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.


Park City during Sundance can be a magical place. There's an energy and buzz. The little mountain town feels like the adopted home of everybody who's anybody in the world of entertainment. Star sightings abound. It can also be crowded, impossible to get around, expensive, exasperating and exclusive—with "exclusive" meaning, "You're not on the list."

Whether you're somebody with a festival credential, have tickets to some screenings or just want to go see what all the fuss is about and enjoy a day above the Salt Lake Valley inversion, consider these hacks to help make your time in PC more enjoyable.

Save driving time: Park City's layout and historic charm are good for many things, but hosting a large festival where tens of thousands of people show up is not one of them—especially in the winter when snow is piled everywhere.

Step 1: Find a parking space. Any space. Doesn't really matter that much where. Step 2: Grab the space before somebody else does. Step 3: Take one of the many shuttles that go everywhere you need to go. There are friendly volunteers at every stop to help you, and most of the stops have heaters. The shuttles run constantly in all different directions. There's even an app you can download on your phone to get schedules. On your ride, you'll also get the feeling of really being at a festival, as you hear a bus full of people talking about films, stars and events.


If you are driving—especially into the congested Main Street area—consider using Deer Valley Drive as an alternate for driving out of Park City, avoiding at least a portion of Park Avenue during the typical evening rush-hour traffic jams. The more you can stay away from the busiest routes, the better.

Spend time walking up and down Main: Even if you have no tickets to screenings, don't know anybody who could get you into a big-shot party or aren't interested in spending any money, you need to stop by Main Street during the first few days of Sundance. The place is a swag fest.

Festival sponsors and film organizations take over stores, clubs and restaurants up and down the street and give away free stuff. If there's not a security guard standing in front of the door with a list, just walk in and see what's available. You don't need to spend money buying hats, scarves and gloves for your family. An hour of strolling, and you'll have enough for everybody for the next two years.

The highlight venues for this year include the Festival Base Camp presented by Canada Goose (475 Swede Alley) just off of the main drag. Visitors can try on or buy one of the Sundance staples from the company that keeps Canada warm during the winter, or grab a free cup of coffee, tea or cocoa and some Canadian snacks. There are also food trucks, live music, free Wi-Fi and, most importantly, charging stations for your phone. If your tastes run to something a little colder, check out the Stella Artois Filmmaker Lounge (364 Main), where the namesake beverage is available.


Eat cheap: There are plenty of fine restaurants in Park City. Trouble is, during Sundance, many of them are either closed, rented out or charging what the market of Hollywood big spenders can bear. However, there are still quick, easy and cheap options available for getting good food. El Chubasco (1890 Bonanza Drive, 435-645-9114, in Prospector Square is where Park City locals go for Mexican food. The 20 different salsas made fresh daily are just one of the reasons the restaurant got voted "Best Cheap Eats" for the past two years in the town's newspaper. Dine-in or take-out on burritos, street tacos, chile rellenos or the spicy shrimp house specialty, "camarones a la diabla." Davanza's (690 Park Ave., 435-649-2222, is right near the action of downtown PC, but since it sits on Park Avenue, one block over from Main Street, it isn't overrun with Sundancers. The main crowd for this place—which serves pizzas, burgers and sandwiches—consists of skiers and snowboarders who hop off a nearby lift and walk over to grab pizza-by-the-slice between runs.

Be nice and tip well: Wherever you end up, treat the bartenders, restaurant staff, hotel people or any other locals you should happen to run across with consideration. Park City citizens and workers put up with their town getting completely taken over by the outside world for 10 days every winter. They do it because many of the people who visit are very famous, very rich and tip extremely well. If you are neither very famous or very rich, this is not the time to stiff somebody on a tip, or make a big point about not liking the way your cocktail got mixed.

Kathleen Curry and Geoff Griffin host the Travel Brigade radio podcast.


