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John Powers Discusses Sundance 1999.

Film critic John Powers talks about some of this year's winners at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Top honors for drama went to "Three Seasons" and for documentary it went to "American Movie." He also talks about some of his favorites.

27:39

Other segments from the episode on February 2, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 2, 1999: Interview with Holly Hunter; Interview with John Powers.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 02, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020201np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Holly Hunter
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Holly Hunter, best known for her roles in "Broadcast News," "Raising Arizona," "The Piano," "Crash," and last year's "Living Out Loud." Her awards include an Oscar for "The Piano," and Best Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle and LA Film Critics Association for "Broadcast News."

She started her career in theater and returned to the stage last fall to star in "Impossible Marriage," the seventh play by Beth Henley (ph) that Hunter has performed in. Hunter's latest film, the comedy "Living Out Loud," will be out on video next month.

Hunter plays a woman who gave up her own ambitions when she married a surgeon, but now that he has walked out on her she is lost. In this scene, she goes to club alone to hear a singer she loves played by Queen Latifah. Too shy to actually approach the singer, here's the conversation Hunter imagines having with her.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM FILM "LIVING OUT LOUD")

QUEEN LATIFAH, ACTRESS: Scotch, Barry.

HOLLY HUNTER, ACTRESS: You were great.

LATIFAH: Well, thank you. You look a little sad tonight. You alone?

HUNTER: I don't know anybody on the Upper Westside.

LATIFAH: Oh, well, where you from?

HUNTER: Upper Eastside. My husband left me. Our friends were his friends. I haven't really spoken to anyone. I mean really spoken to anyone. I feel so invisible sometimes I forget I'm here.

LATIFAH: I was married. My husband cheated on me left and right. It made me feel like I was crazy all the time. One day he tells me it's my fault he saw other women. So I picked up a knife and told him it was his fault I was stabbing him. You know, I did a little jail time, but it was worth it. Now I'm free and he is scared (expletive) of me.

HUNTER: That's great. I wished I would have stabbed my husband.

GROSS: Holly Hunter, welcome to FRESH AIR. How would you describe your character in "Living Out Loud?"

HOLLY HUNTER, ACTRESS: Well, I think that she is a woman -- a woman in transition and a woman who is taking a leap rather than a fall. And I think that was what most appealed to me about the interpretation of the character.

Because I think that to make every single action that she took a choice rather than her being victimized by it was the most interesting way to approach her.

GROSS: Well, I agree because I think this is a woman whose life is falling apart. Her husband has left her. She has no identity left of her own. But you give her this certain strength and vitality, she's not just like a neurotic mess. She's an interesting strong willed person in spite of everything that's happening to her.

HUNTER: Yeah, I didn't want her to be motivated strictly by anger, which I think -- it was just a choice that I really wanted to avoid because I thought it would be very uninteresting to see a really angry woman from scene to scene. I just wanted it to be more adventurous than that.

GROSS: There's a scene in "Living Out Loud" in which you're passionately kissed by a mysterious stranger played by Elias Koteas. He's a great actor, he's now co-starring in "The Thin Red Line," he starred in "Exotica," and co-starred with you in "Crash." What's he doing in such a small part? I mean, he kisses you, and that's kind of the part.

HUNTER: Well, you know -- well, first off, Elias and I are really good friends and he also just finished playing a part in a movie that was directed by my husband, and I'm not sure what -- it's with Winona Ryder -- I'm not sure what the title is going to eventually be.

But he is a very good friend of both of ours. And I really wanted Elias to do that part because I love Elias dearly, but I also think that he is capable of transforming himself as an actor. and some actors are not. And I thought that that was the pivotal scene in the movie.

The movie originally was called "The Kiss." So it was actually titled after that particular scene. So the web of the character was all centered around -- around him really for me. So I wanted a very particular actor who was extremely soulful to play that part, not just someone who was kind of lightweight or could bring only comedy to the scene. I wanted someone to bring depth to it.

GROSS: Did you meet him in "Crash?"

HUNTER: Yes, I did. And we worked very little together in "Crash," but it was a very close cast. As a matter of fact, I've kept up with all of them since we wrapped that movie, and that's a bit rare for me. Because very often movies are pleasant to shoot, but then you go on and there's only so many friends that you can gather and be responsible to in your life. And so it's kind of amazing that I have kept up with all of them.

GROSS: Well, I imagine it was a pretty intense movie to make. "Crash" is David Cronenberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes. I think some people would have thought the subject matter of this movie is so sick that they wouldn't go near it. What did you like about it as a screenplay when you first saw it?

HUNTER: I think it was the alienation.

GROSS: There's plenty of that in there, yeah.

HUNTER: That all of the characters experienced. I kind of liked that landscape, and I thought that the relationship between sex and death, which is, you know, as old as man. I thought it was really interesting to have a script so blatantly explore that relationship rather than kind of alluding to it in an oblique way.

