Among the most anticipated titles in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, kicking off today and running through Jan. 31 in Park City, Utah, is “The Free World,” an atmospheric drama from first-time filmmaker Jason Lew. The film stars Boyd Holbrook as a man wrongfully imprisoned for a grisly crime he didn’t commit who, upon his release, meets an equally scarred woman (played by Elisabeth Moss of “Mad Men”) who again turns his life upside down. The two actors and friends are no strangers to Sundance — Holbrook first attended in 2011 with the drama “Higher Ground,” directed by Vera Farmiga, and Moss made her first trip in 2013 for the Sundance Channel series “Top of the Lake.” Here, they share a few things they’ve learned along the way.
Prepare to be bummed (or outraged… or both).
Few aspects of the Sundance experience are more dependable than a slate of films with harrowing themes. Those planning to catch the premiere of “The Free World” might be wise to brush up on another case involving miscarried justice: Netflix’s hit docuseries “Making a Murderer.” “I love that show,” Moss gushes. “If Steven Avery didn’t do it, it’s so incredibly unlucky what happened to him. I don’t think he did it, and I don’t think Brendan did it either.” Adds Holbrook, “I want to think the cops did it, because you’re talking about $36 million that the state wasn’t going to pay, and that’s a lot of money. People get pretty creative, you know?”
Give debut directors a chance.
“We had high hopes for Jason and we obviously liked his script, but then actually being on the set, he was one of the best directors that I’ve ever worked with,” says Moss of the 34-year-old Lew. “There was a lot of focus on not having a lot of people around, because scenes of loneliness and solitary confinement are very prevalent in the film. Jason was right there with us, and he was so supportive.”
Want a film in Sundance? Take risks.
Not only did Holbrook put on weight for his role, but he also had to learn Arabic (his character converts to Islam). “I was so engaged in this project, and I believe in it so much. But you’re also thinking, ‘Am I going to look like an idiot on-screen?’” he says.
Leave your fancy duds at home.
“Sundance is my favorite festival, primarily because you can wear jeans, boots and a jacket and don’t have to dress up,” says Moss of the decidedly unstuffy dress code. “In fact, if you are too dressed up, it’s super weird. And it’s cold, so definitely bring warm stuff. It’s no joke.”
Bring your A-game if you’re hitting the slopes.
Attending a film festival on a ski resort has obvious perks… so long as you have a good chiropractor. “The last time I went, I hadn’t skied in, like, 10 years, and I went down and couldn’t move my neck for two months afterward,” Holbrook says.
When in doubt, bring a snack (or a cocktail).
Sundance is notorious for its lack of quality food options, but it’s another kind of shortage that has Holbrook concerned: “We travel with Moscow mules,” he says, laughing. Moss commiserates. “I’m definitely concerned about my ability to get Moscow mules in Park City,” she says. “Is it weird to bring ginger beer on the plane? Is that not a good thing to do?”
Go ahead, ask for a selfie.
Compared to, say, a restaurant in SoHo, the streets of Park City are a much gentler ground for approaching your favorite actor. “The cool thing is that you get to run into these people in this really casual way that’s not on the red carpet or at an awards show,” says Moss, pointing to the added pressure that comes with such events. “You get to actually see people in a way where everyone’s relaxed.”
Enjoy the films, because there’s a good chance the talent won’t.
“I’ve never seen another movie, other than ‘Whiplash,’” says Holbrook. Both actors echoed the complaints of other Sundance stars, who are often whisked by publicists from one event to another. “They keep you running all day from like, 7 in the morning until night,” Moss says. “I’ve never gotten to see anything else.”
Think celeb sightings are surreal? So do the actors.
Because of the way films are scheduled, Moss says, “sometimes you end up hanging out with the same people all day.” That was certainly the case in 2014, when her group was unknowingly followed by William H. Macy and Selena Gomez. “It was a weird pairing to begin with, but then everywhere we went there were all these fans, and of course I thought, ‘All these people are here for me! They totally want an autograph,’” she remembers. “Then I found out that Selena Gomez was following us, and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess they’re here for her.’”
An earlier version of this post misidentified the year Elisabeth Moss first attended Sundance. She first attended the festival in 2013, not 2014.