How do you prepare a film festival viewing schedule when so many of the filmmakers are unknown quantities? That discovery is part of the excitement of Sundance, but also part of the challenge for an attendee. One of the few ways to make educated guesses when the film guide is full of mysteries: previously published source material. Here's a look at five Sundance 2017 films through the books that inspired them.


Title: Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver
Festival category: Premieres
Book overview: Connecticut high-school senior Samantha Kingston, part of her school's queen-bee clique, is involved in a car accident after a party—then awakens the next morning to find herself reliving the day of her death. It's not as though Oliver isn't aware that she's essentially re-making Groundhog Day with Y.A. Mean Girls twist—she name-checks Groundhog Day at one point—and the similarity of the basic character arc for much of the narrative becomes fairly distracting, along with a bunch of nudging italic asides. But the borrowing is salvaged in large part by a bold third-act change of direction, and a welcome complexity in the approach to teenage cruelty, status-seeking and bullying.
Book grade: B-
Reason for adaptation optimism: Rising star Zoey Deutch feels like a solid choice to capture Samantha's combination of insecurity and awakening conscience.
Reason for adaptation concern: Director Ry Russo-Young's 2012 Sundance film Nobody Walks didn't exactly inspire confidence in her ability to navigate interpersonal melodrama.


Title: The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
Festival category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
Book overview: This 2012 National Book Award finalist follows 20-year-old Private John Bartles through a 2004 tour in Iraq, and the aftermath back home as he deals with traumatic events. Powers (himself an Iraq veteran) makes it clear early on that something terrible happened to Bartles' best Army buddy, and the back-and-forth chronology plays coy with the exact nature of the tragedy. But more frustrating than the build-up is the purple prose that provides the only insight into the mind of our too-sensitive-for-this-war protagonist. While the wartime sequences are effectively unsettling, Powers provides too little sense of who Bartles was before the war to make any sense out of the man he is after it.
Book grade: C
Reason for adaptation optimism: Terrific creative-team pedigree including director Alexandre Moors (the edgy 2013 Sundance drama Blue Caprice), screenwriter David Lowery (Pete's Dragon, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) and Alden Ehrenreich as Bartles.
Reason for adaptation concern: It takes a special touch to deliver something that doesn't feel like a been-there-done-that take on the horrors of men at war.


Title: Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan
Festival category: Premieres
Book overview: Employing the narrative voices of six characters, Jordan tells the story of two families—one white and one black—on a Mississippi delta cotton farm in 1947. Though it always feels a bit awkward when a white writer employs black vernacular in prose, Jordan effectively gets inside the experience of both women and men, white and black, as they play the roles—and strain against them—assigned to them by their time and place. While there's strong material in the way two World War II veterans of different races deal with returning home from their wartime experience, Mudbound is even more effective when Jordan locks on to the ferocity and frustrations of her two female protagonists.
Book grade: B+
Reason for adaptation optimism: Presence of director Dee Rees (Pariah) suggests strong likelihood that potentially problematic racial components will be handled gracefully.
Reason for adaptation concern: Casting suggests that there may be an attempt to emphasize the romantic elements, which would be a huge mistake.


Title: Wilson, by Daniel Clowes
Festival category: Premieres
Book overview: The author of Ghost World delivers another tale of congenitally unhappy people, this one the tale of a misanthropic middle-aged man who tries to reconnect with his ex-wife, beginning a strange odyssey. The format structures the story as a series of single-page vignette "chapters," with an illustration style that alternates between tight character design and cartoonish exaggeration. The result is a strangely unsettling, depressing but surprisingly affecting profile of a guy who seems incapable of finding other people anything but a frustration, leaving him doomed to isolation. In other words: Cheery stuff!
Book grade: B
Reason for adaptation optimism: Woody Harrelson as the surly, happiness-repelling Wilson feels like a match made in heaven; director Craig Johnson dealt effectively with depressive, self-destructive characters in Sundance 2014's The Skeleton Twins.
Reason for adaptation concern: Could be a challenge to flesh out the narrative beyond the comic-strip-esque quick-hit punch lines.


