HIFF Lab Helped Hatch Sundance Discoveries

Three scripts for films being shown in Park City stopped briefly in East Hampton for a polish
Andrea Riseborough in "Nancy"

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is underway in Park City, Utah, through Jan. 28, and while the Hamptons International Film Festival is represented there by Anne Chaisson, the festival’s executive director, and David Nugent, its director of programming, its participation can also be seen through three of the films being screened this week.

Started 18 years ago, HIFF’s Screenwriters Lab has helped usher many films to completion. Those at Sundance this year who have benefited from the advice and friendship provided by lab mentors include Christina Choe, Isold Uggadottir, and Cathy Yan.

Both Ms. Chaisson and Mr. Nugent applauded the inclusion of the films at Sundance and said they saw the films’ successes as an achievement for HIFF as well. “We’re always looking for artists who tell compelling stories that are unique, and certainly each of these three were,” Mr. Nugent said. “Two of them are international projects, which is exciting to us, and supporting female filmmakers and writers is very important to us as well.”

Ms. Choe, who was at the 2014 Screenwriters Lab, discussed the screenplay for her first feature film, “Nancy,” with her assigned mentor, Susan Stover, who has produced films such as “High Art,” “Happy Accidents,” and “Laurel Canyon.” Ms. Choe at that point had made several short films that had been shown at Sundance and other festivals, such as South by Southwest, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Aspen Shorts Fest.

“Nancy,” which stars the current “it girl” at the festival, Andrea Riseborough, centers on a character who likes to blur the lines between fact and fiction in her depiction of herself on the internet. “She creates elaborate lies to get close to people emotionally,” Ms. Choe said just before the festival began on Thursday. “When she sees a news report about a couple whose long-lost daughter disappeared and the picture looks like her, she takes a journey to see if she could be their daughter.”

Back in 2014, Ms. Choe told The Star that her inspiration for the film came from a New Yorker magazine article called “The Imposter” and a general fascination with hoax and imposter stories. She said she wanted a lead character who was “morally ambiguous, a female antihero.” Now, she notes that shooting for the film began around the time of the inauguration of President Donald Trump. With a crew that was 80 percent female and 50 percent people of color, “it was an intense time. We pretty much felt like the world was ending.” But the themes of the past year — how everyone is coming to terms with having to navigate between truth and fiction — has made her film that much timelier.

At the time of the lab, only Ms. Riseborough was attached to the script as the star. She has roles in three other movies at this year’s festival. “I really believed she was the only one who could do it,” Ms. Choe said. “She has extraordinary range in her abilities.” She added that Ms. Riseborough’s notice before and during the festival has made her as happy as the recognition for her film has. “You can’t control those things, and it’s nice that that’s happening for her as well.”

The cast eventually grew to include Steve Buscemi, Ann Dowd, and John Leguizamo. “This version of the film got made with the best team I could have hoped for. The financing was challenging and it took a lot of time, but I knew Andrea would be the guiding light.”

The ability to premiere the film at Sundance was unexpected and meaningful, because Ms. Choe put the film’s music and sound together at the Sundance Institute — “they were really supportive during the postproduction process” — and it’s “kind of what American filmmakers aspire to.” She was pleased that the cast and crew could celebrate their contributions and hard work there, she said. It is also a market festival where many films find distributors, something she said she would welcome.

She is grateful for the insight and support she received and continues to receive from HIFF. “They gave me the encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing and follow that gut instinct.” And she has stayed in touch with Mr. Nugent and Ms. Stover. The lab “was such a collaborative thing. . . . It’s nice to have the support as things are coming together so you don’t feel completely alone in the process, which can be arduous.”

Ms. Uggadottir’s film, “And Breathe Normally,” is about the bond that develops between a struggling Icelandic mother and a refugee from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa as their lives collide at an airport in Iceland.

“Dead Pigs,” the film by Ms. Yan, adapts the true story of how the lives of a pig farmer, a saloon owner, a busboy, an architect, and a disenchanted rich girl converged as a group of dead pigs floated down a river toward the rapidly modernizing city of Shanghai. 

All three films, which are competing at the festival, will continue to be screened through the end of next week.