SFFS's inaugural panel of filmmakers didn't disappoint, drawing together Alexander Payne and June Squibb (Nebraska), writer/director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Spike Jonze (Her), and Jehane Noujaim (The Square).
SFFS executive director Ted Hope explained that this celebration and cross-pollination of innovative makers and shakers was one of his final acts as executive director. "These were my four favorite films this year," Hope said. "On a personal note, it just feels like, 'thank you.'"
"Every one of these movies stretches in some way and inspires to really be something," said moderator Steven Gaydos, executive editor for Hollywood magazine Variety. "If you've covered this industry as long as I have you know these kinds of movies are impossible to make, so it's nice to see people do the impossible."
Let's start with Her, which marks Spike Jonze's debut as both director and screenwriter. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a doe-eyed moustach-ed man in the wake of a shitty break break-up, backdropp-ed by a futuristic as all get out L.A. (An amalgamation between the City of Angels and Shanghai.) He falls for a computer operating system (seriously) played by Scarlett Johansson; it's a genre mash-up that's two parts romance, one part science fiction, and one part weird -- and it's hard to pull off.
But Jonze, whose crafted much of his career in the heart of the strangely sublime -- from Jackass and Dirt magazine, to directorial powerhouses like Where the Wild Things Are to a slew of music videos like cult classic "Praise You" by Fatboy Slim -- he nails Her's atypicality with aplomb.
"Her has this large conceit -- it's a love story with an artificial operating system -- but it's also a relationship story," explained Jonze. "It's about the way were living and the lives were living through technology."
But it's also archetypal. Jonze seems less concerned with making a profound societal commentary and instead reimagining the age-old quest to find companionship. "Her is more about the way we long to connect, long for intimacy and the things that enable or prevent those things."
Jonze nodded. "I wanted to design this very warm world where everything is comfortable and easy. And make it even more heightened by setting it in L.A. -- this place where the weather is always nice, you're surrounded by the ocean, the mountains. good coffee, tech makes everything so easy... but even there, there's a sense of loneliness and isolation."
The other fictional film being championed -- Nebraska, directed by Payne -- had an interesting back story to its soundtrack as well. Apparently filmmakers often use temp music as filler to different scenes while on the prowl for the final sound.
"Filmmakers can succumb to something called 'temp love,'" explained Payne. "The director can't imagine the temporary music being improved upon because they've heard it so many times." But keeping those temp tracks as the final soundtrack is "very rare" said Payne, but that's just what happened with Nebraska.
"This guy Mark Orton lives in Portland, Oregon and he's like the Donald Fagen of a group called Tin Hat," says Payne. "After a week of editing we said 'let's slap some of this on the film'... but the more we got into it, the more wedded we got to it. Some of it had even been used in another film, but we used it anyway! We finally called him and said, 'would you mind tailoring it? And can we work together?'"
For Fruitvale Station, Coogler explained that conjuring a truthful past and painstaking context to Oscar Grant's essence was at the forefront of all his choices, including the soundtrack.
"A lot of fingers were being pointed, but no one was talking about how [Oscar] was a human being," Coogler said. "He wasn't a symbol for justice or the falseness of society, he was a 22-year-old guy with dreams and relationships that were cut short."
Coogler says they tried to find music that captured where Oscar's life was on that day.
"We were keen on getting the kind of music Oscar listened to, Bay Area hip hop. A lot of the films we looked at [for inspiration] didn't have a ton of score. But I did have a composer in mind, Ludwig Goransson -- we had worked together on a couple short films -- and we found this moment that really needed a score. It came of the connection between Oscar and his daughter."
In the wake of the film both Coogler and Jordan says the reaction to the project have been intense. "Except for Oscar, everybody is still around," explained Jordan. "And you're wondering if you got the characters right, if you got the relationships right. I was sitting behind Wanda (Oscar's mom) at the premiere and I just kept peeking over at her. I wanted that validation. I mean, I'm playing her son you know? And they didn't want to see the footage, the script, the edits...they just wanted to see it when it was done."
Jordan said that despite his squirming and anxiety, his performance was rewarded with the highest compliment of his life. Oscar's aunt stood up and said there were scenes where she couldn't tell the difference between him and her own nephew.
"That meant the world to me," said Jordan. "Because I'll be living with Oscar for the rest of my life."
Jehane Noujaim, director of The Square, a harrowing documentary that tackles Tahrir Square and a brave bevy of Egyptian revolutionaries, also struggled with depicting a true story. More complicated still, it's a story that's unfolding faster than any film can capture or quantify it.
"There's been uprisings [in Egypt] for many years but this one in January 2011 really took hold," said Noujaim. She says it all began "when the rumblings were just happening and Tunisia had exploded. People were going down for Police Day, but they were saying, 'we're not celebrating we're protesting.'"
Noujaim was invited to visit Davos, Switzerland in January to cover the gathering of top Egyptian leadership and see what would transpire on the ground. "But when I got to Davos, of course nobody had shown up."
To make a long story short(er) Noujaim was arrested about 20 minutes after landing back in Egypt and finally let go after eight harrowing hours of interrogation.
"I went directly to the Square and found all these conversations about the future of the country," said Noujaim. "Conversations I'd never expected. Men and women, religious and secular...dreaming about the country. About the outcry. And feeling like they had an effect."
Noujaim met her entire crew -- "and incredible 'characters'" -- right there in the Square. There was no pre-production, no casting, no script writing. The documentary began when she lifted her lens to film history unfolding.
"Sometimes, with intense things, you want to experience it through a camera. The story continues because the revolution continues. And the story keeps changing."
Initially, it was about bringing down Mubarak and transitioning into a new president, but more interesting still Noujaim says, "is holding the government accountable and fighting fascism. The film stands as it is...but there are many other films to be made."
Not surprisingly that fascism permeates the distribution of her film as well. The reaction has been profound -- "people went crazy at Sundance and the people in the film love it, they feel it's very authentic" -- but the people who arguable most need to see the struggle on celluloid...may never get to. At least not legally. The Square is currently in censorship in Cairo and Noujaim is waiting for the army to green-light a public release in Egypt.