MuggleNet’s Sundance Film Festival Adventures

The Sundance Film Festival has been going on for 34 years. This year, MuggleNet was lucky enough to be able to attend the festival for the first time. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to cover the event and took off for its opening weekend.

The festival is a non-profit program of Sundance Institute and is one of the most powerful ways to support and amplify the works of independent artists. It is human-centered, not data-driven. Diversity and inclusion are some of the most important aspects of the festival. This year, 63% of the credentialed press are from underrepresented groups, and 47% of directors included in the festival are women.

 

 

Following the opening day press conference, I sat down with the director of The Magic Life of V, Tonislav Hristov, for an interview about his film. You can read about the film, as well as our interview, here.

On the evening of the first day, I was lucky enough to be one of the few credentialed press to be allowed access to the press line for one of the most hyped-up films of the festival, Native Son. The film was directed by Rashid Johnson and stars the likes of Ashton Sanders, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, KiKi Layne, Bill Camp, and Sanaa Lathan.

Film Synopsis

Bigger “Big” Thomas, a young African American man, lives with his mother and siblings in Chicago. Half-heartedly involved with a girlfriend, he sports green hair and a punk jacket, smokes weed, and carries a pistol—but rebuffs his buddy’s “easy-money” scheme to knock off a corner store. Full of self-determination, Big accepts a job as the chauffeur for wealthy businessman Will Dalton’s family. Moving into their mansion, he begins driving Dalton’s vehemently progressive daughter, Mary. But his involvement in an accidental death places Big on a collision course with the powerful social forces pitted against him.

A thoroughly contemporary reworking of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Sonasserts the story’s persistent relevance by bringing its interrogation of fear, violence, race, and circumstance into a critical modern context. The film’s enviable creative team includes screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks (the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog); director Rashid Johnson (a renowned visual artist whose practice consistently engages African American history and culture); and Ashton Sanders (teenaged Chiron in Moonlight), who delivers an electrifying performance as one of the most complex, morally convoluted characters in American literature.

Due to schedule conflicts and a lack of ticket availability, I was unable to see a screening of this film. However, it was acquired by HBO, so you can bet I’ll be sitting down to watch once it is available.

The next day, I attended a panel by The New York Times called Times Talks. The panel I attended featured the legendary, Jackie Chan. Jackie spent the entire hour sharing anecdotes from his early days, and also discussed his environmentalism. Jackie kept up his energy the entire panel and had everyone’s ear while talking about the importance of taking care of our planet.

 

That evening, I got in for a screening of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which is a film that featured Noma Dumezweni, whom we know and love as the OG Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. You can check out my review of the film here.

On the morning of the 26th, I sat down for an impromptu interview with actress Renée Willett (Beast of Burden, Sharknado 3) where we discussed her career as well as what it’s like being a woman in the entertainment industry. Click the toggle below for a full transcript of the interview. Renée was an absolute delight to meet and talk with, and I really look forward to seeing what she does next!

Renée Willett Interview

Renée: Actually, you’ll see it around town now because a lot of USC people are here. We have these scarves that are USC scarves, but they look exactly like the scarves in Harry Potter.

Megan: Gryffindor? I think I saw a couple of them because I was like, “Are they wearing Gryffindor scarves?” It’s a good House to pick. We’re mostly a Harry Potter website, so I came here because Dame Emma Thompson is here and a bunch of other actors that are in some of the films are here, but then I’m also just doing whatever. [laughs]

Renée: It’s so funny. I did a film with Dan Radcliffe.

Megan: Beast of Burden, right? Which I seem to recall is just him in a plane a lot.

Renée: That’s the whole movie.

Megan: So you didn’t have any scenes with him, did you? I’m trying to remember.

Renée: Well, no. My scene was actually not with him, but it was so funny because the scene itself… My scene was with Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter, and the scene itself was her on the phone with the husband and I’m her friend. And in real life, he was sitting next to my feet in the kitchen that we were at, and he was over talking to her just so she could have the line. And so I was actually working with him and not even working with her, and he’s not in the scene. I thought it was pretty funny.

Megan: I haven’t gotten the chance to meet him yet, but I’ve heard great things.

