Leslie Ali’s Sundance Diary

Partizan director Leslie Ali travelled to the Sundance Film Festival this week, after her darkly humorous short film The Object (shown above) was selected from thousands of submissions to be entered in the official competition. Ali’s trip to Sundance is the latest development in a career that has seen her move from working as an agency creative to directing full-time for commercial clients including Nivea, 3 Mobile, and Sony, alongside making short films.
Ali kept a diary about her experiences in Utah for CR, which included meeting with a talent scout from William Morris, watching The Object shown on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre, and gossiping with an ex of Jack Black’s at a screening of Michel Gondry’s latest feature Be Kind Rewind. Read on for Ali’s full account of the events…

 

Partizan director Leslie Ali travelled to the Sundance Film Festival this week, after her darkly humorous short film The Object was selected from thousands of submissions to be entered in the official competition. Ali’s trip to Sundance is the latest development in a career that has seen her move from working as an agency creative to directing full-time for commercial clients including Nivea, 3 Mobile, and Sony, alongside making short films.

Ali kept a diary about her experiences in Utah for CR, which included meeting with a talent scout from William Morris, watching The Object shown on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre, and gossiping with an ex of Jack Black’s at a screening of Michel Gondry’s latest feature Be Kind Rewind. Read on for Ali’s full account of the events…

Pre-Sundance (two years and 2000 emails in under 200 words)

Paul Caiozzo, Nathan Frank and Brandon Mugar (then a creative team at Taxi NY) approached me to direct a short they had written. Film London’s PULSE digital scheme gave me a commission (but only half the usual amount as the project was deemed ‘risky’). Shot over three bitterly cold and barely-funded days. Finished over a year on favours. Squeaked in just under the deadline for Sundance.

To our stunned delight, we got word that it was an official selection at this year’s Sundance in late November.

More favours trying to get the print finished by the festival. Frame rate technical meltdown. Extended deadline. Dolby sound. Frazzled/saint producer has stressful Christmas. In the can. Board plane to
Utah.

DAY 1: Saturday, January 19, 2008

Flying out to Sundance this AM for the festival screenings of my short, The Object. It’s damp and grey out. Kind of glad to be leaving London and travelling for a bit (she says a bit too smugly…)

My producer, Isibeal Balance, is flying out on a separate flight, two hours before, as she carries the actual print of the film with her, to be delivered to Sundance upon her arrival in Park City – with literally only 11 hours to spare. Feel a bit like those ‘Type A’ parents who refuse to take the same flight in case something bad happens to one of them and they die – all for the sake of the children (The Object easily qualifying as our baby).

Getting the invitation to come out to Park City to attend the festival was all a bit surreal. Am still not sure I know what the appropriate level of excitement consists of (I found myself blurting the news out to some poor creative at his own leaving do a week after I found out). I have plenty of time to ponder things like this during the transatlantic flight.

I finally land in Salt Lake City. Am grateful for the badly carpeted Utah Arrival terminal. And eager to find my ride.

So I’m in the land of the no-drinking, no-gambling, multi-marrying Mormons. A welcoming folk on first impression – residents who seem to cheerfully brace themselves for the Hollywood-types and filmmaker wannabes that descend upon them for these ten days in January every year. Apparently the festival’s international prominence now draws annoying film industry types from all over.

My shuttle driver is a seasoned veteran. He dutifully relates stories of latest celeb sightings to entertain us on our 45-minute journey to Park City. Today Danny Devito was seen walking briskly down Main Street (in shades and baseball cap), literally stopping traffic. And Jessica Alba was spotted drinking coffee (swiftly captured on somebody’s mini-DV).

As we approach Park City I’m struck by the sight of Main Street – hundreds of fairy lights twinkle across the small-town high street, strewn from lamp posts and shop fronts, blinking cheerfully above the 15-20 ft snow banks lining the streets. It’s a magical sight. An unforgettable entrance. I’m starting to wonder how many more things this week will remain etched in my memory…

Throngs of filmmakers wearing important-looking credentials tags, hanger-ons and size zero snowbunnies (with obligatory entourage) litter the streets, lining up to get into the various parties. To be expected I suppose; it is Saturday night of the Sundance opening weekend. Rumour has it that Stanley Tucci, Paris Hilton, and Kirsten Dunst are in attendance.

Drop off luggage at condo, meet up with Isibeal and go into town to get ourselves a drink. Jet-lag and drinking at high altitudes contribute to the rest of evening being a bit of a blur. Somehow we make it back to condo and collapse.

