- Friday, Feb. 5, 2016
Director Asif Kapadia is a double threat on the festival circuit, scoring in recent years on the narrative feature and documentary fronts. On the latter score, his first film to make the Sundance grade came in 2011 when Senna, which examined the life of legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, went on to win the festival’s Audience Award in the World Cinema—Documentary competition while also being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
Fast forward to today and Kapadia’s narrative feature, the politically charged love story Ali & Nino, recently made its world premiere in the Sundance Premieres section. With a cast that includes Adam Bakri, Maria Valverde, Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen and Riccardo Scamarcio, Ali & Nino, a U.K. entry, introduces us to the title characters who are upper class teens living in the Russian province of Azerbaijan just prior to the outbreak of World War I. He is Muslim and she is Christian but despite their cultural differences, they love each other and get married much to the chagrin of disapproving parents. When Ali takes her to spend several months in Persia, she realizes how much her freedom is being constrained. The clash between East and West and between traditional Muslim life and the 20th century independence of her upbringing is very striking. Then the Great War breaks out, and things take a turn for the worse.
Kapadia’s return to Sundance capped an eventful month of January, which saw him score his first career DGA award nomination for Amy just a couple of days after that film scored a Best Feature Documentary Oscar nod. Amy is a moving exploration of songwriter/vocalist Amy Winehouse’s life. Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the age of 27.
“I was doing two films at the same time,” related Kapadia. “As I was finishing Amy, I was deeply into Ali & Nino, a Romeo and Juliet-type story set around the time of World War I. To get the DGA recognition and the Oscar nomination for Amy just before coming to Sundance for the second time to debut Ali & Nino has been beyond belief.”
Kapadia’s roots are in narrative feature filmmaking as reflected in his early career effort The Warrior, which in 2003 won BAFTA’s Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film, additionally earning him as its director/co-writer BAFTA’s Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer.
In several key respects Kapadia has applied his narrative feature filmmaking sensibilities to his documentary endeavors, an approach which helped both Senna and Amy to resonate with audiences. (See this week’s installment of The Road To Oscar for more insights into Amy and the impact of a narrative feature approach to documentary filmmaking).
Another Sundance returnee is director Jeff Feuerzeig who made his first mark at the festival back in 2005 when his The Devil and Daniel Johnston won the Directing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary Competition. The film was a multi-dimensional portrait of manic-depressive genius singer/songwriter/artist Johnston.
This year Feuerzeig returned to Sundance with Author: The JT LeRoy Story, one of 16 world premieres selected for the U.S. Documentary Competition. This film is billed as being the definitive look inside the mysterious case of 16-year-old literary sensation JT LeRoy. It turns out the celebrated novelist was fictional, created by American author Laura Albert.
Feuerzeig found himself fascinated with the story. “It was called the largest literary hoax of our time a while back with The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Salon.com covering the story. The New York Times exposed the identity of the actual writer back in 2005 or ‘06. But through everything, there seemed to be one missing voice—that of the writer of the books. She was absent from all the stories that were ultimately about here. I thought to myself, ‘That’s the person whose story I would like to hear.’ I wanted to hear the one voice we hadn’t heard from. I sought out Laura Albert.”
The biggest challenge Author: The JT LeRoy Story posed to him, said Feuerzeig, was rooted “in the complexity of the story. Once I started getting deeper into it, I felt like this was the strangest story about a story I had ever heard. The challenge was to first understand it for myself and then to be able to structure the film so that the audience could also follow the story.”
For Feuerzeig, having his film selected for Sundance is gratifying. “I felt the same way the first time I had a documentary at Sundance. For me nonfiction film is the last vestige of true independent filmmaking. Sundance to me represents the place to be if you’re pushing the envelope in the nonfiction genre. My biggest influence in terms of pushing the envelope has been the New Journalism of the 1960s, people like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Terry Southern. They told about the subjective truth, immersing themselves in their stories.”
Feuerzeig recalled that winning the Directing Award at Sundance 11 years ago “in many ways put me on the map,” helping to meaningfully diversify beyond his mainstay, still ongoing comercialmaking endeavors for which he is represented by Caviar Content. “Sundance helped launch the other side of my career which is screenwriting and making more films.”
