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Checking In On The Sundance Film Festival


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is that time of year again when the divas and darlings of the indie film scene descend on the snow-covered mountain town of Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. The established industry types are all there to sample the latest indie film offerings, and up and coming directors are there hoping for the distribution deal of a lifetime. There are always new faces at Sundance, but this year there is a familiar director making the rounds.


MARTIN: That's Mookie, the main character of Spike Lee's much-loved film "Do the Right Thing." Mookie's back in a new Spike Lee film. And to tell us more about it, we've got Stacey Wilson with us. She writes for the Hollywood Reporter and she joins us now from member station KPCW in Park City. Thanks for being with us, Stacey.

STACEY WILSON: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: OK. So, Mookie - he's coming back, being reprised in another Spike Lee movie. It's called "Red Hook Summer," another film about summertime in Brooklyn. What can you tell us about this?

WILSON: Well, I sat down with Spike a couple weeks ago when he made a rare trip to L.A. - as you know, he prefers to stay in his native New York habitat. The film is definitely a return to his kind of grit filmmaking style, very low-budget. I estimated it to be between about $600,000 and $900,000. So, very low budget, you know, compared to some of his more recent films.

MARTIN: Is there any buzz around this film besides the fact that Mookie is showing up again?

WILSON: The film kind of harkens back to "Do the Right Thing." It takes place during a summer in Brooklyn. A young boy from Atlanta spends a summer with a grandfather he's never met who's a preacher. And it was actually co-written by James McBride, who's an author who's written a number of novels, including "The Color of Water." And he and Spike wrote "Miracle at St. Anna" a few years ago together, which was about soldiers in World War II.

MARTIN: OK. So, a veteran filmmaker reinventing himself yet again. Another big name at the festival, director Peter Jackson. But he's at Sundance not as a director of a big budget, special effects kind of movie. He's there as a producer. He's showing this documentary called "West of Memphis." It's about this case that became very controversial, the West Memphis Three. Remind us what that case was about.

WILSON: In the early '90s, there were three little boys, three eight-year-old boys who were found murdered. And West Memphis is actually in Arkansas. And then they quickly arrested three teenage boys who were imprisoned and then put through a trial and were sentenced to life in prison. And a lot of people felt that very early on that the case was not handled properly, that there was not sufficient evidence to actually have them in prison. So, the film, like the HBO series that also featured this case - "Paradise Lost" - the film really gets into the nuts and bolts of how fraught with problems this case was and how DNA evidence actually exonerates the men - or a lot of people feel it exonerates the men from having killed these young boys because they had no motive. A lot of people said - it just never added up for a lot of folks.

MARTIN: So, what does Peter Jackson's film bring to this case that's different?

WILSON: Most importantly, what the film features is new evidence. As recently as this month, one of the men, Damien Echols, who has been released - all three men are now released, but they have not been exonerated. That's sort of the confusing part of it. But they were all there at the screening with Peter Jackson, with Fran Walsh, with the director, and it was very emotional for everyone.

MARTIN: And there's an interesting connection here - Joe Berlinger, who was actually the director on that "Paradise Lost" series, he's in the festival with something completely different. He's got his own documentary out on Paul Simon and the 25th anniversary of the making of "Graceland."


WILSON: Yes, exactly, "Under African Skies." And I have not had a chance to see the film as yet, but it's very special. I think "Graceland" is a very sort of benchmark record for a lot of people I know; very meaningful to me when I was younger. And interestingly enough, Neil Young is also the subject of a documentary this year directed by Jonathan Demme. So, it'll be fascinating to see what those films shed light on.

MARTIN: And women filmmakers are making a good showing this year.

WILSON: They are. You know, it's sort of disheartening whenever we bring up that, you know, bring up that topic as it's sort of, you know, still kind of a novelty, which obviously, there are so many women making films. But what's fun is that a lot of the films are getting a little bit more lighthearted. John Cooper, the director of the festival, stated the other day, he said, you know, it's so amazing. There's so many comedies this year, which, you know, a lot of people who have Sundance you feel things are very serious a lot of the times. Independent filmmakers tend to be serious folks telling serious stories. But there are a couple of very fun lighthearted films. Two wedding-themed films, interestingly. Both were not sort of on the heels about "Bridesmaids" but they were sort of in production when "Bridesmaids" became a hit. And they're called "Bachelorette" and "Save the Date." So, I think those will be fun. They have kind of marquee stars - Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher.

And then we also have another comedy actually directed by two men, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," a sort of cult TV favorite; they always do very absurd fun stuff. That premiered at the festival as well. I've seen the film. It's really fun. Will Forte is in the film and Will Ferrell produced it with "Funny or Die." So, I think we're seeing comedies becoming more and more of a priority because there's no reason these movies can't be fun.

MARTIN: Stacey Wilson of the Hollywood Reporter. The Sundance Film Festival runs until January 29. Stacey, thanks so much.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.