Sunday, June 17, 2018
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Sundance Film Festival: Return Engagements
Drake Doremus
Directors come back to Sundance, share backstories, insights into their films and the Fest

For director Drake Doremus, the Sundance Film Festival was a game changer. His feature length-directorial debut Douchebag, made its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. A year later, his second feature, Like Crazy, won the Festival’s Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Garnering critical acclaim and resonating with the Sundance audience, Like Crazy went on to a wide release by Paramount Pictures.

“Sundance changed my life overnight in 2011,” recalled Doremus. “It jump started my career. Sundance is the place that gives independent film a voice, connecting your work with an audience.”

Doremus went on to premiere the feature Breathe In at the 2013 Sundance Fest. And last month, Doremus brought a film to Sundance for the fourth time—Newness which stars Nicholas Hoult and Laia Costa as Martin and Gabi, respectively. They’re a good-looking, sociable, young couple, living and loving life in Los Angeles. Brought together via a dating app, they instantly fall in love. Yet their initial attraction is tested and offset by the alternative carnal partners potentially available to them, easily accessible via a few clicks on their phones. Soon the day-to-day requirements for maintaining a serious relationship set in, and as Gaby and Martin grapple with the commitment they’ve made to one another, they begin to question whether it is a single relationship, or the bountiful hook-up options of the digital world, that they desire most.

Asked if his fourth time at Sundance felt different than his first ground-breaking appearances, Doremus shared, “I don’t get as nervous or excited as I did when I was younger. But at the same time, I appreciate being here more now, fully knowing the value of what this means to independent filmmakers. Sundance is a very special place for you to share your work.”

However, Doremus didn’t ideally time Newness for a possible Sundance premiere. “We started shooting this movie about three months ago so I’m grateful the film even got considered by Sundance. They accommodated it. This is one of my sexiest and most romantic films. And to tell this story putting the finger on the pulse of the topical, fresh hook-up culture has been exciting. We managed to shoot it in 18 days—and this wasn’t a small film. It was a bigger idea with a lot of meat to it. We would do as many as eight or nine scenes a day with amazing actors who had to jump around yet stay in the right emotional ballpark. They had to be very instinctive. We didn’t have enough time to second guess ourselves. It’s in line with what I strive to do. I want to keep pushing boundaries and finding new subjects.”

Newness marks a reunion for Doremus with actor Hoult. The two first worked together on Doremus’ feature Equals, a futuristic love story which made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and was released last summer. “We became close friends on Equals,” said Doremus, and “we wanted to keep exploring our creative relationship. He came over from London and stayed with me for three months. It was like a camp experience—filming and then coming home to break it all down, to watch dailies, and assess what we had done and what we were going to do.”

While Sundance has been a venue where Doremus has broken new ground, the director has also stretched himself creatively elsewhere and in different disciplines, a prime example came a few years back in the branded content arena with Intel/Toshiba’s The Beauty Inside, an episodic social film on Facebook featuring a male protagonist who wakes up as a different person every day before finally falling in love. Viewers auditioned via web cam helped to portray the lead character. Doremus’ first foray into the ad arena, The Beauty Inside came out of Pereira & O’Dell, San Francisco, and went on to win three Grand Prix honors (Film, Branded Content & Entertainment, and Cyber) at the 2013 Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Produced by B-Reel (Doremus’ roost at the time for commercials and branded fare), The Beauty Inside also scored a Daytime Emmy Award and Best Branded Content honors at The One Show.

Doremus noted that his ad industry endeavors have informed his feature filmmaking, often in terms of collaborative talent. For example, The Beauty Inside marked his first project with cinematographer Sean Stiegemeier. Doremus—whose commercialmaking/ad home is now Hey Wonderful, part of the RSA family of companies—has gone on to team with Stiegemeier on assorted spots and branded content projects. Doremus also tabbed Stiegemeier to lens Newness.

