Slamdance 2013 Interview: The Filmmakers Talk The Festival Experience

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
In the final hours of the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival a group of filmmakers and I confiscated the Gallery screening room at Treasure Mountain Inn, made an impromptu circle and tossed a chair in the middle for my digital recorder and iPhone. We then settled in for a spirited talk on all things Slamdance. Joining me were Harry Patramanis and Eleni Asvesta, director and producer of the minimalist thriller Fynbos, Kimberly Culotta, cinematographer for Kate Mark's short film Pearl Was Here, Jan Eilhardt and Sanna Akehurst, the filmmakers behind the dazzling The Court Of Shards, J.R. Hughto director of the LA noir Diamond on Vinyl, from the New York noir Joy de V. director Nadia Szold and editor Kristen Swanbeck, the directing/writing/producing pair behind the Audience Award winning Hank And Asha, James E. Duff and Julia Morrison, and rounding out this eclectic bunch (coming in for the tail end of our chat), Nicole Teeny, director of the enduring doc Bible Quiz.

One of the most amazing things about my experience at Slamdance outside of just watching the movies has been standing in line talking to people about what we're going to see, and then talking to people of all sorts after the films, including many of you. I've found it to be such a rich and varied experience, so I wanted to gather you guys here tonight so you all could share a little bit of your own time at Slamdance with each other and with our readers.

When Slamdance said "Come on out to Park City, we're gonna screen your film." What was the initial thought, that first feeling?

James E. Duff: Well my mind went blank. I got the call and I thought I heard Slamdance and I just kind of lost it. I couldn't hear anything else she [programmer Drea Clark] said. Julia was sitting right there... I said, "Drea can you send an email? I can't listen to you right now."

Nadia Szold: Well I was having coffee with Evan Louison, the actor in Joy de V. He was visiting me in LA and we were recoding music for a film that we shot over the summer called Mariah. We felt pretty dismal at the time. We were like: "what do we do? We now ahve two films that are in post. So we were a little depressed about the state of things, and I got the phone call and things started to look up from there.

J.R. Hughto: I was coming out of a parking structure...

Everyone laughs

J.R. Hughto: ... walking from my car, on my way to work. I work right across the street from Graumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. It is a very strange place to work as there is a tremendous number of tourists and all the people dressed up and yelling to try and get the tourists to do what they want. So I couldn't quite hear when I got the call...I knew that there was some good news happening. I was like "Hang on a second, I'm about to walk into the foyer" and then "Okay, can you repeat everything you just said, one more time?" Apolonia [Panagopoulos], my wife, who is also Diamond on Vinyl's editor, well we work together... but we had driven separately that day... So I went into her bay and she looked at my face and asked "What's wrong now?"

Jan Eilhardt: Well I was about to go to bed in Berlin. I got the email, couldn't believe it... I think I called Sanna on Skype, saying "please read your email immediately!"

Sanna Akehurst: And I wasn't looking forward to reading them because I thought it was a long bit of translation to do at 2 in the morning. I think you said something about Slamdance, but we just couldn't believe it. We just thought it was going to go away in the morning. We also really wanted to tell everyone and we weren't allowed to, so I secretly told a couple of people like my brother and he asked "Can I tell everyone?" And I said "no, no, no, not yet!" So even he was so excited.

Kimberly Culotta: So Kate the director was the one who got the call directly and she emailed all the crew. but it was also this "don't tell anyone" kind of hush-hush thing. We had to suppress our excitement for a bit.

Harry Patramanis: So everybody got a call from Drea? Was it Drea Clark?

J.R. Hughto: I got a call from Anna Germanidi.

Harry Patramanis: Ah, I was curious! We got a call but we couldn't answer the phone because we were in a meeting in South Africa...

Eleni Asvesta: By this coincidence, we were in South Africa!

Harry Patramanis: The film was shot in South Africa but we don't live there...

Eleni Asvesta: But we do commercials there...

Harry Patramanis: So I didn't answer the phone and then I heard on the message... well I saw it was a Los Angeles number... and I kind of sensed something, you know, is up with Slamdance... I had to wait for at least 45 minutes... So then we were coming down the elevator, listening to the message...

Eleni Asvesta: It was really tough, because it was 10 o 'clock there and we're in this long meeting now made even longer. And then Harry said "Hey, we're in Slamdance."

Well what does that mean when you hear that name? Was it anybody's intention for this to be the one you wanted to get into? "This is the one I want to have the world premiere at..." or is it like: "okay then, here's the list and let's see where things hit"?

