New England Does Sundance
Here in Massachusetts, we lay claim to Matt Damon, the Wahlbergs, Uma Thurman, and more. But it’s at festivals like Sundance that lesser-known yet very talented filmmakers get to expose their work to a discerning and influential audience. Before this year’s Sundance Film Festival kicks off, we caught up with a few of the New England-bred filmmakers who are about to show Park City what they’ve got.
The notion of Nikole Beckwith’s first film, Stockholm, Pennsylvania, emerged from growing up during a time when there were some very focal national kidnapping cases. The notion of Beckwith as a director though, came from growing up in “a town of secret geniuses.”
“Newburyport felt like this close-knit place that no one wanted to leave and where no one wore any shoes,” she says. “There were no boundaries or rules, so things like a prom on ice would happen. I grew up putting on plays in basements, rock shows in living rooms, and art shows in car trunks. We were constantly thinking about how to push ourselves as artists and do something we’ve never done before.”
Stockholm follows a young woman, played by Saoirse Ronan, who is returned home to her biological parents after living with her abductor for 17 years.
“Everything I write is deeply influenced by where I’m from—the East Coast,” Beckwith says. She chose Pennsylvania because she felt it has a more varied identity than Massachusetts, but echoes its deeply historical past and clustered proximity.”
The film is heavy on the mother-daughter relationship between Ronan’s character and Cynthia Nixon’s, and how both must come to terms with their new identities in the wake of their unusual circumstances.
Beckwith, who’s still finding her own identity as a filmmaker, moved to the North Shore when she was very young and made the trek to Brooklyn nine years ago, “But I’ll always be tethered to Massachusetts,” she says. And so she was. Her first job in New York was working as an assistant for actor Eric Bogosian, who’s from Woburn. He’s also a prolific novelist and playwright, and planted the seeds of Beckwith’s transition from actress to writer.
Speaking of Woburn, another filmmaker at Sundance this year is Brian Bolster, who grew up there. Despite going the same route as Beckwith to New York to pursue filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he came back to his hometown to shoot his first film in 2005. It was framed by the church sex abuse scandal and followed the last days of the 100-year-old parish he grew up attending.
This year, Bolster is at Sundance with One Year Lease—a short documentary compiled almost entirely of voicemails from his and his boyfriend’s landlady in Hell’s Kitchen, who harassed them for an entire year with tidbits about the pigeons on the stoop, and friendly reminders to let her know when they were coming home at night. Seriously.
“It’s a little bit comedy and a little bit drama,” says Bolster, who would watch Channel 56 WLVI every Saturday morning for the “Creature Double Feature.” “When all the kids were outside playing, I was glued to the TV with B-level horror movies from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. That’s where the [filmmaking] light was sparked for me.”
For Robert Eggers, it was the New England landscape—both literal and figurative—that lit his filmmaking fire. A native of southern New Hampshire, he’s bringing The Witch to Sundance. It’s set in 1630s New England and tells the tale of a Christian homesteading family whose baby son vanishes into the nearby woods. Something about that just seems so quintessentially Massachusetts.
“New England’s past has always been part of my consciousness,” describes Eggers, who wants his own home in the woods of Western Massachusetts some day. “Old crumbling colonial farms and small family graveyards hidden deep in the woods were part of my childhood landscape, and witches were always part of my nightmare. With this film, I wanted to create an archetypal New England horror story—something that would feel like an inherited nightmare from the 17th century.”
Eggers shot all of his short films in New Hampshire, they all took place in New England, and he still has more stories he wants to tell that are set in New England’s past.
“I’d say I identify with it,” he teases. “And never underestimate the power of Massachusetts ticks and poison ivy to strike fear into the hearts of a Brooklyn film crew.”
If there’s anything more frightening than ticks and poison ivy, it might be a Nor’easter. In Diego Ongaro’s debut feature film, it was a goal to capture how bleak and never-ending the winters in Massachusetts can be. Bob and the Trees is a character study and fictionalized tale of the real man, Bob Tarasuk, a logger in rural Massachusetts.
