Surviving the Sundance Film Festival: A User’s Guide by Diana Drumm

Awards Season officially ends this Sunday, February 22nd, with the Oscars. It’s been a whirlwind past few months with plenty of highs and lows, and a seemingly endless slate of  awards shows. Only one major film festival rests right smack dab in the midst of the end-of-season madness, and that’s the venerable Sundance Film Festival. The entertainment industry descends upon Park City for two weeks of unbridled mayhem, launching films big and small onto a year-long trajectory that could spell, ultimately, Oscar gold.

Freelance journalist Diana Drumm who, in spite of her young years, has been through everything from Cannes to Tribeca and back again, and attending last year’s Sundance festival on behalf of The Retro Set was gracious enough to trek back to Park City for a second year. Diana sat down with us to wax poetic about her experiences at Sundance 2015, painting a vivid picture of what it’s like for a journalist to be on the festival frontlines. It may be all red carpet glamour for industry talent, but for the journalists in the trenches it is a wearying wonder, equal parts excitement and exhaustion. This in-depth interview is a must-have how-to resource for any film lover who’s ever wanted to dip their toes into the unpredictable film festival waters. As Diana explains, come on in: the water’s fine.

THE RETRO SET: SO FIRST, A LITTLE BACKGROUND. HOW MANY FESTIVALS HAVE YOU BEEN TO?

DIANA DRUMM: I interned briefly for the now-defunct Maureen O’Hara Classic Film Festival in Glengarriff, County Cork, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Not counting college film festivals/showcases (shout-out to The 60 Hour Blitz at the University of St Andrews), I’ve attended 8 (Maureen O’Hara Classic Film Festival, Tribeca, TCM Classic Film Festival, TIFF, NYFF, Sundance, MDFF, Cannes). Not too shabby, if I write so myself.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING ABOUT AND REVIEWING FILM?

I have been writing about film since I can remember (as cliche as that reads), and have a few scripts tucked far away in my drive, but after some amateur blogging/doodling, entered the “film journalism” field with an internship at The Playlist in March of 2013. My first reviews beyond the scribbles were at Tribeca 2013. My first paid film piece was Fall 2013 and review was Spring 2014. So that would mean I’m dawning on 2 years semi-officially?

HOW HAS THE FESTIVAL SCENE CHANGED FROM THE FIRST ONE YOU’VE EVER BEEN TO?

Well, the first one I’d ever been to was a reasonably smaller affair in the scenic Irish countryside headlined by a Hollywood icon back in 2011, so answering this question is like comparing apples to orange marmalade. I can say that as a fledgling journalist, the press lines have gotten warmer and friendlier over the years as people start to recognize you from the last round. I got a massive jump start onto the festival scene from being a part of the 2013 NYFF Critics Academy, an initiative by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Indiewire for burgeoning young film critics and journalists. For any young writers earning their merit, I wholly recommend applying for the next round of Critics Academy. On top of NYFF, they’re also at Sundance (officially deemed Ebert scholars) and Locarno… I’ll have a better answer for this at the five year mark, if I should be so lucky.

WHAT DO YOU GET MOST FROM SEEING A FILM AT A FESTIVAL? IS THE AUDIENCE ENERGY, THE FILMMAKER Q&A, THE SEMINARS?

It varies. There’s the excitement of being the first audience to witness a film, which can kind of slap you in the face if the film is absolutely miserable. It’s neat talking to fellow filmgoers from the excited newbie covering for their college paper to the 28 year vet who has only walked out of one film in her life. It’s also a great chance to people-watch/spot. At the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, Richard Benjamin was in the audience for The World of Henry Orient, in support of wife Paula Prentiss, and all I could think of was the nerdlinger sketch from when he hosted SNL.

Personally, I prefer Press & Industry screenings in terms of logistics (quick in and out), but you can’t top a public crowd in terms of energy and reception. When I am lucky enough to score public tickets, I like to sit in the middle of the back to witness not only the film, but feel the crowd, hopefully not as creepy as that reads. It helps to read the film, and also can be humbling if you’re the only one in the audience braying at a joke (e.g. I nearly fell out of my seat over a Jack Cassidy joke in Maps to the Stars at Cannes 2014). That is of course if there isn’t a star-studded Q&A, then I totally fangirl out and sit up front if at all possible.