This script -- this novel -- was going right into the center of what Ballard perceived to be the relationship between sex and death. And I thought that Cronenberg would be the filmmaker to attempt the filming of that novel. I couldn't think of another filmmaker who really should make the effort. And I wanted to work with Cronenberg for years.

And in a funny way I wish I had to do "Crash" again because I think that I would take a different approach. Because my approach was more external than it was internal at the time. It's not a regret, it's just a wish that -- I wish I could do that movie over again. And I don't know if all of us might feel that way, because it was such an enticing subject matter and so complicated that I kind of felt for me that the movie was a rehearsal and now I'd like to do it for real.

GROSS: What would you do different?

HUNTER: Well, I'm not exactly sure. It's just I would like to re-explore it because I felt that I was dissatisfied with the result of how I approached my character. It was much more external than I would have liked for it to have been.

The more that I look at my own work and what I find to be, I would say compelling to watch, is when an actor including myself -- when an actor is really working from someplace intensely personal. Then I find it galvanizing. And when it's less than intensely personal I find it more cosmetic, you know, where it might be pleasing -- the person may be doing something that's pleasant or pleasing to look at or aesthetically lovely, but nothing is really there for me to be riveted by.

GROSS: So it seems to me you've made movies at kind of opposite extremes. You know, you've made comedies like "Living Out Loud" and "Broadcast News." And then, you know, like odd bizarre films like "Crash," and then "The Piano," which is also at another extreme.

In "The Piano" you played a woman in what, the mid-1800s, who moves from Scotland to New Zealand to marry a settler there. And she's so in love with her piano and playing the piano that she brings the piano on this long voyage. And the woman is mute, so you don't speak any dialogue through the movie. What did you rely on to communicate knowing that you wouldn't have words to communicate with?

HUNTER: Well, I think that was a very personal role for me. So I really felt confident of what I was about, just in my head, you know. And what the character wanted from scene to scene, it was very -- I had an intimate relationship with her and her needs and her desires. So I counted on that. I depended on that. That that would communicate.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. Now, I understand that you wanted this part very much, and that you had to go after it. How did you see the screenplay and why did you want it?

HUNTER: Well, right away, from the first five or six pages she was -- she felt quite iconic to me. She felt epic. She felt like a woman who was larger than life, and yet was keeping a whole lot from you as a viewer or as a reader. She emanated mystery, and at the same time seemed like a goddess on a beach.

You know, it was really like a character that you can only imagine playing, but never actually read in a script. Maybe in a novel because novels are so imaginary, you know, they live in your subconscious almost if they are really great. And this is the way the script read. It read as though it were one of those novels that you never want to end.

GROSS: Did you have to convince Jane Campion to cast you?

HUNTER: Yes, but that's not altogether unusual for me, partially because of who I am and partially because of what roles I've chosen to play. Often, people don't initially see me in a character as was the case with "Living Out Loud."

I auditioned for "Living Out Loud," which I was -- was something I really wanted to do and I had absolutely no problems with it because it was a character no one had ever seen me do. And therefore they couldn't see me in the part.

And I certainly saw myself in the part. I really wanted to play her very much. I thought she had a lot to say, and I wanted to be the one who would have her say it.

GROSS: My guest is Holly Hunter. Her latest film is "Living Out Loud." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Holly Hunter is my guest. Her first major film role was in the 1987 movie, "Raising Arizona." Hunter plays a police officer who marries an ex-con played by Nicolas Cage. Unable to have children of their own, they decide to kidnap one of their towns famous quintuplates. In this scene, Cage returns to the car where Hunter awaits him after a botched kidnapping attempt.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM FILM "RAISING ARIZONA")

HOLLY HUNTER, ACTRESS: What's the matter?

NICOLAS CAGE, ACTOR: I'm sorry, honey, it just didn't work out.

HUNTER: What do you mean it didn't work out?

CAGE: Well, they started crying and they were all over me. It was kind of horrifying, honey. Let me in.

HUNTER: Of course they cried, baby. Stop.

CAGE: I know that now. Come on, honey, we better leave.

HUNTER: You go right backup there and get me a toddler. I need a baby, they got more than they can handle.

CAGE: Oh, honey.

HUNTER: Don't you come back here without a baby.

GROSS: Many people first noticed you, I think, in your two 1987 movies: "Broadcast News" and "Raising Arizona," both comedies. Which one did you make first?

HUNTER: "Raising Arizona."

GROSS: And how did you get the part?

HUNTER: Well, Joel and Ethan Coen saw me in a play on Broadway, and then we get to be friends because I met them through that play. And then they cast a very good friend of mine, Frances McDormand, in "Blood Simple" their first movie. And we all got to be great friends.

