Pleasant People experience the Slamdance Film Festival - By David Bonawits

When I was offered the chance to write about my Slamdance experience, I figured I'd approach it as a diary. I'd take notes and break up what I did each morning, afternoon and night. I'd keep a log of the films I saw and my thoughts on them. Maybe even include a lightly embellished anecdote or two for good measure. But my Slamdance experience was never documented like I would've hoped. Now my memories have blended together into one bright effervescent twirl of excitement, anxiety and cinematic awe. And so I will try to unravel the recollections of my nine days in Park City . PLEASANT PEOPLE is my first feature. It started as a short film submitted to the Rapid i Movement film contest in February 2008. I cast my girlfriend, Jiyoung Lee, and 2 of my best friends, Josh Hall and Becca Cayce, as the stars. I had never seen any of them act before, but I had a hunch they would be good onscreen. And they were! People seemed to really enjoy their performances. 

Over the next year and a half I started collecting ideas and scenarios for the feature version of PLEASANT PEOPLE. I started writing a script and about 60 pages into it, finally decided to ask some of the friends that I was secretly including if they would even want to act in it. Everyone agreed. Sarah, one of the leads, told me she was 4 months pregnant, so I decided to write that into the movie. Also it kind of forced me to start shooting right away. I very naively decided to act as producer, director, camera operator and editor. We took the next year shooting on weekends, editing as I went along, reshaping the story with each shoot until finally, a film was born. 

We submitted to 10-15 festivals, mostly small regional fests. We didn't submit to Sundance. Slamdance was our long-shot. A couple nights before Thanksgiving I was in my car when I saw I had a missed call and voicemail on my phone.

The message said:

"Hi Dave, my name is Drea. I'm calling from the Slamdance Film Festival. I would love it if you could give me a call back..." 

And my heart began pounding. Jiyoung instantly started taunting me saying it was a rejection call. 

"Why would they even call if it was a rejection," I asked, indignantly. 

"Because it's a legal matter," she replied. "Like if they don't verbally get in contact with you and then you show up at the festival they could be sued in a court of law for violating the confidentiality statute established in 1982 by the governor of Utah ..." 

She threw a bunch of phony made up facts that I half believed as the phone rang. Then Drea picked up and told us we were in. Suddenly I was a few blocks from my house, but totally lost. I parked my car and jumped up and down and shouted "Yahoo!" which I don't think I've ever shouted in my life. But it felt appropriate. 

The day the Slamdance lineup was announced I received a press request from the Salt Lake Tribune, submission requests from other film festivals and most interestingly, e-mails from distribution companies. It was so odd to suddenly have a hot commodity on our hands. Especially considering a few weeks earlier I had resigned myself to the fact that the only people who were ever going to see the film were my friends and family. 

We didn't hire a publicist or sales agent or anything for our trip. We had no money. It was already a huge expense getting to Park City and unfortunately there are no PR agents available at a rate we could afford. We printed up some posters and postcards, burned a hundred screeners, gathered a few friends to go in on a condo and called ourselves a promotion team. 

Our first night in Park City was confusing. We were about 4 miles from the Slamdance venue, Treasure Mountain Inn, and had no idea where the nearest bus stop was or even what direction to go. Eventually we made it to Main Street and it looked nothing like what I expected. I had this idea in my brain that I had assembled, but it was way off. Also, Treasure Mountain Inn is at the top of an icy hill and I began to notice that the air was a bit thinner at this high altitude. We finally made it to the Slamdance filmmaker toast to drink champagne and meet fellow filmmakers and programmers. And suddenly everything felt great. It was a very warm and welcoming environment and I was filled with pride. I was also filled with an overwhelming desire to eat, which I hadn't done since early that morning. So Jiyoung and I made it across the street to Wasatch Brewery for some fish and chips. After dinner we tried to promote our film, but I think we kept going to the wrong bars, because no one seemed interested in talking to us about our movie. So we went back to the condo for some much needed sleep. 

The next morning we were up at 6am for an appearance on Park City TV. The host did a very convincing job of pretending she had seen the movie. She honestly even convinced me for a moment. It was our first television experience, but I think it went well. We then went back down to Main St. for our screening. We brought danishes and coffee for the patrons of our world premiere. It was the very first screening of Slamdance, at 10am on Friday. The theater was sparsely populated, but the people that were there seemed to genuinely enjoy it. Laughs came steadily. No one left midway through the screening. People smiled during the Q and A. It was a satisfying world premiere. We just knew we had to really work hard to make sure our Tuesday screening was better attended. 

