The Sundance Diaries: This First-Time Filmmaker Cold-Emailed Darren Aronofsky to Produce His Premiere
Welcome to the Sundance Diaries, a three-part series following a first-time filmmaker as he navigates Sundance 2020.
Lance Oppenheim is living every aspiring director's dream. His first feature is premiering at Sundance this year, and he couldn't be more excited. But first, he's focusing on fool-proofing the DCP.
Some Kind of Heaven, screening in the festival's NEXT section, began as Oppenheim's thesis film at Harvard. On his own dime and with the university's equipment, Oppenheim traveled down to The Villages, America’s largest and most utopian retirement community. Growing up in Florida, Oppenheim had always been intrigued by this so-called "Disneyland for retirees," but it wasn't until he started filming that he realized the potential here far exceeded the bounds of his college campus. At school, Oppenheim—who was generally regarded as a wunderkind—had directed six short documentaries, many of them for The New York Times Op-Docs series. When he realized he might have a feature film on his hands, he emailed his contact at the Times with a visually-striking sizzle, and the publication eventually came on board as a producer of the film. Next up: harassing Darren Aronofsky until he, too, fell in love with Some Kind of Heaven and helped bring it to life.
What Is The Sundance Diaries? Over the course of three articles, we're following Lance Oppenheim and Some Kind of Heaven editor Daniel Garber as they navigate the labyrinthine process of trying to promote and sell a debut feature in Park City. In our first interview, below, we checked in with them pre-festival to gauge their expectations and get a little background on the film itself. Mid-fest, we'll catch up them in the thick of it all, just after the film's premiere and in the midst of their meetings with agents and buyers. After the festival, we'll do a post-mortem on Sundance to find out how things went—and what, if anything, they got out of it all.
"I had found Darren's email on the internet about five years ago. I was spam emailing him—well, his assistant."
No Film School: What was it like for both of you when you found out you were accepted to Sundance? Did you have any idea that this was a possibility?
Lance Oppenheim: I mean, it was a grind to get the movie to a place where we were comfortable submitting it. I'm very grateful for having Dan on this movie—our M.O. was always to make the film we wanted to make, and to make it as good as we possibly could. There were so many different moments where we both were like, "I don't know if submitting actually makes sense,” because we weren't sure if the movie would be in a good place [by the Sundance deadline]. Then, somehow, we were feeling better about it. We just kind of took the leap.
Daniel Garber: When I came onto the project, Lance had shot probably less than half of the footage. I was convinced at the time that it was going to take way longer to finish the film and that we didn't really have a chance of applying to or getting into Sundance this year. I don't know—sometimes your pessimism is proven wrong!
We really didn't want to end up being one of the Sundance films that has to rush to deliver something viewable. And we didn't want to compromise the integrity of the film or screen something that we weren't behind 100%. So it was really down to the wire in terms of submitting. But fortunately things worked out. We did what I previously thought was impossible.
Oppenheim: When we found out we got in, it was crazy.
NFS: Dan, you haven't been to Sundance before. Lance, have you?
Oppenheim: Yeah. I went last year as an Ignite Fellow. I've been a few times, and it's really fun.
NFS: What was your impression from the outside, observing filmmakers who had films in the festival?
Oppenheim: It feels similar to what I feel like Dan and I are going through right now. There were a few filmmaker friends of mine last year [at Sundance] who were cooking up a movie privately, just showing friends along the way. And then suddenly you actually learn what your movie is when it's playing with hundreds of people you don't know at the festival. There's a lot of obvious excitement that surrounds that. A few of my friends there last year were extremely overwhelmed by the energy of Sundance.
NFS: Let’s back up a little bit and talk about the production process. Dan, you said you came on board when half of the footage was shot.
Oppenheim: I had heard a lot about The Villages [a retirement community] growing up in Florida. When I first went down to The Villages, I was not intending to make a feature. I was drawn there by an initial curiosity.
This film started as my thesis in college. I wanted to use college resources to make a film about The Villages, which I'd been obsessed with since I was way younger.
When Dan came on, we had a lot of sober evaluation of what the film was going to be. At the time, the movie could have gone in a different direction. I initially was conceiving it more as an institutional portrait of The Villages. Over time, it became a lot clearer to us that that wasn't the most interesting direction to take, and that wasn't what the movie wanted to be. The lives of some of the folks we were following were a lot more interesting. With Dan, we decided that the setting wasn’t the story. That was a lot of the footage I had previously shot.
NFS: So you went back and you took a different approach in terms of making the film more character-driven, I see. When you sat down to tackle this in the editing room, did you have a good feel for the direction of the story you wanted to tell?
Oppenheim: Well, for all the stuff I was shooting on the first trip, there was no direction. It was a shitty impression of Fred Wiseman. It did not work. Then in January, Dan came with us when we were shooting, and there started to seem like there was a direction. Then by the time I went back for the third trip, things just kind of were falling more into place.
Garber: I think one of the main challenges in the edit was figuring out how to bridge the gap between setting up the place and introducing the characters we are ultimately going to be following through the story.
"I was like, 'I think I have something. I'm not sure what it is, but it seems like it's longer than a 20-minute movie.'"
