Sunday, March 31, 2013


My air itinerary from San Francisco to Panama City is such that I will be arriving too late for the International Film Festival Panamá (IFF Panamá) opening night gala screening of Pablo Berger's Blancanieves (2012) at the Teatro Nacional in the historic Casco Viejo, which would have upset me had I not caught Berger's innovative take on the Grimm Brothers fairy tale "Snow White" earlier this year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), where it likewise served as the opening night gala and won that festival's inaugural Cine Latino Award. Since January, however, Blancanieves has added yet more jewels to its festival crown, namely a whole slew of Goyas, including best picture, best actress (Maribel Verdú), best new actress (Macarena García), best original script (Pablo Berger) and best cinematography (Kiko de la Rica). Along with launching the second edition of IFF Panamá, Blancanieves will be one of twelve films competing in the Iberoamerican Panorama section. My main regret about not attending the gala screening at IFF Panamá will be missing out on seeing Maribel Verdú, who has confirmed she will be accompanying the film to Panama.

Blancanieves is a creative reminder that there are, perhaps, only so many stories to be told and that a storyteller is characterized by how he or she tells the story. Berger has remained faithful to the Grimm tale even while bravely introducing new narrative elements, namely an entire bullfighting subtext that specifically inflects his native Spain. Berger told The Hollywood Reporter: "A famous Spanish photographer, Cristina García Rodero, traveled all over Spain taking pictures of fiestas. ...When her book came out, it fell into my hands. And in this book is a series of photos of bullfighting dwarves. There was so much dignity in the photos. And one of the stories that came to me was Snow White."

Photo courtesy of Cristina Garcia Rodero
He imagined a film that would surprise his audiences with a "high concept"; i.e., a silent, black-and-white film. Blancanieves was already in the can when Michel Hazavanicius released The Artist. Respectful and gracious, even if at first disappointed, Berger understood early on that the two films were distinct from each other—The Artist more an homage to American silent cinema whereas Blancanieves honored the European tradition of silent cinema—and that the cinematic landscape could support both, hopefully encouraging similar projects for the future now that mainstream audiences are becoming familiar with the essential beauty of silent cinema.

Introducing his film to his PSIFF audience, Berger stated: "I have been waiting for eight years for this moment. The last time I was here was in 2004 with my first film Torremolinos 73. After Torremolinos, I wrote a script called Blancanieves and the first page of this script said, 'This is a black-and-white silent film.' In 2005, this was considered crazy. Now let's talk about who's crazy. Remember The Artist?" Berger then went on to claim: "For me, cinema is to dream awake and to live the life of others. Not to think and just to feel. So for me it would be great if tonight—even if it has taken me eight years to make this film—you can forget your life and live the life of my characters and have a nice dream ... and a few nightmares."

"If The Artist is a love letter to the heyday of Hollywood silent cinema," Diana Sanchez posed in her program capsule for the film's premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), "then Pablo Berger's Blancanieves ... is an homage to the sumptuous European silent melodrama. Relocating the Grimm fairy tale to a romantic vision of 1920s Spain and working in atmospheric black and white, Berger takes full advantage of the silent film's expressive potential to depict the golden age of toreros with gory, Goyaesque violence."

At Toronto Screenshots, James McNally confirmed: "The variety of musical styles along with the use of different rhythms of film editing make Blancanieves a more formally daring film than The Artist. Berger's influences are the masters of silent filmmaking from its latter, more developed stage: Gance, Murnau." As value added, McNally generously uploaded his recording of Berger's Q&A with his TIFF audience. Likewise dispatching from Toronto to The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney synopsized: "Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger's reinvention of the Brothers Grimm classic is the most original of the year's Snow White makeovers."

I concur with both McNally and Rooney. What energizes Blancanieves is not only its breathtaking visuals but Fernando Franco's staccato castanet editing and the thrilling music and dance sequences scored by Alfonso de Vilallonga. The film upsets expectations with audiences well familiar with the tale, especially in anticipation of a prince to wake Blancanieves from her cursed sleep, and is far more imaginative and challenging than Tarsem Singh's tiresome Mirror Mirror and Rupert Sanders formulaic costume drama Snow White and the Huntsman. But let's not kid ourselves about Hollywood's hegemony during Awards Season, even when it comes to divvying out technical awards for editing, sound, and costuming. The only chance Blancanieves had of entering that fortress was as Spain's official submission to the Foreign Language category, and, unfortunately, it did not make the short list. At Frocktalk, costuming enthusiast Kristin M. Burke singles out Paco Delgado's designs, which have been overlooked by AMPAS in favor of Delgado's work on the higher-profile Les Misérables. It's unfortunate that he couldn't have been nominated for a combination of both films.

Perhaps it's no surprise that accolades for Blancanieves have arrived closer to its native Spain. As noted by Dave Hudson at Fandor, Blancanieves scored San Sebastián's Special Jury Prize, with Macarena García sharing the Silver Shell for Best Actress for her performance as Carmen. Then again, as mentioned earlier, Blancanieves swept the Goyas. Aggregating further reviews for Fandor, Hudson quoted Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria's TIFF dispatch to Cinema Scope: "Berger takes the Snow White tale and rewrites it, mixing low culture with visual references out of high culture (of cinema, specifically). There are references to Jean Vigo, Abel Gance, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, among others, but the film is not just a postmodern compendium of quotes: it's a search into the past to find the forces that led to the cinema of the present. Minus the political overtones of another great homage to old cinema—Miguel Gomes's Tabu [also screening in IFF Panamá's Iberoamerican Panorama]—Berger's film is more a tale about envy, love and death, mixing comedy with a great sense of visual spectacle, than it is a reflection about history and cinema."

Hudson likewise mentions Toronto reviews from Roger Ebert ("It is a full-bodied, visually stunning silent film of the sort that might have been made by the greatest directors of the 1920s, if such details as the kinky sadomasochism of the Evil Stepmother could have been slipped past the censors") and Twitch's Jason Gorber ("Kiko de la Rica's photography is often stunning"). Though grading it a B+ at Indiewire, Boyd van Hoeij qualified: "Though perhaps a tad long, this gorgeously shot black-and-white extravaganza has the cojones to think outside the box and comes out on top."

Since its theatrical release in the States, more reviews have been coming in, most notably from Indiewire where Gabe Toro (no pun intended) writes: "Even if PETA activists won't be amused, there's a grace and grandeur to the bullfighting scenes that, portrayed with black and white editing and photography, make the sport seem larger than life: they're shot in an immersive manner that puts to shame the 3D theatrics of most in-your-face blockbusters. And director Pablo Berger's film also manages to find a neat twist on the classic formula, integrating the poisoned apple in a story stripped of supernatural artifice, but still feeling vaguely fantastical. Oddly enough, Blancanieves ends on a beautifully romantic, tragic note, maintaining the story's ages-old hold on younger audiences, while also presenting a ghoulish conclusion that feels authentic and well-earned. The silent trappings seem like a gimmick when employed in 2013, but the story's impact is never dulled." Indiewire likewise offers a video interview with Berger on the making of the film, as well as Eric Kohn's commentary.


