy.’ Then I was convinced it was actually Kimmel prank-calling me. When I found it was real, I thought I was going to faint.”
This year, the 46-year-old director returns with considerably more industry firepower. “The World’s Greatest Dad,” another dark, character-based comedy, stars Goldthwait’s old pal Robin Williams and was co-produced by industry vets Process Media and Darko Entertainment.
“Every time I make a movie, my one expectation is that I get to see it in a theater with a crowd,” Goldthwait says. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been through the show-business mill, but in terms of having a really pure experience, it really doesn’t get any better than Sundance.”
In 1995, Gregor Jordan skipped his first Sundance when his Cannes award-winning short “Swinger” screened. But he was invited back three more times.
He first made the trip to Utah in 1999 for the world premiere of his debut feature, “Two Hands,” a teen crime thriller starring a then-unknown Heath Ledger, but all chances of a U.S. release were destroyed later when the Columbine massacre made anything involving kids and gun violence taboo subject matter.
In 2003, Jordan returned with yet another controversial pic, “Buffalo Soldier,” a dark comedy about corrupt U.S. soldiers whose release had been delayed for two years because of Sept. 11.
This year, Jordan brings the “The Informers,”an adaptation of the short-story collection by Bret Easton Ellis (who co-wrote the pic with Nicholas Jarecki). Senator will distribute the pic Stateside.
“I feel less pressure about Sundance this year, not just because I’ve been through it before, but because we’re not arriving with our hats in our hands trying to sell it,” Jordan says.
MARK & MICHAEL POLISH
Sundance has long prided itself on fostering idiosyncratic new voices in American cinema, and few filmmakers fit that bill better than Mark and Michael Polish, the acting-writing-directing duo whose disregard of commercial storytelling and subjects hasn’t stopped them from getting their films made, then showing them at the festival.
In 1999, the brothers broke onto the indie-film radar with the premiere of “Twins Falls Idaho,” a surreal drama about Siamese twins whose relationship is threatened by a beguiling young woman.
“We had never known what it was like to screen in front of an audience, or sell a movie, or release a movie, so of course we were nervous,” recalls Michael Polish, who directs. “We were lucky enough that every distributor was into it. Then we sold it to Sony Classics, and it eventually turned a profit. So we got to make another one.”
After screening the existential period drama “Northfork” at the festival in 2003, the twins return to Park City this year with “Manure,” a comedy about door-to-door dung salesmen in 1960s America, starring Billy Bob Thornton. The film is one of two pics the duo made back-to-back last year. “I attribute our success in getting films made to not paying attention to the market,” the helmer says. “If you chase what’s hot at a certain moment, by the time you finish it, the market will have changed.”
Sundance is a great place to discover that your perceptions are completely off,” says Scott Sanders. “Last time I was here, I went home feeling like I was a big deal, but of course I wasn’t.”
In 1999, the 30-year-old first-timer arrived in Park City with his first feature, crime drama “Thick as Thieves,” and a theatrical deal with October Films already in place. But when his distrib got swallowed up by Universal later that year, the young helmer’s dreams of seeing his work in commercial theaters were snuffed out.
A decade later, Sanders – who’s been working as a professional DJ in Los Angeles for the past few years – will be getting his second shot at Sundance glory with “Black Dynamite,” a blaxploitation sendup that’s been getting lots of prefestival buzz thanks to a savvy viral marketing campaign and a hilarious DIY trailer that helped secure Sanders complete production financing before he even wrote a rough draft of the script.
“We’ve already gotten a lot of people engaged in the movie, which is great,” says Sanders. “If this works out, I’ll be very happy, but I’m so used to being broke, I’ll be good no matter what happens.”