Sundance: Return Engagements & A New Sense of Place
Director Braden King
Directors reflect on coming back to Park City; another to get his first taste of the festival

Director Braden King’s first narrative feature, HERE starring Ben Foster, debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Fast forward to today and King is back at Sundance in Park City, Utah, with another entry in the fest’s U.S. Dramatic lineup--The Evening Hour, an adaptation by screenwriter Elizabeth Palmore of Cartel Sickel’s novel carrying the same title.

King, whose feature endeavors enjoy the support of Washington Square Films, the production house which also represents him in the commercials and branded content marketplace, said of his return engagement at Sundance, “I now have a greater sense of knowing what it means having been through it once. The honor feels a little weightier, possibly more exciting, having the ability to go in with a little less anxiety, to experience a little more enjoyment. You really don’t know what you’re in for the first time, specifically in the competition categories. There’s no way to fully prepare for it. There’s a little bit more of a calmness for me the second time around.”

Produced by Star Thrower Entertainment, Truckstop Media, which is King’s company, and Secret Engine, with assistance from Washington Square Films, The Evening Hour takes us to a rural Appalachian town, introducing us to Cole Freeman (portrayed by Philip Ettinger), a nursing home attendant who looks after the elderly and infirm while selling their excess painkillers to local addicts. He’s not your typical dealer as he is personally connected to his customers and their plights, caring about them, helping them get through the day--albeit enabling their reliance on meds in the process. But when a friend from his youth returns with plans to get into the drug peddling business, Freeman’s strangely crafted world of patient care and the black market is jeopardized, forcing him to take action. This portrait of lives in a closeknit community struggling during hard economic times paints a somber picture of rural America. Yet at the same time this atmospheric film conveys hope and the yearning for spiritual redemption.

In looking for a place that would do justice to the fictional town in Sickel’s book, King ultimately decided to shoot in and around Harlan County, Kentucky, even though it was three hours from the nearest airport, and logistically not the easiest place to get in and out of. But going out of his way to get the right environ and atmosphere for his work is a self-described “specialty” of King whose HERE was one of the first features shot in Armenia. He even has experience lensing in the Aleutian Islands.

“There’s something you get by going in deep for a location. It’s irreplaceable. Going there (Harlan County) didn’t make it easy on the production but we got kind of an essence you couldn’t capture anywhere else. We were very lucky to find an incredibly collaborative community in Harlan, hiring folks to work with us, to collaborate with us, which added a layer of rural country authenticity to the story. My development process on narrative films is not that different from when I make documentaries (with credits including co-directing the lyrical doc. Dutch Harbor: Where The Sea Breaks Its Back). I travel, spend time at a place, photographing it quite a bit. It seems to anchor the film a little more solidly. In commercials, my background is in real people. Going to places and shooting real people around the world, finding the place with the right feel pays off over and over, helping to shape the personality of the film. You collaborate with the location and the community which translates into a way of shooting you can never fully expect, enabling you to get things you couldn’t get any other way.”

Helping King immeasurably in that regard was DP Declan Quinn, ASC (Leaving Las Vegas, Rachel Getting Married), a winner of three Film Independent Spirit Awards for Best Cinematography, as well as a primetime Emmy. The Evening Hour marked King’s first collaboration with Quinn. “It was a great honor to shoot with him, to have the experience and thoughtfulness he brought to the production,” said King of the DP. “I can’t say enough about him. We met during the pre-pro process. He came in with a stack of photo books. A half-hour meeting turned into two-and-a-half hours. There’s a real film history flowing through his eyes and hands....You can smell the landscape in a lot of his images. At the same time there was a formality and composition to the images that I feel really proud of.”

On the editorial front, King brought in Andrew Hafitz and Joseph Krings for The Evening Hour. This was King’s first time working with Krings while Hafitz and the director have a track record as collaborators. Hafitz had been a cutter on the aforementioned HERE. King has embraced the dynamic of working with more than one editor on a film. “I found that working with multiple editors gives me a greater perspective on the film, to help me see it through different angles, different lenses,” he explained.  Hafitz and Krings’ perspectives helped to shape the film for the better, assessed King.

King learned a lot from his experience on The Evening Hour. He shared, “You’ve heard the axiom of ‘write about what you know.’ I found that I’m drawn to the opposite idea, looking instead for projects I’ve never done before, getting a life experience I couldn’t get any other way. That process itself needs to be its own reward aside from the result. The time I spent in pre-pro, location scouting, traveling all over southeastern Kentucky, western and southern Virginia, photographing, meeting people was a complete experience unto itself before we started shooting. The three months in Harlan shooting and prep time around that was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I made friends there I will have forever. The depth and complexity of the people we met there will stay with me. We tend to have one dimensional images of what rural America is about. I hope The Evening Hour will help turn those expectations and cliches on their heads.”

