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Tessa Ross to step down as Channel 4 Controller of Film and Drama

26 Mar, 2014 Productions Posted in: Behind The Scenes, Film4 staff

Tessa Ross CBE will leave her role later this year having been appointed as Chief Executive of the National Theatre.

Tessa and Steve at C4

Tessa Ross will be stepping down from her role as Channel 4 Controller of Film and Drama later this year having been appointed as Chief Executive of the National Theatre.

Commenting on her departure David Abraham, Channel 4’s Chief Executive, has said: “Tessa has made as big a contribution to Channel 4 as anyone in its history. I would like to personally thank her for her extraordinary commitment, talent and leadership over 13 remarkable years. I am looking forward to working with her over the summer on a number of important projects, including Todd Haynes’ Carol, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth.

“Tessa’s job is one of the most coveted in film, both in the UK and internationally, and while she leaves big shoes to fill, we will shortly begin the task of identifying a new leader for the next chapter of Film4’s story. Meanwhile our commitment to investing in independent British film remains undimmed and we have every intention of building on the extraordinary reputation Tessa has created.”

Tessa Ross said: “I’m incredibly excited to be joining the National Theatre but it is with a heavy heart I leave this wonderful organisation and the brilliant people I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to work beside over the past 13 years.  I leave behind a dedicated, passionate team at Film4 – not only colleagues but true friends – and an important organisation in its mother Channel 4. It’s been an absolute honour to work with the writers, directors, producers and the many other talented people I’ve collaborated with during my time here, relationships I look forward to continuing. I’ve loved every minute of the work, and am privileged that the public purpose that has been at the heart of it – of discovering, nurturing and supporting great artists and great work – is something I shall be able to continue to champion and celebrate in my new role.”

Tessa will remain in post until September 2014, and will stay on as Chair of the Growth Fund Advisory Council once in her new role.

Tessa Ross joined Channel 4 in 2000 and became Head of Film4 in 2003, followed by Controller of Film and Drama in 2008. Under Tessa Ross Film4 has built a worldwide reputation for developing and financing bold and distinctive films such as Steve McQueen’s recent Oscar and Bafta-winning 12 Years A Slave; Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won multiple awards including eight Oscars and seven Baftas; Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning The Last King Of Scotland; and Bafta-winning This Is England by Shane Meadows.

Working with the most exciting British talent has been key to Film4’s success, reflected in films such as Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, Bart Layton’s The Imposter, Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Chris Morris’ Four Lions, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, and The Iron Lady, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and starring Meryl Streep.

Current films on release are Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin and Starred Up, directed by David Mackenzie;  upcoming films include, amongst others, Richard Ayoade’s The Double, Yann Demange’s ‘71, Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy, Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, and Carol, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

During her earlier stewardship of Channel 4 Drama, Tessa Ross successfully implemented a strategy that cemented a drama reputation based on risk and innovation. Pieces commissioned during that time include Shameless, Teachers, Not Only But Always, White Teeth, No Angels and Sex Traffic. Tessa came to Channel 4 from the BBC’s Independent Commissioning Group where she was Head of Drama; television and film she commissioned included Billy Elliot, Clocking Off and Playing The Field. She was educated at Oxford University and spent her early career as a literary agent after postgraduate training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Tessa Ross was on the board of the National Theatre from 2011-2014.

She has previously been a governor at the NFTS, a member of the ICA Council and a governor at the BFI. She is an honorary associate of the London Film School and an Honorary Fellow at the NFTS. She was also a member of Chris Smith’s Film Policy Review panel. Tessa was appointed CBE in the New Year 2010 Honours List and received the 2013 Bafta for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema.

Polly Stokes on working in Development at Film4

20 Feb, 2014 Productions Posted in: Careers, Film4 staff

Polly Stokes currently works as a Development Editor at Film4, but just before she joined Film4, she independently produced Paul Wright’s Film4-backed debut feature For Those In Peril. Here, Polly shares how her own career has unfolded so far and what it’s like to work in development at Film4.

