A noted film critic arrives for what he expects to be just another Sundance Film Festival. 2,544 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Are you going to Shoot Mom?”
Ryan Cromwell pulled off his headset and glanced up from his airline seat. A guy in a blue Cubs cap hovered over him.
A stewardess came forward, looking alarmed.
“Shoot Mom — are you going to the screening?” the Chicago baseball fan repeated.
“Sir, you’ll have to sit down,” the stewardess commanded. “The warning light is on.”
The guy retreated back down the aisle. Ryan Cromwell settled back into his seat. He turned to the woman next to him who’d been watching the incident unfold.
“Sorry about that. Occupational hazard,” he said.
“You must be in a dangerous profession,” she said. “Homeland Security?”
Ryan smiled: “No, more dangerous. I’m a film critic.”
He was one of Hollywood’s chief film critics, headed to Salt Lake City from L.A. for the Sundance Film Festival. His reviews of independent film could make or break the pictures as well as launch or end careers. They were especially important at an indie film festival like Sundance where the discovery of new talent was the paramount focus. Ryan’s film reviews at previous fests had helped catapult first-time filmmakers such as Gina Prince Bythewood (Love & Basketball), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Justin Lowe (Better Luck Tomorrow), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) and many other rookies. January was his favorite time of year because he was reviewing films that were not just vampire, zombie, special-effects and franchise movies that were critic-proof and, in Ryan’s view, brain resistant.
He scanned his email on his laptop. There were a ton of Sundance party invites. He skimmed through a digital press kit of Shoot Mom, a feature dramatization loosely based on the Menendez brothers case about the Beverly Hills teen pair who had murdered their parents in the 1990s and claimed sexual abuse. Their pre-O.J. trial was a media sensation. The title, Shoot Mom, was the command given by one of the brothers to kill their mother after they’d fired point-blank in the back of their father’s head with a 12-gauge shotgun. The buzz was that Lyle and Erik’s release from prison might be imminent, the result of some superlawyer’s appeal to get them out on a child abuse law not in effect at the time of their trial. An E! reporter had asked Ryan in all seriousness at the boarding gate what they would wear to the film’s premiere? “Buzz” was movie-biz jargon for early word-of-mouth. Ryan never listened to it. “Buzz is spelled b.s.,” he’d say. Who knew who started it on this film? The publicist? The financier? The village idiot? Some geek blogging in his parents’ basement? Still, the film had heat. It had been selected for the Saturday night screening at the Eccles Theater, the crown jewel venue. Shoot Mom would be a world premiere, and Ryan had already received numerous texts asking him to score tickets.
The bing-bing of the plane aroused Ryan from his laptop glaze. Ryan peered out his window. Two hours ago, he was in 72-degree L.A. and now it was winter. He flinched: The Wasatch Mountains were straight ahead. Ryan hurried through baggage claim and carried his luggage up the escalator to the car rental section. At the counter, he spotted a pain-in-the-ass publicist.
“Ryan, where will you be staying this year?” she blurted as she directed an assistant to guard her bags. “I’ve got a lot of clients for you to meet.”
“I’m not sure where I’ll be yet. Probably at the Marriott with the rest of the team,” he lied. He was actually staying at a small inn which wouldn’t be clogged with festival flacks who otherwise would inundate him 24/7. He needed time to think and write.
“Anything but a Prius,” Ryan said to the young clean-cut attendant. “And I want the most obnoxious color you have.”
“Yes, I want to be able to find it among all the white, black or silver cars. Especially in the snow after a late-night screening.”
The attendant smiled. “We’ve got one in bright orange.”
“That’s my car.”
Ryan maneuvered his carrot-colored Dodger Charger through the parking lot and out toward I-80 East, the route to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City which was roughly 25 miles from downtown Salt Lake City and 7,000 feet in altitude. Out to his right, Ryan spotted the Utah capitol dome and, in the far distance, the Mormon Temple.
Late afternoon snow flickered. Ryan turned on his wipers. White-out conditions were imminent. A blizzard was predicted. As he guided the Charger, the snow intensified, and he shifted into the middle lane, passing 18-wheelers with snow chains. He picked up speed as he climbed toward the most precarious stretch: the long steep incline to Parleys Summit. Directly ahead an old economy car wiggled on the highway, its nearly bald tires slipping. The little white car swerved and slid backwards, straight into Ryan’s path. He glanced at his side mirror: it was coated with snow. Either crash into the car ahead or switch lanes. He pawed at his blinker and pulled sharply left. A horn blared, but he continued into the lane. He floored it. Help me make it to this festival alive!
