Getting Yelled at By Celebrities at Sundance, Parts 1 – 4

In honor of this year’s Sundance Festival, I’m reprinting here a little series I wrote circa 2006 on my Tumblr blog, now long gone.   Around that time I covered the Sundance Festival for the LA Times and I think I was fortunate enough to catch the apex of the festival Swag Suite A-hole’dom phase.   Here then are my memories of the times I was stupid in the presence of celebrities at Sundance, and they got mad about it, originally printed sometime about a decade ago.

Getting Yelled at By Celebrities at Sundance Stardust Memories:
Part 1. Pierce Brosnan

The annual advent of Sundance brings back many wonderful memories: some unforgettable movies, nights riding the wrong shuttle bus to distant snowy reaches, the comradery with fellow reporters that can only be had when you are travelling on someone else’s dime, plates of free short ribs.

But most of all when I think back on the Sundance Festival, I remember a two to six years younger version of myself getting yelled and by celebrities.  I see myself – idealistic, filled with excitement, cold, under-slept; trying to do a very silly job of interviewing actors in a city that basically becomes a giant gang interview mosh pit pegged to the screenings of some independent films.  And I see a slightly younger self doing such a bad job of it that every year numerous stars have felt the need to scold me, berate me, flee from me and threaten me with violence.

So come if you will and walk with me up the hill from Salt Lake, to a magical little faux Western town, where exhausted reporters struggle to stay awake during screenings of teenage relationship dramas and where free diamond plated iPhone holders fall on celebrities like teardrops from heaven.

These then are my Tales of Being Yelled at By Celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival. Part One: Pierce Brosnan.

Three’ish years ago, I was at the Festival for my employer the Los Angeles Times, editing and contributing to their Sundance Festival blog.   Since the paper’s big serious film critics had decreed that only they were allowed to issue opinions on the films screened (even if they could only be bothered to grace us with their opinions of maybe five percent of the films shown at the festival) that left the rest of us to fill in gaps where we could…Largely with “scene” coverage.  So that year, I went to a lot of parties and “events” and wrote about them.  A fine day’s work, except for the getting yelled at by celebrities part.

On one particular night, I attended the Bon Appetite Supper Club, an event in which each night a celebrity chef (more celebrities!) cooked a dinner for 60’ish in honor of some movie or other.   I learned upon my arrival that we would be dining upon the work of celebrity chef John Besh in honor of the film The Greatest, starring celebrities Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon.

Before the dinner, I mingled awkwardly during the cocktail hour, clinging to a wall as the cast and crew of the film and whoever else gets invited to these things schmoozed.  After a bit, the event’s publicist came over and asked if I would like to chat with Pierce.  I said, of course, I would be delighted to talk to Mr. Bond.   She walked me across the room to him and we were introduced for a conversation that went more or less like this:

ME: Very nice to meet you.
PIERCE BROSNAN: So what did you think of the film?
M: I’m sorry. I didn’t actually see it.
PB: What?!
M: But I hear great things.
PB: Well, I don’t understand, what are you writing about then?
M: You know, the scene. The ambiance. The celebration of what a great film it was.
P: But if you haven’t seen it, what can we possibly talk about?
M: I’m sure we’ll think of something.
P: But this is just absurd.
M: It happens all the time… So tell me about the movie…
(Pierce Brosnan throws up his hands and storms across the room.  I watch him corner the publicist, gesticulating wildly, face turning red with anger and confusion.  Finally, when his arms are waved out, the publicist leads him back to me.)
M: We don’t have to do this if it’s a problem.
Pub: No, it’s fine.  You guys just talk. (Exits scene)
M: Sooooo…How did you get involved with this film?
P: (Spits, coughs, guffaws) Well, that story isn’t going to make a bit of sense to you since you haven’t seen it.
M: Try me.
P: Alright (rolls his eyes). (Tells a very long story about how he got involved with the film. Short version: He read the script and liked it.)
M: I think I can follow that.  Great to meet you.