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DAY 2: Sunday January 20, 2008

Alarm goes off at 7:12 am. Dead to the world. Facing complete and utter madness today. Schedule is totally packed.

8:00 am: We check into the Sundance Filmmakers’ HQ at the Marriott where we pick up our own set of credential tags (now we too can join the army of self-important filmmakers crawling all over the glamorous mountain resort), tickets to parties, press events, dinners and screenings. As the director of The Object, I’m also given the most amazing gift – a black hooded snowboarding jacket from corporate sponsor, Etnies, and my London puffer jacket gets immediately cast aside. I am also asked to wear a pin saying ‘Focus On Film’ (in support of the grassroots effort to combat the sponsor-driven gifting, celeb party culture that seems to have have infected the festival in the last few years). I promptly pin it onto the pocket of my brand new Etnies jacket.

10:00 am – 4:00 pm: Isibeal and I go to a string of pre-scheduled events (Producer’s Lunch, Press and Filmmaker’s Reception, Briefing with the Sundance publicist) packed with like-minded, slightly jet-lagged filmmakers. We sit across from the director who made the documentary Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock, who’s here to promote his new doc on Osama Bin Laden. We meet a couple of English directors and a really laid-back Australian director – everybody’s here to talk about their films and meet the competition. In a friendly way. The conversation always seems to turn toward the screenings and the audience reactions to the shorts. Some talk about the questions they were asked at their Q&As. Which starts to make me feel a bit queasy, as I haven’t gone through the whole screening experience yet. Apparently, I need to say a few words before the film. My mind goes blank.

Anyway, the consensus is that The Egyptian is the best venue for a screening (Anybody who’s anybody on the US Indie scene has screened their film there – Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Sodenbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Jim Jarmusch. And as The Object is showing there for the first time this evening, I’m really looking forward to seeing the theatre.

Late afternoon caffeine dose becomes a mission (4-6 pm seems to be the hardest time to stay awake, which is a problem since our ‘International Premiere’ is taking place at 6 this evening). We walk into the Starbucks, giving way to Rob Lowe on his way out, grab some coffee, and head to The Egyptian.

There, we are met by a senior programmer, Trevor, who kindly introduces us to the press and shows us to our seats. He briefs me on what is going to happen – he’ll introduce me first, I will speak, and then he’ll introduce the feature’s director. The Object is playing before feature length Absurdistan – which is apparently some kind of privilege, as most other shorts are playing among others in one of the three shorts programs. Having already met Absurdistan’s pretty eccentric German director, Heit, it also seems like a pretty logical coupling.

Anyway, before I know it, I’m led up the aisle and am under the spotlight looking out a sea of people (the theatre is completely packed from the rafters on down) and begin to introduce my film. I’m told I sounded like I knew what I was doing, but honestly I couldn’t tell you what my confident self actually said. Too distracted by all the faces, flashes and lights.

The house gets dark. Our film begins. I am strangely excited to watch it for the first time on a big screen in front of a massive audience. Thankfully they laugh. In all the right places. What a rush. I enjoy the rest of the evening in some kind of post premiere high. Isibeal and I amble down Main Street after the screening to go celebrate.

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Leslie Ali outside the Egyptian Theatre in Sundance

DAY 3: Monday, January 21, 2008

It’s all white outside. Fresh snow everywhere. Ready to go skiing until somebody from the Rome International Film Festival (and separately, the Dallas Film Festival) emails us to say that they attended our first screening, and really enjoyed The Object; they wonder if they might submit it to their respective festivals. Nice feedback on the short yanks us back into work mode. We’re back at Filmmaker’s HQ where we run into somebody who recognises me from my blathery speech and proceeds to tell me how much he rates The Object. What a nice and weirdly trippy thing to hear from said stranger.

More phone calls made to follow up on early morning feedback, which in turn creates the need for more meetings. The kind of things that tend to monopolise the day. I feel like I’d like to spend some time seeing some of the independent features in the competition. There’s so much to see – and so little time. And your head can only take so many films a day. To quote a Sundance reporter, “if I could hook up an external hard drive to my brain, I’d stay longer”.

Thankfully, we later clear out a couple of hours and head out to the Be Kind Rewind screening – Michel Gondry’s latest film is also in competition at Sundance this year – at the Library theatre. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the big screen.

Isibeal and I are quite literally the last two people they allow into the theatre. We’re separated, but I get lucky. I’m sat next to somebody who once dated Jack Black, who stars in Be Kind Rewind. She talks about it at length before getting loudly shushed by somebody behind us.