And then they wrote this part in "Raising Arizona" for me and asked me would I do it. And of course, you know, why not?

GROSS: Right.

HUNTER: Which is what I still say about those guys, why not? You know, it will always be one of my most favorite movies that I've ever done.

GROSS: Well, it must be a nice way to enter movies by having a role that was written for you.

HUNTER: Yes, the only one that's ever been written for me. And I'm pleased about that.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. So your first major film role was written for you, but the second one, "Broadcast News," I think you had to convince the director James Brooks to consider you for the part. You played this very high pressured, deadline oriented, driven TV producer -- news producer. How did you get the part?

HUNTER: Oh, you know, I campaigned. I auditioned. I think, you know, they -- the producer of that, Polly Platt and Jim Brooks, when I actually walked in to audition they thought that I was a production assistant. They thought I was a PA for their movie, so I don't know what they were expecting. But at any rate...

GROSS: ...what does that mean that they thought that you looked unassuming?

HUNTER: Well, I mean, yeah. I think that I was totally unassuming, very young, very small, kind of an ordinary girl. Which I very much am -- an ordinary girl. And I love to play ordinary people. So this is also one of the things that makes me kind of low profile. It allows me a certain amount of anonymity in my life, which is great. But it also allows me to play ordinary people up close.

And in a funny way, I think that's what Jane Craig was, the character in "Broadcast News." She was an ordinary woman who, at closer examination, was quite extraordinary. And so I went in and spent about an hour and a half reading the script with Bill Hurt who happened to be their reading with actresses. And it was a fabulous afternoon. And that was pretty much it.

GROSS: Holly Hunter is my guest. Her latest movie is "Living Out Loud." Now, you have a southern accent -- you grew up near Atlanta. Did that ever stand in the way of parts that you wanted?

HUNTER: Well, "Living Out Loud" I don't play a Southerner. So -- and in "The Piano" I don't play a Southerner.

GROSS: You don't speak so -- well, I guess there's narration though, right?

HUNTER: Yeah, I did a Scottish narration at the beginning and end of the movie. So, you know, no I don't really think it's impeded me.

GROSS: You grew up on a farm in a town near Atlanta.

HUNTER: Mmm-hmm.

GROSS: Did the farm -- was it a working farm?

HUNTER: Yeah, it was. I mean, you know, I would say that my father had two things going on. He was very much a cattle farmer as were my two brothers who were raised on the farm. And my father was also a manufacturer's rep for sporting goods.

So he was more than a gentleman farmer, but he was more than just a plain farmer as well. I mean, he was a businessman. So -- but he taught my brothers also to operate the farm, so it's still at this time a farm that people make their livings off of.

GROSS: You have, I think, five brothers?

HUNTER: Yes, five brothers and a sister. We were all extremely spread out in age, so I -- for example, I have a brother who is 20 years older than me. So obviously there were quite a few of them that I didn't really grow up with. But nevertheless, you know, 250 acres -- there was plenty of room for each of us.

GROSS: Were you ribbed a lot for being a girl by your brothers?

HUNTER: You know, but I was the seventh child in that family, so by that point -- you know, I kind of think we were all left -- I kind of was left to have myself grow up. It was like, OK, Holly go grow up. There was a tremendous amount of freedom that I had at that point.

I was not surveyed. I was not policed in any way by my parents. I had a tremendous amount of freedom, and I've always told my parents they were very very lucky that none of us were incredibly wild because we could have been if we wanted to be.

GROSS: How did you use this freedom that your parents allowed you?

HUNTER: Well, my brothers had very much of a working place on the farm, and I did not, because I was a girl, there was that -- I don't know what you would call it -- but boys got to do what boys did and girls had to do what girls did except that I didn't really fit into the cooking, gardening section.

I kind of made my own life there on the farm, which was, I think, largely an imaginative life where I spent a lot of time by myself out in the fields or the woods playing, making up games, making up people, friends. I read voraciously as a child. So it was a different kind of experience for me growing up there than it was for my brothers.

GROSS: What access did you have to movies and to theaters?

HUNTER: None.

GROSS: None?

HUNTER: None. Really none. Television was not a big thing when I was growing up, and there was only one theater in my hometown that was converted to a Baptist church. So there was really none of that influence.

GROSS: So if you're not exposed to a lot of acting, how do you know you want to act?

HUNTER: Well, I think I was a really, you know, extremely romantic little soul. I had many fantasies that were, I would imagine, quite, you know, silly and grand. And I started doing plays in high school which we did strictly musicals.

So my first musical was "The Boyfriend," and I loved it. It was fabulous. And then I just continued doing musicals. I just did one after another until a director in Atlanta spotted me and asked me to, at the age of 15, apprentice in his upstate New York repertory theater company.

So I went, when I was 15, an apprenticed and then I went back when I was 16 and apprenticed again; then decided that I wanted to be a professional actress. So I went to -- I auditioned for and got into Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and studied acting for four years.