At my first TIFF, I sat second row on the right for a public screening of Dom Hemingway. Director Richard Shepherd was answering a question about how Jude Law got on board for the project, mentioning that alcohol was involved. Taking obnoxious initiative and not waiting for the MC, I shouted, “What was the poison of choice?” Shepherd looked baffled, teetotaler Richard E. Grant smirked awkwardly, and Law took the mic to say, “Whiskies. Always whiskey,” paused for a moment and clarified dashingly, “Jameson’s.” So now, if you ever see him in a bar, get him some Jameson. Also speaking of drink preferences I’ve learned from film festivals. TCM Host Ben Mankiewicz is also a Jameson guy. Rory Flynn, Errol’s daughter, follows her father’s suit with a vodka tonic. Jonathan Pryce ordered straight-up tequila (Or maybe on the rocks? It gets hazy.) at last year’s Sundance, where he made an excellent turn in Listen Up Philip.

Filmmaker Q&As can be notoriously painful. You get the standard questions (How did you get involved? What did you shoot on/how long? etc.), the mini-review statements that aren’t questions (I love your work. I feel like it reflected a certain something something something.), and sometimes you get the bizarros bordering on rude (at NYFF 2014, someone asked Jauja director Lisandro Alonso how to pronounce the title of his film, to which he responded rightfully, “Fuck you.”). But on the other hand, they can also be very enlightening. One of the best I’ve ever sat on was with Steve McQueen for 12 Years a  Slave at NYFF 2013, in which he described the need to re-assess slavery academically and in terms similar to those used for the Holocaust, saying that African Americans and African British were survivors of slavery.

As for seminars, I have not been fortunate enough to gain access beyond twitter and live-streams, but from those I can glean the gist from the comfort of a press line and/or nearby Starbucks.

WAS THIS YEAR’S FESTIVAL DIFFERENT FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE LAST YEAR?

This being my second year at Sundance, it was very different. Knowing the lay of the land and recognizing more than a token few people, it wasn’t as overwhelming in the sense of festival hectic and logistics. You know what to avoid for sanity’s sake (Main Street the first weekend after dark) and where to charge your phone/computer/lifesource (Head to the Media Center, Starbucks will always be packed). That said, having a clearer head lead to the films themselves being more overwhelming emotionally and artfully, which you will hopefully sense in my writing to come.

 

Stevan Riley’s documentary LISTEN TO ME, MARLON

HOW MANY FILMS DID YOU SEE AND WERE THERE ANY FAVORITES?

I saw over 20; last year’s was nearer to 30. My favorites were (in ever-changing order) James White, Listen to Me Marlon, It Follows (which premiered at Cannes), The Witch, Tangerine, Entertainment, Brooklyn, Grandma, and People, Places, Things.

Both James White and Listen to Me Marlon left me in a state of emotional ruin, in the best sense — sobbing, physically convulsing, tears streaming down my face, wanting to call my parents. Both struck a nerve, so authentic, so painful, crossing into real art and humanity. Christopher Abbott’s performance was startling, and the best I saw at the fest, whereas Listen to Me Marlon brought new breath to Marlon Brando, which I doubted until the closing credits was possible. I pity all who saw me during and after those two screenings. I have not been so affected in a theater since Professor Snape died in Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows Part 2.

IS THE BUZZ AND HYPE SURROUNDING CERTAIN FILMS WORTH IT, OR DOES IT GIVE YOU A FALSE SENSE?

This also varies. For my first NYFF, I specifically held off on seeing Blue is the Warmest Colour because of all of the surrounding hype bouncing off of its Cannes embrace. Wound up seeing it at a midnight screening at the IFC Center and was absolutely floored, though part of me wonders whether I would have had that same reaction weeks before surrounded by all of the new-ish hype and buzz. There’s a certain delight in watching something away from the buzz, whether before or after it hits, that’s like a candy you snuck in your coat pocket at school.