Whereas the regional cinema of Idaho earnestly sought a national stage at the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival, the upcoming International Film Festival Panamá (IFF Panamá) inverts the strategy and bolsters the somewhat neglected national cinemas of Central America through a regional sidebar that stretches from Guatemala to Panama, providing strength in solidarity by way of a select sextet of films. Thus, "regionality" in and of itself becomes a flexible term to be understood appropriate to scale and purpose; which, remains at heart, the desire for films to reach their audience.

Among IFF Panamá's sidebar "Stories From Central America" are two co-productions from Guatemala whose film industry—according to an informative report by Antonio Ordóñez for Infosur Hoy—is "soaring." Without government support, Ordóñez contextualizes how it has become necessary for Guatemalan filmmakers to seek co-production with Mexico and neighboring Central American countries to offset their lack of resources. "Still," Ordóñez writes, "the country's movie industry is experiencing a boom in the number of films produced compared to other Central American nations, as Guatemala finished 17 movies the past two years. Costa Rica, for example, has released 14 movies since 2003." Which is surprising, Ordóñez further observes, because "movie companies in Costa Rica are supported by the Costa Rican Center of Film Production, which is backed by the Ministry of Culture and lends equipment, offers training to filmmakers and organizes festivals with its annual budget of US$500,000." Guatemala's government offers nothing of the sort.

Perhaps the most disconcerting insight from Ordóñez's piece for Infosur Hoy is the well-recognized colonizing grip Hollywood's hegemony continues to exert on global filmmaking. As producer Cecilia Santamarina states it: "The public is not used to seeing national films, and the collective consciousness is alienated because of the foreign productions, which are very expensive to film and promote." Guatemalan films simply can't compete with Hollywood's tent-pole spectaculars, which are considered "better" by the average Guatemalan moviegoer precisely because of their expensive special effects. Countering that misperception, Michelle Rojas—who specializes in advertising photography for films—asserts that Guatemalan films "show our national reality, how people live their daily lives."

The allure of the quotidian has in recent years all but defined art house cinema in the international film festival circuit, to both good and ill effect. The simplicity of these narratives belie not only compromised quests for national identity, but bravely oppose the impatience of critics who can't be bothered with rhythms and paces that are, at heart, local stories rendered through limited means. Take, as example, Variety's dismissive review of Julio Hernández Cordón's recent narrative feature Polvo / Dust (Guatemala / Chile, 2012) [official site], which basically asserts that the press notes tell more than what's seen on screen. I can't speak to this (unidentified) reviewer's complaint but look forward to deciding for myself what I think of Cordón's latest, as I am a fan of his earlier films Gasolina (2008) and Marimbas From Hell (2010) and admire his grasp of opportunity—he's made three films in five years—with his latest being a co-production between Guatemala and Chile administered through the Spanish company Tic Tac Producciones.

Issues of limited production value and "pseudo-poetic evocation" (Variety) aside, I am intrigued by the curatorial responsibilities of a film critic, or more specifically, the role of the programmer as critic. There's no question in my mind that film curation is a form of film criticism, anticipatory and proactive, in contrast to the reactive practices of film reviewers. It's all messily necessary, of course, pro and con, so I'm not really trying to pit one against the other. However, using Polvo, again, as an example, the film had its world premiere at the 2012 edition of the Locarno International Film Festival where Mark Peranson observed in his program note that "Julio Hernández Cordón has found an original path into exploring the contemporary aftereffects of civil unrest" by structuring his film on the intersection between two somewhat parallel individuals, "one who subsists in anguished purgatory, the other who seeks to understand it—but is bound to fail." Peranson promoted Polvo as an "unsettling and at times disturbing work that bears scars from its making" and asserted the film was "about the unremitting desire for vengeance and the inability to escape the past—especially when you're confronted with it every day." Polvo was nominated for Locarno's Golden Leopard.

Polvo then had its North American Premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema sidebar at the 2012 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival where Diana Sanchez noted: "The traumas of the past retain their grip on the present in Guatemalan director Julio Hernández Cordón's harrowing yet moving Polvo, where death is both irrecoverable loss and potential regeneration. ...The relationships that Polvo traces—between parents and children, between lovers current and former, between the living and the dead—create a web of complex emotions, while [the] film within the film attests to how cinema can contribute, however modestly, to a country's long and arduous process of healing. Cordón and his collaborators bring us a few steps closer to understanding how that process moves forward—at times painfully, at times tragically, but with an enduring patience, great tenderness, and an unyielding resistance to forgetting."

After its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival, Polvo went on to win the Grand Prix du Coeur at the 25th Cinélatino Festival in Toulouse, France, mid-March 2013. At Cineuropa, Gonzalo Suárez López responded that Cordón had delivered "a raw drama about the wounds of the Guatemalan people, still fresh after the civil war" and shown "how a small and humble people has been destroyed by proceeding like a documentary filmmaker within his fictional story."

Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez's Palabras mágicas / Magic Words (Mexico / Guatemala / Nicaragua, 2012) complicates the definition of a national cinema by the sheer fact of its co-production, though its persona resides dramatically in Nicaragua. Described by IFF Panamá as a "highly personal, poetically suggestive essay film about Nicaragua's history from the Sandinistas rise to power onward", Palabras mágicas "underlines how the Revolution and the subsequent government, rather than usher in a wave of radical change, simply offered proof to the notion that history is destined to repeat itself."

From Cuba comes writer-director Carlos Lechuga's feature debut Melaza / Molasses (2012), described by IFF Panamá as "a sharp examination of things we do for money when our options suddenly dwindle" and "a satirical survey of a country mired in bureaucracy, one whose sense of glory derives from an era that had passed before the film's central characters were even born." Breakfast With the Famous conducted an informative video interview with Lechuga when he was in post-production for Melaza. A short year later, Maya Quiroga attended the world premiere of Melaza at Havana's International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema and interviewed Lechuga for Cuba Now. Estela Ferrer Raveiro favorably reviewed the film for On Cuba, emphasizing its bittersweetness. Melaza then had its North American premiere at the 2013 Miami International, where Andres Castillo stated: "Carlos Lechuga's film focuses on character development and script, giving the story a deep and tangible feel about a couple’s struggles through hard times and their faith that love will get them through. Lechuga brings to the screen a rare glimpse of rural Cuba, and the stunning scenery plays a role in helping to create the film’s reflective sensitivity." Festival Scope provides Lechuga's Director's Statement.

I also highly recommend Victoria Burnett's survey of the impact of digital technology on contemporary Cuban cinema for The New York Times, wherein Lechuga told Burnett that independent movies were nourishing a conversation among Cubans keen to see the hard realities of their lives dealt with on screen. But even with the technology much more accessible, filmmakers must struggle to get their work seen. The film institute controls Cuba's theaters; Internet access remains rare, expensive and too slow for downloading movies. Instead, Cubans pass around DVDs.

