sundance

A Week With The Unlikely Breakout Stars Of This Year’s Sundance

How the underdog cast and crew — led by a hard-partying septuagenarian eye surgeon — of a low-budget, offbeat buddy comedy became the surprise toasts of the festival.

Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn, in embrace. Jeff Vespa / WireImage

Of the 4,057 movies submitted for consideration, only 119 were selected to play at this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival; it is a brutal wringer, but making it through is just the first of seemingly endless hurdles to success. The annual gathering of independent filmmakers in Park City, Utah, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2014, and though it has become in part a venue for famous directors to premiere celebrity-studded projects, it still is the place to which cinephile dreamers flock, a fleeting launching pad in mountains of Utah from which new stars can take flight…if everything goes right.

What does it take to succeed at Sundance? First and foremost, a great movie. But just as important is having a team filled with worthy personal narratives and compelling characters, the sort of memorable backstories that will stick out in the minds of fans, critics, and buyers who see an endless run of films while in Utah.

At this year’s festival, BuzzFeed was lucky enough to get to tag along with one of the festival’s more interesting underdogs, the team behind the comedy Land Ho!. They had a pretty good week.

Saturday, Jan. 18, 11:00 a.m. — Downstairs, Main Street, Park City


The place is packed, elbow-to-elbow traffic both upstairs and down, grinning businesspeople and harried publicists doting on idling celebrities waiting to get their pictures taken and then do it all again next door. This is just the first stop in a string of semi-cozy publisher-run DMVs, where people wait in long lines to have their photos taken in requisite initiation. Having a movie at Sundance is a great honor, but even more so, it’s exhausting; the march up and down the mountainous Main Street for brief and transactional press spots and photo shoots can leave you gasping for your breath and sanity.

This is one of the nicer converted storefronts, though, with a catered menu, a place to sit by the fire, and, if you’re important enough, a waiter who will bring you a sandwich or salad provided by one of Park City’s finest eateries. There’s also a makeshift, logo-covered bar off to the side, where one could order tequila shots if so inclined. At 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, Earl Lynn Nelson is the only one so inclined.

A mountain of a man, Nelson, 71, samples Patron’s sponsored spirits, throwing down single shots — he tried for doubles, but apparently they’re illegal in Utah — and cracks jokes, flashing the wide, mischievous smile that rarely leaves his face. When he circles back to report his findings, he shakes my hand and advises me to go score a drink and some free shot glasses.

His cousin, the director Martha Stephens, is sitting near the fire, visiting with her friend Joe Swanberg and the cast of his movie Happy Christmas, while Nelson hangs with his wife Ann, several producers, and a publicist. No one really knows why this older guy with the booming Appalachian drawl and size-16 shoe is hanging out in this bustling hub of professionals from the big, urban coasts, but the uncertainty won’t last long.

Earl Lynn Nelson is big and warm and makes friends everywhere he goes — “I’ve never met a stranger,” he says — and within 24 hours, this eye surgeon from Kentucky, who acted in his 29-year-old cousin’s movie mostly because he loves his family, will become the breakout star of the festival. People will spend the next five days asking if he really is like his garrulous, life-of-the-party character in Land Ho!, a raucous buddy comedy about two retirees who take a road trip in Iceland. The answer is a resounding yes.

We spoke earlier, before the festival, and as promised, he is anything but nervous. Nelson is far from starstruck, either, though there is something fun, he says, about seeing some of these celebrities.

“I’m really excited about maybe meeting some people that I’ve seen before in the movies or I’ve seen their names on television or whatever, just to see what they look like in real life,” he said. “I know when I met a bunch of people that were on the soap operas, I’d never seen so many short people in my life!”

His co-star, Paul Eenhoorn, mingles across the room. Those who were at last year’s festival, or really just happen to love indie film, might recognize him from his own first successful Sundance moment, which happened last year when he starred in the quiet character drama This Is Martin Bonner. That movie won the top prize in the festival’s Next category, and he’s hoping that this project shows off his range.

Chad Hartigan, the Bonner writer/director, went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts with Stephens and Aaron Katz, who is Martha’s 32-year-old co-director on Land Ho!, and so Eenhoorn came highly recommended. An Australian who moved to Seattle 14 years ago, he’s building his American acting career later in life, and so he takes this whole process a little bit more seriously than Nelson, who insists that he’s just being himself in the film, because he’s always just being his most authentic self.

