The grizzled old-timer piloting the shuttle van from the airport in Salt Lake up to Park City catches my eye in the rear-view as we pull into town. “This your first time?” he asks.
“At Sundance? Yeah.” I wonder what makes my rookie status so apparent.
He shakes his head and offers a strange, ambiguous smile.
“Got any tips for me?” I ask. “Restaurants I need to try, anything like that?”
“Naw, you’ll be fine,” he says, but then barks a short, wicked laugh that gives me the willies, like a carriage driver delivering someone to a haunted castle. He drops me at the house where I’ll be crashing for the next few nights, hands me my bags, and calls after me, “Good luck!”
My goals for Sundance are simple — check out some movies, interview actors and filmmakers, and rock the after-parties. What could possibly go wrong?
Thursday night is the festival’s opening, and the first movie I go to see is a documentary called Searching for Sugar Man. It’s the story of a mysterious Detroit folk singer known by his last name, Rodriguez, whose 1970 debut album, Cold Fact, was well received by a handful of critics but sold virtually no copies. His eccentric live shows, wearing dark shades, playing with his back to the audience, may not have helped his cause. After a follow-up album also failed to sell, Rodriguez was dropped from his label. Meanwhile, a bootlegged tape of Cold Fact had made it to South Africa, where the album quickly went viral, as friends began dubbing the tape by the dozens for other friends. A label printed vinyl copies, and in South Africa, Cold Fact quickly became one of the hottest-selling albums of the ’70s, its politically charged songs adopted as anthems for the anti-apartheid movement. Overseas, Rodriguez was as big as The Beatles and Bob Dylan, completely unbeknownst to him. South African fans were therefore torn asunder to learn that their beloved bard, gigging at some empty club in the States, had played his final tune — a melancholy number called “I’ll Slip Away” — and then doused himself in kerosene, lit himself on fire, and burned to death onstage. It was a shocking and defiant demise for an enigmatic genius they knew little about.
Would Rodriguez’s fame abroad have altered his path, had he been aware of it? That’s the question haunting a South African music journalist and a record store owner as they investigate the life and death of their favorite musician. The story they uncover is absolutely stunning, and what begins as a dark and dismal tale becomes stirring and triumphant. I won’t reveal the unbelievable twists and turns of Searching for Sugar Man here, since it’s a movie I’ll be encouraging everyone I know to seek out. But at the premiere, the audience is literally gasping out loud, laughing, and wiping away tears, and when the film ends and young Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul emerges, along with a couple of the subjects of his documentary, the packed house rises to its feet for a series of four standing ovations, and it doesn’t feel the least bit gratuitous. Still, this is the first movie I’ve seen at the festival, and I wonder if this is simply par for the course at Sundance. Not so, says Simon Chinn, the film’s producer. He also produced the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, as well as Project Nim, which opened the festival last year, and he says neither those great films nor any other he’s seen at Sundance have ever provoked quite as insane a response. Saying it, I feel kind of like a judge at the Slam Dunk contest giving a “10” to the first tomahawk jam I see, but I have no doubt that Searching for Sugar Man is one of the best documentaries I’ll watch this year. Certainly, it’s setting the bar high for the rest of the movies I plan to check out at the festival.
After a Q&A, the audience streams outside, where shuttle buses carry us to a Day 1 after-party at the Deer Valley ski resort. Free vodka drinks; free pork-mango sandwiches. Techno music thumps over the sound system so loudly that people are suppressed from speaking to one another — just a room full of nattily dressed men and women, eyeing the names on each other’s festival badges. I slip away, take another bus back to Main Street, and climb the hill toward the house where I’m staying. A thick snow has begun to fall, and the streets are quiet — Sundance has not yet hit full swing. Still, as a limousine crawls past, a lone drunk girl leans out of its rear window, screams, “Heeeeeeeey!” and flashes me her right breast only. A sign, perhaps, of madness to come?