And further diversification is in the offing as Feuerzeig as a screenwriter is turning out his first narrative feature, The Bleeder starring Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts, and directed by Philippe Falardeau. The film is based on a Feuerzeig-directed ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Real Rocky, which tells the story of underdog boxer Chuck Wepner who went the distance in a bout against Muhammad Ali and helped inspire the creation of the famed Rocky Balboa character. Schreiber stars as Wepner in The Bleeder.
Jim Hosking, another director active in commercialmaking—repped in the U.S. and U.K. by production house Hungry Man—also brought a film to Sundance for the second time. The first was his short Renegades which screened at Sundance in 2010. Now Hosking’s first feature-length film, The Greasy Strangler, just debuted in Sundance’s Midnight section.
Hosking who not only directed but also co-wrote (with Toby Harvard) The Greasy Strangler, describes it as “a peculiar comedy, depicting a weird love triangle involving a father and son and a girl they meet. There’s some strangling as well. It’s really quite an experimental film that I wanted to be funny in an alarming, borderline grotesque way.”
The cast includes Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar and Elizabeth De Razzo.
Setting out to make a film that could not easily be categorized, Hosking wasn’t sure how The Greasy Strangler would be received by Sundance officials. Yet in retrospect he concedes that the festival’s Midnight program was a categorical fit for his film. Sundance’s Midnight fare is billed as anything from horror flicks to comedies to works that defy any genre—unruly cult status-contending films that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats and wide awake.
Hosking’s filmography over the years includes notable shorts (i.e., Litle Clumps of Hair which premiered on the BBC in 2003, Crabs which premiered at the London Short Film Festival in 2012, the “G is for Grandad” segment in ABCs of Death 2 in 2014) and assorted spots.
Hosking noted that his commercialmaking experience has informed his longer form film work, with their sharing a common bond. “I like to tell stories through the characters and their personalities. Even if I’m making five second spots like I did back in the day, I want the characters to be interesting, to feel well rounded and real. Even if they’re on screen for two seconds, these characters should feel like they could live outside those few seconds or even beyond the 30 second commercial during which you see them. That is where comedy and humanity lies—in the characters.”
In the ad arena, Hosking first established himself on the agency side of the business, serving as a copywriter at HHCL and then Mother, both in London. He went on to MTV’s on-air promotions department in New York where he got the opportunity to continue to be active as a creative while directing select projects. Hosking later decided to focus full time on a directorial career, returning to London where he joined Partizan at the end of 2000. He moved onto such roosts as Skunk in the U.S. and Stink in the U.K., eventually landing at Hungry Man in 2012.
Park Pictures’ perfection
When Other People, a co-production between Park Pictures and Gettin’ Rad Productions, was tabbed to open the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, it continued a winning streak for Park’s features division, headed by Sam Bisbee, Jacqueline Kelman Bisbee and Lance Acord. A sister shop to spot production house Park Pictures, the feature operation has produced five films—all of which were selected for Sundance. The four prior films are the features Robot & Frank (2012), Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), God’s Pocket (2014) and Cop Car (2015).
Written and directed by Chris Kelly (a supervising writer on Saturday Night Live, and a consulting producer on Comedy Central’s Broad City), Other People stars Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Fargo, Friday Night Lights), Molly Shannon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Saturday Night Live), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), June Squibb (Nebraska, About Schmidt), Maude Apatow (Girls), Madisen Beaty and Zach Woods (In the Loop, The Other Guys, Spy).
Other People centers on a struggling comedy writer, fresh from breaking up with his boyfriend, who moves to Sacramento to help his sick mother. Living with his conservative father and younger sisters, our protagonist David feels like a stranger in his childhood home. As his mother worsens, he tries to convince everyone (including himself) he’s “doing okay.”
Other People was produced by Adam Scott and Naomi Scott of Gettin’ Rad, and Park Pictures’ Sam Bisbee. EPs include Park’s Acord and Kelman Bisbee along with co-producers Theodora Dunlap, Cody Ryder and Claire Beitcher. Other People is keeping good company in that Sundance’s opening night slot has recently featured breakthrough films such as Whiplash and What Happened, Miss Simone?