Sundance Preview: A Tale of 2 Directing Duos, 2 Solo Helmers
Director Tia Lessin (photo by Rex Lott/courtesy of HBO)
Reflections from the filmmakers behind festival selections "The Janes," "Meet Me In The Bathroom," "God’s Country," "Watcher"

Two directorial duos--one sporting individual Sundance track records, the other with a joint pedigree at the festival--return this month with their latest documentaries.

Then we have two solo artisans on the narrative side, bringing their feature directorial debuts to Sundance.

While all these filmmakers harbored the hope that Sundance would return to being largely an in-person event this time around, the surge in COVID-19 infections globally caused event organizers to make the festival--which runs January 20-30--virtual for the second consecutive year.

Meet the directors behind The Janes, God's Country, Meet Me In The Bathroom and Watcher.

The Janes
Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes add to their Sundance credentials with The Janes, which makes its world premiere in the festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition. As a director, Lessin’s Sundance track record includes the Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary Trouble the Water in 2008, and Citizen Koch in 2013 (both of which she directed with Carl Deal). As a producer, Pildes has brought films to Sundance such as Jane Fonda In Five Acts in 2018, directed by Susan Lacy (Pildes’ long-time collaborator).

Yet while they are accomplished Sundance and industry vets, both Lessin and Pildes experienced a new career wrinkle with The Janes. For once, director Lessin didn’t also take on a producer’s role. And for the first time, Pildes settled into the director’s chair--in tandem with Lessin--while continuing in a producer’s capacity.

Pildes quipped that The Janes “whetted my appetite to direct more and Tia to produce less.”

The Janes introduces us to the Jane collective, an underground network which helped women secure safe, affordable, illegal abortions before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. The group of women behind Jane deployed code names, blindfolds and safe houses to achieve their goal. Then in the spring of 1972, police raided an apartment on Chicago’s South Side and seven women were arrested for their part in the clandestine service.

Pildes has a family connection to the story. Her father’s first wife was one of the Janes. That woman’s son, producer Pildes’ half-brother, wanted to develop this important chapter in our history as a film. He approached Pildes who initially thought she would produce the documentary. This led her to Lessin whom she long admired as a filmmaker, person and activist. But as they got deeper into the project, Pildes came to a realization--“I underestimated my commitment to this story.” She had a vision for the film and felt the need to direct it. She and Lessin agreed to become a directing team on The Janes. “I’ve said many times that this film is greater than the sum of its parts because Tia and I did it together,” related Pildes, adding that it’s most appropriate that this story about a certain kind of sisterhood was created “by a certain kind of sisterhood” between her and Lessin.

Pildes found her first directorial experience gratifying and would like to pursue more such opportunities. She continues, though, to love producing and will be active on that front as well.

Meanwhile Lessin found her first time not producing or playing some role in producing “kind of liberating,” enabling her to focus on creative aspects. 

Relative to their creative approach to The Janes, Lessin observed that it is not just an abortion film. “It’s a film about an extraordinary act of resistance.” The challenge, she said, was to make a film “true to that drama and an extraordinary story.”

Also posing its own set of challenges was the pandemic. While a lot of archival research had been done before the lockdown took hold, more still was needed and a lot of archives were closed off. There were also interviews--many with more elderly people--that had to be postponed for months until the vaccine was introduced. Additionally there were family losses due to COVID felt by the filmmakers’ contingent. But eventually regaining access to archives and interviewees, being able to finish the film was, affirmed Lessin, like giving “a big middle finger to the pandemic.”

Going into Sundance not having to make a sale, already having a commitment from HBO ensuring major exposure to audiences, took some of the pressure off of Lessin and Pildes. Lessin, for example, didn’t have a distributor in place going into the festival for her prior Sundance films, Trouble the Water and Citizen Koch. While there was an excitement to pursuing a sales connection, there’s a measure of angst. Even after winning the Grand Jury Prize, Trouble the Water wasn’t sold at Sundance. It took a couple more months to seal the deal as prospective buyers may have been hesitant to commit to a film about Katrina survivors. Pildes and Lessin said that HBO’s commitment to The Janes has been brave and steadfast.

Pildes shared that she started in documentary films because of her belief in them as “a medium to create empathy among people,” as “a medium of activism.” Initial response to The Janes reflects that people have been moved and affected, prompting some to tell her and Lessin their stories, to say things out loud and explore what they can do to organize and bring about positive change. Pildes noted that what she walks away with from her experience on The Janes is an affirmation of what drew her to documentary filmmaking some 20 years ago--its ability to generate empathy, caring and activism.

God’s Country
Like Pildes, Julian Higgins’ directorial debut has made the Sundance cut. God’s Country, which Higgins helmed and co-wrote (with Shaye Ogbonna), is set for Sundance’s Premieres section, a selection which he finds “overwhelming,” having spent the past 20 years striving to become a feature filmmaker. Higgins described Sundance as “the ultimate destination for an American independent film.”