IFF Panamá proudly completes its "Stories From Central America" with three Panamanian productions. I was introduced to local hero Abner Benaim's work at last year's edition of IFF Panamá when they screened Benaim's fierce comedy Chance where Toña and Paquita, the housekeepers for the aristocratic González-Dubois family, revolt and take charge. Benaim approaches the subject matter again, this time as a documentary with Maids and Bosses (2010), described as "a sensitive social study of an institution all too often taken for granted." Maids and Bosses uses candid interviews and reenactments to form a critical exploration of a sometimes uneasy and unfair business arrangement—one found in homes all over Latin America.

Cribbing from IFF Panamá, Ana Endara Mislov's Majesty (2013) is a playful yet critical exploration of a singularly Panamanian phenomenon that ushers the viewer into the spectacular, strange and stressful world of beauty ceremony. An integral part of Panamanian folklore, beauty queens symbolize the festive aspect of Panama's national spirit. But they also promote a very particular, potentially troubling idea of womanhood.

In co-production with the United States, Anayansi Prado's documentary Paraiso For Sale (2012) focuses on how Panama's Bocas del Toro archipelago has been transformed over the past decade into a magnet for foreigner retirees and developers seeking cut-rate property in an (as-yet) unspoiled paradise. Is Panama witnessing a new kind of colonialism? Panamanian-born director Anayansi Prado's Paraiso For Sale offers an unflinching gaze into this troubling development.

Dispatching to Slant / The House Next Door from the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival, Oscar Moralde resoundly praised Paraiso For Sale as "a master class in structure that takes Bocas del Toro and lenses it through different strata: the native resident Feliciano fighting for indigenous rights to the land, the political hopeful Dario running for mayor on a platform of resisting transnational exploitation, and the American expatriates Karan and Willy, who've made their retirement home in the province." Moralde adds: "Its structural and systematic approach recalls the best elements of investigative journalism in showing how the pieces all fit together and how they all matter." At Plume Noir, Fred Thom credits the documentary "for successfully doing its job when it comes to sensitizing public opinion and carrying its message across the world, on the festival circuit. Let's just hope this will help the likes of Feliciano and Dario in their attempt to save their beautiful and peaceful world from another brutal capitalization."

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Pituka Ortega Heilbron, director of the International Film Festival of Panamá (IFF Panamá), has announced the line-up for IFF Panamá's sophomore edition, to be held April 11-17, 2013. IFF Panamá will include more than 60 films from all over the world that have been exhibited and / or awarded at such prestigious film festivals as Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and San Sebastián. Several of the directors of these films will be present to show their movie in person and to participate in follow-up question and answer sessions with their audience to encourage dialogue and understanding between cultures. The event is sponsored by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MICI), the Panama Film Commission, the National Institute of Culture and private enterprise.

Last year's inaugural edition proved a resounding success. At that time, I wrote a piece concerning the founding of the festival, and especially enjoyed interviewing featured guest Álex de la Iglesia. This year promises to be equally exciting as IFF Panamá amps up its spectacular dimension with national premieres, red carpets, galas, special events and parties. Renowned film directors, international movie stars and celebrities will be in attendance, and more than 30 international journalists (myself included!) will join 60 local journalists to provide extensive national and global coverage for the event.

Highlights of IFF Panamá 2013 will include a tribute paid to actress Geraldine Chaplin. IFF Panamá will screen a suite of her films, including Carlos Saura's 1976 Cría Cuervos (a masterpiece full of melancholy and dark fascination), Charles Chaplin's 1921 silent classic The Kid (chosen by Geraldine to pay tribute to her father), Antonio Hernández's In the City without Limits (2002), Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage (2007), and Agustí Vila's The Mosquito Net (2010).

It has likewise been confirmed that Rubén Blades will be making an appearance after one of the Special Presentations screenings. The Panamanian singer, also known for his acting roles in The Guest (2012), Mexico (2003), Predator 2 (1990), and Do the Right Thing (1989), will be present for a Q&A after the screening of Richard Pierce's TV drama Dead Man Out (1989). It's an opportunity for the Panamanian public to a view a film which won Blades—"one of the most illustrious sons of the country"—the U.S. Cable Industry's ACE Award.

IFF Panamá will be held in two major venues: the historic National Theater, located in Old Town (Casco Viejo), and the modern major chain movie theaters based in Panama City. The Cinema Route will be launched in 2013, which includes the Anita Villalaz Theatre in the National Institute of Culture Building and the Canal Museum auditorium as movie theaters. While regular functions will be held in an environment defined by the highest standards of technology and modernity, the red carpet functions will be enveloped in the aura emanated by the historical and traditional National Theater. Built in the neo-classical style that prevailed in that era, as were many government buildings, with its interior painted by the great Roberto Lewis, the halls of the grand National Theater have been tread by the likes of artists Alicia Alonso and Margot Fonteyn and Panamanian musicians the Ingrans and Alfredo de Saint Malo, making it an architectural jewel in the crown of Panamanian culture.

As part of a concept to incorporate the films with other cultural and recreational activities in the Casco Viejo, IFF Panamá has scheduled a circuit of screenings in three sites in the Old Town, in addition to the free outdoor movies that will be projected at the Fifth Centennial Park on the Coastal Strip. With this initiative, IFF Panamá intends for this historical and tourist area to be as taken by the cinephilic spirit as Panama City will be for a week, and hopes that the hotels, restaurants and bars in the area will benefit from the activity.

Regular Function screenings will take place on the 100% digital screens at Cinepolis Mulitplaza. IFF Panamá will be bringing the 3D projection of the film Storm Surfers (2012) to audiences. This film is the ultimate visual experience and a true assault on the senses. Not to mention a powerful adrenaline rush on the big screen. Storm Surfers drags us out to sea where only the world's most daring surfers can dream of mastering.

Pituka Ortega Heilbron assures that audiences will be more than pleased because "it is the best possible selection of films and documentaries chosen by the prestigious Artistic Director of the festival and Festival Programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Diana Sanchez."

Attendees of the conference were also informed about the educational work carried out by the non-profit IFF Panama Foundation, together with the founder and first director of the festival, Henk Van der Kolk, and the mission of promoting the appreciation of cinema throughout the country. The director of the Panama Film Commission, Arianne Benedetti also has informed us that the Film Fund Awards will be announced on April 16 at the National Theater prior to the Red Carpet screening that night.

Friday, March 29, 2013

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (2011): Nostalgia For the Future—By Frako Loden

©2011 Chizuru Takahashi - Tetsuro Sayama - GNDHDDT"
For those (like me) weary of CGI fantasy and 3D effects, the latest animated film from Ghibli Studios is a fresh sea breeze scented with flowers. From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), Gorō Miyazaki's second film after his 2006 Tales From Earthsea, was written by his father Hayao Miyazaki, who adapted the story from the 1980 serialized shōjo manga Kokurikozaka Kara (From Coquelicot Hill) by Takahashi Chizuru and Sayama Tetsuro. I haven't had a chance to check out this manga, so I can't compare it to the film’s remarkable and loving attention to period detail. Its painstaking, hand-drawn backgrounds are far more fascinating than special effects for me, who lived in Tokyo in the early 1960s.