GROSS: What career -- kind of career did you think you were going to have at that point?

HUNTER: I really wanted to be a stage actress. That was my dream. And I would actually say that that's the only goal that I've ever had. I'm not particularly goal oriented. I have short-term temporary goals, and generally they manifest themselves in characters. But other than that that was my one -- that was my one wish.

GROSS: And you've done a lot of theater.

HUNTER: Yes, and continue to do it.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm. Now I understand that the first line that you ever spoke in a movie was in a low budget horror film called, "The Burning," which I looked up in Leonard Maltin's movie book and he grades it "bomb." Would you concur?

HUNTER: Yeah, I think my line was, "look, there's Todd." But I have not seen "The Burning" in a few years. But Harvey Weinstein, the celebrated distributor-producer, produced that movie. And that was my introduction to film was Harvey.

GROSS: And did you think you'd be stuck in movies like that for a while?

HUNTER: No, I looked at it as an utter privilege and honor and fun time because I'd been in New York for three weeks. I got this movie with a bunch of people my age. It was like going to camp. And the movie was about camp.

GROSS: A murderer at summer camp.

HUNTER: Right. I was familiar with camp. I'd been to camp many times as a teenager. So I felt really at home, and it was a bunch of actors and I really like actors. And like I said, we were all the same age. I was making more money than I had ever made in my life. It was like, I don't know, $1500 a week scale. But it was, you know, I was rich. I was young. I was living in New York. I was full of hope. "The Burning" was the best thing that had happened to me up until that point.

GROSS: Did you put it on your resume?

HUNTER: Oh, yes, with pride.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HUNTER: It was fun. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Holly Hunter's latest film, "Living out Loud" will be out on video next month.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Holly Hunter
High: Actress Holly Hunter. Her latest film is "Living Out Loud" where she stars as a doctor's wife whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. She has starred in such films as "Raising Arizona," Broadcast News," "Miss Firecracker," "Always," and "The Piano." She was born in Atlanta, Georgia in March 1958 and grew up on a farm in nearby Conyers, Georgia.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Movie Industry; Holly Hunter

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Holly Hunter

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 02, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020202NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Sundance Film Festival is considered one of the most important film festivals in the world, and the premier showcase for new independent films. This year's festival wrapped up on Sunday. Last week we brought you a couple of onstage interviews from FRESH AIR's visit to Sundance, including a talk with our film critic John Powers.

But when we spoke, the festival had just began. We asked John to come back today to tell us about the movies that he saw there. Let's start with his overview of this year's festival.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: I think that this year at Sundance could probably be accurately described as the "year of competence." Normally when you go to Sundance, when you see the films, there are a few that standout, and then some -- a few in the middle, and then a lot that aren't very good.

Whereas this year what was surprising was that probably the very best films weren't as good as they've been in some other years, but the very worst films were much better than the worst films are in usual years.

So this was a year when you would go to the competition films of sort of fiction features -- almost all of them had something to recommend them. You know, every film either had a wonderful performance or was really nicely shot or had a good script.

And although none really stood out as being clearly the best films or films that you had to see, nearly all the films were worth seeing.

GROSS: So it was a reasonably pleasurable experience to go to the movies?

POWERS: It was an OK experience. I mean, somehow the problem with film festivals, and especially Sundance at the moment, is that you want more than that. I think that the sort of problem that Sundance has at the moment is that its become such an important film festival, in terms of launching careers and getting media attention, that somehow to see a film that's perfectly fine if you saw it in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago somehow seems disappointing when you're in Park City, Utah.

And I think that's something that the festival, you know, really can't do much about because they're choosing the best films they can every year. Some years they're better than others. But you have this huge influx of people into this small Utah town to see films. And so when the films aren't really special, there's a general sense that they're even worse than they actually are.

In fact, a lot of the films I saw I would have been perfectly happy to see in the course of my normal life. But somehow flying off to a different city, walking through snow to then see a film that's just OK somehow makes you slightly unfair, I think, to the film.

GROSS: Let's look at the of award winners at Sundance this year. The feature film winner is called "Three Seasons." It's described in the Sundance program as the first American film to be shot in Vietnam since the war. What's the movie about, and what did you think of it?

POWERS: Well, it's a film by a young 23-year-old Vietnamese-American named Tony Bui, who I think was born in Vietnam and moved at a very young age to the United States. And it basically inter-weaves a series of stories.

There's one story about a cyclo driver -- basically a person that peddles tourists around Saigon as it's always called in the film -- who falls for, and becomes fascinated by a prostitute who caters to tourists.

There's another story about a woman who's a flower seller and flower picker in these beautiful lotus ponds who gets involved with a monk who has leprosy. And basically she becomes his conduit for his ability to tell poetry.

