Last week, I explored the Japanese directors who screened at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, having found the festival catalogue in a Tokyo second-hand bookshop. Of the three, one was already a superstar director, one was at the beginning of a fairly successful career, and one never made a film again. This week, I will turn my attention to the non-Japanese filmmakers who launched critically-acclaimed (and slated but attention-worthy in one case) careers by screening their first features at Sundance 1998.
Darren Aronofsky, Pi
The catalogue’s paragraph-long biography for the Pi director offers little hint of his coming success:
Darren Aronofsky, twenty-eight, was born and raised in Brooklyn and is a product of the public school system. He went on to study live-action filmmaking at Harvard University. His senior film, Supermarket Sweep, was a 1991 Student Academy Award National Finalist. In June 1994, Aronofsky received an MFA in directing from the American Film Institute. π is his first feature.
Famously, Pi won him the best director award at Sundance that year, and the rest, of course is history. Whatever you may think of his (often divisive) films, it canot be denied that Pi launched multiple careers, including that of composer Clint Mansell. Check out this contemporaneous interview with Aronofsky and lead actor, Sean Gullette, courtesy of IndieWire to read more about the making of the film and their thoughts on Sundance 1998 contemporary, Vincent Gallo,
Vincent Gallo, Buffalo ’66
The actor/director/model/musician/painter/provocateur debuted as a filmmaker at Sundance 1998 with Buffalo ’66. The film remains controversial for the circumstances of its production, particularly for Gallo’s treatment of cast and crew and his provocative statements regarding his collaborators, publicly describing Christina Ricci as a “puppet” and Lance Acord as having “no ideas, no conceptual ideas, no aesthetic point of view.”
Critical reception to the film has always been positive (68 on Metacritic, 76% on Rotten Tomatoes), but reactions to Gallo himself are increasingly mixed. If in 1998 he was described by Sean Gullete as “that fucking Republican Vinny Gallo”, one can imagine the public reaction today to a personality who continues to sell his sperm on his own website. Click here to read a rather long and politically questionable essay by Gallo in Another Man magazine.
Derek Cianfrance, Brother Tied
Derek Cianfrance may be best known today for playing a part in Ryan Gosling’s rise to stardom (Gosling starred in Cianfrance’s second and third feature films, Blue Valentine  and The Place Beyond the Pines ). However, his first feature film, Brother Tied screened at Sundance 1998. A ‘lost’ feature film currently existing only on a 35mm print in Cianfrance’s father’s basement, the film was never released due to a combination of factors including a lack of finishing funds, expensive music licensing costs, and the lack of any substantive distribution offers.
Cianfrance was nearly another example of Sundance-screening filmmaker whose career never went anywhere. He was writing Blue Valentine as Brother Tied was screening at Sundance, but was forced to endure a self-described twelve-year “cinematic penance” akin to being “on the bench watching everyone else play,” as funding for his second feature failed to materialise: this became a period during which he would rewrite the screenplay every three months. When Blue Valentine was finally made and released in 2010, Cianfrance stated the following: “Twelve year laters, I feel blessed that I had to wait because I needed life experience to make a film about life.”
Shane Meadows, TwentyFourSeven
Almost a decade before This is England (2007), one of the best British films of this century, Shane Meadows brought his feature film TwentyFourSeven to Sundance 1998. It is unclear whether this was his debut feature or not: the Sundance catalogue describes it as such, as do other sources but the likes of IMDb and Wikipedia list it as his second. Either way, the Sundance catalogue compares TwentyFourSeven to The Four Hundred Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) and American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), foreshadowing the huge success Meadows would have with This is England. Meadows’ filmmaking style is already clearly established here, with the programme making note of the “energy at odds with the stark landscape” of northern England under Thatcher’s rule.
Lynne Ramsay’s short film Gasman (1998) also screened at Sundance that year. Ramsay is now best known for the harrowing We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2018). Watch Gasman below.