CCA Media Arts Cochair Rob Epstein's Film Howl, Starring James Franco, Lands World Premiere at Sundance

(photo by JoJo Whilden)

Howl, a feature film written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, will have its world premiere on the first night of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on January 21. The opening-night structure is new this year. Instead of one single headliner, there will be three, one in each of three categories: short film, narrative, and documentary. Howl will be featured in the narrative category; the jurors selected it for this special honor out of nearly 2,000 submissions.

Howl stars James Franco (as a young Allen Ginsberg), David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, and Jeff Daniels. It not only documents a pivotal moment in Ginsberg's life but suggests the birth of a new counterculture. The story spans several years, from Ginsberg's inspirations for the legendary book-length poem to the resulting 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco. The film is a nonfiction drama, remarkable for its blending of live action and animation. "Given the subject," says Epstein, "we set out to tell the story in a new kind of a narrative form that was inspired by documentary material, using both traditional narrative storytelling techniques and animation to make the poem itself a cinematic experience.

"I am thrilled to pieces that Howl has been invited to have its world premiere at Sundance. And that it is among the 16 films selected for the dramatic competition is a dream come true. The fact that we're bringing CCA Media Arts students to the festival this year as part of the Advanced Production course is an added bonus. I am excited that CCA will be represented this year at Sundance."

Howl has already received positive mentions in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, with more accolades surely to come.

Epstein is making a special trip back to San Francisco midfestival to present the film at the Kabuki in San Francisco on January 28; the screening will be followed by a Q&A. He will then travel back to Park City, bringing with him a group of CCA students (and the course's co-teacher Cheryl Dunye). During the last three days of the festival they will attend a screening of Howl and subsequent films of the students' choosing.

Epstein is already known to documentary film lovers as the writer and director of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), both of which won Oscars in the best documentary feature category. The former was the inspiration for Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008, starring Sean Penn). Epstein is also no stranger to Sundance: His film The Celluloid Closet (1995) was a Sundance jury prize winner in 1996, Paragraph 175 (2000) won the documentary directing award in 2000, and The Times of Harvey Milk screened at the first Sundance Film Festival in 1985.

The festival, now in its 26th year, is world renowned as an opportunity to gain a first peek at independent films—some future classics, and some smaller gems that might otherwise have never made it onto the public radar. Last year the festival launched the critical success Precious (directed by Lee Daniels); premieres of note from previous years have included Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989, directed by Steven Soderbergh), The Brothers McMullen (1995, directed by Edward Burns), and Napoleon Dynamite (2004, directed by Jared Hess).

Epstein's films have played at festivals around the world, including the Berlin Film Festival (where his work received the FIPRESCI award, aka the International Critics Prize), the Venice Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (Frameline), the New York Film Festival, the Sydney Film Festival, and the Hong Kong Film Festival. Both the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London and the Taiwan International Film Festival recently did career retrospectives of his work.

Epstein recently was awarded the International Documentary Association's (IDA) Pioneer Award, which acknowledges filmmakers who have amassed a history of producing films that effect change within the documentary genre. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors, and a voting member of the Directors Guild of America. He also serves on the board of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Before coming to CCA, he taught in the graduate film program at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He also a partner in the San Francisco–based production company Telling Pictures.