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The Sundance Kids 

For alumni of America’s most prestigious film festival, winning is less than half the battle

Wednesday, Jan 17 2007
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One morning, Gary Walkow was suddenly transformed into a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Gone were the hat-in-hand searches for financing, the deferred salaries, the long shooting days with undermanned crews and the months upon years spent touring the festival circuit while seeking a distribution deal. For a moment, he was taking calls by the dozen instead of waiting for the phone to ring. Producers happy to fund whatever project he desired were making a beeline to his door. And then, as abruptly as someone yelling “Cut!” Walkow awoke to find himself still seated at the desk of his broom-closet-size office at the Santa Monica Airport, where he comes every day to write, a stopwatch close at hand. The stopwatch is there to ensure that Walkow writes for his self-prescribed minimum of two hours per day. If something interrupts, Walkow stops the clock. “The frustration with filmmaking is that it takes such an enormous effort to practice it, whereas writing I can practice on a daily basis,” he says. “I’m ridiculously organized and anal about it.”

Back in the mid-’80s, when Bob and Harvey Weinstein were still a couple of scrappy up-and-comers and nobody much knew what an independent film was except for those who were making them, Walkow pulled together $200,000 to make a 35 mm feature called The Trouble With Dick, a clever amalgam of farce and hothouse melodrama about a blocked sci-fi writer who unwisely enters into a ménage à trois with his wanton landlady and her equally hormonal teenage daughter. Walkow submitted the film to something called the United States Film Festival (then in its fourth year and soon to be rechristened as Sundance), where it was selected for the competition and ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize.

Never heard of it? Most haven’t. That’s because FilmDallas, the small independent distribution company that bought Dick in the wake of its festival win, folded before it got around to releasing the film. In fact, so few people ever saw Dick, which stopped briefly at the Nuart in 1989 en route to home video, that former FilmDallas marketing head Bob Berney (now the president of Picturehouse) recently suggested to Walkow that he think about revisiting the material. Walkow did just that, and the result is Crashing, Walkow’s fourth independent feature and the first-ever sequel to a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner. Now, exactly 20 years after his first Park City premiere, Walkow is readying himself for another. Only, when the curtain goes up on Crashing, it will be at Slamdance, the 13-year-old alterna-festival that offered Crashing a slot after Sundance gave it a pass.

click to flip through (4) Trouble man: Walkow clocks in. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • Trouble man: Walkow clocks in. (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
     
 

As it happens, Walkow’s career is littered with such twists of fate. After all the trouble with The Trouble With Dick and a few years spent directing for network television (including the cult Sledge Hammer! series), Walkow ventured back to Sundance in 1996 with an ingenious modern-day adaptation of Notes From Underground that immediately drew the interest of Fine Line Features president Mark Ordesky, who promised to return for a later screening with more studio brass in tow. “It was like Raging Bull,” Walkow recalls. “That was going to be my night, my shot at the title.” But as luck would (or, rather, wouldn’t) have it, the main event the night of Walkow’s screening turned out to be the now-legendary Main Street tussle between Harvey Weinstein and New Line CEO Bob Shaye over their competing bids to purchase the movie Shine. Nobody from Fine Line or New Line showed up to see Notes From Underground (which was eventually released, two years later, by the small, Massachusetts-based Northern Arts Entertainment). “There were heavy snows that year, and the last day, when we were leaving Park City, I felt like I was Napoleon retreating from Russia,” Walkow remembers, only half-jokingly.

How fitting, then, that the very subject of Crashing turns out to be artistic perseverance, as another blocked writer (Campbell Scott), who once wrote a best-seller called The Trouble With Dick (the plot of which mirrors Walkow’s earlier film), is cast out by his actress wife and takes up residence on the sofa of a couple of nubile coeds — aspiring authoresses both — who get his creative (and hormonal) juices flowing. In outline, the movie sounds like the kind of middle-aged male fantasy better suited to a therapy session than a movie screen, but Walkow is much smarter than that, and as Crashing plays out, it subverts our expectations at nearly every turn. It is, I think, the best thing Walkow has done — funny and sexy, but also honest and lived-in and knowing of the way writers draw upon (and sometimes exploit) the people around them for inspiration. It’s also, unlike a great deal of what passes for “independent” filmmaking nowadays, a movie independent not just in its financing, but in its thinking — a highly personal vision expressed without a second thought given to box office, audience expectations or career advancement.

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