Last Thursday at Slamdance's closing party atop Main Street in Park City, I choked down chocolate chip cayenne cookies next to Keith Miller, an NYU art professor who won the Grand Jury prize for a narrative feature.
"So what do you think of your big win?" I wanted to know.
"It's nice," he said with a glib Brooklyn shrug, as if I'd asked how he felt about the fruit punch.
That Northeastern salt and vinegar is the force behind "Welcome to Pine Hill", Keith's winning entry. The man hasn't taken a film class in his life; he's a painter by classical training.
The story, set in Brooklyn, begins over a midnight argument involving a lost dog.
"It reveals a lot about race and class and love and how we express those things," Keith explained. "And right after the incident, I knew I should make a film about it."
The common festival consensus is that "Welcome to Pine Hill" is a docu-drama.
"People call it a hybrid, and I'm okay with that. It's a weird world we're living in. But I'm not intentionally trying to blend anything. Everything that happened on camera, actually happened. My one philosophy? 'We don't cut. We never cut.' I wanted it to be as messy as reality."
The back story is about a recently reformed drug dealer who gets some big news and returns to his old life to make peace with his estranged parents. Miller said the work is his first attempt at a full length feature, and it's constructed of mostly improvised scenes.
"I mean, I navigated scenes, but if even I walked into the frame, we kept rolling. If a stranger walked onto set, we kept rolling."
He used exclusively non-actors and a three camera shot with mostly 45-minute takes.
"There's a lot of reality. I wanted to capture the poetry and chaos of real life. The feeling of 'I dunno where I am, but this is awesome.'"
I asked him, "Did you experience any uncertainty as a rookie director or were you perpetually self-assured?"
"I'm fairly stubborn," he explained with a grin. "But for about six weeks there, I couldn't even open the footage. When I did, I'd start to shake and cry-which is highly unusual for me. I'm not one who normally has a physical response to emotional things. I was just so sure for a while there that everything we shot was pure shit."
"Sounds like you were the dark horse of the festival," I said.
"More like the no horse," he corrected.