Getting Yelled at By Celebrities at Sundance Stardust Memories:
Part 2. David Boreanaz

This story  is not about being yelled at as much as being glared it.  The yelling was more implied than expressed; he yelled at me on the inside as it were.

A few years back, I can’t remember which – as part of my coverage of the Sundance “scene” I went to tour a gifting suite.  One of the things I enjoy most about the Sundance festival is its shameless split personality.   On the one hand, the festival is a tribute to dark, slow, depressing low budget films highlighting the plight of the poor, or the – whatever group’s plight is being mourned that day.  Somber, sober considerations of a world of injustices.  And then people come out of those and say – lets go get our free ermine trucker hats!  Fred Segal’s giving away emerald studded luggage tags!  Paris Hilton is hosting a secret mansion party!  They are serving beluga-stuffed panda spleen at dinner!

So one year I was taking in one of these “gifting suites.”  A “gifting suite” looks outwardly like Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, a warren of stalls under one roof garishly summoning all passer-bys with brazen displays of goods.  Except the stalls all are maintained by makers of various obscure luxury items.  And you have to be on a list certifying that you are some sort of celebrity (D list and up) or even a celebrity hanger-on to get into the bazaar. (Basically to certify that you stand a better than one in a thousand chance of being photographed in whatever you take.)  And also, everything in the suite is free; the hawkers are not vying to sell you things but to entice you, minor celebrity that you are, into taking it in hope that you will wear or hold it somewhere in public.

I was being shown around this suite by its publicist, who hoped I would write a piece about the suite – one of several that lined Park City’s Main Street – which would entice a better class of celebrities who would entice a better class of luxury giverawayers.  I looked politely at the various baubles.  As a journalist, you are also offered free things – although not the most expensive five figure things, more like the upper three to mid four figure stuff.  I am clearly not the target audience for diamond studded iPod holders but full disclosure: I took nothing over my years there, except for maybe a piece of chocolate.  I can’t remember any specifically but generally in life if people offer my candy, that’s when my ethics go out the window for the time it takes to eat it. But, fuller disclosure: if I wanted to make a list of journalists I have seen taking things bigger than candy at Sundance, that would be a very long list indeed.

Anyhow, so the publicist was showing me around and there across the room I spotted TV’s David Boreanaz from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The publicist asked if I’d like to talk to him and I said, sure.  She went to him and cleared it and led me over.

What I did not know is that in polite company, journalists do not ask celebrities about their free-stuff-grabbing proclivities.  You ask them instead to tell you how excited they are about whatever they are working on and how excited they are to be a part of whatever charity they are giving 12 minutes of their time to.  That is what polite journalists speak of.  I had much to learn.

So the conversation went as follows:
Me: Are you in a movie up here?
David Boreanaz: No.
M: Ah, right. So what brings you up here?
D: A friend is throwing this charity soccer game that I’m playing in.
M: Fabulous. Um, so. Do you do a lot of these gifting suites?
D: No.
M: No?
D: No.
M: But are you getting good stuff from this one?
D: No.
M: You’re not getting good stuff.
D: No.
M: You’re not taking anything?
D: Nope.
(A silence follows that felt approximately thirty percent longer than the American Civil War during which David Boreanaz stared deep into my eyes and I felt hatred like I hadn’t known since I accidentally reminded Mrs. Hartenbower that she had forgotten to give us our homework assignment in fourth grade.)
ME: Okay, great talking with you.
David Boreanaz: It was great.
(Picks up his two shopping bags stuffed to the top with free stuff and leaves.)

Getting Yelled at By Celebrities at Sundance Stardust Memories:
Part 3. James Gandolfini

This one is a story that has no heroes.  Certainly not me.  I might have yelled at me too if I had been on the other side of this, because certainly I am an idiot in this story.