Unlike other recent animation, From Up on Poppy Hill nudges viewers, if they're so inclined, into a more thoughtful exploration of Japan's ambivalent relationship with the rest of the world. Its geographical setting, the city and port of Yokohama, already implies a globalism ahead of the rest of the country since it was designated an international harbor in 1859, in response to Matthew Perry's forcible opening of Japan to Western trade. The film's era is the go-go early 1960s, when Japan was pulling out of its post-World War II gloom and lulling urbanites with the corporate salaryman's job security and "my car" ownership. The 1959 televised wedding between Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito and the commoner Michiko caused first-time purchases of televisions to explode. The prospect of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the innovative construction work being done in preparation for it, invited the Japanese to think of themselves as entering the elite stratum of world-class countries. It was a status fervently desired since the mid-1800s.

But the desire was mixed with fear of contaminating the "pure" Japanese essence. In the country's consciousness and cinema, Yokohama has been the site of miscegenation, or the taboo mixing of blood. Western foreigners were initially restricted to a special area of the city, but they were gradually allowed to occupy hillside lots up to the Yamate Bluff and other upscale neighborhoods. Chinese immigrants formed a vibrant Chinatown below. (The ambivalence toward these two "contaminated" sites is epitomized by Kurosawa Akira's 1963 High and Low, in which the rich shoe manufacturer living on the Bluff becomes the target of a kidnapping by the poor junkie who loiters around Chinatown below.)

"©2011 Chizuru Takahashi - Tetsuro Sayama - GNDHDDT"

Both the celebration of Japan's internationalization and wariness of scrambled families as a result of international events form the subtext to this cheerful teen love story. Here the olden days are already Westernized. Umi ("ocean" in Japanese) is a teenage girl who runs a hillside boarding house in a Western-style building, formerly a hospital from the turn of the 20th century. Her mother is studying medicine in the US, and her late grandfather was a doctor. Her father, the captain of a supply ship, was lost at sea when the ship was hit by a mine during the Korean War. Umi has raised signal flags out to the harbor every day of her life, hoping her father will return.

Another old Western-style building, this one dilapidated and unkempt, is further up Poppy Hill and serves as Umi's high school clubhouse called the Latin Quarter (with the Japanized name Karucheratan), where fanatical male students run organizations like the Philosophy Club, Astronomy Club and Literature Club, the last of which publishes the weekly high school newspaper. Its editor and rabble-rouser-in-chief is Shun, who organizes happenings to rally support for keeping the building from being razed by the high school board chairman, a Tokyo developer. Shun's father is a tugboat operator who confirms that he adopted Shun when a fellow Navy shipman couldn't raise the infant. Shun and Umi, working together at the newspaper and developing feelings for each other, are disturbed when a man in a photograph is identified as the father of them both.

Unusually for teenagers, both Umi and Shun are associated with their city's past, both in the buildings they cherish and the mystery of their birth origins. In a school debate where the opposition says buildings like the Latin Quarter must be demolished to make way for a new future for Japan, Shun leaps onto the stage and shouts, "You cannot move into the future without first knowing the past!" Umi anxiously awaits the return of her mother, her inspiration who dared to elope with the man she loved (Umi's father) and has spent her life studying to be a doctor. The Miyazakis have portrayed a past that is a Westernized promise of internationalization and progress. Maybe it's a fond wish of seventysomething screenwriter Hayao Miyazaki, and fortysomething director Gorō, for new generations to look back on a past that was already eager to embrace the future.

From Up on Poppy Hill opens Friday, March 29, 2013 at Landmark Theatres.

SVFF 2013 / TREEFORT MUSIC FEST 2013: CINEMA DISRUPTION (ONLINE, IN CINEMA & BACK AGAIN)—The Evening Class Interview With A.J. Eaton, Daniel Ahearn and the Creative Team Behind the Road to Treefort Web Series

"Interesting distributing something like this with the internet and then not really knowing much beyond that."—Zach Voss, Retroscope Media.

My focus at this year's edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) was both regional filmmaking—as monitored primarily through Idaho-produced short films and music videos—but also the multiple national and international platforms that have become increasingly available to exhibit short form work and, thereby, obviate regional restrictions. The interstitial tension between film production and film exhibition seems nowhere more apparent than in the opportunities afforded short film content, particularly in its capacity to occupy multiple spaces, often concurrently, for different marketed and/or social effects.

As a specific exercise, I arranged for the streaming of Christian Lybrook's short films on Fandor at the same time that his most recent project The Seed (2013) was boasting its world premiere at SVFF. But in the era of digital workflow, a "premiere" is a negotiable term. The Seed's true world premiere was streaming online at Fandor a day before it's in-cinema premiere at Sun Valley's nexStage. Does this mean exhibition potentials are at odds with each other? Or does it further a portfolio aesthetic more characteristic of imagemaking and spectatorship in the 21st Century?

One of the very first Idaho shorts that caught my attention was A.J. Eaton's The Mix-Up (2007), which courted the festival circuit and worked as a successful calling card in helping Eaton secure editing gigs in Los Angeles. In addition, Mix-Up ended up in a Japanese collection of short films frequently screened to a viewing public. The last six years have taught Eaton quite a lot about the industry and so I sat down with him in SVFF's Harriman Hospitality Suite to discuss evolving trends.

* * *

Michael Guillén: AJ, as you know I'm interested in how short films co-habit both online and in cinema spaces, often at the same time, thereby disrupting cinema reception as we once knew it and forcing us to reconsider new practices of spectatorship and distribution. Do you have any thoughts on this trend?

AJ Eaton: Most of the short films that I'm seeing today are basically designed for the small screen. They're edited and made to go out on YouTube and Vimeo.

Guillén: But what about platforms that will pay the filmmaker through licensing fees? IndieFlix, Fandor, VUDU? Are you familiar with or know of any aggregators who specifically traffic short form content to these platforms?

Eaton: Shorts International, the leading shorts distributor out of L.A., has their own TV channel, which can be accessed through cable providers like DirecTV. They'll distribute a short online, on streaming platforms, and try to get it into theaters as well. In fact, one of the most fascinating spaces to place a short film these days is in airlines. You have a captive audience. Sometimes short, hour-long flights aren't long enough to watch a feature. So maybe a 45-minute TV show or three short films will do the trick. But Shorts International is quite selective. Any worthy shorts at Sundance will be picked up by Shorts International.

* * *

I next approached actor / musician Daniel Ahearn who—along with Haroula Rose—traveled to SVFF from out-of-state to accompany the world premiere of Joselito Seldera's No Love Song (2013). I asked Ahearn the same question.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Daniel can you speak to how a short film can exist in-theater and online at the same time?

