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The Sundance Kids 

For alumni of America's most prestigious film festival, winning is less than half the battle

Wednesday, Jan 31 2007
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One morning, Gary Walkow was suddenly transformed into a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Gone were the hat-in-hand searches for financing, the deferred salaries, the long shooting days with undermanned crews, and the months upon years spent touring the festival circuit while seeking a distribution deal. For a moment, he was taking calls by the dozen instead of waiting for the phone to ring. Producers happy to fund whatever project he desired were making a beeline to his door.

And then, as abruptly as someone yelling "Cut!" Walkow awoke to find himself still seated at the desk of his broom-closet-size office at the Santa Monica Airport, where he comes every day to write, a stopwatch close by. The stopwatch is there to ensure that Walkow writes for his self-prescribed minimum of two hours per day. If something interrupts, Walkow stops the clock. "The frustration with filmmaking is that it takes such an enormous effort to practice it, whereas writing I can practice on a daily basis," he says. "I'm ridiculously organized and anal about it."

Back in the mid-'80s, when Bob and Harvey Weinstein were still a couple of scrappy up-and-comers and nobody much knew what an independent film was except for those who were making them, Walkow pulled together $200,000 to make a 35mm feature called The Trouble With Dick, a clever amalgam of farce and hothouse melodrama about a blocked sci-fi writer who unwisely enters into a ménage à trois with his wanton landlady and her equally hormonal teenage daughter. Walkow submitted the film to something called the United States Film Festival (then in its fourth year and soon to be rechristened as Sundance), where it was selected for the competition and ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize.

Never heard of it? Most haven't. That's because FilmDallas, the small independent distribution company that bought Dick in the wake of its festival win, folded before it got around to releasing the film. In fact, so few people ever saw Dick that former FilmDallas marketing head Bob Berney (now the president of Picturehouse) recently suggested to Walkow that he think about revisiting the material. Walkow did just that, and the result is Crashing, Walkow's fourth independent feature and the first-ever sequel to a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner. Now, exactly 20 years after his first Park City premiere, Walkow has taken Crashing to Slamdance, the 13-year-old alterna-festival that offered Crashing a slot after Sundance gave it a pass.

As it happens, Walkow's career is littered with such twists of fate. After all the trouble with The Trouble With Dick and a few years spent directing for network television (including the cult Sledge Hammer! series), Walkow ventured back to Sundance in 1996 with an ingenious modern-day adaptation of Notes From Underground that immediately drew the interest of Fine Line Features President Mark Ordesky, who promised to return for a later screening with more studio brass in tow.

"It was like Raging Bull," Walkow recalls. "That was going to be my night, my shot at the title." But as luck would (or, rather, wouldn't) have it, the main event the night of Walkow's screening turned out to be the now-legendary Main Street tussle between Harvey Weinstein and New Line CEO Bob Shaye over their competing bids to purchase the movie Shine. Nobody from Fine Line or New Line showed up to see Notes From Underground (which was eventually released, two years later, by the small, Massachusetts-based Northern Arts Entertainment). "There were heavy snows that year, and the last day, when we were leaving Park City, I felt like I was Napoleon retreating from Russia," Walkow remembers, only half-jokingly.

How fitting, then, that the very subject of Crashing turns out to be artistic perseverance, as another blocked writer (Campbell Scott), who once wrote a best-seller called The Trouble With Dick (the plot of which mirrors Walkow's earlier film), is cast out by his actress wife and takes up residence on the sofa of a couple of nubile coeds -- aspiring authoresses both -- who get his creative (and hormonal) juices flowing. In outline, the movie sounds like the kind of middle-aged male fantasy better suited to a therapy session than a movie screen, but Walkow is much smarter than that, and as Crashing plays out, it subverts our expectations at nearly every turn. It is, I think, the best thing Walkow has done -- funny and sexy, but also honest and lived-in and knowing of the way writers draw upon (and sometimes exploit) the people around them for inspiration. It's also, unlike a great deal of what passes for "independent" filmmaking nowadays, a movie independent not just in its financing, but in its thinking -- a highly personal vision expressed without a second thought given to box office, audience expectations, or career advancement.

"Look, it would be really depressing if, 20 years later, I couldn't make a better film," Walkow says when I tell him I like the movie. But in a way, what's most remarkable about Crashing is that, after 20 years, Walkow is still making films at all, given the odds that are stacked against him. Of the 290 dramatic features that played at Sundance between 1984 and 2002 (the last year it seemed prudent to include in this survey, given the amount of time it can take to set up an indie film), 156 of their directors have gone on to make zero or, at the most, one additional dramatic feature. Some, like Jill Godmilow, whose Waiting for the Moon shared the 1987 Grand Jury Prize with The Trouble With Dick, hailed from, and returned to, the world of nonfiction filmmaking. Others, like Joyce Chopra (1985 Grand Jury Prize winner for Smooth Talk), flirted briefly with the Hollywood studios before segueing into successful television careers. Still others, like Wendell B. Harris Jr. (whose 1991 Grand Jury Prize winner Chameleon Street remains one of the most original film debuts of the '90s), seem to have vanished into a moviemaking black hole. All are a reminder that for every Tarantino- or Soderbergh-size Sundance Cinderella story, there are dozens of others for whom life as an independent filmmaker more closely resembles Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Little Match Girl.

About The Author

Scott Foundas

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