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Slamdance diary

Our writers and their posse take Park City by storm

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For the past four years, Brett Ingram and Jim Haverkamp have worked on Monster Road, their feature-length documentary about underground animator Bruce Bickford. Two weeks ago, they took their film to the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, where they won the jury award for best documentary. Before they left, The Independent asked co-producer Haverkamp, who lives in Durham, and director Ingram, who teaches film production at Wake Forest University, to keep notes of their visit.

Saturday, Jan. 17
Well, sheer terror is as good a way as any to start this adventure. The alarm clock fails and we awake an hour before our plane is supposed to leave. Brett drives like Steve McQueen to the airport and we make it with seconds to spare, but Jim's wife, Joyce, has to miss the flight to park the car. She'll catch the next flight out.

We check into the affordable Airport Inn in Salt Lake City (since the average room in Park City is $200/night) which smells like dirty socks and has no thermostats, but offers a continental breakfast, heated pool and hot tub in the lobby. We make the first of our daily 40-minute drives east to Park City in our rented minivan. Some Slamdance vets say this shouldn't be a problem unless it snows. We pray very hard for good weather.

Getting to Park City proves to be fairly easy, but moving around within it is not. Record crowds are attending Sundance this year, and parking is at a premium in Park City's historic Main Street district, where both Sundance and Slamdance are headquartered.

On the shuttle into town, we come up with a game of who can spot the first celebrity. Wading our way through the crowds on Main Street, we later realize that everyone else in Park City is playing the same game. There's a strange meeting of eyes with everyone who passes, all of us silently checking each other out and asking, 'Are you somebody?' (Jim wins the first celeb sighting game by spotting "Mr. Show's" Bob Odenkirk in an animated sidewalk discussion, but it is a hollow victory as Brett has never heard of the guy.)

Lessons for the day: Have a backup alarm clock, and packing the night before is a really great idea.

Sunday, Jan. 18
Slamdance headquarters is at the top of Main Street, a long 30-degree uphill climb. Sundance's main venue is about halfway up the street, so you have to be dedicated to make it all the way up to the Slamdance realm. It's illegal to distribute flyers to passersby on Main Street, so it is incumbent on filmmakers to enter into discussions with people before shamelessly shoving propaganda into their fists. With over 200 films being shown at Sundance, more than 75 at Slamdance, plus the other fringe fests--Tromadance, No Dance, the Freedom Film Festival, and many more--it strikes us that trying to get your film noticed here is not unlike being a flea trying to get the attention of an elephant.

Some filmmakers are distributing novelties to promote their films--chapstick, note pads, beach balls, even condoms. We don't have any Monster Road swag except postcards. We hope this doesn't hurt us.

Later we attend a party thrown by the Seattle Film Festival and Alpha Cine Film Labs. Brett is in the corner minding his own seltzer water when he is approached by a small man shouting, "Hey David!" over the din of the crowd. After Brett informs the man that he is not David, the guy says, "Oh sorry, I thought you were that acquisitions executive at Miramax." Brett says, "I wish I were an acquisitions executive at Miramax so I could acquire my own film, go skiing, and get the hell out of this circus town." The guy, "Joel," says he's a publicist for three films at Sundance and prattles on for 10 minutes before he spots Brett's Slamdance badge. At that point, he turns cold and mumbles something about needing more wine before stumbling off into the fray. Brett decides that at least three filmmakers at Sundance are getting ripped off, because Joel never even mentioned the titles of the films he's representing.

Lessons for the day: Some Sundancers look down on Slamdancers, and everyone here looks like someone.

Monday, Jan. 19
We manage to get an interview slot (only because another doc has been disqualified due to legal problems) with the morning crew of X96, a local rock station that is broadcasting from Slamdance HQ. As we enter the room they are finishing up an interview with a filmmaker whose previous short, he admits, featured him having intimate relations with a jelly doughnut. "Is it true that you've got a restraining order against you at Krispy Kreme?" one jock guffaws. How the hell are we going to follow this?

We get to see more films, including a powerful and autobiographical doc about a troubled childhood entitled The Watershed, and we start meeting other filmmakers. There is a nice feeling of camaraderie at Slamdance. The general atmosphere of Park City gets wearisome, however, as the endless parade of Hummers and other luxury SUV's starts to take its toll. At a coffee shop, Jim overhears a Disney staffer holding court with an intern. "They should just put 'addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division' on my business card," he says. "I write reports projecting how a film will do based on its first and second week's box office. We just plug everything into Excel spreadsheets that can figure it all out."

Observation for the day: The hard, folding wooden chairs in the screening room are virtual torture chamber devices. This worries us because it makes each film seem twice as long as it actually is.

Indy staffers Alex Maness and Jenny Canipe arrive and lend a much-needed air of sanity to the proceedings.

