UNCSA film school graduates out in force at Sundance 2013
PARK CITY - Sometimes things dovetail nicely and come full circle. As a University of North Carolina School of the Arts alumnus, I'm always interested to see how my former classmates and fellow Fighting Pickles are finding their way in the film industry, and a quick glance at this year's Sundance line-up revealed that, across a number of disciplines, the Winston-Salem-based school's afterglow is in full force. It seemed a story was worth pursuing. So I pursued it.
Screening at this year's 35th annual fest are three films directed by UNCSA graduates: Jeff Nichols' "Mud," David Gordon Green's "Prince Avalanche" and Chad Hartigan's "This is Martin Bonner." (Full disclosure: Hartigan formerly provided box office coverage for In Contention.) Within that, though, comes a wide array of below-the-line craftsmen and women working on these films and others, and that spirit of camaraderie, which was a seed planted during film school, was a common thread when I jumped on the phone with a number of them last week.
Cinematographer Tim Orr has worked with Green ever since 2000's critically acclaimed "George Washington," which the director made fresh out of college and was a film that contrasted strongly with the lighter, comedic fare he was known for as a student. Orr was even on the Sundance jury in 2010 when Nichols' "Take Shelter" debuted here, and his work is on display this time around in Green's "Prince Avalanche," starring Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd.
"The biggest thing that I got out of school, and it's still what I get out of it, is just finding people there that I still work with and I love and I trust," Orr says. "We got out there and made mistakes and tried to learn from each one of them."
Adds Hartigan, "I think for all that school's faults, it somehow still cultivates a great environment for kids to figure out what kind of stories they want to tell and how they are going to go about telling them. It's telling that all of our films have so many other alumni working above and below the line on them."
Hartigan goes further, mentioning indie filmmaker Zack Clark as an example of a filmmaker with a fresh voice produced out of the UNCSA system. "I feel like somehow the school has to be doing something right to produce the type of filmmaker it seems to be producing," he says. "The opportunity to try and try again with short films in a safe, isolated place was the most invaluable thing and really results in people building a style and finding themes that they take with them."
For his part, Nichols, whose "Mud" is receiving its North American debut here this year after world premiering at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, attributes the beaten path to the school's first big success story, David Gordon Green.
"There was a period there where there was a question of, 'Would it just be David,'" he says. "But it continues to grow and become more important. It's cool just to be part of something like that. And I think a lot of credit goes to David for kind of setting, not just the bar, but setting kind of the rules, which is everybody works together. It doesn't mean you just willy-nilly pass out favors to anybody you need to, but it's like if there's a talented person that's part of our group, do whatever you can to see them execute that talent. Whether that's helping another director get in touch with an actor or it's working with [cinematographer] Adam Stone and working with [production designer] Richard Wright and the whole host of other guys on my crew. He set the guidelines for that."
Hartigan fully agrees, calling Green "the figureheard of success" for UNCSA and "kind of like the godfather of it all." He also notes that seeing Green's "All the Real Girls" in an empty Greensboro theater with friend and future UNCSA success story in his own right, Aaron Katz ("Cold Weather"), changed his life.
"I think people in the filmmaking community can be real catty," Nichols continues. "Sometimes it's like, 'Ah, screw that guy. I want to see that guy fail so I feel better about myself.' We're in a society that, especially in media, we feed on ourselves. We feed on the things that we once loved. And David just didn't think that way at all. As a result, I really don't think that way, because I got help from David. And now I'm turning back and thinking, 'All right, who else is coming with us?'"