Harry Patramanis: I can tell you for us it was really important because we submitted to a bunch of festivals, so we got a bunch of rejections, and Slamdance was very important because Fynbos is a self-made film... and I guess for everybody here, everybody has made a self-made movie. So I thought: "wow, this is really great!" This films fits this festival so well. It's great to be somewhere where people really like your film. It's not like any other festival because of some political decision or because you're Greek, or because Georgian movies are really hot right now... if you're Georgian... If you're Greek and it's three years ago, your movie would go to Cannes and get around. So for us it was really amazing because it was a self-made film and this festival is for self-made films.

Eleni Asvesta: J.R., maybe you could tell us a little more, because you've made a feature before [2006's The Thin Time]...

J.R. Hughto: It was weird for me as I was coming off of lots of bad news about Diamond On Vinyl.

Eleni Asvesta: Where did you want to go?

J.R. Hughto: Well, I had been short-listed for a bunch of places, and then I was off the list for many more. I was getting concerned. So that cloud hung over me until we had the DGA [Director's Guild of America] event for Slamdance. And then there were so many CalArts films which got in too, which was awesome [Hughto teaches there]... So I went to the DGA event, and I'm kind of a wallflower anyways, so it was very easy to only talk to the CalArts people.
It wasn't really until we had to introduce ourselves... everyone who had a film, we had to pass the mic around... and then right after that Paul Sbrizzi, one of the programmers, and Daniel Berube and Josh Mandel.. they all came up to me... and it no longer felt like this big festival to get lost in. That was the moment where I got really excited. Not only was I in a place that's amazing, but really it had been the second place that I had applied to. But they loved the film and that was somehow... shocking. I don't know if that makes sense...

James E. Duff: When we finished our film it was Sundance and Slamdance... they were the first two that we could apply to. So we didn't get into Sundance, but we were thinking about it and doing the research on Slamdance... now everybody said this, but it is a festival by filmmakers, for filmmakers... and it's blind submissions, which is really gratifying. Five thousand people applied, and we didn't have any contacts at all, which is really amazing . And then seeing how centralized Slamdance is here at Treasure Mountain Inn, and seeing how decentralized Sundance is, it's kind of nice to have everything right here. It's so contained. And like you were saying, JR, people really love your film, and it's genuine, which is really fantastic 'cause they're all volunteers, so everybody's doing it for the love of the game, which I think is just so inspiring. And that first event was really nice, it was really nice that they even had one. They were concerned enough to have one so that people could meet before we were all here in Park City. They really encouraged us to meet the short filmmaker who had their film playing in front of our feature. So we took him [Victor Hugo Duran, director of Fireworks] out and had a drink. It was just really nice to establish that before things started.

And all of that took place in December, so that's holiday time for most folks, but you all were now tidying up your films to play here. Getting here last week, now seeing the programmers and staff in Park City, saying "Come along, let's go, this is it." What was that like?

Nadia Szold: Well I had to finish the sound mix. There was a lot of work to do on that... and I was holding off on that until I heard about the festival... So I had come off of a lot of late nights, and it was surreal coming in, especially because my DP Tristan Allan and I... we drove from Los Angeles here... so just to drive through the west, get into the mountains, go past these beautiful passes... it kind of brought an epicness to it. I'm really glad that I didn't fly here. Also I had time to put the stickers on the postcards for the showings, and that was a lot of work to do. And with Tristan, I hadn't seen him since Mexico, since we shot Mariah there. It was a very difficult situation in Mexico because of very limited resources and you're shooting on location in the desert... so we really hadn't been able to talk since then. It was really cool to have that drive and then come into this, part of this community of filmmakers at a festival whose ethos I really believe in. I mean they loved the film... I guess... it's what I've heard from a couple of the programmers... but they also could almost tell their kind. It was like "you... you're a motherfucker! You're only gonna do it your own way!"

Sanna Akehurst: Jan had already booked his flight like a week after we had heard. I was in Istanbul on holiday. I came back and I was really scared because I didn't know where I was going to get the money for the flight. And Jan said, "Listen to me. You have to come, you have to come." So I was begging everyone for money. My mum gave me my grandma's ring and said "Sell the ring." And I said, "I can't do that!" She said, "it's all right, she used to play the piano for silent movies and she loved a good party!" I only booked my flight the week before so I still wasn't certain I was coming. By the time I arrived I just couldn't believe it. It's been such a nice place to be. I'm really gonna miss it.

J.R. Hughto: Yeah, I don't know how I'm gonna go back to work on Monday. I'm not really that interested. I think we should just set up shop here.

Sanna Akehurst: Yes, let's move in.

There are of course expectations to something like this. Is that something you guys have been able to embrace or is it like "Okay! I'll let go of it..."

Julia Morrison: I think it's a bit of a roller coaster, right? In coming here, you're just so happy to be here, period. And then you get some expectations and then you try and forget those expectations. The bottom line is we're just happy to be here.