They are the perfect odd couple: Nelson is big and loud and warm, while Eenhoorn is slighter and a bit more reserved, with a wry smile that curls after he delivers a joke that always seems to come in a whisper, and out of nowhere. They like to bicker and trade lighthearted insults — mostly over their accents and football, as Nelson calls Eenhoorn’s adopted hometown Seahawks the “Pondchickens” — and you can’t imagine they’d gravitate toward each other without this sort of situation to force them into each other’s orbits. But the pairing works, making for an unlikely friendship that will deepen over the next week.

Nelson, it seems, knows the secret to living a good life; Eenhoorn often appears to be pondering a deeper secret no one else knows.

Paul Eenhoorn, Aaron Katz, Martha Stephens, and Earl Lynn Nelson. Colby D Crossland / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

The crew assembles downstairs and, when they get the high sign, starts up the winding staircase to the makeshift Entertainment Weekly photo studio. We’re at the beginning of a long trek through the press gauntlet, though a day earlier, in sort of a prequel that must have confused the hell out of early-morning viewers, Nelson and Eenhoorn appeared on The Weather Channel at 6 a.m.

Katz and Stephens arrived in Park City a few days ago, making time to attend some filmmaker parties — this is their first Sundance — and meet with the movie’s investors at a breakfast earlier that morning. Then there was the Director’s Brunch, with a speech by Robert Redford, who talked about staying true to your vision. It was nice validation for the Land Ho! directors, who have made acclaimed films — three for Katz, two for Stephens — that garnered attention at festivals but were decidedly small fish in the big industry pond.

The group photo comes first. Katz is pretty average, height-wise, and has slightly thinning light brown hair that juxtaposes his baby face; Stephens is petite with a face framed by bangs, long brown locks, and librarian glasses. The taller actors bookend them in a shot that positions the reunited Land Ho! principals as one happy family. For the next snap, Nelson gives his cousin a big bear hug from behind, the first of endless portraits of embrace, which will only become nuttier. When it’s time for the two directors to take their photos together, the big guy stands to the side, arm draped around one of the photo assistants he met no more than two minutes ago.

The whole process takes maybe five minutes; EW, after so many years, has this down to a mechanical science, like the Henry Ford of Sundance photo calls.

The Land Ho! crew ventures down Main, which for these next two weeks has been converted from a ski town’s quaint stretch of eateries and boutiques into the central artery of the movie industry’s ever-growing confab, so clogged with people that you could imagine the city itself seizing up with cardiac arrest. Joining the actors and directors are the film’s three producers, Mynette Louie, Christina Jennings, and Sara Murphy. Holding the master schedule is Louie; as the president of Gamechanger Films, a private equity fund that invests in and promotes women filmmakers, she’s actually working to do what scores of outraged op-eds from industry outsiders have been calling for over the last few years.

Considering the picturesque mountain settings and the long stretches of rustic lodge facsimiles built over the 30-year history of the festival, Katz marvels, “This whole place seems beamed down.”

A family embrace. Jeff Vespa / WireImage

12:00 p.m. — Main Street Co-op, Corner of Main and Herber


The Associated Press’ photo station is next, but the gang arrives early enough that there isn’t yet space for them in the AP’s studio, which is basically a well-lit closet. To burn some time, the co-stars light up Camels while idling in a busy side street, and Nelson begins reciting a brief version of his very eventful biography.

Long story short, he grew up in Kentucky, as far east as you can go in the state while staying within its boundaries. After medical school at U.K. — he graduated in 1968 — and time in Vietnam, he moved to New Orleans to practice ocular surgery. Now, he’s back in the Bluegrass State. When Katz and Stephens shot some test footage to show potential investors a few months before heading to Iceland, they did so right near Nelson’s house; crew members crack up when they remember him hanging out in his slippers, offering everyone nips of moonshine straight from the bottle.

Acting is just a lark; Nelson’s still a practicing surgeon, operating three days a week. His kids want him to retire, a preposterous suggestion that he ain’t buying. “I’ve still got my mind, I’ve still got my hands, they don’t shake,” he argues, incredulous at the mere notion. “I’ve been doing surgery for 40 years… I’ll probably be reaching out of the dirt when they bury me, and I’ll have my scalpel coming out on the other side.”

