This text first appeared in the April/May 1999 issue of New Zealand magazine "Pavement".
Written by Gillian Ashurst, writer/director of the short film Venus Blue.
Illustrated by Kevin O'Brien, director on Futurama.
It was a rainy morning in Christchurch when the call came through. I was half-asleep and hung over, and some foreign voice was trying to convince me that my film had been selected for the Sundance Film Festival. I hung up, went back to bed, wondering which of my actor friends had perfected an American accent.
It wasn't until the letter turned up several days later that I believed it. Yes, Robert Redford really did want to invite me to his festival.
This was big. Way bigger than my little film. Sundance is the stuff that film school dreams are made of. And we were in...
* * *
Every adventure requires a team- Unfortunately Venus Blue's Producer, Lara Bowen, was busy on a corporate job- well someone has to make the money. But the Associate Producer, Vanessa Sheldrick, was up for the ride, and after all, she was already working as Producer on my next gig - she was the right girl for the trip.
Our first stop was LA - to pick up the Hollywood connection. Hell, it's an American Festival, we needed inside help. Long time collaborator Kevin O'Brien had just finished an undercover job for animation Godfather Matt Groening. He needed to lie low for a few weeks. So the deal was done. In one swoop we scored ourselves an illustrator, driver, industry insider and all-round good looking American guy. We couldn't lose.
* * *
Now one of the more beautiful things about Sundance is that it's in Park City, Utah. And half way between LA and Park City lies Las Vegas- Ok- so I've been to Vegas four times already - but the Producer had never been, and that's all the excuse we needed.
We drove in at night. We had to- emerging from the desert into a sea of neon heaven just ain't gonna be the same in daylight. We opened our eyes like saucers and soaked up the strip.
Every excursion into Vegas requires a different perspective. Last time it was $20 a night at the seedy little Glass Pool Inn- This time it was a jacuzzi suite in The Luxor. There's something about staying in a replica of the Great Pyramid, in a city of sin in the middle of the desert. If the world really was to end in a biblical extravaganza, this would probably be the epicentre- And well, a girl ought to be where the action is.
The Producer and I unpacked our sequinned frocks. The Illustrator put on a clean t-shirt. It was time to go looking for the lizards. Cause if you know anything about Twentieth Century literature, you'll know that's what you do in Vegas.
I saw some a few years back. Of course I had a San Francisco connection then, and he brought a suitcase full of Haight Street's finest. Sure helps the perception. This time we were going it alone - unless you count the three bottles of Champagne.
It was a long search through velvet covered lounge bars. We heard Sinatra clones sing about New York, we watched bus loads of Texan grandmothers play Keno- but no sign of hungry reptiles. They say that Vegas ain't as seedy as it used to be. And true - every visit I notice another old casino classic has been replaced by a Disneyesque theme hotel. They're catering for the family market now. Parents can gamble while the kids waste their day at an amusement park.
And there's not something seedy about that? It slowly dawned on me what had happened to the lizards. They'd grown into dinosaurs - big corporate sponsored monsters. Hell, they were more dangerous than ever.
I pointed T-Rex out to the team- and then we walked straight through his grand MGM jaws- Yep, it was time to gamble.
But God damn- I'd brought a producer with me. Words like "budget" and "accountability" kept thwarting my plans. I just couldn't convince her that the Film Commission's travel fund really could become feature film funding, if we'd just put the lot on red number eight.
* * *
Ten hours later, as we drove into Park City in a blizzard of snow, I realised that holding onto the accommodation money wasn't such a bad thing. At minus ten degrees, it's not the kind of place you want to be sleeping in a bus shelter. Strangest spot for a film festival. It's not even a real city. It's a rich little ski resort, miles from anywhere.
And for ten days in January, the skiers run for cover and the film world takes over. As one long time veteran pointed out: "You take the entire Hollywood industry, you take 'em out of their t-shirts, put them in thermals, and transplant them here for a week."