Jan Eilhardt: Yes.

Harry Patramanis: I think all festivals are roller coasters for filmmakers.

J.R. Hughto: I do think of this one as being more intense because Park City is a destination specifically for film this week... because of the presence of Sundance... it definitely feels like the energy here is different than any festival I've been to. It's also really nice that the energy here in Treasure Mountain is so radically different, that as soon as you step out on the street it's something else... it's so uncomfortable for me... I went to a few events and some screenings at Sundance, and there's just a... I don't know... it's like walking into a headwind. And here I felt like "Oh, it's home."  I don't know if that makes sense...

Yeah, there's a bonding here that's different...

Eleni Asvesta: It's the reality of talking to people, because we're a community and people try to separate us, all these people around the industry... they see us as products. Here we're so close to each other, we're going to our screenings and we see each other. This... this is amazing, I think, because it gives you the feeling of belonging to a community of people... not successful people, but struggling people... and I think that is a very nice feeling and from there you can find something else that another human being can give you like inspiration... I mean I got very inspired being here -- finally! And it's very hard to get inspired. It's so hard.

James E. Duff: Yeah, I'm gonna miss that going home, wondering where is that inspiration and motivation and pumped up energy level.

Eleni Asvesta: And it's very hard to meet in a place like LA. It's very hard to get connected, you know, truly connected. Even if we're tired, you know and the day comes and we're all stressed, here we are meeting an hour before the awards, it's so strange, but it's so sweet at the same time. I mean it's been such a great time and now we're almost ready to lose it. And that's the business of all things, you know we have so many other things, but it's so sweet that we met here. And we're here to see the reaction of other people, we're not here to be successful...

Harry Patramanis:..To expose ourselves...

Eleni Asvesta:  We're here to see how people receive our films! And we have this access to everyone, such a very close relationship... it's great.

Can you guys talk a bit about the time leading up to your screenings.

Nadia Szold: This was the nice thing actually... we had dinner. Evan, Kristin, Tristan and our associate producer Lauren [Mekhael ]. We ate and drank wine and toasted, you know, because we've all worked on this for a long time. That was nice as people are pulling you in different directions like "oh, there's this party! And there's this place and this thing here!" So you really don't want to have any distractions around. You just want to focus on celebrating the work. You know, if folks don't like it... fuck 'em! (laughs)

Was it more stressful than you thought it would be or less stressful?

J.R. Hughto: Can it be both?

Yeah, of course, there's...

J.R. Hughto: There's more to it than that, yeah. It's weird... I feel like the experience for me has been both. People told me what to expect, but... my work as a producer I don't get this stressed out at all. For me, it was definitely far more stressful than any other film I had worked on, in the sense that I like... I sort of knew what to expect, but going into it the stakes just felt so much higher, despite the fact that they're really small actually. If you think about it the stakes are: "are they gonna like the movie or not?" And that seems very simple, but when you've worked for such a long time on something and you feel it very personally even those small stakes can feel very great, right? And that's one of the things that gets me, you know, speaking to the programmers, that I was here for a reason, and it wasn't totally random.

Thinking about that, how many of you have had the programmers kind of by your side since the week started, saying "whatever you need, we're here!" I've found that to be the case for me as press, so I'd imagine it'd be even greater for you all as the filmmakers.

Harry Patramanis: I think also we all know that we can be programmers next year as that's how Slamdance works... so all of sudden you have these equal people next to you. Now we're part of a family, we have a standard that will never go away. And that's very particular to this festival, 'cause any other festival you go and you go away, but in this festival you come in and you're part of the family. I really hope to see you all again and connect with you. That's the pretty cool feeling. I never before felt a programmer all of a sudden was another, fellow filmmaker and he was then giving me the torch to carry on with it.

Eleni Asvesta: I think that's the essence of this place, completely.

One thing that's been incredible for me is to sit and watch these movies with a group of people that are very attentive, they're very much there for whatever movie it may be that they're sitting down for. How has that been sitting in the theater with the audience, or going in and checking if that's not your thing to sit and watch -- are you able to detect the texture and quality of the energy at the screenings?

Kristen Swanbeck: I love watching a movie with an audience, as they're made to be watched like that. And it can be totally different energy. We had two screenings and they were completely different. It's funny how some people in the screening can affect that overall energy, like if someone is laughing a lot more it can get more people to laugh.

James E. Duff: I have a theater background, so I've done a lot of plays, so you expect the crowd and the energy to be different every night. The actor's feed off it and it's a totally different performance every night, but I didn't expect that in film.
 
Nicole Teeny: Did anyone have a screening after Happy Hour?

