The Wilmington film scene is alive and well. In fact, 2011 may be the biggest year ever for the independent artisans that make up our fervent scene. Wilmingtonians have a strong presence at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and we decided to look at some of the locals who made it into the class of 2011.
Chad Keith (production designer)
Jonathan Guggenheim (art director)
Movies: “On The Ice,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Most people would kill to have one film they worked on get into Sundance. Chad Keith has four. As production designer, Keith has spent the last decade working on 25 film and television projects. A tireless work ethic has taken him from Wilmington all the way to the Arctic Circle and back.
“On the Ice” was an award-winning short film reworked to feature length by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. Shot entirely in the barren wasteland of Northern Alaska last spring, the film centers on the story of two teens trying to get away with murder. The unique location provided its fair number of challenges. Keith and fellow nomad Jonathan Guggenheim spent two months in the small town of Barrow, Alaska, dealing with below-normal temperatures and limited resources. The most isolated of locations and home to only 4,000 people, in the Inupiaq language, Barrow is called “Ukpeagvik,” which means “the place where we hunt Snowy Owls.”
“It was such a small place,” Keith says. “You ended up becoming friends with everybody not only because of proximity but because of the necessity for resources for sets. Initially, they were a little weary of us ‘non-Eskimos.’ But once they got to know us, we found ourselves sitting in their houses, dipping Muktuk (whale blubber) in seal oil, trying to be polite and eat it without gagging.”
Actually, Keith and Guggenheim received first-hand knowledge into life in the Arctic. Aside from whaling and seeing the immense beauty of the Northern Lights, they became more experienced in the lifestyle of such frigid cold air. “Negative 40 degrees—after awhile, ‘cold’ wasn’t a word that came to mind, except for the occasional times where you lost the feeling in your fingers,” he laughs.
Filming at the aptly named “top of the world” provided the crew with a number of unique landscapes. Much of the time, the horizon consisted of white on white, snow meeting sky. Also, the sky was illuminated most of the day, and the surrounding proved something of a marvel.
“There were times where I was standing on the edge of the ice, looking out at huge icebergs floating in the Arctic,” he says, “whales and seals just swimming around. By the end of the shoot, we were at the time of year where there’s 24 hours of daylight. I literally saw the sun rise and set in a span of 20 minutes. That was amazing.”
As spring turned into summer and fall, Keith and Guggenheim had already packed up and left the icy tundra. Upstate New York awaited them with a warmer climate and a more intimate drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The film follows protagonist Martha, who is haunted by painful memories and suffering from increasing anxiety after escaping an abusive cult. She returns home to live with her older sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, Ted. With no other family to lean on, Martha tries desperately to assimilate into Ted and Lucy’s upper-middle-class lifestyle. But nightmares of the cult that brainwashed her into living as Marcy May prevent her from connecting with the only people who may be able to save her. As Martha’s isolation grows, her severe paranoia escalates. Ultimately, she descends into a dizzying state of panic as the growing fear that she is being hunted grips her every move.
Directed by Sean Durkin, as his followup to 2010’s Cannes award-winning short, “Mary Last Seen,” the film stars Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the famed twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley). It premieres at Sundance in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.
Erica Dunton (writer/director)
John Gray (co-producer)
Kait Malec (first assistant director/associate producer)
The “NEXT” category at Sundance recognizes eight American films selected for their innovative and original work in no-budget filmmaking. Among them is the Wilmington film “to.get.her.,” from writer/director Erica Dunton (“The 27 Club”). Five teenage girls, with a shared secret, get together for a weekend of no consequences. The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll they intend to partake in pale in comparison to the more dangerous path they find themselves walking.
The low-budget project is another example of the innovative work coming out of Wilmington. John Gray has been exhibiting his talents in front and behind the cameras in a number of music videos and short films for years. But experiencing his movie on an acclaimed platform comes new.
“It’s my first time producing a feature film and traveling this far west, so Sundance is a series of several firsts for me,” Gray says. “This is also the first time anyone has seen this movie. I’m like a momma or papa watching my baby take its first steps, only there’s hundreds of other people watching, and their reaction determines whether or not this kid keeps walking.”
First assistant director Kait Malec has spent the better part of the decade working as a production assistant and assistant director, most recently on the summer 2011 release “X-Men: First Class.” The transition between big-budget projects and independent films is never an easy one.
“The toughest part of transitioning to ‘to.get.her’ was deciding to do it,” Malec says. “Erica [Dunton] sent me the script as I was working on ‘Eastbound & Down.’ I loved it! So much that I jumped on breaking down the script that very weekend. But then I got a call to work on the sequel of a very successful movie in Atlanta. I was torn for a week and ultimately decided to follow my heart. [‘to.get.her]’ is a story that had to be told, and I wanted to help make it the best it could be.”
Malec is a prime example of the multitasking mentality that permeates the Wilmington independent film scene. The personalities are varied, but these creative minds share an admiration for film as a medium and an art form. They also wear a lot of hats.
Though many festivals around the world offer opportunity to wear a “best” badge of winning recognition, Sundance is of a different caliber. It allows movies a chance to be picked up for the masses to see. “It’s the best opportunity for an independent film to get sold and possibly undergo significant theater release,” Gray clarifies.
What this year’s Sundance proves for Wilmington is that hard work and dedication has a payoff. It serves as a reminder of a rejuvenated local film scene and the talent at work in our own backyard. Best of luck to everyone!
Also showing at Sundance: “Take Shelter,” featuring work from production designer Chad Keith, set decorator Adam Willis and prop master Schuylar Croom.