Tuesday, Jan. 20
Our posse collaborates on a brilliant marketing scheme and solution to the uncomfortable screening room seats. We decide to make Monster Road seat cushions. After a trip to the Army surplus store and Wal-Mart, we're off and running. Alex designs a beautiful stencil and we spray- paint Monster Road and our screening times on each of 75 squares of hand-cut foam rubber. The production value is low, but appropriate, given the well-worn habitat occupied by our film's protagonists.

Back in Park City, Jim gets to meet his idol, the character actor and indie director Tom Noonan (scary isn't it?), who promises to attend our premiere. Noonan's roommate for the week, animator Bill Plympton, strikes up a conversation with Brett and also promises to attend. Later that night, the cushions are a huge hit at the screening of Big City Dick, a mind-blowing doc about a Seattle savant street musician who is obsessed with Jeff Bridges and Johnny Mathis. The competition is tough, but we hope the jurors will reward us just for making the ass cushions.

Lesson for the day: If an Army surplus store clerk tells you that an electric carving knife will cut foam rubber like butter, believe her.

Wednesday, Jan. 21:
Day of the Premiere. Brett picks up animator (and subject of Monster Road) Bruce Bickford at the airport while the rest of the posse "works it" up and down Main Street, waving seat cushions as advertising placards to attract viewers. Andy Shocken, director of the short film Old Glory that is screening before Monster Road, is a pro at working the crowds. He's got his 15-second pitch down to a science. Jim tries to pick up some pointers and follow his lead. Despite the cold, it's surprisingly fun to talk to people, and most are receptive.

In the late afternoon we spot Sally Kellerman, the original "Hot Lips" Houlihan, posing for publicity photos for Open House, Slamdance founder Dan Mirvish's new film. Then our feet get cold and we head inside.

The Monster Road premiere goes pretty well--we are, of course, hypersensitive to every cough and fidget, but no one leaves, and there is some laughter at the appropriate places. It's nice to see a friendly face in Raleigh's David Iverson in the crowd. We get some good feedback and then we head back to the hotel, exhausted, but in good spirits.

Lesson for the day: Layers!

Thursday, Jan. 22
Given the grueling schedule of the day before, we all decide that we've earned a rest from working the street today. We see some great short films from Slamdance's online "Anarchy" competition and get ready for our 4:00 p.m. screening.

Celebrity sighting: Danny Glover, talking on a cell phone.

Note: Cliches are often grounded in reality and the cell phone phenomenon in Park City falls in this category. Brett actually hears the guy in an adjacent restroom stall talking on his cell while sitting on the pot: "Of course I love you ... Can we just agree to disagree on some things?" Is nothing sacred any more?

The screening is pretty well attended and Bruce entertains the crowd at the Q&A with his dry wit.

Lesson for the day: Keep laughing.

Friday, Jan. 23
We catch an early morning screening, then decide to go sightseeing. Brett goes skiing and the rest of the posse heads to Temple Square, the epicenter of Mormonism. We tour the famous Mormon Tabernacle and watch videos explaining God's plan for families. The highlight of the tour is a 20-foot white marble statue of Jesus, which speaks via a tape recording, surrounded by paintings of outer space.

While waiting in a coffee shop for the rest of the posse, Brett is privy to a series of high level meetings between film financiers, distributors, and filmmakers. Overheard:

"So the idea is to partner documentary filmmakers like myself with responsible yet hip corporations like Starbucks ... "

"The car is actually the emotional metaphor. It works for the same reason a Picasso works. No matter how fucked up it is, it's still a woman ... "

"I don't actually know Mike Nichols but I had lunch with his publicist a few years ago..."

"If I see one more film about somebody's lesbian lover, I'm gonna lose it. Sundance has become about subgenres..."

Brett is rescued by the rest of the posse just before being overtaken by the bleakness of pondering his future as an investment banker.

We don't have enough tickets for the Slamdance awards ceremony (even though they're relatively cheap for Park City prices at $25 a pop), so only Brett, Jim and Bruce attend the festivities. Bruce shows his marketing savvy by giving a tape of his clay animation to the person in charge of the 25-foot video screen showing ambient video for the deejays.

The awards ceremony begins shortly thereafter. We're not optimistic about our chances given the strength of the competition, so we are all shocked and awed to hear Monster Road awarded the jury prize for best documentary. Raleigh's Jay Spain and K.D. Reeve are in the room to help whoop it up.

We accept our award, which is a cast-iron statuette of a dog called "Sparky." Bruce distributes some of his unique business cards (pieces of foam core with tiny clay people embedded behind cellophane windows), the techno music cranks up and everything begins to spin.

Lesson for the day: Sometimes you get really lucky. EndBlock

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