Hype Dreams

The Sundance Film Festival has become the best place to be seen for independent filmmakers. The documentary Hoop Dreams was catapulted into the national spotlight after it was screened at Sundance three years ago. Now another film from Chicago, 35 Miles From Normal, is headed to Sundance this weekend with high hopes of attracting the same kind of attention.

Written and directed by former Sundance festival staffer Mark Schwahn, the picture tells a bittersweet tale about a kid who dreams of escaping his small Illinois town. The project has been nurtured for more than a year by Chicago-based producers James and Kathryn Stern and their director of development Richard Marzo. Getting a screening at Sundance is their first big break. “There is a huge word-of-mouth factor out there,” says James Stern, who along with Marzo had been scouting festivals in recent years looking for scripts.

Sundance annually attracts around 500 film executives from major studios and distributors. All of them are searching for low-budget features with box office appeal as well as fresh talent capable of turning out Hollywood hits. The festival annually screens 26 new independent feature films out of a pool of around 600 submitted for consideration. Almost half of the movies are nominated for awards each year, while the other half, usuallybyfirst-time directors, are screened out of the competition. Schwahn’s a first-time director, so 35 Miles From Normal won’t be in the festival competiton. But if film executives like what they see, the movie may get a distribution deal.

A low-key figure on the Chicago entertainment scene, James Stern has concentrated his efforts on theater rather than motion pictures. In 1992 he produced the well-received play Wild Men, a satire of the men’s movement that starred TV actor George Wendt. Written by members of the comedy group Friends of the Zoo, Wild Men was mounted at the Body Politic and ran for nearly a year. Stern subsequently took the production to New York, where it failed.

Then, along with several New York producers, Stern happened upon the British performance group Stomp. When Stomp was attempting to break into the American market, most of the big-time New York producers were skeptical and took a pass. “No one would touch Stomp,” recalls Stern. Their show, of course, turned into a huge hit, with spin-off companies presenting the show off-Broadway and on tour. Another theatrical venture, a production of Lanford Wilson’s Redwood Curtain on Broadway, wasn’t nearly as successful. But in March, Stern will be back off-Broadway to present Bunny, Bunny, a dramatization of the personal and professional relationship between the late actress Gilda Radner and her writing partner Alan Zweibel. A tryout production last fall in Philadelphia received positive reviews.

While his attention has been focused on theater, Stern says he’s always wanted to make movies. “I just like to tell good stories, in whatever the medium.” After receiving an MBA from Columbia University in the mid-80s, he shopped scripts around Hollywood. After several film projects failed to pan out, a frustrated Stern shifted to theater. In 1992 he brought in Marzo, who began reading scripts and looking for suitable projects.

Marzo first met Schwahn at Sundance last year, and after returning to Chicago he received the script for 35 Miles From Normal in the mail. He was impressed and passed it on to Stern, who immediately felt that they’d found a winner. “Mark has a wonderful voice, and I liked the way he easily shifted from comedy to more serious themes,” Stern says.

Schwahn was flown to Chicago to discuss the project. When Stern and Marzo couldn’t find a director that they felt understood the story as well as Schwahn, they took a huge leap of faith and hired Schwahn to direct his first film. Stern says they tried to cast the film in Chicago, but they wound up using actors mostly from Los Angeles and New York. “We had the misfortune of trying to get this film done quickly at a time when there happened to be a lot of films shooting in Chicago,” says Stern.

The production budget for 35 Miles From Normal is under $1 million, according to Stern, who raised most of the capital from a limited partnership. The film was shot in a mere 19 days last fall. Location shooting took place in downstate Pontiac, north suburban Glencoe, and at a steel mill in south Chicago. They had a rough cut ready to submit to Sundance by early November. At first Stern was worried that Schwahn’s connections would hurt the film’s chances of getting into the festival. He was told by Sundance executives that it would have to be especially good to avoid the look of impropriety. But, apparently, they liked what they saw.

Now, with the picture set to be screened three times at Sundance, Stern and Marzo are bracing for a slew of ambitious screenwriters and directors to come knocking at their door. But that’s fine with Stern. He sees his future in films. “Everything changes after you’ve made your first film and it gets recognized.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kathryn and James Stern and Richard Marzo photo by Nathan Mandell.