Higgins’ road to God’s Country started back in 2010 when his mom handed him a short story collection titled “Jesus Out To Sea” written by James Lee Burke. A story in that book, “Winter Light,” struck a responsive chord with Higgins who made a short film based on it in 2014. “It was a pretty direct adaptation,” said Higgins, recalling that he was attracted to the idea of a character, a retired college professor towards the end of his life, confronting the conflict between his personal moral code and the reality of the world. 

After directing the short, Higgins never thought it would turn into anything more in that it was quite “a contained story.” But then came the 2016 presidential election and the feelings in the story that stirred him seemed all the more relevant--what he described as “the collision of an ethical moral world view with a world that seems to be moving in a different direction.” He fortuitously reunited with Ogbonna, a former AFI classmate, during a screening of a film in December 2016. While they sparingly stayed in touch over the years, their coming together this time sparked a profound conversation about what they wanted to accomplish as artists. “He and I share so many values and motivations,” said Higgins who teamed with Ogbonna on the script for what became God’s Country. “It was one of my most pleasurable collaborations ever,” related Higgins. This time, the adaptation of “Winter Light” had Ogbonna and Higgins taking some creative liberties, including making the protagonist younger and a woman of color.

In God’s Country, a grieving college professor--portrayed by Thandiwe Newton--confronts two hunters she catches trespassing on her property. She’s then drawn into an escalating battle of wills with catastrophic consequences. 

Higgins had been a fan of Newton for quite some time. And that admiration only grew when he saw her transform into the complex, flawed, compassionate character. “She is willing to go places that are very vulnerable,” assessed Higgins who added that Newton appears in virtually every frame of the film and carries it on her shoulders.

God’s Country also brought Higgins together again with long-time collaborators, cinematographer Andrew Wheeler and editor Justin LaForge. The threesome has teamed on assorted shorts, growing and developing as artists over the years. “On your first feature, it’s so important to have collaborators who have been on the journey with you,” said Higgins. “It continues to be a learning experience every time we work together.”

Relative to learning and personal development, Higgins recalled that he and Ogbonna started working on God’s Country some five years ago. “We have changed so much as people because of it,” said Higgins. “This is how we understand ourselves--by making work, seeking self-understanding. The process of making a movie changes me as a person. And as you change as a person, the movie changes with you.”

Also gratifying was meeting the challenges of making this particular film. “I’ve made so many shorts over the years and always dreamed of finally getting to make a feature. To start it, be interrupted by the pandemic and finish it during the pandemic has been quite an odyssey to this point--and incredibly cathartic.”

Half of God’s Country was shot when the pandemic shut down production. “We had to wait for 367 days and we didn’t know if it would ever be possible to get this group of people together again,” continued Higgins. “The producers never for a moment considered abandoning the project. I feel so fortunate that the people working on this movie were so committed to getting this done and telling the story.”

When lensing resumed, it was still during a pre-vaccine period. Cast and crew observed the strictest protocols. “It was a very scary time and amazing to see that people were willing to do what it took to finish the movie under the conditions,” said Higgins.

That trust among cast and crew members is akin to the trust Higgins places in the audience. He said the experience of making God’s Country “reinforced in my mind the idea that audiences rise to elevated expectations. You can tell a complex, challenging story and try to engage with the issues of our time. If its dramatized through character, story and emotion, audiences will go with it.” That, he related, is a refreshing realization for an industry that often thinks first about escapism and entertainment.

Higgins continued, “Trusting the audience is a core value for me.” And that trust was reflected in the film’s editing. Higgins explained that most of the moments that wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor were those in the script trying to explain things to the audience. Higgins affirmed that trusting the audience’s intelligence and capacity to understand, to fill in the blanks, is essential, especially for a project like God’s Country which is “designed to be a movie that unsettles the audience in a good way.” 

Meet Me In The Bathroom
Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace have a return engagement at Sundance with their latest film earning a slot in the festival’s Midnight program. Lovelace and Southern’s first turn at the fest came in 2012 with their Shut Up and Play The Hits, a documentary following LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy over a 48-hour period, from the day of the act’s final gig at Madison Square Garden to the morning after, marking the official end of that iconic live band. 

Fast forward to today and the directorial duo’s Meet Me In The Bathroom will find its way again to a Midnight audience, albeit virtually.

Meet Me In The Bathroom takes us on a journey through the New York music scene of the early 2000s. Set against the backdrop of 9/11, the film tells the story of how a new generation kickstarted a musical rebirth for NYC that reverberated worldwide. The documentary, which explores cultural, political and technological transformations as reflected through several select era-defining bands, was inspired by the book of the same title by Lizzy Goodman. In the “it’s a small world” department, Goodman was inspired to write the book by LCD Soundsystem’s performance during their aforementioned last show at Madison Square Garden. 

“We weren’t planning on going back to that subject matter,” said Southern but upon reading a galley of Goodman’s book, he and Lovelace thought it was a good time to tell that story--not only about the music but that time period in NYC.

