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Living the movie star life at Sundance 2020

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Adam Fox is a member of the advertising team at Richland Source, an Ashland native, and an avid mountaineer. He's also become a movie editor, and one of his projects has been nominated for an award at the Sundance Film Festival. This is the story of his recent experience at that famed film festival.

I was going to frolic with the Hollywood elite at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and just before boarding the plane to Utah, melted butter got spilled all over my fashionable gray Levis.

My cellmate Megan just laughed at me on the tarmac.  

Three and half hours later we were at the Salt Lake City airport and upgraded our rental car to an SUV for snow and style. It was a 40-minute drive to Park City for the opening weekend of Sundance, and we did an early check-in to our $700-a-night small hotel room at the Shadow Ridge Resort. 

Yes, that’s the most expensive hotel room I’ve ever had. But we weren’t just going to Sundance as fans, we were in the credits of a film, we’d be at the premiere. We’d be ushered through the red carpet and socialize with the stars. Gotta play the part.

Luckily, we were splitting the hotel with Megan’s sister Sarah and her husband, Jerrod. 

Five years ago my cellmate and I stayed on the far outskirts of Park City in Coalville and had to take different shuttles and buses to the festival. Everything was crowded and included line after line after line. 

This time, although we had no business with all the VIP access we would have, there were no cutting corners when it came to cost.

Adam Fox mug shot

Adam Fox, Ashland Source Columnist

The world premiere of “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” was set for 2:30 p.m. at the iconic Egyptian Theatre right on the strip in Park City. Documentary filmmakers “The Ross Bros.,” Bill and Turner Ross, had been an official selection at Sundance before for "Western," as well as winning the documentary Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest for the film "45365" in 2009. (45365 is the zip code of Sidney, Ohio, which is the subject of the film.) 

In the world of documentaries, it would be hard to find more sought-after filmmakers than the Ross brothers. They are in the impossible-to-get-in Academy of Motion Pictures, and will be doing Oscar voting this week.  

That's why Talking Heads frontman David Byrne commissioned them to film his project, "Contemporary Color." (Here's the "Rolling Stone" article about it.)    

For those unfamiliar with the film festival circuit, it works like this: there are thousands of movies made every year, but most don’t have a lot of funding or distribution behind the project.

Festivals are showcase arenas where independent films and even those backed by huge studios can flaunt their product. 

The audience and judging "jurors" are the elite of the elite in the movie business. It’s paramount to receive good reviews and win prizes, especially at Sundance, which is the most notorious and popular festival in the U.S. and second only to Cannes in the world. 

Park City was full of stars and you could see them just walking around, headlined by Taylor Swift ("Miss Americana"), Anne Hathaway, Mila Kunis ("Four Good Days"), Lin-Manuel Miranda ("Siempre Luis"), The Chainsmokers, Rosie Perez, Jude Law ("The Nest"), Alec Baldwin, Glenn Close, Viggo Mortensen ("Falling"), Hillary Clinton ("Hillary") and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell for the ski comedy "Downhill."

After check-in in, we headed towards the premier of "Empty Pockets." As we made our way through the crowds toward the theatre, Turner Ross texted me the pre-party location “Basement of Flannagans.”

Park City is a super rich ski town, like Aspen. It shows out for the fest with dangling bulb lights draped over the streets and Sundance banner signage and tons of metal gates ushering the crowds up and down the extremely slanted Main Street. 

The basement had low ceilings and on the floor stood people in jean jackets with yellow cursive 70's scripts, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.” 

Flannigans basement

After hugs and introductions to new girlfriends and cast members and whiskey, the entourage meandered to Main Street and formed an “on-the-list” line. 

The inside of the Egyptian didn’t let go of the theme with pharaoh moldings on the wall and a sand paint job. 

In the bar line, I saw one of the film's cast members double fisting so I followed suit to keep the palate damp through the showing. 

Egyptian

Our “reserved” seating section was right by the row of jurors, who would be deciding who wins what award. And what did my little climbing eyes see? But Jimmy Chin, legendary action sports director of “Free Solo” and “Meru,” not to mention he is an elite snow and ice steep wall mountaineer. 

This story is not a film review -- I’m 100% biased and "Empty Pockets" is absolutely incredible from start to finish and no English language construction could ever properly convey that to you. But if you want a review, they are absolutely glowing from Variety, Indie Wire and The Hollywood Reporter, to name a few.   

Coincidence and degrees of separation: in the Q&A after the movie, I learned the Ross Bros. found the star of their movie, Michael Martin, while he was performing on stage in "Long Day's Journey into Night." The half sleeve tattoo on my arm is the cover photo of that O'Neill play.

