Sundance 2015: James Franco as gay pastor; David Foster Wallace woes

Sundance 2015: James Franco as gay pastor; David Foster Wallace woes
Documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick comes back to Sundance with "The Hunting Ground," about rape on American college campuses. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Jake Johnson's feature screenwriting debut? Check. A controversial David Foster Wallace movie with Jason Segel? Yep. James Franco as a gay-activist-turned-pastor? It is the Sundance Film Festival, after all.

When it kicks off next month, the annual Utah indie film gathering will debut these offerings as part of its typically eclectic Premieres section, organizers said Monday.

Justin Kelly's "I Am Michael" centers on Franco as Michael Glatze, a real-life gay activist who renounces his homosexuality and becomes a Christian pastor. The film (renamed from the simpler, Travolta-evoking "Michael") co-stars Zachary Quinto as Glatze's former friend.

Johnson, meanwhile, re-teams with indie darling and "Drinking Buddies" director Joe Swanberg, along with that film's co-star Anna Kendrick, in "Digging for Fire." The mysterious project is described as including "a married couple, a bone and a gun." Johnson wrote it with Swanberg,  and also produced.

And director James Ponsoldt moves from "The Spectacular Now," his Sundance sensation from a couple of years back, to charged literary territory with "The End of the Tour," a movie centering on David Foster Wallace and based on 1990's-era interviews that the late literary great gave to the Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky. The film has been a matter of some controversy, with Wallace's trust and editor denouncing it and saying Wallace would never have agreed for that interview to be turned into a movie.

Documentaries in the Premieres section will display a fair bit of range as well. Among this year's titles are Brad Besser's "Beaver Trilogy IV," a look at the making and aftermath of the underground film known as the "Beaver Trilogy;" "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead," Douglas Tirola's examination at the heyday of the National Lampoon; and "Going Clear," Oscar-winner Alex Gibney's much-anticipated film about Scientology.

Landing right in the middle of the zeitgeist, and the attendant Bill Cosby and the University of Virginia controversies, is Kirby Dick's "The Hunting Ground," about rape on American college campuses.


And doc veteran Liz Garbus goes in a personality-oriented direction with "What Happened, Miss Simone?" about singing icon Nina Simone, examining her complex life, music legacy and racial relevance.

The festival on Monday also announced several special events to go along with the Premieres and the recently announced competition titles.

The new projects include "Animals," Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano's animated series, with the involvement of Mark Duplass, about the rats, bugs, pigeons and other stiff-upper-lip creatures of the New York streets, and "The Jinx," in which "Capturing the Friedmans" director Andrew Jarecki unveils his long-awaited nonfiction project about the scion and accused murderer Robert Durst, the subject of Jarecki's narrative pic "All Good Things."

Other feature heavyweights include "Half Nelson" duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden back with a new effort, "Mississippi Grind," a road trip poker movie starring Ryan Reynolds.

Noah Baumbach offers up his spiritual counterpart to "Frances Ha" with "Miss America," a college-era dramedy he again wrote with real-life partner Greta Gerwig that also stars the actress.

The festival, and particularly its Premieres section, is a repository of well-known names returning with their latest work.

"The Bachelorette" screenwriter Leslye Headland, meanwhile, will follow up that Sundance hit with "Sleeping With Other People," about a pair of high school friends who more than a decade after graduating continue to move their complicated relationship in unexpected directions.

The studio veteran Paul Weitz takes his intergenerational dramedy "Grandma," with Lily Tomlin in the title role, hoping to fuel a comeback that began in Weitz's "Admission" a couple years back.

And "American Splendor" directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman examine the downtown New York of the 1980s in their literary adaptation "Ten Thousand Saints," in a movie that stars Ethan Hawke, Emily Mortimer and Emile Hirsch.

Unquestionably in the eclectic category is Rodrigo Garcia's "Last Days in the Desert," which, well, we'll allow Sundance programmers to explain it. "Ewan McGregor is Jesus — and the Devil — in an imagined chapter from his 40 days of fasting and praying in the desert. On his way out of the wilderness, Jesus struggles with the Devil over the fate of a family in crisis, setting himself up for a dramatic test."

Sundance runs Jan. 22-Feb. 1 in Park City, Utah.