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Helmers get taste of indie world

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PARK CITY -- Filmmakers from the U.K. and Ireland might speak English, but Irish screenwriter-director John Carney and British director David Sington, who both brought films to this year's Sundance Film Festival, discovered that the indie film world has a language all its own.

Sington's 22-hour trip to Sundance certainly wasn't as lengthy as the Apollo space missions depicted in his documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," but for him it was almost as mind-blowing. "It's been surreal, so out of my normal life," said the longtime BBC docu producer-director, who visited Sundance for the world premiere of his first feature. "My photos are being taken, so I'm getting a taste for the celebrity life."

Even though he collapsed on arrival, Sington had a smooth landing. He was cushioned when Discovery Communications and its Discovery Films picked up an equity interest in North American theatrical distribution, branding rights and North American television rights to his $1.4 million movie just before its Jan. 19 premiere.

"It took the financial pressure off us rather than have $1 million deficit we have to cover," Sington said.

More good news came Wednesday, when ThinkFilm picked up North American rights (besides TV) for $2.5 million-$3 million. It was a hefty price but one the newly cash-rich ThinkFilm thought was worth paying because of the promotional boost Discovery could offer, ThinkFilm head of U.S. theatrical Mark Urman said.

For the film, Sington recruited 10 Apollo veterans with the help of astronaut and technical adviser Dave Scott, shooting 60 hours of interviews. Much of the mission footage has never been seen before, and silent film -- like the famous "the Eagle has landed" moment -- has been meticulously synched up with audio recordings for the first time. "It was a bit like sequencing DNA," Sington said. And the response so far has been satisfying. "I had no idea there were so many Apollo junkies out there," he laughed.

Carney, meanwhile, had music junkies in mind when he made his film "Once." "I wanted to create a visual album, something you could watch over and over again," he said. In the process, the filmmaker created one of the most unique musicals in recent memory, telling the story of a Dublin street busker (Glen Hansard) and an aspiring Czech musician (Marketa Irglova) whose evolving romance is communicated in the film through the songs they sing, share and compose together.

Carney's DV-shot feature, made for just $100,000, has become one of the most talked-about projects since its North American premiere at Sundance. Producer Samson Films partnered with Summit Entertainment this week to serve as sales agents on the project, which has attracted interest from several indie distributors.

It has all been an amazing ride for Carney. "I was going to meet with Harvey Weinstein on Wednesday night," he said in awe. "It was like 'Waiting for Godot' on Ecstasy."

Not that Carney is enthralled with the U.S. film business. He said the film's Salt Lake City screening was his favorite because "there were all very real, normal filmgoers. There was no bullshit independent film scene."

After making his first independent feature, "November Afternoon" in 1997, Carney was hired by Universal Pictures to direct "On the Edge" starring Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea, an experience he didn't enjoy. "In a studio film, there are so many people to answer to that you lose control at a certain stage," he said.

"Once" was a true return to Carney's roots. He played bass for the Irish band the Frames in the early '90s and recruited the group's current lead singer-guitarist, Hansard (who appeared in Alan Parker's "The Commitments"), and Irglova, who already had collaborated with Hansard on a side project, the album "The Swell Season." The result is a film with music in the vein of Damien Rice, most of it performed live, that feels as authentic as its origins. With its warm reception, Carney said, "Sundance has made my dreams come true."

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