At Sundance, pandemic dramas unfold on screen and off
By Jake Coyle
AP Film Writer
January 31, 2021
NEW YORK (AP) — Peter Nicks had for months been documenting
the students of Oakland High School, in California, when the
"It’s in the Bay," says one student of the virus as he and
others mill together in a classroom, excitedly contemplating the
cancellation of school.
Soon, the principal is heard over the loudspeaker — an
announcement that would signal not just the scuttling of prom
and graduation ceremonies, but, potentially, Nicks’ film. After
chronicling other Oakland institutions, Nicks had set out to
document a year in the life of the multicultural teenagers of
Oakland. "Something like The Breakfast Club with kids of
color," he says.
But how do you make an intimate, observation documentary
about school life when the hallways are suddenly emptied, the
school musical cancelled, and your third act turns virtual?
"The first order of business was just capturing that moment,"
Nicks says, speaking by Zoom from Oakland. "Then shortly after
that it was: What are we going to do? How are we possibly going
to finish this movie?"
Homeroom, Nicks’ fittingly titled — and ultimately
completed — documentary, is one of the 74 feature films that
will debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. The pandemic has
transformed the annual Park City, Utah, festival into a largely
virtual event, but it has also reshaped many of the films that
will unspool there.
No festival more represents an annual cinematic rebirth — a
fresh crop, a new wave — than Sundance. But given the
constraints on gatherings since last March, how could filmmakers
get their movies made, edited, and delivered to Sundance?
The majority of films showing this year were shot before the
arrival of COVID-19 — many of them edited during quarantine. But
there are numerous filmmakers at the festival who managed the
seemingly impossible feat of making a movie in 2020.
A handful of high-profile films made during the pandemic have
recently hit streaming platforms, including the heist comedy
Locked Down and the romance Malcolm & Marie. But
Sundance will supply the fullest look yet of moviemaking under
the pandemic. Even in an independent film world predicated on a
can-do spirit, the results — including Homeroom, How
It Ends, and In the Same Breath — are often striking
for their resourcefulness.
With school closed, Nicks sifted through his footage and
realized he had a rich thread. The students, responding to a
history of police brutality, had been pushing to eradicate
officers from the high-school campus. Nicks decided to continue
production, relying on a mix of the students’ own cellphone
footage and more selective shooting opportunities. Homeroom
morphed into a coming-of-age tale, riven with activism and
George Floyd protests, that reflected a larger awakening.
"We started to recognize that we had a powerful narrative
that began in the beginning, we just didn’t realize it," says
Nicks. "That’s part of why I love documentaries — how and why
things are revealed. You just have to be open to make those
adjustments and see it."
The writer-directors Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, who are
married, were also trying to adapt to the pandemic normal in Los
"That adjustment was bringing up so many intense emotions,"
says Lister-Jones, the actress-filmmaker of The Craft: Legacy
and Band Aid. "A lot of fear and vulnerability and a lot
of uncertainty not just about the world but what our future as
filmmakers was going to look like."
Drawing from their own anxieties and therapy sessions, they
began outlining a film about a woman (Lister-Jones) walking
around a desolate Los Angeles with her newly visible younger
self (Cailee Spaeny), on the eve of an impending asteroid
apocalypse. The movie isn’t about the pandemic, but it’s clearly
a product of the kind of self-reflection it brought on.
"It was sort of experimental in nature because the world was
in an experimental place," says Lister-Jones.
They called up actor friends — Olivia Wilde, Fred Armisen,
Helen Hunt, Nick Kroll — for cameos, and shot scenes mostly on
patios, backyards, and doorsteps.
"Some people weren’t ready," says Wein. "Some people were
super eager, like: ‘Yes, I’m dying to do something.’ And some
people were kind of in the middle, a little bit scared, ‘This is
going to my first thing. I haven’t even left the house.’"
Given the always fluctuating emotional rollercoaster of daily
life in the pandemic, making a comedy was frequently difficult —
not just logistically but emotionally.
"It takes a huge amount of energy to produce a film. To do so
when we were in such a raw emotional state did really terrify
me," says Lister-Jones. "Many days when we went out to shoot
before I would say quietly or aloud, ‘I can’t do it.’ By the end
of that day, it was so incredible to see the ways in which it
Sundance’s slate is down from the usual 120 features, but
it’s not for lack of submissions. More than 3,500 feature films
were sent in. Some were made in a pandemic sprint.
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley made In the Earth, a
horror film set in the pandemic, over the summer. Carlson Young
shot her fantasy-horror thriller The Blazing World with a
skeletal crew last August in Texas, with the cast quarantining
together at a wedding resort. Most films made in 2020 are time
capsules but that’s explicitly the purpose of Kevin Macdonald’s
Life in a Day 2020. It’s composed of 15,000 hours of
YouTube footage shot worldwide in a single day.
Nanfu Wang, the China-born documentarian based in New Jersey
whose Sundance prize-winning 2019 documentary One Child
Nation analyzed the personal and widespread toll of China’s
one-child policy, didn’t realize she was starting a film when
she did. At first, she just kept taking screenshots and
recording social-media posts she saw coming out of China in
"I was seeing the information about the virus, about the
outbreak being censored in real time," says Wang. "I would see
something and then ten minutes later it would be deleted. That
compelled me to archive them."
Wang was in the midst of several other projects. At first,
she tried handing off what she had gathered to news outlets.
Then she started planning a short film. Then the scope of the
outbreak necessitated a feature film. HBO came on board. And
Wang started working with 10 cinematographers in China to
capture the yawning gap between party propaganda and reality.
But more twists, of course, followed. The outbreak spread
beyond China, and in the U.S. response, Wang saw a different but
comparable virus response from another regime. Soon, she was
organizing film crews in America, too. The scope of In the
Same Breath grew.
"The outbreak in the U.S. shocked me even more than it
originally starting in China. I had this notion that America is
a more advanced society and things like that shouldn’t be
happening in the same way or worse. It changed the film," says
Wang. "In March, April, I started thinking: OK, now what is the