All posts by James McNally

About James McNally

James McNally is the founder and Director of Programming for Shorts That Are Not Pants.

Sundance 2020: Day 11

Max Richter Plays Sleep Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 9

Slept until 9am again but had a good plan to see stuff today. First up was the new Ross Brothers film, Bloody Nose Empty Pockets, about the last day of a Las Vegas dive bar. The film starts with a very 70s style opening title sequence set to Buck Owens’ “Big in Vegas” so it sets you up for an almost Altmanesque tableau of multi-faceted characters. The bar is a home for many of the hard-drinking, hard-living patrons. There is no hiding the damage that alcohol can do to people, but there is also a lot of genuine love between these people that a lot of society would call losers. Knowing their previous work, I knew the film wasn’t strictly a documentary, and the directors admitted afterwards that the bar is a bit of a construct. It was not closing, and the patrons were brought together for the film shoot, though most were nonprofessionals. It’s still unscripted and from all accounts the drinking was real, so it does capture a set of themes the filmmakers were trying to communicate while still feeling truthful, at least to me. Turner Ross said he saw Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh when he was 9 years old and that that was a huge influence on the film. In any case, another strong entry from the Ross Brothers, and this one should appear in Toronto at Hot Docs in a few months.

I had to surreptitiously turn my phone on during the film to get onto the eWaitlist for Max Richter’s Sleep, which was screening at the Egyptian at 2:30pm, and then race over after my first film. I got from the Library Theatre to the Egyptian with about 15 minutes to spare and was able to get a volunteer ticket, so that was a relief. I’ve been looking forward to Max Richter’s appearance at the festival for weeks now.

So, Max Richter. I discovered his work when I watched the HBO series The Leftovers a few years ago but he’s also done film score work for films like Arrival and Shutter Island. Natalie Johns’ film documents one of the public performances of his 8 hour long opus “Sleep,” which is performed only two or three times a year due to the incredible stress it places on the musicians, including Richter who plays piano. This particular performance was the first outdoor one, in Los Angeles’ Grand Park. Spanning the hours from midnight to 8am, the performance features cots for its audience to recline, sleep, cuddle, meditate, or whatever. The film speaks to a few of the audience members about their experience, and I think that was a great choice by the filmmaker. Richter’s music hits me very hard emotionally and it’s difficult to say why, but “Sleep” in particular means a lot to me. I’ve always had trouble sleeping, and therefore I’m sort of obsessed by the whole idea, and also by the weird state of mind between waking and sleeping. Music often helps me fall asleep and Richter’s piece was expressly designed for this, but it also evokes certain stories and dreams and I find all of it fascinating. The music itself is stunningly simple, kind of mournful but resigned. I’ve described it as not only good music to sleep to, but music that would make dying to it seem just fine. The film also does a great job of tracing Richter’s life, along with that of his creative and romantic partner Yulia Mahr. At the heart of the film is their own love story, which moved me very much. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this again and sharing it with others.

I met up with the other shorts volunteer Bryan afterwards (he’d also been in the screening) and we went back toward HQ. We were going to meet up with Terry and Drew for dinner at Anaya’s Market, but when we got there they were no longer serving food, so we went to Windy Ridge Cafe instead and used another of our “grub stubs” for a burger and fries. Terry and Drew didn’t end up joining us, but we were meeting Terry afterwards in the lineup at The Shop (near the Library) for the Max Richter performance. We were there very early and stood in line for over an hour just to make sure we could get in.

After having seen the documentary just a few hours earlier, I wasn’t sure I’d want to hear the music again, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see the 90 minute version of “Sleep” performed live. And it was completely worthwhile. We all joked that we’d probably fall asleep and in fact many of us did, for a few seconds or minutes at least. But the music ends with what Richter calls a kind of “sunrise” and magically, I felt refreshed when it ended. Nevertheless, even at 10pm I wanted nothing more than to come home and get into bed, and so that’s what I did.

