For many independent filmmakers, the last three months have been an intense period of waiting. Even though chances are extremely slim, a large swath of the independent film community rushes to get their film done in time for the Sundance Film Festival deadline which closes in late August. From there, it’s a gut-wrenching waiting game as thousands of filmmakers vie for less than 100 spots at the most well known film festival in the United States.
When my interest in film became more serious following high school, one of the first things I did was volunteer for the 1997 Sundance Film Festival. It was an amazing experience and I continued to volunteer up until 2007, which was when I switched over to covering the festival for Film Threat. Always a time of year and event I held close to my heart, I was even lucky enough to have a film I produced (“The Violent Kind”) premiere there in 2010. It was a dream come true, and I know the pain and misery involved, not only in the many years of being rejected, but also the waiting period between submission and, typically, rejection.
Prior to the first wave of announcements for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, I thought it might be fun to try and pick some films that I think will make the grade. I’m basing these guesses (and they are total guesses) on my past experience, which has given me insights into the timing of a film’s completion, and the obvious goal of playing Sundance, combined with looking at past filmmakers who have been in the fest (Sundance is excellent about sticking with filmmakers and helping them grow) as well as up and comers who I feel deserve a shot. Also please note, I know many of these filmmakers, producers and some Sundance film programmers but I haven’t reached out to any of them in order to cheat on this article. Check back with the article later to see how well (or, poorly) I did. Here goes:
“Bloomin Mud Shuffle”-Frank V. Ross
For many years, ultra low-budget filmmaker Frank V. Ross has created some truly wonderful and little seen films. While his output is steady and strong, Ross literally has no social media presence. No Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram or Vine. Thus, and this is just awful to say, he’s kind of a ghost in the world of indie film. While some of his films have played SXSW, they’ve yet to play any other huge festivals and usually hit some high level regional fests before falling into undistributed limbo. I’ve seen all of Ross’s films and each one is better than the next. Looking at the IMDB page for his latest, “Bloomin Mud Shuffle,” I think this year’s fest will be the time the cinema world gets to see what Ross is all about. It’s his time and he’s earned it. Plus his cast is a step up, featuring Natasha Lyonne and Alex Karpovsky. Fingers crossed that Mr. Ross is planning his trip to Park City.
“Digging For Fire”-Joe Swanberg
Joe Swanberg is probably the most prolific known filmmaker in America, but he was unable to land a feature in Sundance until 2011’s “Uncle Kent.” From there he’s been there semi-annually, with 2013’s fantastic “Drinking Buddies” and last year’s “Happy Christmas.” But this year’s “big” Swanberg movie is massive, cast wise, and I’d be shocked if “Digging With Fire” was excluded. Featuring (and this is just a taste) Orlando Bloom, Melanie Lynsky, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie Dewitt and Jake Johnson, the film just feels like it’s meant to be a breakout Sundance hit. In order for that to happen, Swanberg needs to be in the fest. I’d be truly surprised if he doesn’t land a spot.
“In A Valley of Violence”- Ti West
Ti West has been building a buzz for his understated yet terrifying horror films for years. So what does he do now that’s he’s become a haunted household name? He makes a western. And it not only sounds pretty good, it also stars Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. Everyone’s still riding the “Boyhood” high, which is a well-deserved love fest for Ethan Hawke, but Sundance seems to like supporting chancy films. It would have been easy for West to make another low budget horror film but he’s spreading his wings. Will Sundance approve?
Kris Swanberg, much like Frank V. Ross, has been making wonderful films for years but they tend to fly under the radar. While becoming a mom kind of slowed her down in terms of writing and directing, she’s still managed to act in all sorts of films, including those of husband Joe. While Kris Swanberg’s output as a director of features isn’t as vast as many others, her latest, “Unexpected,” has an intriguing plot and some semi-well known actors. The only issue I see arising here (aside from the festival not digging the film) is that there’s a lot of Joe Swanberg at the festival, especially of late. While I hope this doesn’t affect any decisions and have no insight into this, I think Kris Swanberg’s filmmaking trajectory has earned her a slot at Sundance.
“Six Years”-Hannah Fiddell
Sundance likes to stay true to filmmakers, producers and writers whose early work they’ve championed. Hannah Fiddell scored some solid buzz at Sundance 2013 with “A Teacher,” and she recently completed postproduction on her latest, “Six Years.” Not only is Fiddell an up and comer to watch, she also secured festival good luck charms Kelly Williams (a Sundance producing lab veteran) and Jonathan Duffy, as well as the Duplass Brothers (Mark and Jay) as producers. Add to that the rising talent of the film’s star Taissa Farmiga, and brilliant cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, and it would be pretty shocking to not see “Six Years” in competition.
“The Night is Young” –Matt Jones
I’ll come clean with you guys: I totally pulled this pick out of my arse. Why? Because I heard a great podcast with the films co-director/co-writer Matt Jones and as soon as he talked about the film, it just seemed like something that would be Sundance bound. My Sundance instinct kicked in and I’m adding it to the list. I’m either going to harm my prediction score or get totally lucky and add to it. We’ll know soon enough.
“7 Chinese Brothers” –Bob Byington
Bob Byington is an odd guy who makes great, odd films. He also won the Annenberg Film Festival Grant presented by the Sundance Institute in 2013. Add to that his successful work as an indie filmmaker and a cast that includes Jason Schwartzman, Olympia Dukakis, Tunde Adebimpe and Stephen Root, and “7 Chinese Brothers” feels like a shoe-in.
“The End of the Tour”-James Ponsoldt
Gone (for the most part) are the days where Sundance was a showcase for A-Level actors to shed their fancy skin and get down and dirty in an indie film by playing a role that seems to be an odd choice. However, Jason Segel starring as deceased literary God David Foster Wallace is too good to pass up. Plus, James Ponsoldt rules and his previous films “Smashed” and “Spectacular Now” were pretty big Sundance hits. Odds are way high on this one getting the call. If I may be even bolder, this could be the opening night film.
“Midnight Special”-Jeff Nichols
Of all the films on this list, I’m most excited to see “Midnight Special.” Not just because I’m a huge fan of Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”), but because the plot sounds like a Stephen King story. It reads, simply, “A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.” Hell yes! Bring on this “Firestarter” sounding flick! Plus the film stars Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton, which all amounts to a toasty and smooth fit for this years festival.
“Dark Summer”-Paul Solet
Back at Sundance 2009, writer/director Paul Solet made Park City gasp and pass out with the creepy and terrifying midnight film “Grace.” Since then, not a peep has come from the guy. Where ya been, Solet? Well he’s got a film in the can called “Dark Summer,” and it seems like a solid pick for a midnight slot at the festival. Add to that the cast, which features Peter Stormare (who fans of “Fargo” will clamor for photos of him donning a parka in the snow again) and “Dark Summer” seems like a good fit for the midnight section of the fest. Remember, Sundance stays true to filmmakers they’ve helped break onto the scene.
Don’s Crazy Dark Horse Guess:
“The Visit” –M. Night Shyamalan
Look,, I’ve made no bones about my love of almost all things M. Night Shyamalan. I never understood what drove people so insane with anger around the time of “Lady in the Water.” But the tide definitely turned against him, and the back-to-back-to-back crap fests that were “The Happening,” The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” seems to have made M. Night rethink his strategy as a filmmaker. Thus, if you follow him on Twitter, you’ll see he’s been talking about a “small” film he’s doing with a pretty no name cast. That film is “The Visit” and while it’s already secured a release date early in 2015, I just have a sneaking suspicion Night may have snuck into this year’s festival.