Another plan that fell by the wayside was to film new material in NYC, including on-camera interviews. But then COVID hit and the film had to be recalibrated, becoming entirely archival. The silver lining was that instead of seeing musicians 20 years later and then cutting to their work back in the day, Meet Me In The Bathroom could take a more immersive approach, dropping its audience smack dab in NYC to experience that time as it happened.

The documentary was further helped by another pandemic dynamic. While being fairly isolated at home due to concerns over COVID, folks had time to look in their attics and elsewhere for video and audio tapes, photographs and other archival fare. Lovelace noted that this led to the unearthing of some never-before-seen footage that made its way into Meet Me In The Bathroom

A prime challenge posed to the directors was distilling Goodman’s book down from 600 pages spanning 10 years and multiple bands to a 100-minute-or-so feature documentary that still conveys a relevant story and underscores the significance of a distinct place and time. Lovelace and Southern pinpointed certain bands to make the storytelling more manageable yet representative of what transpired in the big picture.

Lovelace and Southern’s music documentary exploits have taken different forms. For No Distance Left To Run, a Grammy Award-nominated rockumentary delving into British rock band Blur, the directors deployed interviews and archive elements. Then came Shut Up and Play The Hits, which centered on a live event at Madison Square Garden. Now Meet Me In The Bathroom goes the full archival route which Southern described as “a really interesting way to tell a story but not as easy as one might think.” It was an ongoing learning and collaborative experience.

Lovelace observed that Meet Me In The Bathroom was in many respects “the most collaborative film we’ve made” relative to the team that had to come together. Whereas No Distance Left To Run, for example, had Lovelace and Southern editing in a room, Meet Me In The Bathroom due to its archival bent required the directors to work much more closely with editors and producers. “An archive film of this scale,” he said, necessitated that deeply collaborative approach. An affirmation of that approach came with Sundance’s selection of the film.

Southern and Lovelace have honed their collaborative filmmaking skills across features and shorter form over the years, including commercials, branded content and music videos. The directorial duo has adopted the thirtytwo moniker for their commercialmaking endeavors which are done through production house Pulse Films. Directing content that has to convey stories within a short time frame, assessed Southern, has made him and Lovelace better storytellers overall, informing their feature-length projects. Commercials also afford Southern and Lovelace with the opportunity to experiment with toys and technology that they might get to use otherwise, again expanding their filmmaking vocabulary.

Chloe Okuno earned a slot in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition with her feature directorial debut, Watcher, which introduces us to a young American woman, Julia (portrayed by Maika Monroe), who moves with her fiance from the U.S. to Romania. Feeling alone and isolated in a new country--and a new apartment--she is tormented by the feeling that she is being stalked by an unseen watcher in an adjacent building. The nature of the psychological thriller drew Okuno in--particularly the inherent frustration of a protagonist convinced of something but not able to convince the people around her that it’s true. Even her fiancé can’t fully empathize.  

“I’ve personally felt that at certain times in my life,” shared Okuno. “A lot of women have felt that as well, That core emotional story was interesting to me.”

The original script took place in New York. But the backdrop was changed to Romania, with shooting done in Bucharest. This relocation made the story more than just a woman feeling alone in a city. Now she’s in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, isolating her even further.

Coming out with this movie during a pandemic provided a strange yet fortuitous dynamic in that perhaps viewers in general can now more closely identify with the protagonist’s feelings of isolation given the lockdowns, quarantines and avoidance of social contact we’ve all experienced in one form or another. Okuno observed that “spending the majority of my time alone in my little hotel room in Bucharest, not wanting to risk any exposure” helped her to relate to Julia on a deeper level. While the pandemic did not enter the movie’s storyline, its impact was felt by those who made--and potentially those who will see--Watcher.

It took five years to bring Watcher to fruition. Okuno noted that it’s hard enough to make any feature but the angst escalates when you put the stress of a pandemic on top of it, consumed by protecting the health and safety of yourself and everyone around you. Schedules were constantly changed. Prior to the shoot, some tested positive for COVID. Yet cast and crew safely persisted.

There was also the challenge of the story’s simplicity and its minimalism, continued Okuno. “A lot of it takes place in this apartment where this woman is alone with her fear,” which had the director looking for ways to portray that in an interesting way, to “visually keep the story alive.”

Watcher taught Okuno “a lesson I already knew but you learn it over and over and over again. Ultimately the only thing I can contribute as a filmmaker is my perspective on the story. A lot of times that’s challenged, especially as a first-time filmmaker, even more as a first-time female filmmaker. Challenge is good. It’s part of the creative process. But the lesson is about sticking to your guns. If you have an instinct about something, probably that’s the right way to go. It’s your story. If it’s not your story, then it’s no one’s story.”

Prior to Watcher, Okuno’s filmmaking stories took the form of shorts, most notably Slut which she wrote and directed. Slut earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination for Best Live-Action Short Film at the 2014 AFI Fest. Among her other credits is last year’s “Storm Drain” installment of the V/H/S/94 anthology series.


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