Sundance 2020: Day 10

Boys State Wins Grand Jury Prize US Documentary

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 8

Up at 9am today but nothing on the schedule until noon, when I attended the volunteer screening of Boys State at the Holiday Village Cinemas. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (The Overnighters), it explores the long running Boys State program, founded by the American Legion to teach high schoolers about the inner workings of American democracy. Many politicians have been alumni of the program and each state runs its own annual weeklong camp, which culminates in elections. The film focusses its attention on Texas, a perennial “purple” state that nevertheless is home to a lot of conservative boys.

The first part of the film is actually kind of horrifying, with displays of machismo and tribalism that remind the audience of the worst sort of jingoism and ignorance. But gradually, characters emerge and they are all intelligent and complex. By the end, we realize that, forced into the shape of the current electoral system, people will sacrifice their ethics and their friendships, just to win. But there are also incredible displays of connection, loyalty, and admiration. Leaders emerge and are thrown into competition. Lives are definitely changed, and we realize that there is still hope. The filmmakers revealed that there are also Girls State competitions and I found myself wanting to see that film next. And as one of the boys in the film wonders, “why isn’t it just People State?” Perhaps the program needs to change, but I’m certainly glad that it exists.

The picture above is from a few days later, when the film won the Grand Jury Prize for US Documentary. The award is well deserved, and I discovered during their acceptance speech that the filmmakers are a married couple.

I came back to HQ to spend an hour or so, but there was really nothing for me to do, so I headed home for a short nap. There had been invites sent out to a Sundance “Dance” party at The Shop, but it was unclear if my volunteer badge would get me in. I headed over early and even though there were barely 20 people in line at the opening hour, the event staff wouldn’t let me in. I spotted Jamie, another Artist Relations volunteer, and we headed to Main Street to get a drink. For the first time since 2015, I had a pizza slice and some beers at Davanza’s, a local spot just off Main, and we ran into someone that Jamie knew from working together at another film festival. Sylvia is a publicist from New York who was working on a couple of films but who seemed to have wrapped up her duties. We spent an hour at Davanza’s then tried to get into High West Saloon, which appeared to be closed, although there were lots of people still inside. Instead, we ended up at the No-Name Saloon on Main, which was packed with locals. It was nice in a way to be part of a regular “Townie Thursday” (as we dubbed it), and we spent a pleasant few hours talking about the film and festival industries. Both Jamie and Sylvia are very knowledgeable and experienced veterans. I got home just around 1am, but in my rush to get a shuttle out to Deer Valley, I lost my favourite pair of reading glasses. Luckily, I brought a spare set.

Sundance 2020: Day 9

Slamdance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 7

After a very good party last night, I thought my venue duties were over, but I got a text this morning at 9am from Terry asking me to go out to Redstone once more to help one of our filmmakers at the second screening of the New Frontier shorts program. One of the filmmakers uses a wheelchair and Terry wanted to make sure she was introduced to the venue manager since for the Q&A she’d have to be brought out of the cinema in order to access the front of the theatre so she could participate. Our driver Paul was on duty but his contract with the festival ended precisely at noon. I was picked up from the Park Avenue theatre (after grabbing my customary coffee at Starbucks) at 11:00am and got out to Redstone by about 11:20am. To my chagrin, none of the filmmakers showed up until about 11:50am (ten minutes before the scheduled start time) and that was not the one I was waiting for. Instead, she was waiting for her producer to arrive and had her ticket, but the producer was going to be late. The venue manager wouldn’t hold onto the ticket and I told her I needed to leave right at noon. I was about ready to leave when the filmmaker I was waiting for arrived, along with a bunch of other people who had been on the festival shuttle. For some unknown reason, a group of about 50 middle school kids also arrived, making the lobby crowded and hard to navigate. I tried to notify the venue’s STOPs (special theatre operations) person but it was taking her a long time to respond. Finally the theatre manager arrived and accompanied our filmmaker to her screening. Paul drove me back to HQ where I gratefully returned my walkie to the charging station and went for lunch at Este Pizza.

