Last week I sat down with David Courier and Caroline Libresco, Sundance's team leaders for the documentary line-up. We talked at length about this year's amazing slate of films, changes brought about by the departure of Geoffrey Gilmore and the ascension of John Cooper & Trevor Groth, and look back on a breakthrough decade for documentary and Sundance's role in creating an environment for that breakthrough.
Perhaps most interesting to filmmakers (or to me at least) is the discussion of the thin line between getting into Sundance and not getting in to Sundance.
It was a great conversation with a lot of laughter - I'm going to run it in two parts because it got fairly extensive.
All These Wonderful Things: First I want to ask, because the list is so amazing on paper – did you know you were going to get submissions from that caliber of A-list directors, did you know they were coming or were you like, “oh my God, here’s another great film from another great filmmaker”?
David Courier: Yeah, we kind of did. We’d been tracking them for a while. In the case of certain ones like (Alex Gibney’s) CASINO JACK, he’s been working on that for years, and we knew he was ready so it was likely, I mean we were hoping it was going to come our way and not go elsewhere. And sure enough, it’s what he wanted to do. Laura Poitras’ film, same thing.
Caroline Libresco: Totally, and Davis Guggenheim and Amir (Bar-Lev), we'd been tracking. Those I feel were in our consciousness already.
DC: A couple of those – CASINO JACK and (Bar-Lev’s PAT) TILLMAN film – we were hoping to get last year.
ATWT: Yeah, I think Amir had said that one point they thought they might have been ready…
CL: Yeah, I remember that.
DC: Glad they waited. It’s really exciting.
CL: But I think that it’s a really tough competition, that’s kind of the underlying question under your question, because there are so many consummate American documentarians. And if each of them has a film every 3 or 4 years, there’s a lot of great films out there.
ATWT: We just did the new film festival survey and Sundance is number one, not surprisingly. But one thing I noticed, I kind of have this theory that Sundance is that its almost like the Cannes of documentary to the extent that the list of people – Oscar winners, Oscar nominees, the crème de la crème of the American documentary scene – that when these people are making films they want to come to Sundance, in the way that if the Coen Brothers make a film or if Soderburgh makes a film, maybe they’re aiming for Cannes as a premiere. Do you think that’s because Sundance offers a good Oscar platform? Is it because the distributors are expecting to find the great docs there? Why has Sundance stepped in to fill that position in a way that it doesn’t really do on the narrative side?
DC: Well, I think partly because Sundance, years ago, elevated documentaries to be on a par with narrative films which is unlike so many festivals. In fact, not only “on a par”, they’re first in our catalog. They get so much attention. We just have given documentary filmmakers the respect that they’re due and not that many festivals do. I mean, it’s always like, if you’re at another festival, it’s like "the other".
ATWT: The step-child.
CL: Yeah, I think it was a lucky confluence that happened between Sundance and American documentary just in the last 20 years. I think Sundance embraced documentary and that was visionary of Geoff Gilmore, frankly, to see the documentary form as a cinematic form, truly, and to see the great work that was being done and to acknowledge it and to put it on par with our narrative competition. But I think also at the same time, luckily there was more and more of an appetite among audiences, distributors started to embrace (these films), and so I think there was this possible dialectic between what was happening at Sundance and what was happening out in the world among audiences and distributors.
At the same time, we can’t divorce ourselves from the independent movement that was happening and the coalitions of independent producers in the documentary world, like ITVS, POV, who were staking their claim and making space and getting money. So I think it’s also HBO and ITVS frankly and Sundance Channel to some degree and a few other outlets who jumped on early on. I mean ITVS is almost 20 years old and I don’t know how long Sheila’s been at HBO embracing documentary…
ATWT: Long time.
DC: Long time, yeah.
CL: Longer than twenty years. So I think it’s a lucky chemistry of all these different key people sort of jumping on together.
ATWT: Someone who commented for the festival survey says “Sundance really deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened to documentary in this decade and how it’s come to the fore”. Do you think it’s a confluence of all those people and Michael Moore, a kind of happy stew?
CL: And some of those break-out films. Remember when SPELLBOUND was a really big deal? And that was like eight years ago. And we’re in a really different place now where anyone can hope to be SPELLBOUND.
[ed note - For clarification, Libresco was talking about SPELLBOUND's theatrical release. SPELLBOUND was famously passed over for Sundance and premiered at SXSW.]
DC: And AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH made a big impact on a political level, on an environmental level, so that was a huge one.
ATWT: Well, clearly we’ve seen people going to Sundance expecting the docs to be better than the narratives, quite frankly. They go to Sundance expecting docs to sell. And that element, of docs having a theatrical life, that’s been the story of this decade much more so than any other.
CL: And of course (it's been) touch and go all through the decade. Remember? It’s come and gone.
DC: Five years ago, (it was) excellent.
CL: Everyone was all about the doc.
ATWT: Completely changes from year to year.
