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Sundance 2020: Duke alums feature prominently in this year’s festival

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<p>“Promising Young Woman” stars Angela Zhou (Trinity ‘14) and “Charm City Kings” was produced by Clarence Hammond (Trinity ‘08).</p>

“Promising Young Woman” stars Angela Zhou (Trinity ‘14) and “Charm City Kings” was produced by Clarence Hammond (Trinity ‘08).

Duke alumni made a splash at Sundance this year — many of the films in competition were acted, directed and produced by Duke graduates now working in the industry. Duke has one of the largest networks of alumni in the arts and entertainment industries in Los Angeles and New York, one that rivals even the University of Southern California’s. With so many graduates out in Hollywood, many have found success as actors or producers and have even worked on projects that have gone on to win awards. 

This year, producers Clarence Hammond (Trinity ‘08) and Niel Creque Williams (Trinity ‘06), actress Angela Zhou (Trinity ‘14) and documentary director known for “Ask Dr. Ruth,” Ryan White (Trinity '04), each pemiered their projects at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, many having worked alongside major names in Hollywood. Hammond, a producer at Will Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment, is no stranger to Sundance. He was a producer on Minhal Baig’s film “Hala,” which was quickly picked up by Apple after the 2019 festival. 

Hammond’s most recent film, “Charm City Kings,” is a poignant coming of age story that follows a boy who wants to join a dirt bike gang that rules the streets of Baltimore. It stars Meek Mill and Jahi Di'Allo Winston, and “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins is among the credited writers. “Charm City Kings” was awarded the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Outstanding Ensemble at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. 

Zhou, an actress and member of the Screen Actor’s Guild of America, is featured in the Emerald Fennell-directed, Margot Robbie-produced and Focus Features-distributed film “Promising Young Woman,” the story of a woman’s trauma and revenge against the men that sexually assaulted her best friend. Among the New Zealander’s co-stars are Carey Mulligan, Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham and Alison Brie. The Chronicle interviewed Hammond and Zhou about Sundance, their Duke experiences and their respective projects. 

Interview with Clarence Hammond (Trinity ’08)

The Chronicle: You mentioned this project took six years to bring to life. What was the story like initially and what did the team want it to be?

Clarence Hammond: We always loved the idea of centering it around a young boy who’s trying to grow up — even though he's so young, so small, so mousey, we were drawn to that type of story, about a boy who needs to become a man. With that in mind, we needed to consider, "What's the journey?" Coming of age stories are always about collateral damage. You try to rail against everything you've known, lie to your mom and sneak out, but many of those actions have big life changing consequences. 

TC: There were four writers involved in creating the story for “Charm City Kings.” Could you describe the initial stages of developing the script and at what stage each writer came on board?

CH: Once we figured out the story, we went to writers Kirk Sullivan and Chris Boyd. Their sample added a great youthful, fun voice to the children they wrote. After two or three drafts of their version, almost randomly, I was linked up with Barry [Jenkins] — this is before “Moonlight” became what it is now. What I love about Barry's voice is that he added lyricism and sensitivity to the story. Sherman [Payne]’s part was to take the foundation that Kirk, Chris and Barry built. He’s the one who decided how to build the world and paint its walls. He added a lot of commercial and group dynamics while holding on to the sensitivity that Barry brought to the story.

TC: Often production companies are unwilling to invest in stories from underrepresented voices in the industry, but things have been rapidly changing with inclusion in Hollywood. Where have you personally begun to notice a change in this mindset? 

CH: There are many angles to it. As my generation grew up in the industry, we came in as a diverse assistant body, and in the decades since, we've become coordinators, executives, writers, directors and producers. Now, people are more inclined to tell the stories of their own experiences. As we come into these positions, the content we create is reflective of our diversity. We are also fortunately at a time where diversity is becoming more commercial of profitable — films like “Black Panther,” for example, are starting to have such a following and success that will lead to a more diverse box office landscape in the years to come.

TC: What would you say is the importance of festivals like Sundance for independent filmmakers and producers? 

CH: Sundance has a pretty discerning power. There's the pressure of it, the excitement of it; it's almost like "the beginning of the school year" for the industry — it gets the conversation started and sets the tone for what's to come. For us, it was great that we were already attached to Sony Pictures Classics, so being at Sundance this year meant beginning to promote the film's release. We needed to make sure “Charm City Kings’” first appearance to the world was as successful as possible, and it couldn't have been better; there were people laughing, crying and jumping at the premiere. 

TC: Is there anything you could say about your Duke experience that helped you arrive at this moment of premiering films at major festivals? 

CH: My Duke experience helped teach me the value of understanding differing perspectives. My Political Science major, English minor and certificate in film gave me three drastically different experiences and allowed me to develop three different work approaches; Duke really taught me that and helped me broaden my horizons. For students at Duke now, it is important to cultivate your tastes and try to consume as much content as possible — whether that be a podcast, play, documentary at Full Frame or screening at Duke, whatever you can do to soak up as much content will help you in telling your own stories.

Interview with Angela Zhou (Trinity ’14)

The Chronicle: What stood out to you about the script for “Promising Young Woman” and why did you decide to pursue this project?

Angela Zhou: One big thing that stood out was that [Emerald Fennell] could mix your classic cute romantic-comedy moments with more dark humor and serious elements. Reading the script was like a roller coaster, you could go up at one moment, and then right back down to where it felt like the worst was happening. Just when you think nothing’s going to go right, [the script] gives you this crazy victorious feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever read a script that’s given me such a sense of victory before. 

TC: Without spoling too much, “Promising Young Woman” deals with themes of trauma and sexual assault. Could you speak to the timeliness of this film and its relevance to the “Me Too” movement?

AZ: The film is definitely timely, especially with the “Me Too” movement, and that was another part of what drew me to the script. There has been a lot of talk about “Me Too,” but no movies have broken through to discuss it until now. It’s such a tough topic, because you want to tackle the situation with the right amount of nuance. The characters in the movie are all multidimensional, and the movie recognizes the shades of grey — the issue [of sexual assault] is never black and white. When you see an amazing script that’s one thing, but [“Promising Young Woman”] was not only new and fresh but in the zeitgeist of the moment. 

TC: What was it like working with Emerald Fennell and a team that has been working to make women’s voices heard in the industry?

AZ: Emerald is great in the sense that she’s also an actor, so she knows exactly how to give direction in a way that an actor can actually understand and process. I think it’s an exciting time in the industry, especially with women like Emerald Fennell and Phoebe Waller-Bridge leading the way. They are my complete idols because they get to make their own narratives and do whatever they want and nobody stops them. They get to write, act, direct and produce, so it really is their own individual voices coming through in a way that is entirely unapologetic. 

TC: Is there anything about your Duke experience that helped you reach this point in your career? 

AZ: I don’t think I ever could’ve had a career in this business if I hadn’t gone to Duke. I came from New Zealand, and when I fell in love with performance and storytelling, I didn’t know how to translate that into a career. But, through the connections at Duke, my internships allowed me an idea of what the industry is and who the different players are. I am really grateful to all of the Duke alumni who took the time to meet with me and give me advice. That’s what really gave me my entryway into the industry. 

“Charm City Kings” comes out in select theaters April 10 and nationwide April 17. “Promising Young Woman” hits theaters April 17. 

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