Slamdance and Soderbergh

The Daily — Feb 1, 2019
André Holland in Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019)

Slamdance has wrapped its twenty-fifth anniversary edition with the presentation of this year’s awards and a chat with Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay. Peter Baxter, Dan Mirvish, and Paul Rachman, who cofounded the event with Shane Kuhn and Jon Fitzgerald, look back with Macaulay to 1995 when they staged what flyers posted all over Park City proclaimed would be the “first annual guerrilla international film festival.” Screening truly independent low- and no-budget movies, Slamdance aimed to become an alternative to Sundance, which by the mid-1990s was perceived by many to have become a bloated celebrity magnet.

One of the young struggling filmmakers who brought his debut feature to Slamdance was Christopher Nolan. When Nolan walked into the first screening of Following in 1999, he was rattled to discover that there were only fourteen people in the audience. So Mirvish gave him a pep talk. “We told him, ‘Go down to Kinkos, make some flyers and pass them out! Don’t be shy!’ And he did and got people into his second screening, which Roger Ebert and Elvis Mitchell came to. And his career has done okay ever since.”

Nicole Brending’s Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity in American Popular Culture has won both the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize and the George Sparks Spirit of Slamdance Award this year. Like Sid and Nancy or last year’s Her Smell, the debut feature is another telling of the rise and fall of a pop star, but this tween idol peaked when she was sixteen. And the tale is told entirely with dolls. Peter Nellhaus is reminded of Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, but “Brending fearlessly goes further,” and “some of the most tasteless bits are also the funniest.” The Slamdance jury has found Dollhouse to be “outrageous, bold, hilarious,” and best of all, “it really embodies the spirit of the Slamdance.” David Hambridge’s Kifaru, which focuses on two young Kenyan rangers who care for and protect the last male northern white rhino, has won the Documentary Feature Grand Jury Prize and an audience award. For a full list of all the awardwinners, turn once again to Scott Macaulay.

The star of the show this year was Steven Soderbergh, who returned to Park City thirty years after bringing his debut feature sex, lies, and videotape to Sundance. That film’s success—a deal with Miramax, a Palme d’Or in Cannes—not only put Soderbergh on the map but heightened the profile of Sundance as well. For better and for worse. On the one hand, sex, lies proved that independently made films could play—and play well—in suburban multiplexes. On the other hand, the media frenzy that the film whipped up helped turn the Sundance of the ’90s into a swag-littered industry hunting ground.

Soderbergh’s introduction to Slamdance came with Sundance’s rejection of a film he coproduced, Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers. The year was 1996, Slamdance was putting together its second edition, “and they said, we’d love to have it,” Soderbergh tells Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. When it came time to screen The Daytrippers, one of the two projectors went down, so the film had to be projected one reel at a time with breaks every twenty minutes to bring up the lights and thread the next reel. “People were rooting for the movie,” says Soderbergh, “and Greg and I were standing in the back, passing a bottle of vodka back and forth. So I felt the whole vibe of that was what I wanted to be a part of.”

This year, Slamdance presented its Founders Award to Soderbergh and previewed his new film, High Flying Bird, which will screen in New York on Thursday as part of Film Comment Selects before officially launching on Netflix on February 8. “Is it wrong that it took an appearance by one of Hollywood’s biggest directors and Sundance’s most esteemed alums to get yours truly out to the little festival behind the big one?” asks the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “The pre-screening discussion alone turned out to be worth the detour. Soderbergh held court on multiple topics, citing The Beatles and Miles Davis as creative influences, dismissing the notion that he ever goes work-for-hire in exchange for passion projects (‘They’re all for me’), and tentatively announcing a Christmas release date for Bill & Ted Face the Music, which he’s helping produce. The Q&A included questions submitted by filmmakers whose career Soderbergh has boosted, including one from Christopher Nolan, who asked, ‘When are you going to come back from the dark side and shoot on celluloid again?’ Soderbergh’s perfectly cheeky retort: ‘When he starts writing scripts with a pencil again.’”

In High Flying Bird, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who cowrote Moonlight with Barry Jenkins, André Holland, star of Soderbergh’s The Knick, and of course, Moonlight, plays Ray Burke, a sports agent negotiating on behalf of a rookie basketball player during an N.B.A. lockout. Shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, High Flying Bird is “an exhilarating think piece about players as commodities and about the tantalizing possibilities for a game that’s meant so much for its predominantly black athletes, and for African American culture overall, but is still mostly run by a wealthy, white class resistant to change or to sharing power,” writes Robert Abele at TheWrap. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich finds that the film “hums with the verve and purpose of Soderbergh’s very best work.”

“I can’t think of anyone better suited than Soderbergh to make a film in which the actors trade quips as fast and easily as the Golden State Warriors passed the ball in 2015,” writes Amy Taubin in the new issue of Artforum. “Visually minimalist, High Flying Bird depicts a deal-driven Manhattan as a construct of vertical rectangles . . . Soderbergh’s camera placement is matter-of-fact—no flamboyant angles embellish this cityscape. The drama derives from one-on-ones between Ray and a series of potential allies or opponents.”

To return to Fleming’s interview, which is as wide-ranging, frank, and thought-provoking as most interviews with Soderbergh tend to be, the unretired filmmaker tells him that “what’s nice to me about High Flying Bird dropping essentially thirty years to the week of sex, lies, and videotape is, it’s another two-people-in-a-room movie. That’s how I started, and I’ve always believed that no matter how big a sort of historical context that you’re trying to portray in a story, you can ultimately trace it back to two people in a room.”

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