From In Pittsburgh Newsweekly | May 15-21, 1996

Ten Days at Sundance

Ten Days at Sundance

Tony Buba Takes Struggles in Steel to Redford's Film Festival.

By Harry Kloman

Braddock filmmaker Tony Buba will host the Pittsburgh premiere of his new documentary, Struggles in Steel, on Sunday, May 19, at the Byham Theater downtown. Last January, Buba and his entourage - his wife Jan McMannis, and his co-director/co-producer Ray Henderson - took the film, which is about African-American steelworkers, to Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Here's the story of their adventures in Wonderland.

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THE LOW THICK LAYER OF NIMBO-STRATUS CLOUDS over northern Utah chose the week of Jan. 19 to dump the first big snowstorm of the season on the resort hamlet of Park City, normally a 45-minute drive from the Salt Lake City Airport. In a whiteout, a shuttle bus ride into the Wasatch Mountains takes almost twice as long, the highway dangerously narrowed by mounds of packed powder.

Tony Buba and Ray Henderson made it to Park City alive. But they were scared the whole way, especially when they passed trucks pulled over on the side of the road. They had been greeted at the airport by a Sundance Film Festival shuttle that transported guests to Park City, where a bevy of townhouses, free food and film screenings awaited them. Because Tony and Ray were there to show Struggles in Steel, they got free airfare and four free days of lodging. But they wanted to stay for the whole festival, and Tony's wife, Jan McMannis, was scheduled to join them. So they'd rented a carriage house for later in the week when their freebie time expired.

Park City in the winter is a cozy little ski resort with exclusive shops and free bus service for everyone. The Sundance festival, with its 6,000 visitors each January, causes the town to burst with activity. Tony had been to Sundance in 1989 with Lightning Over Braddock. But the festival was smaller then, and he was surprised now by the frenzy.

Check-in for Tony and Ray that Friday evening was annoying because things weren't as organized as they'd hoped, considering how edgy and tired they were from the bus ride through the snow. The thin mountain air exhausted them even more. Armed with hats, shirts and long underwear provided free by corporate sponsors, they didn't get to their suite until midnight. They went right to bed.

The next day, they began to get the lay of the land. There was white everywhere, and not just on the snowcapped mountains. Ray - who is black, and six-feet, two-inches tall - didn't expect Utah to have much cultural diversity. But he figured there would at least be some native Americans and Hispanics because he knew people from these cultures lived in the area. During his 10 days at Sundance, he towered above people in crowded rooms. He met only a handful of ethnic filmmakers, who clustered together at most social events, and he saw only two or three non-white festival guest or volunteer workers.

The situation so bothered the Braddock duo that they approached Geoff Gilmore, one of the festival's top executives, and suggested he recruit minority volunteers from film programs around the country. Ray noticed how young white filmmakers could walk the walk and talk the talk at parties and schmooze sessions. The young minority filmmakers were not as self-assured.

Gilmore showed interest in Ray's observations, although Ray couldn't tell if he was seriously concerned. He told Ray to call him after the festival. A month later, Ray did - and Gilmore returned his call. So Ray and Tony are now devising a proposal to get more minority volunteers invited to Sundance.

As much as Ray and Tony would have liked more diversity at Sundance, it didn't stop them from pressing a lot of flesh. They talked up their film, which would have its first showing on Saturday night, and handed out business cards to anyone with an empty hand. Their appearance drew attention: A tall black man and his sidekick a few heads shorter. But everyone was open to them, and nobody gave them any sideward glances, except for a producer-type on a bus who seemed unnerved by Ray's attempts to make conversation. By mid-week they had earned a reputation as a two-man public relations team.

Tony and Ray didn't know what to expect from the 6:30 p.m. Saturday premiere of Struggles in Steel. They were afraid nobody would come to an independent documentary on a serious subject. The film was to be shown in an auditorium at the Olympia Park Hotel, one of several makeshift movie theaters set up each year in Park City, which only has a three-screen shopping mall cinema.

Tony went up into the projection booth before the screening to check things out. Soon, he was delighted to see the 270-seat theater filled. When the lights went out, he and Ray sat at the back of the theater, listening to people laugh at all the right places. They elbowed each other with delight: The audience clearly liked the film. Tony showed his excitement openly. Ray was cooler, but he was really only keeping things in.

After the screening, the audience asked many good questions about how they made the film and how they got their subjects to open up about their lives. It might have helped that Ray, who conducts the interviews in the film, worked in the mills for 18 years himself. The exchanges with the audience taught Ray and Tony some new things about the film that they'd worked on for five years. By the time the press conference ended they were ready to party.

The worst was over. Sundance was theirs.

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FILMS ASIDE, THE SUNDANCE FESTIVAL runs on three things: Food, parties and filmmakers. Some of them are directors, some producers. Some are famous celebrities, most are not. But even the famous ones can get by unnoticed. It's so cold in Park City that the layers of winter clothing serve as ample camouflage against stargazers.

The parties at Sundance begin each evening at 10 p.m. For Tony and Ray, that was perfect: By the time their opening night film duties were over, the night's party was just kicking off. Their festival package gave them vouchers for a certain number of film screenings and hospitality rooms. Each morning they would line things up on the table in their carriage house and plan their day of films and food. They only had to buy a few meals during their whole 10 days at the festival.

