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No rest for the weary at Sundance

Haskell Wexler examines the lack of sleep for production crews in new film
/ Source: The Associated Press

At 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., Alan Berliner was out of his element for the first two screenings of his Sundance Film Festival documentary “Wide Awake.”

It was the third screening, at midnight, when he felt he was coming into his own, and that he finally had the right crowd to appreciate the film relating his story as a lifelong insomniac.

“I think in my heart of hearts, I imagine that the perfect audience for the film would be the night owls, and that somehow, there would be some kind of synergy between that and the fact that the film basically was made at night or at least edited at night, from midnight on,” Berliner said in an interview just before the midnight showing of “Wide Awake.”

With the parties, celebrity chasing, late-night film deals and screenings from early morning through the wee hours, Sundance qualifies as one of the country’s most sleep-deprived spots during its 11-day run, which ends Sunday.

Fittingly, along with “Wide Awake,” the festival features a second documentary about shuteye and the people who don’t get enough of it, director Haskell Wexler’s “Who Needs Sleep?”

Cinematographer Wexler, a two-time Academy Award winner for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory,” began making “Who Needs Sleep?” in the late 1990s after a Hollywood tragedy.

Cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel and died in a car crash after putting in a 19-hour day on the set of “Pleasantville” — after putting in four straight 15-hour days before that.

Many people in the movie industry rallied for shorter working hours, but Wexler’s film documents the economics of Hollywood in which film crews are expected to stay until the day’s shooting is done, often meaning shifts that last 16 to 18 hours or more.

While focusing on show business, Wexler notes that Americans in general somehow feel pressured to put in long hours out of worry of falling behind financially or professionally.

“A predator like the lion sleeps as long as he wants, whenever and wherever he wants. But other animals, depending on their size and vulnerability, sleep with one eye open, sleep standing up,” Wexler said. “I think my own view is that those of us who feel vulnerable or feel the necessity to be looking over our shoulders out of worry over our lives and work are in the same situation.”

Berliner and Wexler’s films feature extensive interviews with experts who discuss the causes of sleep disorders and the dangers of fatigue.

In “Wide Awake,” Berliner recounts how he only comes alive after dinner and does his best work after midnight, making such previous documentaries as “The Sweetest Sound” and “The Family Album” while the rest of the world was sleeping.

“The blessing is the curse,” Berliner said. “The energy that keeps me up at night, the overload of information that I take in, all that obsessiveness about cataloguing the world and taking all that in, the over-revving of the mind, that is the engine that allows the film to be made.”