It's a collection of venues- hotels, theatres, bars, restaurants- all connected by a free bus, a radio station and a message box system. Everyone's got a cell phone. If you didn't bring one, you can hire one. On every street corner, knee deep in snow, some executive is calling the office. Everyone's got something to do with the festival, and every conversation is about a film, a deal, a director. The Western rat-race had never been so obvious- and all suitably coated in a glow of white powder.
We soon learned about the "buzz". It's this mythical force that transcends Sundance, touching some, but not others- People pay big money to try and manufacture it. A film that gets it can sell for millions. A director that has it can take their pick of future projects.
"Happy Texas" was a feature with a buzz. Rumour has it that studio execs were waiting outside the Premiere, physically fighting over who would first talk with the filmmakers. Discussions went on for twenty hours. Every report added another million to the sales figure. Every million added to the buzz.
Ben Affleck was an actor in full receipt of the Sundance buzz. His name floated through the streets. Every waitress had a second-hand story form someone who'd partied with Ben the night before. Of course no-one ever actually saw him themselves, and it's possible he wasn't even there- he may just have a very good publicist.
We had our own little taste of the buzz after our first screening. We showed in a programme of shorts- Ours was first up. I cringed at those uneven dissolves, the sound glitch, the long credits- I grieved again for that crane shot we couldn't afford- And then I had to sit through five of the most amazing shorts I'd ever seen. We were in good company, and I felt like the new girl, trying hard amongst these professionals.
And then the lights came up, and within seconds a queue of people began to form in front of me. Some just wanted to say they liked it - still more were thrusting business cards at me- "Lunch tomorrow?" "Call me in LA." "What's your next project?" "I've got this script might interest you-" My head spun around, wondering if perhaps there was some tall American director behind me, and that's who they were really talking to. Meanwhile the Producer was on the case- she threw business cards right back at them, smiled and mentioned the feature.
For several days we had free lunches with big haired LA agents who wanted to represent us. They spun tales, poured wine and dropped every name possible. On buses people came up and asked intelligent questions about the film. The Sundance radio station interviewed us. Reporters snapped our pictures.
The Illustrator smiled knowingly and drew in his sketchbook. There's not a million dollars to be made from a short film- and our little buzz soon drifted off, leaving us wondering what was real and what was too much snow.
The key to Sundance is that it's not about seeing films - it's about being seen. And one gets seen at parties. There's a highly structured hierarchy to the party system. Firstly there's the "official" Sundance parties. Free snacks, free vodka, free t-shirts from the sponsors. We always stopped there first, loaded up on "free" and then got the fuck on to where the real action was. Stage two- Independent parties- the Screen Actors Guild hired out a local Silver Mine for their bash. Another crowd shipped in the John Spencer Blues Explosion. Of course you need an invite to in - but we had that covered. We'd hustled ourselves press passes. And the press are essential to the buzz. We didn't need no invitations.
And then there's the final tier- the "private" parties. Premiere bashes for films, production companies pampering their egos- And with these parties it's not so much about invites- the struggle is to even learn of their existence. It was word of mouth. We had to follow the buzz, listen to conversations on buses. Smile sweetly at everyone. (Remembering that studio execs aren't year old men in suits anymore- that year old kid with the ski board could be scouting for Miramax-) Every event we attended, every other party- was all about following a trail to this final, most important of parties. Because it's only here that you might meet the guy who's got several million dollars to throw at your next film.
One of the more interesting was the private Playboy party- A Playboy reporter had taken a liking to our sexy little film. Over an interview brunch I told the story of my previous incarnation as a bunny-suited waitress in a Japanese casino. He immediately gave us the invite. Amazing what a little time in a bunny suit can do for a girl. The party itself was packed full of all the right people.
There was an atmosphere of hope- everyone desperate for a little flesh in this ski-suited hell. Of course it was way too cool for little bunnies to strip off- but an aptly placed Jacuzzi outside the condo allowed at least a few silicon breasts to be displayed. The Illustrator stood close and started to draw- it's amazing how many girls will approach a guy with a sketchbook and a "Simpson's" jacket.