PARK CITY, UTAH — As independent-minded as the Sundance Film Festival may be, no premiere there is complete without a red carpet and a phalanx of publicists, agents, and studio buyers fluttering around, thereby turning it into a genuine Hollywood glitz-fest.
But at the tip-top of Main Street, in the halls of the Treasure Mountain Inn where the anti-Sundance festival Slamdance is held, premieres take on a different tone. Sunday night, the crowds crammed their way into a hotel conference room made over with makeshift risers. The overflow guests perched on the risers' edges and squatted on the floor. There was no red carpet, but free milkshakes were handed out to all attendees.
The occasion was the premiere of Between Us, a new film by one of the founders of the Slamdance Festival, Dan Mirvish.
Slamdance was founded in 1995 by Mirvish and four other filmmakers seeking a place to screen films that had been rejected by Sundance within that festival's shadow. Before the Between Us screening, Mirvish recounted the early days, sneaking into empty theaters and holding impromptu screenings with the help of sympathetic staff. During the gold-rush era of Sundance, there was so much hunger for independent films that Slamdance soon was programming lineups to rival the larger festival. No less luminaries than Christopher Nolan, Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), and Marc Forster found their first public acclaim at Slamdance.
Eighteen years later, Slamdance has become a mini-institution in its own right. Five thousand films are submitted each year, winnowed down into a program of about 30 features and 70 shorts. As the process became more formalized and was placed in the hands of professional programmers, Mirvish recounted that in keeping with the "no sacred cows" guerrilla ethos, the founders were forced to submit their films like everyone else, leading him to ask a few years ago, "Why is it so hard for me to get a film into Slamdance?"
The film premiering on this day, however, presumably had little trouble. Adapted from an Off-Broadway show by Joe Hortua, Between Us is a powerful, brilliantly acted character piece about two couples who meet over the course of several years to serially rip out the loose threads of their relationships. The four-person cast of Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George, and David Harbour (Elliot of The Newsroom) give the sense of breathing in their parts so deeply that they are at every move haunted by their characters' secrets and torn by rival pulls of love and contempt toward the other characters.
No corner of intimacy or secrets is left unexposed in the film that is at once hilarious and devastating. The work would be at home down the block at Sundance or at any festival, but watching it amongst the makeshift risers, the milkshakes, and the crowds camped out on the floor made discovering it a special delight.
The production, as befits Slamdance's founder, began on Kickstarter, where Mirvish offered backers invitations to the festival's closing-night "Hot Tub Summit." For $65, backers would have the privilege of the following: "Dan will NOT talk to you for half an hour. And if you like, he'll also take you off all of his email lists, Facebook defriend you, deTweet you and otherwise leave you alone and in peace (for at least a year)."
The Kickstarter ultimately raised over $14,000 (above a $10,000 goal), and the buzz it generated led to more money coming in and, ultimately, the talent agency ICM coming aboard to help cast the film. Mirvish recalled driving while on vacation with friends through the Arizona desert when he got a call asking, "'Would you like to meet with Taye Diggs on Tuesday?' I turned to all the women in the minivan and asked, 'What do you think?' And they said, 'Yes! But make sure you interview him without his shirt on.'"
At Sundance premieres, the cast and crew assemble on the stage after the screening to take questions from the audience. As befits Slamdance, however, Julia Stiles was Skyped in and projected on the movie screen, addressing the crowd like some low-resolution, very stylish Big Brother.
She recalled how, after coming aboard the production, she at first kept her distance as they shot in Los Angeles. While the crew camped out at a hotel, Stiles remembered, "I was staying with a friend in West Hollywood, but I decided to move over there because everyone was having so much fun. We all got along really well, and this script was important to us. It was nice to work with a group of actors who were invested in this material. The story took on a life of its own."
As she spoke, however, one man attempted to make his way quietly out of the theater down a packed aisle. Looking down from the screen, Stiles, Slamdance's disembodied Skyped-in celebrity overlord, assured him, in perfect Slamdance "it's casual" fashion, "That's cool. Go ahead. You don't have to stay."