The Slamdance Film Festival was born in 1995 when four L.A.-based filmmakers, angered that their films were rejected by the Sundance Film Festival, decided to stage their own festival, right across the street from Park City’s Egyptian Theater, home to Sundance’s most prestigious premieres. Seven years later, through a combination of highly democratic, creative programming, gigantic balls, and no small amount of luck, Slamdance has its own home (in an abandoned silver mine just up the hill from Sundance) as well as A-list status on the international film festival circuit. Over 2,500 films were submitted for Slamdance 2001, with 12 features and 12 shorts making the final cut. Among them was my own feature, Virgil Bliss, produced right here on the mean streets of Williamsburg.
In brief outline, Virgil Bliss tells the story of a recently paroled convict who has had enough of the criminal life and decides to settle down with his prostitute girlfriend to raise a family. Although certainly not new as far as movie narratives go, the film had been a big hit with audiences, mainly due to the strong performance of the actors and simple execution of the story. Oddly, one of the most frequently addressed issues of the Slamdance post-screening Q. & A. sessions involved the “grittiness” of our locations. It seems that 99 percent of the audience there was from Los Angeles and, to their eyes, the corner of North 4th and Berry looked rather dangerous. And when I told them I actually lived right where most said footage was shot, well, I gained instant thug cache, which I then used to full advantage in promoting the film.
We quickly hatched a master plan. For starters, the entire Virgil Bliss entourage now dressed like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, a look that would never fly here in Brooklyn, but for some reason really went over well in Park City. We’d strut down Main Street shoving Starbucks-drinking, pencil-necked Sundance shills out of our way, spitting on the Egyptian Theater as we strolled past. I successfully spread the rumor that our lead actor, Clint Jordan, had actually done six years of armed robbery, and that he and I met in the big house where I was doing time for my involvement in some undisclosed mob activity down on Fulton St. Ah, Fulton Street, the very name was like a bracing slap in the face to those California smacked-asses. Never mind my wire-rimmed glasses, Woody Allen wig, and Hank Hill physique: for 10 days I was more badass than John Gotti.
I soon began referring to the Virgil Bliss cast and crew as “my peeps”, a useful term suggested to me by my boy Tariq Trotter, star of Marc Levin’s Brooklyn Babylon and the lead vocalist for the Roots, who played at the opening night Slamdance party. Levin’s Brooklyn is a hot, steamy jungle of random violence and racial animosity, a kind of perpetual Crown Heights. This exaggerated portrait only added to the rarefied, tough guy air surrounding the Virgil Bliss crew, and I noticed that people began looking with the respect one normally reserves for those certain Vietnam vets, the kind whom you know have seen some shit in their day, but out of stoic propriety would rather not talk about it.
Public promotion of any film not associated with the Sundance Film Festival was made almost impossible by a team of ant-like Park City citizens in the service of their Evil Grand Wizard Robert Redford. This army of red-jacketed soccer moms remind me of the Northside Neighbors Association, except for their skiers’ tans. Armed with walkie-talkies, clipboards, and whistles(!), they would cruise Main Street looking for anyone handing out flyers or postcards, then radio to the nearest gendarme, who would dutifully swoop down on the unsuspecting film promoter and nail them with a summons. If caught a second time, they’d haul your ass down to the station and book you for disturbing the peace. As the week progressed, the regulations became more and more draconian, until chatting with one’s friend was about the only thing you could do on the street, provided the conversation didn’t get too animated.
Team Bliss was a force to be reckoned with all the Slamdance and industry parties. For promotional purposes we made up three thousand Virgil Bliss stickers just large enough to cover a B-cup breastie. At the Atom Films party, held in a gigantic barn and complete with free cowboy hats and an iron bull a la Urban Cowboy, my peeps and I managed to sticker the breasts and ass cheeks of every lovely shaking her groove thang out on the dance floor. In no time, the Bliss tag became a much sought-after commodity and was crucial in raising Virgil Bliss awareness. By the end of the festival, my fingertips would be chapped from so much stickering—a dirty job, to be sure, but for Christ’s sake someone had to do it.
In the end Virgil Bliss was shut out of the top awards, the Jury Prize for Best Feature going to the mind-blowing documentary Hybrid by Monteith McCollum, and the award for Best Dramatic Feature going to Debra Eisenstadt’s hilarious Daydream Believer. Both films will be screening in March at BAM.
Without laurels, but feared and revered, the unsung urban anti-hero Virgil Bliss must carry on, first to Berlin and then out to the West Coast for a spring run.
JOE MAGGIO was nominated for a 2001 Independent Spirit Award for his film Virgil Bliss.