Everyone laughs

Nicole Teeny: Well I did and it totally effected things. I mean I thought that's why it was different... I thought "Oh, it's happy hour that's why they're not laughing..."

Kristen Swanbeck: I figured it would have made them laugh more.

Nicole Teeny: It didn't! There were more people but less laughter and I think it was because everyone came from Happy Hour.

Sanna Akehurst: They had done their 'happy' for the day.

Nicole Teeny: They had released all the 'happy.

"Bible Quiz" was also the first screening of the festival too.

Nicole Teeny: Yeah, and there was more laughter that time, which was strange...

Sanna Akehurst: When I was in there, it was absolutely hilarious.

Kimberly Culotta: The most satisfying moment for me this week was in our screening... 'cause there's a moment in the film when the tone shifts, and everyone was laughing and then... the mother slaps the daughter... and it was gasps... the whole audience... and then silence. I literally started crying in that moment. Just to be that present with the film, to be with that crowd...

It's always interesting to look around and catch the faces of other audience members. A few times, after having seen a film myself, I stood in back at the second screening and watched the crowd for a few a minutes. Were there any movies that you guys got really passionate about that were not your own where you wanted to check in on after having seen it yourself?

Julia Morrison: Had there been a third screening I think that would have been easier to do.

Sanna Akehurst: Now Harry and Eleni went to see nearly everything. 

Eleni Asvesta: I wanted to be a part of it all, you know, and feel what other people are doing. I felt that was the privilege of being here, more or less, and really get inspired... because sometimes when you get up, after finishing the movie, you wonder "what the hell are we doing? Who is going to watch this film?" You feel that sometimes things that come out of you don't have a place for a bigger audience or don't translate to something that everyone wants to see. So when you go to a festival you want to see what other filmmakers are thinking... because after all filmmaking is expressing yourself. It's not like what all these people in distribution tell us... "who is your audience?"... You know, this is a marketing thing, we cannot be marketers, we just stop thinking, and around this we build expectations. Harry and I tried to see as much as we could, to see where the other filmmaker's were, how personal they could be.

Were there any interactions with audience members that you really cherished, whether they were just weird or really sincere?

Sanna Akehurst: We had our first screening on Friday. I don't know how Jan felt, but I felt "oh I really don't think anyone else likes this film apart from us." I really don't know why I lost all confidence in that moment... and then there was Harry and Eleni and their friends sitting there with really beaming faces and asking loads of questions. It was really gratifying and also like "pheeeww!"

Nadia Szold: It was really great to have dialogs with the audience afterwards. My actor, Evan, he met people that way too, and you know it was an interesting thing because you really are coming from complete obscurity and it's nice to be able to discuss something you've been working on for so long with a complete stranger.

Nicole Teeny: I was just happy people showed up in general.

James E. Duff: Yeah, exactly!

Nicole Teeny: Before the fest I'm sure all you guys did test screenings like "Okay, friends! please come over, I'll have beer... please come watch and give me notes." So seeing people come on their own volition was like "Oh! someone is actually gonna step in..."

James E. Duff: And you don't know them!        
      
Nicole Teeny: That was surprising...

James E. Duff: Like who are these people that wanna come see my film? Who is that?

Julia Morrison: And then there are also people from the community here in Park City. It just wasn't all of us filmmakers. There were some very unexpected conversations in that way, so that was really cool too.

This is a stupid question because it's a thousand and one things, but I have to ask about what you're all going to take away from this experience?

Kimberly Culotta: I'll say not having had a feature premiere here yet, ya know you were asking if this was a top choice, and having experienced this and this community and just the intimacy of it... this would probably be my first choice now.

James E. Duff: I think it's just the people you meet. Whenever you travel and go places, there are things like beautiful mountains, but it's the people that you remember. I mean it's gratifying to have your film shown and you're on such a high, but really in the end that's what you remember, those connections that you make, those relationships.

Nicole Teeny: I think you're right about it being a good place for a first film, Kim. I don't know how many of you went to Sundance but it's kind of scary, and here it's nice and friendly and everyone is supporting each other. I didn't get to see every movie but I tried to see as many as I could and everybody was doing that.

Kimberly Culotta: And being in the business there's a value to being here and having access to Sundance, too.

Eleni Asvesta: I have so much appreciation for [co-founder] Peter Baxter and the guys [the staff and programmers]. They live in a romantic era, completely, and I felt that vibe so intensely.  I am a romantic as well, but I can always be very cruel with my reality and what's happening in the world, but I believe this is a place of absolute romance, and I love all of them, and all of you in this room. I hope with all my heart, that I can be here again and again, and I will not be dragged down by things that are more evidently commercial. Slamdance has been a very precious diamond for me.  
  
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