Last Wednesday, after nine hours of captivity in a puddle-jumping Southwest Air 737, I finally land in Salt Lake City as the desert sun slips behind the Wasatch Mountains.
The drive to Park City takes 40 minutes by shuttle and I end up sharing a van with an actual paparazzo from New York: a taciturn Chinese-American who nods with a slight grimace in response to my query, "So your job involves taking pictures of famous people?"
He mutters some things about Ben Affleck, J. Lo and Mel Gibson, before his attention shifts to the driver, who has piped up with the news that Drew Barrymore is going to be hosting a huge party somewhere in town.
I locate my condo and find myself in a spacious unit with a living room, fireplace, fully equipped kitchen, Internet-enabled computer, and a queen-sized bed. "Not bad for $85 a night," I marvel.
A couple of hours later, my landlord calls and informs me that I've taken the wrong unit. I'm in 14A, not 14. I pack my stuff, and move around the corner to a room about the size of a rabbit warren. "Just about right for $85 a night," is my glum conclusion.
Although the festival starts today, the only scheduled event is in Salt Lake City, where there's an opening night party and a screening of Levity, a festival film that stars Billy Bob Thornton, Holly Hunter and Morgan Freeman.
Meanwhile, I go to the press office, located in the Park City Marriott, to pick up what will be my keys to the kingdom--my press pass. A feeling of world-dominating confidence surges through me as I slip it around my neck. As I walk around with it on, I quickly notice the way everyone steals a look at my pass, to make sure I'm not famous, before they continue ignoring me. I, of course, do the same to everyone else's pass.
Later, I head up to Park City's Main Street for lunch. A waitress at a barbecue joint does double duty for the tourism board when she brings me a visitor's guide with my brisket. Later, she tells me that "we do four and five times our normal business during the festival."
Then, she lets slip that her restaurant will be hosting two private parties during the 10-day festival.
Whose parties are they?
A not-so-apologetic smile flashes across her face. "Oh, we're not allowed to tell. Every restaurant here on Main Street has parties, and the waiters don't even tell waiters from other restaurants."
I backtrack quickly. "Hey--I'm not paparazzi, I'm just a reporter!"
After last night's opening gala in Salt Lake City, the festival begins for real in Park City. Initially, I decide to attend a 9 a.m. screening of Levity, in which Thornton plays a murderer released from prison, who returns to his community, looking to make amends. Hunter plays the sister of his victim and Freeman plays a sympathetic pastor.
However, as I'm sitting in the crowded multiplex theater, waiting for the film to begin, I look through the press kit and suddenly lose my enthusiasm. Part of it is because the film's plot of sin and redemption looks drearily familiar. More irrationally, I'm put off by the photograph of Billy Bob in a gray fright wig, which makes him look like a member of the band Nelson, 20 years later.
Just as the lights go down, I grab my things and bolt for the exit. Next door, there's a press screening of an Icelandic film called The Sea. Set in a remote fishing village, the story concerns a local seafood magnate and his fractious family. It turns out to be a film about a dying way of life, as Iceland joins the globalizing trends of the rest of the world. These changes also contribute to the dissolution of the already dysfunctional family. It's an interesting film--full of texture and detail--about a very different part of the world, but ultimately the film fails, because of underdeveloped relationships and some soapy melodrama.
Still, it's the kind of film I came to see: stories that take us somewhere different and attempt to engage with the outside world. Unfortunately, The Sea has already been tagged DOA, which probably explains why there were only four critics in the theater with me.
Afterward, I mosey over to the Yarrow Hotel for a press conference with Ed Solomon, the writer and director of Levity, and the principal cast members. After some waiting, the side door opens and a tall, very indifferent-looking Morgan Freeman saunters in, munching from a small bag of sour cream and onion potato chips. Behind him is a nervous-looking, 95-pound wisp of a girl. Her hair is long and straight, with blond highlights. She's wearing a green paisley top with blue jeans and boots. For a moment, I wonder what this tense teenager is doing here, before realizing that it is Holly Hunter.
They sit down behind the microphones, along with Solomon, who begins by explaining that Billy Bob is laid up with a bronchial infection. Solomon, who is an industry veteran, having written such non-indie fare as Men in Black, Charlie's Angels and Super Mario Brothers, then describes the genesis of the film. Apparently, as an idealistic college kid, he'd tutored kids in prison and one student in particular inspired Billy Bob's character.
Solomon, a good-looking and well-maintained man, speaks with passion and feeling as a professional screenwriter, who wanted to make a "meaningful" film after a career spent writing schlock for the studios. The puzzling thing about Levity is that, despite the high profile cast (which also includes Kirsten Dunst), Solomon was for years unable to find backing for the film, and began production without complete financing in place.
Not having seen the film, I can't tell if the potential investors were right to be wary, but Solomon explains that they were concerned about his lack of directing experience and the iffy subject matter.
Later, Hunter discusses her role, speaking with an endearing twang that suggests she left her parents' Georgia farm only last week. She doesn't blink when a simpering reporter asks a question that begins, "Holly, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you, now that you've got two Sundance premieres under your belt, and you're being honored with the Independent Vision tribute ..."
Amid the pieties to the spirit of independent filmmaking, it is Morgan Freeman who speaks with the greatest candor. Unlike the polite Hunter and Solomon, he arches his eyebrows at every dopey question and he speaks the truth. When asked how he got involved with the project, Freeman snaps, "I don't remember." Later, he interrupts Hunter as she tells us how she sticks with difficult films if she believes in the script.
"It's not just the script," Freeman loudly interjects. "It's who else is in the film. If you come to me and say you've got Holly Hunter attached to your project, you've just upped your stock 100 percent."Solomon never gives a satisfying answer to why financing Levity was so difficult. However, it's quite likely that the aggregate salary demands of Thornton, Freeman, Hunter and Dunst--for an art-house film with limited commercial prospects--made the bean counters nervous. Having stars in your cast helps the viability of a project, and these days, their salaries consume tens of millions of a film's budget. And this is as much a part of the spirit of independent cinema as anything else. Solomon could have made his film with lesser names, but then Levity wouldn't be getting the attention it is getting right now.
The press conference ends, and I join the gaggle of photographers snapping pictures of the stars and giving stage directions. "Look over this way, Holly. To the center, Mr. Freeman. How about a hug, you guys? Thank you, very nice."
David Fellerath can be reached at email@example.com.