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January 21 2019
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Sundance 2019: Ten Most Exciting Directors And The Short Films That Helped Define Their Career

What these short films say about each director's latest Sundance premiere….



Another Sundance Film Festival is just around the corner. While there’s plenty of activity going on all over Park City, Utah, some premieres end up making more headlines than others. Whether it’s the subject matter, the stars attached or a filmmaker’s history with Sundance, many features find their way into the cultural conversation before any awards get announced.

We’re covering ten such premieres today….but with a twist. Instead of just focusing on the feature that’s premiering, we look at the short film(s) that have defined a filmmaker’s career before this and see what that could mean for the outcome of this year’s fest. We made a list of the up-and-coming feature directors last year too, so we’re excited to continue the tradition and track the next batch of rising filmmakers.


Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: The Mustang

Previous Short Films: Rabbit, Atlantic Avenue

The Big Takeaway:

Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has been here before. Literally. Not only was she nominated for Sundance’s Short Film Grand Jury back in 2015, but she’s also been workshopping The Mustang there. So it makes sense for her debut feature to play here too. This film follows a convict as he goes through rehab therapy involving wild mustangs. In terms of the territory, she’s been here before too. Rabbit is another film about being behind bars, going through rehab and doing so with an animal.

“Rabbit” is Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s first film about pet rehab and convicts to come to Sundance.


What can we expect from The Mustang? Well, we know the film’s stakes will be high. The inmate character in The Rabbit is told that taking care of the rabbit is the difference between reducing and not reducing her sentence. We can also expect an intimate character study where the convict finds in the animal a metaphor for his or her own rage, and capacity for good and for evil.

While Rabbit had to mostly stay confined within a correctional facility, the film is shot with precision and an eye for the epic. Now with a bigger budget and longer runtime, we can imagine The Mustang expanding this canvas out even more.


Joe Berlinger

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Previous Short Films: Ubah!, Metallica: This Monster Lives

The Big Takeaway:

This might be the most highly-anticipated film premiering at Sundance this year. It is largely due to the controversial subject matter (telling the Ted Bundy story from the perspective of the long-time girlfriend). To add to the high profile nature of the project, Zac Efron is playing Bundy, while several other big-name actors round out the supporting cast. Finally though, the film is directed behind one of the great true crime documentarians of our time, Joe Berlinger. He’s directed all three Paradise Lost films, along with several TV mini-series documentaries on family murder cases.

“Ubah!” is unlike anything in Joe Berlinger’s filmography. Does it provide any clues about what’s to come?


Berlinger certainly seems qualified to tell this story, but what interest us most about the potential of his first narrative feature since Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is in the little-known short doc Ubah!. The short is as stylish and chic as its subject: Ubah Hassan. She’s been the face of many commercials and ads, but this short takes you into the daily grind that goes into her work. On the surface, the short seems like a long commercial for Ubah’s work. But Berlinger finds moments, no matter how small, to find the complicated roots of her rise, including her immigrant story and war-torn beginnings.

We think Berlinger’s capable range (he also made a short Metallica doc) shows that he can handle a fictitious rendering of Bundy, and bring a strong, singular style that other documentary-turned-narrative filmmakers might not have.


Alma Har’el

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Honey Boy

Previous Short Films: Jellywolf

The Big Takeaway:

Another much-talked about premiere, former child star and current provocateur Shia LaBeouf has written a screenplay about his childhood, and is playing his own father to Lucas Hedges’ LaBeouf. Sounds confusing? We love it! Plot considerations aside, another interesting choice was made by having prominent music video director Alma Har’el take the reins here. However, this is not the first time she’s tackled narrative filmmaking.

Will “Honey Boy” be as visually dazzling (and as narratively daring) as “Jellywolf”?


Jellywolf, a short for Chanel, proved that Har’el can translate style and high-concepts into intriguing characters and an involving plotline. One thing we know for sure about Honey Boy? It won’t be playing by the typical coming-of-age rules. She thinks too outside the box for that (and LaBeouf makes for a good creative companion in that respect).

Something that really comes across in Jellywolf is Har’el’s ability to subvert your expectations. As the main character takes the secret Chanel potion and recalls past memories from childhood and adolescence, we get taken to otherworldly locations, full of strange, truly original concepts and strong but unearthly color palettes. We have to believe Honey Boy will carry this same sense of zany energy, no matter what the plot structure provides. She also brings out some incredible performances for what could be seen as a big-budget commercial. This bodes well for her work with distinguished actors like Hedges and LaBeouf.