I wanted to attend a panel at the Slamdance Film Festival at 2pm and left HQ around 1:15pm but my shuttle took a longer route and I found myself walking up Main Street with only about ten minutes to spare. Luckily I made it to the Treasure Mountain Inn (site of all the Slamdance screenings and events) just in time. The panel was a discussion of last year’s award-winning dramatic film The Vast of Night with its writer/director/editor Andrew Patterson. I saw the film at TIFF back in September and really loved its originality, inventiveness, and performances. Patterson talked about how the film was made, and how it arrived at Slamdance with no connections at all. Since he’s based in Oklahoma City, he didn’t really have any connections to the larger film scene in LA, and festival programmer Paul Rachman stressed that it was a blind submission that just rose to the top. After its awards at Slamdance, the film was acquired by Amazon and will be streamed on Amazon Prime (beginning this May). It also played a few other festivals (including TIFF). It was wonderful to know that truly independent stories can still get to audiences, and when Patterson showed us the trailer a week before its official release, I found myself tearing up. Good storytelling and craft still move me, and that’s why I’m a festival programmer and director.

Before the panel, I’d met one of Slamdance’s feature documentary programmers (Karin Hayes), and when I told her I programmed a shorts festival in Toronto, she suggested I go into the office and ask if they could share links to the short films. And so I did. They were willing to share filmmaker contact information so I will have to email the filmmakers individually, but it would be great to see what Slamdance has programmed this year.

After the panel, I had arranged to meet up with Indy Film Fest executive director Dan Moore at the Wasatch Brewpub, but before that I ducked into the SundanceTV venue for a free Americano. Dan and I chatted for about an hour before I headed home.

I had several choices tonight. The multi-director hydra beast that is Omniboat was playing at 8:30pm at the MARC but after I found out there would be no Q&A, I decided on another choice. I also could have accompanied Terry and Drew and Bryan to a screening of the award winning short films at the Prospector (also at 8:30pm) but in the end I decided to attend the Volunteer Appreciation party at the ASCAP Music Cafe venue on Main Street. It was close to home for me, and since I’ve run out of some groceries, I was counting on the food to be good and filling. It was (hot pasta and meatballs, etc.). I had the chance to talk to some volunteers I haven’t seen for several days (Artist Relations colleagues, as well as my friend from home Grant). I even ran into Ilias Tahri, whom I met here in 2018 and who hosted me in his hometown of Clermont-Ferrand after Sundance that year.

That wrapped up at 10:30pm and I came right home and did a load of laundry, which should see me through the rest of the festival. It’s a bit late now (1:30am) but I’m caught up on blog entries, laundry, and I even have a somewhat solid plan for tomorrow. Goodnight!

Sundance 2020: Day 8

James Faust, Brennan Tilley, James McNally at Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 6

Today was our last big day of the festival, with our final two premieres and the Shorts Awards party. I went to HQ at 10:00am to pick up a ride to Temple, where Shorts Program 2 was premiering at noon. The reality of it being our final two premieres really began to kick in for our team and since we’d already hosted these filmmakers at their first screenings at Redstone, it was pretty easy to recognize them as they arrived. He’s The One writer/director/actor Jessie Kahnweiler arrived in a dirndl and when I didn’t bat an eye, asked me if I was going to say anything about her dress. I did not. But she was fun and friendly and the whole crew of filmmakers seemed very comfortable with each other, making the premiere pretty easy for us. And I finally got to tell the filmmakers of Arabian Alien how much I enjoyed their film.

Shorts Program 3 directly followed and it was nice to see some of those filmmakers in attendance at each other’s screenings. The team from The Devil’s Harmony brought some interesting swag. Tins that contained earplugs (or sometimes mints) tied in to the film’s plot line really well. After the last premiere, our team (Terry, me, Drew, Bryan) took a photo in front of the step and repeat with Doreen, our festival publicist, and then headed back to HQ.

After a few hours break (where I came home and napped for an hour), it was back to HQ to pick up our ride out to Jupiter Newpark (the former Jupiter Bowl bowling alley) for the shorts awards party. Our team of liaisons and volunteers worked outside at the “resolution desk” handing out tickets to any who forgot or lost them. Drew and Terry went in after about an hour to help guide the winning filmmakers on and off stage an into the VIP room (champagne!) after their wins. Bryan and I had to stay out for about another hour. I finally got inside just as the awards were beginning, and was finally able to take off my headset and enjoy the party.