There's another story about a young child who actually carries around this kind of -- those boxes that cigarette girls used to have selling things to tourists.

And finally there's a story about Harvey Keitel who plays a Viet vet whose come back to look for his daughter. And basically it sort of inter-weaves these stories to kind of try to paint a portrait of contemporary Saigon which is sort of a city that is both definitely Vietnamese, yet been touched by the West.

It's an interesting idea for a film, and I should say from the beginning that Tony Bui is a very talented young director and writer. The film has enormous delicacy and tact, and there's a tenderness to the movie which is genuinely nice. And the film is very very beautifully shot by Lisa Rinzler, who won the best photography award at the festival.

It actually really makes you see Vietnam in a way that very few films make you see it. Having said all those nice things, I would also say that the film is very very thin in a way. Most of the story lines that you get are story lines you've seen before.

So, for example, the cyclo driver interested in the prostitute instantly calls up thoughts of, for example, the film "Mona Lisa." Similarly, the story about the young child who is selling things to tourists -- there are many many many versions of the young kid sort of out on the streets from "Pishotay" (ph) to lots of others.

So most of the story lines are in fact rather familiar, and kind of thin. But it's the kind of film that often does well at Sundance because people feel very very good watching it. It gives you a little bit of the world. It's very very affirmative, probably too affirmative considering what's actually going on in Saigon at the moment.

GROSS: Harvey Keitel not only co-stars in it, he's the executive producer. Any idea why he took on this movie?

Powers: Well, actually it's a very funny thing because he gives the worst performance in the film.

GROSS: Really?

Powers: Yeah, he does. It's a very strange thing -- all the Vietnamese actors are extremely good, whereas Harvey is kind of phoning this one in. Although he phoned it in from Saigon, which is, I guess, impressive.

I think that, to his credit, he is one of those people who really does look for new talent. And to choose someone almost at the opposite end of the spectrum from Tony Bui, who has made a gentle film about Vietnam, he was the person whose interests got "Reservoir Dogs" made and Quentin Tarantino launched.

He actually is one of the few sort of big name actors who consistently goes out and tries to find young people and work with them and try to launch their careers. You know, lots of other people don't do that.

GROSS: The film that won for best documentary is called "American Movie," and it's about someone trying to be an independent filmmaker. It sounds very inside.

POWERS: Well, it actually -- it sounds as if it would be inside, but in fact the truth is it's kind of outside. Because the guy who is trying to make the film lives in Milwaukee and is sort of a 28 or 29-year-old "guys guy" who wants to make a horror movie. He's written a film called "Coven," and basically he wants to make the kind of trashy bloody movies that you show at drive-ins.

And the film follows his attempt to do this through a whole series of ludicrous circumstances: inept staging, working with people who have no clue what's going on, working through laughable things. And what's nice about the film is it shows you a guy with "the bug."

I mean, the hero of the film, Mark Borchardt I believe his name is, is this incredibly enterprising, energetic, funny guy who swears a lot but really really really is driven to make this movie. As ludicrous as the movie may seem to us as we're watching it. And what's nice about the film is it actually captures somebody who is in the state of being captured by desire to make films.

What I liked less about it, I think, is two things: one is that it's, like most films, it's too long. So you kind of get the film before the film completely runs out. And the second thing is that there's a problem with a lot of the films I saw at Sundance this year, and a problem with a lot of American culture at the moment, is that there is an addiction to cuteness.

There's a way in which we like everyone to be quirky and offbeat in movies or television shows. And when you watch this film, often things seem to be put in just because somebody says something really quirky or offbeat. And the audience gets a big laugh, but you don't really need it for the film.

GROSS: So did you walk away from this film thinking that the interesting person was the subject of the film, the guy trying to make this cheap horror film or the filmmaker who made the film about the guy trying to make the cheap horror film?

POWERS: What's interesting about the film is that the guy who is trying to make the cheap horror film is named Mark and his buddy Mike, who seems to be in a stupor through the entire film, are actually fun and funny to watch. I mean, they kind of like are the real life version of "Wayne's World" or something. So they're actually kind of interesting.

But the real talent in the film is the director Chris Smith who actually followed these people, saw the potential in this story, and then made a documentary that I think -- whose great virtue perhaps, among all of the Sundance documentaries over the last few years, is that it's funny.

There's a great tendency in documentaries to go for the most earnest and overbearing kind of thing. This film isn't particularly good for you, which I think is part of its charm and may be part of its limitation. Because I think it plays a little bit cheaply to the audience's desire just to be entertained.

GROSS: Was this a big year for documentaries at Sundance?

POWERS: Well, according to "The New York Times" this was the year of documentary at Sundance.

GROSS: Yeah, that's why I asked.