Put it this way: If the purpose of leaving work and marching unencumbered into one’s golden years is to finally make time to have some fun, he’s way ahead of the game. Even now that he’s living up in Kentucky, Nelson heads back down to New Orleans for Mardis Gras every year, continuing his dear tradition of partying on the Bacchus parade float, which he began back in 1968. Those were wild days, when he had a rotating red velvet bed in what had to be a very busy apartment.

“We throw $90,000 of beads and stuff off our float every year,” he beams mischievously.

The whole idea for Land Ho! came from Stephens’ experimental desire to send Nelson to Iceland and put the adventure on tape; he had small roles in her previous two films, 2010’s Passenger Pigeons and 2012’s Pilgrim’s Song, which led to an appearance in Eastbound and Down, and now it was time to make him a late-launching star.

“As a kid, you’re just sort of like, This guy is out of control, but once you get to the age with your family where you don’t think of them as adults anymore, you think of them as people, and you really start paying attention to how kind of weird some of your old relatives are,” Stephens says. “Earl Lynn has always been the most interesting one of the lot.”

“I love women!” Nelson yelled. Jordan Zakarin / BuzzFeed

1:30 p.m. — McCafé Lodge, The Village at the Lift, Main Street


Even before anyone’s seen the movie, Nelson becomes the center of attention everywhere he goes. While Eenhoorn quietly charms a pretty blonde as they wait in line for their photo sessions in a backroom at the lodge sponsored by McDonald’s — existence here is an advertisement — his twanging hulk of a co-star makes conversation with the workers who go otherwise ignored by the long lines of harried actors and their handlers.

The baristas flock to him, gathering around their makeshift booth as he peppers them with questions in his slow Southern drawl, and do him the kindness of spiking his complimentary hot cocoa with brandy. “You gotta try this, take a sip, it’s good for you,” he implores everyone in the Land Ho! party, passing around his whipped cream-topped mug so that everyone can sample the boozy liquid confection.

He creates a crowd around what should be a routine photo shoot; pulling in Stephens and one of his co-stars, Karrie Crouse, Nelson giggles, “I love women!” and turns the rote snap session into an event for gawking hairstylists and bemused publicists. “Who is this guy?” one studio manager asks, while eagerly jotting down the name of the movie that she now just has to see.

The actors put on a show in the next shoot, right in the adjacent room. Exaggerated and exasperated, you could call them, playing their roles with glee. Eenhoorn knows how to set up and play off a joke, amplifying the ludicrousness with just his eyes.

As the crew drifts out, the McCafé workers make Nelson an offer: They’ll save his cocoa mug and write his name on it if he promises to return later in the festival.

Larry Busacca / Getty Images

Larry Busacca / Getty Images

 

Sunday, Jan. 19, 10:00 a.m. — Library Center Theatre


The day had started with a quick podcast interview with a guy from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who, like everyone else, had yet to see the movie. As such, the questions are pretty standard, but this would prove to be the last time people aren’t sure what to ask Stephens and Katz.

The premiere is being held in one hour on this first Sunday of the festival, at the Library Theatre, which is, yes, a large auditorium in the Park City library. Actually, this is a pretty fortuitous thing, because as Louie explains to me later, they have no real control over when their film debuts, and to be given a midday slot on a screen near the main drag of the festival is to notch a major win already. That they weren’t playing against another big acquisition title is the cherry on top.

There’s a lot riding on this first screening, both in the immediate and long-term; representatives from nearly every distributor will be in attendance — comedy films are all about contagious, public laughs, so the producers were holding out for the big room to show Land Ho! to buyers — and, in their Sundance debuts, both directors will be getting their most intense and crucial evaluation.

Neither had done a comedy before, and Stephens especially was taking a leap. Her first two films were small, regional, salt-of-the-earth Appalachian dramas, and she didn’t even pay herself a salary for directing them. She lives in Charleston, W.Va, with her husband, mostly because he has a steady job as a hospital chaplain in the city.

Stephens doesn’t want to move to L.A. or New York — “I feel really creatively drained if I’m in a really big space,” she says — but has been considering a move to Seattle. Right now, she supplements her income from film by working as a substitute teacher, and actually making money off of Land Ho! would be a huge step toward the Pacific Northwest and its far bigger creative community.

