Trevor Groth: The spirit of Sundance is in the storytelling
January 17, 2013
the time the banners are hung on Main Street and the local gym and temple have been converted into screening rooms, the hardest part of Trevor Groth’s job is done.
As Sundance’s Director of Programming, he is responsible for ensuring this year’s record-breaking 12,146 submissions have been trimmed and shaped into a slate worthy of one of the top three film festivals in the world.
And how does Groth and his team of six programmers, along with Festival Director John Cooper, recognize a Sundance film when they see one?
According to Groth it is all about the spirit and the storytelling.
"For us it is less about who produced it or about where the money came from, it’s more about the spirit of it — the artistic force behind the film. It is because we thought they fit what the festival stood for: pure storytelling."
Still, the process is grueling and the decisions are not always unanimous. As the programmers begin to cull through the entries, one might decide to pass on a film while another thinks the same one is a groundbreaking masterpiece.
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According to Groth, one voice can sway the vote.
"It is possible that one programmer makes such a passionate argument for a film that, even if the others don’t think it should make the fest, they listen to those deeply passionate arguments. Sometimes those films are the ones that make a mark out there in the world, as opposed to the mediocre films that everyone thinks are OK," he said.
But the selection process doesn’t end there. In addition to individual merit, Groth explains, the programmers want to offer a diverse range of style and content that will satisfy a variety of sophisticated tastes.
"First, we evaluate every film on its own merits. Then all of those titles go up on the board and from that point you start looking at the festival as a whole. I think of it like putting together a puzzle and each of the films is a piece," Groth said.
That jigsaw challenge seems to grow every year. These days, in addition to the U.S. and World Feature and Documentary competition categories, Groth, Cooper, and the other programmers spend much of the year combing the globe for innovative new work by both veteran and up-to-now undiscovered talent. Those selections are used to fill out the Premiere and newly created categories including NEXT, New Frontier and Spotlight.
Still, according to Groth, it is the emphasis on discovering new filmmakers that distinguishes Sundance from the other star-studded film festivals like Berlin and Cannes.
"They all have their own flavors, but Sundance has been embraced as the premier discovery festival in the world. And by that I mean, not just discovering new films, but discovering new filmmaking talent" said Groth. "That is the core mission, it is half of our lineup."
He pointed out that, of this year’s 119 feature-length films, 51 were made by first-time filmmakers.
In the Dramatic Competition category, one film that Groth believes will create some buzz is David Lowery’s "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints." The project received support through the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Lab and according to Groth is "incredibly skillfully made."
Another expected standout is "Austenland" by Jerusha Hess, a Utahn who also worked on a previous Sundance favorite "Napoleon Dynamite." The film has "a big heart and is very sweet," Groth said.
Other competition films that Groth anticipates will be talked about include "In A World" directed by Lake Bell, "May In Summer" by Cherien Dabis and "Touchy Feely" by Lynn Shelton. Dabis and Shelton are Sundance alumni and Groth says, " both of those films are delightful and very moving. It is exciting to have them back in the competition."
Interestingly, while many of the directors’ names in the Premieres category are now household words, several got their start as unknowns at Sundance. "And they are returning with some of the best films of their careers," Groth said.
Among the "highly anticipated" films in the Premieres section, he lists "Before Midnight" that is part of a series that debuted at Sundance in 1985 and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut "Don Jon’s Addiction" which, Groth says, "will surprise people with its humor and its heart."
The Documentary Premiere group also includes what Groth refers to as "some heavy hitters" who have previously brought astonishing stories to the festival. Alex Gibney’s "We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks" is one of those. Barbara Kopple’s "Running From Crazy" about the Hemingway family is another, he said.
Groth acknowledges there were some prominent themes among the submissions this year. "The role of technology is something we saw a lot of from ‘We Steal Secrets" to ‘Google and the World Brain.’ Filmmakers, he said, are exploring "the notion of how technology is shaping the world we live in."
Politics also received a lot of attention from filmmakers. Standouts in the documentary categories include Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s "Citizen Koch" about corporate pressures on the political process.
"For anyone that is looking to have a great festival experience, I point them toward the documentaries, because they are rooted in the truth and in our real lives. They tend to have the most power at the festival," he added.
But Groth is also bullish on the festival’s quirkier categories including Spotlight, NEXT and, for night owls, Park City At Midnight. In Spotlight he describes the Sarah Polley film "Stories We Tell" as "a fresh take, and deeply personal film."
Also, according to Groth, the relatively new NEXT category "has really come into its own this year." It is defined by "bold innovative visions from American independent filmmakers." And even though Groth tries not to hype any particular film he confides, "’Escape From Tomorrow’ is a bizarre cultish film that is one of my favorites. It’s best experienced going in cold and being taken on the ride."
Finally, Groth encourages festival goers not to overlook the New Frontier installations and films at The Yard on Kearns Boulevard.
"’Charlie, Victor, Romeo’ is one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while," he said. The film is based on an off-Broadway production comprised of recreated black-box recordings of pilots handling a crisis in the cockpit. "It is a riveting watch, at times harrowing. The takeaway for me was respect for those pilots. No one should have that kind of pressure on them. I think there will be a lot of talk about it at the festival."
Another New Frontier offering is "Coral" which will be projected on a dome constructed especially for this event. Audiences will see "this mind blowing image of what’s going on along the coral reef," Groth says.
The important thing, Groth suggests, is to take a flyer, to hop in line at a theater and be open to a new experience. That’s what Sundance is all about.
The 2013 Sundance Film Festival takes place from Jan. 17-27 with screenings and special events in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and at Sundance Resort. For more information including specific screening times and ticket availability log on to: http://www.sundance.org/festival