Slowly, he crunched his way up to the top of Parley’s Summit. No time for glory; the most harrowing part, going down toward Park City, loomed. All around, cars were scattered along the side of the road. Ryan spotted a big Sinclair gasoline sign jutting up from a valley, the red-white-green sign perched atop a very high pole wasn’t just a familiar sight. It was his lighthouse!
Ryan edged to an exit lane and creeped toward a diner-gas station. The parking lot was deserted except for snowmobiles. As he sat down at the counter, a teenaged waitress sauntered over. “Look what the storm dragged in,” she joked.
“I’m here for the white-out special,” Ryan replied.
“Only crazy people are out on 80 in this weather,” she remarked.
“I’m a film critic,” Ryan explained.
Down the counter, someone muttered, “Must mean that damn Sundance Film Festival is starting up again.”
Boom! The blast thundered.
Ryan jolted awake. He couldn’t see anything. It was pitch dark. He was freezing. He was in bed and still wearing his sweat pants and traveling sweatshirt. A digital clock shined 5:22. He had made it to the Sundance Film Festival. Wham! Another blast! He spotted a crack of light through the window shades and pulled the curtains open and peered out. Another bam! Then it hit him: the Park City Ski Resort was detonating safety bombs in the mountains to loosen up the prior day’s snowstorm to prevent avalanches.
He bumped into a foot stool before standing transfixed at his hotel window, gazing at the huge white void. No vehicles on 224, the roadway that led into Park City. He still had to register for the festival that morning, but driving was not an option. Too wired to sleep, he showered quickly and braced for a long walk. Outside, the temperature had risen, and Ryan headed into town.
He looped his way through snow drifts at the Olympic park and maneuvered toward the shopping center. It was only 8:30 a.m., and a handful of cars were parked in storm disarray outside the Marriott. A black luxury SUV shined in the morning sunlight, evidently the fest’s car sponsor. A doorman nodded as he passed through the double doors into the Marriott. The fireplace crackled while a Sundance information booth stood empty. No one was around, except for the reception clerk who was glued to her computer screen. Ryan bounded up the stairs and passed the table for publications: film magazines, one-sheets, trades. He entered the quiet press room, snagged his press welcome bag from a festival intern and put on his Express Press Pass. He left the Marriott and headed over to the Einstein’s for a large house coffee to go over his festival screening schedule.
Ryan now was in festival mode: He watched two Competition films that day at the Eccles. As he lingered in the lobby between screenings, he met up with a number of film people he usually didn’t see in L.A., his so-called “Sundance friends.” They were an odd array who had that off-center sensibility that bonded them.
Then, he had tromped back over to Einstein’s for more coffee and to review the two films he had just seen. He downloaded the reviews on his publication’s website and promptly forgot about them. Two down, roughly 20 to go.
“We’ll tell Redford that you’re with our circulation department,” Ryan said as they exited the Radisson hotel lobby. “That’ll be your cover. He won’t think anything of your being there if he thinks you’re my colleague and I’m just giving you a ride back to Park City. Especially with these road conditions.”
“But I don’t know anything about circulation,” Audrey said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Ryan explained. “If you say you’re an actress or filmmaker, he might be intrigued and start a conversation with you. Redford won’t care about circulation, so he won’t ask you anything specific.”
Ryan had been cajoled the day before in the Eccles lobby by a producer’s rep to introduce his longtime female assistant to Robert Redford. Ryan almost always turned down such requests, but had become a festival-friend with this particular rep. They went back to the early days of Sundance and more than once they had closed down the No-Name bar on Main Street, most memorably one snowy Sunday night with Dennis Hopper after a premiere screening of Hoosiers. Ryan had requested the rep’s assistant meet him on Saturday morning in the lobby of his inn. Her name was Audrey, and she was accompanying Ryan incognito to Redford’s office cabin where the actor gave the film critic an exclusive interview every year.
The morning was crisp and the road going out of Park City was clear. Ryan grinned as they passed the great white barn. He slowed to take a peak. He loved that barn. Back-dropped by the mountains, it had warmed him every festival. It was an Americana postcard. All it needed was the Budweiser horses. They whizzed past the last remaining remnant from Park City’s per-resort days: a shabby old house now boxed in by the new road. Up the mountainside, rows of luxury log condos hunched against the morning sunshine. And farther out were the Olympic Park and its giant ski jump. At Kimball Junction, Ryan glided onto I-80.
“Is the Sundance Institute near here?” Audrey asked.
“Between 25 and 30 miles, up through Provo Canyon,” Ryan answered.