Another compatriot on The Beauty Inside, writer Richard Greenberg, has penned the screenplay for Zoe, Doremus’ next feature. Zoe stars Ewan McGregor and Léa Seydoux as colleagues at a revolutionary research lab who design technology to improve and perfect romantic relationships. As their work progresses, their discoveries become more profound than they ever could have imagined.

Meanwhile prior to embarking on Zoe, Doremus hopes to take advantage of a window of availability he has in March for commercials and branded content via Hey Wonderful.

Mark Pellington
Director Mark Pellington’s roots go deep at the Sundance Film Festival, dating back to 1997 when his Going All The Way, a coming of age comedy/drama starring Ben Affleck and Rachel Weisz, earned a Dramatic Grand Jury Prize nomination. Pellington returned in 2008 with a pair of films: U2 3D, a documentary he co-directed with Catherine Owens; and the comedy-drama Henry Poole Is Here (a Humanitas Prize nominee in the Sundance category). In 2011 Pellington came to Sundance with the drama I Melt With You. And last month, the director’s Sundance tradition continued with The Last Word staring Shirley MacLaine as a retired ad agency businesswoman and a full-time control freak. On the latter score, she decides to fashion her own obituary. She enlists the help of a young journalist—portrayed by Amanda Seyfried—who looks to dig out the truth, resulting in a life-altering friendship.

Pellington’s involvement in The Last Word was sparked during a commercial shoot he was directing, collaborating with Stuart Ross Fink, an ad agency creative director. Fink shared with the director his idea for a film—-a woman who wanted to control her life—and death—by penning her own obit. Pellington liked the premise and encouraged Fink to write a script. He did, presenting a draft to Pellington, putting the wheels in motion for The Last Word.

Among those providing support for the film was production house Wondros, which handled Pellington at the time for commercials and branded content. (He has since shifted his ad roost affiliation to The Cavalry Productions.) Wondros served as one of the production companies on The Last Word. Wondros founder Jesse Dylan optioned The Last Word and Pellington credited him with helping him to further shape the script, and to bring actress MacLaine into the fold. Myriad Pictures then came onto the project and was instrumental in securing Seyfried.

For Pellington, earning another Sundance selection is most gratifying.

“I’ve been there with different genres of films, and the support and opportunities that Sundance provides for independent movies is unparalleled.”Pellington in turn creates opportunities for others, seeking out new artisans to blend with a core of established compatriots. In terms of first-time collaborators on The Last Word, Pellington sought out, for example, cinematographer Eric Koretz and costume designer Alix Hester. Pellington’s long-time production designer Richard Hoover, who too worked on The Last Word, recommended Hester. As for Koretz, Pellington said, “I track DPs all the time. Eric had done a couple of small movies that I took notice of. I saw his commercial reel, met him, liked his sensibilities. I then had him shoot a Bayer Aspirin commercial for me, and saw him in action. He’s very thoughtful and a gifted DP.”

Pellington also extends opportunities to writers. The Last Word isn’t the first time he’s tabbed an agency creative to write a feature. The aforementioned I Melt With You, a dark experimental piece, was penned by Glenn Porter (a screenplay based on a story by Porter and Pellington). The director first met Porter who at the time was a creative at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners (now KBS), New York.

A Baltimore native, Pellington began his career path in Manhattan working at the fledgling on-air promotions department of then newbie music video channel MTV. After producing some cutting edge programming (including Buzz), Pellington started directing music videos. His iconic imagery for Pearl Jam’s song “Jeremy” made a major splash and sparked a directorial career that would soon include videos for U2, Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, Dave Matthews Band, Flaming Lips, and Michael Jackson. Pellington then successfully diversified into commercials, features and TV.

Pellington’s feature filmography also includes Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies. His TV endeavors span such episodic fare as Cold Case (CBS) and Blindspot (NBC). He was a director/executive producer on season one of Blindspot, and currently serves as EP on season two. Pellington’s commercialmaking exploits encompass such clients as GMC, Merck, United Healthcare and Apple.