Title: Call Me by Your Name, by André Aciman
Festival category: Premieres
Book overview: In the mid-1980s, 17-year-old Elio becomes infatuated with his parents' summer guest—24-year-old graduate student Oliver—in their Italian Riviera home. Aciman spends nearly half of the book focused on Elio's obsessive interpretations of Oliver's every glance and mood, which might be in keeping with a first serious young love, but feels off since it's being described by Elio a from 20-year reflective distance without any self-criticism, and becomes irritating in large doses. There's much stronger material once the relationship actually begins, as Aciman effectively captures the sense of a whirlwind romance that can leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.
Book grade: B
Reason for adaptation optimism: Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) seems like a great choice for a sexy, psychologically complex story set in a sun-kissed European locale.
Reason for adaptation concern: Elio's internal narrative—so central to the book's exploration of this relationship—could be hard to translate to the screen.


First, a confession: The title of this piece is a lie. There's no way to do Sundance—or at least do it in a way that makes the effort worthwhile—without forking over some scratch. When you're talking about one of the film industry's biggest events of the year anywhere, that's just a reality.

But anyone who has attended for any amount of time—and this year marks my 20th anniversary as a Sundance attendee—has learned that there are better and worse ways to keep to a budget and still experience the festival, especially for Utah locals. Here are just a few of the ways you can get a taste of Sundance without breaking the bank.

The screenings themselves: By this point, the pricey ticket packages have all sold out, as have most of the public screenings—at least officially. As Sundance regulars know, there are ways to get individual screening tickets: those released at the main festival box offices in Park City and Trolley Square at 8 a.m. each morning for that day's screenings, and wait-list tickets at individual venues. Tickets are $20-$25 per screening, and those interested can get an "electronic queue" waitlist number by using the festival's mobile app. App eWaitlists open two hours before the scheduled screening time—be ready right on the dot, because numbers go quickly—and you can even link your registration with that of a friend so you can get the same waitlist number. Remember: Cash only for venue waitlist tickets.


There's also an even cheaper way to see a Sundance movie: Free "Best of Fest" local screenings on Monday, Jan. 30, after the official end of the festival. Titles aren't announced until Jan. 29, so there's no way of knowing which of the award-winners will be shown. Tickets are distributed first-come, first-served for the three screening times (3:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) at the Trolley Square ticket office beginning Saturday, Jan. 14, at 8 a.m., so they might already be sold out, but it's worth a shot.

Parking: Parking in any one of the "official" festival lots in Park City costs a minimum of $25 per day, and on busier days (particularly the first weekend) it will be a premium even above that. There are few ways to get around that exorbitant price tag, but those who are willing to get into town early in the morning can find some of the limited, free street parking in the Prospector Square area, near the official festival headquarters at the Park City Marriott. Winter weather conditions might further complicate street parking, but it's still your best shot at avoiding the hefty fees. Just be very aware of signs identifying where parking is and is not permitted, because Park City police are out in force patrolling for violations.


SLC screenings at the Rose Wagner Center, Broadway Centre Cinemas and Library auditorium are located within a two-block walk of Trax stations, so consider public transportation as a great alternative to parking if those are your destinations.

Food: Theater venue fare is expensive, and limited time between screenings can make it difficult to find a cheaper place nearby. The alternative? Brown-bag it. Pack calorie-high, nutrition-dense, transportable snacks (e.g. trail mix or dried fruit) and bring a reusable water bottle rather than purchasing a drink somewhere.

Getting a flavor of the festival for free: If you've never done it before, find a parking spot early in the morning on the opening weekend, and spend the day just strolling around Park City's Main Street. You might pass a wandering celebrity, or maybe just enjoy the buzz of activity and cameras around various official venues. You won't need to have a ticket for a festival screening, and you can get at least a taste of what makes this weird week one of Utah's most distinctive experiences.

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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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