“This festival seems to be all over the place,” she said.
“Logistics are always the biggest challenge,” Ryan admited. “It takes a couple years to figure it out, like where the theaters are, when the buses run, that kind of thing. I feel sorry for anyone attending Sundance for the first time, especially this year with all the snow.”
They made a right turn at Heber City. They rambled past small farms. A herd of llama hulked in the winter glow. In the distance, the sun perched over the mountains, and to their left, a half-frozen stream wobbled downhill.
“Robert Redford purchased the mountainside you see up ahead when he first hit it big,” Ryan explained. “In 1980, he set up the Sundance Institute for indie film. Hollywood ridiculed him at the time, dubbing it ;Redford’s Folly.’ That was nearly 40 years ago.” .
Ryan pulled into the crowded parking lot of the Sundance Ski Resort. The white mountainside was dotted with a ski-wear kaleidoscope of blues, reds, oranges and greens. The Sundance Institute was up from the ski lifts, discreetly separate but organically connected to the resort.
Ryan speed-dialed on his iPhone. “Wendy, it’s your festival partner-in-crime,” he said to Redford’s assistant.
“You got here early for an interview that never starts on time?” she chuckled.
“What can I say? I’m terminally Midwestern. Do you think Bob might be running late?” Ryan deadpanned. “I hope he won’t wear out those purple ski-boots.”
“I guess that’s Sundance-ese for, `He’ll take a few runs after the filmmakers’ luncheon to unwind.’”
She laughed. “You know the routine.”
“Well, I’ve got that Menendez movie tonight at the Eccles.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll corral him and get you out of here in plenty of time,” she assured.
“I’ve got someone from our circulation department up here who’s distributing our daily, and she’s riding back to Park City with me,” Ryan said. “Okay if she waits in your reception area during the interview?”
“No, problem. We’ll ply her with herbal tea and organic cookies. Gotta go. My Bob-cell just flashed.”
Ryan and Audrey entered the Sundance complex’s rustic restaurant, The Tree House. It was built around a huge tree that was part of the decor. By the entrance, a wooden bookcase offered a number of literary distractions for those waiting for a table. It was filled with Redford favorites: books on American Indians, Southwestern art, Outlaw lore, Tony Hillerman novels.
Ryan pulled two paperbacks out of his computer bag — one by Danielle Steele, the other from Jackie Collins — that he had purchased at the airport. He fitted them between the weightier volumes, each on a different shelf. Last year, he had planted 50 Shades Of Grey. He was not surprised to see they were gone.
“Why did you do that?” Audrey asked.
“In the early years of the festival, I was always nervous about interviewing Redford because he was a huge star and I was a rookie reporter,” Ryan replied. “I started doing this to lighten things up.”
“People will wonder why Robert Redford has Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins novels on his bookcase,” she observed.
“That’s the point.”
Someone suddenly punched Ryan on the arm from behind. “Hey, man, see you survived it, too. You never did tell me if you were going to Shoot Mom.”
It was Mr. Cubs cap from the plane. When he walked away, Ryan whispered to Audrey, “I have no idea who that guy is.”
“He seems to know you,” she said.
“People come up to me, even people I know from L.A., and it’s hard to recognize them in all their winter gear.”
Eventually, Redford showed and flashed a smile and a hello at Audrey. The good news for Ryan was that his interview with Bob had gone great. The bad news was that the interview had gone great. Mainly, it had gone on much longer than usual. The actor had become wistful and propped his feet on the desk and told some off-the-record stories. As he reminisced, he gazed at an old movie camera on the porch. It was a 1920s era hulk that Redford had weathered over the years. Ryan recalled its shiny look in years past; now, it was rusted and coated with snow but had acquired the dignity of its calling.
During Near the end of their conversation, a cell phone buzzed and Redford eyed it as if it was a rattlesnake. He snatched it and turned away. “Mr. Badger,” he answered. Ryan knew that Redford used code names to protect his privacy. Redford covered the phone and called out: “Sorry, festival stuff.” Ryan got up to angle away from the conversation and head back into town. But he lingered at Redford’s photo wall, especially over a black-and-white picture of the young Butch and Sundance – bare-chested Paul Newman and Redford in shades – swatting away at ping-pong.
The next morning, Ryan popped out of bed at 4 a.m. to write the Redford interview and file it. He stretched and opened his second suitcase. The socks, t-shirts and underwear he had folded inside the bag were missing. Instead, the suitcase was packed with stacks of $100-dollar bills.
This story first posted here on January 17, 2017.