What It's Like to Have Your First Feature at Sundance

Lance Oppenheim and Daniel Garber tell us about the 'exhausting' experience of premiering a film at Sundance and trying to make the most of the festival.

The Sundance Diaries is a series of three articles in which Lance Oppenheim, director of Some Kind of Heaven, and Daniel Garber, the film's editor, take us with them on their first experience at Sundance with a premiere.

In Diary #1, Oppenheim gave us some background on the project (including the reveal that he cold-emailed Darren Aronofsky, who eventually came on board as a producer). The pair also outlined their expectations and anxieties about the festival experience. In Diary #2, below, we caught up with them mid-festival.

They were in a frenzied, overstimulated state, having just premiered the film the day prior—and on Oppenheim's birthday, no less. They talked candidly about the process of selling their film, trying not to read the reviews, navigating festival FOMO, and more. We caught them truly in the thick of the action—at the end of our interview, Oppenheim's agent emailed to tell him about a huge article in Deadline. (Of course, all they could think about was whether anyone had destroyed them on Letterboxd yet.)

"We did get an offer immediately after the premiere, which is crazy!"

Lance Oppenheim: Sundance has been exhausting and amazing. It feels like a truck filled with many emotions has run me over many times.

The buildup to our premiere was really intense. Every time I was seeing another Sundance film, the only thing I could possibly think about is our premiere. I'd have panic attacks about how it would look, how it would feel, how it would sound, where would people laugh, where would people not laugh.

We premiered yesterday morning, though, and it was really great!

Daniel Garber: I was having endless stress dreams leading up to the premiere. The night before, I had a dream that somehow the film had been totally re-edited and all of my decisions had been thrown out and replaced by much worse decisions, so when we watched the film, it was a complete disaster—a truly bad movie. It was just a train wreck.

But fortunately, the premiere didn't happen like that. It was projected exactly how we'd meant for it to be seen. People laughed at all the right moments. And the people whose opinions I care about came up to us after the screening and said that they liked it.

Oppenheim: Hopefully they're not lying.

NFS: Tell me more about the premiere! How was the Q&A? That's always an...er, enlightening experience.

Oppenheim: So the premiere happened on my birthday, which was yesterday. It was crazy. There were so many surreal elements. The Q&A started off with Darren Aronofsky having the audience sing "Happy Birthday" to me. That was mortifying and really nice.

The Q&A was really interesting. I think people engaged with the movie in the ways that we were hoping they would. People had a lot of questions about the style of the film—how can you make something that is so hyper-stylized and still be authentic?

NFS: What was your answer to that?

OppenheimWe shot the movie exclusively on a tripod, so it basically forced us to be extremely honest. We couldn't steal any moments. When we were shooting really difficult scenes in the film, I would have to explain what we were doing. In order to go to a marriage therapy session with two of the subjects in the film, for example, I had to explain why we wanted to do that and how we were going to frame it. If we hadn't shot it in such a stylized way, I don't think we would've been able to access the truths that are in the movie.

Garber: In the Q&A, it was interesting, because I think people's reactions showed that we adequately addressed some of the challenges that we had in creating the film. This film walks a very fine tonal line, especially because we're very young filmmakers making a film about old people. The way that people responded to it suggested that we had actually achieved the right tonal balance where you're able to laugh at the film because there are a lot of really funny moments, but it's not funny in a way that is at the expense of the people who are in it. 

"Everyone is telling me not to read any reviews, because either way, it will hurt me."

The best thing about showing the film was that people have been picking up on things that we hadn't thought about and bringing their own reactions to the table. That's more gratifying than just having our own ideas about the film reinforced. Because really, the film only exists in the minds of the viewers, and so actually showing it to viewers is an incredibly exciting experience.

NFS: Speaking of reactions, I assume the reviews came out just after the premiere. Tell me about how you weathered that. 

Oppenheim: Yeah, there was a review that came out a few hours after. They're slowly trickling in. Everyone around me is telling me not to read any reviews, because either way, it will hurt me.

Before this, I didn't know anything about the process for critics. Just the sheer amount of films that critics have to see at Sundance and the lack of time they have to adequately give thought to a work that maybe has taken more like five years to make... I couldn't even imagine whoever is reviewing Benh Zeitlin's new film. It took him 10 years to make that movie. The critic may have an hour to write the review, so it's a tough job. It makes me really appreciate what they do more. 

I love the film that we've made very deeply and I love the people who are a part of it. I'm sure the film will invite a lot of discussion, and I welcome that, for sure. Of course, no movie that we love has gotten universally great reviews. We were lucky that the first few are good. But I am sure there will be folks out there who will have certain qualms with it. 

NFS: The sales process has been set into motion. How has it been navigating the marketplace with your film?

Oppenheim: The first time any buyers saw the film was on Sunday. And then we do another Press and Industry screening today. I wanted to wear a fake mustache and attend, but I was told I couldn't. [Laughs] Like, who leaves the screening? Do people use their phones? Someone compared the P&I screenings to eating a Whopper in a Michelin restaurant. You're there for business; you're not there to celebrate the film or the filmmaker. You're there to evaluate. It's like Best in Show. It's like you're evaluating a good.