From here on out, my memory is a blur. Jiyoung and I went into full on promotion mode. She was a little better than I. If we saw someone with a Sundance badge in the grocery store, we'd strike up a conversation (met a distributor that way.) If we saw a guy on the bus with an IFC bag, we'd say hello (met NPR/Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer this way.) We'd say hello to anyone who wasn't actively engaged in a conversation (don't want to be rude!) If they weren't available to come to our screening but seemed like a good contact, we'd give them a screener and our contact information. Most everyone we talked to seemed receptive, kind and encouraging. It was fantastic. 

In the midst of all this shameless self promotion, we also got to watch some terrific films. A huge part of the joy of being at this festival was realizing the caliber of film that our scrappy little homemade movie was playing alongside. I'd like to take a moment to mention the other Atlanta film at Slamdance, Damon Russell's SNOW ON THA BLUFF. It's one of the most riveting, frightening and at times beautiful films that I've seen in quite a while. I was enchanted by Jon Moses and Albert Birney's THE BEAST PAGEANT, an odd, mysterious and charming musical fantasy film. I was mesmerized by CJ Gardella's SHUNKA, a meditation on man's relation to nature and man as a part of nature. Ron Eyal and Eleanor Burke's STRANGER THINGS, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance, was the film we saw right after our first screening, and it was a lovely way to unwind. There were a bunch more but this article already seems very long winded, so I will continue on.

A definite highlight of the week was the annual Slamdance sled off. We had to sign a waiver beforehand which was slightly alarming. After climbing about a million stairs we reached the slope and it was amazing to see what can only be described as a cliff at the bottom of the slope. The plan is to ride a sled down the hill where "catchers" at the bottom are physically trying to stop you from going over the cliff by grabbing, jumping on, blocking your body... Whatever they can do to make you stop. One guy got a bloody nose. Paul, a programmer, went right off the cliff but he was ok. Even if you don't like movies, you should attend Slamdance to partake in this event. It was exhilarating. 

Tuesday the 25th was the day of our second screening. I started out this day by taking a bus seven miles to buy staples for our staple gun. Here's a frustrating fact. Staples, the erroneously named office superstore, does not sell staples for a staple gun. I nearly lost my cool, but someone alerted me that a Wal-Mart next door had staple gun staples. So we got what we needed and headed down to Main Street . 

There are probably about 6 or 7 designated poster areas up and down Main Street . By Tuesday, the paper collected on these boards was getting thick. We did our best to keep on top using a combination of 5x7 postcards and 11x17 posters. But unfortunately, those bastards at HBO had a street team hanging posters for their Sundance documentaries pretty much nonstop. They covered our posters again and again. It was horribly frustrating but that's the name of the game in Park City . Eventually Jiyoung started defacing the posters with Pleasant People promotional slogans. For instance, HBO's Reagan documentary showed a photograph of Ronald Reagan's profile with a thought bubble above his head that said, "Boy, Pleasant People was good!!" It might've been unethical, but it was our only defense.  

Since Jiyoung plays a musician in our film (and is a musician in real life) she did some street performances in the hours leading up to our second screening. In the time it took for her fingers to get too cold to play (12 minutes), we handed out a couple postcards, entertained a few grandmas and earned 2 dollars. Not bad! 

Eventually our screening time had arrived and it was awesome to see a line when we entered the building. Many of the filmmakers we befriended over the course of the week were there. Some of the strangers that we met on the street showed up as well. It was a great feeling. The most interesting part of the screening was noticing laughs where the audience of our first screening didn't laugh. And visa versa. I would think, "Why the hell aren't you guys laughing? The other audience found this hilarious!" Overall, the laughs balanced themselves out and we were pleased. 

Wednesday and Thursday were relatively relaxed days. We didn't have to worry about promoting anymore so we saw as many movies as we could. Thursday night was the closing night party. We all packed into a tiny screening room for the awards ceremony. Andrey Mikhovich, the winner of best short narrative film, came all the way from Moscow Russia with his charming and timeless parable of a film, BIRD. After winning he stood in front of the room for what seemed like 30 seconds without even saying anything. "This was my first festival. And this is my best festival," he finally said, clutching his Sparky award. I just started banging my hands together as loud as I could. I couldn't agree with him more. 

After the official closing night party, about 25 of us went to a condo and had a bit of an after party. It was amazing because the filmmakers behind most of my favorite Slamdance films were there. We shared some laughs, sang some songs and drank a miscellany of alcoholic beverages. It was a very bittersweet moment realizing that the week I had anticipated for 2 months was nearing its end. On the 5am cab ride home, I remembered what I read about Slamdance before I even submitted my film. People always talked about the "Slamdance Family." And it totally made sense to me. 

The next morning I awoke with a beer-like flavor still in my mouth. My head hurt and my throat was sore. I checked my e-mail and found a festival rejection in my inbox, but I didn't mind at all.

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