The following is journal from alumnus/writer Justin Wilson.
Jan. 20 12:55 pm
I’m in a window seat ready to fly to Utah for Sundance 2012. This is my 12th straight year coming to the Festival to represent USC Cinema, so the feeling is familiar. But something is different about this year: It’s my first as a filmmaker.
I pull out my Sundance binder and open an envelope. Inside is the shooting script for LUV, which is screening in the dramatic competition this year. I wrote the script with my partner – and the film’s director – Sheldon Candis.
I think about the long journey to get here. I remember meeting Sheldon at the 2003 Festival. We had a mutual friend, fellow alum Kevin Brownridge. Sheldon called me up and left a voicemail, seeing if we could meet up. He’d heard I could help get him into parties. I’m glad I called him back. Now we have a LUV child together – and he’s getting me into parties!
There were many times when I thought this moment would never happen – as recently as last March. But Sheldon and I still believed and persevered… and here we are. I take a picture of the script and Facebook it. Tears start to roll down my face. The guy next to me asks if I’m okay. “Oh yes,” I say. “I’m great.”
I meet Sheldon at the after-party for Filly Brown, another dramatic competition film. We hug it out as a documentary crew follows us. With our filmmaker badges, it’s easy to walk right inside. The hype and anticipation are building for LUV – the Filly Brown team even talks about how much they’re looking forward to it. We meet Filly Brown herself – Gina Rodriguez – one of the festival’s breakout stars for her rousing performance as a tough-minded Latina MC. We have to pace ourselves, I tell Sheldon. The premiere is on Monday and we can’t burn ourselves out…
It’s now 3 a.m. and we’re still at the party. Time to get some sleep.
The first thing you notice when driving into Park City from the Salt Lake airport is the horizon. The Wasatch Mountain Range rises up, forming a breathtaking backdrop. This year, however, there’s been a distinct lack of snow. Coming into town yesterday, I saw giant swaths of brown earth where snow normally sits. But today the snow is dumping, the first big storm of the season. It makes driving and walking treacherous but the skiers are rejoicing. Since I tore my ACL about four months ago, there’s no skiing for me. Too bad – it’s really coming down!
I try to go see a film, but the weather causes delays and I get to Eccles Theater about five minutes late. I meet someone on the bus who sees the one-sheet for LUV hanging from my lanyard, and tells me how excited she is to see it. This is a common theme and one of my favorite parts of Sundance. The communal interaction and shared love of cinema that unites everyone. I’m looking forward to Monday as well – I haven’t even seen the final version of LUV, with Nuno Malo’s score or the sound mix which was done at Skywalker last month.
I do an interview for our documentary crew about the process of writing LUV with Sheldon. Our first meeting on the project was May 31, 2003. The first file on LUV is a document entitled “UNTITLED STREET DREAMER PROJECT”. It’s always been a story about a little boy in Baltimore dreaming of a better life. Almost nine years and 45 drafts later, the finished product is the saga of 11-year-old orphan Woody (MICHAEL RAINEY, JR.), who longs for his absent mother in North Carolina, while at the same time craving the attention of his just-released-from-prison uncle Vincent (COMMON). Vincent is Woody’s hero, his father figure, and at the beginning of their day together, Vincent gives Woody life lessons, teaching him how a man handles his business. Vincent’s trying to open his own crabshack restaurant. But when he’s initially denied a bank loan, Vincent is forced to return to his old life of crime working for his father figure Mr. Fish (DENNIS HAYSBERT), in order to secure his dream. Over the course of this long day, Woody faces increasingly violent and harrowing situations that force him to grow up all too quickly. Ultimately, Woody must decide whether to stand with or against his beloved uncle.
One of the themes of LUV is “Every boy searches for a father figure… Not every boy finds the right one.” It’s a story of misguided love that combines gritty depictions of urban Baltimore culture with heartfelt emotion of a young boy’s coming of age, realizing his hero is not who he thought he was.
LUV is a fictional story inspired in many ways by Sheldon’s relationship with one of his uncles. But it’s also personal to me in the way it reflects my relationship with one of my uncles who used to drive me around in Virginia when I was a boy. Vincent’s central credo of “There’s two kinds of people in the world. Owners and renters. Which one you gonna’ be?” is something he said to me. Although my uncle passed away 12 years ago, I know he’s looking down and smiling. I know he’d be proud of me.
