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Utah filmmakers enjoy substantial festival buzz

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PARK CITY — Utah filmmakers having their works exhibited in Sundance — as well as the many competing mini-festivals held in Park City at the same time — is nothing new.

However, it is new to have those films receive substantial festival buzz.

One of the most buzzed-about films at this year's Sundance festival is the low-to-no-budget horror film "Soft for Digging," which has received some comparisons to the 1999 hit "The Blair Witch Project" — a film that also premiered at Sundance.

"Soft for Digging" was produced by Salt Lake resident Jeffrey Odell, who said that, while the comparison is flattering, the two movies have little in common, "aside from the fact that they both take place in the woods and are ghost stories."

Odell's film is an almost completely wordless horror movie centering on an old loner who is intrigued with a mysterious young girl. Sundance audiences have responded to its taut pacing and odd photographic perspectives. "It feels pretty overwhelming to have so many people saying such positive things about our film," Odell said. "In fact, I'm having a hard time imagining our little movie playing in something of this magnitude."

Odell's filmmaking career stretches back to his elementary school days. But it began in earnest at New York University Film School, where he met J.T. Petty, the writer and director of "Soft for Digging." "I was a big fan of (Petty's) work," Odell said, "and we started working on some scripts together. And he asked me to help produce his thesis film, which turned into this."

Petty and Odell actually completed the film in 1998, but it took Petty three years just to have enough money to have a print struck of the movie. "Given what we went through just to get here, this has wound up being a really emotional festival experience," Odell said.

Though the 26-year-old has been working in animation, both as a consultant and designer, the festival success of "Soft for Digging" has Odell considering work as a film producer. "I think there's at least a chance of receiving distribution for our movie, as well as a chance of getting some sort of development deal for other projects — including some of my own."

Meanwhile, some other Utahns are also finding their work well-received at a few Sundance alternatives:

"HIGHER GROUND" has the Deschamps brothers of Payson riding high. The extreme sports film is one of the featured selections of the X-Dance Film Festival.

The documentary, shot entirely on digital-video cameras, focuses on motorcycle hill-climb events, including an in-depth look at the history of the sport and several riders.

"Higher Ground" was made for $30,000, said Dave Deschamps. "We are kind of lucky because the youngest (brother, Pete) is very talented. Any other production company would have spent close to $60,000."

This is the Deschamps' second feature. Their first video, "Adrenaline Fix," premiered at Jordan Commons last spring and has been showcased on the cable-television program "High Octane."

Dave Deschamps said he and his brothers are "pretty excited" about their festival experiences. "To be honest, this is a bold move for us. We haven't ever done anything like this before. It just blows me away."

"THE MALLORY EFFECT," directed by Salt Lake resident Dustin Guy, is one of the premiere films showcased in the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival.

The movie focuses on a man (Steven Roy) so obsessed with his ex-girlfriend (swimsuit model Josie Maran) that he decides to befriend her new boyfriend (local actor Scott Hanks) — so he can manipulate him into destroying their relationship.

Guy has had several short films win awards at the Utah Short Film and Video Festival. But he said he and the film's producers "found themselves eating scraps" while making this feature-length comedy.

"This film exhausted the wallets of those involved," Guy said. "All of them are still alive. But the director is really hungry."

"PEEPING TOM" was made by University of Utah Medical School graduate Jason Todd Ipson, who quit a potentially lucrative career as a surgeon to concentrate on filmmaking. Ipson recently graduated from the University of Southern California, where he produced this 11-minute short film, which has been showing as part of the Slamdunk Film Festival.

The comedy revolves around a 10-year-old boy who is obsessed with seeing his neighbor in the nude. "As a Utah native, I am extremely happy to have had the opportunity return to my roots and have the chance for a home-crowd audience to view the film," Ipson said.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com