By Katie Chambers
The annual media industry pilgrimage to Park City, Utah has gone fully virtual as the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was impacted by the COVID-19 Omicron variant. But that hasn’t stopped New York Women in Film & Television members from making waves – 13 members played a key creative role in 11 different projects featured in Sundance this year.
NYWIFT member Jen Heck returns to Sundance this year as part of a special retrospective celebrating the 40th anniversary of the festival’s short film program that welcomes back past Sundance projects. Heck wrote and associate produced the comedic short Hold Up, in which a robber is after more than just money during an NYC convenience store hold up. It originally premiered at Sundance in 2006 and has strong ties to the NYWIFT community, as it was directed by member Madeleine Olnek and features Muse Awards host Nancy Giles in one of the three starring roles.
We sat down with writer and associate producer Jen Heck to discuss her Sundance experiences – both traditional and virtual – as well as memories of making the film and what she’s up to now.
This is Sundance’s 40th anniversary short film program, during which they’re bringing back some shorts from past years to play alongside new ones. Hold Up is from 2006! It would have been hard to imagine in 2006 the circumstances of a 2022 Sundance, originally planned as hybrid but forced to be all-virtual as we near year three of a global pandemic. What was your original Sundance experience like?
My original Sundance experience was in 2000, and it was both odd and amazing. I went for a mix of reasons; I was supporting my friend Tunde [Adebimpe]’s feature acting debut, a wonderful film called Jump Tomorrow. I was also supporting my friend Scott’s short film debut, “Conspiracy Rock.” The three of us were all partners in a creative group, and as a group we were additionally at Sundance to promote our “60 Second Film Festival” event.
In an odd twist, we were invited by Lloyd Kaufman of Troma to stay with his team in their condos. We quickly discovered that the space was pretty crowded, and Tunde and I ended up sleeping on the floor of a bathroom. The next day we managed to get the last hotel room in Park City, credit cards be damned. That misadventure set the tone for the rest of our crazy, awesome, weird, exhausting, ridiculous week during which I talked so much, I lost my voice. I’m glad that happened in my early 20s, because if it happened today, the adventure would definitely end at, “Hey, you guys can sleep in this bathroom.”
Needless to say, no part of this would have been possible in a pandemic. No bathroom floor zzz’s, no excessive talking to strangers, none of it. Consequently, that first Sundance experience was my weirdest and most memorable. When we went with Hold Up it was awesome, but I slept in a bed the entire time…so conventional!
Hold Up is so fun and unexpected. How did you first come up with the story?
It was a cold night, and I was driving from Northampton, MA, to my parents’ house in central Massachusetts. I had a broken heart, and it was all that I could think about. The road was dark, and the only light ahead was a gas station. I remember looking inside and seeing a person talking to the clerk. The interaction seemed complex, and in that moment, with my broken heart heavy on my mind, I had the idea. What if the customer at the counter isn’t just a customer? Right away, I knew I would make it into a film someday.
The script itself was written by you, the director, and the three actors. What was that process like? It seems almost like improv theatre.
The film happened as part of a required exercise in collaboration at Columbia University’s grad film program. [Director Madeleine Olnek] and I were very close at that time. I’d always planned to direct it myself, but Madeleine is hilarious, and I was (and am) a big fan of her work, so I gave it to her. I only had a first draft of the script at that stage. Madeleine is an expert at directing comedy and improv, so she asked if we could workshop the script as an improv piece. It was scripted as a single event that unfolded in real time, so it made sense. She brought in incredibly talented people, and the result is on the screen. At times it was chaotic. There were bumps in the road during the shoot; it was quite literally meant to be a learning experience. We were there to experiment, to make mistakes, to stretch. But in the end, it came together so wonderfully. It’s had an incredible run that I’m certainly grateful for, and proud of.
The story covers a lot of ground – and genres – in its seven-minute running time, from crime thriller, to sitcom, to romance, and more. What types of stories interest you most as a writer and producer?
There’s a quirkiness and sense of fun that I think is consistent in all my work. I want to make things that are fun and interesting. I think laughter is the hardest thing to write. I prize it above all else, although it’s not always the dominant tone of my work. Sometimes the humor is subtle, but it’s almost always there, and that’s my defining trait. There’s always some telltale quirky moment or idea that serves as my fingerprint.
The cool thing is now I have a four-year-old daughter, and she’s even more original, weird, & funny. I want to tell stories that will make her even more curious, and to make sure she knows that there’s no need to limit herself to one thing.
I personally love watching shorts, and I know they’re always a popular part of film festivals. As a writer, what about short film appeals to you specifically as an art form?
