In addition to snippets of out of context conversations, there’s a lot of interesting talk about the “state of film” at Sundance. The answers are understandably mixed (hey, it’s not an easy industry), but for the most part I’ve found that filmmakers, producers, industry folks and fans are overwhelmingly positive—and I’ve met a number of people who are here despite their films being rejected from the fest. Perhaps it’s due to being in this 10-day-long bubble, sequestered in the mountains. But given the paradigm-shifting shorts, virtual reality films and documentaries, I’d say that indie film’s boundaries are being pushed far beyond the limits of what we could possibly have imagined when the first talkie’s credits rolled back in the 1920s.
Virtual reality and surreality alike dominated my second day at Sundance. First, here’s an incredibly bizarre, true story: I was slated to meet up with the creators of a short VR film named Giant at the New Frontiers HQ (a three-story maze of VR installations, film and other oddities) via a publicist named Vince. I ascend to the second floor of the madness, where hundreds of people are waiting to test out headsets and games, and I get a call from him. He tells me to meet him on the third floor, and to look for a guy in a blue and white striped shirt. I go up one more floor and scan the room. Sure enough, I see a man in a striped shirt who looks like he’s looking for someone. “Vince?” I say, approaching him. He nods, and as we start talking, he ushers me toward the Star Wars virtual reality experience.
We’re just about to strap into the VR headsets when he turns to me and asks, “Wait, how did you know I was wearing a blue and white striped shirt?” “You told me over the phone,” I say incredulously. “No, I never called you,” he said. At that point, I begin questioning my sanity. Had that phone call not just happened? No, it did. I’m sure of it. Vince shows me his phone and, sure enough, no calls to me. As we’re traipsing around with C3PO in VR, Vince and I realize that there are indeed two Vinces, both wearing blue and white striped shirts, on the third floor of this VR experience building. After stepping out of the Star Wars universe, Vince No. 1 and I simultaneously agree that this occurrence is too weird to not talk about over a drink later. This experience also serves as further proof that Sundance may indeed be The Twilight Zone.
Eventually I do reach Vince No. 2, the original Vince, and tell him the story, which he deems too weird to be fiction. He ushers me into a small room, where three seats await in front of a screen for the Giant installation. We’re each given a headset, and the word GIANT is emblazoned on the screen. The screen fades and opens on a basement, where a mother and child are playing hand puppets, talking about the “Giant” outside. The “Giant” is the way that parents contextualize the rumbles, zooms and firings of the war zone just outside.
To create the film, Milica Zec drew from her experiences growing up in conflict-ridden Serbia. The result is an immersive experience that inspires feelings of universality rather than pity. “We immediately agreed to translate the family into an American family to convey kind of the point that this can happen anytime, anywhere,” Zec tells me later. Understandably, she was skeptical at first, though. Future Giant screenwriter Lizzie Donahue had told Zec that her life story sounded like a movie, but Zec was insistent that she didn’t want to make films about war. “I wanted to forget what happened to me,” she says. Several months later, Zec picked up the phone and called Donahue, who helped her hammer out a script, and her old friend Winslow Porter, a producer and director who helped realize the project on the virtual reality side.
Zec and Porter tell me that the nine-month process for creating Giant, which ambitiously sought to merge an interactive video game environment with real 360 video, was “like walking through fire.” Zec mentions having worked with celebrated performance artist Marina Abramovic for almost a decade as her editor, video-installation designer and filmmaker, and cites the experience as an exercise in fearlessness. “ Fear is always part of us. It’s normal, it’s natural, we need to have it,” she says. “I kind of learned how not to be controlled by fear. I jumped into this and took Winslow’s hand.” The leap certainly paid off, given the glowing response to the film. (Zec tells me that I just narrowly missed Jon Hamm experiencing Giant , probably when I was talking to Vince No. 1.)
Porter believes that the next logical step of VR filmmaking will likely be in the vein of Giant, which merges two seemingly different worlds into a cohesive experience. Yet the challenges for the medium moving forward are two-fold: How to move VR from an extremely personalized (and often lonely) endeavor to a more interactive one, and how to break the trope that VR filmmaking is an impenetrable field for coding wizards. Much to my shock, Porter tells me that everything that was used to make Giant can be bought at Best Buy, meaning that the barrier to entry here is lower than ever, and thus the way is open for incredible possibilities.
As for the interactive problem, the creators of Giant are working on two other short films in a sort of trilogy that will hopefully bridge that gap. Giant serves as a narrative about the “atrocities humans do to each other,” while part two will focus on the “atrocities we do to Mother Nature.” Hope comes in the third installation, which talks about “something bigger than us,” Zec says.
From there, I briefly stop by the Sundance TV party for a breather and to sip scrumptious ginger tequila cocktails. Then I trek to the Library Center Theater to catch a screening of Matt Johnson’s terrific Operation Avalanche, which probes a conspiracy theory involving some men working at the CIA and a faked moon landing. It’s not so much a film as it is a world within a world, with grainy footage transporting you back to the mid-1960s era of high-waisted pants and paisley prints. Johnson, who serves as director and the star of the film, is magnetic in that he’s so human. His character is a vessel for anyone who’s ever thrown away sleep, a social life and sanity in pursuit of an idea so insane that it just might work.
Later that night I end up at a lively party back at New Frontiers, where some of the virtual reality events are still ongoing and many a projection, such as a riveting one featuring Kendrick Lamar, are visible. Spirits are jovial, the drinks are flowing and the collaborative spirit is present all around. From my corner of the universe I see wheelings and dealings and greetings exchanged; and while I don’t know what is being forged exactly, it feels like the connections being made that night are the start of something for many people. At its best, that’s what Sundance is all about.