PARK CITY, Utah — As the snow fell on this city again Thursday morning, it dispatched a fresh canvas reminiscent of a blank movie screen before the lights go down. And as the 2006 Sundance Film Festival nears its end, one thing has become abundantly clear: It’s anybody’s guess what images appear on that empty screen when the projector starts running.
“I don’t know any of these people,” first-time Sundancer Justin Timberlake joked hours after the snowfall, surrounded by his young “Alpha Dog” co-stars. (Watch an exclusive clip from “Alpha Dog” right now, on Overdrive.) Timberlake, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster and Anton Yelchin constantly cracked each other up throughout an interview at popular Main Street watering hole the Sidecar. Wearing a red-and-black-plaid shirt and three days’ growth of beard, Timberlake revealed that he had almost made his debut playing the Ryan Gosling role in “The Notebook,” that “Dog” may or may not be based on the story of drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood (legal concerns have the actors dancing around the issue), and that rumors of him signing on to “Die Hard 4” are as thin as Bruce Willis’ hair.
“Dog,” a crime drama co-starring Willis and Sharon Stone, will get its world premiere Friday in Sundance’s coveted closing-night slot.
Continuing with the theme of unexpected Sundance surprises, the comedy “One Sung Hero” sounded sweet to festival-goers expecting the typical short-film topics of death, alienation and/or artistic ambiguity. “We got laughed at a few times when we called people,” director Samantha Counter said of the 11-minute high-energy film about a woman (“Mad TV” alumna Joy Gohring) who sees it as her life’s mission to bring the magic of karaoke to the lives of disaffected people, including a surly bartender played by Kyle Gass.
“We managed to figure out who we knew, who might know Kyle, how could we get to him, and then we got him the script,” Counter continued, referring to a scene that has the Tenacious D member rocking a dive bar with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. “And then we were about to give up on Kyle, because it took awhile, like a month, before we heard back from him. And then I got this phone call that I’ll never forget. … ’Hey, I read the script. It’s really cute. And I can sing the sh– out of that song!’ ”
Counter added that the tremendous Sundance response has her thinking about turning the idea into a full-length feature.
Those attending this year’s festival must come equipped with a knack for switching gears like race-car driver Danica Patrick in order to keep up with all the disparate films, so it came as no surprise that a different location a few doors down had teen-queen-in-transition Julia Stiles talking about her first true femme fatale role. “I’m in a film called ’A Little Trip to Heaven,’ and it was shot in Iceland because the director’s Icelandic,” the slimmed-down star said of respected “101 Reykjavík” helmer Baltasar Kormákur. “It’s basically a film noir; it doesn’t look like a film noir, but it’s all about insurance fraud, and it’s a thriller.”
“My brother is killed in a car accident, and I’m supposed to get his insurance money,” Stiles revealed of the steamy film’s “Double Indemnity” meets “The Grifters” plot. “Forest Whitaker comes to this abandoned farm house that I’m squatting in to find out if there was foul play involved. … It’s a very different role for me. She’s a girl from a very troubled past. She’s got scars all over her face. She’s really tough but mysterious, like laying low and waiting to make her move. She’s cagey.”
“I don’t want to get stuck in movie jail,” Stiles added, saying that the film’s labyrinthine plot, coupled with the wholesome actress’ against-type casting, never could have come from the studio system. “What I’m interested in, what appeals to me about a certain character, is if I haven’t done it before. … [Kormákur] wanted me to be disheveled in the film. He wanted me to have scars on my face; he wanted me to have dirty hair. With a lot of studio films, the girl always has to be perfect looking.”
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Another film that would have a hard time debuting anywhere but within the experimental embrace of Sundance is “Punching at the Sun,” a heart-tugging New York-set drama that has studio scouts drooling over the urban tale’s crossover appeal. “It’s the story of a boy whose older brother is murdered, and he’s dealing with the death and going through a tough time,” writer/director Tanuj Chopra recounted. “It has some redemption in it. We shot in Elmhurst, Queens, with kids from the community, and it’s a completely independent film.”
According to star Misu Khan, the film offers a distinctive mix of politics, hip-hop and inner-city sports. “The basketball element is that my brother who dies in the movie is one of the greatest players in Queens, and I try to follow his footsteps and take things into my hands. … The audience really loved it.”
“We’re one of the smaller films in this festival,” admitted Chopra, a passionate film-school student. “This film has a lot of heart, but people are going to have to come find it and discover it. Sundance is about big films and small films; it’s supposed to be about finding new people, new talent and new discoveries.”
Hours later and a few doors away, Timberlake and the “Alpha Dog” crew agreed, saying that Sundance was a chance to discover all kinds of films, both big and small. Jokingly referring to their highly anticipated, studio-owned flick as the “Wal-Mart” of Sundance, the co-stars added that they were fortunate to be in one of the more high-profile films of the festival, and hoped that all their media attention could help trickle down into more notice for smaller films of the “Punching” variety.
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