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The extreme highs and lows of premiering your debut film at Sundance

Tickled documentary maker David Farrier pieces together his dreamlike memories of a week at one of the world’s most intense (and high-altitude) film festivals.

They say that as you climb Everest, your body is dying. Humans are simply not meant to exist at that height. The severe lack of oxygen and freezing temperatures are actively trying to kill you as you gasp from your oxygen tank, the dead eyes of long-frozen corpses staring at you from their icy tombs.

Sundance is a bit like that, but on a slightly more tolerable level. Cuts don’t heal. You can’t climb a flight of stairs without gasping. Your nose leaks blood for no apparent reason. And while there aren’t any corpses, Robert Redford is a close second.

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The 79-year-old is everywhere. Here he is at the Filmmaker’s Welcome Lunch, where we all sucked back canapés as we listened to The Sundance Kid give an inspiring speech. Here he is again, emerging from the incredible afro of the man sitting across from me.

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Redford founded Sundance in 1978. It’s gone on to become the biggest independent film festival in the United States – so big that this year Redford claimed it was getting too big. He’s floated the idea splitting the festival in half, screening documentaries separately to narrative features.

A documentary is what brought me unexpectedly to Sundance. For the last two years, I’ve been working on a feature with my friend Dylan Reeve. It’s about Competitive Endurance Tickling, a bizarre-sounding and definitely-not-gay sport that takes place in Los Angeles.

When we started Tickled we thought it would end up as a little documentary on Vimeo or YouTube. But things escalated, we completed the film, and it got accepted into Sundance. So to Mormon-infested Utah we flew, making our way to the frozen wonderland of Park City, 7000 feet above sea level.

Sure, it’s not Everest’s 29,029 feet, but it sure as hell beats Auckland’s 0 feet (I am writing this by the ocean). The following is a diary of my time in Utah.

Day 1

When you make a film about Competitive Endurance Tickling, it’s a team effort. So, by god, we all went to the festival: producer Carthew, cinematographer Dom, soundie Cam, editor Simon, colourist David… then me, Dylan and his wife Mel. Eight people packed into a house with three bedrooms. It was like being on school camp, except this school camp had Mormon underpants in the pantry*.

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The underpants featured heavily in photos during the trip, and many late night role playing games. Here they are in a photo where my pink pants make me look a little bit like a nude female.

Day 2

This was premiere day: The day where Kiwi filmmaking would shine. Critics would be blown away, an entire crowd united by the focussed talent of a genius kiwi filmmaker. The film was called Hunt For the Wilderpeople, and the Tickled team had really lucked out because our producer Carthew produced both films. We threatened him with the underpants until he got us all tickets.

What a night. Sam Neill shone like a bright light. His co-star Julian Denniston is going to be the next Jonah Hill, but better. He’s effortless on screen, equal parts hilarious and lovable – and his absolute confidence on stage during the Q&A proved he is a massive star.

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Sam Neill pats his pal Julian on the back while Taika watches on.

The film itself is full of magic. Rhys Darby does what he did in What We Do In The Shadows and completely steals his scene, and my old TV3 colleagues Mihi Forbes and John Campbell even pop up – this time proudly grasping RNZ microphones as they play themselves. It’s a triumph: Reviews are great, and a few days later the film sold for just under US$2 million dollars.

Day 3

Our noses started bleeding. Whenever you blow your nose, a mixture of pasty snot and thick, dried blood clogs up tissues. Disgusting. The house was starting to look like a student flat. Dishes were stacking up. Bad American food was strewn across the bench.

It was time to celebrate another New Zealander tearing it up in the film world. Producer Ant Timpson had the premiere of The Greasy Strangler – a perverted father and son tale involving a greasy killer called, well, “The Greasy Strangler”. It’s Tim & Eric operating in a deeply unsettling R18 world and the critics bloody loved it.

Their after party was a hot ticket. Elijah Wood was on the cards to DJ. Wood sounds like one of the most chilled celebs of the week: He spent his days in a house much more packed than ours. “He’s small, he folds onto a couch,” Timpson told me. The party was almost a disaster, over-packed with lines stretched down the street. Mr Grizzly Man himself, Werner Herzog, was having a tiny party upstairs. The bar was overbooked. Things got insane as cast members filled it. The whole thing felt wonderfully dirty.

