Utah director and author taking 'Austenland' to Sundance

'Austenland' • The comedy is among 66 films in competition in January.
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For Jerusha Hess, directing her first film adapted from Utah author Shannon Hale's book "felt pretty empowering to be these little Utah girls making a movie."

Now Hess, the Salt Lake City-based filmmaker, and Hale will see their collaboration, "Austenland," receive its world premiere at home in Utah — at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

"Austenland" was picked as one of the 16 U.S. Dramatic Competition entries at this year's festival, the Sundance Institute announced on Wednesday, Nov. 28.

The festival announced 66 films in the dramatic and documentary competition categories for both U.S. and World Cinema, as well as 10 films in the Next program dedicated to micro-budgeted films. The films in the Spotlight, Frontier and Park City at Midnight categories will be announced Thursday, Nov. 29, the Premieres section will be revealed Monday, Dec. 3, and the short-film program will be announced Tuesday, Dec. 4.

"The Hesses never get tired of getting that phone call from the Sundance programmers," Jerusha Hess said on Wednesday.

When Trevor Groth, the festival's programming director, called with the news just before Thanksgiving, "I started crying immediately," Hess said. "[Groth] said it was a burst of energy. It was so flattering and lovely. I don't remember much, because my brain was spinning."

Hess and her husband Jared received a similar call when their comedy "Napoleon Dynamite" — which Jared directed and he and Jerusha co-wrote — was selected for the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

"It's a little different now, because we're not starving students," she said. "At that point, there were like tears for weeks. We were like, 'We get to live!'"

"Austenland," which Hess and Hale adapted from Hale's novel, centers on a "Pride & Prejudice"-obsessed woman (played by Keri Russell) who visits a Jane Austen-theme park in England hoping for a Regency-period romance of her own. "It's a really funny film that will get a huge reaction," Groth told the Tribune.

The festival's 113 feature films reflect a thriving independent-film community, said festival director John Cooper. "They have an immediacy," Cooper said. "I think that comes out of a fearlessness in the filmmakers, to go head-on with difficult subjects."

In the U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic competitions, those subjects include sexual relationships, teen rebellion, murder and self-discovery. Among the documentary competition entries, the topics range from politics to education, and from murder to music.

"There are a lot of documentaries that question the nature of contemporary politics, and are even critical of the current Obama administration," Groth said. Those films include an examination of America's covert wars, a profile of the conservative financiers the Koch brothers, and a collaborative movie made by 99 contributing filmmakers about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

For those interested in seeing movie stars, the competition titles won't disappoint. On-screen will be Daniel Radcliffe, Kristen Bell, Jessica Biel, Jane Lynch, Josh Radnor, Bill Pullman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Casey Affleck — as well as recent breakout stars Rooney Mara ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), Octavia Spencer ("The Help") and Shailene Woodley ("The Descendants").

The festival will continue its recent tradition of playing four competition films on opening night, Thursday, Jan. 17, in Park City. The four films are: The cross-cultural wedding drama "May in the Summer," directed by and starring Cherien Dabis (whose "Amreeka" played Sundance in 2009); the documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom," Morgan Neville's look at the lives of back-up singers; Sebastian Silva's Chilean drama "Crystal Fairy," starring American actor Michael Cera; and Marc Singer's British-made documentary "Who Is Dayani Cristal?", which tracks a mystery of a dead body in the Arizona desert.

"Austenland" may stand out in contrast to the dark fare familiar to Sundance audiences. "It's just a happy romp," Hess said. "It's so easy, it's so light, it's so accessible, and just fun. Like all of our movies, it's quirky. It's the movie for the girls, finally. I wanted to make the quirky movie for the girls."

With "Austenland," Jerusha Hess hopes to develop her own reputation in the movie business. "I've been kind of in Jared's shadow — which I love to be in," she said. "When we first started writing and got into this business, people would always be like, 'What do you do? Do you just type the script?' There's some misconceptions of what a writing partner is, or what the wife does."

She added: With "Austenland," "it's nice to finally [have people] think that Jerusha also is the funny one, also is a competent filmmaker."

It was Hess' appreciation of Hale's young-adult books that led to their meeting. "I really loved the Princess Academy books," Hess said. "I didn't know anything about authors — I thought they were really fancy. But she was so normal and sweet, and an amazing person."

The two met for lunch in 2009, and Hale gave Hess a copy of Austenland. "I didn't know that the 'Napoleon Dynamite' and 'Nacho Libre' creators were in Utah," Hale said.

After Hess read Austenland, she called Hale almost immediately and said, 'We need to do this.'" "It was literally 24 hours later," Hale said.

The movie was shot in 2011 in England, and Hale said being on the set was "like walking into my book."

Hess said every step of directing the film had its challenges. "It was so fun to write with Shannon," she said. "In production, I'm sure I barfed a couple of times on set, it's so nerve-wracking."

And the editing stage was hard, because as a filmmaker she just wanted the project to be completed.

Now the "Austenland" team has to prepare for Sundance when it arrives, Jan. 17 to 27, in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and at the Sundance resort. "I don't even know how to get tickets," Hale said. "I need to work on that."

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Sundance announces competition slate

The competition films for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival were announced Wednesday, Nov. 28. A list can be found online at sltrib.com/entertainment.

The non-competition films — in the Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, and Frontier categories — will be announced Thursday, Nov. 29, at 2 p.m.

The Premieres slate will be announced on Monday, Dec. 3, and the short-film selections will be revealed on Tuesday, Dec. 4.