Friday afternoon, I take my seat at the premiere of West of Memphis, a documentary by Amy Berg that explores the case of the West Memphis Three — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., three Arkansas teenagers who were convicted of the murders of three 8-year-old boys and served 18 years in prison before being freed last summer, their innocence apparent. The Paradise Lost documentaries, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, brought widespread attention to the case, attracting such celebrity supporters as Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings; King Kong), who helped bankroll the West Memphis Three’s marathon legal battle, and also produced Berg’s new documentary. Jackson, I notice, is sitting a row in front of me with his wife, Fran Walsh. A moment later, Echols himself walks up the aisle and takes the seat beside me. He’s wearing a black coat and dark-blue sunglasses — after 18 years in a death row cell, without a glimpse of daylight, his vision has been left permanently damaged, and even five months after his release, he’s still extremely sensitive to light, he explains. As happy as he is to be free, he tells me, he’s upset by the knowledge that other innocent men are still on track to be executed in the state of Arkansas. He describes the case of a man who was convicted on the testimony of a single witness, with no other evidence to back up the claim. Now, years later, the witness has recanted his testimony and admitted that he lied on the stand, but that’s done little to free the man he fraudulently incriminated.
I’ve been following the story of the West Memphis Three since the first Paradise Lost documentary, over 15 years ago, and it’s a surreal thrill just to see Echols off death row, straight chillin’, a free man at a film festival. In the row behind us an older man in a gray chinchilla coat says to his wife, between mouthfuls of popcorn, “So, what’s this one supposed to be about? Satanic killers? Is it a real movie or a documentary?” Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, who campaigned tirelessly on his behalf for over a decade, exchange an amused but complicated look. One man’s popcorn flick is another man’s 18 years in the hole.
As comprehensive and probing as Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy has been, their films refrain from placing responsibility for the murders squarely on anyone’s shoulders — they’re more concerned with demonstrating the West Memphis Three’s innocence than speculating about other people’s guilt. But there’s a natural tendency to wonder: If it wasn’t the West Memphis Three, then who killed those three 8-year-old boys? West of Memphis lays out a convincing case that the real killer was Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, who’d somehow escaped previous scrutiny. On closer inspection, it appears that Hobbs has a violent, abusive streak, often beat his stepson and ex-wives, and may have preyed on his children sexually. He had the motive — according to family members, he was jealous of the attention his wife paid to her son — and also the opportunity (it turns out that his alibi on the night the boys went missing was a house of cards). At first, I took some discomfort from the fact that director Amy Berg would aim suspicion so readily at someone, when it was this kind of unscientific speculation that sent the West Memphis Three to prison in the first place. But as the evidence piles up of a “Hobbs family secret” and Hobbs turns combative and evasive when questioned, it begins to seem that the real culprit has been hiding in plain sight all along.
One particularly striking section studies the odd wounds left on the victims. Prosecutors claimed that the boys had been tortured and carved up as part of a Satanic ritual. In fact, Berg’s film suggests, the damage was more likely done after the boys were already dead by animals that lived in the creek where the bodies were found. At first, this claim sounds a bit dubious, but then Berg offers a look at the alligator turtles that populate the creek — tenacious beasts that look more alligator than turtle. (They’re shown savaging a dead hog like a gang of piranhas.) As the shady methods of the West Memphis Police Department and district attorney’s office are revealed, the investigation that sent the wrong men to prison begins to feel less negligent or reckless than aggressively corrupt. It appears that the cops and the D.A.’s office may have known that the West Memphis Three were innocent, but felt no compunction framing them for the crime, aware that convictions would mean a political victory.
Damien Echols has had 18 years to replay the moment in his head when his verdict was handed down. But that doesn’t stop him, here in Park City, from rubbing away a few tears early on in the film when a clip shows him being sentenced to death row. I can’t quite wrap my head around how weird it must be for him to watch his own life story unfold on-screen, in all its tragic intensity. At least there’s a joyous ending — at the end of West of Memphis, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are shown walking out of court last August as free men. A few weeks later, shopping for a Halloween costume in his new home of New York City, Echols says that it’s amazing how quickly his prison experience has receded. He’s already moved on to his new life.
