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FILM FEST | Vol. 5, No. 10, March 10, 2005
(The Official Film Fest Guide)

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Sundance Superstar

by Sam Baltrusis

'D.E.B.S.' CLAWS OPEN CELLULOID CLOSET

It's all still a blur to "D.E.B.S." writer/director Angela Robinson. More than two years after her rags-to-riches Cinderella story at the Sundance Film Festival, she's still trying to piece together what really happened.

"Looking back, I still can't believe it," Robinson says, days before the national release of her first full-length feature based on that now infamous spy-spoof-meets-teen-flick short.

"It's totally been a wild ride," she gushes.

"D.E.B.S." the short—which was picked up by Sony's Screen Gems division and has been crafted into a fullblown movie with hot, up-and-coming actresses like "The Fast as the Furious" Jordana Brewster and supermodel Devon Aoki —follows a clan of plaid-skirted schoolgirls who are being groomed by a secret government agency to become the newest members of an elite national defense group.

Robinson says going into that first screening at Sundance in '03, she had no clue that the festival would become a life-changing event. She remembers being mired in the reality of the moment and trying not to get her hopes up.

"I was mildly optimistic, but had no clue things would unfold like they did," she recalls.

No one cares about shorts at Sundance, she believed, especially from a first-time director. Her chances of really making a splash at the Park City, Utah, schmooze fest, she thought, was nil to none.

Think again.

SUNDANCE UNVEILING

"I remember having sort of an out-of-body experience when the whole thing went down and I was like: 'Is this really happening to me?'"

Her "E! True Hollywood Story" sort of unfolds in a rapid succession of events.

"POWER UP! (the Los Angeles-based lesbian advocacy group) gave me this grant to do a short film and they did this gala thing to show it off to people," she explains. "'D.E.B.S.' got a lot of attention there. And, I ended up finding a manager from that event and he presented it to Sony right before Sundance."

Robinson says she was up into the wee hours the night before deadline tweaking the short for Sundance.

"Few people know about this, but I kept missing the Fed Ex deadlines and I ended up having to take a 5 a.m. red-eye flight from New York to hand deliver it to the Sundance judges," she recalls with a laugh. "I was my own courier. And, when I finally made it to L.A., I was mangy. I looked like the clich? independent filmmaker. I was a mess."

Her last-minute freak-out paid off big time for the aspiring writer/director. Robinson signed with Screen Gems minutes after screening her 20-minute short.

Stacy Codikow, a TV & film veteran fro POWER UP! and the executive producer of "D.E.B.S.," fondly recalls that now mythic Sundance screening.

"I knew that she was on to something when people were rolling in the aisles laughing," she says. "At Sundance— even at the POWER UP! gala a month before— 'D.E.B.S.' became an overnight sensation." Codikow says the buzz was so huge, Hollywood execs were throwing offers at Robinson left and right.

"Screen Gems picked it up quick," she explains. "Angela wrote a feature script expanding on the plot from the short. They bought it. And they immediately green-lit production and she made it into a movie."

Robinson finished production on the full-length feature in less than a year.

"Angela was back at Sundance in 2004 to screen the feature, and again, everyone loved it," Codikow insists. "It's been non-stop since then."

Based on the success of "D.E.B.S." at last year's festival, Disney approached Robinson to direct "Herbie: Fully Loaded."

"I mean, how many people get to direct a Disney movie with a $75 million dollar budget?" Codikow says. "This whole thing has been amazing. Simply amazing."

THE L WORD

To the outside world, the "D.E.B.S." look like picture- perfect, plaid-skirted, Catholic schoolgirls. But really they are our nation's first line of defense. And, well, two of the characters happen to be gay.

"My goal was to make a film where it didn't matter if the characters are gay or straight," Robinson says. "I wanted their orientation to be totally submerged into the background and treated matter-of-factly."

Robinson, who is African-American and lesbian, says sexual orientation is treated as a non-issue in the film.

"The problem the 'D.E.B.S.' have with Amy has nothing to do with the fact she's dating a girl. It's because she's dating the enemy."

Goody-two-shoes Amy (Sara Foster) falls for the bank robber super villain, Lucy Diamond ( Jordana Brewster).

"My original intention was to make a happy, fun gay movie," Robinson muses. "I remember scouring the video store as a kid looking for a movie with some sort of representation."

Codikow says "D.E.B.S." is groundbreaking because it's the first gay-themed movie slapped with a PG-13 rating.

"It's really encouraging to me that the studios didn't ask for her to tone down the characters' sexuality. In fact, she expanded on the relationship with Amy and Lucy."

"It's one of the first features I've seen where being gay isn't the focal point," the film veteran adds. "Like in real life, there's more to these characters than their sexuality."

Robinson says the younger generation, as a whole, has fewer hang-ups about sexuality.

"The majority of the youth I encounter these days seem to view the whole gay thing as a non-issue," she says. "It's the adults who have the problems."

sam@inweekly.net