Music and Movies at Sundance’s NEXT FEST


If he could, Trevor Groth, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival, would finish every film he starts watching. “As a programmer, you’re not looking for the flaws in films, you’re looking for what’s good in them,” he explains. “Film is such a difficult medium to work in and to get to the point of an actually finished film, there has to be positives in there; it’s just too hard otherwise.”

It would be a gargantuan task for anyone who works in film, but for Groth it is impossible. “I’ll make sure I watch enough of it that I’m 100% sure of my choice,” he says. Preparing for Sundance is a year-round job. “If you hear about a project that’s exciting for you, you connect with those producers or director as soon as possible to put Sundance on their radar as a possible destination,” continues Groth. “The time crunch that we are in is the hardest part of the job.” After the main festival held each January in Park City, The Sundance Institute also sponsors a series of satellite events around the world including Sundance London in April and the four-day NEXT FEST, which begins in Los Angeles a week from tomorrow.

Named after a competition category at the Park City Festival, NEXT FEST will premiere six films from the Festival at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. “The Next category is a showcase of bold, adventurous new films from exciting talent working in the independent arena—they can be bold and adventurous in aesthetic terms or thematic terms.”

Three of the films—Life After Beth, Imperial Dreams, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night—will be paired with musical performances, which is something of an experiment for Groth. Not all of the films are from the NEXT category:  “Next has always represented an attitude of a film,” says Groth. “For us, as long as the spirit was there, we wanted to be able to include it in this.”

It’s easy to forget some of the iconic directors who got their start at Sundance, until you talk to Groth, of course. After working at the festival for 25 years, Groth is an encyclopedia of Sundance history. Ask him to list some of his favorite directors, and among those he mentions are Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, and Paul Thomas Anderson, all of whom are Sundance alumni.

EMMA BROWN: I read that Heathers was the first film you ever saw at Sundance—is that correct?

TREVOR GROTH: [laughs] It was amongst the first. That was the first year I went to the festival, and that film had such an exciting edge to it that it really opened up my mind about the kind of films that could be made and how could I discover more of those. That’s why I really fell in love with Sundance and the films that were showcased there.

BROWN: What made you decide to pair films with musical performances at this year’s NEXT FEST?

GROTH: We did a film festival in L.A. we called Next Weekend. The Next category had been doing really well in Park City so we were inspired to create an extension of that in L.A. We realized that doing a film festival in L.A., there’s a lot going on and to try to get attention and to make a splash here with these kind of specialty films was a challenge that we wanted to tackle. Sort of simultaneous to that, we’ve been recognizing this deeper and deeper connection [between] the independent music world and the independent film world, I think both in terms of creating content and collaborations. We came up with this idea to sort of “eventize” the screenings of these films at our L.A. festival by adding either a music performance component to them or bringing in special guests to take part in the post-screening conversation. For the music element, we really loved the idea of creating this experience for an audience that will see a film and [listen to] music that aren’t necessarily directly connected, but that we think have a shared artistic sensibility. People coming to see the film [can] discover this music, or if the person is coming to see the music they can discover this type of film.

BROWN: How did match the films with the performances? Father John Misty and Life After Beth seems like particularly fitting pair because Aubrey Plaza was in one of Father John Misty’s video—but did the musicians want to see the films before agreeing to performing?

GROTH: It was important for us to communicate with the filmmakers about which music we were going to pair with them. So we were speaking with Jeff Baena, the director of Life After Beth, and he suggested Father John Misty because of Aubrey’s connection to him, but when you really listen to his lyrics and to the sound that he creates, it really fits in so well with the film. [It’s] very playful, but also has an undercurrent of heartache. Saturday night the screening is Imperial Dreams, which takes place in Watts, [California]—the writer/director is from there and was inspired to tell the story by someone that he knew growing up. It was an important film for us to do in L.A. because it’s such crucial L.A. story, and what’s exciting about it is it stars John Boyega as the lead. He’s so amazing and a lot of people don’t know him by name yet, but they’re going to very soon— because of Imperial Dreams, he was cast in the new Star Wars film—J.J. Abrams screened Imperial Dreams and cast him. People are going to know his name and to get a chance to see him in this breakthrough role is very exciting—we love the notion of this rising star in this L.A. film. We really wanted an L.A. musician, so that’s why we came to Tinashe, who for us is as exciting a breakout talent as you can find right now in music. A year from now, we’re not going to believe that we got her to play at NEXT FEST. She’s really going to be huge once her album drops. She grew up in L.A. too. Then for the last night, we’re showing a film called a Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was really one of the buzziest titles in Park City, it was so unique and such a visionary film. It’s a black-and-white Iranian vampire love story all in Farsi set in this mythical Iranian town, but actually shot in Bakersfield where the filmmaker grew up. Her name is Ana Lily Amirpour. She’s as dynamic a creator I’ve come across in a long time—so inventive—[and] created this surreal, trippy world. We wanted a sound that would pair up with that that would sort of get you into a similar head space. Charlie Reff, one of my programmers here, saw Warpaint play at Coachella, and instantly knew it was a perfect match for the film. The soundscape that they created tapped into the same part of his brain that the film did.