It’s hard not to get choked up talking about this. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the premiere without a case of Kleenex… Just have to hold it in, keep it together…
It’s a gorgeous sunny day in Park City. Main Street is chock-a-block with people, cars, snow – and gifting suites! I’ve actually never been in one, but I use my LUV badge and talk my way into some Sorel boots. And I need them too – my other ones are soaked… I see Common’s arrived, doing an interview… I watch a little bit of the Ravens vs. Patriots AFC championship game (I’ve become an adopted Ravens fan after spending so much time in Baltimore). Then suddenly, I’m doing a live interview with Sheldon and our actor Sammi Rotibi, who plays Jamison. I’m handed a cup of yogurt from a sponsor and asked to pose for photos. Even walking down Main Street seems like a scene from Entourage, as we’re passing out LUV buttons and stickers. Sheldon’s not only the director, he’s the leader of our street marketing team. People come up to us asking if they can get tickets to our premiere tomorrow. Man, I don’t even have enough for my own family!
My wife, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and two best friends have arrived in Park City. This is the first Sundance for all of them, so I feel like a bit of a concierge. (Sheldon’s got 40 family and friends here, he’s got it worse…). But I’m so happy they’re here, getting to share in this big moment in my life. We go to our first cast and crew dinner at a house in Kimball Junction on the outskirts of town. The entire main cast is here – Common, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Meagan Good, Michael K. Williams, Charles Dutton. Young Michael Rainey, Jr., who shines in a truly breakthrough performance as Woody, is also here, grinning from ear to ear.
When we finished the first draft of the script, Common’s name was at the top of the list to play Vincent, but it took over four years until he became involved with LUV. I know he hasn’t seen the movie yet so I’m excited to see his reaction. In my biased opinion, it’s the best acting performance he’s ever given. I haven’t seen him since we wrapped production but he’s been busy, with a new album, TV show, and best-selling book. He was wonderful to work with with, always challenging us to make the script and Vincent’s character to be as real and compelling as it could be.
Somebody asks me what was the biggest thing I learned in the process. I think and answer, “The economy of storytelling.” The early versions of the script were around 112-115 pages. The shooting script was 98 pages. You realize that a great actor doesn’t need a monologue. He or she can achieve the same result with one or two lines – or even a look…
Dennis Haysbert comes over and talks to my family for 15 minutes. He’s so gracious and commanding – I would switch to Allstate right now if he asked me to!
Dennis brings up his theory that his character is actually little Woody’s father in LUV. It’s not something we consciously thought about in the writing, but based on the nuances of his performance, I believe it could work. One of the things Sheldon and I did with LUV was to not spell everything out. We wanted to leave certain questions unresolved and open to viewer interpretation – even one of our main cast members!
Quickly I realize that I’m losing my voice. With all of the yelling to be heard, I’m starting to sound like sandpaper. And even though it’s supposed to be dinner, the food has run out. My wife is 5 ½ months pregnant – and she’s hungry. Time to hit McDonald’s.
It’s been a nearly sleepless night. Am I nervous about the premiere? No, more like excitement. I can’t believe the day has finally arrived. I go to the USC filmmaker breakfast and interact with my fellow Sundance alumni filmmakers. Normally I’m here working in my alumni relations capacity. Today I’m pulling double duty.
LUV is a great example of USC Cinema alums joining together to collaborate after graduation. In addition to me and Sheldon, other alums involved in key creative roles include producers Jason Michael Berman, Michael Jenson, and Joel Newton; cinematographer Gavin Kelly; and composer Nuno Malo.
It’s media day for LUV. Inside the tent, I’m wondering if anyone wants to talk to the writer… No, but that’s okay. I’m so proud to see all our lead actors talking up the movie. Our behind the scenes videographer Jamie interviews me… I play air hockey with Common and Michael K. Williams. Lunch is served. It starts snowing again – thick flakes of snow… And then we’re at the Eccles Theater, walking past the photographers into the green room. John Cooper, director of the festival, comes to wish us well… Sheldon and I hug and jump up and down with giddiness. We’ve worked so long for this to happen, now we can’t believe it’s actually here… I think about the times I thought about quitting but ultimately didn’t. I never stopped working hard at the craft and believing in my dreams.
