PARK CITY, Utah More than 6,000 short films were submitted to Sundance from all across the globe this year, vying for what turned out to be 81 spots. A couple of Austinites beat those odds: David Lowery's "Pioneer" shares an all-shorts program with a half-dozen others, while the Zellner brothers' "Sasquatch Birth Journal 2" has been playing before screenings of Todd Rohal's feature-length "The Catechism Cataclysm."
"Sasquatch" is, as Zellner projects tend to be, a head-scratcher requiring the right kind of audience. Most of its 41/2 minutes consist of a single, motionless shot, in which we view somebody in a Sasquatch suit standing in a tree, slowly giving birth to a suspiciously dolllike baby.
Or, as David Zellner puts it, "After a rigorous labor process, a healthy sasquatch baby is born, and it's a wonderful celebration of life and nature."
The short has just been uploaded to YouTube, allowing the curious to view it in mystified solitude, but David Zellner has had the privilege of watching it with an audience here. He reports that "the response has been amazing, from befuddlement to quiet patience to guffaws to roaring laughter. It's been one of our favorite films to watch with an audience."
Asked whether mood-altering substances were involved in the creation of this or the Zellners' previous cinematic hallucinations, David Zellner says: "Not as of yet. It's never too late to start, though."
By contrast, David Lowery's "Pioneer" offers a parent/child relationship of the homo sapiens variety, as a father (Will Oldham) wakes in the night to soothe his adopted son (Myles Brooks) with a bedtime-story version of how man and child became a family.
Quiet and very touching, the 15-minute film has been playing to consistently sold-out rooms of shorts-lovers, Lowery reports.
Asked how seeing his movie with an audience has been, Lowery says the reaction has been "amazing — everything I could have hoped for and more. What surprised me was the laughter: I knew the film was funny, but I'd never heard anyone laugh out loud at it. It was a beautiful response."
Oldham, an indie songwriter who has taken on various identities throughout his career (including Palace Brothers and Bonnie "Prince" Billy), owns the film (not to diminish the work of his young co-star), spending most of it in close-up as he spins a danger-filled but beautiful yarn involving long ocean passages, marauding horsemen, kidnapping and a mother who died before the child could really know her.
It's a remarkable performance, and evidently getting it required no special connections on Lowery's part.
"I wrote Will a letter," the filmmaker says. "He's long been one of my favorite musicians. I'd never met him, but from his music one can tell that he's a natural storyteller. So I wrote him, and he read the script and agreed to do it. He's a total gentleman and a complete professional; he knew the lines through and through and came to the set ready to act. He had to carry 12 pages of dialogue and completely sold it."
"Pioneer" doesn't rely solely on the songwriter's storytelling gifts: Though shot in a single small bedroom, it employs tricky lighting and sound work to add texture to the father's tale. "It wasn't so much hard as it was carefully considered," Lowery says, admitting that a particularly good lighting gag "was all done with cardboard and light bulbs."
Lowery says he enjoys sharing an all-shorts lineup, happy knowing the audience isn't just sitting through his work waiting for the feature they really came to see. Asked if he has made friendships in Park City that might pay off in future filmmaking collaborations, he says, "I think everyone's still caught up in the frenzy of Sundance at the moment, but I'm sure all the great connections we've made will reveal themselves."
"I'm shooting my next feature towards the end of this year," he says, adding enigmatically that "it's an action film — or, at least, it used to be."