George Mackay in For Those in Peril

George MacKay in For Those in Peril

Starting out

I started my career in theatre, working for a wonderful theatre company called Complicite. I was there for six years, tour managing and producing, and then I wanted a change. I’d always loved cinema but I didn’t really have any sense of how films got made so I decided to try and find out. I went to meet Ken Loach’s producer Rebecca O’Brien and she said, “go to NFTS and do the Producing MA – just badger your way in” and they kind of took a punt on me. NFTS is where I met Paul Wright [director, For Those In Peril] and there was a dialogue between us about the kind of films that we liked and the kind of films that we wanted to make.

As I was finishing at NFTS, I met with Warp Films and they said “we don’t have any jobs, but we can give you an email address and a desk so why don’t you come here and see if you can set some projects up?” Essentially, it was the offer of a professional community which was very welcome. I had this feeling that Paul’s sensibility would be a good fit for Warp, so I brought him in to meet Robin Gutch and Mary Burke and they said “look, why don’t you guys go and see if you can find a feature idea?”

Developing For Those In Peril

The development process was fairly conventional. Paul had a few ideas that we discussed, we wrote an outline and then we wrote a scriptment, which describes the film scene by scene and beat by beat in quite a lot of detail, and then we wrote a script. I worked really hard on the writing with Paul, and I suppose my role was to try to help shape the material into acts. I was quite provocative and tried to push him hard; I asked a lot of questions because I wanted to make sure that we would be able to sustain Paul’s filmmaking style over ninety minutes. I think that we worked well together because he’s very clear about his vision and about why he wants to tell his stories, so he can take a lot of interrogation.

Pre-production

I think pre-production is always my favourite time on films because it feels so practically creative – or creatively practical, I don’t know which is more accurate.

Paul had always imagined that we’d shoot in Fife, which is where he’s from, and he had written with Fife in mind. And then when we went to Fife it became clear that he was writing about Fife in the eighties – his childhood – and actually that Fife didn’t really exist anymore. So we asked Creative Scotland for some money from a recce fund and we drove the whole east coast of Scotland with a very good scout called Michael Campbell looking for an alternative location. When we arrived in Gourdon – which is in Aberdeenshire – it was just like, “this is it.” It was an amazing moment, really thrilling – suddenly we could see the film.

Alongside this location work we were casting. We worked with wonderful Scottish casting directors Kahleen Crawford and Danny Jackson, who were based in Glasgow. Paul wanted to sit through all of the auditions. You learn so much about your script doing that – you learn the scenes that work and the scenes that don’t work and you learn about the range of qualities that an actor is going to need.

Production

Producer Mary Burke came and joined us in Scotland for the prep, and we were both on the shoot together. She was completely amazing. Low-budget depends on charismatic leadership, and she really has that in spades. She’s a brilliant galvaniser and really makes people believe in what they’re doing. She’s also a lot of fun. I learnt so much from her about what a producer does on-set and during production. She is very focussed about what matters.

Post-production

We edited in Scotland and London for about 12 weeks. I don’t really have much experience in the edit so I felt very happy taking a back seat during that part of the process. There were a lot of really strong voices in the mix: Mary and Robin, Katherine Butler (Film4), Lizzie Francke (BFI), Robbie Allen (Creative Scotland). And we had a supervising editor called Anders Refn, who is one of Lars Von Trier’s key collaborators. He came and worked with us over a long weekend and was incredibly clear and insightful about what the film needed. It was a masterclass, actually.

By the time we submitted to Cannes, the film was picture locked and it had a bit of unmixed sound but didn’t have any proper music on it and it wasn’t graded. So it was a leap of faith. I think that the Critics’ Week programmers are really brave about what they back and select.

The move to Film4

We finished shooting For Those In Peril in October 2012 and Sam Lavender (former Head of Development at Film4, now Commissioning Executive) approached me in December – so when the film was coming up to picture lock – to ask whether I’d have an interest in applying for a position in the development team. I told him that I was very interested. I love how Film4 works with talent and producers, and I think that they (we!) make some of the best films in the world right now.