The film is good and mad. Vintage Gondry, with a Jack Black twist. As soon as it ends we dash off to our next scheduled event across town, the Short Film Press Conference (it seems we are always running late). We walk in just as the Director of Programming, John Cooper, explains that of the 5100 short submissions, only 82 were selected this year. Which includes all three categories – animation, documentary and drama. He is accompanied on stage by Juno director Jason Reitman and Jon Bloom (both 2008 Sundance Short Jurors this year) and Senior Programmer, Trevor Goth. All four kindly answer an interminable series of questions regarding the selection process and the competition itself from the curious contingent in attendance – this session is covered by some local and national TV news stations as well as the BBC.

After that, we indulge in a nice late lunch and beers with Brandon Mugar from BBDO NY, one of the copywriters who sent me the original spec script for The Object. He’s come out to check it out on the big screen and lend support. Today Brandon’s spoken to a film critic who says he really liked The Object. More beer all round. It’s weird to think about the journey that his spec script has made – from their bottom drawer, through me and Partizan London, to end up here on the big screen in Park City, Utah. We’ve got to go to our next thing, so we all agree to meet up later to check out an Italian film called Riprendimi.

On our way to our next thing (an Adobe sponsored dinner for the Short Filmmakers – where each of us is given, wait for it, a copy of the latest version of Adobe Photoshop), we walk past Fred Segal, an LA based boutique whose only other store is out here.

I can’t resist and drag Isibeal in to check out their ‘Jeans Bar’. But we get swiftly stopped at the door by a bouncer. Our credentials are apparently not high enough to get in. Ever. It’s a ‘gifting suite’ for celebrities only. The paparazzi stalking the storefront beyond the roped-off area now make sense.

After dinner, I end the day by going to see The Deal, a film in competition co-written and produced by William H Macy. I arrive at the Eccles Theatre just in time to see Felicity Huffman, Macy’s actor wife, dole out a few autographs in front of the theatre. The paparazzi’s going nuts. Once sat in my seat, Meg Ryan walks in and the entire theatre stops what they are doing to search for their phones cameras. Hands and arms swing wildly, digging deep into handbags and rummaging through coat pockets in extreme slo-mo. It’s unbelievable to watch. She is quite literally blinded by the hundreds, yes hundreds, of popping flash and clicking cameras, pointing at her from every which way as she makes her way to her seat in the audience – she stars in the film, therefore sits in the reserved section for cast and crew, which is remarkably close to us plebs.

Finally, William H. Macy comes up on stage with his director partner, to rapturous applause. They introduce it, we watch the film, they bring the house down, the Q&A is brilliant. They explain the difficulties they themselves experienced with the financing of the film. And tell us about some of the highlights. My Sundance screening experience just gets better and better.

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Snowy scenes in Utah

DAY 4: Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Isibeal’s flying home today (required attendance at pre-prod meeting for the MTV show she’s currently producing). Which means I now go it alone from here on out.

At noon, after my morning screening, I down the biggest breakfast burrito you’ve ever seen – I don’t know why but my appetite is HUGE here. I think it’s either me getting over my jet-lag or just the general buzz. Quickly, I get to the next place. I am meant to be meeting with a William Morris agent. He’s learned through a writer I met in London, that my short is showing here and he saw my screener (Sundance code for DVD copy of film) at the press office. He says he just wanted to meet me while here – straight out of a Robert Altman film, no?

The meeting goes well. He’s keen to hear more about my next project, we exchange contact information and promise to speak in a week.

Now I’m off to the one-on-one set up by the Sundance panel. An amazingly generous gesture – the institute meets with each of us to know how they might be able to help / further our careers / support our next project. I find out about the various financing schemes and development labs they offer every year. And leave feeling that Isibeal will be quite proud of my effort.

Fortunately, it’s the last meeting of the day – so I take advantage of the free afternoon and the fresh powder, and head off to the mountains. I ski in my jeans and just hope I don’t fall. The snow literally sparkles off the trees I whip past. The runs are so well groomed and the mountain is vast. Given the festival traffic, there’s hardly anybody out skiing. It’s a perfect way to end my last day here.

I stay out far too late on my last night – get dragged to a couple of after-parties after the UK Film Council cocktail reception, and go check out some music producer’s acoustic set-up the mountain at a private party – almost miss my flight home, and accidentally leave my hairdryer and laptop converter behind.

Easy sacrifice given the time I’ve had. I’m happy to say I’m no longer a Sundance virgin.

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