Scott Z. Burns

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: The Report

Previous Short Films: Sex Scientists, What We Take From Each Other, Don’t I Know You, The View From Here

The Big Takeaway:

You might know Scott Z. Burns as the screenwriter behind a number of major releases: The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion and The Informant! chief among them. But now he’s got a major feature underway at Sundance. Originally titled The Torture Report, the film chronicles the investigation of the secret torture program going on within the CIA following the 9/11 attacks.

He does have experience directing a feature for HBO (Pu-239) but that was back in 2006. Since? He’s actually directed quite a few shorts. Some of them were more light and comedic in tone than most of his screenplays, but what we think best prepares you for The Report and its real-life subject matter are the series of short documentaries Burns directed called The View From Here.


The View From Here: Brian
He longer believed he had a future. But he decided to get remarried anyway-something he called a "forward-looking act."


Each of the five documentaries come in at under ten minutes and follow the talking head structure most roll their eyes at. But here, restraint and simplicity was clearly the best choice, as Burns is documenting the very real, very raw responses of individuals with terminal illnesses. Burns lets the human face and body speak here, and we think it’s this dedication to the truth of these reflections on death that perfectly segues into a film that requires balancing government espionage and real reports with a deft hand.


Alice Waddington

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Paradise Hills

Previous Short Films: Disco Inferno

The Big Takeaway:

As part of the NEXT Innovator series of feature film premieres, Paradise Hills is Waddington’s debut feature, and this one sure looks fascinating! It follows a boarding school with some mysterious properties. The film is sure to include some strong female performances, with Emma Roberts, Milla Jovovich and Awkwafina (hot off of Crazy Rich Asians).

If “Disco Inferno” is any indication, “Paradise Hills” should be a must-see at Sundance 2019.


Despite some music video shorts, Waddington’s unique cinematic voice really came to light in a 2015 short film called Disco Inferno. With a Dionysian tone that acts like a feminist twist on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan The Terrible, this short takes place in a palace where the Devil is on a retreat from Hell. From just the trailer alone, you can see the impeccable costume design and top-notch production values at work.

Almost nothing is known about her feature film with just a week left until the premiere. Honestly, if Disco Inferno is any indication, the surprises are best left hidden until the show starts.


Tayarisha Poe

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Selah and The Spades

Previous Short Films: Honey And Trombones, Selah and The Spades: an overture

The Big Takeaway:

Tayarisha Poe is another NEXT Innovator and it’s also another film about boarding schools. But the similarities might just stop there. Poe also has a mature and confident visual sense, but it’s much more grounded in the real than a Disco Inferno. With major backing by high-profile producers (Drew Brees and Chaz Ebert are part of that list), we’re so excited to see this tale of sisterhood and adolescence reach its final maturation.

Believe it or not but “Selah and the Spades” started as a multi-media project.


What do we mean by that? Selah and The Spades has actually existed in a previous form. Once subtitled an overture, Poe created a multi-media project that intertwined her interests in photography, music, cinema and literature. It’s seems she got a head-start on the culture by creating the sort of hybrid projects that are becoming more and more normalized with each passing year.

Tayarisha Poe’s first short film shows her delicacy with stories about love and memory.


She has, however, made a “conventional” short as well. Honey and Trombones is a 2012 film that weaves in and out of one girl’s reflections on a relationship, using their combined passions (music, films, books, photographs) to bridge and connect us between different moments. Two of the most striking aspects come from its appropriately understated voiceover narration and its fragmentary cuts in and out of the non-diegetic music. Both elements can be traced back to Chris Marker (La Jetée) and Jean-Luc Godard (The Image Book), though those aren’t her only influences. Her ability to capture a relationship in all its contradiction and chaos makes one think of contemporary filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Derek Cianfrance.

No matter how many or few influences get brought into the feature length Selah, we know this film’s vision will be all Tayarisha.