“The film is about the hardship of day-to-day life for tradesmen in small towns,” says Ongaro, who relocated to southern Berkshire County seven years ago from New York. “I wanted to showcase the mercilessness of the logging industry, the neverending problems that arise on a farm, and the difficulties of working in extremely harsh weather every day. But we also paired all this dark stuff with the pride that Bob gets from working with his hands and having a strong family.”
Massachusetts has been essential in inspiring Ongaro’s work ever since he and his wife moved to a log cabin on the edge of the Farmington River. He describes this film as very close to the life he’s had for the last seven years, and moving forward, he’s mostly attracted to films that have a lot of real life in them in addition to a strong narrative plot.
“Stories that aren’t 100 percent watertight and scripted,” he says, “where you still have some loose ends and the freedom to be surprised by your own story when you’re filming it—just like we did with Bob and the Trees—that’s what I’m after.”
The Bronze writer-director Bryan Buckley is looking for something similar, and has found it in the small towns he grew up in around Maine and Massachusetts—mostly Sudbury and Swampscott.
“There is such texture and so many layers and so many strong characters in that area,” says the well-known sports commercial director who’s staying at Sundance an extra night with his family to watch the Super Bowl. “You can’t fake it. When I saw The Fighter, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s it.’”
That’s the idea he kept in his mind for The Bronze, a comedy about a once-famous gymnast, played by Melissa Rauch, who returns home only to find she’s being edged out by a newer, younger, star gymnast.
“I’m enamored with small towns,” Buckley says. “We shot in a small town in Ohio—not for lack of trying to shoot in Swampscott, though. [His mother was disappointed.] Nothing is as it appears in a small town, and I’ve seen in real life what it’s like for a small-town person to have a superstar moment and then return back from that. It’s a tough place.”
Buckley explains that school had been completely secondary to getting into trouble with his friends growing up. Then, when he was a senior at Swampscott High, they picked 12 students to attend Phillips Academy Andover on an arts scholarship, which was a mind-opening experience for him.
“I went back home after graduation,” he says, “and probably got arrested for something right away, but that was the change in my life [I needed to get out]. I was back in my old world and saw that I could get out into this other world.”
Andrew Bujalski, writer and director of 2013’s Sundance award-winning film Computer Chess, was also very much part of a different world in Massachusetts, but with similar sentiments for the long game.
“Culture is appreciated and important there,” says the Harvard-grad who was born in Boston, grew up in Newton, and spent much of his 20s in Cambridge and Jamaica Plain. “A certain kind of ambition to do something worthwhile was encouraged. It’s that stoic Northeastern toughness that makes me stubborn and helps in filmmaking, I think.”
Bujalski’s film at Sundance this year is Results, an oddball quasi-romantic comedy starring Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce as personal trainers who share an eccentric client.
“This contemporary self-improvement culture has been around in one form or another,” says Bujalski, who lives and filmed in Austin, Texas—the flagship Whole Foods town. “Recently it’s taken new and sillier forms, I think. ‘Whole Foods Nation’ is part of our culture now.”
Sam Slater and Paul Bernon of Burn Later Productions, who produced the film, are from Boston, and proud of it.
“Our lives are here, our jobs are here, and our families are here. We are homegrown filmmakers,” they share via email.
Unfortunately, so far, each of their films has had a specific reason why it needed to shoot outside of Massachusetts. For example, last year’s Sundance hit Drinking Buddies had to do with the Chicago craft beer scene. “We are actively looking for a script that takes place in Massachusetts or can be transplanted here without sacrificing any elements of the story,” they say.
As for Bujalski, he admits to having pangs sometimes about not raising kids in a town without a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner, but he assumes he hasn’t quite escaped the state fully and most likely will be back at some point—most likely because of the grief his mother will give him for not giving her grandkids close by. Smart mom.
For now though, Bujalski and his fellow Sundance filmmakers are focused on impressing the audiences in Park City, where their next big break could very well be right around the corner.
The 2015 Sundance Film Festival runs January 22 through February 1 in Park City, Utah. Learn more at sundance.org.