Wilmington may be the traditional hub of film production in North Carolina, but at this year's Sundance Film Festival the indie scene shifted to Asheville.
Favorite son Paul Schneider, star of 2003's Special Jury Prize-winning All the Real Girls, came with Pretty Bird, his directorial debut. Based on true events, it tells the story of an ill-matched pair of entrepreneurs and their failed attempt to market a personal jet-pack. The presence of two indie all-stars (Billy Crudup and Paul Giamatti) and the quality of Schneider's previous work as an actor and writer created high expectations, but as audiences watched Crudup and Giamatti flail impotently through one clunky, implausible scene after another, it became clear that, even when blessed with some of Hollywood's finest acting talent, directing a watchable movie is a lot harder than it looks.
Asheville-based director Chusy Haney-Jardine took an entirely different road to Sundance: Most of the players in his film had never acted before—anywhere. Anywhere, USA is a sprawling, three-part examination of a bunch of small-town eccentrics who collide in a series of determinedly random events. Audience reaction was mixed: The jokey tone and fanciful plot keep the viewer at arm's length, but in its best moments there are flashes of real style and tenderness, and Haney-Jardine's unabashed love of his adopted hometown and its residents gives the movie its soul.
Born and raised in Venezuela, Haney-Jardine has called Asheville home for the last 10 years. His project got a jump-start three years ago when he screened a trailer with the working title Asheville: The Movie at the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville. He renamed the movie later for artistic reasons, he says, to reflect the universality of the American experience, but he acknowledges some residents' complaints of overexposure (a few years back Rolling Stone magazine named Asheville "the new freak capital of the U.S."). In the finished product he slyly accommodates the title change by bleeping out the names of area towns and neighborhoods: It's a surprisingly funny gimmick that also lets locals feel like they're in on an inside joke.
Actors were recruited from among Haney-Jardine's friends and neighbors. Mike Ellis, a local carpenter and construction worker who'd helped build an addition to his house, plays a lead role, as does Jeremiah Brennan, whose charismatic performance belies the fact that he initially signed on as a production assistant. As Haney-Jardine tells it, he'd just gotten his hands on a brand-new digital camera, the Panasonic AG-HVX200, and he and his cinematographer were eager to try it out. "We asked [Brennan] to stand in front of it and realized, this guy looks great on camera," he said. "He looked real, and everything he said was real."
In the film's second act, Brennan is cast opposite Haney-Jardine's precociously talented 10-year-old daughter Perla (the sole actor in the production with any film experience—her credits include Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Dark Water, Spider-Man 3 and the current release Untraceable). Perla plays an orphaned waif who lives in a van with her free-living uncle, played by Brennan, who's doing his best to pass for a responsible parent. The two actors clearly relish their roles, and their heartfelt interactions are the film's emotional core.
The first and third sections are played mostly for laughs, concerning, respectively, a convoluted love triangle involving masochism, Internet dating, a suspected Arab terrorist and a bigoted redneck dwarf; and a family melodrama involving spiritual awakenings, dildos, racial politics and buried secrets. These episodes are less effective dramatically—a reviewer for Variety used words like "tiresome" and "wildly misfiring"—but Haney-Jardine livens them up with novel filmic devices, like subtitles for the slurred speech of a weeping drunken hippie, and a wry running commentary of superimposed Helvetica text. These touches give the film a hip, modern feel, and first-rate cinematography by LA-based Patrick Rousseau gives it polish.
Haney-Jardine edited the film himself, in his garage, a huge task for a two-hour feature. When the acceptance call came from Sundance, "I literally dropped to the floor and cried. I'd been spending 20-hour days sitting in a chair editing, so my wife thought I was having an embolism," he recalled. More good news was to come: At the festival, Anywhere won a Spirit of Independence Special Jury Prize for its originality and willingness to take risks on a limited budget.
Just making the cut from 3,624 feature-length submissions down to the 121 films selected is a major victory for any independent filmmaker. But the biggest prize—distribution—is a more elusive goal. Sundance is as much marketplace as movie venue, and by the end of the festival fewer than 20 films had been picked up. Those that are hard to categorize are even harder to sell; Anywhere's cultural signifiers (retro mustaches, thrift-store clothes, tacky Americana) seem targeted to the young hipster crowd, but it balances irony and trendiness with sincerity and genuine affection for its characters. It's a difficult movie to pigeonhole. "The word 'weird' comes up a lot [in reference to the film]," says Haney-Jardine. "But what's normal? I don't know anybody who's normal."
Time will tell whether Anywhere, USA finds a larger audience than the 3,000 or so who saw it at the festival. In any case, with a tiny crew, no-name local actors and plenty of persistence, Haney-Jardine's inventiveness and artistic vision have certainly paid off, as he's now a Sundance prize-winning filmmaker. "People who come in with [Screen Actors Guild] actors, advisors and a budget, they're breathing rarefied air," he said. "I think Sundance works well for people who are truly independent."