Sean Wang lives his “fairy tale” at Sundance

Sean Wang lives his “fairy tale” at Sundance

“I feel like I’m in a fairy tale,” Sean Wang told the packed house at the Ray Theater in Park City, Utah, last month for his Sundance Film Festival debut.

Mr. Wang, a 29-year-old filmmaker, was dressed in a black suit and white Vans (a nod to his skateboarding roots). He clutched his chest to show how fast his heart was beating as he presented his film “Dìdi.” It’s the story of a 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy, anxious and unsure of himself, who tries to find his place in the world.

“I’m just going to take a few seconds to take this all in,” he said before taking a photo of the audience. The welcoming crowd included Mr. Wang’s family and friends, the film’s cast and crew, and a handful of potential buyers who have the power to transform his status from an aspiring filmmaker to a bona fide Hollywood director.

It’s already arrived. Luminaries like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Damien Chazelle, Ava DuVernay and Lulu Wang have all gone from hopeful dreamers to current filmmakers in part thanks to the Sundance Film Festival, which just concluded its 40th year.

Mr. Wang knows this lineage and, it seems, has been preparing for his Sundance moment since discovering Spike Jonze’s film. skater videos as a teenager before heading off to film school at the University of Southern California. While working from time to time for Google Creative Lab, I created a series of short films who exploited different aspects of his childhood.

He has also participated in several Sundance programs, including one for filmmakers ages 18-25, a Screenwriters Lab, and a Directors Lab. Each helped him refine his script, a personal film that both honors his relationship with his mother and reimagines teen films like “Stand By Me” and “Eighth Grade” through the lens of a first-time American. generation growing up in the cultural melting pot that was Fremont, California in 2008. (Dìdi means little brother in Mandarin and a term of endearment in Chinese culture.)

Now, after six years of working on his script and completing the film, Mr. Wang is taking his first steps into the spotlight thanks to Sundance. The moment coincided with the promotion of her short film “Nai Nai & Wài Pó”, about her two grandmothers. This film was recently nominated for an Oscar in the short documentary category and will soon be available on Disney+.

“It’s almost too much to completely process,” he said in an interview. “It’s really exciting, really surreal, nerve-wracking for sure, but overall I feel good.”

Mr. Wang has already overcome improbable obstacles. His film was chosen from more than 4,000 applications. And it landed in Sundance’s U.S. drama competition, a category that has produced numerous Oscar contenders, including “CODA” and “Minari.”

However, before a film can be an awards season contender – or even a film that general audiences can watch – it must find a buyer. And that’s what Mr. Wang was hoping for at Sundance.

At a panel of first-time filmmakers, Mr. Wang commiserated with other newcomers about to unveil their films. Rather than talking business, the directors focused on how they hoped audiences would react and how they had made their films, with many of them mystified that this had happened at all.

“I will get emotional if I talk too much,” Mr. Wang said when asked about the people who stood by him during the process of making the film. “I try not to cry more than 10 times during this festival.”

Yet beneath all that gratitude was a low-level anxiety: Would audiences and critics like the film, and would that be enough for a buyer to pick it up and consider distributing it?

Before the film began, Mr. Wang and his producers isolated themselves in a makeshift green room. “Dìdi” features a handful of first-time actors alongside more seasoned veterans like Izaac Wang (“Good Boys”), who plays Didi, and Joan Chen (“The Last Emperor”), who plays her mother. The team chose not to screen the film to any buyers in advance.

“We really want to honor that experience and let the film speak for itself,” said producer Carlos López Estrada.

It was a decision that both added to the pressure of the moment and somehow preserved the mood of the film that Mr. Wang was desperate to protect.

“This movie has to feel community-driven, like it’s coming from scratch, not Hollywood coming to my hometown,” he said. “We did it successfully. “My grandmother could be in a movie alongside this ageless actress, and it all seems like the same world because we kept it at home.”

The reception at the end of the film was raucous. The crowd gave the film an enthusiastic standing ovation, and Mr. Wang once again wiped away tears while soaking it all in.

Michelle Satter, the founding director of the Sundance Institute, was in the crowd, encouraging her budding filmmaker, just as she had notable directors, including Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), who came from Sundance. at the Oscars. Mr. Wang attended his directing lab just weeks before beginning production on “Dìdi,” using the mountainous Utah setting to test his two most complicated scenes.

“Sean is going to have an incredible career and we totally believe in him,” Ms. Satter said before Mr. Wang took her to meet his family.

“Thank you for supporting Sean,” Cynthia Lee, Mr. Wang’s mother, said through tears to Ms. Satter. “As a mother, I appreciate you.”

The criticism began to pour in as the film crew headed to the after-party. The Hollywood Reporter called “Dìdi” “touching,” while Variety deemed it “fresh and funny.” IndieWire wrote that it evoked “a sense of time, place and texture that sets the funny, fleeting film apart from the Sundance Film Festival’s pack of coming-of-age films.”

The party was a lavish affair filled with Asian cuisine from caterer Mama’s Night Market. The band Hellogoodbye, which stars in the film, performed at the party, and Mr. Wang’s childhood bedroom, used in the film, was recreated in the hall’s lobby. The room was crowded and the guests were turned away. Mr. Wang was mobbed by adoring fans and enthusiastic colleagues. Outside of Park City, he’s still an unknown. But in that room, that night, he was a superstar.

“The discoveries at Sundance this year are very similar to some of the really exciting discoveries by filmmakers and films of the last 20 years,” said Tom Quinn, chief executive of distributor Neon. “’Didi’ fits that. This heralds the dawn of this incredible new filmmaker.

Mr. Wang’s Oscar nomination for his documentary about his grandmothers added to the whirlwind of enthusiasm. He returned from Utah to attend the early morning nominations announcement. with her family in his childhood home. When “Nai Nai & Wài Pó” was announced as a finalist in the short film category, Mr. Wang buried his head in his grandmother’s lap and then fell to the ground.

“I will never get used to it,” he later said in an interview.

“Dìdi” ended up winning the prestigious Sundance Audience Award, an award that has gone to films like “CODA” and “Whiplash” in recent years.

On Wednesday, Mr. Wang was back at his Los Angeles apartment. The sun was shining and he was sporting a new haircut when Focus Features announced the purchase of world rights to “Dìdi,” which will likely hit theaters this summer, perhaps as an antidote to the blockbusters that normally consume theaters around that time .

It was the end of a whirlwind adventure that many aspiring filmmakers can only dream of.

“There’s something about being in Park City where all the things that were happening to me didn’t seem real,” Mr. Wang said. “You are in this snow globe, and my attention was needed in many places, every second of every day. Coming back and doing the news, it’s like, “Oh, wow, we really did that.” »

Audio produced by Tally Abécassis.

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David B.Otero

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