But first, they must get into the theater, which is a challenge in and of itself; the volunteers at Sundance have been trained to be diligent — sometimes, too much so — about identification and ticket-taking. Despite the badge on Stephens’ lanyard that identifies her as the director of the movie that will be playing in that very building, the volunteer responsible for guarding the front entrance won’t let her pass until she produces a ticket. There’s a shortage already — they’re given a small allotment, and she’s been scrambling to find enough tickets to get her friends into the show — and this barrier is not helping things.

We’re conditioned to believe controlling the illusions on the screen leads to a fantasy life off it, but for most, this is the reality of filmmaking. Organized publicists prevail, and once tickets are produced, they head up to the green room to join the step and repeat and mingle ahead of the curtain raise. Eenhoorn, who passed this test last year, is joking about football (“I call them the 69ers, cause they suck!” he teases) and reminiscing about how discombobulated he felt with the time zone changes and late-night production hours on set.

That Katz and Stephens made the deadline for entrance into Sundance is an accomplishment in and of itself. The idea for the film sparked shortly before last year’s Sundance, and the script and location scouting came together so quickly that they were able to shoot in the small, Arctic country in September. The financing came right before they embarked on the trip, and made possible in part by David Gordon Green — another North Carolina Arts grad who serves as an executive producer on the film — putting up the money for the earlier test shoot in Kentucky.

“We shot and we knew we’d have to cut really quickly to hit our deadline,” Katz says. “I think in some ways there’s some added pressure of trying to do things quickly, but in general I almost like that pressure, to make decisions and there’s some immediacy.”

Now he’s pretty relaxed, ready to watch the thing with an audience for the first time, and hangs in the holding area with his wife, Elizabeth McKee, who acted in the film.

Even before they get seated in their back-row reserved seats in the 486-person capacity auditorium, the premiere is off to an auspicious start. The festival’s programming director, Trevor Groth, comes backstage to wish them luck and inform the crew that he felt so confident in this movie, he sent his whole family. What goes unsaid is the confidence he must have felt to have worn the loud argyle suit that is draped on his lanky frame.

After a brief introduction, the lights go down.

11:00 a.m.


From the moment Nelson’s character Mitch tells Eenhoorn’s character Colin — the film’s conceit has them as ex-brothers-in-law, reunited — that the dinner he made for them will taste like “angels pissing on your tongue,” the audience is in stitches. They laugh uproariously at every unexpectedly blunt line that Nelson delivers, and then double over when Eenhoorn counters with priceless reaction shots. As the guys cruise the glimmering, surreal landscape of Iceland in a Hummer, stopping to take in the natural splendors (geysers and waterfalls) and human indulgences (restaurants and raves), their very existence seems to delight the crowd, which makes the more delicate emotional scenes hit that much harder.

When the credits roll, the audience rises for a long standing ovation. As Nelson lumbers up, he’s in tears; he cried twice during the movie. “I can’t believe it came together so well,” he sniffles, adding, “I’m so proud of Martha.”

The raucous kudos are followed by a spirited Q&A with the filmmaker and cast, a session that is jammed with inquiries from delightedly perplexed viewers. They roar when Nelson tells the audience that “they set me loose” when it came to ad-libbing his lines; they laugh even harder when he assures them that he’s the same guy they see onscreen and then awww when Eenhoorn admits, “It’s not until I saw the film, for the first time tonight, that I realized how much I love this guy.”

Instead of filing out of the auditorium, a large part of the enraptured crowd lingers when the Q&A ends and then flock to the team as they depart the stage and walk back up the aisle, as if there is some sort of magnetic field pulling them in. Eenhoorn slips out to talk with several fawning journalists, while Nelson is happy to be stuck in the middle of the scrum, receiving new fans and somehow ending up in a conversation about college basketball. Volunteers try desperately to move the crowd along, so that they can prepare the theatre for the next premiere, but it takes ages for the audience to disperse.

Significantly, one of the executive producers implores Nelson, who was scheduled to leave on Tuesday, that he just has to remain in Park City longer so that he can do more interviews and attend the next public screening. “If you want to stay, I have a place to stay for you,” he assures the newly minted star.