Renée: He’s great. It’s so funny. So I am a big, die-hard New York Giants fan, the football team, and so I guess somehow I was talking about the Giants. I think they had a game coming up after we were shooting. And he goes, “You know, I’m a big Giants fan.” And I’m like, “Aren’t you British and you guys like soccer?”

Megan: [laughs] Yeah. “Isn’t that just your only sport?”

Renée: I was very confused, and he was telling me all these things he knew about them, and I was like, “Okay, you’ve proven your worth. You know your Giants stats.” It kind of kicked off from then. Then I really liked him because we were just bonding over a lot of things. So I’m Jewish, and he was like, “Oh, my mom’s family is Jewish and I know that Judaism runs through the mother, so technically, I could be Jewish if I wanted to be,” and I was like, “What?” I didn’t know a lot of things about him, so I loved him after.

Megan: I met Elijah Wood. Close. Looks a lot like him but not quite. It’s good to hear that he’s a nice dude. Obviously, I’ve loved him for years, so it’s always nice to hear people that you like are actually very cool and nice.

Renée: He for sure was a sweetheart.

Megan: I heard that someone spotted him around, but I haven’t seen him yet.

Renée: Is he here?

Megan: I don’t know. Two people said they spotted him and I was just like, “Oh. Well, I haven’t seen him.”

Renée: Wait, you have to meet him.

Megan: I know! Well, somebody needs to tell me where he is! [laughs]

Renée: I wouldn’t think anything bad about him.

Megan: I’m here for a couple more days, so a few more days to hopefully see if he pops up somewhere.

Renée: I believe it’ll happen. [laughs]

Megan: Hopefully! So you were in Sharknado 3?

Renée: Yes, that was the first thing I ever did. It was a crazy experience. I loved it, being on a real set for the first time. My scenes were with Anthony Weiner. He is a New Yorker and was hilarious. The part of the scene where he had his full lines, we had to do that take, like, 30 times. Something crazy. But I just felt so lucky to be there. Everyone was so nice. It was cool to start out with something that’s a cult following because I feel like I’m part of a family. And every time a new one comes out, I’m there. I can post about it to my following. One time I was in Israel and this bus of kids from New York found out I was in Sharknado and… I don’t know; I just think it’s a crazy thing to be a part of.

Megan: Absolutely.

Renée: So I’m in business school and I’m emphasizing in film finance, and it was so funny: The week we were studying about IP and image and likeness for celebrities in film and using that for merch and stuff like that… that same week, Tara Reid sued Sharknado for $100 million for using her image and likeness on mugs or something. I don’t really remember what it’s for, but it’s for merch. And I just thought it was so interesting. After learning about it, I get it, and I think maybe she was right to sue if she got no money. $100 million, absolutely, I think she was wrong about that. But it’s cool. There’s so much merch. When the third one came out, my friends and family bought me these crazy things on Amazon, like a book that says How to Survive a Sharknado [and] a mug that says “I survived the Sharknado.” It’s funny. It works with my standup too. I make jokes about it. It’s a funny thing to be a part of. I love it.

Megan: Has it changed your opinion on sharks at all? Were you a fan of sharks?

Renée: What’s funny is I actually like sharks.

Megan: So am I.

Renée: I went diving in Australia in the cage with the sharks. I like doing adventure things; I don’t really have many fears in that regard, but I do have bit of claustrophobia. So I think the only issue I had in there was being in the cage. [laughs]

Megan: I’ve swum with sharks but not big sharks in a cage. I’ve gone snorkeling with little sharks.

Renée: Well, you can also go snorkeling and regular scuba diving with nurse sharks, which is really cool because they’re beautiful.

Megan: Yeah, and they’re relatively calmer.

Renée: Yeah, those won’t eat you. But actually, when I was in elementary school, my fifth grade graduation from elementary school project was about nurse sharks, so it was funny.

Megan Oh, that’s awesome! That is really funny. So in the entertainment industry as a woman, what has your experience been?