I started working here in March. I’m so glad that I’ve had the experience of producing a film and I think it makes me a better Development Editor, but I’m also happy to have hung up my producing hat for the time being, at least. Being a producer is very emotional and my job now is simply to help the writers, directors and producers to make their script the best version of what it can be; it’s not as invested as producing. I have to say I’m finding it a very rewarding, satisfying process and I think that I’m often able to be more helpful because I have a bit of distance.

I currently edit across about a third of the slate – alongside my colleagues Eva Yates and Tom Leggett – and my involvement in different projects is bespoke to what’s needed. Sometimes I will send notes, sometimes I will sit with a writer for half a day and try to work through problems in person.

We all do a lot of scouting and tracking of what’s going on outside of Film4. We read novels in manuscript and go to film festivals and see theatre and stand-up and performance poetry and contemporary art/dance, so there’s a very energetic sense of trying to keep an overview of what’s going on culturally and what is special.

A longer version of this blog is available on the main website

Journey to screen: 20,000 Days On Earth

Want to know how Film4 films get made and distributed? Film4’s Head of Commercial and Brand Strategy Sue Bruce Smith reveals the path taken by the Film4-backed 20,000 Days On Earth, from pitch to premiere

Iain Forsyth, Nick Cave and Jane Pollard at Sundance

Iain Forsyth, Nick Cave and Jane Pollard at Sundance

The talent

We are thrilled to have discovered two such brilliantly talented and interesting new filmmakers in Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth. Coming from a background in visual arts, music videos and short films, this is their first feature film and hopefully the first of many. Some of the commissioning team met with them together with the producers and Nick Cave and were blown away by the amazing showreel they had put together along with the pitch they presented of a film which would look into Nick Cave’s creative soul, weaving observations of his artistic process with a cinematic realisation of his 20,000th day on earth. We are also really happy to be working for the first time with new producing partners in Pulse who are refreshingly alternative in their approach, questioning the status quo, always in a very thought provoking way and coming up with new ideas to throw into the mix. Dan Bowen from Pulse worked alongside experienced producer Jim Wilson, with whom we’ve made many great films, including most recently Under The Skin and The Perverts’ Guide to the Cinema. At our end, this has been a project that Tabitha Jackson from Channel4, and Katherine Butler and Anna Higgs from the Film4 team have guided through every stage.

The funding

The producers started putting the finance together early in 2013 and the final meetings to piece together the partners happened during the Cannes film festival in May when we met with Pulse and equity partner, Corniche, and were later joined by our Australian distributor Madman. The BFI funding came in shortly afterwards and we then hired Hanway Select to sell the film outside of the UK and Australia. Meanwhile the film was already taking shape – docs are a different beast from entirely fictional film – and somewhat nerve-wrackingly, tend to get going before the final contracts are signed. The contracts took a lot longer than usual to come together since none of us had worked together as a group before, so there was a lot of detail to be gone into and in fact the financing only closed in January just prior to the festival launch!

20000 Days On Earth

20000 Days On Earth

The festivals

20,000 Days is very much more than a music documentary and we were very keen from the start to position it to our distributors as a feature film to be seen and enjoyed on the big screen. We knew that Sundance was a perfect fit for the film but it was quite tight to get the film in a state we were happy to show it to the selectors prior to the submission deadline in early December. Needless to say we were over the moon when it was invited, and even more so when were able to confirm that Nick Cave and Iain and Jane were able to come out to Utah to support the film. Before Sundance, the anticipation was fierce and we were under intense pressure to show the film to eager distributors, but we opted to keep it fresh for the premiere in Sundance, only showing it to two handpicked journalists (from Time Magazine and Rolling Stone), both of whom gave it rave notices, so that definitely helped whet everybody’s appetite. We closed the UK distribution deal sitting round a table in the Yarrow Hotel which only helped to build the excitement. When the film finally premiered at the Egyptian Theatre in Main Street, there was a standing ovation and an outpouring of positive reactions from public, critics and buyers alike. All were blown away by the confidence and virtuosity of the filmmaking and Iain and Jane’s filmmaking star was very definitely born!

