An eight-hour drive due northwest from Denver will steer you to the La La Land of the Rockies — Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival opens festival season each January. This year, among dozens of carefully curated, prestigious premieres, are three films with strong Colorado ties: Casting JonBenet, Chasing Coral and 78/52.
Casting JonBenet just landed a Netflix deal, weeks ahead of the film’s debut in the U.S. Documentary Competition. This will be the first time the streaming service will compete at the festival.
While Casting JonBenet’s director Kitty Green is not from Colorado, her team behind the film is. And, of course, so is the story of JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty-pageant queen murdered in Boulder, on Christmas Day 1996.
Green’s team includes Colorado-based co-producer Mitch Dickman (director of Rolling Papers) and award-winning editor Davis Coombe (Saving Face, Chasing Ice, Being Evel), who helped her incubate the project in Boulder for fifteen months.
During a rash of twentieth-anniversary interest in the murder and an explosion of recent film and television projects concerning the still-unsolved crime, Green’s tack differs from that of other filmmakers on the matter.
Instead of “a standard investigative documentary style, she instead scrutinizes the court of public opinion by inciting responses, reflections, and even performances from members of the Ramseys’ own Colorado community,” the film’s synopsis states. “Her unique approach allows for all the fact and fiction of JonBenét’s case to be shared while deftly questioning the way individuals search out their own subjective truths.”
Filmmakers generally take films to Sundance hoping that studio brass will offer up a distribution deal. That Casting JonBenet found a distributor prior to its world premiere speaks volumes about the finished product.
“Kitty boldly embraces the tradition of innovative risk-taking within the documentary filmmaking mode with her remarkable work on Casting JonBenet,” said Netflix Vice President of Original Documentary Programming Lisa Nishimura in a press release. “Netflix is the ideal home for showcasing Kitty’s sharply rendered vision of a mythic American tragedy to a global audience, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the crime.”
After the Sundance debut, Casting JonBenet will launch on Netflix. A limited theatrical run will follow this spring.
The two other Colorado titles screening at Sundance, Chasing Coral and 78/52, already have buzz surrounding them. It's hoped that the festival will help them secure distribution, as well.
Chasing Coral is a companion piece to director Jeff Orlowski and Boulder’s Exposure Labs’ documentary feature Chasing Ice, which captured the rapid melting of the Arctic ice caps. Chasing Coral turns the lens on the world’s coral reefs, which are experiencing their own terrifying destruction as a result of climate change.
Like Casting JonBenet, the film was edited by Coombe.
The film dives into the subject of “coral bleaching,” a sign of mass coral death that the public is largely unaware of. “Chasing Coral taps into the collective will and wisdom of an ad man, a self-proclaimed coral nerd, top-notch camera designers and renowned marine biologists as they invent the first time-lapse camera to record bleaching events as they happen,” according to the film’s synopsis.
Chasing Ice received worldwide accolades. This new chapter looks to follow suit after its premiere, and is in the U.S. Documentary Competition alongside Casting JonBenet.
The third Colorado Sundance film premiering, 78/52, breaks down and analyzes one of cinema’s most notorious moments: the meticulously edited shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which Janet Leigh’s character is stabbed to death.
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According to the synopsis, “78/52 examines Janet Leigh’s terrified facial expressions and the blink-and-you-miss-it camera work, not just within the context of the film, but also with an eye toward America’s changing social mores — revealing how one bloody, chaotic on-screen death killed off chaste cinema and eerily predicted a decade of unprecedented violence and upheaval.”
78/52 director Alexandre O. Philippe, director of photography Robert Muratore - with frequent collaboration from editor Chad Herschberger and producer Kerry Roy - of the production company Exhibit A Pictures have brought Colorado pedigree for years with their previous pop-culture examinations: The People vs. George Lucas, The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus and Doc of the Dead.
Tackling a subject as rich as Hitchcock’s hold on cinema may be Exhibit A’s chance to break out and leave its biggest mark so far on film history.
78/52 premieres at Sundance in the Midnight movie lineup for genre films and edgier fare. The festival takes place January 19-29 in Park City, Utah. For more details, go to sundance.org.