Snow, stars and one weird little movie

Hitting the Sundance Film Festival with local filmmaker Tom Barndt

Josh Bell

It’s eight in the morning on a Saturday, the temperature is somewhere in the low 20s, and I am standing outside the public library in Park City, Utah, waiting to meet Las Vegas filmmaker Tom Barndt. This is the glamour of the world-renowned Sundance Film Festival, which for 11 days each January invades this small resort town in the Utah mountains and has become known as much for its preponderance of celebrities and Hollywood deal-making as for its championing of independent and underground cinema. There are no celebrities to spot right now, though, on the second to last day of the festival, away from the central hub of Main Street. Just a typically modest small-town library, some bundled-up festival volunteers milling about looking bored and a few signs proclaiming this the site of America’s biggest film festival.

At a few minutes past eight, Barndt and his filmmaking partner Samara St. Croix exit one of the many festival shuttles and walk over to greet me and fellow Vegas filmmaker Jason Leinwand, a good friend of mine who has facilitated this brief trip up to Park City. Leinwand has a two-line part in The Mark, Barndt’s CineVegas-approved short film that will be playing today at 8:30, as a sort of opening act for the feature film Goliath. There’s no long line or crowd to wade through, so we merely follow the signs into the library, also apparently home to a local Montessori school. Children’s drawings adorn the walls.

We’re ushered into a sort of filmmakers’ green room, which, in keeping with the low-key nature of the venue, is what looks like a conference room stocked with a water cooler and some sodas. Despite the early hour, and their having been at the festival since Monday, Barndt and St. Croix both seem well-rested and alert and are still excited about showing their film to an audience. David and Nathan Zellner, the filmmakers and stars behind Goliath, show up, and Leinwand, St. Croix and I head into the auditorium, leaving Barndt and the Zellners to have an involved discussion about cameras.

Again in contrast to the time of day, the 448-seat Library Center Theatre is nearly full. The fairly small screen fills with the Sundance logo and this year’s slogan (“Film takes place”). Just a week ago I was at the Summerlin Library theater for the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival, where the screen was bigger, although the auditorium had a smaller capacity. Even Sundance is limited by available facilities. St. Croix talks about the superior luxuries she and Barndt got as filmmakers at CineVegas, including more tickets and passes for friends, easier access to parties and even better swag.

A festival worker welcomes the audience and introduces Barndt, a shy, soft-spoken guy who can barely be heard quickly thanking everyone for coming and expressing his gratitude to the festival organizers. The Zellners are much better at working the crowd, but at an event like this it doesn’t seem necessary to get people pumped up. Even if they’re half-awake, people are excited to be here. The lights go down, the festival intro plays, and The Mark starts.

It’s a decidedly experimental, even avant-garde film, with an absurdist narrative about a man with some sort of lightning power who goes on trial for blinding his landlord, or something like that. Barndt’s films can be tough to grasp at first, but they’re extremely playful, with a twisted sense of humor, and they reward repeat viewings. By the third time I saw his 2005 short The Walking Ink, I completely loved it, and this second viewing of The Mark (I first saw it at CineVegas in June) definitely improves my estimation of the film. The audience laughs in the right spots, and the six-minute running time passes quickly. After Goliath, the Zellners get to do the Q&A, but Barndt seems more comfortable blending into the crowd anyway.

We retreat into a corner of the lobby to chat a bit about the Sundance experience. “It’s been really amazing,” Barndt says. “We’ve never played to that big of a crowd or in that big of a theater before.” The first two screenings of the film were sold out, and this morning’s was nearly at capacity (a fourth is scheduled for tonight down in Salt Lake City). Barndt appreciates the friendliness of the Zellners, with whose film The Mark has been paired each time, and the luck of the scheduling. “Getting to play in front of a feature is really cool for us, because the Zellner brothers’ films—they have a certain kind of crowd that appreciates a certain kind of humor,” he says. “Usually, with a variety of shorts, you’ll have a lot of people that are there for one short, that might not be into that kind of humor, and they might be into, like, documentary shorts or something more kind of important. The programmers really helped us out here.”