Daniel Ahearn: I think I can, insofar as the known playing field has disintegrated in such a real way. Robert Redford has talked about this. Now you don't need money to actually buy film to make movies so one of the benefits of that is that more people now have access to making a film, or a record, and the aggregates for it are getting bigger. We're in this really weird place where traditional, capitalist artistic outlets are dissolving and crumbling, but it's creating a platform for amazing new work, which is exciting. There's still a little bit of clunkiness with people expecting atypical results from traditional avenues and traditional results from atypical avenues; but, it's all coagulating in an interesting way. I know that people bemoan about lost money—"You can't make money!"—but as an artist in the world, there's never been a more exciting time.

Guillén: That's the perfect way to put it. It's something I ask fledgling filmmakers all the time: "What are you doing this for? If you're doing it for the money, you're going to be disappointed."

Ahearn: Get a job! The point is that the idea of making money in the arts is a relatively new concept that has existed for maybe 30 years. Before that, in any direction, you were working for the Church or the State, period. This idea of artists thinking they're entitled to a certain amount of opulence, especially talented people—I don't care if you're talented; you can't go to L.A. and shoot a gun without hitting 100 talented people—it's more about how hard you work.

Guillén: Will No Love Song be made available online?

Ahearn: I'm not sure what Haroula wants to do per se. No Love Song is going to a bunch of other festivals. Haroula is a successful producer / writer / musician in her own right and she's seeing if people want to turn this project into something more theatrical and feature-length—she's working on the script—or whether this short will be something they'll sell off to HBO or Showtime. I know it's going to Cannes to be part of that shorts market. It's all a weird thing because you finish a project, months go by, and you're thinking, "Is it over?" But no, it's just about to begin. In this festival world we're seeing a whole new life for No Love Song.

* * *

Finally, a near textbook study of these shifting trends of short content occupying multiple spaces is the Road to Treefort web series developed by Retroscope Media for Boise's Treefort Music Fest. Not only did the Road to Treefort screen in-cinema at SVFF, but was likewise slotted into a shorts series shown at the Egyptian Theatre, in conjunction with Treefort. Having watched these films online several times ramping up to the music festival, I wanted to likewise experience them in a movie theater projected onto a large screen. Zach Voss, Willow Socia, Cody Gittings, Bronwyn Leslie and Yurek Hansen, members of the team responsible for creating the web series, fielded questions after the screening.

Bronwyn Leslie helped with casting and production coordination, as well as acting. Yurek Hansen was the "puppeteer of sorts" who donned the monster costume and ran around the forest. Hansen's been a professional dancer with the Idaho Dance Theatre for the last 13 years and recently returned from field work in Africa. Cody Gittings, who runs Red House Media, was the director of photography and also helped co-edit the first episode and plan the blocking and cinematography. Willow Socia (who "makes anything and everything") was the designer of the monster costume and helped fabricate it alongside Daniel Fo.

Interesting for Voss was that the series went straight to the internet where it was well-received with several views and likes, admittedly shorthanded communication, so Voss welcomed the opportunity to hear questions from his live audience.

I began by complimenting Willow Socia on her iconic monster and asked how she came up with the concept?  How she designed it?  And how she then actually fabricated the creature? Socia noted that the monster was designed upon illustrations by James Lloyd, Treefort's Art Director. She taught herself to crochet and decided to incorporate her new skill into providing texture to the monster. She had never made a costume before. Fittings were interesting because she didn't have Yurek Hansen on hand all the time, though she did have Zach. He spent a lot of time donning the monster's pants so Socia could fit them properly; she had never made pants before. "With crochet you work in the round," she explained, "so I would try one leg on, then the other leg, and made it up around that."

The Monster's head was made out of painted insulation and the beard was made of dangling shoe laces. Voss credited Daniel Fo for the costume's foam components—the head, the feet. Fo had moved into the Oddfellows Building where several artists, Voss included, had studio spaces. Voss watched Fo build rock formations for a train set he was making and offered, "Daniel, jump in on this project with us. It'd be great for you to interpret something we'll be working on." That was another tangent that worked out really well, but wasn't necessarily planned.

Photo courtesy of
Anna Webb asked how Voss got the Shriners to participate? Were they game from the beginning? Voss replied that—when they first launched the series and it became live on the internet and picked up speed—Treefort already had the El Korah Shrine booked as a music venue. At that point it was easier to approach The Shriners because they had already seen the support the web series was receiving (the series helped promote Treefort on Pitchfork and Spin). The same was true for Mayor Dave (David H. Bieter). When Voss approached the Mayor's Office, they knew all about the web series so it became easier to propose where Mayor Dave could play a part and have his office represented. Without question, however, both the Shriners and the Mayor's Office were behind Road to Treefort. With the Shriners in particular, it became a case of having to turn down the amount of participation they were willling to offer. Voss recalled attending a meeting where they offered fire trucks, dune buggies, scooters, all sorts of things, which Voss declined on the caveat that next year they might take advantage of the fire trucks and the elephants.

As for locations, the rustic bar used in the series was Diamond Lil's in Idaho City. Gittings and Voss had driven up to Idaho City to scout for locations and exteriors, including the cabin where the crew hung out. They filmed that cabin exterior in Idaho City, but the interior was actually shot in Willow Socia's parents' home. They stitched those two together. Then the scene where they're running down the field was filmed in the Grayback Gulch Campground. In reality the production was a process of piecing together elements that were available and at hand, to save time, plus meeting locals who were game to help make the film. Diamond Lils was ready to go on the day shooting was scheduled, even though they were still open for business. Several of their bar patrons drank and watched while Voss and his crew filmed and when Voss would shout, "Quiet!", everyone in the bar—including the patrons—froze. They were totally into it. The scene would be shot, Voss would shout "Cut", and the bar would break into laughter and celebratory applause.

Gittings and Voss were setting up the scene where the Treefort Monster first ambushes the crew at the bar after they've downed shots. They had dolly shots of the Monster opening the door, but they needed something else. "What have we got?" they thought, "Fog or smoke or....?" They wheeled around, faced the patrons at the bar and asked, "Who here smokes?" Lots of hands went up. So the shot where the Monster appears in the doorway surrounded by smoke is engineered by the sheer lung power of a crowd of bar patrons who blew out cigarette smoke on cue on either side of the open door. "It's things like that," Voss enthused, "that you can never totally plan for, but when you set yourself up at the right place and the right time, things come together. And that was really one of the charming parts of the project, late at night after a full day of shooting, but we still had so much energy and enthusiasm, including people who smoke who were willing to help out."

