FESTIVALS: Nantucket Sails Through 6th year; Despite Setbacks, Hosts Premieres of "Rhapsody" and "Session"
by William Ferrall
(indieWIRE/ 07.03.01) — Despite behind-the-scenes financial strains and recurring challenges presented by its remote, island-resort location, the Nantucket Film Festival wrapped up its sixth year on June 24th with organizers declaring this year’s event a success and announcing dates for a 2002 event. As in previous years, NFF continued to embrace the art and craft of writing through screenings of mostly indie feature and short films, staged readings of un-produced screenplays, talks with industry experts, and through its annual Writer’s Tribute.
This year’s festival presented a selection of world and regional premieres from among its 24 feature screenings, which included two “sidebar” groupings of East Indian Cinema and films by New England filmmakers or with New England themes.
Although NFF was never in danger of cancellation, officials slashed budgets, including staff salaries, by one third just ten days before the festival opened. Jonathan Burkhart, Festival Founder and Executive Director, cited the necessity for cuts, because of fewer advance sales of weeklong passes and a near 50% drop in corporate contributions due to the slumping economy. NBC and Showtime remained as the festival’s leading corporate supporters.
In remarks at festival opening events, Burkhart also attributed budget woes to growing costs of local accommodations, and from increased travel expenses to and from Nantucket, a pricey resort community located 30-miles off the Massachusetts coast. Regardless of its financial problems, the festival once again drew loyal film enthusiasts from throughout New England and beyond, with many sell-out screenings and some standing-room-only events.
For many attendees, NFF’s hard-to-get-to location remains a primary draw for festival-goers, with Nantucket’s mostly preserved 19th-century charm holding equal cachet to an Aspen or Telluride. The week is marked by intimate social gatherings in Nantucket restaurants and private homes, leading to up-close interactions with both well- and lesser-known film luminaries.
Of the two dozen feature films and 22 short subjects shown at the festival, “American Rhapsody” by tyro director Eva Gardos took top awards among feature-length films. Festival audiences chose “Project A.L.S,” by Tessa Blake, as its Best Short Film.
The festival’s Audience Award for Best Feature Film also went to Gardos’ bittersweet memoir of an upper-class baby girl, reluctantly left behind by her family as they fled Communist Hungary in the early 1950s. Raised by an adoring Hungarian peasant couple, the young girl is retaken at age six by her birthright family to their new home in America. As a teenager, the girl continues to feel torn between her loving, adoptive working class “parents” in Hungary and her equally-loving, natural parents in America.
In a poignant moment during audience Q & A after the film’s World Premiere, Gardos disclosed that the film recounts her own life and that her Hungarian parents died soon after her real-life visit there. Gardos was also named a finalist for The Perrier “Bubbling Under Award” for first-time filmmakers, an award to be chosen from among five finalists at film festivals nationwide including in Nantucket, Santa Barbara, California, and Taos, New Mexico. Perrier plans to assemble a jury of film industry professionals to review the five semi-finalists. Winner of the $50,000 award will be announced at year’s end. Writer-director Lukas Moodysson won NFF’s 2001 Writer/Director Award, which honors filmmakers who wear the dual creative hats of both writer and director, for his feature “Together,” about life in a Swedish commune.
NFF’s crowded slate of activities included Morning Coffee sessions, daily coffee klatches for festival-goers to interact informally with industry professionals, and In Their Shoes, a series of public panel discussions with industry professionals on topics important to independent filmmakers. In a panel focusing on independent film distribution, Meredith Finn, Director of Acquisitions for Fine Line Features, noted, “It’s a very ugly marketplace right now because there are so many art house films out there.” Fine Line, according to Finn, is “director driven” and looks to establish long-term relationships with directors whose first films they might acquire. Finn was joined on the panel by Stephen Garrett of “Time Out New York,” L.M. Kit Carson, Michael Polish (“Twin Falls Idaho“), and Sara Lash, Director or Acquisitions for IFC Films, the recently-formed film producing division of the Independent Film Channel. For her part, Lash recommended that would-be filmmakers always acquire an agent or lawyer to get their scripts in front of producers. Otherwise, those in her position would “spend all there time looking at scripts.”
This year’s NFF Writer’s Tribute, sponsored by NBC Television and hosted by MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams, honored Walter Bernstein, the 82-year-old screenwriter who was blacklisted during the 1950s but returned to write such notable screenplays as “Heller in Pink Tights” and “The Front.” Bernstein survived professionally during the McCarthy Era by writing anonymously for television, with “fronts” assuming credit for the work by him and other blacklisted writers. Bernstein ironically attributed his successes to “longevity,” following remarks by his friend Arthur Penn, the famed director of “Bonnie and Clyde” who had worked with Bernstein on “The Magnificent Seven.” Bernstein was the second blacklisted writer to be chosen for NFF’s Writer’s Tribute, after 1998 honoree Ring Lardner, Jr., who died last year.
An award for new screenwriting was given to Cambridge, Massachusetts, writer Arthur Andrew for his screenplay “The Pilgrim of Eternity,” a biographical account of the early-19th-century poet Lord Byron. This was the fourth Tony Cox Award for Screenwriting given at NFF, and is named for the former CEO of Showtime, a Nantucket resident who died unexpectedly in 1996.
Stanley Tucci, actor-writer-director and creator of the indie hit “Big Night,” served as one of three jurors for the Cox Award, along with writer-producer L.M. Kit Carson and Columbia University instructor Mary Jane Skalski. Tucci was one of several celebrities to attend NFF this year. Some movie-goers and regional journalists grumbled about the festival’s low level of “star power,” but organizers stressed their continuing commitment to behind-the-scenes film business and to the craft of screenwriting. Most past celebrity participants have been part of staged readings of un-produced screenplays, which were managed and staged this year by the Naked Angels theater company of New York City.
Many recognizable actors from screen, stage and television did take part. Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei took roles in “Italian,” written by her off-stage companion Frank Pugliese, and in “Snakebit,” a screen adaptation of the well-received Off Broadway play written by actor-writer David Marshall Grant.
Other familiar faces who appeared in readings included Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Tate Donovan, John Benjamin Hickey, comedian Kevin Flynn, Amy Stiller, sister of Ben, and Nantucket resident and NFF Board member John Shea. Samuel L. Jackson also showed up briefly at an after-hours party.
The festival closed with a surprise first-time screening of “Session 9,” a new psychological thriller by Boston-based indie filmmaker Brad Anderson (“Next Stop Wonderland“). “Session” producers Michael Williams and David Collins of Scout Productions presented the film to a nearly sold-out audience, which offered polite applause as the film ended. “Session” includes clever and sometimes subtle references to earlier horror films (“Night of the Living Dead,” “Friday the 13th“), but it offers too little blood, shown too late, to be a fully realized slice-and-dice horror film. Although viewers reported being on the edge of their seats early on, they were mostly slumped down, awaiting some rousing action. At closing parties after, one filmgoer had already given “Session” the parody moniker, “Plan Nine from Inner Space.”
[William Ferrall is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in People Magazine, Boston Herald and elsewhere. He is a theater critic and society columnist for Nantucket Inquirer & Mirror.]