Sundance 2014: Diary of an Interviewer

Fun fact: telling people that you plan to leave Sundance early is like telling people you are an atheist, but in the 1950s. The look of shock and disappointment is palpable and downright comic. I find that the lower extremities of the listener’s face tend to vibrate uncontrollably for a fraction of a second, and although the eyes don’t bug out entirely, they do have a propensity to jut forward a little bit like they suddenly stumbled and caught themselves.

But I was in fact leaving Sundance early this year, because centuries earlier Eli Witney popularized the division of labor and CraveOnline is nothing if not hip to the latest trends. My writer and colleague Fred Topel was staying the whole time to see as many movies as humanly possible; that was his gig. I was staying for only the first five days to interview as many talented filmmakers and actors as possible, on camera, because I am the pretty one.

[Pause for laughter]

[Get annoyed by duration of laughter]

[Interject] No, that’s pretty much what I did. It’s an interesting aspect of my job that as the editor of a publication and a film critic I am also expected to interview celebrities like it’s somehow in my nature. I wonder who came up with that one: making the guys who are so introverted they’re willing to turn sitting down and watching a screen all day and writing criticism in their underwear (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I wear underwear) into their life’s pursuit then interact with professionally public personalities like they’re one of them. Not that I have any reason to complain. It’s a sweet gig if you can get it, although Sundance makes it harder than usual.

This year I conducted 16 interviews with two dozen people over the course of four days, in addition to screening ten movies (five on Friday alone). These interviews and screenings were held all over town, often scheduled close enough together that running two miles was more efficient than taking a shuttle or a cab. I am as much a runner as I am a beat poet from the 1950s: either way, the situation was jive.

The first interview was a fun one, but also a little bit of a gamble. Director Benjamin Renner was at Sundance with his enchanting new animated movie Ernest & Celestine, about a bear who befriends a mouse and the society that tells them their relationship is horribly wrong. He was charming and talkative and we had a grand time on the balcony of the condo where CraveOnline’s staff was staying and bonding over our shared love of the late director Satoshi Kon.

When I say it was a gamble, it’s because we conducted the interview just a few hours after the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees, where Ernest & Celestine was considered a likely contender for Best Animated Feature, but not a sure thing. It worked out for everyone: Ernest & Celestine is one of the best films nominated in the category this year, and I got to be one of the first to congratulate the director, who admitted on camera that the news hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

The second interview was scheduled on Friday afternoon with Rose McGowan, the star of Grindhouse and Scream who directed her first short film, Dawn, which was in competition at Sundance 2014. She was in a room that was brought to you by MorningstarFarms, because when we think independent cinema, we think of microwave veggie dogs. Through the large window to the interview room we saw her speak to the other press on not one but two separate couches. When our turn came around she had decided to sit on the floor in the corner, presumably to christen every part of the room, like a newlywed who only grooves on polite conversation.

We had a lovely time talking about her film though. McGowan was also one of many celebrities I spoke with who was having trouble with the altitude, so off-camera I showed her an article my girlfriend sent me about how to stave off the side-effects: breathing through the nose, lots of water, copious naps and carbs.

The rest of my Friday consisted of screenings. It was my only largely free day, so I crammed in as much as I could, particularly screenings that I didn’t officially have to go to just because I was interviewing the talent: Only Lovers Left Alive, Blind and Hellion. I also saw The Double and The Guest so I could interview the talent involved over the weekend, and I had screened Whiplash the preceding night. I left the condo at 7:30am, and I didn’t get home on Friday until after two in the morning. I didn’t go to bed until closer to 4am. I didn’t get up until 7am. It was the height of luxury.

Saturday began by interviewing Jesse Eisenberg and Richard Ayoade, the star and director of The Double, a film I really wish I’d enjoyed more so I could make casual conversation. Casual conversation is difficult with Jesse Eisenberg anyway: he’s fiercely intelligent but a little intense, but we were able to chat a bit about where a sequel to Now You See Me, a thriller I very much enjoyed, might go.

Ayoade himself is a talented comedian (he was the best part of the otherwise forgettable sci-fi comedy The Guard, and if you haven’t seen the BBC series “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” you must) but is also a bit quiet in person. For the interview, I focused on the technical aspects of their film, in which Jesse Eisenberg plays opposite himself, and the many intriguing themes raised by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, with Ayoade adapted into a Gilliam-esque dark comedy about bureaucracy and dual natures.

