‘Prime Time’ filmmakers explain why their hostage thriller is set in 1999 [SUNDANCE STUDIO]

When Polish filmmaker Jakub Piotek sat down to conceptualize his feature debut, “Prime Time” — a thriller about a desperate young man who takes hostages inside a television studio on New Year’s Eve in 1999 — the era kind of spoke for itself.

“First of all, we thought television back then was really important — going there live was a big deal,” he explains in an interview at the Gold Derby Virtual Sundance Studio. “That’s the TV I remember from my childhood, I was raised with the TV on in my parents’ room. That was my window to the world.” Piotek grew up after the fall of communism in his country and says the “colorful island” provided by television stood in stark contrast to the “gray and gloomy” real world.

But there was also a resonance to today: “1999 was significantly similar to what we’re living through right now,” the director says, citing broad societal unrest around the globe and growing fear among the world population.

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Set primarily inside the walls of a television studio as the clock ticks down to midnight, “Prime Time” stars Bartosz Bielenia (best known for the Oscar-nominated film “Corpus Christi”) as Sebastian, the tormented young man who arrives armed and angry and with a message to deliver to the viewers at home. 

“We really wanted this character to be sane,” Bielenia says about making sure the audience stays empathetic to Sebastian’s plight. “Someone who is in control of his decisions. That was a really hard idea to defend because why he’s deciding to use such a violent way to prove his emphatic point. But probably that comes from the perspective of a person pushed into a corner. That’s the only thing that’s left in his bare hands. He needs to use force to defend himself.”

“Prime Time” is part of the World Cinematic Dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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