Sundance Preview: 'Drunktown's Finest' Impressed Robert Redford Enough to Executive Produce

Drunktown's Finest H 2013
Peter Holland, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sydney Freeland jumped from Sundance's Native Lab to the director's chair for a drama about a New Mexico town battling alcoholism.

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch-up. So this year, The Hollywood Reporter decided to do a bit of prep work for you: Here's the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.

In the late '80s, 20/20 aired a segment investigating an alcohol problem in Gallup, N.M. According to studies at the time, residents were 225 percent more likely to die from substance-abuse-related causes than were all New Mexico residents. 20/20 dubbed Gallup, “Drunk Town, USA.” The name stuck -- despite Gallup taking measures to turn itself around.

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Having grown up on a Native American reservation near Gallup, writer-director Sydney Freeland hopes she can shed some light on her hometown's evolution with her debut film, Drunktown's Finest. Part of Sundance 2014's NEXT category, the film follows three Gallup locals -- an adopted Native American teen living with white parents, a soon-to-be father gearing up for basic training and a transsexual dreaming of becoming a model -- as they struggle with life in the community. Though Freeland admits the dry laws of Native American reservations prompted locals to flock to Gallup for their drinking, the town bears little resemblance to that in the 20/20 exposé.

Before Drunktown's Finest debuts Jan. 18 at Sundance's Yarrow Hotel Theatre, we talked to Freeland about her career, developing the film through Sundance labs and her hopes for the film.

Background: As someone of Navajo descent who grew up on a reservation, Freeland never dreamed of making movies. “Working in the film industry wasn't something people did,” she says. “Painting, weaving, pottery, silversmithing -- those are the big arts on the reservation.” Freeland attended Arizona State University with an interest in the visual arts. That grew into a BFA in computer animation and an eventual MFA in Film & TV from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

The Big Break: Like many budding filmmakers, Freeland juggled personal projects (directing more than 25 short films) with editing and camera jobs that paid the bills. Reprieve from the daily grind came courtesy of Sundance's Native Lab Fellowship. Courted by program director N. Bird Runningwater, Freeland began developing Drunktown's Finest in 2009, after first submitting a sci-fi script she says “wasn't really a Sundance film.” Rooting a script in her cultural history proved successful; after workshopping a finished script at the Native Lab, Freeland continued on through Sundance's 2010 Screenwriters Lab, Directors Lab, Composers Lab (where she met Drunktown and Nebraska composer Mark Orton) and Producers Summit.

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Getting the Film Off the Ground: After the lab programs ended, Freeland spent two more years honing the script and searching for production investments. When the money came in, everything fell into place. Freeland returned to New Mexico for the shoot, recruited a local crew and enlisted an authentic cast to fill the main roles, including model Shauna Baker and Breaking Bad's Jeremiah Bitsui. Adding to the momentum was Robert Redford signing on as executive producer -- a nod he hasn't given to a narrative feature since 2004's The Motorcycle Diaries.

When It All Seemed to Click: For Freeland, the real challenges came when she called it a wrap. “There's a definite difference between shorts and features,” explains the director. “For me, it was in editing. We had eight weeks to edit and get it in, in time for Sundance. It was a tight turnaround. I've been working on post.” Aiding the process was an additional $30,000, raised on Kickstarter specifically for the postproduction process.

The Mission for Drunktown's Finest: Years of work will finally pay off when Drunktown's Finest plays the festival that nurtured it into existence. Freeland is happy to share her characters with audiences. "They each represent different communities on the reservation. I wanted to show how diverse it is. You have this one guy who's kind of a thug, another who is a transsexual, you have an adopted religious girl -- you get insight into the communities." 

Twitter: @misterpatches