From time to time, business intervened. Five year earlier, to begin funding Struggles in Steel, Tony got $107,000 from the Minnesota-based company ITVS. The rest of the $160,000 budget came from agencies like the American Film Institute and the Pittsburgh Foundation. But Tony had never actually met anybody from his largest contributor until Sundance. The ITVS people were pleased with his film, which they now have the right to air on public television in a 56-minute version (Tony holds the rights to an 86-minute version for video and festivals). They also were delighted that Tony and Ray had been working so hard at the festival to publicize it.

People who hear about the Sundance festival on TV probably get the wrong impression. Some festival films star notable actors, and some films are made by hot young directors on the prowl. But most of the work in the festival is smaller and serious. Whenever you see a television camera at a screening, or a crowd gathering outside a theater, you know it's a film with a movie star.

The parties Ray and Tony attended had very few celebrities; the artistic and financial elite went to invitation-only bashes. Still, Tony and Ray rubbed a few elbows. By mid-week, Jan had arrived to join the fun (after her own harrowing bus ride up the mountain). She spent most of her time seeing films while Ray and Tony worked the crowds.

Ray insists he wouldn't have known a famous movie star if they'd poured one on him. He was more intrigued by the younger crowd: Thin, dressed in black, shivering in the cold because winter gear would ruin their fashion statements. He even told two young women to put some warmer clothes on before they caught pneumonia.

He did manage to recognize Dennis Hopper. He approached Giancarlo Esposito after staring at him for a while and making him nervous. Ray and Tony both talked with Benjamin Bratt of TV's Law and Order, who was there with a multi-ethnic drama directed by his brother. They were introduced to the actor Stanley Tucci by an old friend of Tony's from film school who's now married to Steve Buscemi, an actor known for his work in independent films. Tucci was there with a film he'd co-directed; Buscemi was in it.

One of the stars of the '96 festival was the actress Lili Taylor, who was there with I Shot Andy Warhol. Ray had never heard of her. But Jan had. One day, while Jan was shopping for some warm gloves in a Park City boutique, a woman whom she thought was Taylor walked in. Jan was desperate to find out if it was truly the actress she so admired. If only the woman would say something, Jan thought, she would recognize her voice. So instead of trying on some socks in a changing room, Jan tried them on in plain view of everyone just to keep an eye on Taylor.

This unnerved the actress, who was aware that she was being watched. She moved around the counter to get out of Jan's glare. Jan was so focused on making contact that she left the shop without signing her credit card slip. They had to call her back, which only deepened her embarrassment. Eventually she heard Taylor speak. Jan never said a word to her.

But the highlight of the Braddock trio's celebrity adventures was surely the night Ray and Tony sat side by side with Al Pacino, who held court and talked about his film while flash bulbs crackled and flared around him. Pacino was there with Looking for Richard, a documentary he'd made about performing Shakespeare. The film's editor, whom Pacino credits with giving the film its shape, was Tony's brother Pat. So Pat got Tony and his entourage an invitation to the Pacino party, as well as an introduction to Pacino and a seat at his table.

Tony and Ray didn't say anything much to Pacino aside from a friendly hello; Jan didn't attend the elite circle because she wasn't a filmmaker, so there was no reason to introduce her (Pat was very protective of the star). Yet Ray and Tony made an impression despite their silence: Pacino later told Pat, "I could stare at your brother's face all night long. Him and Ray, they have such honest faces."

The week went on: More parties, more films, interviews for National Public Radio and the new Sundance Channel (which just bought Lightning Over Braddock), and a good second showing of Struggles in Steel, although the crowd was smaller because of the weather and the hour of the screening (10 p.m., when the parties begin).

By the time it all ended the trio had plenty of stories to tell, including three fast encounters with The Sundance Kid himself.

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THOUGH THE 12-YEAR-OLD SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL takes place in Park City, the actual Sundance Institute which opened in 1981 as a learning and production center for young filmmakers is located on Robert Redford's nearby estate, which he started in 1961 when he bought two acres of land for $500 and built himself a cabin.

Tony and Ray got their first glimpse of Redford the day after the premiere of Struggles in Steel. The journey began with another tense bus ride through the snow to the Sundance estate 45 minutes away. They were being given a tour of Sundance, and Redford was there. Gilmore introduced Redford personally to Ray, who shook Redford's hand when they said hello to each other. Ray shook the same hand again about 15 minutes later when Redford walked away. In between, Ray just listened to him talk to all the people surrounding him. Redford was shorter than Ray had imagined. Most of the celebrities were.

Tony spent some time at the Sundance estate talking with filmmakers before finally approaching Redford and thanking him for the opportunity to be at the festival. Of course, Ray and Tony had no way of knowing whether Redford actually saw their film. But word gets around, so maybe Redford knew something about it. Maybe.

On the bus ride back from Sundance, two guys with cellular phones were talking a little too loudly about their film, as if they wanted to impress people. It was killing Tony not to drop an "Al Pacino" here and there. But he didn't play the game.

Redford hosted a breakfast a few days later in Park City. Ray and Tony got to shake his hand again. They were in his presence once more, at the party after the screening of Pacino's film. No handshake this time, just some glimpses from afar. They never bumped into Redford on the streets of Park City. They never got asked to do lunch.

A few months later, in Philadelphia, Tony and Ray showed Struggles once again. The weather was nicer, the surroundings more like home, and the crowd so appreciative after the screening that their applause almost moved Ray to tears.

That may not be as good a story as touching a celebrity, but it's why they made their film in the first place