Sundance 2018: Sam Bisbee Talks The Sentence & More

Film producer and composer Sam Bisbee joined Cultured Vultures for a one-on-one chat at the start of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.


Film producer and composer Sam Bisbee joined Cultured Vultures for a one-on-one chat at the start of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Topics discussed included the trio of films that Bisbee brought to the festival and advice for the filmmaker attending their first Sundance.

You produced and composed music for The Sentence. What can you tell me about the film?
The Sentence is an intimate look at the effects of our Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing guidelines on one family. The director Rudy Valdez was actually my daughter’s preschool teacher 13 years ago and we got to be very close then—he’s an amazing person. I wasn’t making movies at that time. I was just a musician and he wasn’t a filmmaker yet. And then Cindy, his sister, got sent away for a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for a non-violent offense that had occurred six years earlier. She had remarried and, when she was sent away, had a newborn baby, two year old and a three year old — all three girls. When this happened to Cindy, Rudy and his family’s whole world was turned upside down and Rudy decided to start filming the girls to document them growing up without their mom, first as a way of having these videos to show her when she finally came home, and then gradually, he realized that what he was capturing was too powerful to not also make into a documentary. At the same time Rudy started to learn more and more about the criminal justice system, leading up to the fight for Cindy’s clemency from then President Obama in 2017. In the course of making the film Rudy became the amazing filmmaker that he is now. And now Cindy, her daughters and Rudy’s whole family will be at Sundance, it’s going to be very emotional to say the least!

As a producer, what kind of thrill is it to be able to bring a movie to premiere here on the mountain?
It’s amazing. Although I always say the best part of getting into Sundance is getting in to Sundance. That’s when you can really enjoy the moment because, especially as a producer, the festival itself can, amazing as it is, be very stressful. Anything that needs to be done falls in the producer’s lap. It’s like running a wedding at a film festival, and with three movies at this year’s festival, it’s like three weddings! But when you can finally sit down in the theater and see the film that so much hard work went into on the big Sundance screen, it’s a beautiful moment. Sundance is one of the best places (I think it is the best) to premiere independent film. I will say that this year, when Rudy’s movie The Sentence got in, we were all in tears because it’s so competitive for a verite documentary from a first-time filmmaker, and Rudy is telling such an important story not to mention what he and his family had been through. We were all in the office when it happened. It was the first one we heard about. Then within the next hour, we found out Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud and Jim Hosking’s Beverly Luff Linn also had got in. That was an incredible day. With three movies this year, it’s nine movies at Sundance in the last seven years.

Sam Elliott in The Hero. Courtesy of The Orchard.

Let’s talk about Sam Elliott.
Sam Elliott is the absolute best, as an actor and a human being. He’s inspiring, generous, kind, and so talented. What an amazing actor. His performance in Brett Haley’s The Hero took my breath away. It was such a privilege to be on set every day, seeing that great performance happen before our eyes, that’s the thing that’s the most special for me as a producer. I feel lucky in these little films we make. When actors of this stature sign on to do a small movie, they check everything at the door. They’re generous and compassionate to the whole crew. We’ve been blessed to work with Sam Elliott, Molly Shannon, Mark Ruffalo, Aubrey Plaza, Kevin Bacon, Zoe Saldana, Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Craig Robinson to name a few and if you’re going to have a nice person competition between those actors, it would be really tough because they were all honestly the nicest people i’ve ever met. One thing I say about Sam Elliott is that any time I’m in a tough situation, if I’m getting annoyed about something or overstressed, I just think, what would Sam Elliott do. Because he always says the right thing and calms everybody down. Although I don’t have his voice. I’ve attempted to lower my voice…

What is the best advice that you can offer to the filmmaker who comes to Sundance for the first time to premiere a film?
When it gets overwhelming, remember what an honor and a privilege it is for a filmmaker to premiere at Sundance. Once you get here, there’s reviews coming out, audience reactions, offers are coming in from distributors. It’s truly always a roller coaster ride. I’ve finally learned that it’s just out of our control. Don’t think you can control it. appreciate that you made a film that’s here. Go to every screening of your film and every q and a. There are very few festivals that consistently fill theaters like this. These are full houses and mostly sold out! My favorite thing is the last five days of screenings when the industry has gradually left and the audiences become more and more organic — just real moviegoers who have come out here who love cinema. It’s just incredible. Try to stay near Main Street. Don’t stay too far away. Hydrate. Make sure you eat. Every once in a while, it’s okay to tell everybody that you need a break because your schedule will be non-stop for three straight days. The other piece of advice: even if it’s just for two hours, you have to ski. The minute you’re on the chair lift, everything that you’re dealing with down here melts away. Even if you’re just gonna figure out a way to have them send you up on the chair lift and bring you back down on it, just get up there because it’s so breathtakingly beautiful.

I’m transgender and one of the things I’d like to see more of in the industry is transgender representation on screen but more importantly, trans people being able to tell their own stories — but the large majority of us are not big names who can sell tickets to movies. What can producers do in order to help improve our opportunities with being able to tell our stories?
We at Park Pictures, where I make films with my partners Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Lance Acord and Thea Dunlap, are committed to making diverse movies, and telling stories that need to be told. The first thing you need is an incredible script. If you’ve got a great script, a producer like me (and the rest of us at Park Pictures) will read it and get excited to help find a great director, and then we would have to figure out a way to package the movie with other valuable actors in the other roles to help get the film financed. In the independent world, the most important thing is packaging movies and producing them at a level that gets your investors their money back so that’s the challenge. We’ve been seeing more and more diverse stories from diverse filmmakers which is very encouraging.

Cynthia Shank, Autumn Shank, Ava Shank and Annalis Shank appear in The Sentence by Rudy Valdez, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In addition to producing, you’re also a composer and composed music for a film premiering in the documentary competition, The Sentence. How are you able to juggle the time for both producing and composing?
I call it a score-cation when I sign on to compose for a film, because I do have to cut myself off from the world and lock myself in my studio, which I love. Frankly, I was not going to score The Sentence. As a rule, I don’t score the movies I produce. As a producer, you need so much perspective and you have to be able to see the forest from the trees. The minute I’m working musically on something, I lose perspective because (as I joke around with producer Thea Dunlap) Sam Bisbee the composer is a lot different than Sam Bisbee the producer. Why it worked for The Sentence is that Rudy got to know me back when I was a full-time songwriter. He used to come to my shows (in 2003). During post-production, he kept saying, “You really don’t want to do music for this?” I kept saying no but I was hearing something in my head that was simple and clear.

Viridiana Lieberman, the editor of the film, had done an incredible job with the temp music and there was a road map. At the same time, we had been doing a renovation in our house so my studio was off limits for about a year but suddenly, the renovation was done. I had put everything back together right at the moment. So I sat down and recorded the music i was hearing in my head as a test and brought it into Rudy and Viri and they liked it. I kept working one cue at a time, and told Rudy he could feel free to fire me at any moment, but he didn’t and we finished the score. It was wonderful getting to do it. I’m really grateful to Rudy and Viri for pushing me to do it. I’m really grateful. Also, the first time I watched the first rough cut of the film, I walked right upstairs to the piano and wrote the song that is now the end credits song. It just came out all at once. I didn’t tell anybody I’d written it and didn’t send it to Rudy for months. I did a completely overproduced version of it finally and sent it to him. I love Rudy because he said, “Sam, that’s great and I want it in the movie, but can you take all that extra stuff out and just make it your acoustic guitar and your voice.”

Thank you so much.
Thank you.