I first met Bronwyn Leslie at the work-in-progress screening of An Unkindness of Ravens held at the Sun Valley Opera House during SVFF. The following weekend I saw her onstage as the musical act Lionsweb backed up by Sun Blood Stories in the Linen Building during Treefort and I was blown away by her honest, soulful talent, let alone that she was Visual Art Director for Treefort. In addition, she was on screen running around in a white fur coat in The Road to Treefort. I asked Leslie how she had trained and become fluent in so many different forms of creative self-expression? Admitting she had no training but simply liked "to do it", Leslie moved to Idaho from Alabama. She's been here nine years. She took acting and video classes at Boise State. Her grandparents ran a photography studio while she was growing up so Leslie was accustomed to imagemaking, even though she never knew it would become her art and passion, which blossomed when she met Voss, Socia, Gittings and Hansen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

SVFF 2013—STUCK (2013)

It's easy to see why Stuart Acher's Stuck (2013) [Official site / Facebook] won Audience Award at the recent Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF). This vehicular narrative—which, in mood, is 180° away from SVFF's "other" stuck-in-a-car film Craters of the Moon—froths up its meet cute into a satisfying love story with a warm upbeat ending. It's an entertaining and honest romance from start to finish. Credit lies in the pacing, of course. Brisk tight editing with revelatory flashbacks inch us episodically forward through a drunken one-night stand and its comic aftermath. Two early morning strangers rush to escape each other and end up being stuck in traffic together long enough to let down their guard and discover each other; an exchange skillfully conveyed via charismatic turns from Acher's two lead actors: Joel David Moore (Avatar) and Madeline Zima (who doubles as Executive Producer). Zima and Moore, in fact, were recognized with a Special Jury Award for Acting at February's Napa Valley Film Festival. Their chemistry shines with sensual dalliance and considerable wit. Moore's lanky charm sides up well to Zima's haughty beauty. Zima has described Stuck as "kind of like When Harry Met Sally, but stuck in a car and compacted, and then reversed."

Confining a narrative to the interior of a car would be hazardous with someone of less ingenuity than Acher. Not only does he break from "he said she said" witticisms with sweeping aerial shots of gridlocked traffic, but his camera every now and then casually explores various personalities in nearby cars who are similarly stuck. This wry social study recalled me to Julio Cortázar's 1966 story "The Southern Thruway", a compelling account of a traffic jam in the south of France that lasts for a couple of days (and on which Jean Luc Godard based his 1967 film Weekend). In his own deft style, Acher creates a microcosm of society by profiling a cluster of cars and their drivers stuck in L.A. freeway traffic.

Creating this microcosm proved to be a major challenge for an indie film shot in 10 days. Anticipating a "Carmageddon " when Interstate 405—the largest highway in America—was shut down for construction, Acher excitedly hired a helicopter to film footage of the gridlock only to encounter slight traffic, drivers having been sufficiently warned away by dire predictions of the worst traffic jams in L.A. history. Through CG plates and parking lot recreations, Acher was able to visualize the traffic jam he expected from the closure of 405, thereby creating the context for a young man and a young woman to put on the brakes, then start up all over again.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

SVFF 2013: WORKS IN PROGRESS—The Evening Class Interview With Dave Jones

Photo courtesy of Sun Valley Film Festival
A brave—if challenging—new programming initiative at the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) were the three works-in-progress featured in a separate sidebar: Wind Walkers, The Unkindness of Ravens (both steered by Russell Friedenberg) and Children (directed by Jaffe Zinn, last year's Gem Award winner for Magic Valley). As George Prentice wrote in his piece for the Boise Weekly: "It's a film fan's dream and a reporter's nightmare. While buffs are getting a sneak peek at films before they are 'locked' and ready for distribution, it's an agreed-upon prerequisite that journalists aren't invited to the screening. And if they do attend, filmmakers beg them not to critique a film that is far from finished."

Though I recognize the value added to an audience of film buffs to have an opportunity to participate in the evolving formation of a film via their direct or indirect feedback, I'm not as enthusiastic about the outcome of this exercise as was Prentice and, admittedly, that's perhaps because I was frankly insulted by the no-journalists-allowed policy, which I immediately contested. Has SVFF never heard of a "hold review" policy, which any professional journalist is entrusted to uphold? Violation would mean the revocation of credentials, plain and simple. In this day and age it's not accredited journalists who are the threat, but all those individuals in the dark who are free to post whatever they want online and who have nothing to lose by doing so. Thus, this fear of and animosity towards journalists seemed to me wholly unwarranted and unfair. At any rate, it doesn't matter since I'm not allowed to say anything specifically about the films, which I won't.

However, at the coffee talk where Russell Friedenberg, Randy Redroad (co-director on Ravens), and Jaffe Zinn—along with Jesse Millward (the director of this year's Gem State Award winner Craters of the Moon)—held an on-stage conversation with their SVFF audience, the conversation obsessed over Idaho film production rather than the programming initiative of the works-in-progress themselves, so I finally felt compelled to interject this question: "This is a brave step for each of you to expose an early version of new work to your audiences. Can you speak to what that experience has been like for you?"

Zinn immediately joked that he was terrified. SVFF Executive Director Teddy Grennan contextualized that the work-in-progress screenings were valuable, if at the same time a "double-edged sword" and he mentioned how difficult it had been to convince Zinn to come to the festival with an unfinished film (which Zinn admitted to me during a sidewalk conversation that he wasn't sure was even a film yet). Zinn added that "to a degree" he ordinarily will only show his work early on to a select few for feedback. Up until even a week ago he hated his film. He related that frequently during editing filmmakers will feel their film is the worst thing ever even as they chip away and form the film; but—in terms of Grennan's metaphor of the double-edged sword—a work-in-progress will show you not only what isn't working, but also what is working, especially if you can get similar notes across the board. That can be helpful. Notwithstanding, Zinn admits it's nervewracking.

Redroad agreed that he and Friedenberg hated their film a week ago too, but he considered it a natural reaction for a director to hate their movie until, hopefully, they don't. They had already had several "little" screenings with audiences of sometimes no more than 4 people, sometimes 10. They had a screening in Beverly Hills of around 35 people, composed of world-class directors and editors, which he qualified was a different kind of audience. But he was looking forward to feeling the energy of an audience of 200-300 people, even if it was terrifying. Because of the internet and how fast news travels, he and Friedenberg didn't want to create an ambiance around a work-in-progress that it's a finished film when it's not, nor expose it to an audience who won't fairly allow for its incompletion. It was essential for him that the festival provide discretion, even as it offered a private-public event. After thinking about the film repeatedly over time, he now wanted to feel how it went with an audience. He wanted to feel their reactions.

Friedenberg brought it home. He said, "I think you have to just kick your kid out of the house at some point and let your neighbors tell you if they're screwing up or not. Films are representative of who we are as filmmakers." He admitted that he invites people to test screenings who he assumes will hate the movie whereas Redroad invites those who will love the movie and—during such a screening—he doesn't watch the movie; he watches the people watching the movie. He moves seats to be near the people who hate it the most because he's fascinated in why they hate it. Feedback from people who love his films doesn't help him as much as feedback from people who hate it and he'll ask them why and maybe they aren't articulate about why they hate it but eventually they'll communicate some nugget of what wasn't working for them "and there's always gold in that." In the final analysis, Friedenberg said you have to get over your own ego if you want to make the best film you can, and therefore you have to get as much feedback as you can.

To that effect, I've transcribed a conversation I had with Dave Jones, the actor in Brian Goodwin's short film PB&J, as to his thoughts on Jaffe Zinn's Children, along with his reaction to attending SVFF.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Dave, you've come all the way from the East Coast to attend the Sun Valley Film Festival. What drew you?

