If Justin Illig ever ends up being one of those filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino who is catapulted toward an Oscar by an auspicious debut at the Sundance Film Festival, he can at least say he got an early look at how the festival works.
The 19-year-old Point Park University student and resident of Eighty Four was one of a cadre of interns at this year’s film festival, which took place last month in snowy, mountainous Park City, Utah, and is considered the premier showcase for independent film in the United States. Rather than just taking tickets or ferrying coffee to stressed-out festival organizers, Illig was part of a group of aspiring moviemakers who were given the task of coming up with a five-minute short film during their stay.
Illig was the editor on the short, “Late January,” a comedy about two friends who make New Year’s resolutions and leave them in tatters by the end of the month. Illig was part of a multicultural group that included a director from Mexico, a producer from London and a screenwriter from Texas.
“The group worked really well together,” Illig said last week. “We’d bounce ideas off each other.”
A 2014 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School, Illig is a freshman in the cinema production program at Point Park University. A movie fan from a young age – he counts the “Lord of the Rings” movies, “Chinatown” and “Casablanca” as particular favorites – he hopes to one day become an independent filmmaker, like those who were getting their movies screened at Sundance, after he learns the ins and outs of movie history and the art of filmmaking.
“I’ve always had a more creative mind than a logical one,” Illig said. “I’ve always liked movies. In high school, it really piqued my interest after I watched some of the independent artists on YouTube, and they explained how they went through the process.
“I thought, ‘I really like this and I couldn’t imagine myself in any other profession.’”
Illig applied for the internship in November and was notified he was accepted shortly thereafter. The trip to Utah was the first solo journey for Illig, who was a Boy Scout and ran on the cross country team at Canon-McMillan. One of the most valuable experiences Illig had at the festival was collaborating with other people his age who were just as dedicated and enthusiastic about pursuing careers in the film industry.
“I had a team that had at least the same amount of experience I did, and that I could bounce ideas off of,” he explained. “I learned a lot through the group itself. We all taught each other things.”
Of course, one of the lures of a festival like Sundance is the opportunity to mix and mingle with industry movers and shakers, and Illig was able to make contacts with people who could provide assistance after he finishes coursework at Point Park.
“It’s interesting to hear everyone’s stories and how they got into (the business),” he said.
Though Illig and his fellow interns kept their noses to the grindstone at the festival, there were some opportunities to see some movies and, yes, engage in a little stargazing. Illig was able to get into screenings of “Digging for Fire,” with Orlando Bloom and Sam Rockwell, which will get a wider release later this year; “The End of the Tour,” about author David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008; and “Last Days in the Desert,” which has Ewan McGregor playing Jesus Christ.
And, no, he didn’t get to see Robert Redford, who launched the Sundance Film Festival in 1978.
Illig won a $1,000 scholarship thanks to his editing work on “Late January,” and it will be screened at Cannes Film Festival in France this year.
Despite having been a whirlwind experience, it’s a quiet moment near the start of the festival that Illig said stayed with him.
“On the first day of filming with my crew, we all got up early and saw the sunrise over the mountains.”