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'The Myth' of Sundance

The young director of the polished, professional film finds new life after the festival failed to bestow the hoped-for awards.

September 25, 1997|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As director Bart Freundlich pulled off his stocking cap and settled into a booth at a bar in Park City, Utah, back in January, his hair stood straight up, as if he'd just rolled out of bed. One of the charming things about the Sundance Film Festival is that the filmmakers look the way they do when they're making films, and usually for the same reasons. They don't get enough sleep. They're under enormous pressure. They have to answer a million questions.

"It's a weird place to be," said Freundlich, who has a certain easygoing charm. "I feel a mixture of 'I'm so lucky to be here' and kind of surreal. I was lucky to have a distributor to begin with. I would not want to be here looking for that right now. It's tense enough as it is."

Freundlich's film, "The Myth of Fingerprints," which was shown in competition, is about dysfunctional adult children returning to their dysfunctional home for the holidays. Aside from the fact that it has distribution (Sony Classics), what distinguishes it from the other films is its first-rate production values and cast (Julianne Moore, Noah Wyle, Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner, Hope Davis) and the fact that it is a "quiet" movie.

"For me, seeing a bunch of films here, I walk out so disturbed I can't believe it," Freundlich said. "This is not a typical independent film. In some ways it is because it doesn't resolve itself. But people aren't getting shot. There's no really loud rock 'n' roll music.

"I didn't use it as a venue to do something really outrageous. This almost could have been done by a studio if you were willing to have it a little more resolved at the end, put some different actors in some of those places. Even though families and alienation are dealt with a lot in independent film, this felt a little bit quieter than the independent stuff I normally see."

Audiences still had a hard time believing there isn't more here than meets the eye. At a post-screening question-answer session, Freundlich was asked if Moore's character, who spends the entire movie lashing out at her siblings and her husband, is an incest survivor. Others thought her father (Scheider), who walks through the proceedings almost clinically depressed, was going to kill himself.

"To me, that would have been a little too tangible for the film," Freundlich says. "I wanted the pain in these people's lives to be like they didn't know when they became like this. Someone was trying to get me to say that I blamed everything on the parents, which I didn't agree with because I felt that your sympathies lay with different people at different times."

Freundlich is quick to point out that his movie is not a downer. He is not interested in driving people away. In fact, the film starts with a series of sexual interludes that appear a lot more lighthearted than they actually are. These scenes were actually the seeds of the script, which Freundlich began writing to explore how people relate to each other sexually. The first draft took him 10 months to complete because initially he didn't know he was writing about a family going home for the holidays.

He was just exploring a bunch of characters.

"That was part of why I think the characters were able to be fleshed out, because I wrote them separately and had them come together," he said. "And so I knew exactly how each one would react to the other ones. Trust me, I'd never want to do it that way again. It was torture."

Freundlich, 27, attributes the script's sensibility and gradual unfolding to his education. Raised in Manhattan, he spent 12 years at a Quaker school in the city. He says the philosophy there was not so much religious as it was ethical, about non-competition, nonviolence and introspection. After graduation, he spent a year at Northwestern University and then returned to New York, where he enrolled at New York University as a cinema studies major. He says he picked the movie business by default, figuring that he liked movies and that the film program was the best thing NYU had to offer.

After graduation, Freundlich began the "Myth" script and kept afloat by doing odd jobs. He opened doors at the Royalton Hotel, made a mock documentary on personal trainers, videotaped conferences for $200 a day. He sold a short film and won the Hamptons Film Festival, which earned him a little money.

Although all of this sounds like a typical Sundance success story, the actual financing and casting of "Myth" is less melodramatic. Freundlich didn't max out his credit cards or hit up his relatives or sell his own blood. He sent the script to Wyle's agent, who in turn passed it along to the actor. Wyle decided to do it--with Freundlich as director--which helped to create a "package" that Freundlich could take to Sony Classics. He says that at no time did Sony question whether he could direct the film, in part because he had such experienced producers as James Schamus ("Sense and Sensibility") behind him and also because they figured he knew the material inside and out.

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