CL: It seems to be two-year cycles. Right now, I think it’s back up, people are hopeful again. I think Sundance did commit to documentary, in the way that it committed to international at the same time. When I got there, eight years ago, Diane Weyermann was coming with her fund, with the Soros Documentary Fund, and that was a big deal for Sundance to say, let’s bring in a fund and support that. That was something that she created with Soros and she came in and said. “let’s team up with what Sundance is doing and let’s use the lab model that you’re using with features and let’s start to support documentary filmmakers not only with funding but with creative support”. I like to see it as all part of a bigger picture and we’re all part of one community and I think Sundance has its values in the right place, frankly, to put documentary at an equal footing with features. They serve different roles and some stories are just better suited to documentary vs. feature. And I think there isn’t a sense of hierarchy at Sundance between the two forms at all, so I think that’s what you see reflected and maybe that’s ultimately why you see these filmmakers flock.
DC: I think other places profess that that’s the case but in most cases it’s not. But that really is the case with Sundance. Documentaries are absolutely on a par and often what people are talking about all the time. Since that’s what comes from within, that just reverberates out to the filmmakers, who feel that when they’re there. They feel respected and special and it’s a place where documentary filmmakers want to premiere their film and so that has served us a whole lot.
CL: We’re talking a lot about people’s names that we know but also we’re in the business of discovering people and talent as well, and we hope that the line-up has a lot of that. We try to find places for both.
I think also there’s the whole international angle on documentary that I think we were the first to embrace in the American festival world. And again, I give credit to Geoff Gilmore and Diane Weyermann actually. They both acknowledged that that was really important. After the Soros fund came in and they were dealing with so many international projects, they were like, “what are we going to do here now? We have to reflect that in this festival. And there’s so much amazing work out there and no one in America is, there’s no place in America for this work.”
And we’ve actually made a little bit of an impact in America with international docs, from films like UNKNOWN WHITE MALE…
DC: MAN ON WIRE. AFGHAN STAR last year.
CL: And let’s see what else we can do to expand what people’s appetite can bear.
ATWT: And what have you seen over the years. SXSW has been around now 12 years or so…
CL: Is that all?
ATWT: 15 maybe? (ed. note: this year was edition #16) and Full Frame has been around 12 or 13 years, but we now have these other festivals, including Silverdocs that have debuted in the last ten years, and that has given films that maybe premiere at Sundance – whether they get deals or not – they have a longer life on a festival circuit as opposed to going straight to television. The whole documentary festival circuit, aside from IDFA and a few that have been around for a while, is a relatively new phenomenon in this decade.
CL: And I think it’s so great…
DC: Yeah, me too.
CL: I mean we give our documentaries a lot of screenings, between 4 and 6, which is like more than any other film festival in the world, actually, to give people a chance to really relate to the audience. So I think that’s fantastic because these films especially, they need a dialogue around them, need more opportunities for discussion before they hopefully reach a mass audience.
DC: The proliferation of documentary film festivals is a really good thing because it’s often the only platform for a documentary to be seen. I mean we talk about distribution for docs, but it’s rare. It’s not that often. Some will end up on television, which is great, but those other festivals – and we talk about this so often – there’s so many films that we love that we didn’t have the slots to program and we’re so thrilled that they can find a home somewhere else. And we often recommend films to programmers at other festivals because we have 16 in our US documentary competition, this year only 12 in our international doc competition and 8 in our spotlight section, which is great, that’s a good amount of docs in that section. But still, there’s so many more.
CL: We feel that we could program, we could put together another competition…
DC: Without a doubt.
CL: …without much work at this point. We know what they are. It’s really hard.
DC: You know what’s really heartbreaking? It’s really heartbreaking that I know there are filmmakers out there who – the difference between getting into Sundance and not, and not knowing all of the gray in between about how much their film was loved…
ATWT: Or discussed.
DC: Or discussed. And I wanna, you know sometimes, I’ll call somebody and that can backfire. Cause it’s heartbreaking to hear you were this close too. You’re always balancing what is going to serve that person the best.
CL: But generally I think people really appreciate it if they know there’s the support behind them and that somebody is talking about their film.
ATWT: Without mentioning individual film titles – or you can if you want – looking back at last year…
CL: OCTOBER COUNTRY.
ATWT: Films that were close and then were able to have that life at other festivals.
DC: I mean OCTOBER COUNTRY was in our festival as far as I was concerned. And then, I mean it’s crazy what can happen.
CL: You know how it is, you’ve done your own amount of programming and you know, you have to make these decisions and they hurt.
ATWT: That line between 16 and 17.
CL: It’s ridiculous, it’s totally ridiculous.
DC: BILLY THE KID is one I can talk about because I had that experience where I had called Jennifer Venditti who made that film but I didn’t realize that I was calling her at the same time that filmmakers are getting so used to getting calls telling them that their films are in Sundance and I was just calling to break it to her gently how much we loved this film, it just didn’t end up making the cut and I wanted her to know that it was heartbreaking to me as well. Oh my God, that was, suffice it to say, I learned a little lesson from that. She’s come back in subsequent years and said, oh my, I’m so sorry for how I reacted but it was crushing.
ATWT: You could turn it into a game show where you’re cutting films one by one.
