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KU film professors Matt Jacobson and Kevin Willmott discuss their newest film, "The Only Good Indian." The film is showing at Sundance Film Festival.

KU professors' movie to show at Sundance

Three professors, nearly 20 students to make trip

Despite the presence of D-list celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Kato Kaelin, it’s actually a great learning experience.

Three KU professors will show their film this month to influential audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, one of the world’s pre-eminent celebrations of independent film, and they’ll take about 20 students along for the experience. The professors' film, “The Only Good Indian,” is one of only 118 movies chosen from more than 9,000 submitted for the festival.

Kevin Willmott, associate professor of theatre and film, produced and directed the film. Matt Jacobson, associate professor of theatre and film, was director of photography, and Bob Hurst, assistant professor of theatre and film, was supervising sound editor. All three will travel to the festival in Park City, Utah, along with a host of KU students and cast and crew from the movie. It will screen Jan. 16, 17, 18, 24 and 25 in the noncompetitive category. The students played various roles in the production of the movie, from co-director of photography to running boom microphones and helping edit.

Sundance is a prime opportunity for filmmakers and actors to shine, but is also an invaluable learning opportunity for the students who will be going along.

“The students get the opportunity to participate from the inside,” Jacobson said. “They’re not just there to watch films, they’re learning what it takes to make films and to be successful in this business. They really feel like this is their film, too.”

The KU crew will not only be showing the film to a select audience, they’ll be working to sell it for distribution. Sundance is one of the best chances for independent filmmakers to sell their work.

“Everyone’s there,” Willmott said of the Sundance crowd. “Your film is being seen by everyone in the business that matters.”

“The Only Good Indian,” written by Lawrence resident Tom Carmody, tells the story of a Native American boy taken from his home and forced to attend a boarding school. Veteran character actor Wes Studi, who has starred in “Dances With Wolves,” “Last of the Mohicans” and “Geronimo: An American Legend,” plays a bounty hunter hired to bring the boy back after he escapes from the school and attempts to return home. Longtime Hollywood actor J. Kenneth Campbell, of “Bulworth,” “Yulee’s Gold” and “Mars Attacks,” also stars, and newcomer Winter Fox Frank plays the lead.

Kip Haaheim, associate professor of music and dance, wrote and produced the film’s score. Tami Hughes, assistant professor of music and dance; Hung Choo Peter Chun, assistant professor of music and dance; and several KU graduate students were performers on the score.

Filmed primarily in Kansas, “The Only Good Indian” alludes to Haskell Indian Nations University, which was originally founded as an Indian boarding school. The lead character is captured and brought to the school for what was considered in the 19th century as a “proper, white” education.

“There are Kansas stories that have national and international ramifications,” Willmott said. “This is one of them. Hollywood isn’t going to tell this story, and a lot of people don’t even know about this part of our nation’s history. That’s like not knowing Auschwitz was down the street from your house.”

Filming so far from Hollywood also serves as a valuable outside-of-the-classroom lesson for the students involved. Willmott said making important movies in the middle of the country shows anyone with the desire and determination to tell a worthwhile story can succeed.

“Hollywood wants to make you believe they’re the only ones who can do it,” he said. “That’s really changing. More and more, our department is helping students find their way into that world.”

Willmott and Jacobson are making their second appearance together at Sundance, which they refer to as “the Final Four of films.” The duo worked together on 2004’s “CSA: Confederate States of America,” which took a look at what the United States might be like today if the South had won the Civil War. The movie, which also screened in the noncompetitive category, was sold to IFC Films for distribution at the festival. Several of the films that were in the competitive category failed to find buyers. Jacobson also took part in the festival in 2003 for his involvement in “Bukowski: Born Into This,” a documentary about writer Charles Bukowski. This is Hurst’s first time with a project in the festival.

Sundance, like any business conference, offers the chance for networking and to see just how deals are made. Students who attended in 2004 had the chance to speak with notable filmmakers such as Darren Aronofsky, and those interested in pursuing a career in producing got to see producers at work, selling their films.

“It takes the mystery out of it. I don’t think you can overstate the value of an experience like this,” Hurst said.

For this year’s crop of Sundance attendees, that experience includes piling into a rented van, sleeping on a condo floor and afterparties. All of which could end up being just as valuable as the faculty members showing their movie to the right audience.


Listen to Wilmott discuss the film. | 7:20 minutes (6.7 MB) | mp3 |

Matt Jacobson on the Sundance Film Festival. | 5:45 minutes (5.2 MB) | mp3 |

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