Sunday, November 18

Three Bruins discuss their Sundance-featured films


(Rachel Bai/ Daily Bruin)

(Rachel Bai/ Daily Bruin)


This post was updated Jan. 25 at 1:35 p.m.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival features the work of several UCLA alumni and faculty. From documentaries to drama films, the Daily Bruin takes a closer look at the involvement of three Bruins in the festival.

Akin McKenzie

Akin McKenzie spent his time in Oklahoma mourning roadkill, shooing off vultures and driving through herds of buffalo to uncover ideal filming locations for the recently released film, “Wildlife.”

The UCLA alumnus served as the production designer for “Wildlife,” working on the visual aesthetic of the film. Based on the book by Richard Ford, the film takes place in 1960 and follows a boy who witnesses his parents’ marriage crumble. McKenzie said he hoped his attention to minuscule details in the sets and shooting locations would help create a realistic environment for performances from stars such as Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal.

“The director Paul Dano and I dug deep into what each element could express or contribute, opting often to add a crack to a wall or the tarnish of a water stain to add that thoughtful, articulate accent to an environment or scene,” McKenzie said.

Though the film takes place in Montana, it was filmed in parts of both Montana and Oklahoma. McKenzie and Dano spent time driving around the latter state searching for landscapes that could pass as Montana, looking through small, dusty towns for 1950s-style architecture that would eventually situate the film – one of the most difficult aspects of working as its production designer, McKenzie said.

He added he found the constraints of the time period to be the most worthwhile part of his job because it made the final product more authentic.

“The attention to detail necessary for period accuracy can be exhausting, but ultimately it’s incredibly rewarding knowing how many thoughts are wrapped up in even the smallest choice,” McKenzie said.

Nick Moceri

Nick Moceri is trying to give back to the festival he credits with the formation of his career.

The UCLA alumnus’ production company General Population recently merged with Public House Films to form GenPop-Public House, a finishing fund meant to support the last-minute expenses of films accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. The organization helped fund feature films “The Kindergarten Teacher” and “Madeline’s Madeline,” both of which Moceri was an executive producer for.

Moceri said films accepted for the festival face a time crunch between the announcement and the premieres, since many of the films are not completed upon acceptance – something he experienced as a filmmaker, which inspired him to support other creators trying to complete their own movies. But as filmmakers attempt to finish their creations in time for the festival, speeding up the filmmaking process can put a strain on a film’s financial situation, he said.

Moceri said the organization aimed to support films beyond simply providing the money necessary for completion. Instead, the organization wanted the finances to go toward adding specific details that could enhance the film as a whole, such as licensing a certain song for the soundtrack or adding visual effects that may not have been viable within the film’s original budget.

“We see it not as just sort of doing the bare minimum to finish it but how to finish well,” Moceri said.

Though some festival contenders submitted their films to GenPop-Public House for consideration, the organization also reached out to other producers directly to express interest in helping them cross the finish line. After considering 12 films and working on negotiations for six, they eventually decided on funding “The Kindergarten Teacher” and “Madeline’s Madeline.” Both films were chosen for their strong directors and creative vision, Moceri said.

Moceri said he wanted to help Sundance films specifically because of his previous involvement with the festival. His first film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” premiered at Sundance in 2014, while another of his films, “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train,” premiered at the festival in 2017. Both films were nominated for the Audience Award at Sundance, and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” went on to receive a number of other nominations and awards at other film festivals.

“I feel like in a lot of ways I owe my career to Sundance,” Moceri said. “The festival’s always been really good to me, and I’m just trying to find a way to give back.”

Sarah Roberts

Sarah Roberts was meant to discuss her research in commercial content moderation at a German Green Party think tank in the spring of 2016. But after she met director Moritz Riesewieck, the UCLA assistant professor’s ideas would become a part of a film as well.

In the documentary “The Cleaners,” Roberts had both an on-screen role and an off-screen advisory role. She spent hours discussing content moderation in the documentary while also discussing her own research and ideas with Riesewieck and his co-director Hans Block. “The Cleaners” considers issues of who controls information on the internet, since some organizations try to control online content, which Roberts said negatively impacts its availability to the masses.

“It was absolutely their vision and I was just pleased to see my academic work inspire something like this,” Roberts said. “For me, that was quite extraordinary.”

Roberts said the documentary provides an artistic vision necessary to broaden the outreach of her research to people who aren’t experts in the field, an issue which academia constantly struggles to overcome.

“I saw the immediacy of (people viewing the documentary) happen in an hour-and-a-half time frame,” Roberts said. “I experienced being in the audience as people experienced these issues for the first time, and were forced to think about them for the first time.”

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Snyder is the 2018-2019 Theater | Film | TV Editor. She was previously an A&E reporter.


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