The performance

After the premiere, the sales agents and producers hosted a party at which, tantalizingly, we spied a piano in the corner. Speculation was rife as to whether Nick would play, very obligingly, he did, much to the delight of the assembled group of 50 or so people. I’ve never seen an audience suddenly go from shouting and complete bedlam to such absolute expectant silence. You could have heard a pin drop as Nick sat down at the piano and started to play. People were climbing up on chairs and climbing on tables to be able to get a view of him at the piano. And the songs were hauntingly beautiful. He stayed chatting to people very happily until the end of the party. We even had Maggie Gyllenhaal coming over to have her picture taken with Nick, devastated to have missed the performance!

The future

It must be nerve wracking for directors, particularly first-time filmmakers, to show their work to an audience for the first time and so it was great to see Iain and Jane smiling radiantly at the party, relieved to find everybody coming up to them and congratulating them – they clearly have a very bright future ahead of them as new directors on the scene. And in addition to the rave reviews and reactions, we have just heard the amazing news that they also picked up two major awards from the festival, Best Documentary directors and Best Editing for a documentary. It’s now going on to have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in the next couple of weeks.

Since the Sundance premiere there’s been a huge amount of interest in both the filmmakers and the film, all across the globe; US distributors, French distributors, Japanese distributors and of course we already have our Australian distributor in Madman– always a difficult moment when a distributor has pre-bought a film and they get to see it for the first time, but we needn’t have worried in this case – they absolutely loved the film unreservedly! The UK distributor was also blown away by the film and said that what she really loved about the film is that it is not just a personal story. It’s a personal story that transcends to the universal. It’s often been described as a love letter to creativity, and it does really inspire you and make you think about what it means and how it feels to be creative. I hope that everybody watching this film when it comes out in cinemas will feel very much closer to their own inner creative soul as a result!

 

Frank: Maverick Genius

18 Jan, 2014 Posted in: Directors, Festivals, Film4 staff, Interview, Sundance

Are you an undiscovered creative genius? Do you have the soul of an artist but not much work to show for it? If so, Frank, a winningly comical dismantling of 21st century myths about life as an artist, very loosely inspired by Jon Ronson’s recollections of his time in the Frank Sidebottom band, might just the film for you. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and with a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, Frank has been selected in more Ones-To-Watch-At-Sundance lists than you can shake a papier mâché head at. Catherine Bray sits down with its director to find out exactly what Frank is all about, and what it really means to be that much-abused term: a “creative”.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Donhnall Gleeson in Lenny Abrahamson's Frank

There are three things you should know upfront about Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to the thoroughly excellent What Richard Did (2012). One: Frank stars Michael Fassbender, but don’t expect to see loads of him – when we meet him, he’s hidden inside a giant papier mâché head. Two: Frank was initially inspired by Jon Ronson’s time touring with maverick outsider musician Frank Sidebottom, but it very much isn’t about Frank Sidebottom. Three: Frank is about a young man’s dream of becoming a true creative genius like his heroes – but it’s not your typical redemptive rags-to-riches tale of rock-and-roll redemption.

Frank is, in short, a complex, counterintuitive and utterly fascinating look at what it means to be creative and all the head-messing that comes with that. It should also be said that it is very funny, a timely riposte to the post-millennial narrative that it is possible to be anything you want to be so long as you really want it and that we should all pursue fulfillment through hobbies that are also our careers. The producer of Frank, Ed Guiney, puts it pretty bluntly: “There is a common wisdom that if you try hard enough and apply yourself and have sufficient self belief then you can achieve anything or be anything you want to be. Its a close relative of the mantra which says that successful creative endeavour is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I think the facts prove that neither of these (nor other related) truisms hold.”

“The real truth is that some people are uniquely and unusually gifted and these gifts can never be emulated. And this is something for us all to celebrate and cherish. So I suppose the film shatters a common myth about the nature of creativity and that’s one reason it was worth making. That and the chance to work with some uniquely and unusually gifted individuals.” Ed isn’t quite saying that you either are creative or you aren’t, but he’s certainly not on the side of X Factor hopefuls whose self-belief outweighs any innate ability to sing or aptitude for music.

