The Slamdance Film Festival has often been thought of as Sundance’s bratty little brother, having been founded in 1995 by a group of guys whose films had been rejected from the older, bigger, better-known fest.
Twenty-three years in, Slamdance has grown up, become respectable, and can boast of some major success stories. Christopher Nolan’s first film, “Following,” debuted at the fest; he went on to direct little, barely seen, shoestring-budget indies like “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” and “Dunkirk.”
Then there’s Anthony and Joe Russo, known on the credits as the Russo Brothers, who took “Pieces” to Slamdance in 1997, wound up directing a pair of Captain America flicks and are currently putting the final touches on “Avengers: Infinity War,” which box-office prognosticators predict will be this summer’s biggest moneymaker. (They’ll also direct the yet-unnamed fourth Avengers movie.)
The Russos will tear themselves away from superhero postproduction long enough to be in Park City this week, when they’ll be honored with Slamdance’s Founders Award for their continued support of independent filmmaking. The brothers will also announce the inaugural Russo Brothers Fellowship, given to one lucky director who’ll receive $25,000, an office at the Russo’s new Los Angeles filmmaker-cultivation studio and career mentoring from Anthony and Joe.
The Slamdance Film Festival runs Friday through Jan. 25, with all screenings taking place at the Treasure Mountain Inn on the southern end of Park City’s Main Street.
For a complete schedule of screenings and events, visit slamdance.com.
The Tribune spoke with Anthony Russo about what Slamdance has meant to them, the significance of receiving the Founders Award … and that thing they’re working on right now.
You can just go ahead and tell me all the spoilers of “Avengers: Infinity War” right now; I promise I won’t tell anyone.
(Laughs) You don’t want that responsibility.
I suppose not, but I tried. Anyway, you’ve started this Russo Brothers Fellowship award at Slamdance; how did that come about?
We’ve had a long history with Slamdance. It was how we found our way in to the movie world. Joe and I made a little movie on our own in Cleveland without being connected to a larger film community, and once we got “Pieces” accepted in to Slamdance, our careers moved forward. Then we participated in the festival for many years, serving on the selection committee and as judges, so I feel this fellowship is very much an extension of the relationship we’ve had, this mutual filmmaking community.
Do you have an idea of what you’ll be looking for in choosing whom to award the fellowship to?
We want movies and filmmakers who excite us and surprise us, who are making something that has a voice and feels fresh, surprising and valuable to us.
When you brought “Pieces” to Slamdance in 1997, the festival was still new and scrappy. What did you think of it back then and what do you remember from that time?
We were making movies out in the wilderness, a million miles away from Hollywood, so scrappy is exactly how we were. “Pieces” was very much a family affair, the entire movie was made by friends and family, so all those people came with us to help promote the film and put posters up. We had an enormous crowd there. We took over a bar on Main Street, which became our unofficial headquarters, and our Uncle Charlie made linguini and clam sauce for everybody in the kitchen. That kind of impossible nature of trying to bring attention to your movie, we did that. And being in this beautiful retreat in the mountains where people come celebrate and experience film, it was completely magical for people like us.
That attitude has been inspiring to a lot of filmmakers. People look at you and think, if these guys did it, then I can, too.
And that’s a big part of the experience; we were encouraged in that same way. The reason we started making movies in the first place is that Joe and I didn’t really grow up as filmmakers, we grew up as film fans. We had a really strong passion for film, but never really from the filmmaking point of view until we read that book Robert Rodriguez wrote (“Rebel Without a Crew”) after making “El Mariachi” — when he said he made it for $7,000, that was the real eye-opener for us. That’s how we began taking baby steps towards doing it ourselves. A large part of it is, how are you inspired by those who have gone before you, and being conscious of the fact that now we are down the road, and how can we help inspire others in a similar way.
And these days it’s easier than ever to make a movie, with the availability and affordability of technology like smartphones.
It’s remarkable when we think back to everything that was involved in order for us to execute a movie. We get a little jealous.
You’re also getting the Slamdance Founders Award. How gratifying is that?
It’s incredibly touching, because we’ve admired that organization so much. We’ve devoted a lot of our energy to it because we believe so much in what they do. For them to take a moment and recognize us like that, it is very humbling.
What new and younger filmmakers do you admire these days?
There’s a team called the Daniels, and we’re actually developing something with them right now. We love their work. It has a very Slamdance feel. I think it’s really important that we recognize people who are doing something that you appreciate, even if it’s maybe not accessible by the general public yet, but you can see the road forward for that voice in a way that perhaps makes films potentially valuable to a wider audience. I think that’s one thing we’re uniquely positioned for as filmmakers.
Yeah, they made “Swiss Army Man,” also known as the farting corpse movie.
It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films, but it’s absolutely creative and you have definitely never seen a film like it before. That’s part of the process of expression in film — not every movie is designed necessarily to reach a wide audience, but as long as you’re provoking and exciting and stimulating people in some way, where people are having an emotional or visceral response, that’s the goal. We always used Steven Soderbergh’s career as the prototype for ours. He’s made very commercially successful films and he’s made very arty, inaccessible films. He’s moved between those two extremes, and I think it’s valuable to have that freedom as filmmakers.
You’re also doing these big-budget, big-box-office Marvel films. Do you have any long-range plans to do smaller movies after “Avengers 4”?
We love these movies dearly that we’re making at Marvel, even though they’re large studio movies, but they do very much come from our heart; that’s the only way Joe and I connect with the material as storytellers. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to do yet because we still have another year and a half to go when we deliver the final “Avengers” movie, but we definitely have a lot of personal projects we want to develop, and this new company we have will provide us with an opportunity to get those made for sure. We feel very lucky that we get to do what we love and we get to help others do what they love.