You said it – shorts are an art form. The shorter a piece is, the harder it is to write. I have incredible respect for writers and directors who can engage an audience in the blink of an eye. I have the word “simplify” tattooed on my wrist as a reminder; simplicity is the key to making a story work…even a mechanically complex one. It’s so hard to do, and I love being amazed and inspired by all the new ideas that come out every year in short form. I strongly disagree that all good ideas have been done. Whoever says that doesn’t watch short films. Shorts are where so much of the real innovation is happening. Innovation is mandatory, because it’s so hard to tell a good story in a small pocket of time.
How have you been faring during COVID? What impact has it had on your professional life, and how has the way you work changed?
I work from home, and it’s been a good thing. Subtracting a commute from my life has really helped me to make more of every day. I’m very lucky that I have a loving, goofy family under the same roof, including a son who was born just this summer. And I’m lucky that the pandemic happened at a time when it was OK for me to stay home, both professionally and socially. If this had happened when I was 25 or 30, I think it would have had the opposite effect on my productivity and sense of purpose.
The pandemic has been unfair, and I have a lot of empathy for people who were forced to pause indefinitely while in a state of flux, whether they are younger or older. I’m grateful that I’ve been where I am and with who I’m with during this challenging time.
In 2016, Jen Heck directed, edited, and co-executive produced (with Van Jones) this short piece about Prince’s secret philanthropic work. Featuring President Barack Obama, Janelle Monáe, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, Prince’s family, and others. This film premiered to a crowd of over 17,000 friends, family, and fans at Prince’s official memorial in Minneapolis.
What is next for you?
I am a senior creative on a popular TV show. I’ve been on the show for quite a while, and I’m very proud of my role in its evolution and success.
I’m also co-executive producing a feature documentary about Prince with Van Jones and Mayte Garcia, which I’ll also direct. I had the honor of directing Prince’s memorial film in 2016, and this project has been a labor of love that I’ve been developing since that time. Prince had a huge impact on me as a young artist, so it’s both an honor and a responsibility to tell a unique part of his story.
And I’m developing a second documentary project about the 1984 Great Adventure fire with a colleague and mentor who was closely involved in the aftermath of that event. It was a story too interesting not to tell, and the perspective we’re able to give is new, unique, intimate, and unexpected.
So now you see why those hours I save on my commute are so appreciated!
Jen Heck is an American writer, director, and producer best known for her award-winning films. A graduate of Columbia’s prestigious MFA directing program, her work has appeared at the Whitney Biennial (2004), and at major film festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, the São Paulo International Film Festival, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and the Hamptons International Film Festival. Her stories are often described as “quirky”, with themes of love, isolation, and the delicate nature of relationships between young women commonly recurring.
Learn more about her work at steamboatpictures.com.
In director Tracy Droz Tragos feature documentary Plan C, a hidden grassroots organization doggedly fights to expand access to abortion pills across the United States, keeping hope alive during a global pandemic and the fall of Roe v. Wade. With abortion restrictions and bans going into effect, Francine Coeytaux and her team of providers established Plan C — a grassroots organization dedicated to expanding access to medication abortion. NYWIFT member Jess Jacobs, the film’s executive producer, has a career-long history of activism – including work with the Plan C organization before the movie was even made! She spoke to us about Plan C’s Sundance premiere, her passion for reproductive justice, and the power of community.READ MORE
Many children – and more than a few adults – dream of long-distance space exploration. But what about the real human toll of that kind of journey? The new documentary The Longest Goodbye, which debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, takes a poignant look at the fundamentals of day-to-day reality in space: the isolation, confinement, and lack of privacy and social contact. Executive producer Valda Witt spoke to us about the project, her childhood dreams of space travel, favorite moments making the film, and getting to know scientists and astronauts in a deeply personal way.READ MORE
NYWIFT member Caitlin Gold is the Co-Founder and Co-Head of Film, a private equity fund dedicated to financing narrative and documentary films directed by women. The fund’s tagline is “Films by women make more money, but Hollywood isn’t making them….” Thanks to Gold and her colleagues, that very well may change! Their most recent feature is the Australian film Shayda, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the World Dramatic Competition and won that category’s Audience Award. Gold spoke to us about Shayda’s path to the screen, funding work by women, and what’s next on her horizon.READ MORE
Developed in partnership with Sundance Institute and Founded by Hartbeat CEO Thai Randolph and Head of Film Candice Wilson Cherry, WOMEN WRITE NOW is a comedic writing fellowship designed to champion the next generation of Black women in comedy through mentorship, advocacy, production, and exhibition. Now in its second year, this year’s fellowship brought in three emerging writers, Mayanna Berrin, Kianna Butler Jabangwe, and Danielle Solomon to develop and produce their comedic short scripts under the guidance of some of the most influential Black women in comedy. The resulting projects were then brought into production by Hartbeat studios. Cherry and the writers spoke to us about their experience.READ MORE