Executive Producer Katherine Butler’s take is slightly more encouraging for anyone who might be on the verge of giving up that career in writing/singing/filmmaking: “I think that in the film Frank what we discover is that people are creative in different ways and in different areas, but not always in the way they would wish to be. And the way to be happy in life is to accept your own limitations and embrace what you have a talent for. I think of this film as like Amadeus – where the man who discovers he’s not the genius he always wanted to be is eaten up by jealousy for the great genius he both worships and almost destroys… In the coolest, most beguilingly strange setting you could imagine.  With great songs. And a big fake head.”

So perhaps it’s more about finding your niche. Over the course of a ninety minute chat director Lenny Abrahamson shared with me his feelings about the film, what’s at its heart, what makes it tick and why it’s really Adrian Mole meets The Wizard of Oz…

 

So, who is Frank, really?

Well, the massive head is obviously a huge visual reference to the musician and comedian Frank Sidebottom. But our Frank is a composite inspired by several outsider artists – he isn’t Frank Sidebottom. We felt that the head made a good container for these other people, this strange mixture of people like Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, Frank Sidebottom, Harry Partch, these people who made beautiful, eccentric and very wonderful music and art.

The Venn diagram of our Frank draws several of these people together and he is this very strange, sweet, brilliant man. But we did think it would make a good story to have this guy who has to deal with the outside world by hiding himself in this big fake head. A lot of what the film is about is what it is to be free-form in your creative life, versus approaching art conventionally. We don’t want people going in expecting a Frank Sidebottom biopic, because that’s not what this is.

 

Can you expand a bit more on what each of those influences and sources brings to Frank? 

We’ve drawn on so many different sources, all the great outsider musicians, but I’ll talk you through some of them. Beefheart, for example, went and recorded and album for over a year and they all went a bit mad and it was half commune, half slave camp, which you can see in Frank. And Daniel Johnson has that kind of anxious, boyish, almost childlike quality that our Frank sometimes has. But our Frank can also be sexier in the way that Captain Beefheart was. And then the invention of instruments, the idea of going out and collecting sounds, that is Harry Partch in the mix. Then Frank Sidebottom gives us the physical shape and allows us to play this elaborate joke involving Jon’s projection of what he imagines might be behind the mask. For somebody like me who is a great devotee of classical slapstick, the head gives you this puppet person in the middle of your film, which offers amazing opportunities for comedy.

 

It’s more about the clash of talent and mediocrity, isn’t it, than a traditional rise-and-fall music narrative?

You’ve got this conflict between someone who is genuinely talented and a person who should have loved that talent but also resents it because they don’t have it themselves. The Jon character, like most people, has a sort of bag of crap theories about what makes people creative, and he buys into a lot of those myths, like the idea that it’s desperate suffering that makes you creative. Like, if only he hadn’t had such a well-adjusted middle class childhood, he too could be creative.

 

I remember being reminded of one very funny bit in the Adrian Mole books where he’s really annoyed that he’s been born in Leicester because it’s no place for an intellectual to be living.

Absolutely, and I think we all go through it as teenagers when we first read about great artists and feel slightly jealous that our lives are so boring and comfortable. So this was an opportunity to poke fun at those oversimplifications of what makes a genius. Not that we’re trying to say in any serious way that our Frank is a genius – the film is a playful thing – but Jon is able to project behind that mask a series of fantasies of what a genuinely creative person must be like. It’s not that great suffering never leads to great art, because sometimes it does, but the Jon character holds these views in a very facile way.

We discovered while working on the script it’s also a sort of Wizard of Oz story, because it’s the same as the way that people project all these qualities onto the wizard, and when you pull back the curtain, it’s just this little old guy. In our case, when we pull back the curtain… well, people will have to see it to see it to find out what Jon discovers.

 

So Jon is an example of that type of person – again the Adrian Mole type – who spends more time thinking about his acceptance speeches and what he’ll say in interviews than he does about his creative work?

Yes, it’s that X Factor thing of people who want the lifestyle more than they want to do the thing itself. Jon is clearly not driven to write music, he clearly has a terrible time with it and he can’t do it. Frank has this naive idea that he wants to move people and be loved, but it’s very different; he’s unable to not make music, everything becomes subject matter for him. Jon can’t make a song out of the deepest ideas about love and death; Frank can make a song about a piece of fluff.