Oppenheim: How do you set up the world quick enough so that we can dive deeper with these characters? I think the thing that was also important to us was that ultimately The Villages is a setting for these stories, but The Villages is not the story itself. The movie's a lot more concerned with kind of like I think the psychological kind of states of these folks who live there.
Garber: Lance has such an amazing ability to engage with people and to dig really deep with these characters. So, ultimately, this is a film that really plays to his strengths as director.
NFS: Lance, even though this started out as your thesis film, you attached a lot of really important institutional support. Looking at your credits, I’m seeing the Los Angeles Media Fund, Darren Aronofsky, a lot of New York Times Op-Doc names, and even Jeff Orlowski, the director of Chasing Coral. What did these people do for you once they came on board in terms of moving the project forward?
Oppenheim: I mean, the short of it is without any of these combinations of names, the movie probably wouldn't exist. For the New York Times, this is one of their first [feature-length] projects. When I thought this [idea] was becoming an inkling of a [documentary] story, I initially thought it was a short. I had made three other Op-Docs with the New York Times before, and I specifically Kathleen Lingo there. I was like, "I think I have something. I'm not sure what it is, but it seems like it's longer than 20 minutes." She was a real supporter of this from early on. Around that same time, she actually had taken a job spearheading the feature film division [at the New York Times]. So The New York Times came on as a producer. She was extremely involved in pushing the movie to where it is now.
With Darren Aronofsky, it was a stars-aligning kind of thing. I had found Darren's email on the internet about five years ago. I was spam emailing him—well, his assistant, Brendan Naylor. He had seen a bunch of my emails come in and kind of politely was like, "Hey, you can come meet with me, but please stop spamming his inbox. He's never going to look at this." So I met with Brendan and kind of kept in touch with him. I sent him a sample of footage.
At that time, I was just kind of emailing [the footage sample] to every single person I knew. I had run out of money, and I wanted just to find a way to get back down [to Florida]. So I sent this little sample sizzle around and Darren responded to it. He came on as a producer. He was extremely involved in the edit. He watched over five or six cuts of the thing. He met with Dan a lot. He was pretty hands-on with advice about how the movie could flow, how it could be better, but never telling us what to do. He was always trying to understand our intentions and pushing us in the right direction.
The Los Angeles Media Fund was the same way. They were our financiers, but the thing that we appreciated them for is they would watch cuts, and they knew when to give notes and how to be helpful in the process. They knew there were a lot of voices already in the kitchen, so to speak. I'm very grateful to them for supporting us.
NFS: The collaboration with Darren sounds like it was really fruitful. It's incredible that you were able to get his attention, or that of his assistant, and then just kind of run with it. That almost never happens.
Oppenheim: Yeah. I think it's amazing that [Aronofsky] has this infrastructure where he trusts the people he works with, and everyone is kind of welcomed into the process. Brendan, the assistant, became an executive producer on the movie, too.
When Dan first came on, he was like, "This is a lot of people on a documentary. How is this going to work out?" And I think it worked out a lot better than either of us had anticipated.
NFS: Was there ever a situation where you had to navigate conflicting notes from all of these parties? What did you do?
Garber: There are always notes, and they're always conflicting. But what makes all of the difference is how people react when the director asserts their intention. I think at the end of the day, everybody was united behind wanting to support Lance and his vision for the film. Everyone trusted that ultimately we were going to be able to get it to where it needed to be in the edit.
Especially early on, when you haven't quite found the right direction for a documentary, it's very easy for people to imagine all kinds of different directions for things. Ultimately some of those decisions are conscious and with some of them, your hand is forced. Fortunately, I think we ended up with something that was very different from what anyone expected when they came onto the project like a year ago, but I think everybody is also really happy with where it ended up.
Oppenheim: I wonder if this is something that maybe there's more of an appetite for in documentaries. I think everyone knows that there's going to be some wiggle room between what they initially think they're getting involved in and what the film becomes. The thing that you really want in a collaborator—either a financier or a producer or whoever it is—is someone to have your back and be supportive of where the movie can go, the potential for what it can be. I know it's very rare that the stars align the way they did.
"This will be a learning experience because I've never sold a movie before."
NFS: Looking forward to the festival itself, let’s talk about the strategy you have on the ground for sales and publicity. How much involvement are you going to have personally in that?
Oppenheim: We’re all kind of taking the risk of not showing the movie to anybody before our Sundance premiere. So I think in terms of talking to distributors beforehand, we're keeping it extremely close to the chest and seeing how the dice fall once it’s out there.
I have a lot of thoughts about who we hope the audience for the film is. I'm hopeful that any potential distributor will have more thoughts about that, but I plan to be very involved in the process. This will be a learning experience because I've never sold a movie before.
At the moment, we’re trying not to have any expectations for what could happen at the festival. It’s just like, "Let's make sure this movie plays!” We’re just trying to make sure that every single component works. We want to make sure our DCP is not a few frames off. I'm being extremely paranoid about things like that. What if we get into the theater and suddenly the sound's too low? I've never gone through this insane process after you finish the movie of making all these DCPs. So a lot of it right now is just making sure we have our ducks in a row and everything's ready to go. In a way, it’s kind of helpful in terms of quieting all of the nerves and excitement. I'm able to put the anxiety away for now until the premiere. Then I'll let the mess of life come to the foreground again. When we're there, we'll just let whatever happens, happen.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.