Issue January 12, 2011

Official Selection

Louisville shows big at Sundance

Lapfuls of scalding McDonald’s coffee, alligators in doublewides and the sudden appearance of planet Earth’s identical twin describe just part of Louisville’s contribution to next week’s Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah. The country’s best-known celebration of independent film will screen a number of shorts, features, documentaries and animation that all claim Derby City roots. A few will even appear in the coveted competitive categories; no small feat, considering the thousands of submissions that jockey each year for only a handful of slots — 6,467 shorts and 3,812 feature-length films were submitted for 2011’s festival.

Writers who cover the circuit have noted a decline of star-driven films on this year’s slate, which feels like a move toward the festival’s original mission. Sundance’s organizers claim not to pursue themes when making selections, but the apparent program reset has worked in favor of, at least, one under-represented filmmaking city. To mark the occasion, we’d like to highlight the work of these local producers, directors, actors and animators, as well as check in on the state of our emerging film scene.

Celluloid heroes

One afternoon in the lobby of a Philadelphia courthouse, a producing partner from The Group Entertainment (TGE, Louisvillian Gill Holland’s production company) was interrupted while speaking to her father, a trial lawyer. Carly Hugo had been discussing a TGE project when an eavesdropping attorney suddenly butted in, exclaiming a variation on the old refrain “What I really want to do is direct.

Hugo did her best to blow off the “insane” aspirant, but was persuaded by her father to “cut the attitude.”

“She was a friend of his,” Hugo says. “He was like, ‘Do me a favor, just meet with her.’ Fine, Dad!”

That lawyer/filmmaker was Susan Saladoff, and despite not knowing what a “DP” was (Director of Photography), the first-time director’s presentation blew Hugo away. Sometime during their several hour meeting, Saladoff convinced Hugo to embark with her on “Hot Coffee,” one of 16 docs selected for competition at this season’s festival. Hugo says that although Saladoff may not have known the lingo, she treated the production as seriously as a trial.

“She was so well prepared and really knew how to tell a story,” Hugo says.

A buzz is brewing for “Hot Coffee,” particularly on law blogs, if not the Hollywood trades. Saladoff’s film presents a convincing cross-examination of tort reform proponents and dispels some of the widely circulated myths regarding so-called frivolous lawsuits. The doc begins by taking us back to that universally mocked, spilled coffee incident that brought the movement to its boiling point.

While President Reagan and late-night hosts everywhere wagged their finger at Albuquerque’s Stella Lieback, the 79-year-old litigant was receiving extensive skin grafts for third-degree burns on 6 percent of her body. Also lost in the spin was the uniform 185-degree holding temp of McDonald’s coffee (140 degrees is considered hazardous), the 700 reported java scorchings in the decade leading up to Lieback’s injury, the company’s repeated refusal to lower the temperature, and the initial $20,000 settlement Lieback offered the company in order to cover her medical bills. (A jury awarded Lieback $2.7 million in 1992.)

If there’s remaining doubt about the validity of Lieback’s claim, the ghastly, seldom seen photos of the damage to her thighs, genitals and buttocks may alter not only our definition of frivolity, but gore as well.

From there, “Hot Coffee” attempts to magnify the fine print of Halliburton’s gang-rape-pardoning, “mandatory arbitration” contracts, as well as shine a light on everybody’s favorite shadow organization, the Chamber of Commerce.

Writer Clara Bingham’s recent foray into movie producing began with 300 million gallons of toxic sludge. In 2005, the Louisville native followed a story for Washington Monthly that brought her to Inez, Ky., site of an environmental disaster 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. In October 2000, a blob of coal-company slurry gushed from a refuse impoundment facility, eventually finding the Ohio River, where it cut “a 75-mile path of destruction.”

The story, entitled “Under Mined,” gave Bingham a bird’s-eye view of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia mountaintop removal and is part of what propelled her to a producing role on “The Last Mountain.”

“Seeing the flattened mountains reminded me of the days in the ’70s when my grandmother Mary Bingham testified on Capitol Hill against strip mining,” Bingham responded via e-mail. “And when my uncle Barry Bingham Jr. guided the C-J’s editorial policy to oppose strip mining, despite the objection of the paper’s advertisers. I felt a strong connection to my family roots in Appalachia when I wrote about (Jack) Spadaro, and realized then that the only way to tell the world about the crimes of mountaintop removal was visually.”

The film’s footage of the mining process may very well motivate audiences the way it did Bingham. The massive explosions look like a deadly air assault launched by a foreign enemy (except without the foreign enemy, of course).

The Bill Haney-directed film focuses on the battle for Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, said to be the last great mountain in Appalachia not yet stripped for the coal within. The film follows the coal companies who aim to blast through the so-called “overburden,” a term they might also apply to the arm-locked citizens who risk arrest (and worse) by blocking the paths of borers and pulverizers moving up the mountain.

Like “Hot Coffee,” “The Last Mountain” has found its way into the Sundance doc competition.