So Jon confronts a certain existential brutality: you are not this person, this person has talent, and you don’t. The fundamental fact is that no matter how much he wants to be that person, Jon is not that person.

 

How far would you go along with this very Calvinist sort of idea that there are the creative elect and then the people who are not creative – as the sitcom Peep Show puts it, “here be beauty, there be pie-charts” – and there’s no grey area in the middle?

There’s definitely a grey area. Experience changes people and you can discover you’ve had the capacity to invent and make and you’ve never used it, but I don’t think it’s something people learn out of nowhere.To use a physical analogy: are you born a runner or are you made a runner? Well, you can certainly train and improve, but people do have natural capacities and abilities. I don’t think anybody can do it if they just put their mind to it.

 

Then there are people who are naturally gifted but don’t seem to have the will to exercise that, who may end up less successful than a moderately talent person who slogs away and puts the hours in.

That’s absolutely true. People who are lazy or inhibited or desperately lacking in confidence – for every Mozart we know about, there must be some that we don’t. That drive, so long as you do have a very small amount of talent as well, can get you very far.

 

Frank is of course very funny, but it’s not a straight comedy; there are other elements in there. How do you describe it in general terms?

We’re not completely sure how we should be talking about it, because it doesn’t fit easily into a box. There are several shifts of tone. But we think that actually an audience will come with you if they’re enjoying it, you don’t have to be too rigid, the tone can be elastic. It is a warm film, there is a kind of playfulness and a free-wheeling silliness in places, but it can also be quite moving. But how would you describe it?

 

Me? Hmmm. I guess you could talk about it as a film for anyone who’s ever failed to express themselves creatively, which is probably everyone.

That’s perfect. Or a film for anybody who has ever wished that they were somebody that they’re not, which again is everybody.

 

One of my favourite visual jokes in the film is when you pull in close on the giant head, the way you would in another film to show someone’s emotions in close up, but of course we just see a giant head in close up.

Well, I remember at the time thinking, this could be a total disaster, we’re going to film this guy in a giant head, and heck, what if two days into rushes we find, “well, that doesn’t work”? Which was scary. But actually, so far, it seems that people accept this thing. The head in particular seems to be oddly expressive. It’s amazing that the same expression can reflect so much in any given scene. And we got a lot of good close-ups which I thought were never gonna work given Frank’s face never changes. When you go in for a close-up, it’s not like you learn anything new from his expression, but that was something we talked about right from the beginning: wouldn’t it be just funny to obey all the rules of film grammar, but with this giant head?

 

It’s wonderfully audacious to have put one of the most in-demand stars in the world right now inside the giant head.

We used to joke about that. Because pretty much every script or proposal you get sent at the moment, for any male role from 30 to 45, the wishlist of names for the lead will include Michael Fassbender. Everybody’s desperate to cast him. And we’ve somehow got this man whose face everybody is desperate to film and we’ve hidden his famous face under a giant head. But it’s part of the playfulness of the film. It’s a challenge, it’s a risk, it’s exciting and it’s sort of silly at the same time.

 

It’s an act of trust for the audience too, maybe – you’re telling us it’s Michael Fassbender and we have to go with that.

It’s worth saying that he was a real purist about that. No doubles, no long shots where a runner pops it on in the distance. It’s always him. Apart from maybe ten fleeting frames where it’s a stunt guy. The rest of the time, you are genuinely watching Michael Fassbender hidden in a giant head.

 

Frank premieres 17th January at Sundance 2014 and will be released in the UK in 2014. 