LAUGHTER

POWERS: And it's funny how in the way the culture works, that it only takes one or two articles by famous papers to make it the year of the documentary at Sundance. The truth is, I think the reason why it became the year of documentary at Sundance was because the features weren't as spectacular as they have been in other cases.

And so people are looking for it to be the year of something. And in this particular case it was the year of documentary. The other reason was there were two very hot documentaries at the beginning -- films that people were actually almost brawling to see.

One was called "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," which was about a Singaporian porn actress whose great claim to fame was she made a video in which she had sex with 251 men. The other film was called "American Pimp," which was by the Hughes brothers who made "Menace to Society" and "Dead Presidents."

And it basically was a sort of MTV style talking head documentary with American pimps. And because of their kind of racy subject matter these were the films that were most in demand and people really wanted to see them. I think they might have given the sense that this was the year of documentary, because people really were fighting to get into those screenings.

GROSS: Or it might just prove that people are always interested in sex.

POWERS: Yes, people are always interested in sex. I realize if I never make a film, I want to have the word "pimp" in it.

LAUGHTER

I -- watching people push just to get in because it had the word "pimp" in. I realized this is the winner, Terry. I think in fact that FRESH AIR can change its name.

GROSS: To "Fresh Air Pimps?"

POWERS: Yeah, "Fresh Air Pimps" or "Fresh Pimp" or "Pimp Air." I'm not quite sure, but we can work on it.

GROSS: We'll work on it. My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. We'll talk more about the Sundance Film Festival after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. He's just back from this year's Sundance Film Festival, the showcase for new independent movies.

So who was the big winner in terms of the big deal? Getting, you know, the agent and the distributor and the big money package?

POWERS: Well, what I think is actually very funny about Sundance is that I think the programmers choose, rather honorably, films they think are the good films. Yet, once the festival starts most of the talk turns to which people are going to make it as stars. Which films have sold for the most money.

This year the big seller was a film called "Happy, Texas," which is basically a reworking of "Some Like It Hot." You might recall that film in which two musicians fleeing the mob pretend to be women. Here it's to ex-cons fleeing the police who wind up in a small Texas town called Happy, Texas, and they pretend to be gay organizers or gay organizers of talent shows for five and six-year-old girls. And basically this follows their zany adventures.

The thing that can be said on its behalf is that it contains a genuinely hilarious performance by Steve Zahn, who actually won a special prize at the festival for it. And he's so funny that it almost makes you forget how mediocre the film actually is. He's just a hilarious.

The problem with the film, I think, for many people who saw it -- and I should say that it was a huge hit with the actual audience -- but for critical types like myself is I couldn't see how in any way that it was an independent film except for the fact that the lighting looked kind of cheap.

If you had told me that Touchstone Pictures or 20th Century Fox was bringing out this film, I would have said absolutely yes. Because there is nothing in the film that's not completely and utterly mainstream, and isn't desiring to be completely and utterly mainstream. So it's kind of shocking that not only was this film the big seller, but it was also the film that a lot of the audience genuinely loved. It got standing ovations. People went crazy.

And it kind of led me to the suspicion that really at Sundance, still, the vast majority of people who go to see independent films really want to see mainstream films, but just with a bit of patina of independence.

GROSS: Well, who is the audience at Sundance outside of the critics that are there?

POWERS: Well, it's a peculiar mixture of people. There are some local people from Utah who are there. There are people who fly in, and it's sort of part of their year to go to film festivals. That's sort of a subculture that's never really been explored, but you actually do find them as you go to festivals.

There are people who will actually fly in from different parts of the country just to be at festivals and see the films. Then there are basically industry type people: agents and producers and all the rest. And those are people who are always on cell phones. And you actually do this stuff that seem like movie parodies but actually happen in real life at Sundance; where you'll see a table where all five people are talking on their cell phones.

And these people are like very very busy and earnest, and, you know, to be frank, rather pushy. Then you have the sort of media types like myself who have descended on Sundance because now that it's important festival, every publication in the free world feels it has to have at least one person there to cover the festival in case something is going on.

So you mix all of those people together, and you then have the audience. And so it's a very strange and skewed audience. I think the locals tend to be the most generous audiences. Probably the media types tend to be the least generous audiences.

GROSS: That's you.

POWERS: That's me. That's me. And in fact, actually that's a good thing. I think one of the peculiar problems of the independent film in America right now is that there's a kind of terrifying level of boosterishness. And what I mean by that is that you have all these filmmakers trying to make films.

You have Sundance which is there to promote develops, and that's actually it's job. And it's doing a good job of basically promoting independent film. But then you also have people whose interest it is, financially, to promote independent film. And that's the producers and agents and all -- and entertainment lawyers.

They all want to get hooked up with independent films. So once a film seems to be doing well, they're all going to push it as though it's the greatest film ever made. Then you have the independent film press with things like "Movie Maker" magazine and "Filmmaker" magazine. And what's curious about that kind of press is that it's also sort of trade paper boosterish.