Renée: As a woman in the entertainment industry, I’m lucky that I haven’t had absolutely any “Me Too” moments. But I have found that I guess because I’m a type, white with blonde hair… Well, recently it’s been a little hard because of the diversity track, which is also funny. I say in my standup, “It’s so hard to be white right now!” It’s a funny thing. So I’m happy for everyone who is getting roles, but if you’re not already a huge actor, it is very hard being blonde and going out for roles. But aside from that, I think really the only big issue I have is sometimes when I meet some people – let’s say here – and they’re either a producer who’s a financier or somewhat on the bigger end, they kind of just see you as this young girl. And it frustrates me sometimes because I’ve produced a bunch of things. I produced a film that went to Sundance my first year I’d ever been in the film industry.

Megan: Yeah, that’s awesome!

Renée: So sometimes it’s a little weird. Even yesterday, someone introduced me to this financier that was part of this film fund. And I said, “Hi, I’m Renée,” and he said, “Hi,” and whatever his name was. And you could just tell it was, like, why would he waste his time with this young girl? And sometimes that annoys me. [laughs] But I don’t know. I love it. This is the industry I want to be in, so I kind of don’t care. I honestly think if I had a “Me Too” moment… For me, I meet people in hotels. Those stories; I met the people at the hotels, but I would never go up to someone’s room. I honestly wouldn’t. So I feel like if I had a moment, I don’t think I would care. I would be like, “Okay, thanks for talking. I’m going to go now.” I’m so high off of life being in this industry that it’s all amazing to me.

Megan: So on that note, would you have any advice for aspiring actors or producers or anybody who wants to be in this industry?

Renée: I think you have to honestly find any way to get your way in there and network. I come here for the networking. This year I don’t have a film at Sundance. The last three years, I’m lucky enough that I did. So I came here because I was like, “Why wouldn’t I come here just for the networking?” My first year at Sundance, I got seven of my parts just from meeting people at Sundance. So I really think a lot of actors don’t think about the business side of things. Even aspiring actors who have agents already [will] be like, “My agent hasn’t called me yet. What am I going to do? I’m waiting on my agent.” And I think that people don’t think of the business aspect of the industry if you are creative, which I think is a good thing. So it’s a great way to stand out, especially aspiring. Be well versed and have knowledge of all aspects of the industry. And then also, if you do get even a small something – super small – you’ve got to roll with that. And a lot of people don’t realize that. If you have one scene in one film… I mean, I remember the time I had that. I told everybody I was in a movie with Robert De Niro. I did not care it was one scene. I had enough lines. “I was in a movie with Robert De Niro. Please, I want to audition for you.” You’ve got to sell, sell, sell.

Megan: Yeah, and obviously, it’s very rare that you’re going to get a huge breakout role your first time. I get that. Take what you can.

Renée: Yeah. And I think you yourself are a business, so you need to sell that business and sell the dream of yourself as the business.

Megan: So you do have some producing credits under your belt. How does the experience of being a producer differ from acting in a film?

Renée: I really started producing because I wanted to grow my acting career. That’s the honest truth. Acting, it’s very hard to stand out. And I first started producing because a film that I was in… It was so weird; they were coincidentally looking for apartments in the United Nations Plaza in New York City, which is on the East Side. And I live in the United Nations Plaza. [laughs] It was very weird that they were already on location. I guess theirs fell out. So I knew some of the people in some of the different buildings in the area, and there was a huge, huge apartment that hadn’t been sold yet. And it was good for the building because they get free exposure, and it was good for the movie because they were last minute lost for a location. So that was my first way into producing in real films, with Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore. It’s called Blind. And ever since that happened, it kickstarted from there. I feel like I am lucky that I had the ability that I can bring something to the table on a film, especially in New York, which is where I’m from. And I’m pretty social there so I know people in different facets, so if I either can help a film I’m already on so I’m in good graces and also I’m a producer on it, or I can help a film I want to be on and hopefully get in the film, why not do that? So it started like that, but it’s actually been amazing. I love the business side of things. I’ve been working recently on films that I’ve produced with purchases just to learn how to budget things out because I like the numbers sides of things. And I’ve been sitting in on money-raising meetings because I love the finance side of things. So it’s actually been a great learning experience, but it’s also opened my eyes to the fact that I might want to do that as well, and now I’m in business school for it.

Megan: That’s awesome.

Renée: It’s a completely different experience.

Megan: So did you say that you have acted in a movie that you also were producing?

