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by Zoe Peters

This January marks my second year volunteering for the Sundance Film Festival. As a volunteer, I was provided housing and worked Access Control for the Temple Theater Operations team. I am a Film major at George Mason University, so the festival is a great opportunity for me to meet filmmakers, see independent films, and to track the distribution process as it’s happening through media and word of mouth.

Last year, I saw 18 films, but this year I focused on panels and events. I found many of the films I loved so much came out in theaters within a few months and there were panels I wished I hadn’t skipped. The morning after the Women’s March in Park City I attended a panel with Sam Elliott and Jon Hamm, and I am happy to report, Jon Hamm walked into the building wearing a bright pink knitted hat and Sam Elliott’s voice was just as deep and husky as I could have hoped. They each had films premiering at the festival; Sam Elliott was attending with THE HERO, and Jon Hamm with MARJORIE PRIME, and the two talked back and forth, old friends and coworkers, and told us about their early careers, gave us advice, and mused about how their lives had gone. One young woman asked an almost unintelligibly long, anxiously delivered question about how to build a career in Hollywood, and they both answered her with a surprisingly considerate level of detail. Finally, Sam Elliott said one of the nicest things I’ve heard in a while; “I came into this industry looking for two things; a successful marriage and a great career and I’m very blessed to have found both.”

Despite being a film major and Quentin Tarantino fan, I had—embarrassingly—not seen RESERVOIR DOGS when I arrived in Park City. Now, don’t judge me too harshly, because I saw RESERVOIR DOGS for the first time on a specialty print with Tarantino and Michael Madsen in attendance. It was such a great moment when during the following Q and A Tarantino told us all the things he noticed for the first time during that very screening, how it had been many years since he watched it and how differently he would shoot it now. Since Tarantino developed RESERVOIR DOGS as a Sundance Lab project, he went back into his Sundance days, telling us about all the terrible criticism he initially got about his long takes, and how he had to convince them it was a stylistic choice. He said he had decided to make RESERVOIR DOGS when he realized how few heist films were out there and how he might be able to make one of the top heist movies because there was so little competition. It was a clear reminder that sometimes art is about reading the market and finding potential demand.

My favorite panel was for THE BIG SICK because it was large, filled with people I admired, and the cast and crew were so close that it was wonderful to watch them interact and discus the creation of this passion project, which was Sundance’s big darling this year. The panel included director Michael Showalter, co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon; actors Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, and Holly Hunter; and producers Barry Mendel and Judd Apatow (who was late because, “someone thought I’d be afraid to walk three blocks by himself,” and made him wait for a car, he told us with a wry smile). My favorite story of the panel was told by screenwriter/actor Kumail Nanjiani. He said that one day he had asked Holly Hunter about a rehearsal time and she turned to him, “I can’t my cat is getting acupuncture that day.” Hunter protested to the panel audience, “Now, that is not true…” But Nanjiani continued, “And I thought, what kind of process would that be? Is the cat okay? Do they have to tie it down to get the needles in?” So Nanjiani tells us next time he sees Hunter he asks if her cat is okay and she said, “That was a joke…I just had something to do that day…you thought I was serious?”

The main take home as a Sundance volunteer is that—while meeting filmmakers and attending panels is amazing—your best moments will be random stories and jokes between you and your fellow volunteers and people you meet in and out of the industry. We’re all film lovers at Sundance, so as my coworker and I lovingly realized one day; “Sundance is just a high stakes summer camp for film nerds.”