I really had to haul ass to my next screening, The Skeleton Twins, which was a priority since I had an interview scheduled with co-star Luke Wilson the next day. (That interview got cancelled at the last minute, something which happened a lot that weekend.) I then had to haul ass back to “The Acura Lounge,” where I was given just a few short minutes in a darkened corner of the press area to interview Whiplash stars Miles Teller and Paul Reiser. The interview had to be cut off halfway through due to a sound problem, leaving me with less time than ever to talk about one of the most popular and impressive films of Sundance. I joked about that little SNAFU in the final video, even though I knew nobody would ever get the joke, because sometimes I have to do a little something for me. I then interviewed Whiplash director Damien Chazelle and co-star Austin Stowell, but by that point I was starting to freak out about getting across town – again – to see a screening of Cold in July because – again – we had interviews scheduled the next day.

I didn’t make that screening, which turned out to be a good thing since our interviews with the cast of Cooties were rescheduled for the same time as our interviews with the cast of Cold in July. So I blackmailed my producer Nash Herrington into hosting the Cold in July interviews without having seen the film (I still have the photographs, Nash) so I could talk to Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Ian Brennan and the directors of Cooties. Alison Pill cancelled, and my dreams of telling her I actually thought her haircut was adorable in Season 2 of “The Newsroom” were perhaps dashed forever.

They were a grand bunch, those Cooties people, and provided some of the most entertaining interviews of Sundance as near as I could tell. Rainn Wilson interrupted my interview with screenwriters Leigh Whannell and Ian Brennan to lounge on their laps (Leigh Whannell tried to undress him but couldn’t get very far). Jack McBrayer and I were able to talk off-camera about our respective parents, both of whom were educators, and I was able to tell Rainn Wilson that his film Hesher, about a family grieving for their recently deceased matriarch and the crazed metalhead who acts as their antisocial Mary Poppins, was something I thought of when my own father passed away not terribly long ago. He seemed to appreciate the compliment. Not enough people saw Hesher, damn it.

Off I popped to interview Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, the screenwriter and director of The Guest, one of my favorite films at Sundance this year. I admired their previous work but wasn’t quite on board with the tidal wave of praise emanating from my fellow critics to date, so I was particularly pleased that when I finally got to interview the duo it was for a film that I genuinely adored and believed had social value. Damn but it was tough to talk about though: The Guest has many twists and turns, and most audiences won’t get to see the film for months. Should I risk ruining the film to talk about The Guest in a substantial manner or preserve the experience and risk emerging with a vague, unsatisfactory interview? I decided to walk a tightrope and let Barrett and Wingard decide how much to reveal, but I really look forward to everyone at home seeing the film for themselves so we can discuss it in even more detail.

With Luke Wilson off the schedule I had some free time to see more films, all but one of which fell through because either I suck at math (a two hour movie doesn’t end after an hour-and-a-half, I was discovered) or because the shuttle system was being a little unreliable. Fortunately I was able to see the impressively thoughtful but somewhat dour Calvary, but then I had to rocket across town to wait outside in the cold for two hours and then interview the cast and director of Jamie Marks is Dead without having seen the film, with no idea what to talk about. Watch those interviews to see how I handle that situation with no sleep, frostbitten toes and no preparation whatsoever. How did I do?

Monday hit me like a ton of bricks. The sleepless nights had finally taken their toll and I was more sluggish than a particularly definitive slug. Events transpired to keep me away from any more screenings at that point, but I was able to talk about Calvary with writer/director John Michael McDonough, an intelligent filmmaker who understand the nuts and bolts of screenwriting well enough to guide me clearly through the complex process of crafting a sprawling detective story, in a fashion that (I hope) won’t baffle CraveOnline readers who haven’t seen the film yet. (Read: almost all of them.)

As I boarded the plane to Los Angeles that night I found myself distracted by a particularly adorable pair of shoes. I approached them and scanned upwards to compliment the wearer on their taste when I realized she looked damned familiar. She thought the same thing. It took us nearly a minute to realize that she was Madisen Beaty from Jamie Marks is Dead, and that I had interviewed her less than 24 hours ago. Exhaustion does silly things to you, like ask what kind of shoes she’s wearing even though I was at best casually interested. Turns out they were Women’s Medina Rain Heels by Sorel, although with orange heels (not pictured). I know you care about these details, because someone has to.

And that was the story of Sundance, minus a few details: sharing a shuttle with Shailene Woodley, finding myself in Joe Swanberg’s condo somehow, teaching a volunteer how to whistle, eating burritos with a ski instructing film producer, punching Bill Hader in the arm after The Skeleton Twins, pressing a real estate agent-turned-cab driver about whether any of his properties were haunted, and polar bear hot tubbing with Nash Herrington (and taking pictures). It was a festival, alright. So can I sleep now?

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.


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