Friday, February 4, 2011

Sundance is a win, even without an award

2011 festival is a filmmaker’s delight

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo by Jason Ganwich Amy Seimetz stars in “The Off Hours,” an independent film directed by Megan Griffiths about life at a truck stop diner in Washington state.

The 2011 Sundance Film Festival set a tone for new films to screen in theaters across the nation and abroad for the year. Many of the films screened at the festival will not make it to the local movie theater, but the one's that do will be worth seeing. At Sundance, filmmakers from around the world descend upon the snowy mountain town of Park City, Utah, for 10 days of showcasing and promoting their projects in the hope of a sale. These men and women are excited to be part of the country's largest film market. Some hope to get a distribution deal and recoup their costs, and others are happy to just have their film seen.

Former Idaho resident Megan Griffiths, 35, now from Seattle, was elated to be part of this year's Sundance Film Festival. It was her first time presenting as a director. Her film, "The Off Hours," debuted to a packed house at the Yarrow Theatre in Park City, one of the festival's largest screening venues.

"It's the saddest movie made by the funniest people," Griffiths said.

The original idea for Griffiths' film came from her experience working on the night shift at a film lab in Washington.

"I worked with guys where their whole life experience was to go to work when everyone else is going to sleep," she said after the film's premiere in Park City at a Q&A session. "A diner is an interesting environment—it's a nocturnal place. These people are living in a stalled way."

Griffiths said she wrote the first draft of "The Off Hours" in 2003 and worked on it between jobs for several years. In 2006, she brought on three producers, Mischa Jakupcak, Lacey Leavitt and Joy Saez, to help her put the project together.

"These three ladies stuck by me for the next four years as we took the projects through various incarnations of cast and budget," Griffiths said. "In 2010, we decided to stop asking for permission and start moving forward on our own terms. Once we made that choice, the project came together quickly—about a month of prep, a month of shooting and a few months of editing. I was able to submit a fully mixed and color-corrected cut to Sundance before their official deadline."

Griffiths said a first-time filmmaker should focus on what's best for his or her project and future. A filmmaker should make choices ahead of time about his or her priorities and stay true to those choices. He or she should be as engaged and friendly as possible in every conversation.

Griffiths lived in Moscow, Idaho, for eight years from 1989 to 1997. She attended Moscow High School and was an undergrad at the University of Idaho before moving to Athens, Ohio, to complete an MFA in film production. She earned a B.A. in visual communications at the University of Idaho, which she said was as close to film as she could get at that time.

She made her first feature film in Idaho, "First Aid for Choking," which was shot almost entirely in Moscow. The entire crew stayed at her parents' house.

"We shot at locations I had grown up with, like Friendship Square, Mr. Leon's School of Hair Design, John's Alley and The Garden," she said.

Griffiths is working a new script that she would like to produce in the coming year, and has been collaborating on some television series concepts with one of the producers of "The Off Hours," Lacey Leavitt. She's also working with her good friend Todd Rohal, whose film, "The Catechism Cataclysm" screened at Sundance this year.

With the recession still looming in the air, Park City's Main Street didn't feel as crowded as in years before, but moviegoers, revelers, celebrities, giveaways and cocktails were all abundant. The Sundance experience is more than just about film—it's music, food, news and business.

Documentaries such as "How To Die in Oregon" tell inside stories about assisted suicide that network news outlets don't dare to tell. In addition, the film brings movie makers and film distributors from all over the world, including England, China, France and Germany, to name a few.

Agents who attend the festival are not just representing actors but also cinematographers, set designers, musicians and other artists integral to making movies. And winning any acknowledgement at Sundance is a rather large feather in a filmmaker's or artist's cap.

Some of those winners at the 2011 festival include a Grand Jury Prize for the documentary "How To Die in Oregon," directed by Peter D. Richardson. In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. "How To Die in Oregon" gently enters the lives of terminally ill Oregonians to illuminate the power of death with dignity.

The dramatic Grand Jury Prize went to "Like Crazy," directed by Drake Doremus and written by Doremus and Ben York Jones. The film tells the story of a young American man and a young British woman who meet in college and fall in love. Their love is tested when she is required to leave the country and they must face the challenges of a long-distance relationship.

The documentary World Cinema Jury Prize was presented to "Hell and Back Again," directed by Danfung Dennis. The dramatic World Cinema Jury Prize was awarded to "Happy, Happy," a film from Norway directed by Anne Sewitsky and written by Ragnhild Tronvoll.

An Audience Award went to the documentary film "Buck," directed by Cindy Meehl, and the dramatic Audience Award went to "Circumstance," directed and written by Maryam Keshavarz.

Other films receiving awards at Sundance were "Senna," "Kinyarwanda," "to.get.her," "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles," "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Project Nim," "Tyrannosaur," "Another Happy Day," "Restoration," "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975," "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," "Pariah," "All Your Dead Ones," "Position Among the Stars" and "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," "Another Earth" and "Like Crazy."

"Success at Sundance can be measured in terms of attendance, sponsorships, acquisitions, even the weather," said John Cooper, Sundance Film Festival director. "Ultimately, it's about the films themselves—were they well received? Did they resonate with the audience enough to have a life beyond these 10 days? And this year, the answer is a resounding yes."

For the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, 118 feature-length films were selected, representing 29 countries by 40 first-time filmmakers. The films were selected from 3,812 feature-length film submissions—1,943 from the U.S. and 1,869 from foreign countries. Ninety-five films at the festival were world premieres. This year, the festival's Short Film Program was comprised of 81 short films from the U.S. and international filmmakers, selected from 6,467 submissions.

Only 25 of the feature-length films were selected for the competitions.

"For an artist to make it to the festival among 10,000 submissions is an incredible achievement in his or her own right," said Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam. "We are so appreciative of all who shared their work with us this year, and we commend audiences and juries alike for selecting such a wide range of outstanding films."

Sabina Dana Plasse:

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