At this year’s Sundance, I had only two buzz-related disappointments: The Nightmare and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The first was deemed by most outlets as the scariest film in years, and the latter was lauded as the Citizen Kane of teen weepies (paraphrasing TimeOutNY’s David Ehrlich) and ultimately won the Grand Jury Prize. From the director of Room 237, The Nightmare explored sleep paralysis and tried to link it with super-phenomena. I say tried because there wasn’t much evidence beyond personal accounts of spotting boogey men mid-sleep. For real nightmares (and daymares), I’d say watch It Follows and last year’s The Babadook. As for this year’s fest darling, it’s a film clearly catered to white male cinephiles, with a myopic teen narrator laced in film references ranging from Herzog to Hitchcock.

“Sundance is both enlivening and terrifying. I’ve become a different, hopefully better, person from it. I would recommend going by hook or by crook to almost anyone with a pulse, strong stomach, and interest in films.”

 

WHICH FILMS GOT THE MOST BUZZ?

Along with the two mentioned above, the real hot ticket was The Witch. Generally beloved by critics, the film is a slow-burn Puritan survivalist tale with a smack-bam empowering finale.

As for the ones I regret most to have missed, Mistress America (Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.. What’s not to love?), Best of Enemies (about the Gore Vidal-William S. Burroughs feud), Digging for Fire (apparently there’s some improv nudity from Chris Messina), and Diary of a Teenage Girl (Named a favorite by Anne Thompson, Jenni Miller, and Tomris Laffly, also features Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard. So again, what’s not to love?).

MANY TIMES THERE ARE FESTIVAL RUMORS THAT SPREAD. YOU KNOW, ‘THE PROJECTOR BUSTED,’ OR, ‘THE PRINT DIDN’T ARRIVE. WERE THERE ANY RUMORS THIS TIME?

Apparently, Emile Hirsch put a Paramount executive in a headlock after she thwarted his unwanted advances. I was not there, but heard the story from multiple sources, including a close friend of said producer. (Here’s The Daily Mail’s take on the event.)

ANY BIG PURCHASES MADE?

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl made headlines with a whopping, record-breaking sale of $12 million, which turned out to be incorrect, winding up more in the $4 million range. After that, Brooklyn (the Nick Hornby adapted, Saoirse Ronan-starring tale of an Irish gal torn between two men and two homes) topped with $9 million, which should pay off considering the overwhelming sense that it will be a film both you and your mother will enjoy.

SET THE SCENE FOR SOMEONE WHO’S NEVER BEEN TO SUNDANCE. WHAT SHOULD YOU EXPECT WHEN YOU GET THERE?

Expect nothing. The more you expect, the more that notion will screw you up and make you miss the great things happening all around you in this magical land headed by a man named “Bob” Redford. That first day, walk in with a plan, but make sure to adjust to the monkey wrenches and go with the flow. Some examples: my HP generally did not like the area’s wifi, my notebook went “missing” mid-fest, buses don’t always stop at their designated stops (even if you wave like a maniac), the weather varies from long-sleeve to five layer-worthy. Or on a more concise note, expect the three festival F’s: films, fun, and flailing.

IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A SUNDANCE FESTIVAL SURVIVAL GUIDE, WHAT WOULD BE ESSENTIAL THINGS TO BRING?

  1. A warm coat/jacket/parka.
  2. Socks. Loads and loads of socks. Most preferably to go in/with a pair of sturdy winter boots.
  3. Lip balm/tissues/toiletries needed in wind-blown weather and cold-ready situations (illness is near-inevitable).
  4. A smart phone. Because if all else fails, there is always twitter.
  5. Confidence. Otherwise you get lost in the shuffle and mayhem. If it doesn’t come naturally, bring a flask and some Dutch courage.

WHAT’S THE AFTER HOURS SCENE LIKE? DID YOU GO TO ANY PARTIES?

The parties are necessary to really get the overall experience. In high school, we were told we could only have two of three things (academics, a social life, or sleep), and Sundance is very much like that, except substitute film-going for academics. And if you have any (or maybe no) sense, sleep is the last priority.

This year, I went to a grand total of 6 night-time parties (the Awards Night after-party, three Indiewire bashes, the annual Blogger Party, and one hosted by the National Lampoon documentary Drunk Stone Brilliant involving togas and two appearances by Otis Day). They were all amazing in their own, very different, ways.