Speaking of covers, the cover photo of "Empty Pockets" has Martin sleeping with his head on the bar next to a stack of books. One of those books is my novel, "Grief Species."  

program photo

I met Bill Ross my freshman year at the University of Cincinnati and when he transferred to Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) we kept in contact. It didn’t hurt he was friends with Cecily Strong, a current cast member on Saturday Night Live, so there was always incentive to visit him in the early 2000s. 

Through Bill and Turner, I was able to connect to the outside fringes of the movie business, and travel to many other festivals like Tribeca in New York City. 

For some reason, Bill would always send me rough cuts of their movies for content edits and theme and discussion. 

A year and a half ago, the rough cut of “Empty Pockets” was four hours long. At that time, Turner was living in an airstream with his family, traveling around the country and they stopped at my house. After finding out we had a cabin on Lake Huron in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he suggested a private viewing party up there with some of the extended Fox family to get some honest feedback and direction. They needed to cut out two hours.

After the premiere, "the film" bought out O'Shucks Bar across the street and it was two hours of guzzling local Utah whiskey and mixing with everyone involved in the production, all for free. 

One of the main actors in the film, Pete Radcliffe, was talking to me when my cellmate walked up. 

“Wait, that’s your wife?!?!” Radcliffe asked. 

Yep,” I said.

“That’s gotta be hard. Good luck doing a kitchen remodel with her,” he said. 

“Hey! That is so rude, don’t say that, you don’t know her,” Turner’s wife, Sarah, said in defense. I just laughed. 

A shotski was loaded up and Bill, Turner, their bodyguard Kyle The Muscle and I lined up. The shot glasses were tall ski boots and as everyone in the bar watched, I did a chant: “I say bloody, you say nose, bloody (crowd yells: nose), bloody, 'nose.' I say empty, you say pockets, empty, 'pockets,' empty, 'pockets.' "

The shot was choke-inhaled because I couldn’t do it all in one gulp and had to do a second swallow. The next five minutes I sat quietly eating peanuts, the ground saturated in shells, swallowing my own spit so I didn’t puke. 

oshucks

When the two hours were up, we spilled out to the metal barricades lining the sidewalk and darkness and streetlights had arrived and the blacktop was glowing from the melting snow glistening on asphalt. I can’t imagine the bar tab "the film" paid for, as libations on the strip during Sundance run $20-$30 a pop. 

There was to be a post-post party at the Ross’ condo and we went to the liquor store for supplies. By the door, a snowbank winked at me and I thought I could run up it but I instantly sank waist deep in powder. 

People in the store stared at my snow chaps and after some debate we decided maybe we didn’t need more liquor, and opted for frozen pizzas and cases of Budweiser.

At the party, I was doing the drunk D.J. bit, playing hits like: Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, White N Nerdy, Shakira, Beverly Hills Cop theme song, The Weekend, Grouplove, Idles, Las Ketchup, etc. 

The living room coffee table was moved and dance moves were had. Then I think I got in trouble. During Shakira, I was salsa dancing with different people of both genders and I was twirling some lady and I felt a hand on my shoulder and an abrupt cut in. 

“She can’t dance with you!”

“OK, man, all good, everyone’s dancing with everyone, no worries,” I said. 

“It’s not, umm, you, she, umm, gets dizzy and sick when twirled,” he said. 

Around 1 a.m., a cast member by the nickname “Einstein,” poured a giant glass of Woodford Reserve and drank it like runners pound gatorade in July. We were nearing hour 12 of alcohol ingestion, and he was just getting started. Many levels to the drunk game, and I started guzzling water as I didn’t want to be the self I was trending toward. 

Saturday, Day 2, Sundance Film Festival 

With the two-hour time change, I couldn’t sleep-in despite needing rest, as we left for the airport at 3 a.m. the day before. 

“We going skiing or what?” roommate Jerrod asked, sitting up in bed, excited for the slopes, his favorite human activity. 

Reluctantly, I put on my snowboard gear having no idea what was ahead. Park City Mountain was literally 100 yards from the hotel and it turned out to be the best ski resort I’ve ever been to. And I’m not comparing that to Snow Trails, I’ve been to Breckenridge, Steamboat, Squaw Valley, etc., and Park City puts them all to shame.

“Greatest snow on Earth” is a true tagline. 

At the top of one of the endlessly long lifts, we were studying a map when an old white dude was giving advice to his group.

“Just watch out for all the ice spots caused by the snowboarders. They throw the snow off the mountain and ruin the runs,” he said. 

I took the bait and fired back about physics and how skiers are still crying, 30 years later, about snowboarders ruining their stretchy pant good time. The argument intensified until a bystander yelled “OK boomer” and I laughed and the guy laughed and we parted peacefully. 

