SUNDANCE REPORTS BY JENNY RADELET, PRODUCER OF THE TREATMENT ON KCRW.
There may not be a Hushpuppy action figure at Walmart anytime soon (well, who knows), but in large part because of its initial success at Sundance in 2012, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has successfully permeated the American mainstream as much as one could possibly hope for an indie feature from an unknown director, with four Oscar nominations announced this morning, including Best Directing, Best Motion Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.
I saw “Beasts” at Sundance last year, in what turned out to be a very memorable scenario. I had missed the press screening and called the film’s festival publicist for a favor. Could she give me tickets to the only screening I could attend, which was at the Sundance Institute an hour away from Park City? Yes, she would, if I could arrange for a car service to bring her, the film’s 8-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis, and Quvenzhané’s mom to the screening. The publicist was so overwhelmed after the film’s premiere screening created the buzz heard round the world, that she didn’t even have a few minutes extra to book a car. Deal. As long as I could hitch a ride.
Quvenzhané was adorably exhausted, probably just as much from the shock of it all as from the constant interviews. She curled up in her mother’s lap and fell asleep immediately. Her mom proudly showed me pictures of her other kids on her phone, and told me a little about what it was like bringing Quvenzhané to audition for “Beasts,” which she learned about at school. The ride itself was uneventful, but in the silence, driving through the snowy peaks of Utah, there was definitely an underlying feeling that big things were in store for this little girl.
Fast forward a year and Quvenzhané Wallis, who is now nine years old, made history this morning as the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
This story ties into the larger question of why Sundance is important, and why I’m so excited to go back this year with a team from KCRW. As Dustin Hoffman (who’s a first-time director with “Quartet”) says in next week’s episode of The Treatment, “Hollywood is a business. And it’s reactive. If you haven’t proven yourself as a director then they tend not to send you scripts.” That’s why the voices of independent filmmakers that come out of Sundance are crucial. This hand-picked crew of unknown storytellers, most of whom a major studio wouldn’t have previously touched with a ten foot pole, have relied on everything from self-financing to Kickstarter to small scale production companies to make films about stories they are intensely passionate about. This is a totally different kind of storytelling than larger studio films, which are plushly financed, thoroughly tested, and painstakingly rewritten with an overall emphasis on the bottom line. There’s no question that studio pictures like Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty can be masterfully crafted and completely relevant to the public conversation; still, there’s something specifically compelling and raw about the films that come out of festivals, and Sundance in particular, that strikes a nerve in a way that’s not really common, or even possible, with studio pictures.
It’s been thrilling to witness the trajectory of “Beasts” in particular. In the midst of his whirlwind journey from Sundance to Oscars, writer/director Benh Zeitlin visited KCRW for interviews with Kim Masters on The Business and Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment. As I once again pack my boots, parka, and microphone for a few days in Park City, I’m looking forward to meeting a new crop of filmmakers who have spent months, years, perhaps even a lifetime, toiling to tell that story that they just could not shake. Whether or not any of these films will have a similar journey to “Beasts” is yet to be determined, and frankly, irrelevant at this point. I would imagine that for most, Sundance is not only the beginning, but the end of a poignant journey, when they finally get to sit in the back of the theater, and listen to an audience react to their work for the very first time.