Heidi Zwicker remembers the first videotape she borrowed as a small child – and her parents probably do too.
“I watched ‘The Breakfast Club’ and rewound, watched and rewound. I think I saw it five times in the two days we had it,” said Zwicker, 44, with a laugh. “I was fascinated. When we returned it, I immediately wanted to rent it again. Good call from my parents – my mum said, “We’re going to be easy Buy ‘The Breakfast Club.'”
Raised in Salem and Beverly, Zwicker fell into a different world while watching movies — but it seemed like “more of a hobby” than a career path.
The little girl on the North Shore who endlessly rewinds videotapes never thought that watching movies would one day be her job.
Today, the UMass Dartmouth graduate is Senior Programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, focusing on international and US narrative feature films, Midnight and short films. She is also a senior programmer at the Provincetown International Film Festival.
Sundance is in-person in Park City, Utah Jan. 19-29 — but you don’t have to fly. You can watch many of this year’s films online in the comfort of your own home starting January 24th.
Now in its 39th year, the festival has built a reputation for hitting the road. For example, looking back at the 2022 Oscars, Best Picture winner, CODA, and Best Documentary, Summer of Soul had their world premieres at Sundance.
I recently spoke via Zoom to Zwicker, who was staying at her home in LA (before she went to Park City). She spoke about her Massachusetts roots, her journey to Sundance, and what’s to see at this year’s festival.
Lauren Daley: I’m interested in your journey from Breakfast Club fan to Sundance screener.
Heidi Zwicker: Movies, TV, plays – I’m trapped there; they set my imagination on fire. I’m also a very sensitive viewer. I’m a more experienced viewer now, but as a kid I cried all the time when something was sad. Because of this, I developed an interest in horror movies because they wouldn’t make me cry. My family took me to the video store and they said, “She can rent whatever she wants from the horror department — that’s better than dealing with her after she’s seen ET.”
Love that. You graduated in English from UMass Dartmouth in 2000.
I signed up and I thought, “Maybe I’ll be an English teacher.” I loved films but never thought it could be my career. Then I discovered that UMass Dartmouth’s English program had a film and drama focus and it was compelling. I thought, “Maybe that can be part of my job.” Although I still had no idea how. [laughs]
I entered UCLA in 2002 for film studies—history, criticism, theory. I thought I loved this too much not to try and figure something out. Then my program ended [I earned a masters from UCLA in critical studies of film and television] I wasn’t sure what I would do. Someone in my cohort was doing an internship at Sundance and knew their feature film program was looking for people who could read international scripts. I thought it sounded funny. I did the interview without any relevant experience, just with a lot of interest. [laughs] You gave me a chance. As it turned out, they liked my taste. They recommended me as a screener. At that point I was working a day job, going home, reading scripts, watching movies. I worked with it as many hours as I spent in my normal job.
What was your daily work?
A video conferencing company. So the most tangential film degree you can get. [laughs] And it’s now obsolete. Everyone has Zoom.
Then in 2010 I started full-time as World Cinema Coordinator at the festival.
Many films premiere at Sundance and become blockbusters or Oscar winners. What are some that you knew would make big?
I remember seeing Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade for the first time.
I was on the floor It’s such a cliché, but I felt like I was seen that way. It’s really cool that this film is a success. CODA was hugely emotional for me because it’s an emotional film, but it was also shot on the North Shore. It was a time when I didn’t know when I would be home again. So my memory of seeing that movie is really deep. To see all his success is amazing.
At the beginning of my tenure we played Fruitvale Station, such a great movie and Ryan Coogler is truly one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
Which films would you highlight at this year’s festival?
One that made me cry is UK’s “Scrapper”. It’s a father-daughter story. It’s emotional but funny. Filmmaker Charlotte Regan was a grantee of Ignite, our program for filmmakers under 25. She was a graduate of the short film program and now we have her feature film debut. It’s super cool to watch this growth.
An offbeat, provocative film, Magazine Dreams is the second feature film directed by Amherst’s Elijah Bynum. It stars Jonathan Majors who is a great actor. I find both the direction and the performances amazing. I also choose “Cat Person”.
I wanted to ask you that! Did you like the short story? [in The New Yorker by Kristen Roupenian]? Does it work as a feature?
I was obsessed with the short story. It takes the short story as a starting point but goes in some creative directions. It’s an amazing cast – Emilia Jones from CODA, Nicholas Braun from Succession, my favorite show. It’s just a twisted, entertaining film.
Speaking of Succession, Sarah Snook stars in Run Rabbit Run.
This is a great thriller in the “Midnight” section. It’s not available online, but it’s great.
How about a documentary?
“Victim/Suspect” – this will draw a lot of attention. It’s about women who report sexual assault and are then investigated and even charged with false reporting. It makes you angry.
What is one film that is not currently available to watch online that you think will take off?
“Sometimes I think about dying.” I love it. It’s based on a short film we played a few years ago. I was skeptical because I think the short film is perfect. But it totally captures the spirit of the short film. It stars Daisy Ridley – I think people will be interested to see her in a role that’s so different from Star Wars. She’s great at that.
A little favorite I want to draw people’s attention to is “Fremont”. It’s not like any other film I’ve ever seen. It’s about a young refugee from Afghanistan who lives in Northern California, works in a fortune cookie company and tries to make ends meet. Really offbeat, dramedy, comedy, nothing like it. The leadership [Anaita Wali Zada] is an Afghan refugee. She’s great at that.
That sounds fascinating. How many films have you seen this year in preparation?
About 500 functions.
Wow. You mentioned the Amherst filmmaker – are there other connections to Massachusetts?
There’s a movie in Massachusetts called Eileen that’s based on that  Novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. Set in a 1960s prison, it stars Anne Hathaway as a mysterious woman who comes to prison for work and may have unknown motives. It’s really beautiful.
You will be at the party in person. Do you ever get a different perspective on a film when you see it with a live audience and how they react?
Certainly. It’s funny because I am [often] to stand next to the filmmaker and watch as an audience sees his film for the first time, sees them laughing in an unexpected place, or sniffling at a sad moment. It is wonderful.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.