Sundance 2016: 13 Hot Directors to Watch

TheWrap spotlights Andrew Neel (“Goat”), Rob Burnett (“Fundamentals of Caring”) and other auteurs on the rise

Much of the entertainment industry is heading to Utah this week to take part in the  Sundance Film Festival to seek the next big movie, talented star or up-and-coming filmmaker.

Over the years, the festivals has been a launching pad for directors like Steven Soderbergh, who launched his film, “sex, lies and videotape” there in 1989. More recent, Ryan Coogler premiered his film “Fruitvale Station” at 2013’s Sundance, for which he won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

This year’s edition promises a new crop of potential auteurs, many of whom have previously proven themselves as actors and writers. For example, “Other People” director Chris Kelly is a writer for “Saturday Night Live.” “Birth of a Nation” filmmaker Nate Parker is a veteran actor.

Below, TheWrap takes a look at this year’s Sundance directors with a lot of buzz on them.


Andrew Neel, “Goat”
When David Gordon Green stepped aside as the director of Brad Land’s hazing memoir, producers James Franco and Christine Vachon turned to Neel to take the reins. He started out writing, directing and producing short films before making the leap to features with 2006’s “Darkon.” After receiving critical acclaim for his 2012 indie “King Kelly” he produced “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” which also garnered strong reviews. “Goat” is his highest-profile project yet, and early word is that he delivered the goods.

Other People

Chris Kelly, “Other People”
Kelly is a “Saturday Night Live” writer who previously served as a writer-director for “Funny or Die” as well as a staff writer and director for “The Onion News Network” on IFC. A three-time Emmy nominee, Kelly has also worked as a writer on Comedy Central’s “Broad City” and the upcoming Fox/Blue Sky animated movie “Anubis.” The semi-autobiographical “Other People” snagged the Opening Night slot at Sundance, which is no easy feat given the competition.

Birth of a Nation/The Intervention

Nate Parker, “Birth of a Nation” & Clea DuVall, “The Intervention”
Parker and DuVall are veteran actors who aim to reinvent themselves with their feature directorial debuts, which couldn’t be more different. DuVall wrote, directed and co-stars in “The Intervention,” which follows four couples on a weekend getaway that doubles as an intervention for one of their marriages.

Meanwhile, Parker took a year off in 2015 to write, direct, produce and star in “Birth of a Nation,” in which he plays famed abolitionist Nat Turner. It was a passion project for the actor, whose devotion to the challenging material is apparent on screen. Hollywood needs more directors who are female as well as African-American, so perhaps DuVall and Parker are the next Lake Bell and Denzel Washington. You never know…


James Schamus, “Indignation” & Rob Burnett, “The Fundamentals of Caring”
Like Parker and DuVall, these two Hollywood veterans are also out to reinvent themselves. Burnett was the longtime executive producer of “The Late Show With David Letterman,” but he has yearned for more. His movie, which stars Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez, has already sold off its worldwide VOD rights to Netflix for $7 million, and finding a theatrical distributor will be next on the agenda.

For his part, Schamus wrote, directed and produced “Indignation” after running Focus Features and Good Universe. It’s not easy to adapt Philip Roth but Schamus has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Fortunately, he has a talented young cast to work with: Logan Lerman, Ben Rosenfield and Sarah Gadon.

Spa Night, Andrew Ahn

Sundance Film Festival

Andrew Ahn, “Spa Night”
“Spa Night” isn’t autobiographical, though it’s informed by Ahn’s own experiences as a gay Korean-American. The film follows a closeted teen who takes a job at a Korean spa where he’s introduced to the terrifying and titillating world of underground sex. From there, he’s forced to starkly confront his identity as a young gay man and what it means for his corresponding life as a Korean-American. Ahn screened his short film “Dol (First Birthday)” at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and one year later, “Spa Night” was accepted into the Sundance Institute’s 2013 Screenwriters Lab. He crowdfunded “Spa Night” with the help of Kickstarter and is poised to make a splash with “Spa Night,” which is not your typical coming-out film.


Matt Johnson (“Operation Avalanche”), Andre Hyland (“The 4th”) & Tim Sutton (“Dark Night”)
It may be unfair for us to lump these three filmmakers together, but they’re definitely the talk of Sundance‘s always-exciting NEXT program. Johnson has already been showered with press for sneaking into NASA to complete his conspiracy-theory movie about a faked moon landing.

After his short film “Funnel” debuted at Sundance in 2014, Hyland returns to Park City with “The 4th,” a shaggy yet hilarious day-in-the-life story of a guy trying in vain to prepare for a 4th of July BBQ, featuring the multi-hyphenate’s unique comic sensibility.

Finally, Sutton hopes to rock Sundance to its core with “Dark Night,” a narrative feature about a movie theater shooting.

 Tallulah Ellen Page

Sian Heder, “Tallulah”
It might not be fair to include Sian Heder, as we’ve been watching the filmmaker for some time. She nabbed one of the prize AFI Directing Workshop for Women slots in 2005, saw her short “Mother” compete in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and went on to win a Peabody in 2010 for her work on “Men of a Certain Age.” But it’s “Tallulah” — which sold its SVOD rights to Netflix before Sundance even began — starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney that qualifies her for this list. It’s no surprise the “Orange Is the New Black” writer is staying in Ted Sarandos’ family — her drama about a young woman (Page) on the run with a baby that’s got our feature length attention.

White girl

Elizabeth Wood, “White Girl”
Wood has a Lower East Side intensity that is perfect counter-culture for the Sundance crowd — full of celebrities and entrenched executives in their seasonal Apres Ski wear. “White Girl” is positioned as a tense thriller about young love, race and a savior complex all resting on “Homeland”‘s Morgan Saylor under Wood’s gaze. “White Girl” is allegedly based on personal experience, as is her next script, “Spiritual Crisis.” Sounds like that downtown sensibility is headed for a decidedly Angeleno quandary.

Lovesong film

So Yong Kim, “Lovesong”
Road-trip movies, tests of female friendship movies, and the inevitable sapphic twist are all conventions we’ve seen in indie films — but perhaps not simultaneously, as happens in So Yong Kim’s “Lovesong.” Fresh off the “The Hunger Games” franchise, Jena Malone co-stars with Riley Keough and a notable supporting cast that includes Ryan Eggold, Rosanna Arquette and Amy Seimetz. Kim’s fourth feature is bound to resonate after her 2006 Sundance Jury prize for “In Between Days.”