A version of this story appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma filmmakers relish Sundance experiences
Edmond resident Jeff Robison, an executive producer and co-writer of the musical drama “Rudderless,” and Holdenville native Sterlin Harjo, the director of the musical documentary “This May Be the Last Time,” premiered their films at the esteemed festival earlier this month in Utah.
It’s the stuff maybe not of Hollywood dreams, but certainly of independent film fantasy: Attending your first Sundance Film Festival as one of the creative forces behind one of the prestigious showcase’s most anticipated movies.
For Edmond filmmaker Jeff Robison, an executive producer and co-writer of the now-acclaimed musical drama “Rudderless,” the reality was more incredible than he could have imagined.
“Nothing I’ve read could have prepared me for my first Sundance experience. It was surreal. The energy is contagious, the films we saw were (mostly) good to great, and the festival itself was first-class,” Robison told The Oklahoman by email late Monday night, his first day back in Oklahoma after attending the acclaimed festival last week.
“It was a great week. I met some wonderful people, the entire family got to experience it with me, and we finished the trip with an amazing dog sledding trek up in the beautiful mountains of Utah. It’s a breathtaking landscape. Gorgeous.”
Along with Holdenville native Sterlin Harjo’s musical documentary “This May Be the Last Time,” “Rudderless” was one of two Oklahoma-made films to make its world premiere at the 30th Annual Sundance Film Festival, which ran Jan. 16-26 in Utah.
“Rudderless” makes waves
The directorial debut for Oscar-nominated actor William H. Macy, who also plays a small role in it, “Rudderless” was filmed last spring in Oklahoma City and Guthrie. Robison and writing partner Casey Twenter penned the story, with an assist from Macy, of a grieving father (Billy Crudup) who discovers a box of his deceased son’s original music and forms a rock ‘n’ roll band hoping to find peace in the aftermath of tragedy.
The film, which also features Anton Yelchin, Selena Gomez, Felicity Huffman and Laurence Fishburne, received largely rave reviews at the festival. After an early press and industry screening garnered positive feedback, the filmmakers attended a party where Crudup, Gomez, musicians Ben Kweller and Ryan Dean, who play Crudup’s bandmates in the film, and “Rudderless” songwriters Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus performed music from the movie.
“Selena was also accompanied by Ben on a wicked acoustic version of (her hit) ‘Come and Get It,’ which brought the house down,” Robison recalled.
After the strange new experience of walking the red carpet, Robison and Twenter were thrilled with the festival audiences’ response to the movie, which they worked with Macy for four years to get made.
“The movie premiered to a sold-out crowd and they ate it up. Laughed heartily at all of the jokes, I heard sniffles and snobs, and then, when it was over, they gave it a standing ovation,” Robison said, adding Macy invited him, Twenter and producer Keith Kjarval to participate in a question-and-answer session after the initial screening.
“Casey and I went back to the Eccles (Theatre in Park City, Utah) on Saturday morning to another sold-out showing, and lo and behold, the movie received its second standing ovation. Evidently, that’s never happened before, and considering the quality films that have shown there, it’s quite an honor.”
Although it screened in the festival’s coveted closing-night slot, Sundance closed without a distribution deal to bring “Rudderless” to domestic theaters.
“It was pre-purchased for French territories before we started filming, which is great, but we’re hoping to hear good news this week on other territories, including (the) U.S.,” Robison said.
“Regardless of what happens next, if anything, Casey and I got to actually live out our dreams, and it’s an experience that we’ll never forget.”
Harjo makes Sundance return
Harjo, 34, has been making regular pilgrimages to Sundance for a dozen years.
A member of the Seminole and Creek nations, he was 23 when he was accepted into the Sundance Institute’s Filmmakers Lab, where he spent a year developing his first feature-length film, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” which premiered at the festival in 2007. His short film “Goodnight Irene” was an official 2005 Sundance shorts selection, and his second feature, “Barking Water,” premiered at Sundance in 2008. He has been active in the institute’s Native program, which celebrated its 20th anniversary at this year’s festival, and even served as a juror for the Sundance short film competition one year.
“Really, it’s made my career,” Harjo said by phone Tuesday on his way to Tulsa, where he was eager to get to work making his next film. “You know, it’s a hard industry in the beginning just to make films, especially if you’re making films about a marginal culture, a small culture that’s very specific. Sundance sees the importance of that, and they give filmmakers like myself a chance.”
The writer/director said his 2014 Sundance entry, “This May Be the Last Time,” is not only his first feature-length documentary but also his most personal film to date. It explores the long and rich history of Creek-Christian hymns, with the 1962 disappearance of his grandfather, Pete Harjo, illustrating the songs’ power and beauty.
“It started as a story about these songs, and there was always a question of how I would make that work. I knew there was gonna be a historical aspect to it, things of that nature, but I knew there had to be other layers of the story to make it work,” he said.
“I decided to bookend the film with the story of my grandfather because … people sang these songs as they searched for him.”
Before his documentary premiered before packed houses, Harjo learned that AMC/Sundance Channel Global had acquired his film. It will premiere on SundanceTV in spring.
“Some of my other films, I’ve left Sundance without a deal, so having the Sundance Channel buying the international rights is great. There are still rights available; we’re still talking with different distributors for U.S. domestic rights. But it validates you; it makes you feel good.”
Along with showing his film, Harjo reunited at Sundance with old friends, including Canadian filmmaker Danis Goulet and New Zealand actor/writer/director Taika Waititi.
“The festival, it’s commercialized, it’s crazy, but that’s not Sundance’s fault. That’s just because it’s so popular. The institute is separate … and that side of Sundance is family to me,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful festival. I mean, it’s one of the best in the world.”