January 24, 2006

Like a Dervish: The Whirlwind of Sundance

It's my last day in Utah, and four days of Sundance experiences are now swirling inside my mind. Here's what I've been up to lately. (If you were part of the crossword clique, wouldja please tell me if I've gotten the chronology all wrong? This Sundance habit of getting four hours of sleep a night is taking its toll on my powers of recall.)

Friday, January 20: My Sundance Film Festival experience kicked off with a party hosted by Wordplay director Patrick Creadon and producer Christine O'Malley's families (Patrick and Christine are married and have two little girls in addition to a bouncing baby documentary). The gathering was pretty mellow, and offered a chance for the puzzle people and the filmmakers' relatives to mingle and get to know each other--we'd be seeing a lot of one another over the coming few days. I arrived after dinner, but in plenty of time for a giant carrot cake decorated with a Wordplay theme. Patrick took the opportunity to thank a lot of people--everyone from the kin who had funded the movie to Vic Fleming (who came to Utah with his charming wife Susan), who helped arrange for Bill Clinton's participation in the movie; once the Clinton interview had been scheduled, Jon Stewart was suddenly much more interested in appearing in Wordplay himself.

Ellen Ripstein had booked a roomy multilevel condo, affectionately termed the Puzzle Palace, where she and seven other cruciverbalists--Will Shortz, Trip Payne and his partner Brian Dominy, Tyler Hinman, Al Sanders, Stella Daily, and Dean Olsher (who's working on writing a deep book about crosswords)--stayed. The group welcomed the non-Palace folks (including me, Byron Walden, my friend Lisa, and Byron's friend/test-solver Mary) to join them for board games, camaraderie, great food (cooked from scratch by Stella), and heavy drinking (milk, water, and sodapop). The kitchen table was often laden with laptops, used for checking email, solving crosswords, blogging, and Googling the latest buzz on Wordplay.

Saturday, January 21: Saturday morning, the puzzle gang and the Creadon/O'Malley families converged on the Prospector Square Theater, site of the Wordplay world premiere. The movie had sold out well in advance of the festival, and a couple hundred people lined up in the hope of getting into the screening from the waiting-list line. The process was inexplicable and chaotic, but eventually our entire contingent did get in to see the premiere (some of us at the last minute). The movie was fantastic, the crowd loved it, and the Q&A session was so well-attended, the Wordplay stars were asked to be available after subsequent screenings. Your faithful correspondent pops up on screen briefly a few times, and I'm the only one in the movie who curtsies. (Yes, I know that's a little odd. No, I don't know what I was thinking. And no, I don't regret looking a tad silly since it kept me in the movie! Someday, I'll meet Bill Clinton or Jon Stewart, and he'll think, "She looks familiar...where do I know her from?" And I'll curtsy, and it'll click: "Oh, right! We're in the same movie!")

That afternoon, Will did a book signing at Dolly's Bookstore on Main Street. It was the second biggest signing they'd ever had. Merl Reagle (he and his companion Marie were also key members of the Wordplay contingent) also gave out his autograph at Dolly's, but some of his fans started out by asking, "Are you Will Shortz?" Merl's got a nonstop puzzling mind (like many others in the group) and livens conversations with apt anagrams and wordplay. I've been a fan of Merl's puzzles for a while, so it was fun to get to know the personality behind the whimsy (you find more whimsy).

My memory's getting fuzzy on what went on on which day, but I believe most of the puzzle crew hung out at the Puzzle Palace that evening for games, conversation, and laughter.

Sunday, January 22: Sunday morning, we convened at a restaurant called 350 Main that was a looong walk uphill (damn mountains!) from the shuttle-bus stop. The post-premiere brunch featured good food, NPR puzzles with Will (with NYT crossword books as prizes for the first people to shout out the answers), mingling with assorted distributors who were interested in the film, and a CNN interview taping with Tyler, Al, Trip, and Ellen.

Stella, Tyler, and I did a little window shopping and bought souvenirs like microfleece Sundance pullovers. That evening, we had another kitchen-table shindig. It was great to get to know everyone better, and Stamford's going to be an even richer experience for me this year. No, I won't end up in another film, but I'll see these intelligent and interesting people again, in addition to the horde of other crossword nuts who attend. Many of the gang here at Sundance have been interacting for months via our blogs, so we all understood everyone's interest in checking or updating their blogs. Between the crossword solving and the blogging, the smart conversation and rampant wordplay, I definitely felt like I was among my tribe.

Monday, January 23: Many of us went to another Wordplay screening Monday afternoon out at the beautiful but cold Sundance Resort. Having already seen the movie once before--a viewing that involved plenty of nudging and whispering and awaiting the sight of one's own visage on screen--we were able to relax and enjoy the movie even more the second time around. Glenn Close saw the film, too, and liked it enough to approach the Wordplay/puzzlers group for conversation and photos. She's absolutely stunning, she's short, and she said she listens to Will's NPR puzzles--but I think she's not one to do crosswords. We grabbed some lunch at the deli and chatted.

Dinnertime brought yet another gathering with the Creadon/O'Malley clans, celebrating the second birthday of Patrick and Christine's little girl. Afterwards, Ellen, Stella, Dean, Al, Tyler, Trip, Brian, and I went to a club called Zoom for a party held by the sales agents trying to sell Wordplay and a few other films. People were turned away at the door if they weren't on the guest list--and the crossword geeks, of course, made the cut. (There was no velvet rope, but it was pretty damn cool to be ushered into a private party. One woman actually grabbed Dean's coat in a futile attempt to ride his coattails into the party.) The folks at the door did let a few outsiders in--we met Saturday Night Live comedian Rachel Dratch and documentarian Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). Patrick Creadon reported that an even more esteemed documentarian, Errol Morris, had called him to put in a plug for the studio that distributes his films.

Tuesday, January 24: Today, the talented people behind Wordplay will continue relishing the well-deserved attention and weighing the various distribution offers, and have a couple more Wordplay screenings before the film festival draws to a close. The non-Hollywood contingent, the cruciverbalizers, either flew home yesterday or are leaving today.

So what's next? I've got to get cracking on doing more crosswords--Tyler and Stella were often zipping through puzzles during downtime, and while Al Sanders is the prohibitive crowd favorite to win Stamford this year, there are plenty of us who wouldn't mind beating him (even if Al's expanding fan base would boo, hiss, and sic the dogs on us). The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is coming up March 24-26, and who knows? This could be the last year the crowd fits into the Stamford Marriott. After Wordplay gets a nationwide release, I'm sure it will draw a tremendous number of newcomers to the tournament. (Will, I hope you've got a plan for managing the influx of crossword hajjis traveling to the word-geek mecca of Stamford in 2007.)

I'll post a few Sundance photos in a day or two. And I suppose I ought to get back in the habit of doing crosswords, eh? The only ones I've done since I arrived on Friday are the Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday NYT. (Congrats to Dave Sullivan, a.k.a. Evad in the comments on this blog, on his fantastic Tuesday puzzle.)

Signing off from Utah,

your devoted Crossword Fiend