“Well, we’ll have to call up my girls and see if I can change some surgeries,” Nelson responds.

Several days earlier, a small gathering of fans milled outside this Library Theatre to greet Aaron Paul, who had a film, Hellion, debut in the same space. Post-Land Ho!, the parking lot is brimming with a battalion of excited, newly converted worshippers for Eenhoorn and Nelson, who have no problem greeting them, taking photos, and even doling out a few kisses.

When the crowd finally dissipates, the triumphant team marches several blocks to a semi-upscale Italian restaurant to celebrate. Martha is all smiles, joking about a potential sequel — “We’d send them to Hawaii and it’d have 1,000 cameos, like a Muppet movie” — which differs from Nelson and Eenhoorn’s jovially pitched follow-up: Land Ho Ho Ho!, in which they travel even further north to rescue Santa Claus.

Colby D Crossland / Getty Images

1:30 p.m. — Vinto Italian Restaurant


With the technical crew and executive producers in tow, Team Land Ho! occupies an entire room of the restaurant. There was uncertainty about just how they’d celebrate, but the intimate setting is just right for a close-knit team. At festivals, film critics often rush to the closest Wi-Fi-enabled nook so they can file their reviews — it is a race for relevancy — and the post-screening tweets (including a few from Pulitzer winner Wesley Morris) were already glowing. So, the producers and crew quickly began refreshing their Twitter feeds, looking for links to full-on evaluations.

The first came from Indiewire, whose critic called Eenhoorn “an adorably good-intentioned protagonist” and praised Nelson as “funny as any young comedic actor today.”

There’s one point of contention: The reviewer is a little bit dubious at the movie’s wide appeal and thus, financial prospects. What the fuck does he know, producers think aloud.

Still, it’s strong artistic praise, and so the group is largely celebratory and cheerful, though the two actors are mostly busy watching football. The Broncos are playing the Pats, and Nelson is rooting hard for Denver, as quarterback Peyton Manning grew up down the street from him in New Orleans, which is somehow not a surprise at all.

Small talk and reminiscing, laughter and toasts. It’s a sealed-off dining room, and right now, a world unto its own, where everything seems to be spinning in the right direction.

In the middle of the meal, another of the producers receives a text, which he reads to the group: “Two words: Manohla cheered!”

He’s referring to the powerful New York Times film critic, so it’s official: Land Ho! is a hit.

The full Land Ho! team. Colby D Crossland / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

Monday, Jan. 20, 12:30 p.m. — High West Distillery


It comes at a not insignificant cost to push back their flights, but the decision is made that the two stars of the film just have to remain in Park City. Outlets from around the country that have reporters on the ground in Sundance are suddenly interested in talking with the directors and stars, including the Times and ESPN Radio.

So, here’s the compromise: Originally, Nelson and Eenhoorn were going to jet out on Tuesday, the night after a screening of the film in Salt Lake; now they’ll be leaving on Thursday, which means that Nelson can still make his Friday surgery appointments, a condition from which he could not budge. The man is not wooed by the pull of stardom.

The great condo transfer goes down easy, and the boys get back at it. Everything is different when they hit the trail on Monday, now that members of the press have seen the film and are hopping on the bandwagon.

“It’s amazing how many people have asked me how long it took me to go to school to be an actor, and where did I go?” Nelson marvels. “And, they ask, how long did it take me to learn to act like I am a doctor? I’m serious!”

No one quite believes that this hulking Southern grandfather is a surgeon — they reckon a scene in Land Ho! where he uses a stethoscope and blood pressure cuffs is just good imitation — but the man has been practicing for 40 years.

Eenhoorn is, on the other hand, all in on acting, and so staying at Sundance is a welcomed development. He began at 17, doing commercials and film productions in Australia, sidetracked only by romance.

“I got married, which was a big mistake,” he told me before the festival. “I found out I couldn’t conform to society, I tried and I just can’t do it. I have a certain mental key, and it’s creative.”

Since coming to America, he has been on screen semi-consistently, while working temporary jobs to pay the bills. Recently, the side hustles have included selling home improvement items, filling in for his buddy’s car service, and a gig at Macy’s. This is much better.

