This year’s Sundance Film Festival will feature the work of myriad artists and content creators, a few of whom were educated at UCLA. From music scores to documentary, the Daily Bruin examines the work of three alumni premiering at the festival.
Roger Suen: Vital Sounds
Roger Suen appreciates being an integral part of the filmmaking experience, he said, as he was in his latest project.
Suen composed the score to “Ms. Purple,” a film centered around the relationship between a distant brother and sister in Koreatown who reconnect when their father is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Having previously worked with director Justin Chon on “Gook,” which premiered at Sundance two years ago, Suen said he enjoyed being a part of the creation of “Ms. Purple” from the very start, rather than as a postproduction hire as many composers are.
“It was definitely a different approach this time, but it was great,” Suen said. “It felt like a really collaborative process.”
In the film, Suen said Chon wanted the actors to be playing the music Suen wrote, so it was vital he start working before production even began. He was given the script early on and was able to form deeper connections with the story and the characters, despite the process taking much longer. In an indie film like this one, the story is character-driven, and for “Ms. Purple,” that meant dealing with the fairly universal topic of parents and siblings, Suen said.
Relationships aside, the technicality of the film score was a simple one for Suen, who wrote most of the music sitting at a piano with paper and pencil. Suen said most of the real work of film scoring is one of emotional manipulation, using the music to change how people feel about a scene in a film. However, he also wants his work to be unknowingly appreciated.
“Hopefully, at the end of the day people aren’t realizing that they’re being led to feel a certain way,” Suen said.
James Egan: A Late Edition
For documentary producer James Egan, making “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” was a journey in itself.
The alumnus first got the idea of a documentary about the life of journalist Molly Ivins after seeing the play “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” which premiered at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse in 2012. The play followed Ivins, a Texas-born political journalist who was known for her colorful and humorous commentary. Egan said his lack of awareness of such a pointed, witty figure led him to share her story with a wider audience.
“I was so amazed by this woman who I’d never heard of,” Egan said. “Everybody has to know about Molly Ivins.”
The documentary features famous news anchors such as Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow, as well as political activist and former president of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards, each of whom tell the camera how Ivins’ work influenced them. Most spoke highly of her candor and ability to motivate the average American to be a politically active citizen, usually by poking fun at whatever politician she determined wasn’t properly serving their constituents, Egan said.
The rest of the documentary is chock-full of old news clips from when Ivins would speak as a guest commentator on C-SPAN, CNN or other network news channels, Egan said. Though her public speaking had the weight of a clever stand-up routine, most of her commentary was delivered via columns in The Texas Observer, a nonpartisan political magazine that nevertheless indulged Ivins’ progressive liberal perspective.
“I felt like I was on a journey to learn about the importance of (Ivins),” Egan said. “Her approach to the polarity that we’re facing and the responsibility of citizenship was a message.”
In the six years it took to create the film, Egan said the sociopolitical climate shifted, bringing the film a new significance. In the wake of the 2016 election of Donald Trump and in a politically divided American public, Egan said Ivins’ message of democratic responsibility seems as important as ever. Ivins, who died of cancer in 2007, was a progressive critic of politicians regardless of party affiliation, and Egan said he wanted to convey that in the documentary.
“She made fun of everybody: left, right, Democrat, Republican. She just wanted the truth to get out there,” Egan said. “A vital part of democracy is courageous journalism.”
Garrett Bradley: Rediscovered Inspiration
Garrett Bradley graduated with her MFA in 2012. Not long after, archivists at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art discovered an untitled silent film by Bahamian-American entertainer Bert Williams. The film would serve as Bradley’s inspiration for her Sundance 2019 short film “America.”
Bradley said the footage was fascinating to view because of the film’s socially progressive nature: It utilized an all-black cast and racially diverse production team. Not only that, but the portrayal of the characters on screen struck her as beautiful, she said.
“It was the first time I had ever seen, in such early footage, really clear-cut examples of joy between marginalized people,” Bradley said.
Bradley’s short is one of 12 she produced as a cinematic homage to the works of Williams. The films are all silent and in black and white, each identifying with a year from 1915 to 1926, representing either a person or moment in black history that has been shrouded in invisibility, Bradley said. She said she pushes back against the idea that black cinema has been part of a “wave,” but rather that it always was part of the continuous evolution of cinema. Her short reflects that idea, placing black characters front and center in the New Orleans of the 1910s and ’20s.
Starting in 1915 was a deliberate gesture, as it was the same year as the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” a film widely recognized for its technical prowess as well as its veneration of the Ku Klux Klan. Bradley claims the unfinished Williams film was dropped by its producers after the success of “Nation” because of its progressive nature. Bradley decided to use a white sheet, a known uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, as a symbol of progress in her film.
“We see a white sheet going from being a KKK uniform to more just a drab sheet that falls off a hanger, then floats through the air and is taken by the Buffalo soldiers,” Bradley said. “They turn it into a white flag.”