If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to actually attend and have a movie in consideration at Sundance, you’ll enjoy these dispatches from Sundance 2018
[Editor’s note: Lisa Janssen is one of the producers of Hal, a documentary about the career of Hollywood director Hal Ashby, whose films Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973) Shampoo (1975) and Being There (1979) were part of a new wave of socially-conscious American cinema. Lisa’s film was selected to be shown at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
So, I have been working on a certain film for four years. During these years, I believed it was dead in the water and I came near to quitting it at least three times. There was infighting, deception, and simmering resentment. That is until two months ago, when we got accepted to Sundance.
A fluke to be sure and 100% unexpected. Weeks of chaos and immersion followed, all hands on deck, pedal to the freaking metal. We had to finish this film and fast.
Somehow our ragtag team pulled the shit off. Inches from the finish line, we delivered our film and began preparing for our Sundance Odyssey. As I am on the lower end of the totem pole, and our film an unknown commodity, I will see this thing from the second-lowest rung of the Hollywood ladder.
But I accepted every invitation I received, weirdos, never heard of requested to join my dusty LinkedIn page, and Facebook friends who ignored me in real life were “liking” every damn thing I posted.
It’s really not that easy to get around here, despite what they say. At the airport I watched the clock as the big opening with Robert Redford passed, a documentary meet-up dropped off the schedule, but I made it to an 8:30 reception for the law office we work with. It was pretty good.
Sat next to a young Russian fellow who directed a film about the president. We debated indie rock and misogyny, which he thinks is a myth. I said, what about the Madonna and whore thing? We got swept in the table’s conversation about Chinatown and he was unable to answer.
It snowed all night and in the morning the roads were rough and slippery. Traffic backed up for miles. On the main drag I was surprised to see and hear so many Bros. I have a gory bruise from where I bit it on the first day.
Went over the schedule to pick my battles. All these panels seem worthless. Where are the celebrities?
One of the bosses of this website told me to add more gossip and drugs to these posts. I wish.
The whole six-block strip of sponsors and theaters seemed slightly morose. Was it Weinstein? Trump? It was as if joviality was an offense to the newly sensitized. Some of that is justified. I dunno. I’ve never been here before.
A group of us who worked on the movie together stayed at an Airbnb up the hill from Main Street, a condo decorated with an exorbitant amount of cowboy ephemera: antlers, chaps, hats, saddles, deer heads, and one deer hoof. The young kids brought in boxes and boxes of food, liquor, and vape pens. I wasn’t gonna get in the hot tub, but I was going to get my drink on.
There had been a women’s march on day two led by Jane Fonda, who wore a band-aid on her chin from where she’d had a cancerous growth removed. She disappeared almost immediately afterward, only making the premiere of the documentary about herself.
Some girls were going ape-shit about the Joan Jett documentary, but she’s destroyed her face and I couldn’t imagine looking at it for 90 minutes. One of my housemates described seeing Light of Day with Jett and Michael J. Fox as a seminal pre-teen experience. We talked about Joan’s face – she took the sunny outlook that Joan is an icon and should do whatever makes her happy. I said how could she possibly be happy if she felt the need to ruin her face.
Still, I was psyched, I was going to spot celebrities on every block! Blondes with ironed hair under furry hats and crayon-y eyebrows looked as if they could be celebrities, but I couldn’t be sure. The only fashion item that stood out was a pair of UGGs covered in rhinestones. I noticed a lot of older men using product in their grey hair. I saw Idris Elba on the sidewalk; he looked undeniably super hot in person.
It took 45 minutes to get to The Price of Everything which was OK. Making fun of Jeff Koons isn’t that hard, but I hadn’t really connected flipping paintings like houses – that investment in art isn’t a rich man’s status game, just another way to hide assets and avoid taxes. OK, I admit it. I liked the film’s making fun of Jeff Koons.