Renée: You mean one I was already acting in and I produced?

Megan: This is actually a question that somebody told me to ask you. Does it add a different layer to how you approach a role?

Renée: Oh, for sure. So I’m a little bit OCD and I want to make sure everything is done. So if I’m not up yet for shooting and my role’s not shooting yet, I will make sure that whatever my job has to be as a producer, it’s going to be. I produced this LGBTQ film that did really well, actually, on Netflix. It’s called Lazy Eye.

Megan: Okay. I haven’t seen that but I think I’ve seen that advertised.

Renée: It’s a really good film and it premiered at Slamdance, and it won a bunch of awards at all these gay film festivals, which was really cool. So anyway, most of it is shot in Joshua Tree and everyone is from LA, which is very close. But you need to make sure everyone has a ride and a place to sleep in Joshua Tree, which is in Palm Springs. There’s a lot going on. So applying all these producing tactics to the producing part of it for me and doing it was the way I had to do it, so that when my scene comes I have to approach it as just an actor. That’s how I work. Because if you’re thinking about, “Oh, this is also someone producing and there’s a lot on the line,” you’re not going to act well. [laughs] That’s what acting is. Your brain can’t be all over the place. So obviously, they’re a little more important to me, but I really don’t want to compensate my acting when I’m acting.

Megan: I actually have a friend who has a film production company that he works for. I think he’s one of the people that started it and stuff. They do a lot of LGBTQ-centered stuff and I think they’re going to be filming some sort of short series in Atlanta in July and they’re going to filming something in LA.

Renée: I live in [________], just north of Santa Monica where all the gay bars are. And I’m telling you, it’s the best to be filming in LA doing an LGBTQ film. If not LA, New York or wherever. You kind of just feel like you’re in that community. You know what I mean? You’re there and it makes it so much better.

Megan: Yeah. So you mentioned that you don’t have a film here. You’re basically here to do networking and whatnot. Are there any films that you’re here to see or have you gotten to see any? What are you up to?

Renée: So basically, I’m on the go from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., and then I do dinner and go out. There’s a bunch of different events going on that you have to pick and choose. For example, yesterday I went to the premiere afterparty of Miss Purple, which I thought was amazing. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the film, but I thought it was an amazing experience and everyone was telling me about it. I do want to see it, now that I’ve been to the party. So at night it’s more about the premiere afterparties. During the day it’s about different kinds of events, like yesterday there was a People from Oklahoma film event, which I thought was cool to go to because Oklahoma is having some tax credits now. I might be doing a sports film that shoots in a stadium in Oklahoma right now. Today there was the NYU Tisch event, which I thought was interesting because all my friends go to NYU. It’s all different kinds of events. I think it’s just important to network here. Even though it’s pretty much LA and New York here, everyone is in one place and this is the way to meet them. There’s no other way to explain it. And if you’re here because you’re looking for financing for your film, you’re here because you’re an actor, [or] you’re here because you’re in a film here, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone is here for the same thing. You’re here to meet new people and connect and help each other out.

Megan: It’s been really great for me. I am from South Dakota, so there’s not a whole lot that goes on there. [laughs] So it’s been great. I’ve got a bunch of business cards that everyone has been giving me, so it’s been really nice because I don’t really get many of those opportunities.

Renée: Exactly. It’s an opportunity to advance your network, and that’s what you need when you’re in entertainment or media. It doesn’t hurt. And we’re all in the same mindset here. We’re all in warm, cute clothes. It’s great. I’m also a big snowboarder, so this is one of my favorite places in the world to snowboard.

Megan: I have never snowboarded or skied in my life.

Renée: You have to learn!

Megan: I’m so uncoordinated, and my joints are all weird. I just feel like it would end so badly. [laughs] I love to sled. I’m already sitting down so I don’t have to worry about falling off if I’m sledding. And if I do, it’s not that far of a fall.

Renée: Exactly! That’s true. It’s so beautiful. This, to me, is beautiful. I love snow. People here are, like, dying freezing, and I’m cool with it.

Megan: So you mentioned a couple of new things that you might be starting, but any specific new projects coming up?