BROWN: Do you remember the first time that you really noticed a film’s soundtrack—is there any one film that stands out?

GROTH: The Godfather was one for me. I remember being young and being so transported by that soundtrack and loving the film so much. Every time I would hear those cues later in life, I could see the film and I could taste the film. That sense memory that it created was so vivid. Recently there’s kind of a phenomenon happening too where established rock stars are getting into scoring and doing it in their own way that is groundbreaking, I think. When I saw There Will Be Blood and the work that [Radiohead’s] Jonny Greenwood did in that—I had never quite heard a score work like that; it was so effective in creating tension and adding to the layers of that story. I was really blown away. I keep thinking about what [Nine Inch Nails’] Trent Reznor’s been doing with Fincher and The Social Network. Then there have been some soundtracks. Wes Anderson, what he did in Rushmore, it’s the kind of films where you go out and you want to buy that soundtrack. That doesn’t happen too often. I remember Drive recently, I saw that at Cannes and I’m a big proponent of not having your cellphone out when you’re watching a movie—I hate when people text or check their emails—but I got mine out because I had to Shazam some of the songs. Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of Drive is going to be at NEXT FEST talking to the director who made The Guest, which is another film that uses ’80s synth pop to create a specific soundtrack.

BROWN: I’m always curious as to how people find the music because sometimes it seems so obscure.

GROTH: I think they take pride in their more obscure findings. We see a lot of temp music on the submissions that come our way, and you hear the same songs over and over as reference points. I think the real art comes in finding those obscure tracks that sync up perfectly with the film.

BROWN: One of the recent Sundance films that stood out to me in terms of music was Boyhood. I remember Richard Linklater telling everyone not to write about the music because it hadn’t been cleared yet, but it was such a wonderful way to mark each passing year.

GROTH: I heard him say that he was making a contemporary period piece—everything that was happening and all the of clothes they were wearing and all of the music they were listening to when they were shooting was actually going to be period when the film came out. I love that notion. That’s such an extraordinary film, one of a kind. I don’t think we’ll ever see a film quite like it. He was so smart in everything that he did including the music; it was great.

BROWN: What about musicals at the Festival?

GROTH: Musicals are not a common genre in the independent arena, but there’ve been a couple that have come through Sundance in the last few years that have really stood out to me. The first one I remember seeing was Hedwig the Angry Inch (2001). I hadn’t seen the original live version of it, but I’d heard about it from my colleagues. When I saw that film and what John Cameron Mitchell did—such wildly inventive story telling—I loved the music. I saw him perform the year [the film was at] Park City at this dark underground bar. That was one of those signature Sundance moments, you just felt so special [at the] launch of such an exciting film into the ether. The second one that comes to mind when I think about musicals at Sundance is Once (2006), of course. This tiny low-budget film from Ireland, to see how well it did theatrically and have it go on to be this big musicalit just comes from having such a unique and intoxicating sound.  

BROWN: Do you remember the first song that you learned all the words to?

GROTH:  I was a pretty young boy, but I used to have a whole routine that I would do around “Kung Fu Fighting.”  My parents were having a party and I woke up, came down from my bed and I asked my dad to put on that song and I did my whole performance in front of all of their friends. In the moment, I thought it was going really well because everyone was watching and seemed to be having a great time. Then it ended and I realized they were laughing at me. I remember asking, “Wait, is this not a cool song?” [laughs] “Am I off base on this one?” I remember that being very informative and seeking out different kinds of music after that. My dad was a huge James Taylor fan, so all of the singer-songwriters from that era were very informative to me growing up, that’s why we showed that documentary Troubadours (2011) at Sundance.

BROWN: A few famous directors—Spike Jonze, Anton Corbijn—began their film careers making music videos.

GROTH: That’s gone through such an interesting evolution. For a long time when I was doing this it was a long track for someone to really establish themselves as a music video director and then launch into film. I’m seeing that happen less and less now. How music videos come about and how they’re used has changed so much; it’s not the fast track that it used to be between the two worlds.