"Someone compared the P&I screenings to eating a Whopper in a Michelin restaurant. You're there for business; you're not there to celebrate the film or the filmmaker."

The film sales part is really fascinating to me. It's like a dark art in itself. I feel like the people who represent films have a lot of work to do. But also, my job isn't done until the movie finds a home. Once that happens, I will be able to relax a little bit more. But I will do everything in my power to make sure that this movie lives somewhere.

NFS: Did you get any offers yet?

Oppenheim: I can't specify who, but we did get an offer immediately after the premiere, which is crazy. I feel very fortunate for that.

NFS: But you didn't accept?

Oppenheim: Not yet.

This year at the festival, buyers seem to be taking their time. Today is a big day for sales, but things are moving slower than they were in previous years. I think buyers are wanting to look around more before they actually commit.

You know, it's a process. You show it to the people who are here at the festival, and then you have to send links. If [buyers] respond to it, then they have to show it to the rest of their team. So then you have to send it to them, too.

"Wherever the movie can live where reaches the most amount of people is what's most important to me."

NFS: Do you have opinions about streaming vs. theatrical?

Oppenheim: We do like seeing films on big screens. There is an attraction to that. And also I think a lot of people who we hope would like the film are older people who are used to seeing films on big screens. Of course, older people are increasingly seeing films on streaming platforms as well—that audience is expanding. But ultimately, we want to get it to the people who are going to respond to it. I think some combination of theatrical and streaming would be the ideal way to do that.

In the scheme of things, wherever the movie can live where reaches the most amount of people is what's most important to me. But I also think it's really important for a young filmmaker to build a brand. That's where theatrical distributors come in. I don't think it's impossible that a streaming platform that can really get behind a film, but sometimes you see movies on streaming platforms that get dumped in there and no one sees them. So for me, it's about whoever cares about the film, whoever responds to it, whoever 'gets' it. Whoever has the same vision about what the audience is.

I'm happy to wait as long as we need to wait in order to find the right place to put the movie. I'm very lucky and grateful to be in the situation we're in, where we can kind of choose. But who knows. I have no fucking clue what happens after this!

'Some Kind of Heaven'

NFS: Have you been taking meetings with people that are asking about your next project? That's such a narrative on the festival circuit: "You need to have your next project ready to go."

Oppenheim: I think it's a balance, right? I think definitely people are curious about [our next project]. And I think the beauty of having a film here is that if people see it and respond to it, they are very eager to try and find something to work on. Dan and I are writing something together right now.

I think that the actual opportunities to go in and have an hour-long pitch where you're going to walk someone through the entirety of what your next film looks like... I don't think that happens all that much here. I've just read on Deadline that Neon bought a film that's already packaged. I think people are looking to chat, do a general meeting kind of thing. They want to understand who you are, what your vibe is like, what stories you're interested in telling, what your film is about, and how you got to make that film. And then, broadly, where are you interested in going next? In my case, this is a documentary film, so people are asking, "Do you want to stay in docs or do you want to go into narratives?" I've been saying, "I don't really care what the genre is. I'm compelled by a story. So whatever that shape that takes, that will be what it will be."

NFS: Have you been paying attention to the hype about other films? How does that make you feel?

Garber: Well, it's hard not to pay attention to all the buzz because it's constantly surrounding you. Whether you're waiting in line to get a ticket or you're just hanging out around festival headquarters or whatever, there's so much buzz. But at the same time, it's also really hard to know how much of that buzz is self-generating once one person says, "I'm really excited about this film." That ends up getting passed along to somebody else. So, how much is the hype really based on how good the movie is? The person who's talking about the movie is not always somebody who's got a really informed opinion.

NFS: Is there anything else that has come up that's sort of been surprising to either of you about the process of having a film at Sundance?

Oppenheim: I mean, it's really fucking tiring. It's really exhausting. I've never had so much attention paid to my work before and people wanting to critically engage with it. We've been doing a lot of interviews. I've been lucky to do it with Dan so it's not as solitary of an experience.

The other thing that's intense is that the festival is so spread out, it's hard to also know where to be. Sometimes I'm in line for a movie and I feel guilty about being in the line for a movie. Am I supposed to be somewhere else? Should I be going and talking to somebody? Should I be trying to get more people to see my movie? Should I be trying to generate more press opportunities? And then, of course, once you're in the movie, it's great to be able to sit down and just turn off your brain and give yourself over to another filmmaker. Also, partying is fun and it's tiring. A lot of the venues here are very small. They are tight and sweaty and they're hard to navigate, but it's fun.

NFS: Lance, something just happened that's got you glued to your phone. What's up?

Oppenheim: Our Deadline article just came out. Oh my god, they said I have "tremendous potential." Crazy. Dan, do you know if anyone has destroyed us on Letterbox'd yet?


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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