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I went home happy about a snap I’d got earlier with Herzog. I told him how much I enjoyed him as the bad guy in Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher. I asked him if he’d interviewed anyone for a documentary after that film, only to find them stunned at being interviewed by the bad guy from Jack Reacher. “No, that has never happened,” he replied. He didn’t laugh.

We talked for a bit about long-form documentaries like The Staircase, The Jinx and Making a Murderer. He reminded me he’d dabbled in a series around death row inmates. He said it all got too intense, focussing on such a macabre subject for such a long time. “One night,” he told me, “I was awoken by the sound of screams.” He looked me dead in the eyes. “Then I realised… it was my screams”.

He didn’t laugh.

Day 4

My god, the day had come to premiere Tickled. It was bloody exciting. Three people from the documentary had flown in to watch the film for the first time. We all met at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre for a catchup. They were all thrilled to meet each other, curious where they all tied into the story.

I looked around the lobby and spotted arts patron and philanthropist James Wallace, who was watching films and doing some skiing. Sam Neill wandered in.

To be honest, it was all a bit of a stressful blur. Dylan and I knew we had a documentary we were really happy with, but what would this festival world think? I’d heard stories of these premieres: A mixture of punters, critics and buyers. Harvey Weinstein himself would come to screenings, only to leave in a huff five minutes in if he didn’t like what he was seeing. This was meant to be fun, but it felt pretty bloody awful to me.

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Getty came in and took some photos of the team. We took a photo of the photo being taken. Typical Kiwi behaviour. I looked around at the people next to me: Most of them I hadn’t known two years ago. I felt very lucky.

The movie started. I sat in the very back row. From there I could observe who was leaving. I was on the lookout for walkouts. It became very stressful, as it turns out Americans like to go to the toilet a lot during movies. It’s the giant Cokes they sell. Most of the people leaving would come back, adjusting their fly. Maybe they’d just been for a quick wank, I don’t know. But it was very stressful to watch. People were making the right noises – some gasps and some laughs – but I’d over-analysed the whole thing and convinced myself everyone hated it.

Then the credits rolled, and people clapped. They clapped really loudly. Dylan and I walked up the front and they hooted like a pack of silly owls.

Day 4, bleeding into Day 5

The reviews were out, and people seemed to like what we’d made. I sent four – The Hollywood Reporter, Screendaily, City Weekly, and Independent – to my mum so she’d be impressed, and to try and explain why I’d spent two years of my life talking about tickling.

Then it was time to do press. Lots of press. For two days Dylan and I talked our heads off. It was my first experience being on the other side of the whole “reporter” thing.

Pretty quickly you pick up on who’s seen the film and who hasn’t. With over 200 films on show, you can’t expect a poor entertainment journalist to have seen them all.

We began by going on Park City’s version of Breakfast. We turned up and the happy host – a 40ish-year-old enthusiastic male – bounded out to greet us. It wasn’t long before his boss walked in and started telling him off for being late. It was a wonderful moment of office politics, two grown men trying to assert themselves. It made our debut appearance on ‘In The Can’ even more delightful.

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My main disappointment of the day was that first-time documentary makers do not get invited into the fabled “gifting suites”. Basically the gifting suite is where rich successful people go to be given free stuff. Shoes, watches, jewelry, computers, phones and jackets. I tried a few times, but eventually it gets very demoralising to be kicked out of gifting suites over and over again.

But it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes we pinched ourselves – sitting down with Buzzfeed was terrifying but also awfully exciting.

My favourite interview of the whole lot had nothing to do with the host, but rather the setting: a beauty spa sponsored by Vaseline. And Vaseline was not letting this opportunity slip them by – as well as a giant VASELINE banner in the back of shot, they littered every shelf and available surface with Vaseline products. “Take any of it that you want!” said our host. This was my gifting suite. I loaded my pockets with Vaseline. This was my day to shine.

The Other Days

I meant to keep things very precise with this diary, but Sundance is not a precise place. The festival really looks after you in an incredibly overwhelming way: Every day there are breakfasts and lunches and brunches and afternoon teas and dinners to bond with people and “network”. Every night there are the main parties running from 10pm-1am, by which time you either pack it in, or head to a private party in a cabin somewhere.