CL: That’s a cruel, cruel, cruel game show.
ATWT: Can you talk about what changed this year in your process, particularly in how the two of you worked together?
DC: Well, we put together teams for each section of the festival. And that’s kind of always been happening but we made a point, we made it a concrete thing this year. So, Caroline and I are the team that’s basically on feature docs, US and world cinema docs, and Kim Yutani is also with world cinema docs. And so it’s just been, well, it's been great…
CL: It’s been really great.
DC: …to be bouncing things off of each other constantly. If I think Caroline will like something more than me, I will pass it to her and vice versa. It’s been a really wonderful working relationship.
CL: And what we know from our process of years and years, which is like the most beautiful thing about my job is the conversation that happens between us. And that’s the pleasure of it, it almost makes me cry. Because it’s so hard and we’re working really long hours and the people who are doing that alone, I don’t know how they do it. Like the people that we hear about, the programmers who run a section or something and they’re watching 500 films and choosing 16, I mean how would they do that? So it’s incredibly productive and good for the films I think that we, as soon as we like something we show it to each other, and then we together take it to the group.
ATWT: So did you take everything at once, was there a shortlist of 40 titles?
CL: No. Not at once.
ATWT: Or was it individual things…?
CL: Little by little, week by week. Every week
DC: We would have a series of discussion meetings throughout the fall.
ATWT: Starting in?
CL: Starting in September, August or before even. Even in June we were looking.
DC: It’s been basically, in a sense, the way it’s always been, because at Sundance everybody, we all program everything. But it’s very much moreso now that we are honing the shortlist, bringing it to our colleagues. They’re honing the shortlists for the other sections. And then we all watch what is on that list for everything and chime in.
CL: And we all have other responsibilities too. It’s not as clean as it sounds. The international world is massive, obviously, so we divide up the international world and everyone has regions that they oversee and they cultivate. So that’s a whole arena that we do and so there’s a lot of feeding in of stuff. And if David saw a film that he thinks Shari Frilot would love, he’s going to show it to her, not me. And they’ll bring me in later, like I’ll be part of the group that sees it later, not at the beginning. Because we take this very positive approach. We give it to the person who we think is going to like it, who it’s going to resonate with and who’s going to be able to evaluate it the best, given their area of expertise and interest.
ATWT: What if anything has changed or developed under John and Trevor take over from Geoff and John last year and years previous?
DC: I would say we feel more empowered because we are.
CL: Yeah, we are.
DC: There’s six of us plus Cooper and we have a lot more power.
CL: The buck stops with us as much as it ever did and that’s great. We’re still a collective. And it feels really good. It feels productive. And our conversations are just as great as they always were. They have a different timbre, they were always great, but just a different timbre. Because it’s a different chemistry of people. You took out one and added a new one and that creates a new dynamic, which is always fascinating to watch.
ATWT: So let me raise a qualm that came up in a conversation…
DC: Only one qualm?
ATWT: Well, I’m sure there’s more.
CL: I have some qualms too! Can I raise them?
ATWT: Yeah, you can raise them. It was, should Oscar winners, the three G’s who are in the competition – Gibney, Gast and Guggenheim – should Oscar winners be in the US doc competition?
CL: That’s a good question.
ATWT: Should they be special screenings and have those three spots say for folks who may need it a little bit more than those guys.
CL: I just have to say that I think that it’s a huge compliment for us to put those three alongside other names that maybe that person hasn’t heard of or hasn’t seen their work. Personally, I think it’s a compliment to all the work to say that we consider it to be on par with our great documentarians right now, if you want to consider them that way. We believe in every single film in the competition to such a degree that we put them with Oscar winners.
DC: I think that’s a great point. Imagine Chico Colvard (director of FAMILY AFFAIR), first time filmmaker and he's in the same competition as Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, Leon Gast…
CL: It’s pretty great. We’re saying (Colvard’s) film is phenomenal. And also I think that documentaries, let’s face it, it’s a really different economy. If Alex Gibney were working in the feature world, he’s probably be making a $50 million dollar film.
DC: And they’d wind up in Premieres.
CL: But a documentary economy is really different and it’s a different approach. And the Oscars aren’t really part of the equation for us. We actually don’t even discuss it.
DC: I mean we do have to acknowledge that (an Oscar) becomes shorthand for other people.
CL: Yes, I think that’s right.
DC: Because it equals success and fame and all the things that go along with it. But we really don’t think about that much at all, because we’re looking for films that really excite us and those three films and those three filmmakers made absolutely amazing movies. And it would kill me not to have them in competition, cause it also elevates our competition. It’s one of the reasons filmmakers want to premiere at Sundance because we have a competition like that. I mean, it’s the place to be.
CL: But it’s certainly a great question. Why is it a different set of – for instance, our narrative competition you can’t have made more than three films. And I think that’s an acknowledgement of the different economies of features vs. docs.
Part Two: What makes a film a Spotlight film (rather than competition) and my big grumbles about 2009: last year's controversial doc venue, The Temple Theatre, and the preponderance of activist films.