Surviving Sundance | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

January 18, 2017 News » Cover Story

Surviving Sundance 

An insider's take on the sights, sounds and tastes of Sundance.

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Every year, for a few strange days, Utah's predictable conservative majority swings just a couple of percentage points to the left as the movie industry comes to town. The Sundance Film Festival offers a strange brew of high altitude and high attitude, turning Park City into a crowded, chaotic temporary Rocky Mountain center of the cinematic universe.

But with that craziness comes the opportunity for unique experiences for Utahns, and our annual Sundance Guide is a way to help you be part of it. Want to be there when the Next Big Thing is born? David Riedel tells you about the career paths of Sundance breakout stars. We'll share tips for how to have the best possible festival experience, from surviving the festival without breaking your budget, to knowing the backroads that locals know. And you can get a preview of this year's movies through our look at some of the books that were adapted for Sundance features.

Whether you want to rub shoulders with celebrities or be ahead of next year's Oscars curve by seeing the next Manchester by the Sea, we can hook you up. The magic of the movies isn't in your backyard just every day.

Scott Renshaw,
A&E editor


It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when Ryan Gosling wasn't winning Golden Globe awards for awkwardly performing seemingly simple dance steps. And there was a time when he wasn't stomping someone's face in an elevator, slapping Steve Carell or falling in love with Emma Stone on screen three times.

Way back when—after he was just another Mouseketeer but long before La La Land—he was a working actor booking gigs, earning decent reviews but not quite hitting the big time.

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And then: Sundance. Gosling's fortunes changed with The Believer, the story of a Jewish man who becomes a neo-Nazi and does some horrific shit. The Believer won the Grand Jury Prize in 2001, and Gosling's performance was roundly praised. His post-Believer output is varied—Murder By Numbers is crap, but diverting; The Slaughter Rule and The United States of Leland are little-seen—but then The Notebook turned him into a heartthrob. Since then, Gosling has alternated between smaller dramas, comedies and thrillers with the occasional giant hit, culminating in La La Land.

The Sundance Film Festival can have that impact on a career. It can take you from zero to hero (to steal a phrase). This year will likely see some new (or new-ish) stars emerge. Until we learn who they might be, take a gander at this list of actors who have gone from indie darlings to big-ass stars.

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Jennifer Lawrence: Lawrence has been a big deal for seven years, which is an incredibly short time considering how many films she's starred in since her Sundance breakthrough, Winter's Bone. In it, she plays Ree, a smart, resourceful teen living in the Ozarks, trying to find her family together while searching for her good-for-nothing father who might be dead.

Before Winter's Bone, Lawrence was mostly known for The Bill Engvall Show, the laugh-free sitcom starring laugh-free comedian Engvall. Since Winter's Bone, Lawrence has starred in at least 16 movies (not a typo)—several of which are parts of successful franchises—and had a successful working relationship with director David O. Russell (American Hustle, Joy and Silver Linings Playbook, in which Lawrence won an Academy Award for Best Actress). Next up: Darren Aronofsky's Mother and lots of other stuff—maybe even that movie she wrote with Amy Schumer.

Owen Wilson: Sundance is responsible for the careers of both Wilson and director Wes Anderson, proof that, occasionally, terrible things come from something with an overall solid track record. (I'm in the minority on Anderson ... yeah, yeah, whatever). Wilson's IMDB résumé has exactly one acting role before Anderson's Bottle Rocket, and that's Anderson's short Bottle Rocket, proving that Wilson really does play the same character over and over.

I kid. Bottle Rocket (the short) was a big deal in the Sundance shorts program, even if the feature didn't play the festival when it was made a couple years later. But Bottle Rocket (both the short and the feature) prove Wilson has deft comic timing, even if he sometimes coasts. But give Wilson credit for being one of the few actors to star in a Woody Allen film (Midnight in Paris) yet not do a Woody Allen approximation. He also made some oddball choices earlier in his career (The Minus Man, Breakfast of Champions) before settling into the Wilson archetype we all know (and some of us love, despite You, Me, and Dupree). Of note: Wilson gives Marley & Me far more depth than its subject matter would suggest.

