Park City, Ut. – So many movies, so many stars—and so many red carpets. At Sundance, this week, I was able to get some facetime with the makers and stars of a select few films on the press lines (while being shut out of a few others, naturally).
Andy Samberg was in town for the premiere of “Palm Springs,” for which he both starred in and acted as producer. The film stars Cristin Milioti (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) as Sarah, a woman who gets stuck in the California desert town for her sister’s destination wedding. There she meets the carefree Nyles (Samberg), and the two embark on a series of unlikely adventures.
The stars were joined on the carpet by first-time feature director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara.
“I went to Palm Springs when I was a kid to see family when it was more of a retirement community. Then Coachella took over,” Siara told me, adding that as he has aged, he attended more and more weddings in the desert—which informed his screenplay. “I watched [the city] transition into this hipster haven. … Some of my favorite musicians and bands also gravitated toward it,” he said.
“We were film school buddies, [and] then we just wanted to make something that was funny and strange,” said Barbakow, adding that his relationship with Siara helped the two of them grow the script into the final film. “We [tried] to make each other laugh, and it was organic.”
Barbakow described the call from Sundance saying “Palm Springs” had been accepted as almost surreal. He didn’t recognize the number and assumed it might be spam.
“I’m glad I picked it up [as] they wanted us in the dramatic competition. I said, yeah, let me think about it.”
Beside him, Siara chuckled at his friend’s dry humor, but then added it’s an honor to have been included.
“The directors who have launched their careers out of Sundance are the people that we look to and are part of our DNA,” he said.
The script for “Palm Springs” found its way to SNL alum Samberg, who not only agreed to star but also to produce, which unquestionably would help with fundraising.
“I like being involved on the creative side. I love being able to be involved in casting and editing and the script,” Samberg told me. “I did a lot of work with Andy [Siara] and Max on the script. I liked bringing the project” to completion, he said.
The sunlight in the desert can be harsh, which could pose problems in editing when trying to match up shots. Editor Matt Friedman said he had to work in post on color matching on certain scenes.
“But the secret is if the story is working and the emotions are working, you don’t notice anything,” Friedman said. “Whereas if you have empty frames, you give the audience time to think about stuff.”
(Deadline reports that Neon and Hulu jointly picked up the distribution rights for “Palm Springs” for $17.5 million.)
Elsewhere in town, the documentary “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” also had its red-carpet premiere, which was attended by director Laurent Bouzereau and actress Natasha Gregson Wagner, who is Wood’s daughter.
Dressed in a rather flashy white suit, Bouzereau, known for previous behind-the-scenes docs like “The Making of ‘Jaws,’” told me that his fascination with the magic behind the movies goes all the way back to his childhood. While he can’t remember the first movie he ever saw, he does recall being distracted away from the silver screen at an early age to peer back toward the projection booth.
“I was maybe five or six, and [it was] arranged for me to go up to the projection booth, and the projectionist explained to me how it all worked,” he said. “I thought that man had a key to the magic.
“I’ve always been interested in what happens behind the image [and am] fascinated by a piece of art and wonder ‘How did they do this?’”
Bouzereau said that Gregson Wagner, who was only 11 when her famous mother passed, asked Bouzereau if he might know someone who could direct the documentary about Wood.
“I said ‘What about me? I’ve been doing this for decades,” he said with a smile.
Gregson Wagner worked in conjunction with executive producers Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank to tell the story of her mother, who starred in films such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “West Side Story” before her untimely death in 1981 at just 43.
“Everyone has preconceived notions about [Wood], but nobody has ever done [a film] that does a deep dive into this icon, who was [also a] great businesswoman and mother and wife,” Frank said.
“And ahead of her time [in that she] negotiated all her own deals,” added Falvey. “It was [also] a great opportunity to meet Natasha and hear her stories.”
The producers said the portrait they sought to create of Wood was more nuanced than what has been presented before. And having Gregson Wagner as well as her stepfather, Robert Wagner, on board would help with that mission.
“My biggest [desire] is I wanted to protect my stepdad and make sure he felt comfortable and safe,” Gregson Wagner said of Wagner, who will celebrate his 90th birthday Feb. 10. “I think he is a beautiful flower that just blossoms in the documentary. He’s so funny and kind and truthful.”
Wagner was married to Wood—for the second time—when Wood drowned as the couple’s yacht was anchored at Catalina Island near Los Angeles. Accounts vary, with some saying that Wagner and Wood got into an argument before she left the vessel in the dinghy. She never came back and her body was discovered the next morning.
(Christopher Walken, who was Wood’s costar in “Brainstorm,” was also on the yacht that evening. He is not interviewed in the new documentary.)
Conspiracy theories have abounded for decades, and while the film does acknowledge there are still people who don’t believe Wood accidentally drowned, the star’s daughter believes it’s more important to focus on her mother’s legacy.
“She was joyful, had an amazing life and brought so much to so many people, and she should be remembered for her life, not her death,” Gregson Wagner, who has sixty films and television acting credits to her own resume, told me, adding that her mother was “a force of nature.”
“It’s literally film history. If someone is not documenting it, then what are our kids going to learn from?” added fellow producer Falvey. “It’s important historically, culturally and otherwise.”
At the Sundance screening, director Bouzereau said that while he initially sought to make a documentary about a great film star from Hollywood’s Golden Age, he somehow wound up making a film about an entire family.
“I think it feels very modern, feels like Natalie [is] talking to [audiences] today,” he said. “I’m hoping that it will transcend just being a story about Hollywood.”
HBO produced “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.” No air date has yet been announced.