Sundance: Canadian directors head to film festival seeking indie glory
Toronto-based directors Matt Johnson and Jeremy LaLonde are lucky enough to have one of the world's largest movie festivals in their own backyard.
But the two up-and-comers say the more indie-focused Sundance and Slamdance film festivals remain the best platforms for emerging artists.
The upstarts are among a group of Canadian filmmakers heading to the mountains of Utah this weekend to promote their latest features.
"Sundance is just the place to be if you're an independent filmmaker making movies for under $10 million. You couldn't pick a better place," says the 31-year-old Johnson, who was notably absent at the most recent Toronto International Film Festival.
"For me, growing up, Sundance was it. That's where I wanted to be."
And it's proven to be a powerful launching pad.
Johnson debuted his low-budget high school flick The Dirties at the concurrent Slamdance Film Festival in 2013, going on to win the best narrative film prize.
He heads to Sundance this year with the much more ambitious conspiracy tale Operation Avalanche, a '60s-set thriller that suggests the moon landing was faked by the CIA.
The fact that the tale skewers U.S. lore made all the more reason to screen the film south of the border first, says Johnson, calling it "their story."
"It's a movie about the great American legacy of the space program," he says.
"We shot a lot of the movie right near there in Arizona and in Texas so I think that showing it to Americans first is probably the right thing to do."
Canadians in the spotlight
The 35-year-old LaLonde heads to the Slamdance festival with his sex comedy How to Plan An Orgy In A Small Town, about a famous sex columnist who attempts to host an orgy with old high school acquaintances in her conservative hometown.
It'll be part of a carefully curated section called Beyond, a sampling of just five emerging artists considered to be on the cusp of breakthrough. Canadian filmmaker Stéphane Géhami is also being highlighted with his movie My Enemies, about a young novelist reeling from losing both his girlfriend and a publishing deal.
LaLonde's film makes its U.S. debut after screening at a handful of Canadian festivals, but the writer/director notes it was not accepted at the glitzy Toronto fest. Looking back now, LaLonde says that was for the best.
I think you get a lot more recognition playing at a big U.S. festival as a Canadian than you do at TIFF, unfortunately, because you kind of blend in with everything else- Jeremy LaLonde
"In a lot of ways, I think you get a lot more recognition playing at a big U.S. festival as a Canadian than you do at TIFF, unfortunately, because you kind of blend in with everything else," says LaLonde, referring to the hundreds of Hollywood, international and homegrown films competing for attention at the Toronto fest.
"This is going to mean more for the film than if we had premiered at TIFF itself."
Also heading to Slamdance is the Canadian film Myrtle Beach, from directors Neil Rough and Michael Fuller, in the documentary features competition. And writer/director Dusty Mancinelli brings his short Winter Hymns to the narrative shorts section.
Johnson returns to Utah with a considerably more ambitious project this time around, complete with "big car chases and action sequences," not to mention some grand lunar set pieces that drove the budget up.
"There was a lot of travel, a lot of really, really big set builds that we had to do. All the stuff that NASA sent to the moon we had to build, so we had to build a lunar escape module, we had to build all of the spacesuits," he says.
The film is just one of several Canuck offerings at Sundance.
In the Sundance Kids section, the animated Snowtime! centres on a group of Quebec youngsters embroiled in a massive snowball fight. It's directed by François Brisson and Jean-François Pouliot.
And the world documentary section includes The Settlers, a France-Canada-Israel-Germany co-production that looks at Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Canada is especially well-represented with eight shorts in a competitive field of 72, selected from a record 8,000 submissions. They include Bacon & God's Wrath, directed by Sol Friedman; The Chickening, directed by Nick DenBoer and Davy Force; and It's Not You, directed by Don McKellar.
Add to that a selection of virtual-reality works from the National Film Board of Canada and immersive projects from the Montreal-based Felix & Paul Studios.
The Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday and runs through Jan. 31. Slamdance kicks off Friday and runs through Jan. 28.