PARK CITY, Utah -- The applause rippled through the Library Center Theatre after Doug Sadler's Swimmers premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Where its echoes spread will decide the movie's fate.
"This will launch Doug Sadler," co-producer David Leitner said.
But blast-off is no guarantee for the Easton-based Sadler, a writer-director who overcame many obstacles simply to bring Swimmers to fruition. The festival placed his underdog project in a category, American Spectrum, that receives less exposure than the dramatic competition. Fewer industry types and media attend the screenings, and little or no buzz accompanies the films beforehand.
"There's the beauty of rising out of lower expectations," Sadler said.
Sadler, 37, with spiked blond hair, sat in the lobby of a local hotel Monday still radiating in the glow of public validation. Festival-goers' reactions to screenings usually range from tiptoeing out the door early to polite applause. Swimmers received the kind of sustained ovation on Saturday night that translates into will some studio buy this already?
Leitner said he welcomes the comparisons he has heard to In the Bedroom, a rural family drama that won a special jury prize at Sundance in 2001. Sadler said he wouldn't mind imitating the trajectory of In the Bedroom, which went on to critical and commercial success.
Swimmers features an Eastern Shore crabbing family on the verge of collapse. The 11-year-old daughter (Tara Gallagher) needs a major ear operation that the family cannot afford. The father (Robert Knott) drinks too much and his eye wanders. The two sons, a cop and a crabber (Frederick's Shawn Hatosy and Michael Mosley), supercharge their rivalry when a disturbed beautiful woman (Sarah Paulson) arrives in town and befriends their little sister. The mother, played by the theater and screen stalwart Cherry Jones (Ocean's Twelve), tries to hold the family together with tight-lipped determination.
Sadler polished his screenplay and rehearsed his movie at the Sundance Institute two years ago. Sundance godfather Robert Redford put in his two cents, as did actor Ed Harris.
Sadler shot in Oxford, Bozman and Easton in Talbot County in September and October 2003. Tropical Storm Isabel interrupted production for several days, and the money ran dry during post-production.
Linda Sadler said her husband had pondered quitting "a million times." But the filmmaker said he reached a crossroads a while ago and is fully committed to his craft, even if Swimmers does not make money in a theatrical release.
Sadler, a Louisiana native, moved to Easton with his family in 1981 after they sold their possessions and sailed the Caribbean. The Eastern Shore satisfied their need for water, and they had relatives there.
His first feature, the digitally produced Riders (2001), premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and aired on the Sundance Channel. Swimmers' budget, which Sadler would not disclose, and the stakes are far higher this time.
The absence from Sundance of Jones, the best-known actor in the cast, handicapped the movie's tub-thumping efforts somewhat. But as the movies in competition play out, the focus shifts to other categories.
Sadler is willing to wait. He doesn't have a deal yet. But he will always have opening night.
"It's such a cathartic kind of thing," he said. "I'm trying to ride the ride and enjoy myself."
Through other Md. eyes
Other films with Maryland ties are unspooling in Park City.
Mark Brown brought The Salon, a Baltimore-set comedy, as an exhibiting strategy, not as a tool to jump-start his career. Brown, a graduate of the Takoma Academy in Takoma Park, has already arrived in the business. He wrote and produced the Barbershop movies, which have grossed more than $300 million. He financed and directed the $2.5 million Salon, a female version of Barbershop in which a beauty shop owner (Vivica A. Fox) fights to keep her place from being demolished by the Department of Water and Power. Locations included Fells Point, the old train station and City Hall. Mayor Martin O'Malley makes a cameo as himself.
"Baltimore is the star," Brown said. The Salon premiered Tuesday night, and Brown was confident it will be bought. Of his first feature-length venture as an independent filmmaker, he said, "The good news is, you have full control. The bad news is, you have full control."
Oscar Daniels left Lanham after 28 years to attend the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Three years later, he has emerged with his directorial debut, a short called Among Thieves, in which an African-American man flees a botched robbery and hides out in the apartment of a white invalid woman, whom he holds hostage. An odd understanding emerges between the two. Inspiration came from the director's youth. Daniels said his mother took him to a nursing home when he was young so he could grow up with a grandmother.
Daniels is developing a full-length screenplay based on his work for the Defense Department at Fort Meade.