Renée: So I’m in a film called Juveniles. That’s my next one that I’m shooting. It’s pretty cool because it’s about two young girls who form a friendship in a juvenile detention center, and I play the really tough guard in the prison who ends up having a sweet spot for the lead girl and ends up being nice in the end. I believe they signed Bella Thorne to be one of the girls and Anna Faris is the counselor in the prison. I love this film because it’s written by, produced by, directed by, and starring all women.

Megan: That’s very rare that that happens.

Renée: It’s pretty crazy. So that one, I’m really excited for. And I’m shooting a film in Bulgaria, which I think is so cool. I guess it’s extremely cheap to shoot there, so I think a lot of things that need to be shot in Europe are shot in Hungary and Bulgaria. So I’m really excited because one of my weird dreams is to shoot a movie in Europe; I’m not going to lie. So I’m really excited for that. And I’m doing this film that’s kind of like a new spinoff of Romeo and Juliet. It’s called Die in a Gunfight and I’m playing the news anchor who narrates the story. I don’t know if you remember in the Romeo + Juliet with Leo, there was a news anchor, so that’s my role. And I’m really excited for that. I’m excited to have a lot of things coming up. March 1 is the end of the New York City film festival, and I’m getting the Rising Star Award.

Megan: That’s exciting!

Renée: Yes, and I’ll be getting it with the gentleman who played “Pussy” in The Sopranos. He’s getting the Lifetime Achievement Award and I’m getting the Rising Star Award. So it’s pretty cool to get that with him as the Sopranos 20th anniversary is going on.

Megan: Is it 20 already?

Renée: Yeah, and they’re starting the prequel with James Gandolfini’s son playing Tony. So I’m really excited for that. And then I also do standup comedy, so I just found out while I was here, actually, that I’m giving the Humanitarian Award to Jay Leno at a big event. I’m excited to get a bunch of press with him and be on stage with him and do my standup for him.

Megan: I don’t think I’ve seen any of your standup.

Renée: Yeah, it’s private.

Megan: So you don’t have any Netflix specials or anything like that?

Renée: No, no. But I will.

Megan: [laughs] I love a good Netflix comedy special.

Renée: I think that’s my next step.

Megan: I know there are lots of Netflix people here, so you’ve just got to find one.

Renée: Agreed. Standup is such an amazing thing and so different from acting.

Megan: I just started watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Renée: I was up for that role, so I’ve been a little butthurt so I haven’t really watched it, but everyone is like, “You have to watch it! It’s like you!” I guess she’s from New York City. And my dream time period is ’50s/’60s, so I need to watch it. I feel like I’d love it. So does your site emphasize any other cult classic kind of films?

Megan: It depends. Well, for stuff like this, even if it has nothing to do with Harry Potter, if I get an exclusive interview with somebody, we post it. It doesn’t matter. We’ll just be like, “Yep. Interview. We’re posting it. It doesn’t matter.” For movies and stuff like that, it’s usually only if it has somebody from Harry Potter in it because then we can tie it back, but there have been a couple times where we’ve done stuff that has just absolutely nothing to do with Harry Potter. I know we’re trying to branch out. I got to interview Nichelle Nichols from the original Star Trek.

Renée: Oh, so that’s still in that realm.

Megan: It’s in the nerdy realm, yeah. I know that we’re trying to expand and do more different things. Harry Potter, in my opinion, is forever. I have it tattooed on me. It’s forever.

Renée: It is.

Megan: It’s never going to end. And then they have the Fantastic Beasts movies, but sometimes there is a shortage of news. I’m the news team manager, so a lot of times we’re just like, “Okay, what do we post about today? I don’t know.”

Renée: I love Eddie Redmayne, and I love Fantastic Beasts, but it’s not the same. [laughs]

Megan: It’s not the same, yeah. I think maybe it might have been because when Harry Potter first came out we were children and it was just like, “Whoa, magic!” But I still watch it and I still think it’s wonderful. I liked the first Fantastic Beasts. Second one, I was like, “Okay.” And so I’m excited to see where they take the story, for sure.

Renée: The girl who played in Harry Potter, the one with the bleached blonde hair who saw the dead people too?

Megan: Oh, Luna? Evanna Lynch.

