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Below-the-Line Talent Share Insights Into Top Sundance Movies

A seller’s market prevailed at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as streaming giants competed with traditional studios to buy a wide assortment of indie projects they hope to turn into hits. The artisans who worked on some of the highest-profile Sundance movies share their stories. 

Blinded by the Light (Bought by New Line for $15 million)

In 1987, Javed (Viveik Kalra), a 16-year-old British Pakistani, is given a Bruce Springsteen cassette, inspiring him to stand up to the racism around him. To re-create the period, costume designer Annie Hardinge scoured shops in London’s East End. As Javed starts to emulate the way Springsteen dresses, jeans, white tees and red bandannas take center stage. “I looked at photographs and videos of Bruce to pick up on key elements that summed up his look,” Hardinge says, “but we didn’t want to overdo it.”

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (Netflix, $9 million)

Editor Josh Schaeffer had five weeks to cut the Ted Bundy story starring Zac Efron. “People know about the serial killer so well, we didn’t want to be mired in exposition but rather dive into the character,” says the editor. “[Director] Joe Berlinger wanted to take risks using nonlinear techniques, jump cuts and archival footage to push the narrative. It allowed me to put things in front of him I wouldn’t normally do.” 

The Farewell (A24, $6 million)

Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano focused on capturing the soul of director Lulu Wang’s heartfelt story about family and unity. Her naturalist approach framed the journey that takes Billi (Awkwafina) from New York home to China. “We tried to stay true to the reality of the country,” says Solano. “Most apartments in China are flat and not particularly pleasant. We wanted to make it not feel gritty but still inviting and cinematic.” 

Late Night (Amazon, $13 million)

Written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, the comedy stars Emma Thompson as a misogynistic late-night talk-show host who begrudgingly hires Molly (Kaling) as the lone woman in an all-male writers’ room. Casting director Maribeth Fox needed to find balance for the ensemble cast. “Mindy and Emma came attached,” says Fox, “so when you have talent of that caliber, we had to make sure that the [comedic actors] we auditioned for the writers’ room would be comfortable next to them — actors who knew how to hit a beat while still holding their own.” 

Little Monsters (Neon/Hulu, mid-seven figures)

On a school field trip, Dave (Alexander England), his nephew Felix (Diesel La Torraca), and Dave’s crush, the enigmatic Miss Caroline (Lupita Nyong’o) find themselves fighting the undead. “We pushed really hard to make this story work because there’s a beautiful relationship between Dave and Felix, then down the line with Caroline,” says editor Jim May of the Abe Forsythe film. “The zombie element is more of an afterthought, and we treated them just as any antagonist.” 

Monos (Neon, undisclosed)

The Alejandro Landes film focuses on a band of child soldiers who hold an American hostage atop a remote mountain in a jungle. Production designer Daniela Schneider found a location that allowed the camera to see 360 degrees without civilization. “We scouted forgotten places in Colombia to fulfill that vision,” says Schneider. “The jungle was an explosion of craziness, dissonant colors, mess and mud; it was a beautiful green everywhere — flowers, a river, and always with a heavy atmosphere.”

Native Son (HBO Films, undisclosed)

Director Rashid Johnson and writer Suzan-Lori Parks put a modern spin on Richard Wright’s 1940 novel of fear, violence and race. Ashton Sanders plays Bigger Thomas, a weed-smoking, pistol-carrying Chicagoan whose life is sent into a spiral by an accidental death. Composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (“Stranger Things”) aimed to avoid getting in the way of an already strong story. “We wanted an organic, avant-garde feel,” Dixon says. “We found a way to process traditional guitars, drums and other acoustic instruments” with effects after the musicians created sounds with the instruments in ways they were not intended to be played. 

Official Secrets (IFC Films, $2 million)

To create the true story of British secret-service officer Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley) blowing the whistle on an illegal National Security Agency spy operation prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister was adamant about detailing a visual language that was not overly dramatized. “We held the camera back and took an extremely natural approach,” Hoffmeister notes, “while at the same time finding a style that would convey the fragility of Keira’s performance.” 

The Report (Amazon, $14 million)

Scott Burns’ political drama centers on Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who heads an investigation into the CIA’s suspected use of torture to interrogate suspects following 9/11. Production designer Ethan Tobman used color and texture to separate Jones from the outside world. “He is a man trying to uncover the secrets of what happened behind closed doors and thus, needs to immerse himself in rooms where he’s largely cut off by society,” Tobman says. “His environment needed to be linear, with right angles and cut-up spaces to divorce him from other people.” 

 The Tomorrow Man (Bleecker Street, eight figures)

Composer Paul Leonard-Morgan formed a musical language that subliminally paralleled the growing relationship between Ed (John Lithgow) and Ronnie (Blythe Danner), obsessive-compulsives with different focuses. “We gave Ed a slightly minor key with a twist to it, and when he meets Ronnie, she’s in a minor third above but in a major key. When they come together, the melodies begin to blend,” says Leonard-Morgan. “It was a way for viewers to recognize the emotional direction without realizing what’s actually taking place.” 

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