Many breakout Sundance Film Festival films have been love stories. But Thursday night, the annual An Artist at the Table opening night gala was all about love for the unseen parts of Sundance—the labs, workshops and all of the behind-the-scenes incubators at Sundance Institute that lead to to the creation of independent films.
The evening began, as it always does, with the viewing of a hand-picked Sundance film at Park City’s Eccles Center, this time it was Blindspotting, a dramatic film co-written by and starring Tony Award winner Daveed Diggs (from the original cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton) and Rafael Casal. After the film, shuttles drove the attendees to the DeJoria Center in Kamas for a cocktail hour followed by dinner.
Following strong remarks from Sundance Founder Robert Redford in support of the #metoo movement, it’s no surprise cocktail hour conversations between a the industry-insiders were dominated by the same subject. There was chatter about listening to women and how the culture of Sundance itself was changing as a result of the news of the last year, including fewer late-night parties and more brunches and daytime meetings, as one attendee very diplomatically put it, “to avoid any missteps.”
Back to the event, An Artist at the Table isn’t just a clever name. At each table at the event is an actor, director or other player who has had a film at the festival—some names are instantly recognizable, some are up-and-comers and still others are the people who’s names we walk by without a thought when the credits roll in the theater.
But, when the dinner program began, the instantly recognizable stars Diggs and Rafael Casal were on stage and moving through the crowd freestyle rapping. After opening remarks from Sundance Board of Trustees Chair Pat Mitchell, attendees were left to their food with entertainment by contemporary dance troupe String Theory (think modern dance meets smooth jazz) took the stage.
The real entertainment began after dinner when selected artists stood on platforms scattered across the room to testify to the life-changing effect Sundance and its programs have had in their lives. And, sometimes quite literally so. Among the notable remarks:
Director Billy Luther: “I had an idea—I had a brilliant idea—and who supported me? The Sundance Studio Lab,” he said of the development of his film Miss Navajo, incubated in part because of Sundance’s Native Program. And of Sundance, overall, “They are my loving, complicated and supportive family.”
Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal: On her movie premiering at the festival, The Kindergarten Teacher, “It is not an easy movie. It is about the state of the world right now. But it is unflinching and feminine and bold, and this is where it belongs.” And on the lasting effects of Sundance, “I’m pretty sure my oldest daughter was conceived at Sundance—so thank you to all the people who make Sundance Sundance. You really changed my life.”
Writer-Director Ritesh Batra: At his first Sundance workshop, Batra noted that someone said, “Making a movie is the art of betraying those you know to impress those you don’t,” and so, after a speech comparing filmmaking to the tree in Sundance Lodge’s famous Tree Room, he closed with an invite for attendees to visit him at his table, “Come by,” he said, “So one day I can betray you.”
Actor Octavia Spencer: “I played a maid and then I played a woman who worked at NASA and then I played a maid who works at NASA in The Shape of Water. So I need these independent films to stretch!” Though she went over her two-minutes, Spencer charmed the audience with tales of her wardrobe choices, shaking out her wig and her experiences at the Sundance labs before closing out the program with this, “Sundance has created an environment where artists blossom and bloom and we need you guys. I need you to call me! They’re going to ask me to be a maid again and I have done everything I can do within that genre.”
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