After another round of interviews, the guys join me for a drink down near the bottom of Main Street. It charges reasonable prices for Patron, unlike the bar up the hill, where Nelson laments they jacked up the price on the fire water earlier in the weekend.

The joint has benches around huge fire pits outside, and we settle on one next to a bunch of visiting skiers, 27-year-olds who happened to be in Park City for a college reunion during the fest. Nelson greets all newcomers with alacrity and new anecdotes, including one about performing surgery…on himself.

“Believe it or not, I can cut myself, but I have troubles sewing myself up in the mirror,” he says, to guffaws and laughter. “I had a damn little tumor on the side of my eye and I cut it out in front of the mirror, and I kept trying to sew the son of a bitch up and I could not do it … I had my maid do it, I was at home.”

Eenhoorn, meanwhile, has shed his previous diffidence, and, as part of his newly animated persona, suggests that they pose next to a Park City police truck for an impromptu photo shoot. Be our guests, the cops say, and instant memories are created with a few clicks.

Jordan Zakarin / BuzzFeed

1:30 p.m. — Wasatch Brew Pub


The circuit begins again, up and down Main Street, submitting to interviews from outlets of all kinds, though there is, of course, a noticeable uptick in the reporters’ excitement over the film. They do their best to see the movie — now, a few screeners can be released — and ask more informed questions, though largely they all arrive at the same inquiries, centering on percent of improvisation and degrees of character fictionalization.

That’s Sundance in a nutshell: trudging up mountains to push your film across the ever-moving finish line, trying to overcome the endless obstacles that get thrown in your way, building momentum that is always one breaking news story or new hit debut away from dissipating. It’s a Sisyphean task for most, but Land Ho! has momentum that seems to be unstoppable.

For all the sameness of their days, the team is so fresh to this world that their newness keeps things exciting for both themselves and the press; the filmmakers are definitely feeling a reinforced optimism. Nelson throws back a few more shots of Patron — chilled, no dressing — at one top-of-the-hill barbecue joint; at 6 feet 8 inches and with 50 years of drinking under his belt, it might take handful of horse tranquilizers to tip him into inebriation. Meanwhile, the directors wander up for a live radio interview, energized and buoyant, floating on the ridiculously thin air.

As they settle in for a break after the interview, Stephens notices two cast members from Freaks and Geeks, Samm Levine and Sarah Hagan, and has a little bit of a moment. Hell, Katz is even feeling good about the Mets’ chances this year, which, after a miserable half-decade of baseball, is the perhaps the definitive sign that morale is high.

Still, good reviews and positive press are one thing; financial rewards are another. The festival circuit, which expressly celebrates filmmakers and their art in a way that the real world does not, creates a sort of glow that often makes movies shine more brightly than they would in the brutal marketplace of the multiplex. Plenty of films get rave reviews in this compressed environment, where critics exchange lyrical raves in a perpetual battle for pull quotes, trying to stake a claim on just who loved a movie first, thus establishing a foothold in bragging rights if the picture becomes a hit or even awards contender later in the year.

In short, none of this praise means much more than confidence-building and vague hopes for future project financing without some sort of distribution deal.

Jordan Zakarin

 

Wednesday, January 21, 12:00 a.m. — The Snow Lodge


Team Land Ho!, from its producers to its directors and stars, are huddled downstairs at an event space called The Snow Lodge, trying to talk quietly enough to keep the important conversation internal but still audible over the music and stirring of a party above. They’re at the post-premiere bash for a Mark Duplass–Elisabeth Moss movie called The One I Love, and since both films are under the festival care of Brigade Marketing, they felt that it was a good gathering spot in case some late-night action required them to be together.

As it turns out, this was a fantastic piece of planning.

All day, the sales team for the film had been in high gear, working the phones and pushing toward the ultimate goal. Their gamble, not pre-screening the film for buyers, paid off big-time. The smash-hit premiere was attended by at least one representative from almost every important distributor, which triggered enthusiastic requests for second screenings by their bosses in New York and L.A.

After such a raucous opening, the Film Sales Company — that is literally the name — felt confident in sending out screeners to interested parties, and Monday and Tuesday were largely filled with fulfilling such inquiries from curious bigwigs who couldn’t make the packed Press & Industry screening that day in Park City.

Even before the lights went down for the P&I, a serious offer had come in for the film. That’s what they call leverage, especially with labels that operate by unanimity.