King noted that his short-form endeavors inform his feature exploits and vice-versa. The director’s ad credits span such brands as Samsung, American Airlines, Miller Beer, ESPN, Nikon, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Johnson & Johnson and UNICEF. “First and foremost, I love shooting,” affirmed King. “A feature can take years to get off the ground. So I benefit from short-form work. It’s like playing an instrument, being able to constantly experiment, experience new crew members. The problem solving aspects of the work are very similar to features. It’s given me high sensitivity to everything from emotional beats to how you’re telling a story visually, directing the arc of a campaign over five or six spots, beyond an individual piece. I can’t imagine going long lengths of time without shooting. I truly love the short-form work. I don’t separate it from my feature work. Both inform each other, I’ve gotten a lot of gratification from short-form projects. I’m very privileged to be able to participate in the ad world through Washington Square Films. I have been on this movie for the last year or so. I can’t wait to get back into shorter-form content.”

Crystal Kayiza
Whereas nine years separate King’s Sundance engagements, director Crystal Kayiza’s are in consecutive years. In 2019, she made the Sundance cut in the Documentary Short competition with Edgecombe. And this year she’s back in the docu short lineup with See You Next Time. In-between those two tours of Sundance duty, Kayiza saw her Edgecombe earn her a slot in SHOOT’s 2019 New Directors Showcase unveiled at the DGA Theatre in New York.

Like King, Kayiza has a commercialmaking/branded content production house affiliation. She is handled in the ad arena by Little Minx, founder/president Rhea Scott’s shop that has an affinity for bringing new promising talent to the fore.

Both Edgecombe and See You Next Time reflect Kayiza’s penchant for delving into and shedding light on the human condition. Edgecombe introduced us to North Carolina’s impoverished rural Edgecombe County, focusing on an African American on probation who works at an Applebee’s restaurant, and expanding with a look at his larger community. In her SHOOT New Directors Showcase profile, Kayiza described Edgecombe as “an intergenerational story about the ways trauma repeats and reinvents itself in rural Black communities.” After its 2019 Sundance screening, Edgecombe won the Gold Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Now See You Next Time uses the beauty industry as a window into the relationship between East Asian and Black women. Through the voice of a nail technician and her client, the film focuses on how women from these communities overtly and covertly bring their experiences with race and foreignness into this self-care routine. The film presents an intimate portrait of Fancy Nail and Spa in Brooklyn, a serene getaway for the neighborhood’s predominantly Black residents. It is here that we meet nail tech Judy, a Fujianese immigrant, and Arrianna, a Direct Care counselor and Judy’s loyal client. Expressed as a dialogue between two seemingly familiar women of color, the film is an inquiry into what is gained, and lost, from intimacy without context. At its core, See You Next Time is a story about how two women see each other and themselves in a space unlike anything else in their world. And through Judy and Arrianna’s own words, much is revealed about the way they connect across the nail salon table.

Helping Kayiza shape the concept for the story was her colleague and friend, the film’s producer Cady Lang, a writer about culture for TIME Magazine. Kayiza also brought DP Leroy Farrell on board to lens See You Next Time. His filmography includes branded content for the likes of RocNation, Google, Under Armour, Disney and PBS. He recently wrapped his first feature-length documentary exploring and investigating the impact of anti-trans policies on the lives of transgender Americans.

Kayiza and Farrell teamed to bring a cinematic dynamic to See You Next Time, underscoring what the director described as the nonfiction space having the potential to be enhanced by narrative fiction feature aesthetic sensibilities. “The lesson learned is that there are no limitations to your voice as a storyteller,” observed Kayiza, noting that while she’s identified as a documentarian, her wings can spread into the fiction narrative discipline, a diversification she’s exploring through Little Minx, citing Scott as instrumental in that pursuit. 

“The nonfiction space is where my passions started and evolved,” related Kayiza. “But there are other spaces and possibilities. I’m learning about the pitching process from Rhea, expanding my understanding of what the commercialmaking space looks like. In this coming year, I’d like to expand into the scripted content area. Even my recent documentary work is in that gray space, somewhere within whatever the separation is between nonfiction and narrative.”

Kayiza recalled that Scott reached out to her last spring after having seen Edgecombe. “We had a conversation about my work,” said Kayiza, noting that she enjoyed an immediate rapport with Scott who talked about “re-imagining how my work would be shown, different places for me to expand myself, finding new spaces and new opportunities.”

At press time, Kayiza was working on another short that might evolve into something bigger in the narrative space. She brings diversity to the filmmaking community. Born in Harlem, NY, Kayiza grew up in Jenks, Oklahoma. Her family is Ugandan and she grew up surrounded by a Ugandan community of recent immigrants and first-generation kids. Kayiza studied documentary filmmaking in college and afterwards spent a couple of years in the nonprofit world working on racial justice issues. She then began pursuing freelance filmmaking full time, leading to what is now her second film at Sundance and finding a commercialmaking roost at Little Minx.