At The Cavalry—which is headed by executive producer/founder Ross Grogan and COO Aric Ackerman—Pellington is looking to continue his spot and branded content work while extending his reach into VR. The director reunites at The Cavalry with EP Tanya Cohen. Pellington and Cohen first crossed paths at Crossroads Films.

Cary & Jon
While they don’t have the lengthy Sundance track record of Pellington, the directorial duo of Cary & Jon—consisting of Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott—is off to a promising start, having turned out two features in their young careers, both of which earned inclusion into the Festival’s Midnight program. Many of the features that screen at Midnight have shown an affinity for generating a cult following. Sundance’s description of its Midnight menu reads, “From horror and comedy to works that defy genre classification, these films will keep you wide awake, even at the most arduous hour.”

Cary & Jon’s feature debut, Cooties, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Fest. The comedy/horror/sci-fi hybrid film starred Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson, telling the story of a mysterious virus wreaking havoc on an isolated elementary school, transforming the kids into a feral swarm of mass savages. An unlikely hero leads a motley band of teachers in the fight of their lives.

Fast forward to 2017 and another hybrid Cary & Jon feature, this one an action/drama, Bushwick, made the Midnight grade. The world premiere has a cast which includes Dave Bautista, Brittany Snow, Angelic Zambrana, Jeremie Harris, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Arturo Castro. In this story penned by Nick Damici and Graham Reznick, a woman emerges from a Brooklyn subway to find that her neighborhood is under siege by military personnel. An ex-Marine reluctantly helps her fight for survival through a civil war as Texas attempts to secede from the U.S.

The premise of the movie was inspired by an offhand comment made in 2009 by then Texas Governor Rick Perry that his state should secede from the country. “We thought, ‘what would happen if this came to be,’” recalled Murnion. “We looked into the history of how states secede. Getting the house of legislators to ratify it wouldn’t happen. But then what if they hired a mercenary army that went into New York City and forced the house to ratify secession. What if we got invaded by our own kind of military force? Our movie contains that story, but in the form of a woman who finds herself in the middle of all this. We follow Lucy as she tries to survive, not sure at first exactly what’s happening—if we’ve been invaded by Russians or terrorists. We use a series of long takes—similar to Gravity—to put our viewers into the action. We want the audience to feel like they’re with Lucy, moving through the streets of Brooklyn, bringing an authenticity and real experience feel to the drama.”

Milott pointed out that the climate of the country has changed considerably since they first got the idea years ago. Bushwick debuted on the heels of the presidential inauguration, an event underscoring that we are in an era where Americans are seemingly more divided than ever. Bushwick’s premise is less of a farce than what it might have been regarded as at the outset of the film’s development.

Cary & Jon first met at Parsons School of Design in New York. They went on to start their own business which focused primarily on web and identity design, with occasional forays into animation. Cary & Jon, though, harbored filmmaking aspirations so on the side during their spare time they would produce short films. This was before YouTube so they’d email their creations to interested and not-so-interested parties. One short caught some interested eyes at Nike, prompting an invite to pitch an idea for The Art of Speed competition. “I think they thought we’d pitch animation to win funding for a short," said Murnion. "Instead we pitched live action in the form of The Shortest Race. The theme was supposed to be “Endurance” but instead we showed the opposite, presenting a story in which people were trying to win a 39.9-inch race.” Cary & Jon wound up winning the gig, getting the chance to make their film which they shot in super slow motion.

From there came the opportunity to make other pieces of branded content for the likes of Nike, Diesel and Panasonic. Cary & Jon were inspired by other filmmakers they met along the way. On their very first Nike endeavor, they came to know Joseph Kosinski who had a web firm like them and won the chance to make a Nike short. “Joseph wound up breaking into features, directing the new Tron film,” said Milott. “He broke into Hollywood which to us seemed an impenetrable fortress. Seeing someone like him from New York make a cool short film and wind up doing features was encouraging.”