“At certain companies, if, say, Harvey Weinstein likes it, he’ll take it, but it’s usually under his acquisition team,” Jason Ishikawa, one of Film Sales’ brokers, tells me. “It’s a lot of consensus, especially at this festival, people are playing it safe, which slows down the sales process.”

Still, buyers liked Land Ho! enough that another offer came in after the P&I, with two more supposedly on the way. Not every independent distributor is created equal, though, with some holding far more cine-social currency and, just as importantly, marketing muscle. One of the most storied and respected so-called “mini-majors” is Sony Pictures Classics, which has the benefit of being largely the curated favorites of co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker. They serve as Woody Allen’s most current label and carry the cachet of real tastemakers, so their professed interest in Land Ho! was the biggest development of all.

Andrew Herwitz, the president of Film Sales Company, put in a call to let Barker and Bernard know that there were solid offers rolling in, so if they wanted to move on it, the time for action was approaching.

After both sides conferred internally, the preliminary details were quickly agreed upon. A meeting was called for a little after midnight, at the SPC condo. Things were getting serious.

“Ultimately at those kind of meetings, it’s not a ‘Hi, nice to meet you, glad you liked my movie’ meeting,” Ishikawa says. “It’s more like we internally discussed, if they had come to a certain level, we would say yes. And that involves marketing, release strategy, and passion.”

The exchange lasts late into the night, with negotiations on marketing budget, release date, and general strategy, as well as temperature taking on overall passion for the film; it’s not uncommon for distributors to feel the need to make a buy during a fest then end up cooling on a film later on, essentially abandoning it with tiny marketing pushes and sentencing it to VOD purgatory. It was important, Louie says later, for Katz and Stephens to meet with Sony’s two principals and make sure they were on the creative wavelength.

Sony Classics impresses the Land Ho! team with commitment, guaranteeing a theatrical release in at least 25 major markets over the summer, as well as promising great enthusiasm for pushing it into the public eye. It is a largely friendly negotiation; Katz and Stephens munch on trail mix and take it all in, photos are snapped on the couch to capture the producers in various states of exhaustion, and compliments abound.

All along, Louie had banked on this film overcoming perceived obstacles like having no major stars in part by playing into the growing market for baby boomers, looking at recent successes like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and A Late Quartet. She read the market right.

Finally, a deal is hammered out at 4:30 a.m., and Louie prepares a release email about an hour later. Land Ho!, a little independent movie made on a tiny budget on the frozen, splendorous expanse of empty Iceland, sells to Sony Pictures Classics, one of Hollywood’s most glamorous film labels.

Sources and buzz around the festival put the deal at just under $2 million.

Mat Hayward / Getty Images

12:00 p.m. — Sundance Press Headquarters, Main Street


The Land Ho! team staggers into the third-floor press room at the festival’s office on Main Street, exhausted but triumphant. Despite stealing maybe three hours of sleep, Katz and Stephens are ebullient, operating on adrenaline reserves that were tapped by the break of the biggest news of their lives.

Katz, all smiles, jokes that Bernard and Barker “called the movie a ‘picture,’ which really went a long way. They were like, ‘Lemme tell you what I like about this picture…’ These guys were so old school.”

For his part, Nelson smiles and just takes a shining to everyone else’s enthusiasm. “I’m excited but I don’t know what the hell it is,” he shrugs. “I’m just happy that people enjoyed [the movie], because that’s me, I laugh and have a good time all the time. I mean, I’ll drink a beer for breakfast, I’ll drink Patron for breakfast. This is me, as you know. I don’t know what all this means, but everybody is happy as hell, so I’m happy for everybody else.”

It seems he’s at least playing a little bit dumb, because soon he wraps Stephens in a big hug and tells her how proud he is, obviously well aware of the implications that such a rich sale have for her career. His arms swallow her up whole, and he uses the moment to make sure that she checked in with her mother to tell her the good news; he is, first and foremost, here as a family man.

A few minutes later, he’s welling up with tears when he ends a phone call with his own children, three thirtysomethings who live in Louisiana and St. Louis. He raised them himself, he says, and they all have a very special bond.