So what you don't find, except for people like me -- which is people saying, "wait a second. Is the stuff we're seeing really that good?" And what's kind of unfortunate about being a film critic at something like Sundance is that you're sort of like the spoiler at the party.

Because people will say, "have you seen anything good?" And you'll say, "well, no nothing really very good. But there are some young directors here with some talent."

But that seems so insufficient in relation to the amount of hype that's going on from the media that isn't critics, and the amount of pushing that's going on from the publicists and all the rest.

So you sort of feel as if you are kind of negative or cynical in saying that a film like "Three Seasons" isn't a great film. You know, it's a perfectly fine film. Tony Bui, who won, has a lot of talent, you know, that I would look forward to seeing his next film. But is his film a great film? No.

And usually at Sundance that's what happens. You have critics sitting around say these films aren't great and everybody else, basically as their job, trying to say that they are.

GROSS: What won the audience award this year? The audience always votes on its favorite film.

POWERS: Well, there were two audience awards. One of the winners was "Three Seasons," the Vietnamese film that we talked about already. The other winner was a film called "Genghis Blues," which was actually, I think, one of my favorite films of the festival.

It's a documentary about a blues singer and a group of others who go to Tuva to deal -- to basically get involved in what's known as Tuvan throat singing. A kind of singing that I won't attempt to duplicate on the air for our listeners.

But, in fact, what was wonderful about this film was it's basically just these couple of guys who want to make -- who were interested in Tuva because of a documentary they had seen where Richard Feynman, the physicist, had talked about Tuva. And they become fascinated by Tuva.

Meanwhile, there's this blues singer who is also interested in Tuva, and so they all sort of fly together to Tuva to experience life in a small little country of 200,000 people just in between Russia and Outer Mongolia. And there's a kind of looseness and good heartedness to the film that I really really liked. And I would highly recommend anybody to see it. The audience loved it, and they were right to love it. It's just a wonderful film.

GROSS: Did you see any movies that you thought were really fine films that you'd like to alert us to because you think that they'll be opening theatrically?

POWERS: Well, actually I think, in lots of ways, the film that I thought was the most interesting film there was a commercial film called, "Guinevere." It's coming out later this year. It was written by Audrey Wells, who made a film called -- who wrote a film called "The Truth about Cats and Dogs," which was pretty badly botched, I think, when they made it.

And "Guinevere" is a film about something that I've never really seen before, which is a film about the relationship between a young woman -- a well-born young woman, played by Sarah Polley, who is going to go off to law school who falls in love with a kind of pseudo-bohemian photographer played by Stephen Rea, who is perhaps 30 years older than she is.

And basically the film tackles the question of the relationship between older men and younger women. Now this is a common thing in movies, I mean when you go see something like "A Perfect Murder" it sort of goes without saying that Michael Douglas will be with Gwyneth Paltrow. You know, every young woman in the audience shudders at the thought of actually having to sleep with Michael Douglas.

LAUGHTER

In the same kind of way that, you know, I mean, I've seen women literally cringe in Woody Allen movies. When someone like Elizabeth Shue has to look as though she's just sexually enraptured by Woody Allen.

So usually when you see this kind of relationship with a film, what's' strange is the film doesn't even notice that there is something odd about it. What this film does is it basically gives you -- it shows you this kind of relationship in a kind of amusing fashion about how a young woman gets involved with this older guy.

And then does the thing that I think a male film, if it noticed it was doing this, wouldn't do. Which is basically it shows you what's queasy and humiliating about the relationship. It shows how a young woman can be involved with an older guy and how they're both slightly embarrassed by it.

But at the same time it, also shows that there is something in it for both of them. So that for the older photographer played by Stephen Rea, who is basically a sort of failed photographer at this point in his career -- and who is sort of a pseudo-bohemian -- what he finds in this young woman is someone who reflects back his own idealized image of himself.

And the movie's rather clear about this. We don't admire the Stephen Rea figure because we know that he actually does chase after younger women precisely because they have beholden him in a kind of awe. But at the same time the movie doesn't hate him for that, because it shows how the younger woman is actually getting something from this relationship with the older man.

He does expand her horizons. He does give her increased confidence. He does show her more of the world than she might otherwise have gotten. I think if a man had made this film, and was actually trying to deal explicitly with the subject of older men and younger women, he'd be more likely to hate the older man and to really punish him.

Whereas this film is actually, finally, rather forgiving toward him, while at the same time showing all of his limitations.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. We'll talk more about the Sundance Film Festival after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. He is just back from this year's Sundance Film Festival, the showcase for new independent movies.

Do you think that independent films, John, are a good place now for women to write, direct and act in a place where you can do things outside of the conventional female stereotypes in mainstream motion pictures?