Finally, we take our seats. Sheldon introduces the film and I’m trying desperately to hold back the tears. How many films I have been to at Sundance over the years? More than 100 at least. I remember being here for premieres of Richard Kelly’s DONNIE DARKO and Rian Johnson’s BRICK, films that inspired me.
The lights go down and the movie starts to play… great! There’s laughter in places I didn’t expect. At a key moment at the end of the film, the audience starts clapping, something else I never expected. And in the glow of the closing credits ovation, I turn to the row behind me and see Common with tears in his eyes. In the days following, many people would come up and tell me how much the movie meant to them – these were the most gratifying moments of my experience at Sundance 2012.
As I take the stage with dozens of other cast and crew members, looking out at over 1200 viewers, it still doesn’t seem real. I look over at Sheldon, struggling to make it through the Q+A with his emotions in check. As I watch Sheldon, I think about Woody, the little boy in our movie. We always say that the end of the movie is a “glass half-full or half-empty” resolution and your reaction to it depends upon your outlook on life. But how can I be anything but an optimist, watching my good friend and writing partner stand up here, knowing how hard he worked and seeing that dreams really do come true. Every writer’s searching for the right partner. Not every writer finds the right one… I’m sure I did though. And then I can’t fight it anymore. I just go with it and let the happy tears just flow. And smile…
In some ways, having a film at Sundance is like being on an episode of The Bachelor. You think you’ve got it all going on, everyone tells you to your face how much they like you… And then you watch as everyone else gets chosen and you have to go home. At least that’s what it feels like when you’re looking for a distributor and go home without one.
The last two weeks since the premiere have been a little like a rollercoaster. People on the street stop you and tell you how much they love your film. (One schoolteacher from Illinois came up to me clutching a note about how much the film meant to her as an educator)… But you’re still waiting for the phone to ring. You’re wondering if it’s your fault – “could I have made myself a little more appealing? “
And then you realize it’s something you have no control over. So you just have to be patient, and let the salespeople do their jobs.
Today, the phone did ring. Or rather, the e-mail box filled up. LUV has sold to Indomina! They’re a relatively new distributor that was steadfast in pursuit of the film along with BET, which bought the television rights. Most importantly, Indomina has a strategy and a plan to market and release the movie theatrically this fall. What more can you ask for? A screening at 466.
Tonight is the cherry on top: we’re screening LUV at USC as part of Leonard Maltin’s legendary 466 class. In many ways, our movie is a LUV letter to Leonard and this class. For over six years I booked the films for the class and was in Norris Theatre every Thursday night watching many great movies, some terrible movies, and a lot in-between. During that time I met Sheldon and together we bonded over our shared love of cinema, hanging out in the lobby dissecting that night’s film, and soaking in the lessons learned through the many Q+A guests we listened to.
466 (which has been around almost 50 years now) served as continuing education for me after I graduated from SCA. Sure, there were nights when I didn’t want to be here until 11:30, knowing I had to get up early for work the next morning. But every week there was a new film to learn from… the class inspired me to keep going as a writer to try to emulate what I saw every Thursday.
There are many nights I remember, but one in particular stands out. It was two days after 9/11, and we were screening Training Day (perhaps not the best film to screen, but the show had to go on – and yes, there are certainly echoes of that film in our movie). That film’s writer David Ayer was the guest and I asked him for advice. He told me, “You have to let your demons drive your work and not you…” I never forgot that. Because there were a lot of demons over the 8+ years we wrote LUV!
I also remember something Bryan Singer once said: he felt he hadn’t really made it as a filmmaker until he brought The Usual Suspects back to screen in 466. Now I can’t say that I’ve made it like Bryan, but I do feel incredibly honored to be up on stage at Norris Theatre.
And I know that were it not for the many nights Sheldon and I spent in this theater with Leonard and 365 others, LUV probably wouldn’t be here today. And of all the experiences over the last month with the birth of our film, this is my proudest moment. Welcome to the world, LUV!