Paving The Road


SOME OF THE buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival was Minnesota-based: Variety reported Arne Carlson's proposal for a $5 million "revolving loan fund" through the Minnesota Film Board; U Film Society director Al Milgrom brought the queer Czech melodrama Mandragora to Sundance's rival, the Slamdance Film Festival; and Northwest Airlines threw a well-endowed party at which Aaron Neville crooned the drippy "Don't Know Much" in very tight jeans.

But all that paled next to Spark, the intense and ambitious character-driven thriller that premiered at Sundance as the debut feature by former Minneapolitan Garret Williams. Shot in the California desert in a mere 22 days, on a modest budget that included Williams's grant money from a Blockbuster Film Fund award, Spark follows a harrowing week in the life of Nina and Byron (Nicole Ari Parker, Terrence Howard), a young African American couple whose BMW hits a dog on the way from Chicago to L.A., forcing them to hole up in a sinister small town while their car is fixed by a weird and possibly racist white boy (Brendan Sexton III). Call it a road-movie noir with an unusual degree of substance--or an insightful study of race relations that also works extremely well as a bare-bones thriller.

"Basically, I wanted to take young, black, urban characters and move them as far away from the city as possible," says Williams, 30, lounging on the couch of his rented house on an early morning halfway through the festival. "In terms of the writing process," he says, "I always start with the characters and a rough foundation of where I want the story to go. Then, as the script moves along, you know you'll run into roadblocks that'll force you either to change the direction of the story or to deal with the characters in a different way. So the whole thing sort of takes on a life of its own and all you can do is try to wrangle it."

If this sounds like the characters' own unintended detour, Spark is actually the result of careful planning and several constructive dry runs. For one thing, it's a remake of Williams's own 40-minute mini-movie made two years prior. For another, it's the product of strenuous revision at the Sundance Institute's Filmmakers Lab, where Williams workshopped his sharp aesthetic with the likes of Agnieszka Holland and Allison Anders. Although he's cited Jim Jarmusch for low-budget inspiration and Michelangelo Antonioni for visual style, the director also credits his own patience for making slow, gradual steps--from Augsburg College to the American Film Institute and the Sundance lab. "It's not like I found a camera in my basement and decided to make a feature," he says.

Indeed, Williams's varied background separates him from the bulk of cineaste geeks at Sundance. Born in Minneapolis to a painter dad and a writer mom, he caught the art bug early, immersing himself in photography at Southwest High School and at Augsburg. He dabbled in advertising after graduation, but figured his photos--"mini-narratives," he calls them--held more promise. Williams took classes at the legendary (and now defunct) Film in the Cities and made three shorts--"just to get my hands on a camera." Then, after being accepted to the American Film Institute, he moved to L.A., earned NEA and Bush Foundation grants to make the "Spark" short over the course of a year, and met producers Ruth Charny (Grace of My Heart) and Lynn Holst (American Playhouse) when the short screened at the "New Directors/New Films" fest in New York. Then, with the help of producer/financier Bob Potter and the Blockbuster money, he reshot Spark as a feature during a quick and grueling summer shoot in 110-degree weather.

As a film that burrows into the effects of racism both real and perceived, Spark is richer and more complicated than most commercial indies; coincidentally or not, it hadn't yet been acquired for distribution at press time. (Spark will screen next month at the Berlin Film Festival and will likely have its local premiere in the spring, perhaps at U Film's Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival (a.k.a. Rivertown) in April.) But Williams, a man of mellow demeanor and a self-assurance that's neither immodest nor unearned, is already thinking about his next two scripts, one of which he hopes to film this year in Minneapolis.

"I want to make a lot of movies and learn as much as I can along the way," he says, planning on a future in studio films while also hoping to avoid the bigger-budget sophomore slump that befell kindred Sundance prodigies like Edward Burns and Kevin Smith. "I want to strengthen myself first before I get up to that level," he says, leaving little doubt that he'll do just that. (Rob Nelson)

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