POWERS: I think at the moment that independent films are probably best for actresses. What's curious is that Hollywood still doesn't know what to do with actresses. So that you actually find that there are very few good roles for women in Hollywood films.

In independent films there are lots of great roles for women. So it's not at all surprising that someone like Sarah Polley will get the best role of her career in an independent film, or that the stage actress Janet McTeer would get a great role in a film called "Tumbleweeds," which is another film that won a prize at Sundance this year.

There are just good role after good role after good role in American independent films for actresses. It's a little trickier for writers and directors. Now, it should be said that what makes this tricky is not actually -- has almost nothing to do with Sundance itself -- the festival.

The festival has been, I think, consistently in the forefront of having women programmers programming films by women writers and directors. But once the films show, it's interesting to see how the kind of old boys network takes over in the world of distribution. An example of that for me would be that there were two films I saw, essentially -- I mean, probably within a few hours of one another.

One was called "Judy Berlin," it's by a young man named Eric Mendelsohn. And it's a perfectly fine film about Long Island. It's kind of strenuously laboring to make Long Island magical. And it has some good parts and it has some bad parts. And it's a very literary conception.

And as I walked out of the thing all the distributors were talking about what a great talent Eric Mendelsohn was and how he was somebody who basically you'd want to hook up with. Because he really had vision, and he really had all these qualities.

A few hours later I saw a film called "Getting to Know You," by a woman named Lisanne Skyler. And it too was a little bit literary, it's sort of a film that brings together several stories by Joyce Carol Oates. And the dialogue is perhaps a little to written, very much like the film "Judy Berlin."

But coming out of that film, what the distributors and the people I knew in the industry were saying was very very different. They were saying, "oh, the film was cold. It cared too much about style. I couldn't get into it. It was to literary."

And basically if you asked me which is the better film, I would say "Getting to Know You" is clearly the better film. There is more control of tone. It is actually pushing for deeper and more complicated things. It's the better film.

Yet, out in the world of the industry, you could see that -- people, I think, could see how Eric Mendelsohn fit the image of the kind of visionary young filmmaker who is a man. But Lisanne Skyler didn't fit the image of what the ideal woman filmmaker is, which is basically somebody who makes these heartfelt films about family and relationships.

In fact, she wasn't fitting the image of what the hip -- or hot young woman filmmaker should be. And so I think one of the things that has happened over the years is that men are supposed to be visionaries and women are supposed to feel deeply, which brings us back to the oldest cliches of the culture.

GROSS: It must be interesting, John, after the Sundance Film Festival is over to see how everything plays out in the marketplace.

POWERS: Well, it is very interesting to see how things work out. Over the last few years the films that seemed good have inclined to be purchased for a whole lot of money, and often they didn't make that money back at the box office.

This year what was interesting was you could -- was that a lot of films were bought, but aside from "Happy, Texas," which reportedly went for $10 million, most of the films were getting far less money than they had in preceding years.

Distributors still want to be involved with the independent film, but I think they now realize that if you pick something up for $3 or $4 million it might well have a difficult time competing in the market place. You know, if you take a film -- if you take a film like "Next Stop Wonderland," which was a film that sold for several million dollars last year, the problem it had was that once you leave Sundance it was going to put in the multiplex next to "The Truman Show," "Saving Private Ryan," Armageddon," and "There's Something About Mary."

And in that context, a film like "Next Stop Wonderland" looks much less commercial and attractive than it did when it was playing at Sundance where it was actually one of the more enjoyable films.

Of this year's films, I don't think many of them will really make much money. I could see that "Happy, Texas," although it cost $10 million, could make a lot of money because it's a very user friendly comedy. And it's even filled with the kind of things that audiences like, alas, such as jokes about people pretending to be gay.

The kind of stuff I would have thought that would have been tired 20 years ago, people still seem to be laughing at. Similarly, I -- the film "Three Seasons," I think, could make money because it actually is a very very sweet and soft film.

But in general I think these films aren't going to be big commercial money makers. So films like "Judy Berlin," which was much admired at the festival, I can't imagine making money when you put it out in the world. If the director, Eric Mendelsohn, has talent I could see where people would back his next film. And in fact, that's the way the world used to be.

It used to be that you'd make a film or two that nobody saw and maybe nobody even distributed. And now what's happened is people make that first film, they go to Sundance and because of the media attention, they're inflated beyond -- their reputation is inflated beyond what their work can actually support.

GROSS: Well, John, I want to thank you for reporting to us about the Sundance Film Festival.

POWERS: Well, I'm happy to do it.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for "Vogue."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry, Washington, DC
Guest: John POWERS
High: Film critic John POWERS talks about some of this year's winners at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Top honors for drama went to "Three Seasons," and for documentary it went to "American Movie." POWERS also talks about some of his favorites.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Sundance Film Festival; John POWERS

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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