This is Bingham’s second go-around in the film world. She says that watching her narrowly circulated book “Class Action” become a successful Charlize Theron movie in 2005 was a dream come true. “The North Country” allowed millions to learn the story of Lois Jenson and the other courageous mine workers who helped change the way women are treated in the workplace. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. was the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit filed in the United States.

Bingham says “The North Country” experience gave her “a tantalizing taste of the power of film as a way to tell important, moving stories.”

This will be Bingham’s first Sundance. The Gill Holland fan says she’s excited for “Hot Coffee” and looks forward to actor William Mapother’s performance in “Another Earth.”

“Another Earth” is yet another film with a Louisville connection that’s qualified for competition — this time in the dramatic category. Mapother, one of the film’s stars, is a bit of a fixture on the scene here, having had a hand in the Louisville Film Society and Flyover Film Festival. He is recognizable from more than a decade of steady film, TV and video game work, including memorable roles on ABC’s “Lost” (Ethan Rom) and in Todd Field’s brilliant “In The Bedroom.”

Mapother says the latter is perhaps his favorite role, but complains that it spoiled him by happening so early in his career (2001). The actor garnered a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award for his turn as Richard Strout in that picture. It’s the type of performance Mapother must be referring to in a quote on his IMDB webpage about how by amassing good work, he’s outlasted the label “Tom Cruise’s cousin.”

Sounds like great advice for an upstart film town trying to feel its way out of the regional shadows. Asked what this flurry of Sundance success might do for Louisville, Mapother says it could very well raise our stock in the production world. These breakthroughs at least give ammo to the city and Kentucky Film Office in their attempts to attract attention to the region. But, the actor, who is developing an indie film to be shot in the city, is also realistic.

Mapother adds that the good news at Sundance won’t translate to much without increased publicity for local projects, better tax incentives in Kentucky, and a nonstop SDF-to-LAX airline route. To that point, there is no reason why a feature like “Another Earth” can’t happen in Kentuckiana. Mapother points out that the crew of this low-budget project could fit into a station wagon. We have station wagons!

In “Another Earth,” Mapother plays John Burroughs, a man who loses his family in an auto accident after the promising MIT student in the other vehicle (Brit Marling) becomes distracted by the appearance of a new planet. Billed as a sci-fi romance, the student is later compelled to meet the bereaved Burroughs after completing her prison sentence for her role in the crash.

Making a scene

It would seem a rare distinction to have films in both the dramatic and documentary competitions, but Gill Holland makes it sound like old hat. Holland points to 2008, when his water-crisis doc “Flow” and competitive-air-drumming comedy “Adventures of Power” both made the Park City cut. In 2011, there’s “Hot Coffee” and “Higher Ground,” a spiritual memoir brought to the big screen by TGE and Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga (“Up In The Air”).

Carly Hugo is in charge of prepping both TGE films for next week’s events and says that her lead-up to the festival has been absolutely crazy — in a good way.

“I’ve never been on more conference calls in my entire life,” she says, “But it’s been really fun!”

“Higher Ground” marks Farmiga’s directorial debut. She was never hell-bent on calling the shots, but was determined to see Carolyn Briggs’ life story reach the big screen. This meant grabbing the reigns when the project’s original director threw his hands up and challenged Farmiga to take over.

Farmiga, who plays Briggs in the film, may have started out as a reluctant director. But she so threw herself into the task that the day before principal photography began, the actress/director realized she had forgotten to learn her lines. That aside, Farmiga managed to shepherd “Higher Ground” into Sundance with a break-neck production schedule accelerated by her pregnancy. The filmmakers attempted to write this development into the script, but because the story spans a 30-year period, there was only so much they could explain away.

“Higher Ground” is based on Briggs’ 2002 book, “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost.” It opens with Briggs’ teenage years as a mother in a Des Moines trailer park. She and her musician husband join a radical, Christian community called Fountain of Joy, where Briggs spends the next 20 years, wavering from unquestioning believer to open-minded skeptic. As life at the Fountain grows increasingly medieval, Briggs must confront the turmoil of walking away from her faith and the culty fellowship.

The cherry on top for Holland and TGE may be “The Catechism Cataclysm,” their third Sundance feature — this one showing out-of-competition in the “Park City at Midnight” bracket. The film was produced by Holland and David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”) and stars HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” actor Steve Little.

Holland, who’s perhaps the best champion and connector of talent in town, surely relishes all this Sundance love. Asked for an estimate of where we are on the cinema food chain, Holland did not hold back.

“Just as the Louisville music scene was seminal in the ’80s, I feel like we will look back in 20 to 30 years and realize something was/is happening now,” he says. “I feel like 12, 15 years ago, the Austin Film Society and SXSW were just starting to percolate, and that is where we are now. We have not had the (Richard) Linklater or (Robert) Rodriguez hit yet, but it is coming!”

Los Angeles and New York aside, Holland feels that Louisville’s festival appearances are beginning to stack up well against smaller film-producing towns. He cites the accomplishments of Hart-Lunsford Pictures, which made its first Sundance splash in ’07 with the John Cusack film “Grace is Gone,” and whose current picture “Dirty Girl,” with Juno Temple and William H. Macy, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. In total, the company has debuted nine features at Sundance, Toronto and the TriBeCa Film Festival.

