A Sundance Diary

posted by Nick Hornby January 17, 2009 at 2:13 pm Films ,

Saturday Jan 17th

The story so far: ‘An Education’, a film with a script I adapted from a piece of Lynn Barber memoir which originally appeared in Granta, has been invited to the Sundance Film Festival. ‘An Education’, directed by Lone Scherfig, stars Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan, a brilliant young actress, and was produced by Finola Dwyer and my wife Amanda Posey. Now read on….

Amanda, Finola and I fly from LA to Salt Lake City. Utah is, I think, the twenty-third US state I have visited, and one I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to: for some reason, they tend not to send me there on book tours. Park City, where most of Sundance happens, is up in the mountains some forty-five minutes’ drive from Salt Lake City; there is thick snow everywhere, but the sun shines bright and warm every day of our visit. The snow thus becomes something of a mystery. In London it would have turned to an unappealing grey sludge before vanishing altogether. We dump our bags in the hotel, which also doubles as the Festival’s HQ, and head straight off out to see a movie that we’ve been invited to by its screenwriters. We have two tickets between the three of us, and the screening is completely sold out, but when we get to the cinema my wife explains plaintively that Finola has dropped hers in the snow somewhere. I wince, and then remember that it’s only through desperate lies like this that ‘An Education’ got made at all. The flustered usherette waves us through, and we all find seats. The film, ‘500 Days Of Summer’, is great, fresh and funny and true in a way that romantic comedies rarely are.

Afterwards, we catch a shuttle bus from the cinema to a party for the movie. The bus is packed, and everyone is talking about film; in the gangway next to us, a young cinematographer is chatting animatedly to a Canadian documentary maker.  In five years’ time the two of them will probably onstage at the Oscar ceremony, remembering this first fortuitous meeting tearfully. We’re English though (Finola is from New Zealand, but similar national stereotypes apply) so we don’t talk to anybody, apart from each other. That’s why we won’t be advancing our Hollywood careers this weekend.

At the party, we are all told several times that there is a tremendous buzz around our film. There are two sources for this: one was an enormously helpful and sincerely enthusiastic preview piece by the respected film critic Kenneth Turan in the LA Times, in which he described ‘An Education’ as “probably the jewel of the festival’s dramatic films, and sure to be one of the best films of the year”; the other is that the film is premiering at the small Egyptian cinema, rather than the 1400 hundred-seater where we saw ‘500 Days Of Summer’. Nobody can get tickets, and this only increases our desirability. I can now see that booking us in the smaller cinema was a stroke of PR genius.  We’re the best film nobody can see.

We eat at a Thai restaurant around the corner from the party. We bump into my (English) film agent and two of her (English) colleagues; there are English film-makers on the table behind us. There are twelve English films from these islands on at the festival, a record.

Sunday 18th January.

I meet my friend Serge, of the rock band Marah, for a coffee. He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, and they are expecting a baby now, this minute. I’ve got them both tickets for the screening, but they have no idea whether he’ll be able to use them. Serge tells me that twenty years ago, Park City was a proper gold-rush ghost town; now it’s a thriving, cute, middle-class ski-resort, full of smart gift shops and restaurants, like a snowy Henley-on –Thames.  Those who have been before, like the actor Dominic Cooper (who, like Carey, has two films on at the festival – he is in ours and ‘Brief Interviews With Hideous Men’, an adaptation of the David Foster Wallace book), tell us that this year it’s much quieter, and therefore much nicer – the state of the economy has reduced Sundance attendances by a third, some reckon. But the streets are crowded, and the movies are all selling out, so it feels like any more people than this would be unnecessary. The puffa jackets and the ski-hats flatten everybody out, turn the film stars into normal people; you can be walking behind a perfectly ordinary-looking man striding out on his own, and then watch him stop to have his photo taken by someone walking towards you, someone who has the advantage of seeing his face. (Well, that happened once. It was Robin Williams.)

Our screening is at three pm. We meet up with Lone Scherfig the director, and Carey, and people from Endgame, the US financiers, in the green room, and now I’m properly nervous. Of course, just as you have to share the credit if a film turns out OK, you can deflect the blame if it goes wrong: it was miscast, badly-edited, the performances were poor, it was under-funded, and so on. And actually, if it goes right, it will be Lone who attracts most of the praise. But this is a family affair: my wife and I will both be depressed if it goes down like a lead zeppelin (and doesn’t that spelling look weird?)  And we were the ones who started this whole stupid, misbegotten project in the first place. I was the one who first read Lynn’s original piece, and Amanda and Finola optioned it. We are entirely the authors of our own misfortune.

We take our seats, but there’s a long delay while people mill around looking for empty places. The tickets at Sundance aren’t numbered, and some people have passes that get them in to any screening they fancy, which inevitably means that attendances can exceed capacity. Lone is standing by the side of the stage, waiting to introduce the film, so her seat is empty; three times a stressed-out official tries to fill it. I look for Serge, but can’t find him. I imagine him in a hospital in Salt Lake, urging his wife to remember her breathing. I wish we were having a baby this afternoon.

I have seen the film twice before, once in its finished version, and both times it has been difficult for me to read how it’s playing. The first two thirds contain jokes, and on a good day people laugh at them; the last third is more serious, and intended to move an audience.  In other words, the last half-hour is an agony of silence. (I often wonder whether I have always written would-be comic novels simply because it helps me ascertain whether people are awake at readings.) Three people leave in the second half of the film. Two of them come back (one of them, I realise, was Carey). I hate the third. I remember a story that a friend with a bad Sundance experience told me: he said that during a screening of one of his films a few years ago, all he could hear was the sound of slapping seats, as industry professionals decided that they’d seen enough to make their minds up. We fared better than that – you could definitely hear the soundtrack – but when the credits came up, I still wasn’t at all sure how we’d done.