But there is the other side to it that you’re up at Sundance, the most ridiculous celeb clutching mosh pit cloaked in self-importance on Earth, you’re surrounded by gifting suites and walking red carpets and the aroma of Paris Hilton is never far away.  So if you put yourself through that and you can’t have a little bit of a sense of humor about yourself and a few silly questions, well then, some might say you deserve to be badgered with inane questionnaires until your asking price falls down to the five digits.

On the year in question here, I was shooting videos for the LA Times website. Since we had no budget for video production but we on the web team were trying to make the paper see the possibilities of this crazy thing called multi-media, we were making due with what we could capture on flip cams.  Mostly that was brief talking heads videos.

In prepping for Sundance, we tried to come up with a little questionnaire we could put to anyone we met that they could answer in 90 seconds or less.  Since every star there does a zillion interviews and there are a zillion people asking “Tell us about your film.  Tell us about your character.  Tell us about working with such a talented young director as – ” we wanted to do something that was not that.  So we thought up five dumb questions that might provoke people to have some non-pr digested thoughts about the insanity of the whole Sundance experience.  We called it Five Silly Questions and by and large it worked okay.  We put it to everyone from young actors to foreign documentarians, warned them in advance that they were silly questions, but those who played along actually produced some fun and thoughtful answers to the dumb questions, answers that did illuminate the insanity of Sundance.  (Here is one we did with someone who did have a sense of humor about it, Amy Poehler).

We spent the day at the MySpace cafe waiting for people to interview.  The Cafe was next to the giant EW press tent, an area that film people came to for the purpose of being interviewed, and believe me most of these interviews were for more inane then mine, without the grace of any awareness of their innanity. After the interviews the movie folk would duck into this little velvet roped coffee shop for some free of charge chili fries from the menu with no prices on it.  When movie people came in, we would ask them or their publicists or their assistants whether they would mind doing our video questionnaire, explaining that it was some silly questions about the sillyness of Sundance.  Most said, yes, soon as I’m finished eating and then we’d set up our mini-tripod and shoot.  A handful said, that’s not my thing or, I can’t take any more interviews today, and that was fine and we went our merry ways, never to meet again.

At one point James Gandolfini came in with his director and co-star from In The Loop which was being screened up there. I asked the publicist who was with them if he’d mind doing our silly questions.  She said she’d check with him and came back and asked, would you mind waiting until he was done eating?  I said, that was fine. Some minutes later she came back and asked, what will you be asking him about? I said, it’s just some silly questions about the sillyness of the Sundance experience.  It was not, I explained, an interview about the film, which I hadn’t seen. She ran back and came back and said that would be fine, if I could just keep waiting.  I said I could.

The group finished eating and got up and walked out without doing our interview. I assumed I had been blown off, which was just fine.  It was my last day there and I wanted to get packed up anyway.  Just as I was preparing to leave, the publicist came back and said, they still wanted to do it but would I mind shooting it in the EW press tent.  I said that would be fine but we needed to do it right away, because I had to get going.  She ran back and came back again and said, it would be just 15 minutes, but they really wanted to do it so could I please wait.  She also said, Gandolfini had asked if I could also interview his director and co-star along with him.  I was sensing by this point that the publicist was extremely flustered about this and said, “You know, this seems like it’s going to be too much hassle. I’ve gotten enough stuff today, so let’s just do it another time.”  “No no no,“ I was assured, they really want to do it.  Just hold on for a few minutes.

Over the next hour I was pushed back three more times. At every interval, I tried to insist, let’s just forget it, but was urged to stay on.  Although I needed to go, I thought a video with Gandolfini was probably worth waiting for, and despite my sense that something was not great here, I was being reassured that they wanted to do this, so wait I did.

Finally, I was ushered into the tent into the presence of Mr. Gandolfini, his director Armando Iannucci and their co-star whose name I forget.

