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Sundance 2014: Slamdance's ROVER

An odd, engaging feature film about a comedic cult attempting to make a movie

by David Graver in Culture on 23 January 2014

One of just a handful of films in Slamdance's narrative feature competition, ROVER—full name being ROVER (or Beyond Human: The Venusian Future and the Return of the Next Level)—was perhaps the zaniest and most forward-moving film that crossed CH's path in Park City. Its writing, first and foremost, excelled from concept to execution. The story, of a dispirited oddball cult attempting to portray their origin story by making a feature film right before planning to off themselves, takes clever characters coming into their own and places them in a never-before-seen scenario. The film was shot over 16 days in Bushwick, Brooklyn at a dilapidated church that was once the residence of first time feature film writer/director Tony Blahd. The film is engaging, strange and worth dedicating the 93 minutes required to watch.

A true story initiated ROVER's plot. Just prior to the Heaven's Gate cult suicide, the members shopped their story around to Hollywood—this is ROVER's attempt at telling a story of a cult making that film. Although tinged with darkness, the film is comedic through eccentric characters and the situations they find themselves in. There are moments between cult leader Dave and the film intern that they hire to direct their movie, Mark, that are equal parts absurd and unbelievable, but grounded in real human emotion—wanting, searching, the desire to share and tell and create. No one begins by knowing how to make a film. The process, however, begins to unify all those left in the cult.

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Blahd began working for a production company, in the development department. He had done two small projects on his own, but ROVER would become his first "real" project. He launched pre-production on 3 August 2013 and was shooting by 1 November of the same year. The film wrapped in its entirety in September of the following year. The project was a steep learning curve; Blahd made his way through with sound advice and a lot of advanced planning.

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Everything about ROVER began with a dilapidated church Blahd leased from developers in January of 2012. He leased rooms to artists and threw parties, concerts and events. With the money the space pulled in, he had enough to finance a film. "I had been living in that church and working there," Blahd explains. "I knew I wanted to make a film about it. First, I thought I'd make a documentary, but I didn't have enough critical distance." Noting that the place was super creepy, he considered making a horror film instead, but wanted to make something he would find terrifying. "I'm not necessarily scared of zombies and ghosts. I'm scared of failure and loneliness." This lead to research in cults and cult behavior. When Blahd stumbled into the Heaven's Gate story, he was hooked.

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He chose the moviemaking angle within the film, because it played upon his own insecurities: This was his first movie. He hadn't directed much, but now found himself with a team of roughly 30. He began writing his own filmmaking experiences into the script, and his process fueled the characters. The personal resonance is evident—each performance feels honest and aware, because that meta nature of making a film about making a film leant itself to art reflecting reality.

As for being on the festival circuit, Blahd says he's been learning a lot about the industry, and very quickly. "I've learned about the importance of Instagram and Twitter, the impact of social media and promotion." He also understands the importance of using a festival like Slamdance to go out every night and meet people. Blahd would like to see ROVER pick up a distributor—as all of the films at Slamdance's narrative feature competition cannot enter with distribution and must have stemmed from first time creators with micro-budgets. He's also investigating self-distribution with platforms like Vimeo's Video on Demand. It'd be wise to expect more from this up-and-comer.

There will be one more screening of Rover, 11:20AM MST today 23 January 2014, at Slamdance's main stage.

Images courtesy of Rover

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