Another major asset, Holland says, is the film-minor program coming to University of Louisville. This should feed directly into the local film community and help provide a firmer infrastructure. Carly Hugo, who first worked for Holland as an intern while attending Columbia University, then later promoted to a lead producer at TGE, could probably say something about the importance of good relations between education and industry.

The alligator in the room

So, who is the “Louisvillian Linklater” Holland promises is on the way? The producer didn’t say as much, but when asked for Sundance filmmakers who he was enthused about, Holland responded, “Zach (Treitz) is a super talented, young filmmaker. Excited to see what the future brings to him.”

Treitz’s short film “We’re Leaving” was shot in Kentucky and features a cast of Louisville actors and “real people,” to borrow industry parlance. First-timers Rusty and Veronica Blanton are natural as the film’s longtime couple. Both feel like Louisville and neither make the mistake of trying to be actorly. A local pro, David Maloney, also is effective by not over-asserting his adversarial role in the film.

Treitz is coming off of a 2010 Sundance appearance as a co-producer on “Daddy Long Legs,” the mumblecore-grows-up feature from New York’s Safdie Brothers. That film was also a part of 2010’s Flyover Festival.

“We’re Leaving”’s inclusion in Sundance was unanimous for the programmers, which does not come as too big of a surprise. It’s clear from the film’s first frame that something special is about to happen: a low angle shot in the hallway of a mobile home — a 6-foot alligator named Chopper soon lumbers out of the bedroom. Chopper is followed by his loving owner Rusty who, moments into this salty-sweet story, is informed that the trailer park he’s spent 26 years in has been sold to developers. Faced with finding an apartment that permits large reptiles, and getting nowhere, Rusty is forced to get clever.

Asked about the challenges of working with a live alligator and whether the animal was trained, Treitz answers, “I don’t know if you can train them. Those things are so … dumb. He had habits, so we played to them. He goes for light. He goes for water. So, with the owner’s help, we figured out how to shoot what we wanted based on his patterns.”

A bigger challenge was figuring out how to pay for the project. Treitz says he was broke after the five-day shoot, despite lucking into 10 free cans of film and six tickets to the Louisville Zoo — a location that, had the crew paid to get in, would have been the most expensive scene in the movie. A considerable lab bill soon arrived, and Treitz had no clue how he’d get his film back from the processor.

But the production’s string of good fortune resumed when a check from the IRS magically arrived the following day. The refund was just $10 short of the lab bill. (Treitz would not disclose how he raised the remaining $10.)

Concerning film in Louisville, Treitz says of Holland, “Gill’s the ultimate connector — he’s got like a form e-mail for introducing people. ‘Meet this person!’ And those guys from the Louisville Film Society: I’m always kind of jealous when I get their newsletter that I’m not going to see a lot of those movies.”

Asked what Louisville needs, Treitz, perhaps somewhat selfishly, says he isn’t sure he wants things to get any bigger.

“Part of the reason I like shooting in Louisville is because everybody in New York is so self-conscious of what you’re doing. We were shooting on 35th Street and this, like, really short guy — um, midget — was walking down the street in the middle of our frame. He was like, ‘Did you get me on film?! What’s the name of this production? Alright, you know what, if I see this thing anywhere, my agent is gonna come after you and sue your ass!’ And we were like, ‘Jesus, man! We’re just trying to film a scene here.’ And then he starts going into how he’s really famous because he was an Oompa Loompa! Oompa Loompa?! It was kind of amazing. It would have been awesome to use, except that he would’ve, as he said, sued our asses.”

Treitz’s anecdote echoes something Carly Hugo said earlier in the week about shooting in big cities. She recently witnessed a New York production assistant get slugged in the mouth for trying to prevent a pedestrian from wandering into a shot. For Hugo and many other filmmakers, it’s a welcomed change of pace to film in friendly cities whose citizens aren’t yet jaded by the process. Hey, there may be a film office slogan in there: “Louisville: We punch less people in the mouth.”

For all the effort that countless Louisvillians have put into film festivals like Flyover, Derby City and the International, and the tireless lobbying for tax incentives, Treitz asked perhaps the most important question: Who’s producing films entirely in Louisville?

Film commissions, societies and festivals contribute immeasurably to the building of a scene, but civic roundtables and cinema appreciation can only go so far in advancing something as fluctuational as an art form. At some point, someone needs to spread those tripod legs and con Mom into suspending a boom mic over her head. Someone needs to assemble their best-looking friends in front of a camera and roll, cut, print, then mortgage their future a little bit more to stitch it all together. Essentially, someone needs to call “Action!”

Also showing:

Triumph of the Wild” depicts the history of America during wartime. Using her punk-rock take on cut-out-and-collage animation, Louisville visual artist Martha Colburn covers our military’s greatest hits and misses: the American Revolution, WW I and II, Vietnam and the Mid-East conflicts. Colburn’s 11-minute piece will be screened as part of Sundance’s shorts program. It premiered in Louisville last summer at Flyover.