Indie Indigestion

What was the real cause of my churning stomach at the Sundance Film Festival—the high altitude, my on-the-fly diet, or a string of career disappointments?

The author (left) with actors Gregory Smith and Simon Baker at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Food and movies have always been inextricably linked for me, from my the popcorn and Sno-Caps of the Saturday matinees of my youth to the 4 a.m. bagel and Mountain Dew refueling stops on my recent film shoots. So, a few years back, when I received a phone call inviting me to premiere my very first feature film, Book of Love, at the Sundance Film Festival, I immediately began researching places to eat in Park City, Utah, where the festival is held. I was excited and nervous, and nothing calms my anxiety like food, real or anticipated.

Almost a quarter century old, Sundance has grown from a cinephile’s celebration of independent films into an industry orgy of celebrity-packed parties and frenzied deal-making. Still, there’s no more prestigious American festival for a new filmmaker. As soon as I hung up the phone (and took an antacid), I spread the word. Within hours, the e-mails were flying as my friends conjured up visions for me of power breakfasts with studio heads and cocktails with movie stars. ‘What will you wear?’ they all asked. “What will I eat?’ was all I wanted to know.

Less than two months later, on a frigid January afternoon, I found myself standing in a crowd of fellow Sundance directors at the festival’s opening-day reception. Outside, the snow was falling, but inside, warmed by the specter of fame hovering just on the other side of Park City's Wasatch Mountains, we auteurs sipped vodka cocktails (it is a rule of film festivals that there is always free vodka), nibbled on skewered chicken saté and goat cheese tartlets, and smiled giddily at one another when a Sundance official at the microphone told us: “You are where most filmmakers dream their whole lives of being. You have arrived.” The astonishing thing is not that he spoke those words—self-congratulation being as endemic to the entertainment industry as eating disorders—but that we actually believed him.

My own personal dreams of glory, creative and culinary, were shattered that very first night, when my newly acquired Hollywood agent informed me that he already had dinner plans with other (i.e., more important) clients but could meet me beforehand for drinks. The crowd when I arrived at 350 Main, one of Park City’s see-and-be-seen restaurants, looked airlifted (and airbrushed, but that’s another story) from Wilshire Boulevard. Over martinis chilled to what was, it soon became apparent, the temperature of his heart, my agent informed me that, according to the buzz, my film was not among those predicted to "pop."

I swilled my martini and ordered another while he went on to map out the Sundance trajectory for Book of Love before it even played. It was not at the bottom of the heap but somewhere in the middle, he told me with an industry insider’s icy confidence. I popped a few plump olives into my mouth and nervously swallowed them whole, pits and all. How could he possibly know? I wondered – but never got a chance to ask. Glancing at his expensive watch, he smiled his shark’s smile, guided me around the restaurant, introducing me at each table (astonishingly, he did seem to know everyone) in three minutes flat, then, before I could even zip up my parka, nudged me out the door.

I found myself alone on Main Street, nose pressed up against the restaurant’s window. On the other side of the glass, a famous screen face beamed at a director with a destined-to-pop film as he dug into scrumptious-looking pepper-crusted venison with roasted beets (I’d studied the menu while awaiting my agent’s late arrival). A gaggle of honey blondes in matching Prada parkas nibbled sashimi “towers” (the restaurant’s signature starter) and scallop-and-crab ceviche. I was starving—for food and for fame—and more than a little drunk. And the festival had just begun.

Before I left New York, my film’s casting director, a Sundance veteran, had warned me about the challenges of eating well at the festival. Park City’s mile-high altitude is dehydrating and stomach-upsetting. All the best restaurants are impossible to get into, unless you’re with Jennifer or Harvey or Heath. Concessions at the screening venues serve food that is not only overpriced but, taste-wise, the festival equivalent of Army rations. And forget about grabbing a quick yogurt and a carton of V8 on the run. Park City’s Main Street, which looks like a gussied-up set for High Noon, may be a great place to buy flashy furs and turquoise jewelry, but it has no convenience stores. “Bring trail mix,” our casting director had advised. I dutifully packed ten pounds.

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