Lone, Carey, Dominic and I go onstage for the Q&A – the people who’ve stayed for it seem genuinely taken by the film, which is a relief. Afterwards, I go outside to smoke round the back of the cinema, and Lone, our Danish director, introduces me to a compatriot, a woman who is a juror on the awards panel.
“Hello,” I say. “I hope you enjoyed it.”
I know she’s a juror, but it wouldn’t kill her to lie politely, I think. To tell a screenwriter that you enjoyed his film is not the same thing as telling him that you will shower him with prizes.
“I cannot tell you that,” she says firmly.
I try to think of another pleasantry that will not compromise her obviously formidable integrity.
“Well…Thanks for coming.”
“I had no choice,” she says, but she still seems to expect a chat.
I shrug helplessly. “I’ve got nothing left,” I tell her. She walks away.
I check my phone to see if Serge has left a message about Monica going into labour, and it turns out that they came to the screening and couldn’t get anywhere near it. The tickets we had worked hard to get them were useless. There’s another message from Scott, one the co-writers of ‘500 Days Of Summer’. His tickets were no good either. We only invited four friends, and none of them got inside the cinema.

One of the points – the chief point – of premiering the film at Sundance is to try and sell the film to an American distributor. ‘An Education’ was made without any distribution already in place, which means that there was no guarantee that anyone would ever see it in a cinema, a fate that befalls a surprisingly large number of movies. To our delight, we had sold it for UK release shortly before the festival, but the US financiers need American distribution. It’s not our problem, but of course we all want it too: it’s been made for people to watch, on a big screen. Everything I had read in the trade press about Sundance in the run-up to the Festival contained dire warnings about the economy’s impact on sales; nobody was expecting much to happen. Our sales agents were confident that they’d get something, but they thought it would take time, that distributors would need to see all the movies before committing themselves to one or two. We were prepared not to hear anything for a week or two.  But when we get to the strange and rather cheerless village hall that is our post-film party venue, we hear that an offer has already been made. We are jubilant. It turns out that it is a very bad offer – insulting, even, if you know enough to be insulted, which I don’t. So I remain jubilant, like an idiot.
At the party I am introduced to David Carr, whose brilliant memoir ‘Night Of The Gun’ was one of my favourite books of last year: he wants to speak to me for his New York Times blog. It doesn’t seem right. The book is so great that I feel I should be interviewing him.
He starts with an apology.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had to leave your film halfway through. I was called out to interview Robert Redford.” The man who didn’t come back was David Carr, author of ‘Night Of The Gun’! And he had a good excuse anyway! I can now account for one hundred per cent of the leavers: two weak bladders (or in Carey’s case, completely understandable nerves) and a summons from a megastar.
When we get back to the hotel late that night, Amanda tells me that there is quite a lot going on: the insulting offer has been superseded by several less insulting offers. Distributors liked the film, and some of them want to buy it.

Monday 19th January

Lone, Carey, Dominic and I have a day of publicity. It becomes apparent quite quickly that Carey’s life has changed this weekend; her other film ended up getting mixed reviews, but her performance was praised to the skies, and everybody loves her in ours, too – which is just as well, seeing as she’s in every single scene. Within twenty-four hours she’s being described as the “Sundance ‘It’ Girl” in Variety, and “the new Audrey Hepburn” in the New York Post. It’s exciting to watch – like something out of an earlier, more glamorous age. As we walk through the Park City streets from appointment to appointment, several people want their photographs taken with her. She remains remarkably composed throughout the weekend. She’s a very bright girl, and I am certain that she will be able to handle this year with grace and charm.

Lone and I are interviewed together by a young woman from a news agency. For some reason, the news agency has positioned itself for the duration of the festival on the second floor of a guitar shop, in what looks like a broom cupboard; underneath them, rock bands are playing short, loud, sets. It’s as if they have deliberately chosen the worst spot in Utah for recorded interviews. It takes us about half-an-hour to push through the music fans to the cupboard, and when we get inside it, it’s obvious that the young woman hasn’t emerged to see any films.
“Tell us about your characters,” is her opening shot.
“Lone’s very calm,” I tell her. “But I can be moody.”
She looks confused.
“We’re not actors,” I confess.
Flustered, she consults her notes.
“It must be hard, working together when you’re married. Was there any tension?”
“We’re not married,” says Lone. Still. Where would we be without the press?

In the evening, Carey, Amanda, Finola and I go to see another film, and then attend yet another party. I think I have been to more parties here than in the whole of 2008. By now it’s obvious that things have gone much better for us than we dared hope: the reviews we’ve seen have been unbelievable (one of the first, on the normally snarky “LA gossip rag” Defamer.com, I wouldn’t have dared write myself), the film is almost certainly going to sell for a decent amount, and to cap it all, here I am giving Uma Thurman a light. I don’t have a lighter, so I hand her my cigarette. (I can only just reach – she’s about a metre taller than me.)
“If you can live with the intimacy that implies,” she says.
And then I woke up.
I am always on the verge of giving up smoking, but my habit has resulted in my meeting both Uma (as I now think of her) and Kurt Vonnegut. Where’s the incentive?

Amanda and Finola sign an agreement with Sony Classics in the Virgin lounge at San Francisco airport. When we get home we are told that ‘An Education’ won the Audience Award, and a prize for John de Borman’s cinematography. Nothing from the Danish juror, though.