In between, you desperately try and watch films – which is incredibly difficult to do. You are either asleep or somewhere else. Goat stands out to me – a homoerotic fever dream of sororities gone mad, featuring James Franco and a goat.

Things get blurry. By day five your body is starting to decompose. A few of the team were getting sick. Carthew was becoming delusional, taking up meditation sessions with Dom to try and keep their shit together.

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A diet of cinnamon rolls was beginning to take its toll.

And of course we had more screenings of Tickled. We’d show up to introduce the film, then the film would play, and then we’d go back on stage and do a Q&A. One of these screenings was quite special. About 10 minutes into the film, an usher found me and asked me to come outside. Security was there, and I was told that someone who featured in the film was in the film. Like as in… sitting in the theatre. The complication was this person – let’s call him Kevin – probably wasn’t happy he was in the film.

Sundance were totally professional and called in their local police. Theatres in general aren’t taking any risks in America these days. Just as a general rule this year Sundance was doing regular bag and coat checks – so they weren’t taking any chances with our special guest.

After the film wrapped, I went up to the front to do the Q&A. I wasn’t planning on telling the audience that Kevin was in the crowd, in case it distressed anyone. I answered a few questions, before someone asked, “Has anyone in the film seen the film yet?” Immediately the back right of the theatre exploded with a unified “YES! HE WAS RIGHT HERE!”

While most of the audience enjoyed the movie, a select few sat there feeling quite odd, as a man scribbled furiously on a legal pad.

This writer captured the whole thing quite well. They would, because they were sitting directly next to him. I loved reading that blog, because it was from an audience member who had a truly unique experience. It’s all we can want from a movie – something fun and strange to take away.

Endgame

The icing on the cake came when Magnolia and HBO decided to release the film. The week had already been surreal enough, but this really took it up a notch. Magnolia means we can put this thing in theatres in North America, and perhaps elsewhere in the world. HBO means that after its cinema life, we can pop it on one of our favourite networks.

The process of selling a film is very strange. Buyers (from Netflix to Amazon to Universal) have their teams in town, and they watch films. Some of them attend premieres and public screenings, others catch private industry-only screenings during the week.

We were lucky to have some good interest. Meetings would take place at odd hours, because daytimes were for watching films. Sometimes we’d get picked up at 11pm and driven to some strange cabin, where people would pitch to buy the film.

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During one of those meetings I took this photo, because I just thought it was quite weird that this was sitting on the table. Up on the wall was a giant stuffed bear.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. Part of the reason Dylan and I made this film was to “out” some unsavoury things. The more eyeballs on it, the more likely the documentary will have some impact. Our kind Kickstarter backers helped fund the initial shoot two years ago but with its success and new US partners we’re having to adjust the timing of some of our rewards. Our backers have largely been kind and understanding – happy we haven’t made a turd. It’s cool seeing their names rolling up in the credits. Heck, Kickstarter even had an office at Sundance, and there we are on the wall.

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The final awards night was a real highlight: we won absolutely nothing, but I looked around that room and felt super proud. Carthew sat on my left, recovered from a weird three-day fever bender. Our amazing producer sat there grinning as Taika MC’d the awards night. Dom sat on my right, just looking a bit stunned and happy. Melanie Lynskey won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for her acting powers. Taika handed her the award. Afterwards, he snuck us into the “winners” after-party. Nat Turner – Sundance’s big winner with Birth of a Nation, was being swamped. And in another corner of the room, all the Kiwis had a little beer and enjoyed the moment.

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Team Tickled and Team Wilderpeople. (The Wilderpeople actors had probably been in a gifting suite. We were just waiting around outside like bums). Back Row: Cameron Lenart, Dom Fryer, Rhys Darby, Dylan Reeve, David Farrier, Carthew Neal, Taika Waititi. Front row: Julian Dennison and Sam Neill.

PS: To answer that very reasonable question: Tickled will be released in New Zealand later in 2016.

* Probably the darkest revelation out of the whole festival is that those underpants in the pantry were not temple garments, but simply a pair of large, used, disgusting white undies, totally unblessed by Joseph Smith.

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