The typical impression of Sundance is of a week full of schmoozing and networking and trying to sell oneself to investors. But while Barndt and St. Croix have taken some meetings, that’s not really what they’re here for. “Just screening it here is the reward in itself; the other things that have happened were all unexpected bonuses,” Barndt says. “And I like, too, coming here with something that’s completely not commercial. Nobody sees this short and says, ‘Hey, do you want to do a car commercial?’” The pair are in the midst of shooting a feature that they hope to have completed by the summer, and Barndt sees Sundance as a possible opportunity to drum up interest in that project, as well as a potential future venue for marketing it.

With his imposing build, ball cap over slightly graying hair and understated cold-weather attire, the 35-year-old Barndt looks more like a banker on a skiing holiday than the maker of strange, challenging movies, but since 2002 he’s been playing around with different filmmaking experiments and has amassed quite a resume of shorts and music videos, many of which can be viewed on his website (www.tomandsamara.com). His minimal training (a four-week filmmaking workshop, plus short classes on editing and sound) led him to learn mostly by doing, and it may well be that lack of formal education that frees him up to try all sorts of off-the-wall things.

Unlike most indie directors nowadays, Barndt still shoots on actual film, and achieves almost all of his effects in-camera, without the aid of computers. Rather than starting with story ideas or characters, Barndt tends to begin conceiving of his films as sounds and images. “Last year we started doing a lot of audio experiments, just recording things at the house,” he says when asked about the genesis of The Mark. “Every night we’d go back over the tapes and just experiment, play things backwards, different instruments, and you hear a sound and say, ‘If I heard that, what would it look like?’” From there, Barndt draws out his visual ideas, but still says he only plans out about half of each film, leaving the rest to chance. “Sometimes I’ll load [the camera] wrong, and there’ll be a scratch, and then I end up loving the scratch. I know there’s going to be some surprises from the lab, and we’ll try and base it on the surprises.”

“You don’t know exactly what’s going on—you just have to trust that he knows what’s going on,” Leinwand says of working with Barndt. That open-ended approach infuses every aspect of Barndt’s work—even camera tests often end up as elements of various short films. Barndt and St. Croix are the only crew members on their shoots, and whatever one doesn’t do, the other one handles. “I just kind of throw things at her and say, like, ‘Can you learn Shake [postproduction] software?’” Barndt says of his partner. “And she figures it out.”

Sundance is just one more step in Barndt’s ongoing development as a filmmaker; The Mark has played several festivals, including AFI Fest in Los Angeles, and will show along with Barndt’s 2006 film Mike and the Bottomless Pit at the Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City on February 8. The Walking Ink played nearly two dozen festivals, including the 2006 CineVegas, where Barndt first came to the attention of CineVegas Artistic Director Trevor Groth and Associate Director of Programming Mike Plante, both of whom also work with Sundance. Like many, Plante struggles to define Barndt’s work, but whatever it is, he really likes it. “The actors look cool, the cinematography’s really good, the story’s just so weird. It’s a great atmosphere,” Plante says. “Usually when people do this sort of work, they get one thing right—they don’t get it all right.”

“He’s one of the best that there is, if not the best,” Leinwand says of Barndt’s place among Vegas filmmakers. The man himself has no day job, and spends all his time on his movies (as for how he makes it living, all he’ll say is that “it’s not too interesting”). He just hopes that people like what they see. “We try to have all our shorts as different as possible, so that if somebody sees the film and they’re interested in it, then they’ll probably be interested in all of our films,” he says. That modest effort has paid off here in the cold mountains of Utah, and will likely continue to bear fruit as long as Barndt is drawing, filming and making beautiful, weird mistakes.

Josh Bell is a Weekly contributing editor.

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