At the post-film Q&A, Echols receives a standing ovation from all 500 people at the MARC Theater, including, in the front row, John Mark Byers, another stepfather of the victims who long believed that the West Memphis Three were guilty but has recently come around; and Pamela Hobbs, mother of one of the victims and Terry Hobbs’ ex-wife. Choked with emotion, Echols sends his gratitude to everyone who has supported the West Memphis Three over the years. He takes a few questions from the audience, along with Peter Jackson and the lawyers who worked to free him. Then he and his wife slip out the door into the snow-filled night.
After West of Memphis, I catch a cab up a steep, winding road into the canyons for a dinner at the extravagant Montage Hotel celebrating Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, where I eat like I’ve been locked up for 18 years myself. One long-standing festival tradition has film publicists inviting media folks to fancy meals, in a presumed exchange for generous coverage. I even have a gift bag waiting on my plate, with tubes of high-end suntan lotion and a $100 certificate toward jewelry from the company sponsoring the event. The food is dank, but the Vanity Fair writer at my table is disappointed — she’d been told that Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis would be here.
All day, I’ve sensed an unnerving, ravenous celebrity hunger from almost everyone I’ve crossed paths with — publicists, producers, journalists, and festival volunteers alike. In the afternoon, Park City tourists, locals, and paparazzi were camped out with cameras up and down Main Street, like hunters on the first day of deer season, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they’ve seen on TV or in the movies. I feel lame for being so judgmental — after all, I was ecstatic the night before when I got to briefly meet my favorite indie directors, Lynn Shelton (Humpday; Your Sister’s Sister), Katie Aselton (The Freebie; Black Rock), and Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair; Cyrus), to say nothing of the thrill I got from talking to Damien Echols at his screening. Just because my tastes run a bit obscure doesn’t mean I should judge other people if a Paris Hilton sighting is what gets their blood racing. Still, the prevailing attitude among many festival-goers seems to be that where an actor or director ranks on the fame meter is more important than any personal connection to their work. On a shuttle bus earlier in the day, a middle-aged woman from San Francisco showed me pictures on her phone that she’d taken on previous trips to Sundance: standing with her arm draped over Robert Redford’s shoulders; Lou Diamond Phillips, waving from a distant hotel balcony. “I don’t know this guy’s name,” she said, showing off the next picture, “but my friend says he’s famous.”
With Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis absent, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have inherited the dinner’s famous-person mantle, and girls are flocked around them at the center table, shaking their tail-feathers. A film assistant sitting at my table scowls and whispers into her friend’s ear: “Look at those star-fuckers.”
To which her friend replies, “I’d fuck them.”
After dinner, I climb aboard Tim and Eric’s modified RV, outfitted with swirling neon lights, a full bar, and a karaoke machine, on the way to their film’s premiere. We careen down icy mountain passes, while a PR assistant belts out Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” with backing vocals from the rest of us. Right as we make it back into town, the RV catches a patch of ice at a stop sign and slides into the back end of a giant black SUV. Everyone piles out to inspect the damage. I hop on a shuttle bus to the theater and end up heading the wrong way, toward Sundance Headquarters at the Park City Marriott. That’s all right — I’ve heard there’s been some exciting developments with Searching for Sugar Man, and now I can find out the scoop.
Sundance functions not only as a forum for filmmakers to premiere their films with maximum exposure, but also as a lively marketplace — last year, a record 40 films were bought by studios and distributors during festival week. These movies are not typically viewed as future box office smashes; of the 40 films picked up last year, not one cracked the top 100 in year-end ticket sales. But a well-crafted doc or indie flick, bought on the cheap, can turn healthy gains. And more than anything, Sundance is a place where top movie execs scout young talent — think of it as Hollywood’s McDonald’s High School All-American Game. A director who shows promise can be drafted to helm larger projects with 50 times the budget.
Alone in a heated atrium deep inside the Marriott, Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul and producer Simon Chinn are giving each other an emphatic series of high-tens, which they round out with a meaningful hug. Malik, 34, a lean, energetic, and immensely likable Swede, gives me the lowdown: His film has just sold to Sony Pictures Classics — the news has gone public in the last 20 minutes. Apparently, the Sony execs called from their limousine immediately after the premiere to express interest, and in less than a day the deal has been sewn up. It’s the dream of every Sundance filmmaker to sell your film at the festival and find distribution, and Malik is literally dancing a jig, buzzing with joy.
