‘When the protagonist is not a white man, people are asked to explain why’: Diverse directors find a home at Sundance

(Ante Chen | Courtesy of the Sundance Institute) Siblings (Teddy Lee, left, and Tiffany Chu) reconnect in Justin Chon's "Ms. Purple," an official selection in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker Justin Chon needed money for his first movie, a gritty drama set in a Los Angeles convenience store during the Rodney King riots, and one of “the suits” made a suggestion.

“They wanted a Caucasian officer to be part of the story,” Chon said of his film, “G- - -,” whose title is a slur against Asian-Americans that Chon aimed to reclaim. “They wanted some kind of savior character in the middle of the film. The fact of the matter was, if you were in the L.A. riots, there were no white people.”

Chon, a Korean-American actor-turned-filmmaker who played a high-school nerd in the “Twilight” series, found independent financing in which he “made sure I had control in terms of the creative,” he said. The movie premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and won the Audience Award in the Next program.

Chon’s experience is typical of a film industry that still struggles with giving underrepresented filmmakers — women, people of color and LGBTQ people — a showcase for their stories. One place those filmmakers are getting a forum is at the Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off its 2019 edition Thursday night in Park City.

The numbers of Hollywood reveal the problem. Among 1,200 popular films over the past 12 years, 4 percent of the directors were women, according to a study, “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair,” led by Stacy L. Smith at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute at the University of Southern California.

The same study tallied that 6 percent of those directors were African-American and 3.1 percent were Asian-American.

Representation was somewhat better for African-American directors last year as they helmed 16 of the top-grossing films — including Academy Award nominees “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman.”

At Sundance this year, representation among filmmakers is closer to equal. Among the 61 directors of the 56 films in the festival’s four main competitions, 42 percent are women, 39 percent are people of color and 23 percent identify as LGBTQIA. In the U.S. Dramatic competition, the festival’s most buzzed-about program, there are more women directors than men. (Eight movies are directed by women, seven by men, and one by a male/female duo.)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The disparity in Hollywood starts at the top. Only 17.3 percent of the executives at major film companies are women, the USC Annenberg study found, while 72.3 percent of the producers of 300 popular movies in the past three years were white males.

Filmmaker Hannah Pearl Utt, who identifies herself as queer, said it took one quite recognizable white male to get her Sundance entry, “Before You Know It,” off the ground.

(Photo courtesy Ferocious Entertainment / Lifeboat Productions) Sisters Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt, left) and Jackie (Jen Tullock) discover their mother isn't dead, as they were led to believe, in the comedy "Before You Know It," directed by Utt and written by Utt and Tullock, an official selection in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

“Early on, we were definitely told by a few people that it would be hard to finance the movie, especially with two unknown female leads,” said Utt, referring to herself and her co-star and writing partner, Jen Tullock.

Then they got an endorsement from actor Alec Baldwin. “It was the weight of his name, which he so generously lent to us because he believed in us and believed in the movie, that got us the momentum we needed to get us the rest of our financing,” Utt said. In gratitude, they gave Baldwin a supporting role in the movie.

In “Before You Know It,” Utt and Tullock play co-dependent sisters living with their playwright father (Mandy Patinkin) when they learn that their mother (Judith Light) — long thought to be dead — is in fact alive and well, starring on a soap opera.

The script, Utt said, was the first thing she and Tullock started working on together. It got sidelined when their web series “Disengagement” took off. “Before You Know It” got a final push, Utt said, when they workshopped it at the Sundance Institute’s June filmmaking lab at Robert Redford’s Sundance resort.

“The thing I think that the labs are best at is marrying the storytellers to their work, making sure every aspect of their work is infused with some personal experience or point of view,” Utt said. The labs also paired the filmmakers with Light, who was cast to workshop scenes at the lab, where “we realized she was the most brilliant lovely person in the whole world,” Utt said.

“A big part of the movie has been creating a world in which a group of women are learning to exist beyond the influence of men,” Utt said. “It’s been a big part of my journey in the last couple of years, recognizing how much energy I’ve put into maneuvering around the men in my life.”

Nigerian-born writer-director Chinonye Chukwu applied her research about death row, and the prison wardens responsible for carrying out executions, to her Sundance drama “Clemency.”

(Eric Branco | courtesy Sundance Institute) Alfre Woodard and Alex Castillo appear in "Clemency," by Chinonye Chokwu, an official selection in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Chukwu’s work started after the 2011 execution of Troy Davis in a Georgia prison, which happened even after several former prison wardens urged a pardon. In the emotional aftermath, Chukwu said, she started thinking, “‘What must it be like for the prison workers who killed them?’ That was the seed that planted my deep dive into researching this world.”

In developing the script, Chukwu said, “I always saw [the warden character] as a black woman. … There were definitely people along the way who asked, ‘Are you open to different identities?’ … When the protagonist is not a white man, people are asked to explain why. I wanted to tell a story where a black female warden doesn’t have to explain.”

Those questions subsided somewhat when Alfre Woodard, a four-time Emmy winner, was attached to the project to play the warden, Bernadine. “That kind of elevated the film and people’s perception of what the film will be,” Chukwu said.

Meanwhile, Chon has been making his second film, “Ms. Purple,” which also will premiere at Sundance this week. It centers on Kasie, a 20-something Korean-American working as a karaoke host. She’s played by Tiffany Chu, an unknown appearing in her first feature.

“It was important to use unknown actors,” Chon said. “It’s not to be different or cool. If you don’t have an association with the actors to some other project, you’re able to suspend disbelief.”

Chon said the demographics of movie audiences are becoming more diverse — and the success of movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” reflects that. He said he aims to make films that bridge different groups; for example, though “Ms. Purple” is set in L.A.’s Koreatown, “there’s a Chicano story that runs through the narrative,” he said.

Sundance is being upfront about its demographic balance, releasing statistics for the diversity of its films’ makers. Sundance Institute announced in November that it would team with Smith, at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute, to analyze the demographics of submissions to the festival and Sundance’s labs and artist-support programs. Some of those findings are scheduled to be presented during the festival.

“Having that data is important,” Chon said. “It sets an example. … It will give the industry an indication, to tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid. You’re not letting go of much.’”

Utt believes seeing the statistics will inspire young filmmakers. “It’s definitely helped me get out of the bubble of my own neuroses and insecurities,” she said. “When I think about the numbers, I see contributing my voice is part of helping a cause that I believe in. It does help me keep making things.”


2019 Sundance Film Festival

When • Thursday, Jan. 24, through Sunday, Feb. 3.

Where • Park City, and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.

Tickets • $25 for individual tickets, available at sundance.org/festival, or $20 for e-waitlist tickets (accessible via the Sundance Film Festival app).