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Five Artisans Talk About Their Work on Buzzy Sundance Titles

At this year’s Sundance, 118 features will make their debut. Here are five hotly anticipated films that will be in the mix and some of the artisans behind them. 

Bad Hair (Midnight)

Costume designer Ceci reconnects with Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) on a satirical horror set in 1989 Los Angeles, where ambitious Anna (Elle Lorraine) hopes to be the next on-air talent for a music video TV show. Her new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams) wants Anna to change her natural hair, and she acquiesces by getting a weave. One problem: The strands have a mind of their own. 

Ceci fully developed the look of each individual role down to the smallest detail. “My intention is that the viewer can readily identify, relate or understand who the characters are and the story being told,” she says. “Before Anna gets her first weave, her wardrobe is reflective of her ethnocentric upbringing coupled with her homespun, budget-conscious, individual style.” 

Shirley (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Based on the book by Susan Scarf Merrell, this adaptation adds an atmosphere of psychological menace to the tale of a writer (played by Elisabeth Moss) whose new novel is inspired by the young couple she and her husband take in as boarders. 

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Composer Tamar-kali conjured the story’s music. “Josephine [Decker, the director] was very interested in the female voice, and as a vocalist, I was able to go to a place that I wouldn’t normally go,” says the musician, who added a string quartet, piano and other synthetic elements to the track. “Because it’s a psychological thriller, I needed to
create layers, as so much is going on inside of Moss’ portrayal of the character.” 

Tesla (Premieres)

Director Michael Almereyda tapped cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Marjorie Prime”) to invent the visual grammar of this film about inventor Nikola Tesla. 

Williams paired a Sony Venice camera with smoothing Super Baltar lenses to photograph the period film with a stylish yet mannered frame that added scope to the ambitious project. For lighting, the DP used tungsten and LED fixtures on some scenes, with others featuring candlelight. “The look does have a dark quality to it, but you feel the fire and the heat of the lights through
the warm color palette,” he says. “We wanted to be faithful to the time, but we did take liberties in props and history. We were not strapped to the period.”

Wendy (Premieres)

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin returns to Sundance with an imaginative adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.”

Guiding its eye-popping aesthetic was production designer Eliza Zeitlin, who co-wrote the screenplay with her brother. The buried city of Plymouth on the island of Montserrat became a central part of the story, with a homogeneous color palette underlining the look. The philosophy was to build complete sets. “It allows the children and non-actors the freedom to move around and for the camera to capture unexpected things,” says the production designer, who not only constructed 360-degree sets but sank a 50-foot salvage boat and hand-built a giant underwater puppet. “I’m always adamant about it being the real thing,” she adds. “The emotional impact is just deeper.”  

Worth (Premieres)

Editor Julia Bloch balanced pacing with emotion to detail a narrative about a lawyer appointed to distribute funds to 9/11 victims. 

“The lead character [played by Michael Keaton] is someone who’s routine-oriented and unflappable. His comfort zone is calculators and spreadsheets, but when he comes face-to-face with the victims, he’s a little lost for words,” notes Bloch. “As a lawyer, his very definition of ‘winning’ changes: It becomes not just about the numbers but what he needs to do to help the people.” 

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