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Amy Adams: If more actors had movies with titles such as Psycho Beach Party in their pasts, we could really put together a great "Before They Were Stars"-type screening. Anywho, before Junebug, Adams had some solid roles (including a memorable few scenes in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can) in which flashes of her talents pop. In Junebug—as Ashley, a relentlessly cheerful chatterbox—Adams steals the show from star Embeth Davidtz, and everyone else; Adams earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 2005.

It took a couple years for Adams' career to take off, but then Enchanted (2007) happened, and she's been on the ascent, more or less, ever since. Even when she makes dreck like Nocturnal Animals or Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, she puts out a movie as highly regarded as Arrival in the same year.

Carey Mulligan: Mulligan is one of those performers who seemingly came out of nowhere despite a supporting role in Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice, and being something of a mainstay on British TV for several years before An Education got her noticed by audiences at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. But that's what happens, right? You have sex with Peter Sarsgaard on film and then—poof!—everything comes up roses.

Since An Education—which netted Mulligan an Oscar nomination as Best Actress—Mulligan's career has been remarkably high-profile, even for someone with her credentials. Each movie she stars in is arguably An Event, whether it's based on a highly regarded novel (Never Let Me Go), is one of the few movies released as NC-17 (Shame), or somehow makes Thomas Hardy compelling (Far From the Madding Crowd).

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Elizabeth Olsen: All this time there was a talented Olsen sister, and she was in the shadows until Martha Marcy May Marlene, the super creepy tale of a woman who escapes from a cult. Even those viewers who had seen Olsen's work in her older sisters' classics The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley: The Case of the Mystery Cruise and The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley: The Case of the Christmas Caper were surprised by her tightly controlled performance as Martha (who also uses the other names, for various reasons), who may or may not be having paranoid delusions that the cult leader is after her following her breakout. Martha Marcy May Marlene isn't perfect, but Olsen is. Her other Sundance picture in 2011 was Silent House, a not-bad horror flick that uses the ol' single-shot technique.

Since Sundance, Olsen's career has been a mixed bag, with her good performances standing out in some lackluster movies (Godzilla, Oldboy and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which is possibly a worse movie than Plan 9 from Outer Space or Reefer Madness), even as she she disappeared as Scarlet Witch in Marvel franchise pictures despite her best efforts. Though when you're competing with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, how often do you win?

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Hugh Grant: That's right! Four Weddings and a Funeral premiered at Sundance in 1994. And no, Grant was not a star at the time, though he appeared in the highly regarded Merchant-Ivory flick The Remains of the Day and the fuggin' weirdo Bram Stoker flick The Lair of the White Worm.

We all know Grant's fate since then: He's starred in a billion romantic comedies (and been quite good in them), been arrested with Divine Brown, had a child with one woman, then a child with a second woman, then had another child with the first woman, and then had another child with the second women (no really), and had a cameo in the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas before a well-regarded 2016 performance in Florence Foster Jenkins. It's a storied career that deserves better than my cheap jokes, but cheap is what I do.

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Gyllenhaal is one of those performers who always catches the eye, even when she's in lesser Drew Barrymore movies such as Riding in Cars with Boys, or her brother Jake's doesn't-make-sense-but-it's-kinda-fun vehicle Donnie Darko. When Gyllenhaal got the lead reins (HA!) in the S&M dramedy Secretary, she became something of a beloved indie actor (and Secretary co-stars James Spader before everyone else was in on the joke), with turns in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Happy Endings and Criminal.

In 2006, she appeared in some bigger budgeted movies, first appearing in Oliver Stone's surprisingly un-Oliver Stone-like World Trade Center and then Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction. When she took over for Katie Holmes in The Dark Knight, it seemed her indie days were behind her, until she appeared in Crazy Heart the following year. Gyllenhaal seems to like mixing up the big pics (White House Down) and the smaller pics (the overlooked Frank).

Who's going to be our Sundance big-deal actor this year? Tune in starting the 19th to find out.

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About The Authors

Kathleen Curry

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more
David Riedel

David Riedel

Riedel has been thinking about movies since the early ‘90s and writing about them since the mid-2000s. He runs the occasional marathon and drinks ketchup straight from the bottle.

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