Another hour on a shuttle and I was so hungry I had to pick a sports bar on Main Street to eat. There were lines down the block in every doorway. The Patriots vs. Jaguars was ending, Vikings vs. Eagles about to start. Near collapse with weakness, I walked into a bar at the end of the road where I could at least wait inside.
Overheard conversations were unsurprising: did you sell your movie? I’ve got an idea, script, scrap, golden goose, for a movie. This is no complaint – it’s what I had been dreaming of. Most people were kind and open to hearing about each other’s golden geese.
It was funny to hear someone talk about, “one of the original YouTube stars,” as if that was in a far distant time. Someone saw Robert Pattinson and said his skin really did look like diamonds, but that he had a very large head.
Our movie’s premiere is tomorrow. I hear good things about it from people on the shuttle and in lines. A car is picking us up, and there will be a make-up artist. I didn’t even have my make-up done for my wedding.
Sundance Diary #3
You know the feeling of pure life joy, right? Kind of like a car accident where your personal movie goes into slo-mo and for a moment you can hear the universe inside your mind, in a good way.
I got that feeling at the premiere of the outside-of-my-mind movie, Hal. With all the blood and guts on the floor finally mopped up, our crew fell in love with each other again. The blood and guts drifted quietly down a Rocky Mountain stream behind us.
I mean that for real, and found in conversation with other documentary film crews, that’s how it goes. There’s the joy of starting your movie, the prolonged agony of not finishing your movie, followed by the pure life joy of seeing it on screen for the first time.
At Hal HQ, we all got professionally made up for red carpet photos (except for our director) no one will ever see. I asked Stacey, our make-up artist, “What if my eyes water in the cold? Will my mascara run?” She said she had just returned from a fitness shoot in Thailand where she used this makeup and it “does not run!”
The van with our own driver picked us up and I got my first wave of pure life joy sitting with this group I had gone through so much with. We waited in the green room along with the daughter Hal Ashby never met and Hal’s last girlfriend standing, both interviewed in our film.
The second wave of life joy came as we went through a dark walkway to the theater and I saw the packed house waiting to see Hal. Believe me, I know I didn’t cure cancer and this film is but a drop in the ocean of independent films, but I was still beaming with pride. I had come a long way, baby.
As the movie started rolling I had a sustained wave of pure life joy. The whole crowd was laughing at the jokes. I was crying and the girl next to me was crying – she had just earlier described having her guts ripped out of her while writing the score for Hal, she felt so in tune with his soul.
We all felt in tune with his soul at some point in the making. I remember my parents going to see Shampoo (1975) at the drive-in and talking about how racy it was. In those days a big film like that would invariably show up as a “Movie of the Week,” and I couldn’t wait to watch it. It became one of those experiences of art that happen in adolescents where things seep into your unconscious and brand you for life. I didn’t get all the entendres, much less the Nixon satire, but it gave me a feeling. It was like nostalgia for something I hadn’t experienced yet. In the last scene where Warren Beatty watches Julie Christie ride out of his life to Paul Simon’s gentle humming, I was truly transformed in some way I’m not sure I’ll ever understand.
For the record, I do not agree with most critics and historians who say Shampoo was simply “Warren Beatty’s film that Hal Ashby directed.” It’s crystal clear to me that Ashby’s superhuman insight guided the editing – it would never have had the emotional resonance to last otherwise.
Each of our crew met Ashby’s soul in one way or another. Some younger kids had never seen anything but Harold and Maude and were turned on to Coming Home, The Last Detail, and Being There. Everyone was inspired by his uncompromising war with the studios, his badass stance of art against commerce, and his way-ahead-of-his-time notions about racism, feminism, and personal politics. No one can believe how eerie Being There is today.
So ends my first, and maybe only trip to Sundance. It’s true, there is a little come-down from leaving all that creative energy and camaraderie. Go see some Hal Ashby movies, there’s pure joy, love, hate, intellect, humor, and heart in every single one of them.