The following awards were presented by the jury: Marcus Hu, Sian Clifford, and Cindy Sherman:

  • Short Film Grand Jury PrizeSo What If The Goats Die (Dir: Sofia Alaoui)
  • Short Film Jury Award: US Fiction-Ship: A Visual Poem (Dir: Terence Daye)
  • Short Film Jury Award: International FictionThe Devil’s Harmony (Dir: Dylan Holmes Williams)
  • Short Film Jury Award: Non-FictionJohn Was Trying To Contact Aliens (Dir: Matthew Killip)
  • Short Film Jury Award: AnimationDaughter (Dir: Daria Kascheeva)
  • Short Film Special Jury Award for Acting – Sadaf Asgari in Exam (Dir: Sonia K. Hadad)
  • Short Film Special Jury Award for DirectingValerio’s Day Out (Dir: Michael Arcos)

I got to meet and talk with a lot of interesting people, both people I knew and some complete strangers. I spotted Dallas International Film Festival’s James Faust along with Calgary Underground Film Festival programmer Brennan Tilley and we took a selfie together (above). Later, I found myself chatting with Cecilia Delgado, editor for both Meats and Dirty. She was driving alone back to New York City the next morning. I also spoke to producer Kate Chamuris, who was here with Blocks, and had a longer conversation with Eli‘s Nate Wilson. Toward the end of the party, I chatted with Marie-Pier Lacroix Couture from Travelling Distribution and Alexandre Dostie (of Travelling as well as here with his own film I’ll End Up in Jail). I’m hoping to receive some films from them for our third festival coming up in November. I also spoke to head shorts programmer Mike Plante about hopefully helping out with some shorts screening for Sundance next year. Fingers crossed.

I left the party just before 1am and caught a couple of shuttles that brought me to the Main Street transit hub around 1:45am. Instead of waiting for a bus to Deer Valley that likely wouldn’t arrive, I just walked and was back in my condo by 2am. But wired from all the conversations and the leftover adrenaline from working so many long days, I didn’t get to sleep until around 3am.

Sundance 2020: Day 7

Animation Spotlight Sundance 2020

Festival Director James McNally is attending this year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 21st to February 2nd.

Festival Day 5

I was able to sleep until 9am this morning and it really felt like it made a difference. Then I was able to attend the annual Telefilm Canada brunch for the first hour (12pm until 1pm) before joining the team back at HQ for the ride out to Temple, where we had the premiere of the New Frontier Shorts program.

The brunch was good, but an hour was barely enough time to talk to people. I did meet the producer of a short called A Walk Down to Water which is playing in Slamdance. His name was Behran and he and the rest of the film team are from Calgary. I also talked to Jen Mair from the NFB, writer/directors Supinder Wraich and Renuka Jeyapalan, whose series The 410 is also playing at Slamdance. And I briefly chatted with Shasha Nakhai, another producer from Toronto who is doing a Sundance lab here along with her producing partner Melissa Coghlan. Oh, and TIFF’s Peter Kuplowsky. Then I had to run back to HQ.

Our screening at Temple was for the New Frontier shorts, and we had three teams there, but one of them was so late arriving that we had already left. We needed to ask the venue manager to help us get the filmmaker his check in folder, tickets, and credentials. Hoping it all went well.

Our next screening was down Main Street at the Egyptian Theatre. It was for a short before a feature, and that went well and wrapped up by 6pm. I was able to grab a sandwich at Main Street Pizza and Noodles with my volunteer “grub stub” and just took it back to our condo to eat. I’m catching up on this blog post before having a short nap and heading out again. There’s an informal meetup of all the shorts filmmakers at the bar in the Park Avenue Hotel (formerly the Yarrow Hotel) and then we are there for 10:45pm for the premiere of the Animation Spotlight program which should get underway just before midnight. The days are still long but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

12:35am: Back from the Park Avenue. Screening went well, and was able to meet more filmmakers in the bar earlier, although US$9 beers made things harder. After our screening, there were a few left, and Drew (International Shorts liaison) was going to stay for another drink, but I was able to get a lift all the way home with Terry, who was driving her own car out to an afterparty she was invited to. Happy to get home quickly and get some more good sleep!