SCENE: Cell phone rings. Protagonist answers, then feels a blood rush of fear. He speaks. He listens. His knees crash into the sea of driveway pebbles. That’s our protagonist, Anthony “Chusy” Haney-Jardine, there on the ground, writhing. Lots of writhing.
CALLER: Is this Chusy?
CALLER: This is John Nein from the Sundance Film Institute.
CHUSY (gulp): Yes?
JOHN: How are you?
CHUSY: I’m fine and you?
JOHN: Well, I was calling to see if we have your permission to screen your film at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
JOHN: I’m inviting you to…
CHUSY, screaming as if he’s won the lottery: Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!
Chusy drops cell phone in driveway and collapses. His wife, Jennifer MacDonald, comes running, thinking he’s had a heart attack.
JENNIFER: Honey! Are you OK?
Anthony Haney-Jardine (or just Chusy, for short) was, indeed OK. Better than OK. The news that his independent film, Anywhere, USA, had been accepted in dramatic competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival culminated a remarkable journey for the film formerly known as Asheville the Movie. Then the movie garnered a special jury prize at the prestigious festival, adding a cherry to the top of Chusy’s chocolate sundae.
Think relief. Think unfettered joy. Think vindication. Why? Because Chusy and Jennifer put everything on the line for this movie. And to get to Anywhere, USA, they had to make unscheduled stops at Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Technology Sucks, Unpredictable People, and Down to My Last Dime.
“I’m a first-time filmmaker. I had no clue what it took to make a film. I committed every error on earth. Thankfully, I understand this and don’t pretend to commit the same ones again. I am wiser from the experience. On the other hand, it was ignorance that made this film so unique,” Chusy reflects.
Anywhere, USA‘s journey started, as all journeys do, with one small step. Backward.
When filming was first scheduled to start, Chusy contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
“We postponed the start date of the production for my ‘recovery,’” Chusy says. “After a recovery period, I started filming and stopped after five days because I was feeling residual torpor and fatigue. I couldn’t make sense of anything. We took a huge financial hit and morale was, well, you can imagine.”
Filming took another unplanned hiatus when Chusy decided he didn’t like the rental cameras he was using. The new Panasonic high-definition cameras took four months to arrive.
The upside of having to wait for new technology was that cinematographer Patrick Rousseau, the crew’s first choice for director of photography, became available. His wife was due to have a baby during the original filming schedule. Rousseau was the only crew member with bona fide Hollywood credentials and without an Asheville address.
Most of the cast and crew are Ashevilleans. Most had never worked on or acted in a movie before. Thus, inexplicable absences by the actors and some crew members, plus last-minute casting changes also slowed the filming process.
“Chalk it up to the fuzz, to some partying, and to plain old colorful personalities,” Chusy offers.
For example, Chusy notes: “Because of the unpredictability of the shoot, one of the actors decided to have surgery that altered the fundamental physiognomy [facial appearance] of the actor in question. So we had to shoot around the issue and make it work.”
Also, since they were unable to pay the actors much, “we had to rely on the patience and kindness of some of our actors’ employers.” When some employers weren’t as understanding as the crew hoped, script rewriting ensued.
Despite several months of starts and stops, filming was eventually completed after a little more than a year and a half, and Chusy and team moved on to their next monumental task: editing.
Chusy edited the movie in spurts, while he continued to do freelance advertising work to pay the bills.
“We’d sold everything and put all of our savings into the movie,” he reveals. In fact, the day the call came from Sundance, Chusy had just cashed in the last of his retirement savings.
The raw footage that would eventually become Anywhere, USA was cobbled together in the family’s garage in Kenilworth. Chusy sometimes worked 20 hours a day during those spurts with help from co-producer Andy O’Neil and Jennifer, his co-writer, producer and “voice of reason.”
Jennifer was concerned that he’d end up with blood clots from sitting for so long. Chusy jokes that he wanted a colostomy bag attached to him so he wouldn’t have to take bathroom breaks. Material from filming piled up on the garage floor (virtually, that is, as the movie was shot digitally).
“When you cut a film, you have to be merciless and only include material that supports the story or purpose of the film,” Chusy explains. “This film was made organically, so one is bound to have a lot of material left behind. Everything hurts when you leave it on the cutting-room floor because you’re acutely aware of the effort you and your team put into that material. It also hurts because there is the human element.”
The team missed the deadline for Sundance 2007 because they were still editing. But that gave them more time to refine the movie.
There’s not a redemption segment in Anywhere, USA per se, but each of the three stories that make up the film has its own redemptive moment. For Chusy, Jennifer, and the rest of the cast and crew, their moment came at Sundance.