Renée: She and I had a mutual best friend for a few years who is a producer, and they had a film together at Tribeca and so she’s been in New York a lot and so she and I knew each other for a bit. I’m not friends with her anymore, but she was my guest at Fashion Week in New York, and she is the sweetest person I have ever met.

Megan: I have heard that. Very much like Luna is, where she just seems bubbly.

Renée: Well, she’s like Luna in that way, but she’s not weird like Luna. She’s sweet like Luna, but not a weird person.

Megan: Not seeing creatures with glasses on.

Renée: Yeah, exactly. So it was very cool. She’s a sweetheart, yeah.

Megan: And then she was on Dancing With the Stars! I don’t think she won. She got really far. I know we have one person in particular at MuggleNet who would do an article every week every time there was an episode and followed her pretty [closely]. She was pretty upset when she didn’t win, but she got pretty far.

Renée: That is so sad. But Dancing With the Stars… It’s pretty cool that she did that because you have to dance really well!

Megan: Yeah, I’m a terrible dancer. I could never do it. [laughs] And I don’t necessarily watch the show religiously, but if there’s somebody that I particularly really like, then I’ll watch their various stuff on YouTube or something afterward because I don’t have cable. I just use Netflix, Hulu, Amazon… So Bindi Irwin – the Crocodile Hunter’s daughter – was on it and she ended up winning, and I love her.

Renée: The daughter and son, they have a TV show!

Megan: Yeah, Crikey, It’s the Irwins. I loved The Crocodile Hunter so much, so I was really happy when they came out with that show.

What happened next in the afternoon surprised me. I attended a YouTube panel that featured YouTube stars such as Liza Koshy, Hannah Lux Davis, and Angela Courtin. I wasn’t allowed to record the panel, and I was seated in the back without great views of the stage, but it was an amazing discussion of being a woman in the industry and the best ways to get your start in YouTube.

There was a second half of the panel that involved the co-creators of celebrity YouTube channels such as Sadao Turner (Will Smith’s channel), Lauren Fortner (Madelaine Petsch’s channel), Brian Mendoza and Etienne Aurelius (Jason Momoa’s channel), as well as Aquaman himself, Jason Momoa. The panel workers saw I was struggling to see the stage, and before the second panel was due to begin, they brought me up front and center to view the second half of the presentation.

 

 

This was a real treat to be able to see (and yes, Jason Momoa is as big in real life as he seems).

That night was, perhaps, the most exciting. I was one of only about four working press people allowed into the already-packed press line for the most anticipated film of the festival, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past week and haven’t heard of it, here is the trailer:

 

 

This press line was just a whirlwind of star after star. I was able to sneak in a quick question with one of the film’s actors, Haley Joel Osment, and ask him about what he thought was so unique about Ted Bundy’s story.

 

 

Zac Efron was the last to walk the carpet, and when asked what he learned from portraying the infamous Ted Bundy, he said:

The thing I learned from Ted is to never give up… Well… obviously not like that… [laughs]. It will make sense when you see the movie.

Check out the photos below from the press line, and you can read my review of the film here.

The following day, I was treated to a brunch sponsored by Planned Parenthood, where all attendees came together to voice their support for the company that is such an important part of women’s’ health. I was just sitting on a couch enjoying some of the hors-d’oeuvres provided, trying to get some work done on my laptop when I looked up for a brief moment, and imagine my surprise when I saw none other than Tessa Thompson (of Thor: Ragnarok, Westworld, etc.) fame. Tessa discussed her role in the fight for women’s’ rights and spoke about the 4% Challenge in Hollywood. Check out our exclusive video below!

 

 

I, unfortunately, was not able to stay for the whole festival and ended up having to leave the next day. One thing is for sure, Sundance Film Festival is its own little world, and when you leave, you’ll immediately want to come back. It’s the kind of place where you feel like anything can happen (even in the TSA line on your way out, yes I’m talking to you, Charlie Heaton, I saw you). You’ll not only likely meet celebrities you never thought you’d meet in your dizziest daydreams, but you’ll get to meet fans just like you, and hopefully make friendships that will last a lifetime. And, of course, the films aren’t too bad either.

That’s all we have for our Sundance Roundup! Was there something you particularly liked about our coverage? Let us know in the comments below!