Abe Forsythe

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Little Monsters

Previous Short Films: Prick, The Talk, Shock, Being Carl Williams

The Big Takeaway:

Zombies. Unlike teen vampire and magic sorcerers, it’s the zombie movie genre that, after The Walking Dead, just doesn’t seem to be a fad anymore. Rather, it’s here to stay. That’s evident with Little Monsters, the story about a rag-tag bunch who are suddenly responsible for protecting children from a zombie outbreak. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Josh Gad, we’re sure to get some laughs in along the way.

Will Abe Forsythe’s brand of absurd humor polarize Sundance audiences?


Forsythe has one of the more prolific short film profiles on this list. Besides acting, writing and producing for several TV shows, he’s directed half a dozen shorts. Among them, you can find some throughlines. The comedy is usually quite dark, with the plot often putting characters in absurd situations. Like many cult comedies, the concepts are polarizing: you’ll either get them or you won’t.

We wonder if a larger-scale (and larger-profile) comedy will broaden his brand of funny, or whether he’ll only double down on his niche flourishes. Either way, we’re ready!


Michael Tymburski

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: The Sound of Silence

Previous Short Films: Actor Seeks Role, Brooklyn Farmer, Palimpsest

The Big Takeaway:

This is one of the few features at Sundance this year to be originally adapted from a short film collaboration (Palimpsest). And with such a unique premise, we’re not really surprised it was tested out as a short concept. The Sound of Silence has Peter Sarsgaard playing a “house tuner”, someone who can adjust the pitch and timbre of someone’s home to improve the mood and well-being of the occupants.

“Palimpsest” introduced us to the idea of the ‘house-tuner’. How will its feature length version expand on it?


Palimpsest was itself an official Sundance selection at the time of its release. So what do we think of the short and its potential for a feature-length adaptation? We imagine that the opening of the short and the feature may look similar, as both have to set up this strange but intriguing world of “house-tuning”. Beyond that, anything could happen!

The short poked its head in a couple of interesting directions. In particular, there is an unconventional romance hinted at by the film’s end, with frequencies and mementos bringing them together in a way that brings to mind Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color in its strangeness. The logline for The Sound of Silence mentions there being a house-tuning problem that the tuner cannot solve. We’re sure this will bring some much-needed tension and stakes for a character who so identifies with his job.

Whatever direction the final film takes, we’re excited to see where Tymburski’s (and screenwriter Ben Nabor’s) projects go from here.


Rhys Ernst

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Adam

Previous Short Films: She Gone Rogue, The Thing, N Train, The Drive North

The Big Takeaway:

Though Rhys Ernst has made many short films, he’s probably best known for his TV work. This includes directing an episode of Transparent and the entire TV Mini-series This Is Me. He looks to carry those same themes of the transgender experience into Adam. By coupling a story of transgender identity and coming of age, Adam has the potential to be both one of the most progressive and most popular films in the festival.

Even in “The Thing” you can see Ernest developing his craft with stories about the transgender experience.


But what should also excite cinephiles going to Sundance this year is Ernst’s wealth of knowledge about film history. His experimental short She Gone Rogue is directly influenced by (and constantly references) the experimental classic short film Meshes of the Afternoon. Ernst also directs a comedic turn-of-the-century twist on buddy road trip movies (The Thing) that in visuals and dialogue recall Badlands and The Sugarland Express. We hopefully can expect the same ironically-detached yet strangely resonant banter between characters in this film to translate well into the brother-sister dynamic in Adam.


Rashaad Ernesto Green

The Sundance 2019 Premiere: Premature

Previous Short Films: Showtime, Cuts, Choices, Premature

The Big Takeaway:

Our final director on the list is also a well-established TV director. Leading episodes for such shows as Luke Cage, The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural has surely allowed him the time to hone his craft. Not to suggest he’s a newcomer though. His 2011 feature Gun Hill Road was itself a Sundance selection.


2008 HBO Grand Jury Prize Winner Written and Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green Winner - HBO Short Competition - 2008…


Ernesto Green’s new premiere has the same title as his 2008 short. While the two have differing plot points, we have to believe there’s a reason for the overlap. The short Premature is a hard-hitting film, filled with visceral performances all around. Events only get more harrowing for the 17-year-old protagonist, but it never strays credibility, which makes the outcomes all the more sobering. While the short deals mainly with the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy, we imagine the feature Premature will develop more of the relationship beforehand.

Ernesto Green’s ability to create incredible tension and empathy without resorting to high concepts or tricks makes us very excited for what we will get from the 2019 Sundance premiere.

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