The Awards Night after-party was like independent film prom with wristbands and awkward chatter made banter-ier over watered down drinks, with winners and presenters roaming the room. The Indiewire parties were incredible, as always, stocked with luminaries across the film world (Jason Schwartzman hosted the opening night shindig, FSLC Deputy Director and Indiewire co-founder Eugene Hernandez made appearances at all three, and I may have grazed Cary Fukunaga’s sweater on closing night), great eats (opening night’s chili was apparently scrumptious, though I never managed to get my hands on some), and solo-cupped booze (which added to the mosh pit-packed atmosphere). The Blogger Party was a more intimate affair, with people connecting faces to twitter/byline photos and chatting enthusiastically about their favorites of the fest so far (which comes in handy as you select the rest of your film schedule). And last but by no means in any sense least, the National Lampoon party was something of legend with tequila and PBR free-flowing, many garbed in togas (the last one was plucked right before I got there), and Otis Day leading the room of revelers with Shout. I kid you not. Seriously. Otis Day sang Shout and the crowd (which included press, industry, and miscellaneous) followed suit. We were living Animal House for a brief shining moment.

SUNDANCE_FONDA

WE KNOW YOU LOVE TO CELEBRITY SPOT. WHO DID YOU STALK, UH, SEE THIS YEAR?

One person who I was excited to see but didn’t was Michael Fassbender, who had to miss the Slow West premiere as he’s still shooting that Steve Jobs movie. (Insert Tina Belcher groan.)

As for actual celeb sightings (including Q&As), I’ll just list some names in order of appearance/memory… ROBERT REDFORD (at the opening press conference), Jason Schwartzman, Emile Hirsch, Kristen Wiig, Keanu Reeves, Eli Roth, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Abbott, Tye Sheridan, Jemaine Clement, Jessica Williams, Regina Hall, JANE FONDA AND LILY TOMLIN AT FESTIVAL HQ, Sam Rockwell, Leslie Bibb, Laverne Cox, Saoirse Ronan, Sam Elliott, Cary Fukunaga, Taiki Waititi, Kevin Corrigan, Edgar Wright… the list goes on.

HOW DID YOU STAY FUELED AT THE FEST?

On top of my basic supplies of oatmeal, bananas, yogurt, and chocolate-covered almonds, I did get to wander for some festival grub. At the Yarrow Hotel bar, they serve a $9 Long Island Iced Tea, though they also charge $12 for a glass of wine. For the best burger, I’d pick Davanza’s Diablo Burger with fries and soda. Also, definitely recommend the pad thai (great portion, very scallion-y) at Park City Chinese & Thai near the Holiday Village cinema.

As for best daytime party/lounge spreads, it’s a toss-up between the sliders and stuffed mushrooms at the Tisch party at Grub Steak, which also included the first chocolate chip cookie I was unable to finish, and the fondue and stuffed mushrooms at the Pure Michigan event in one of the lounges on Main Street. At the Pure Michigan event, they also gave away free chocolate-covered cherries, which was ace for the next screening.

WHAT’S THE ATTITUDE LIKE FROM THE LOCALS?

The ones I spoke with seemed to embrace the festival madness. While waiting at a bus stop with three locals, with the bus running 10ish minutes late, one took out a flask and offered what turned out to be tequila. The woman in the party said that she had been living there for 20 years and has looked forward to the fest every time, even with the impending onslaught of L.A. and N.Y.C. types.

SUNDANCE PARK CITY

IN THE PAST, SUNDANCE HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS “HOLLYWOOD EAST.” IS IT STILL THAT A BAD THING? THING ARE PEOPLE ON CELL PHONES THROUGHOUT THE MOVIES?

In my two years at Sundance, I have never seen someone actually on their cell phone throughout a movie. Some may check their screens for time or texts, but none engage with their devices while the film is rolling, or at least not to my witnessing. There may be walkouts, but most of those are industry types trying to meet their assigned quota of purchase-worthy films.

BECAUSE WE HAVE TO ASK: WERE THERE ANY NOTEWORTHY FASHION FAUX PAS?

Well, one of the Main Street store windows displays a fur speedo-like contraption. I would consider that an unpleasant fashion choice… Also, my roommate, Tomris Laffly, witnessed a woman wearing fashionable heeled sandals on Main Street in the midst of thick snow, which is all fine and well in the name of “fashion” but you’ve got to feel sorry for her five little piggies.

