Actors Michael Rapaport and Vera Farmiga say they owe their acting careers to the Sundance Film Festival. In January, the nation's most prominent movie gathering could establish them in a new light — as directors.
Farmiga's "Higher Ground," a drama about a woman's struggles with fundamentalist Christianity, and Rapaport's "Beats, Rhymes and Life," a documentary about the seminal hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, were among the select few independently financed movies picked for Sundance's 2011 dramatic and documentary competitions.
While there are a smattering of recognizable actors among the narrative films in the dramatic slate announced Wednesday — including Demi Moore, Liv Tyler and John C. Reilly — the lineup tilted heavily toward largely unknown filmmakers working with mostly unrecognizable performers. The documentary slate was equally focused on new directors, with the festival creating a non-competitive documentary premiere section to accommodate and showcase better-known nonfiction storytellers.
The selection of 16 dramas (culled from 1,102 submissions) and 16 documentaries (drawn from 841 films) reflected the ongoing effort by festival director John Cooper to steer the Utah gathering back toward its original, far-from- Hollywood identity. "I felt audiences wanted us to stick with it," says Cooper, now in his second year in the job. "Not that that's what the industry wanted us to do."
As in past years, there are four separate competitions: awards for the best American drama and documentary, running parallel to contests for top international drama (14 films were selected) and documentary (with 12 titles in the running).
Cooper said the 2011 schedule would again forgo the once-traditional glitzy opening-night gala in Park City, Utah, and instead launch the festival's competitions the minute Sundance starts on the evening of Jan. 20 (the 27th annual festival concludes 10 days later).
Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth's push for more manifestly independent films was clearly visible in their picks for the competition movies. The films not only focus on thorny subjects like religion, crime and sexual identity — "It's America looking at itself," Cooper says — but also are driven by single-minded directors who made their movies in difficult circumstances, often on comparatively tiny budgets.
Farmiga says the 2004 Sundance premiere of "Down to the Bone," in which she starred as a mother wrestling with drug addiction, "was where my career was born. I feel so nurtured by that festival."
She was attached for three years to star in "Higher Ground," loosely adapted from Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir "This Dark World." When the film's original director left the project, Farmiga, nominated for the supporting actress Oscar for "Up in the Air," decided to direct and star in it herself — even though she had never directed before and was "in the invincible second trimester of my pregnancy," she says.
"It's a portrait of a woman on her journey from childhood to adulthood in search of fulfillment. It's a woman on a quest," Farmiga says of "Higher Ground." "The film illuminates the obstacles of doubt and faith. It's not an easy subject matter, but it's something that a lot of people should be able to relate to. We strive to discover spiritual meaning in film, but there are not a lot of films about faith."
Like Farmiga, Rapaport believes Sundance was the catalyst for his calling. "The first time I ever saw myself in a movie was the premiere screening of 'Zebrahead' at Sundance in 1992," the actor says. "So I've always had a real affection for the festival. It changed the course of my life and my career as an actor."
Rapaport, who returned to Park City on half a dozen occasions with subsequent films, including 2006's "Special" and 2009's "Big Fan," says he was inspired to make "Beats, Rhymes and Life" by hearing Sundance alumni such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez talk at the festival about their directorial determination. He shot his documentary, his debut as a director, over two years, paying for most of it out of his own pocket.
"It's been a true passion project — an independent film in the truest essence of what that means," Rapaport says. "For me, it was a celebration of what the group did musically. It's a very candid look at some of the most important and hugely influential musicians in hip-hop."
Among the dramatic competition films, Cooper says only one director is a Sundance feature veteran: Drake Doremus. His "Douchebag" premiered last January, and Doremus returns next year with "Like Crazy," a largely autobiographical glimpse at a long-distance relationship. "I'm so grateful to go back two years in a row," the writer-director says.
Unlike "Douchebag," Doremus says his new feature "is not as fun as the last one — it's heavy, heavy drama." He says the film is based on the eight years he spent in a Los Angeles-London relationship. "This is the most personal movie I will ever make in my life."
Sundance will announce the titles in its dramatic and documentary premiere sections on Thursday.
For a full list of the films selected for competition at Sundance, visit latimes.com/awardstracker.