As soon as I took my flipcam out of my pocket, Gandolfini became visibly annoyed. The conversation went very close to this:

James Gandolfini: What the fuck is that?
Me: It’s a video camera.
James Gandolfini: That fucking thing is a video camera?
Me: It is…they didn’t tell you this was going to be a video interview?
James Gandolfini:Noooo. They didn’t tell us.
Me: Oh, well that’s what we’re doing. Is that alright?
James Gandolfini: Wait, I thought this was for the LA Times?
Me: It is.
James Gandolfini :Isn’t that a newspaper?
Me: Yes….
James Gandolfini: So how the fuck are you going to put a video in a newspaper?
Me: Well actually…the newspaper is just one product. We’re a media company and we have a website also, which is where this video is going.
James Gandolfini: (Looks at me like I’ve just said the dumbest thing he ever heard.
Me: Look, we don’t have to do this.  Why don’t we forget it?
James Gandolfini: No no…if you think you can put a video in a newspaper, let’s go right ahead. (Actual quote, engraved in my brain until the day I die.)

As they sat down, I told them we would be asking silly questions about the sillyness of Sundance. Gandolfini glared at me. His two colleagues shuffled uncomfortably.

The filming started off as a disaster and went downhill from there.  When I hit them with the first question, “What do you like about Sundance?” Gandolfini looked like he wanted to put his fist through my skull.  Question two, what do you dislike about Sundance, I believe he refused to answer. When I hit him with question three, “What bodypart would you sacrifice to frostbite” he looked at me like he had never hated someone so much in his life and I actually thought, wow, this is going to literally turn violent; a daunting thought when two feet away from Tony Soprano.  I believe I skipped questions 4 and 5 and wrapped it up as fast as I could.

A week later, director Armando Iannucci told the story on his blog about how some idiot from the Los Angeles Times had ambushed him and the great thespian with questions about what part of their body would they most like to give up.  Somewhere on the web there is a blog entry in which he says, somewhere on the web there is a video of James Gandolfini and I looking at each other and wondering what ever happened to a great newspaper.

That video is right here.  The pleasure was mine.


Getting Yelled at By Celebrities at Sundance Stardust Memories
Part 4 The Final Chapter: Paris Hilton

In the fourth and final chapter of this saga, I once again am not literally yelled at.  Instead I face a form of yelling; an inaudible yell that came from an ancient place inside the rotting soul of a celebutante.

As mentioned in the previous episode, I spent my time at Sundance one year using the MySpace Cafe as a sort of headquarters for my interviewing.  The free-for-celebrities cafe drew a near constant stream of the famous and near famous wanting to be near other celebrities drawn by the free hamburgers and rare treat of getting to be at a simple diner behind a velvet rope.

The MySpace folks were kind enough to let me work out of there for the week, so when they asked if I would mind interviewing MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolf about his new global initiative/charity thing, I was happy to sit down with him.  The charity was some plan to rebrand MySpace – then at its height – not as a place for perverts to stalk ill advised, under-clothed young women but as a hub for giving back, getting involved; a place where people would come to find a community of like-minded openhearted souls who were looking for ways to help the Earth and its downtrodden.  One of those.  History has of course shown how successful that rebranding effort was for MySpace, but anyhow, towards the end of a lunch hour, I was summoned over to speak to Chris DeWolf and approached his table.

Just as I was inches away from sitting down however – in my memory my hand is actually outstretched to greet him – the front door blew open and in sauntered Herself, Miss Paris Hilton who walked right in front of me to DeWolf’s table and plopped down next to him.  DeWolf turned his attention to his friend and the publicist assured me it would just be a few minutes, if I could just hang on, pretty please.

It should be noted at this point, Paris was at the very height of whatever that particular mountain she climbed was.  The height of her stardom?  Success?  Fame?  Some combination of those.  The cafe was filled all day long with a pretty dazzling line of stars, but when Paris walked in at that moment, everyone stopped.  The whole room instantly revolved around her.  With her smirky brazen idiocy, she somehow made the world dance to her tune.  I saw this later in the week where nightclubs and parties going at 70 mph would screech to a stop when she walked in…walked in and did, absolutely nothing. Whatever one might say about her, on the basis of no skills, no grace, no real sexiness she marshaled an unbelievable power over humanity.