Diesel meanwhile picked 30 directors to make short form content—including Cary & Jon, and Pes, who has since become a stop-motion animation virtuoso. “We loved Pes’ films and struck up a rapport,” related Millot. “He liked our work. He was signed at the time with Czar for commercials. He then connected us with Czar which was our first production house affiliation.”

Cary & Jon met executive producer Megan Kelly at Czar, forming a close-knit collaborative relationship with her. Later Cary & Jon had a stint at RSA Films before reuniting with Kelly at Click 3X. And about a year ago, when Kelly became partnered in her own production company, Honor Society, Cary & Jon came aboard that shop’s roster for commercials and branded content.

Alex Ross Perry
Alex Ross Perry too is a Sundance returnee. Back in 2014 the writer-director’s Listen Up Philip was screened as part of the festival’s Next lineup. Then last year as an actor, Perry appeared in director Jeff Baena’s comedy Joshy, which also made the Sundance cut. And last month, Perry came back to the Fest with Golden Exits, his second Sundance entry as writer-director, this time in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. 

In Golden Exits the arrival of a young foreign girl disrupts the lives and emotional balances of two Brooklyn families. Perry described the film as exploring “the wobbly nature of relationships.” The cast includes Emily Browning, Adam Horovitz, Mary-Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Sevigny. 

Like Perry’s first feature at Sundance, Golden Exits stars Schwartzman. But unlike for Listen Up Philip, Perry was not actively seeking a Sundance slot for Golden Exits. 

“A lot of people make movies with Sundance in mind,” related Perry. “They start shooting in June, send Sundance a cut in September, post in October and are done by December to be in time for the Festival. I had Sundance very much in mind for Listen Up Phillip.

But for Golden Exits, Perry had no such strategy or timetable. “I wanted this film to have time to breathe, not trying to make a Sundance Festival schedule. I didn’t even enter the film but as it turned out, the producers did. I didn’t think this film demanded the attention to be in competition with more serious subject matter films. Still, it’s great to be at Sundance. It wasn’t something we forced, though.”

Perry noted that initially he talked to Schwartzman and others, including the editor, composer and costume designer, about keeping their schedule open for another bigger ticket feature. “I had told them back in September [2015] to be available for a shoot in April [2016]. By November [2015] I saw that the original movie wasn’t coming together as I hoped. But the idea [for Golden Exits] started to percolate. So while the first movie wasn’t happening, I asked the talent, ‘How about making another movie in April?’” Many of them came aboard Golden Exits, including Schwartzman.

Another element of continuity carried over from Listen Up Phillip to Golden Exits—the involvement of production company Washington Square Films. “I enjoy working with them and value the relationship,” said Perry. “They provide great nuts-and-bolts, and creative support.”

Perry noted that at some point he’d like to delve into short-form fare—commercials, branded content and music videos—via Washington Square Films or another house. “If someone asks me about doing the right commercial, I’m there,” affirmed Perry who added that Sleigh Bells, a band who liked his features, sought him out to direct a music clip, an experience he enjoyed. 

Prior to his first Sundance feature, Perry had already made his mark in indie features with Impolex and The Color Wheel. The latter earned a nomination for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2013 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Park Pictures
Akin to directors Doremus, Pellington, Cary & Jon, and Perry who all have Sundance track records, so too does Park Pictures Features, a sister shop to commercial/branded content production company Park Pictures. Since its launch in 2011, Park Pictures Features has had six feature premieres at Sundance: Robot & Frank (2012), Infinitely Polar Bear (2014), God’s Pocket (2014), Cop Car (2015), Other People (2016) and The Hero (2017).

Directed by Brett Haley, The Hero was produced by Northern Lights, Park Pictures Features and Houston King Productions. The cast includes Sam Elliott, Nick Offerman, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter and Katharine Ross. The Hero centers on Lee (portrayed by Elliot), a former Western film icon, who is living a comfortable existence, smoking weed and lending his golden voice to advertisements. After receiving a lifetime achievement award and unexpected news, Lee reexamines his past, while a chance meeting with a sardonic comic has him looking to the future. Haley and Marc Basch scripted The Hero.