Connolly impresses Sundance crowd

by Keith Barber


The celebrities that come out each year for the Sundance Film Festival, the annual celebration of independent cinema held each January in a skiresort town in Utah, typically dominate the media coverage of the event. But it is the smaller stars — the directors and producers of documentaries, foreign films and short films — that make up the fabric of the Sundance universe. After all, furthering the career of these emerging artists is the reason why actor/director/activist Robert Redford founded the film festival 25 years ago, according to Sundance lore. Mount Airy native Rob Connolly earned the distinction of being one of those emerging artists at the 2009 festival, which wrapped up Sunday in Park City. Connolly’s 15-minute short, “Our Neck of the Woods,” played in Shorts Program IV along with several other strong submissions, including Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” which seized top honors at this year’s event. To have your short film accepted by the Sundance programming committee is the filmmaking equivalent of being named a Rhodes scholar. One thing’s for sure: The odds are about the same. The 2009 Sundance Film Festival programming committee received more than 9,000 submissions from filmmakers hailing from more than 100 countries. Of those 9,000 films, only 216 were selected for inclusion in the festival — 120 features and 96 shorts. Not only is it a great honor to have your film accepted by Sundance, it is normally a harbinger of great things to come. Just look at the story of Jared Hess, the writer/ director of Sundance mega-hit Napoleon Dynamite. Hess based his feature version of Napoleon Dynamite on a black-and-white short film he submitted to the festival a year prior. However, Hess’ short film didn’t make the cut, and premiered at Slamdance, the alternative film festival that runs concurrent to Sundance, instead. Urban legend has it that a Hollywood big shot viewed Napoleon Dynamite in its short, black-and-white form and put together enough money for Hess and his BYU classmate, John Heder, to make the featurelength version. Connolly’s humble demeanor throughout the 2009 festival underscored his understanding of the rare honor bestowed upon his short film. “I was pretty amazed at how well run [the festival] was and how they catered to us, how well they treated us,” Connolly said. “I’ve been to other festivals with other films — ones that I shot — and sometimes shorts filmmakers can feel like second-class citizens.” “Our Neck of the Woods,” which served as Connolly’s masters thesis project for his MFA degree at Southern California University, is based on his adaptation of a short story by author Joe Meno. It tells a story of Bob Underwood, a foreman in a plastic lawn ornament factory that becomes enamored with a Russian refugee. It is a story with which Connolly is most familiar. In its heyday, Mount Airy was a thriving factory town with furniture, hosiery and granite among its primary exports. Connolly chose Spencer’s hosiery mill, a 100-year-old facility located in the heart of downtown Mount Airy, as the centerpiece for “Woods.” Spencer’s, like most hosiery mills in North Carolina, has been hit extremely hard by the shipping of manufacturing jobs overseas. It was poetic that the nearly abandoned factory served as set and sound stage for the film production. “It’s definitely an American story,” Connolly said. “Manufacturing has completely changed in the past fifteen years. My father had worked in textile factories most of his life and my first job at 16 was working in the warehouse at Perry Manufacturing. While I was working there I really got to know a lot of people and was fascinated by their stories.” Connolly said Meno’s words gave voice to the people he grew up with, so he decided to adapt it into a short film.

Knownfor his abilities as a cinematographer, Connolly is a recipient of theBush Memorial Award while attending USC. Connolly has twice beenselected as a finalist for the Eastman/Kodak scholarship and wasgranted the Panavision New Filmmaker Award. Connolly’s eye for framingand composition is the first thing that grabs the audience’s attentionwhile viewing “Woods.” The second thing that impresses viewers is theunderstated yet powerful performances delivered by Nathan Johnson andRebecca Larsen. The whimsical score, composed by Mads Heldstberg andMads Damstra II, serves as the glue that holds everything together. Thefilm included a significant amount of pyrotechnics, a rarity forlow-budget shorts. Connolly cited an old filmmaking axiom that thereare three things directors try to avoid — kids, animals and fire — andsaid his film broke with conventional wisdom. “I would say ahundred-year-old factory might be on [that list] also,” he said,laughing. Ironically, it was Connolly’s unlimited access to Spencer’sthat proved to be the production’s saving grace. Strong communitysupport for the film project also helped make the entire experienceextremely rewarding, Connolly said. “I was amazed at how much peoplereally latched on to the project and how supportive they were,”Connolly said. “We had people who would come out every day and spendtheir time — people would donate food, pick up food. That would neverhappen in Los Angeles.” In the midst of the eight-day shoot,it seemed as if fate had taken a hand, Connolly said. “Honestly, Idon’t think we could’ve pulled off a film of this scope with the budgetwe had anywhere else,” he added. “Our Neck of the Woods” alsobucked the conventional wisdom that you can’t go home again, Connollysaid. “It was great for my family to see I’m not just running aroundwith a camcorder trying to make a living off of it and I think Sundancehas convinced them that’s not exactly what’s going on,” he said. “Justbecause I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do this again, thiswas something I wanted to share with them more than anything.” Connolly’sopportunity to do it again might come sooner than expected. Building onthe momentum he established at Sundance, he is currently polishing thefeature film version of “Our Neck of the Woods,” and will soon seekfunding. Connolly’s Sundance adventure added fuel to his creative fire,and made him that much more determined to make a return visit in 2010.“It made me want to make my next film,” he said.

Mount Airy native Rob Connolly (far right) hangs out with fellowshorts directors (from left) Joseph Gordon- Levitt and Rashaad ErnestoGreen during a filmmaker reception at the 2009 Sundance Film Festivalon Jan. 21. Connolly’s 15-minute film, “Our Neck of the Woods,” was oneof 96 shorts exhibited during the 10-day festival founded by RobertRedford in 1985.