So Paris and Chris DeWolf sat talking, and I perched on a stool at the end of their booth, waiting for the interview, pretty much in both of their faces.  And I waited and waited while they talked.  Other than rebranding himself as the savoir of the planet, DeWolf to all appearances was one of the most committed party boys one could find at a festival filled with extremely committed party boys.  He sauntered around in a floor length fur coat and had this expression in his eyes that went beyond bleary; he had the look of one whose excesses the night before had actually broken something inside him, something that was never going to be fixed.

I waited and waited and glared, and shifted and waited. I would have left far earlier into this but as I say, I felt grateful to the place for letting me work there all week so I didn’t want to be rude and storm out just because he was making me watch him talk to Paris Hilton for an hour.  90 minutes passed and they both managed to pretend they didn’t see me sitting at the end of their booth glaring impatiently at them and finally Paris got up and in a grand sweep departed, carrying the hopes and dreams of the MySpace Cafe with her.

Completely flummoxed by this point, in disbelief that I had spent 90 minutes waiting for Paris Hilton to traipse away, my manners and gratitude failed me when I sat down with DeWolfe.  I couldn’t shut myself up and even knowing we were sitting down so he could tell me what a great humanitarian he was, the first question that came out of my mouth was: “Can you just tell me, what could you possibly talk to Paris Hilton about for ninety minutes?”

It’s hard with eyes as bleary as DeWolfe’s to express rage and complete and utter disgust.  But he pulled it off.  The grayish skin turned red.  The sleepy eyes bulged and for a good long few moments I wondered if he was going to strangle me.  Finally he answered, “The same thing I talk to all my friends about.”

The top five most obvious answers to that raced into my head, but fearing for my life, I  commanded my tongue and duly changed the subject so we could settle down for an awkward and uncomfortable interview about how he was saving the planet.

That night, I was with my friend and colleague, journalist Chris Lee, standing and chatting in front of one of the nightclubs that had been set up outside of town, when a car pulled up and out plummeted Paris Hilton. Walking with all the swagger that can be mustered when you are walking through a foot of snow in high heels while completely inebriated she made a bee line straight for the two of us.  We looked at each other in shock.  Was Paris coming to talk to us?  Had it been anyone else, I might have thought she was coming to apologize for tying up DeWolfe that afternoon, but I knew in this case, that was not possible.  Stumbling across the snow she continued to chart a path straight for us and we braced ourselves for whatever impact was in store.  But then instead of stopping, she barreled directly through the 18 inches of space between us.  In the middle of an open lot, walking straight in the middle of our conversation without ever once looking at us or acknowledging that we were standing right there, where she was walking, admirably sending us the message of our non-existence.

Outside the club, there was a little snow covered hill set up as a tobogan run, which people slid down in inner tubes.  In high heels and mini-skirt, Paris climbed to the top of the hill and seated herself in a tube, feet hanging over the side as one might if you were riding a tube down a river. She slid down the hill, screaming all the way and the tube came to a rest about three feet from where Chris and I were standing.  Paris lay in the tube, giggling, and looked right directly through us.  But neither of us were prepared for what came next.  This it should be noted was the era of the Paris-Britney-LiLo famed upskirt photos, where they would be shot getting out of limos revealing their lack of undergarments. It was much speculated upon in those innocent times whether these poses were accidental or not.

Well, after laying back on the inner tube at our feet giggling to herself and looking through us for about 30 seconds, Paris made a creative choice.  All of a sudden, her legs were thrust dramatically akimbo, revealing as she had famously in the past, that she lived a life that transcended undergarments.  And all the while, her smirk fixed on her face, she still managed to look directly through us, making it clear with this statement that on no level when we were in the famed Miss Hilton’s presence, were we to think of ourselves as actual living, breathing, human beings.