Dave Jones: Brian Goodwin, my director, worked as an art director on Magic Valley, which is a beautiful film. I love Jaffe Zinn. I love his vision. Did you see his work-in-progress Children? Oh my God! What I love about Jaffe Zinn is his patience, his cinematography, and his willingness to let a scene breathe and to show the beauty of the environment paired with the beauty of the subject matter of his actors. I love his ability to give a scene space to show that these places, and these people in these places, are beautiful in and of themselves. You can still weave a story and say and do what you want to do, but there's something about his nuance, and how he makes his frames, and has the patience to let something speak for itself that really draws me to Jaffe Zinn's films.

Granted, I am slightly biased because my sister was a production designer on Magic Valley; but, I was genuinely drawn to Children. I think it's a fantastic film. It's interesting, it's thought-provoking, and it's one of those films that I talked about more than any other film because it brought up questions and different conversations throughout the day hours after we'd seen it. We just kept bringing it back up. Any time a film lingers and any time a film makes you think about it so that three hours later you're like, "You know what's interesting? I love the fact that he used subtitles." That tied into this abstract scripture idea that he brings in and this tension between religion and morality and isolation: all these ideas! All I'm saying is that it was thought-provoking and there is nothing better than leaving a movie that stays with you.

Guillén: So it was just Zinn's work that brought you to Idaho?!

Photo courtesy of Ty Hailey
Jones: Well, let's be honest here. I was in a short film PB&J that was accepted into the festival. It was directed by Brian Goodwin. I was in it. But I'd heard a lot of good things about Idaho. I'm a photographer as well. I love taking pictures of beautiful places. I'd seen a lot of beautiful photography from Idaho. I'd seen Magic Valley. I thought I would love the chance to be in a new place, new topography, new cinematic expanses and I heard that Brian got into the festival. I didn't commit to coming to this festival until two days before because I was working in New York on another project that I had with the university; we were building a set for them. But I'm glad I came because I love this festival. Because it's so new, it feels like a purer thing. It's beautiful. People who appreciate film for what it is. It doesn't feel commercial like other festivals I've been to.

Guillén: Which other festivals have you been to?

Jones: I've been to Toronto. Obviously, Tribeca. I've built a lot of things for films at Sundance, though I've never actually been there. I've sent a lot of corporate sponsor product to Sundance. I was supposed to go to South by Southwest for two different vendors but—after I shipped them out—I didn't show up. I don't always show up for every corporate event.

Guillén: Your production company specializes in special effects?

Photo courtesy of Mashed-Up.Net
Jones: No, mainly prop building and set building and design. We're a design-and-build shop. I do both of those things; but, with Mashed-Up—the company we started with Brian Goodwin—we have started a production company. Just last Friday, we shot fashion spreads for an Indian jewelry designer. I do stills. I do video. I make movie sets. I make props. And special effects. Anything film-related, I love to be a part of.

Guillén: So would you come to Idaho to do your projects?

Jones: Absolutely! The main draw for me with Idaho, besides the people who are absolutely lovely—everyone I've met has been excited about the prospect of making film or making art—so, beside the people, the topography is gorgeous. From a filmmaker's perspective, the production value you get just by pointing a camera in any direction is amazing. The color palette here is amazing! The greens, the browns, the texture, random outcroppings from glaciers that came in and deposited these random rocks that make no sense but have made layers of texture and a beautiful background palette that has been mindblowing to me. In fact, tomorrow I'm just going to wander up north because I hear that if I see the Sawtooths I'll be floored, and I'm already floored! I want to explore the state and I love the prospects.

SVFF 2013: SPONSOR REEL—The Evening Class Interview With Zach Voss

SVFF Sponsor Reel from Zach Voss on Vimeo.

Isn't that just about one of the most beautiful bumper reels you've ever seen? All throughout the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) weekend, I kept asking, "Who made that?" Then, during a casual conversation with Zach Voss in the Halliman Hospitality Suite, I found out he did. But of course! Zach Voss has rapidly become the charismatic young face of independent film production in Idaho. When I mentioned to him that there were those intent upon usurping his throne, he grinned, "Bring it on!" Zach agreed to sit down with me to discuss how he produced such a winning reel.

* * *

Photo courtesy of Pete Grady
Michael Guillén: So why did you not credit yourself for this sponsor reel?

Zach Voss: It wasn't really the place to credit myself. It was about the sponsors. But, given, Retroscope did give a huge sponsorship to offset the cost of what it takes to make that, in terms of time.

Guillén: I loved how you incorporated the photographs from the Sun Valley Resort archives. How did you come up with this concept?

Voss: Before I graduated from Boise State, my BFA thesis was video installation. It was a two-channel sculptural piece that projected from either side of a plexiglass panel using archival materials related to the Boise State Broncos. I started exploring the use of that kind of material at Boise State and had a great time; but, once the gallery closed and the show was done, I had no other use for what I had started doing there.

I went to the Sun Valley Film Festival their first year and saw the bumper reel they had and felt strongly that there was room for improvement. I approached them about what I could provide the following year and they gave me their confidence and sent me off and running. I worked with a graphic designer and an animator and pieced together these vignettes.

Guillén: Who was your graphic designer?

Voss: James Lloyd.

Guillén: And who was your animator?

Voss: Jake Kuwana.

Guillén: Jake Kuwana's name keeps popping up on local projects throughout the festival.  He was involved with two shorts I just saw in the shorts program.

Voss: James Lloyd is the designer for the Treefort Music Festival and Jake Kuwana did the online titles for my Road to Treefort web series. There are a lot of people in Boise, Idaho that I can count on and you're going to hear their names pop up on all these different projects. We're using each others' resources and I think we're getting better and better.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell
Guillén: This collaborative ethos is a regional aesthetic distinct to southern Idaho filmmaking that has caught my attention.

Voss: I know no other way.

Guillén: How old are you, Zach?

Voss: I'm 23.

Guillén: It takes a lot of chutzpah for such a young guy to say, "Hey, I can do this better than you did it last year." Where's that chutzpah coming from?

Voss: I don't know if I can credit a specific source but I feel confident in my ideas and my abilities and—when I see something—I can break it down technically and conceptually really well. Once I'm able to do that process and do the math there, it's not an ego thing for me to step up and pitch my idea. So when I saw the reel the first year, with full confidence I knew I could improve. I don't go out of my way to speak up about my talents, but I know that they have value and I know they can evoke responses from people. So I built this sponsor reel in the isolation of Retroscope's headquarters back in Boise and I just went back and forth on the web with the Sun Valley Film Festival people getting it approved. When I finally came up here and saw it for the first time on the screen, each time I would hear a little whisper, "This is done really well."

Guillén: It's one of the best festival bumper reels I've ever seen, and believe me I've seen plenty, many which have annoyed me; but, your's has a subdued, relaxed aesthetic to it. I don't know if your graphic designer had most to do with that in sticking to the cool blue of the festival poster, and linking in the archival photographs. I especially like how you incorporated those photographs and transformed them from stills into moving elements.