My legs hit such a fatigue level that oftentimes I just quit carving and if I caught an edge, oh well. The snowboard was my friend Dumpster’s, who was nice enough to let me borrow it after my bindings broke hitting the rails at Snow Trails just two days before we left. 

IMG_6685.jpeg

Jerrod Wagner

“We’re almost done skiing, let’s meet up,” I said, calling Megan from the chairlift. 

“We’re downtown hanging out with Julia Louis Dryfus and Will Farrel,” Megan said. 

Crazy how at any given moment you could be rubbing shoulders with celebrities, but not just any kind of famous, movie star famous. 

Mid afternoon, we all met back at the Ross’ condo sipping on warm Budweisers that never made it to the fridge. 

“Now tonight is going to be a little fancier,” Tuner said about the parties we were obligated to attend. 

The first was hosted by Laurene Powell Jobs, the wife of the late great Steve Jobs. (#BlackTurtleneckMafia.) According to the New York Times, Powell Jobs is a “new player at Sundance” with her production company, Concordia Studio. 

Again, cellmate Megan and I had no business being at that elite swanky over-hors d'oeuvre-ed party, but our names were on the list and I remember thinking, maybe there are two Doc Fox’s here? 

All the wait staff were carrying around all-vegan appetizers and I know this will seem like a cliche scene, but I didn’t know any of the names of anything but it tasted soooooo good and it was the same for the drinks. 

“What are you drinking,” Megan asked after I grabbed a clear glass from the passing tray. 

“Some kind of burnt hardwood Mezcal lime thing the waiter said. Tastes like excess, bet the rich love it,” I said.  

Bill Ross was not in his element, as a champion of the dive bar and being surrounded now by a crowd he’d only drink with by force. He wanted to leave immediately, but Turner reminded him that Powell Jobs had given them money for the film, and it’s always nice to show up and thank people that do that sort of thing.

Bill rolled his eyes, Turner shook his head, I went to the bar and complained about the lack of wine selection. Appreciate the iPhone and all that Jobs family, but hook a honkey up with some Cabernet, OK? 

Outside of watching “Empty Pockets,” the next party was my absolute favorite event of the weekend. First, we weren’t allowed to go in the front door -- that's for normal people. We were actually one step up from "people on the list." Two security personnel escorted us through the side alley, along the fencing and narrow pathways to a small side door, that lead past the kitchen and by the food staff and then appearing in the back of the party like we’ve been there the whole time. 

So that’s how the world renowned got into parties. 

The second venue was a lot bigger and saturated with pink neon lights and a loud DJ and so many gorgeous people, like women in cute designer fury boots and men in shirts outlining their six packs and millions of pounds of makeup and everyone was tall and I had a short sleeved “Back to the Future” shirt on but it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to talk about DeLoreans. 

The party was provided by XTR Films, another donor to the Ross cause and big player in film funding. 

For the second night in a row, Shakira guided the dance floor and I looked at my wife with big eyes.

“I don’t want to dance, but you go salsa, I know how much you love to dance with strangers,” Megan said.   

Turns out the rich and connected twirl the same as everyone else and a circle cleared and I spun and lead and dipped with such great precision and vigor that I would have made all my salsa instructors in Spain and Mexico proud. But I did draw dirty looks from dudes on the outside of the circle. 

Around midnight, few of our original entourage remained with Meg and me, as they had gone to a late-night showing of “Empty Pockets.”   

Day 3, Sunday, Sundance Film Festival 

Again, I couldn’t sleep in and found myself at a bar at the base of the Park City Mountain resort right when it opened. The locals on barstools were complaining about Sundance.

“Took the bus to work today, puke all over the place. This is the worst weekend to live in Park City, during Sundance.”

“Everything is so expensive, I rent out my place and go live like a king in Salt Lake.”

“So sick of all the tourists that flood in here.”

Then one of them turned to me and asked, “You from around here?”

“I’m here for Sundance. Can I get another Bloody?”

Before our flight home later that evening, I wanted to take my wife and in-laws to the ski resort of Snowbird, southeast of Salt Lake City. Trying to convince my wife to move to Utah, and Snowbird would help sell. Sarah and Jerrod had skied it before, as they have pretty much done every mountain in the U.S.. 

The rock-cut curvy valley road to the resort followed a river with steep cliff faces on both sides. The snow amount on the ground increased as you went up. Because of the near vertical slopes, the runs were mostly black diamond or double black. 

Six months earlier, I did a summer climb to the top of Snowbird and had no idea some of the near vertical faces were well-trafficked runs. Snowbird was for experienced skiers and snowboarders, only. 

For $112, we took the gondola up to the top of the mountain and had clear glass window views during lunch and I drank a tall german pilsner beer.

Sundance voting continues this week, and if "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" wins anything, I'll update the story.  

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