Of the 3,624 feature films submitted to Sundance this year, programmers selected only 122 to premiere at the festival. Each screening is a chance for a film to be seen by some of the most influential people in cinema, from film distributors to name-making film critics. Anywhere, USA screened three times for 700 people and once for 1,200 people at the festival.
For a film that was already straining for financing, it is worth noting that most of the movie’s crew and many of the cast managed to get to Park City, Utah—one via a 48-hour bus ride. As it turned out, the film’s reception was worth the effort.
“The overwhelming response was wonderful: side-splitting laughter, tears, stunned silence, etc.,” Chusy says.
Only a handful of the films screened at Sundance win awards, so it was especially sweet that Anywhere, USA scored the Spirit of Independence award, a special jury prize.
“This was the perfect award for this film to win,” notes John Nein, Sundance programmer. “The film wears its originality on the surface. You can feel the passion. And it’s creative in terms of storytelling.”
Which is true. Anywhere, USA doesn’t exactly fit the standard format for a feature film, consisting of a triptych of interrelated tales that take viewers from a trailer park to Lexington Avenue to Biltmore Forest. Along the way, viewers meet a pair of doomed lovers, a 3-foot-4-inch conspiracy theorist, a pot-smoking real-estate agent, an orphaned little girl obsessed with the tooth fairy and other colorful personalities.
“It was a funny feeling witnessing Asheville’s paradoxical and awkward essence so masterfully and hilariously distilled down into a two-hour film,” says David McConville, who saw the movie at Sundance. McConville is founder of the Media Arts Project and director of The Elumenati, an Asheville design and engineering firm. “It’s kind of like watching an idealized version of a family album taken by an uncle who knows everybody’s dirty secrets and is a really good photographer.”
Director Quentin Tarantino attended the film’s premiere because he was the head of this year’s jury. Other jury members were Sandra Oh, Diego Luna, Marcia Gay Harden and Mary Harron.
Afterward, Tarantino personally congratulated Chusy and Jennifer’s daughter, Perla Haney-Jardine, 10, who stars in the film. Perla is the only cast member credited with previous film experience, as she acted in Tarantino’s film Kill Bill: Volume 2, among other films.
After the final screening, former film critic for The New York Times and current syndicated radio host Elvis Mitchell congratulated Chusy and invited him to appear on his show.
And the film’s impact didn’t end there. A few of the nonprofessional actors in the movie have received calls for auditions and representation since Sundance. Chusy says that one of the actors even moved to Los Angeles to seize the opportunity, although he won’t say who.
“We hope this sends a message to all those filmmakers making films in their garages that to get into Sundance, you don’t have to be in the industry, you just have to tell a great story,” Nein says.
Anywhere, USA, has been invited to a number of film festivals, both in the United States and Europe, and Chusy and Jennifer are in discussion with distributors. Unfortunately, not many low-budget independent films were purchased at Sundance this year.
“It’s a difficult marketplace for this kind of work that doesn’t have stars, that doesn’t have easy market handles,” Nein says. “We’re excited when a (distribution) company takes a risk on these types of films. We want it to happen for all of them.”
The team will screen the film for cast, investors, friends and volunteers later this spring, but the rest of Asheville will have to wait as festival regulations often prohibit films from public exhibition.
In addition to organizing a multifestival schedule for the film, Chusy and Jennifer are writing scripts and plan to shoot a low-budget film in late summer. They’re also planning a bigger project for 2009. They say that both projects will be based in Asheville.
“For now, though, I go back to the world of freelance and translation,” Chusy says. “If you know anyone who wants a world-class wedding video, by the way, please tell the interested party that I’m relatively cheap.”
Then he reflects: “If this film goes anywhere, if it transcends itself, it is because Asheville and the positive people who live here made it happen. Let this success inspire others who have a dream to pursue it and let the universe conspire to help them get there.”
[Anne Fitten Glenn is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
what: Anywhere, USA, formerly Asheville the Movie
who: Anthony “Chusy” Haney-Jardine, writer/director; his spouse, Jennifer MacDonald, writer/producer; his daughter, Perla Haney-Jardine, actor. Cast and crew of mostly nonprofessional Ashevilleans.
where: Currently slated for film festivals across the country. Visit www.anywhereusathemovie.com , and scroll over the cast members on the Web site to get to different pages, including the Sundance ‘08 blog, which contains clips from the festival.
when: Unknown. Watch the Web site for updates about the film-festival schedule. There could be a screening/fundraiser in Asheville later this year.