Sundancing: Sisson seizes the celluloid dream

Fifteen years ago, during an electronic security industry workshop, Barry Sisson found himself paired with fellow businessman Robert May. The two were instructed to describe their fantasy job.

"I said to him," Sisson recalls, "'I'd be making films,' and he said, 'No kidding! That's what I'd be doing!'"

Fast forward to 2003. The final cut of The Station Agent, produced by May with financial backing from Sisson, just barely makes its premier at Utah's Sundance Film Festival, arriving the night before, hand-carried from a Canadian processing lab.

Five days later, the film about a dwarf living in a dilapidated depot is all the buzz and snags the double brass ring– Sundance's audience and screenwriting awards. Harvey Weinstein, gruff head of Miramax Films, flies out, and after a private screening, declares, "It was the perfect film. I don't want to change anything." On the spot he signs a $1.5 million deal for its distribution.

"I was ecstatic," says Sisson, 47, gushing about his first exposure to Sundance's movie love-in.

Three years ago, Sisson left the Fairfax-based security business he'd founded 25 years before and moved to Charlottesville. Then came an unexpected call from May, to announce that he was forming a production company in New York called SenArt Films. They agreed to collaborate on SenArt's first movie and began hunting for the right project.

"Ultimately, when you put word out, 'We've got money,' things come your way," Sisson says, adding, "It's not hard to get volumes to look at. What's hard is to find that gem."

May sent him the screenplay for The Station Agent, written by Hollywood actor Tom McCarthy. Sisson confesses, "My only reservation was that the lead character is a dwarf." But he says meeting actor Peter Dinklage erased his doubt: "Peter's perfect."

The cast and crew came together last August for an intense 20-day shoot in rural western New Jersey. Sisson was on set the entire time– building, cleaning up, and running errands. "The way I characterized it," he laughs, "was I'm somewhere below the intern because I do everything, but I've got to pay to do it."

"He was a delight," May recalls. "He was the cheerleader on the set."

"When we finished that film, it was one of the best things I've ever done in my life," Sisson says. "It ranks up there with getting married and having my daughter."

The Station Agent's selection from 3,000 ­plus applicants for the 185-film Sundance festival was the icing on the cake. Its prizes are the candles.

In fact, Sisson's biggest personal reward has been his 11-year-old daughter's reaction. "I think for the first time ever, it dawned on her," he smiles. "You know, my dad is cool."


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