Over the years, countless TV actors have taken roles in independent films, hoping to lend credibility to their careers and — hope against hope — land in a movie that's accepted into the film festival.
This year, the casts of two television productions are headed to Sundance for screenings of their miniseries — in theaters, and in their entirety.
"I really want to see this on the big screen," said Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter, who's one of the stars of "Top of the Lake."
Hunter's "Lake" co-star, Elisabeth Moss, is a Sundance first-timer, although she's not stranger to acclaim. In addition to a recurring role on "The West Wing," she's been Emmy-nominated four straight years for her role as Peggy on "Mad Men." "But this is different," she said. "This is Sundance."
Scheduling screenings of the six-hour miniseries is also a different programming move for Sundance. The TV shows will air in a single day — two-hour blocks with a pair of intermissions. Both miniseries are deliberately paced character studies.
"Top of the Lake" will screen in the premiere category, the first time the festival has included a scripted long-form series in its lineup. It revolves around the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl who's five months pregnant. Detective Robin Griffin (Moss) spearheads the investigation, and there are all sorts of dark secrets behind some incredible natural beauty.
"This is a director really stretching out across a canvas in the most startling, shocking, provocative way," said Hunter, who reteams with writer/director Jane Campion, who won a writing Oscar and was nominated for a directing Oscar for "The Piano."
"Rectify" is screening privately during the festival's opening weekend. It's about Daniel (Aden Young), a man released from prison after nearly 20 years on death row. He's a man out of time, a man trying to reconnect with his family, a man who may or may not be guilty of the horrific crime for which he was imprisoned.
It's not your average procedural crime drama, but "a very delicate, in-depth look at the re-connections trying to be forged by this family after the release of this guy," Young said. "And I think that tonality will find a decent home on a larger screen."
The format may be different from what's usually screened at the festival, but there's a similar indie spirit. "The original spirit of Sundance is independent thinking," said Abigail Spencer, who plays Daniel's sister in "Rectify." "‘Rectify' is a very independent thinking show."
Quality is quality
"Rectify" and "Top of the Lake" are screening at Sundance before they air on the Sundance Channel. But it's also an acknowledgement that the line between theatrical films and high-quality TV productions is either slim or non-existent.
"This project going to Sundance is really kind of a great representation of where we're at right now," Moss said. "It used to be there a real dividing line between film and stage. And it was difficult to cross over, back and forth."
It's also an acknowledgment that people who work in film — directors like Campion — are looking to tell stories in a whatever format allows them story flexibility.
"They're now choosing the longer form as the medium to tell their stories, rather than trying to compress them into a film format," said Iain Canning, executive producer of "Top of the Lake" as well as the Academy Award-winning film "The King's Speech." "And they're actually seeing the positives of that."
While both "Top of the Lake" and "Rectify" could have been produced as two-hour movies, a lot would have been lost.
"In a way, it's about our worlds colliding," Canning said. "The wonderful thing for us is we get to tell the stories we want to tell in the format that best fits the story. For this, it was seven episodes. For ‘The King's Speech,' it was two hours."
With two Oscar-winners involved, "Top of the Lake" has the kind of pedigree most indie Sundance films lack.
Both TV shows were shot on location. "Top of the Lake" was filmed in New Zealand, while "Rectify" was filmed in Georgia. "Because that's where I'm from and I didn't want to see a stray cactus hanging out by the plantation," said creator/writer Ray McKinnon.
Watching the miniseries at Sundance will be a different experience from watching the shows at home when they air on the Sundance Channel, cast and crew said.
"There's a big difference in the impact it has on you," Young said. "Being a filmmaker and an editor, you put it up on the big screen and you go, ‘Oh, that's a very different story.' You're allowed a certain geographical space that the screen provides you. Television doesn't necessarily give you that."
Canning is enthusiastic about the opportunity to watch the show in a Sundance theater. "I've never had a film in Sundance," he said. "I've had films at other festivals. So I'm looking forward to the experience."
In part, that's because these projects are outside the Sundance rat race. Producers aren't seeking distributors. "We can actually just sit there and be brave and let people watch the six hours," Canning said with a laugh.