Voss: Photographs are a common resource for documentary projects, but there's more to be done with them. If you look around in the hospitality suite, you're going to see some of the photographs that pop up in the video. We altered them to work for our platform by giving them more neutral space to work with. They maintain their character and texture, but then we gently restored it to meet the platform of being essentially a sizzle reel.

Guillén: Were you also responsible for the festival's poster?

Voss: No. That was my pitch as a producer. I said, "You already have a visual cue. You already have a marketing presence. I'm willing to build you a reel that expands upon how you've already branded yourself. The light blue sunray burst and the photograph of Averell Harriman, the founder of Sun Valley, I accepted that that was the decision they had already made to brand themselves and I simply built upon that. I wasn't coming in as their marketing adviser or branding officer, I came in as their video marketing director. "Here's what we've got. Here's what we can make from that."

Guillén: Since last we spoke, you've done very well with Retroscope Media.

Voss: I'm hanging in there.

Guillén: Landing the Treefort account was major!

Voss: Yeah, man! It was probably the single, biggest project to formalize my efforts and remove any doubts about my dabbling in this or that. It's a strong presentation of what I feel good about being able to deliver.

Guillén: Now, I don't want to rouse the unwieldy animal called ego, but you are the young face of independent film production in Idaho. How does that feel for you? Do you feel pressure?

Voss: It comes across to me mostly as support. The entire foundation of the emerging arts and business scene in Boise is based upon collaboration, interest and community involvement. Whereas that could turn into a reputation or ego thing, I think it turns more into a support system. I feel good about it. It can have its intimidation in feeling that I have to live up to that but I think the Boise community and the Idaho scene is so ripe for being involved.

SVFF 2013: COFFEE TALK—An Evening Class Question For Jodie Foster

Photo courtesy of the Sun Valley Film Festival
If there is anything I have learned from Film Festival Studies in the past few years it is the challenge that festival programmers face in satisfying the various demands and desires of the multiple stakeholders invested in a film festival. Perhaps one of the most obvious for, perhaps, having the most precedence is that of the audience demand for glamour and spectacle, what Dina Iordanova has aptly termed the "spectacular dimension" of a film festival, or what Rupert Everett has cleverly satirized as "red carpets and other banana skins."

In their sophomore edition, the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) scored a major coup in bringing Jodie Foster to Idaho for one of their free-to-the-public morning Coffee Talks. Having just been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes® earlier this year, Foster leant celebrity credence to SVFF's efforts to build itself as a competitive destination film festival. She is, without question in my mind, a first-rate human being whose generosity and forthrightness as a creative individual and a citizen of the world added prestige and, indeed, a spectacular dimension to the 2013 Sun Valley Film Festival. What follows is the one question I asked her during her conversation with her SVFF audience at the nexStage. That richer more extended conversation will be published elsewhere; but, for now, I offer this teaser.

* * *

Michael Guillén: First of all, I sincerely want to thank you for helping the Sun Valley Film Festival further film exhibition within the state of Idaho. My question for you concerns your epiphanous performance in A Very Long Engagement (2004) where you spoke in French, which fascinated me. I wanted to know if you could speak to what that process was like for you as an actor to ground your performance in a language that is not your original language?

Jodie Foster: Well, I did start speaking French when I was 9. I was fluent by the time I was 10, maybe. So it's my second language, though not my first language, and I'm aware of that. I make mistakes from time to time but it is a language within which I have a persona. It's a different persona than I have in "real" life.

It's such a fun experience and so challenging to act in a different language and to find that side of yourself in a different language. I was so grateful that Jean-Pierre Jeunet decided to take me on. He hired me to play a part that no one in the world in America would ever hire me to play. Because he's French, and because I have a different persona in French, he wasn't worried about it.

There's a certain freedom that I have in the French language that I don't have in the English language. My speech pattern is different. I went to French school and I learned from all of these women that have a higher voice than I have, so my voice in French is a much higher voice. I don't speak in such a staccato way. Yeah, I'm a different person actually.

Guillén: Thank you.

Foster: Sure.

SVFF 2013: SCREENWRITERS LAB—The Evening Class Interview With Cody Tucker

Early in January, the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) announced their inaugural Screenwriters Lab, an exciting, interactive new feature event of the festival, sponsored by InkTip and Wyoming Whiskey. Kicking off with a staged reading of Will McCormack's We Are Puppets, the Screenwriters Lab likewise invited aspiring screenwriters to submit their original screenplays and television pilots for competition. Three finalists were to be awarded lodging and passes to SVFF and the winner would witness their work come alive during a table read of local and professional actors.

The three finalists brought to the festival were Hank Isaac for his script Taffy, Cody Tucker for Life of the World to Come, and Mike Viseltear for Life Could Be A Dream. After the staged reading of We Are Puppets, there was a Wyoming Whiskey intermission where lab participants mingled in the lobby of the nexStage Theatre. While I belted down a couple of shots of whiskey, Evening Class intern Alex Hansen captured a few fleeting images.

Sun Valley Film Festival 2013 - Screenwriter's Lab from Alex Hansen on Vimeo.

It was as much happenstance as intuition on Hansen's part that he aimed his camera at Cody Tucker, who ended up winning the screenwriters competition, judged by Oscar®-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Traffic), and announced after the Wyoming Whiskey intermission. Actors from the earlier staged reading of We Are Puppets returned to the stage to help visualize Tucker's final, and quite haunting, scene from Life of the World to Come, rendered even more poignant by the musical accompaniment of renowned film score composer Pete Snell. Truly an exciting and dynamic event to watch unfold.

I was finally able to extend congratulations to Cody Tucker at the Alaska Airlines Après-Ski Closing Ceremony.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Cody, congratulations on winning the first annual Sun Valley Screenwriter's Lab with your script Life Of the World to Come, described in the press notes as being about the end of the world, but told in such a way that it turns the notion on its ear. "The dead are coming back to life and making things quite crowded, which makes finding one person or even a few almost impossible." What drew you to this screenwriting competition at the Sun Valley Film Festival?

Photo courtesy of the Sun Valley Film Festival
Cody Tucker: Well, to be honest with you, about a month ago I was checking my spam email and noticed the header "Sun Valley Screenwriters Lab". Typically I subscribe to InkTip and it doesn't go into my spam so I don't understand what happened; but, I read the email and thought, "Why the hell not?" I submitted and in a few weeks was advised that I was one of the finalists and two weeks after that I was here. It's been a whirlwind.

Guillén: So despite the speed of it, a good experience for you?

Tucker: One of the best experiences I've had in a long time.

Guillén: Your acceptance of the award was heartfelt and made all the more touching by your jumping off stage to grab the stuffed animal your daughter sent with you for good luck.

Tucker: I have it in my pocket right now.

Guillén: What can we anticipate about your script Life Of the World to Come?

Tucker: The hope is that it gets out there. Will McCormack asked me to send him a copy of the script so he could pass it on to his agent. Whatever comes from that would be better than anything I could have done for myself.

Guillén: I wish you the best.

Tucker: I really appreciate that. Thank you.