 

Sundance 2014: preview

17 Jan, 2014 Productions Posted in: Festivals, Film4 staff, Opinion, Sundance

With films like The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine all having launched here, the Sundance Film Festival has long been the go-to destination for ambitious indie films determined to break out of the art-house ghetto and find a place on a global platform. Catherine Bray rounds up some likely highlights from Salt Lake City in 2014

20000 Days On Earth

20000 Days On Earth

Robert Redford may have been snubbed this week by Oscar voters who outrageously failed to nominate him for his career best performance in All Is Lost, but on the evidence of 2014′s programme, the snowy Salt Lake City-set film festival Redford helped nurture from humble beginnings continues to go from strength to strength. Last year, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon and The Way, Way Back starring Sam Rockwell were snapped up for record sums by buyers. This year’s line up seems as strong as any in recent memory, with an embarrassment of intriguing flicks to pick from.

There’s Kristen Stewart stepping into Zero Dark Thirty territory as a Guantanamo Bay prison guard in Camp X Ray. We’ve got Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler sending up rom-coms in They Came Together. Another delicious comic prospect is Saturday Night Live alumnae Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader paired as siblings in The Skeleton Twins – and speaking of TV comedians, the 46,000 people who Kickstarted Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here will be able to look out for the early word on what the Scrubs star has made with their money. In fact, it’s a good year for actors stepping behind the camera: William H. Macy, Mad Men’s John Slattery and Arrested Development’s David Cross will all make their directorial debuts with Rudderless, God’s Pocket and Hits respectively.

Personally speaking, I can’t wait to see Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard, starring the excellent Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), and will also be sure to check out Ira Sach’s Love is Strange, which takes on the under-explored topic of older people in same-sex relationships, with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a couple who finally tie the knot after forty plus years together, only to see one fired from his conservative job as a result. I’m also thrilled by the late addition to the programme of director Richard Linklater’s new experiment with time and aging, Boyhood, which follows the life of a boy from the age of six to eighteen and was shot over twelve years, allowing the actors to age in tandem with their characters.

But it’s certainly not all about American film – we’ve an incredibly strong Film4 line-up this year (though I do say so!). Making their feature debut, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have teamed up with musician, screenwriter and artist Nick Cave to create 20,000 Days On Earth, “a fictitious account of 24 hours in the life of the acclaimed musician and international cultural icon.” This isn’t just another cosy music doc replete with talking heads waxing fat on hagiographic recollections of the good old days, but a genuine exploration of the power of art, fronted by Nick Cave. And Kylie gets a cameo, too. Expect a UK release this autumn.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Donhnall Gleeson in Lenny Abrahamson's Frank

Also on a fiction-inspired-by-real-life-musician tip, but this time with the emphasis heavily on the fiction, is a Film4-backed film inspired by journalist and screenwriter Jon Ronson’s time in the band of Mancunian musician and comedian Frank Sidebottom. The film sees a wannabe musician (Domhnall Gleeson) go on tour with the mysterious artistic genius Frank, who is a kind of composite inspired by several different outsider artists including Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, Frank Sidebottom and other musical mavericks, as played by Michael Fassbender. Not that you’d know it: Fassbender spends virtually the entire runtime of this freewheeling comedy encased in a giant papier-mâché head.

I mentioned John Slattery’s God’s Pocket above. That’s actually one of two films at the fest starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also toplines Anton Corbijn’s John Le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man, our third Film4 premiere at Sundance 2014 – and as something of a Le Carré fan I absolutely cannot wait to see it. There’s a host of brilliant actors involved, from Rachel McAdams to Daniel Bruhl to Willem Dafoe to Robin Wright, and Corbijn’s films always look gorgeous, so I’m expecting big things.

We’re also excited to be screening Richard Ayoade’s second feature The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg, which screened to rave reviews in Toronto and at the London Film Festival. I love this film and can’t wait for UK audiences to see it when it’s released on the 4th April (US audiences will get to see it courtesy of Magnolia Pictures from 7th March).

So, bags to look forward to here in Utah and plenty of discoveries yet to be made… Moreover, with UK spin-off Sundance London (25th – 27th April) now in its fourth year, British audiences don’t have to wait too long before they can judge for themselves if all the transatlantic excitement was a case of film folk at a high altitude getting light-headed in the thin air, or whether it’s really going to be the golden year for independent filmmaking the programme suggests.

The Sundance Film Festival is on now and runs until 26th January 2014. Sundance London runs 25th – 27th April 2014 at the O2.