Maryland shine at Sundance Festival: From the film commission to young filmmakers, the state is making its presence felt in Utah.

January 23, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

For some filmgoers, the 1998 edition of the Sundance Film Festival will be remembered as the year rock-star-turned-clothes-horse Courtney Love succeeded in booting a film about her life with Kurt Cobain off the roster. For others, it will be remembered as the best organized and technically smooth festival in a very long time.

More than 13,000 executives, filmmakers, fans and hangers-on have descended on Park City, Utah, for the 10-day festival, where features and documentaries compete for coveted awards and unknown filmmakers show their mettle; where studios pick up the next big thing dirt cheap (they hope) and -- gasp -- where cinephiles simply get to see movies they may never get to see again.

Years past have been called the Year of Soderbergh (1989, when "sex, lies, and videotape" put Sundance on the map) or the Year of the Flops (1997, when some expensive acquisitions failed to recoup at the box office). But 1998 might well be remembered as the Year of the Marylanders.

"It's the biggest Maryland presence ever," said Jed Dietz of the Baltimore-based Producers Club of Maryland, calling from Park City. On Sunday night, the Producers Club threw a party for Dan Rosen, one of five Maryland filmmakers who are represented at this year's festival.

This also marks the first year of the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship, a $10,000 grant the Producers Club bestows on a filmmaker in the Sundance Writers and Directors Labs. (The labs take place every winter and summer at the Sundance Institute, where young filmmakers get the chance to work on a new project and enjoy the mentoring of more seasoned artists, all within the scenic embrace of the Wasatch Mountains.)

What's more, the Maryland Film Commission sponsored Saturday's filmmakers brunch and is a significant sponsor of the Slamdance Festival, which sprang up three years ago as an edgier alternative to Sundance.

"People are, I think, very stunned by Maryland's profile," Dietz said.

Two local films are in competition, both in the documentary category: "Divine Trash," Steve Yeager's film about the life and work of Baltimore director John Waters and "A Letter Without Words" by Lisa Lewenz.

"Divine Trash" had its world premiere last Friday night before a packed house. "It went really well," said the producer, Cindy Miller, the next day. "People really seemed to enjoy the movie. They were laughing, and nobody left."

Still, this was Sundance, so a technical glitch was almost de rigueur; in the case of "Divine Trash," something went wrong with the projector, which resulted in a wobbly soundtrack. Miller and Yeager took it in stride. "People have come up to me since and said the music was really neat," said Miller, who added that the sound fit Waters' down-and-dirty aesthetic. "They thought it was intentional!" (To be fair, such gaffes have been kept to a minimum this year; projection and sound at Sundance have been called "pristine" by Variety, the trade publication.)

Miller said yesterday that they had received an offer for "Divine Trash," "but we're still entertaining other offers. Most of the distributors are still sending their reps to the movie."

Lewenz said she was "exhausted" after the premiere of her film last Friday. "It was a mob scene," she said on Saturday. "It was snowing and quite lovely."

"A Letter Without Words," which was funded by the Independent Television Service, will air later this year on PBS. The documentary interweaves present-day film shot by Lewenz with sequences filmed by her grandmother, Ella Arnhold Lewenz, in Germany during the '20s and '30s.

What started as a hobby for Arnhold became her personal chronicle of Hitler's rise in Germany, as well as the intellectual ferment of the period; Albert Einstein even makes an appearance.

When Lewenz met Robert Redford at Saturday's filmmakers' brunch, "I thanked him and said how much it meant that I was able to show something that was started 70 years ago."

Besides the films in competition, Maryland is being represented by a short film, "Angel Passing," whose executive producer was Brendon Hunt, as well as the experimental film "Inside/Out" by Rob Tregenza and "Dead Man's Curve," a dark campus comedy by Rosen.

Rosen, who grew up in Pikesville and Randallstown and attended Towson University, filmed his first feature last summer on the Towson and Johns Hopkins campuses and at Max's on Broadway, the popular Fells Point watering hole. Although the film has not been picked up for distribution, several companies are said to be interested, including Paramount Pictures.

Much of the buzz about "Dead Man's Curve" was generated at the Producers Club party Sunday night, when 150 revelers packed the Lakota Restaurant & Bar and many more were left disappointed at the door. Dietz said "Good Morning America," Entertainment Weekly, "Entertainment Tonight" and USA Today were all represented at the party for Rosen's cast and crew. "The film's got a lot of heat," said Dietz.

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