Lance Oppenheim
While Kayiza and King are Sundance returnees, director Lance Oppenheim embarks on his first run at the festival, though he’s no stranger to the overall fest circuit. SHOOT first connected with Oppenheim as he was taking on his thesis film nearly two years ago at Harvard--but he was already an established filmmaker. At the time his third documentary short--The Happiest Guy in the World, part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs platform--had just debuted at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

The Happiest Guy title character was Mario Salcedo, who boarded his first cruise ship some 20 plus years ago--and hasn’t returned since. Whereas cruising is an occasional, restful departure from reality for many, it’s been an everyday reality for Salcedo. For the past two decades, he has been a full-time resident on Royal Caribbean Cruises, logging more than 7,000 nights at sea--and counting.

The Happiest Guy in the World continued what has been Oppenheim’s ongoing fascination--and talent for fascinating his audiences--with the theme of home, introducing us to people who turn to alternate unconventional places and spaces in which to live. For example, his first Op-Doc, Long Term Parking, which played at the AFI DOCS 2017 fest in Washington, D.C., featured folks living in stationary mobile homes in the long-term parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport.

Now home is where the heart is once again for Oppenheim who brings a new sense of place to Sundance with his first full-length feature, Some Kind of Heaven, a documentary which explores life inside the palm-tree-lined streets of The Villages, America’s largest retirement community in Central Florida. Referred to as the “Disneyland for Retirees,” this preplanned retirement city is home to over 130,000 seniors and offers a utopian vision of America as we might wish it were, and as some believe it once was: wide, safe streets, perfectly manicured lawns, and countless activities all in service of re-energizing the golden years of life.  

While most residents have bought into the packaged positivity, we meet four residents living on the margins, struggling to find happiness. Barbara, a widow; Dennis, a bachelor; and married couple Anne and Reggie who each strive to find their footing in this fantasy land as they seek new purpose, look for second love, and navigate the extremes of mental deterioration. By turns biting, tender, and surreal, the film demonstrates that no matter our age, we are always becoming. With strikingly composed cinematography, Some Kind of Heaven challenges our stereotypes around aging as its characters are emboldened to live as vibrantly as possible in the time they have left.”

Some Kind of Heaven was selected for the Sundance Film Festival’s Next lineup, billed as a platform for pure, bold work distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Films that have premiered in this Sundance category in recent years include The Infiltrators, Searching, Skate Kitchen, A Ghost Story and Tangerine.

Oppenheim feels honored to have his first feature at Sundance, particularly in the Next category, noting that some of his favorite movies have played at Next over the years. He observed that Some Kind of Heaven is a documentary that “feels more akin to a fiction film at certain times” and the opportunity for it to play alongside a lot of different films in the Next program that are stretching genres means a great deal to him. 

The subject matter from which Some Kind of Heaven sprung was originally the impetus for Oppenheim’s alluded to Harvard thesis short film. “I didn’t enter this process thinking it would be a feature,” he recalled. Instead Oppenheim viewed it as “something that would allow me to get my diploma.”

However, the idea grew as Oppenheim’s focus became more centered on an “existential view of retirement.” Having grown up around elderly people in Florida, Oppenheim found the need to address the popular notion that “when you age or retire, all of life’s issues and complexities fade in the rearview mirror.” Being around these folks, though, Oppenheim found the reality to be “quite the contrary.”

As the project built momentum to be much more than a thesis short, Oppenheim over time developed a relationship with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky--after years of trying to connect with him unsuccessfully. Aronofsky became interested in the story and eventually came on board as an executive producer on Some Kind of Heaven. The New York Times also committed to making the documentary one of its first feature-length films, having had favorable experiences with Oppenheim on the Op-Doc shorts. Aronofsky and The Times proved helpful in helping to generate financial support and other resources for the feature. 

Oppenheim added that Aronofsky was “extremely supportive” from a creative standpoint. Oppenheim recalled showing Aronofsky five or six cuts of the film and getting feedback in the form of very detailed notes that helped guide the direction the movie was moving in, serving to shape it each time a little more.

Also helping in the shaping process was Oppenheim being selected as a Sundance Ignite fellow. This fellowship program for younger filmmakers got Oppenheim a trip to the Sundance Institute last year--earned through a short film he submitted--and the chance to connect with other young directors, workshopping and developing projects. Some Kind of Heaven gained developmental traction during this fellowship, which also entailed participation in other labs and workshops.

Some Kind of Heaven departs from the norm of a documentary coming from a purely informational point of view, said Oppenheim. Rather than centered on learning something about The Villages, the film is focused on the emotions of its residents, balancing the humor and at times absurdity of living in this setting with the deeply human experiences of those inhabiting it.

Speaking of people’s relationship to their homes, Oppenheim, who earlier was handled by Tool of North America for spots and branded content, has recently moved to a new ad roost, coming aboard the roster of production house m ss ng p eces. Oppenheim hopes to make inroads in the commercial/branded entertainment sector this year.

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival began on January 23 and runs through February 2.

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