SINCE SOCIAL MEDIA IS SUCH AN INVALUABLE NETWORKING TOOL FOR JOURNALISTS, DID YOU MAKE ANY FRIENDS OR MEET UP WITH ANYONE YOU KNEW THROUGH THE TWITTERSPHERE?

Outside of the Indiewire and Blogger parties, the real social hotspot at Sundance is in the lines. You may feel like cattle herded through metal barricades to questionable ends, but you meet some of the most interesting people while waiting for the slaughter. Though don’t say anything too embarrassing/revealing, because they might be a top Amazon buyer or you’ll run into them six times over the course of two days. If you see people from the twitterverse, feel free to introduce yourself (politeness may vary) and the dots will connect to some form of chat. I have a tendency to shout at people I recognize from fests, which can either be endearing or irritating. I do not recommend this tactic.

DID YOU STRATEGIZE ON GETTING TICKETS? IF SO, WHAT ARE SOME INSIDER TIPS TO GETTING INTO A HOT SCREENING?

I was very lucky in being afforded 10 public screening tickets through the press office (yay general pass!). But once those were up, I bothered the sweetheart at the press office daily with seemingly ridiculous requests, most of which were fulfilled. And when that didn’t work, I wound up doing the e-waitlist a few times, which is much more feasible during the second week and especially at the Eccles theater, which seats something like 1,270 people.

Which brings me to an anecdote. Last year on the last day, I shook the die on the e-waitlist for The One I Love and came up short with a ridiculously high number (326, something like that). Being the shout-Twitterer I am, I tweeted the number, lamenting the low odds of actually getting into that screening. But then a miracle happened, as they tend to do during those last days of Sundance, as the director of The One I Love, Charlie McDowell, tweeted back at me that he had spare tickets and to meet him at the theater if I wanted one. Floored, I ran over, and sure enough, he was true to his tweet and incredibly gracious about the whole thing. (Coincidentally, I adored that film, which I believe is now on Netflix and you should check out ASAP, if you haven’t already.) And the story only gets better/trippier. After that stroke of luck, I decided to try the e-waitlist again for the fest’s hottest ticket, Boyhood. Again, I came up with a e-waitlist number somewhere in the unpleasant 3 digits. Knowing full well that lightning doesn’t strike twice, I still tweeted the number and lamented the odds. And lo and behold, I get a DM from the same director offering his spare ticket to that screening. Overjoyed, I ran/bussed like the wind and snatched the ticket, making it to the screening with a few breaths to spare, and forever indebted to McDowell.

As for other means to get tickets, I have not done this, but I know people who manage to see 30+ films by waiting outside of venues with a sign saying “I Need A Ticket.” Sometimes they pay for the tickets, other times, people give them for free.

SUNDANCE REDFORD

 

IS SUNDANCE INSPIRING?

Yes, very much so. It was both enlivening and terrifying. I’ve become a different, hopefully better, person from it. I would recommend going by hook or by crook to almost anyone with a pulse, strong stomach, and interest in films.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN THIS TIME THAT YOU WILL DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?

I would pack more socks, not bring a pair of heels (foolish, wishful, willful thinking), and regiment sleep rather than taking cat naps and/or accidentally long snoozes.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE VENUE?

Tie between the Eccles and the Egyptian. The Eccles is massive and has amazing screening quality. The Egyptian may be tiny and cramped, but it has that old-style theater house quality about it that so many of we cinephiles melt over.

WHAT FILMS DO YOU THINK WILL HAVE SOME OSCAR BUZZ THIS TIME NEXT YEAR? 

I’m not sure about Oscar buzz. But I think there will be a lot of chatter over Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon’s performances in James White (there already is strong buzz), Tangerine (which was picked up by Magnolia), Brooklyn for Ronan’s performance and it’s sentimental crowd-pleasing-ness, and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl for stirring some controversial pots.

AND FINALLY, ANY PARTING THOUGHTS?

Not to be presumptuous and still pinching myself, I would be over the moon to return for Sundance 2016. Out of every festival I’ve been to so far, Sundance 2015 is my favorite, possibly tied with NYFF 2013 and Cannes 2014. I can’t thank The Retro Set enough for sending me, and am working on the thank you fruit baskets … in the form of writing.

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