“I just miss my kids all the time,” Nelson whimpers, wiping at his eyes. “I see my oldest daughter on Thanksgiving, saw my other two and my grandkids then, and my other grandkids at Christmastime. But I want my kids with me all the time.”

Eenhoorn was ecstatic earlier in the morning, noting that he heard the news at 11:11, the time wishes are made. Now he is more stoic, though no less thrilled; it’s hard for him to process another unexpected victory after 40 years of struggling to break through on two different sides of the world. Maybe this will land him an agent, he suggests, though he’s already fired plenty of them before, irked with their “total disregard for [his] talent” and resigning him to “cattle calls for 55–65 auditions.”

“They don’t get me,” he quietly laments, frustration constricting his voice. “They don’t understand what my goals are, what I do want to do and what I don’t want to do. I want to make money doing what I love. To get paid for the pain and suffering that I’ve gone through the last 40 years.”

Maybe this is the beginning of something belated and big, he hopes, already determined to make it count. His goals here have been accomplished: show his range, find financial success, and make a mark.

The quiet celebration has to take a backseat, as several more interviewers come up to speak with the newly crowned stars. A conversation with ESPN Radio is especially exciting to Nelson, like it’s his own dream come true amid all the industry victories won by everyone else on his team.

6:00 p.m. — Blue Iguana Mexican Restaurant


The Land Ho! coterie gathers for one more celebration, another festive and boozy meal where they can toast their improbable success in Park City, before one last public screening with everyone in attendance.

The directors dare to dream out loud about their futures, including, for Stephens, that move to Seattle. Her husband has another year or so working at the hospital, but selling a movie to Sony is really fucking good news, the kind of catalyst that could blast her off to the Space Needle and launch several movies she has in the pipeline.

Katz, too, is buzzing on the boost this all could create. He’s already got two scripts ready to go, including one about a 1920s cat burglar, a kind of high-concept thing that’ll require the sort of funding that you only secure with a high-profile success at a massive festival like Sundance. “It’s been four years since I made Cold Weather,” he says, referring to his last film, “and I don’t want to wait that long again.”

Toasts are given and glasses clinked, everyone just floating on air, semi-delirious from sleep deprivation but focused on just how great this whole thankless business can be when you work your ass off and do things right. Eenhoorn, who earlier in the day was feeding off a feeling of vindication, is now just exuberant, discussing everything from ideas he has for his own directorial efforts to, at one point, giving his best impression of Al Pacino reciting “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

The gruff, singsong impression is actually not half-bad. He’s all smiles tonight, optimistic about his future and glad, he says, that he stuck it out in this business.

Christina Jennings, one of the producers on the film, opens up about her pending decision to move to Iceland; never before has she felt such a spiritual connection with a piece of land, she says.

The movie has really changed everyone’s lives.

Colby D Crossland / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

9:00 p.m. — Egyptian Theatre


Another screening, another standing ovation, another fully engaged Q&A session. By now, the news of the sale has reached everyone in the audience, and as Aaron introduces his creative partners, there’s a sense of group ownership in the air, like the audience has a stake in the film’s success.

Per usual, viewers want to know how much of the film was improvised — seriously, they can’t imagine anyone would write the lines that come out of Nelson’s mouth — and when Stephens hands him the mic, he gives a winking answer.

“We’ve been told to tell everybody it’s 50% in the script, 25% based on the script, and 25% us.”

Just then, someone from the crowd yells out one of Mitch’s early laugh lines, “Balls!” — though without his baritone twang, it doesn’t quite connect. Eenhoorn’s message of hard work paying off, though, earns plenty of applause.

Following the Q&A, half the people in the crowd simultaneously decide to rush the stage, greeting the filmmakers and taking photos with the actors, as if they need proof that these guys — these out-of-nowhere seniors with such a feel for comedy — are real. If it’s true, if two senior-age men can be such out-of-the-blue movie stars, what does it mean for everyone else? Maybe Land Ho! is so magnetic because it represents a fresh hope, that anyone can go off on an adventure and come back to be famous and beloved.

The crowd finally dissipates, and as Nelson makes his way up the aisle, a young fan approaches him.

“You remind me of my grandfather,” she says.

He responds, a perfect mix of honesty and wit without missing a beat. “Well,” Nelson says, laughing in his deep Kentucky timbre, “I hope he’s a dirty old man.”

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