He’s worked his ass off the past four years as the film’s director, writer, and editor. “Every time I was at a party,” he says, “I’d end up leaving early so I could come home and work on the movie.” Malik funded Searching for Sugar Man from his own pocket, pouring his income from his job as a TV producer into the film. Last March, he’d thought an investor was going to come onboard and help him get it to the finish line, but when that fell through he almost gave up on the project. “I could barely make rent,” he says. “I had no money for clothes. I had no money for food. Still, if a dollar came to me, I put it into the film.” With his hardworking intensity and sense of artistic purpose, Malik kind of resembles Sugar Man‘s hero, the folk singer Rodriguez.
At last, short of options, he called on British producer Simon Chinn. “This young Swedish guy comes bouncing into my office,” Simon says, picking up the tale. “He tells me he’s got a story that’s better than Man on Wire. He’s just so infectious, with so much passion for the project, and the story was indeed remarkable. I thought, Maybe I can do something with this.” Simon Chinn got involved, and Malik, recharged, pushed through, finished the movie, and submitted it to Sundance, still in rough shape, he felt. He fully expected to be rejected, and planned to work on editing the film for another year so he could re-submit it in 2013. Thrillingly, Sundance accepted the movie — the first huge outside vote of confidence, says Simon — and now, with the nod from Sony, Malik is experiencing one of the greatest triumphs of his life. Loony smile plastered on his face, he begins texting his homies back in Stockholm to share the news. Simon Chinn, who’s been through this before with other films, is a bit more low-key, but still, his pleased glow is unmistakable. It’s a buoyant scene, and their joy is contagious. Though I had not one thing to do with the creation of the movie, I figure what the hell, I’ll hit the town to celebrate its achievements.
I head back to Main Street, to the Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie after-party at the Blue Iguana, since I know one of their publicists has put me on the list at the door. (The irony’s not lost on me that I’ve now attended their pre-premiere dinner and post-premiere bash while missing the actual movie.)
Free drinks. I drink plenty. But all the people I met at the dinner earlier are sealed off in a VIP area of the bar, and a publicist with a clipboard turns me away — apparently, my Manute Bol jersey doesn’t help me make the cut. Bored and lonely, I stand to the side, sipping another drink, watching nine or so kids in their early 20s flail on the dance floor to some unknown Black Eyed Peas-ish pop song. Then I notice another lonely soul close by, an older fella seated in a chair in the shadows, beer in hand. Wait a second. Is that him? Could it be? Yes — it’s Luther Campbell, a.k.a. “Uncle Luke” of 2 Live Crew, one of rap’s great O.G.s. I head over and say hi, and he seems grateful for the company. He introduces me to his wife, a hot Miami lawyer half his age, who’s dancing with friends. Luke, it turns out, is featured in an artsy short film called The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke that’s playing at the festival, so he’s come to town to check out the scene and attend the premiere, which went down earlier that night. We talk NBA for a bit, and about the ESPN documentaries The U and The Fab Five, both of which he’s featured in. “What do you think of Sundance so far?” I ask him.
“It’s cool,” he says. “Something different.” But you get the sense that he’s been around the world a thousand times and that a bunch of L.A. club kids and first-rung film-industry climbers wiggling to awful hip-hop is something he’s seen often enough as it is. “Uh-oh,” he says. “Now here’s a song.” It’s Public Enemy’s “Burn, Hollywood, Burn,” a searing take on the dearth of serious movie roles for black performers. But the kids on the dance floor are treating it like just another club banger. (To be fair, most of them were either in the womb or in diapers when Fear of a Black Planet hit the streets.) Uncle Luke seems amused by their obliviousness, and mouths some of the lyrics in time with the song. Finally, the track ends, and Luke collects his wife and stands to leave. He gives me a friendly good-bye, then turns to address the rest of the room, with a halfhearted salutation, widely ignored: “Stay freaky, y’all!“