When I woke up on the first day of the Louisiana International Film Festival’s three-day stint in Baton Rouge, I appreciated that my chic boutique Hotel Indigo overlooked the mighty Mississippi and was only a block from two of the major viewing and party locations of the festival: the Manship Theatre in the modern (built in 2005) Shaw Center for the Arts, and the striking Gothic/Moorish Old State Capitol, built in 1847.
Ian Birnie, the Festival’s programming director, had told me that Mark Twain had loathed the building (“It is pathetic…that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things…should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place”), but I replied, sanguinely, that he had no idea what horrors in architecture the future would hold, making the Old State Capitol look benign in comparison.
Luckily I scored a ride from the hotel to the Celtic Media Centre (according to Google Maps, 9.4 miles away, “14 minutes by car, 2 hours 49 minutes on foot”), which was the site of an ambitious day-long program, including film workshops and panel discussions, screenings of films with a Louisiana connection, an Industry Expo, and the Mayor’s Luncheon.
We arrived at the immaculate, modern lot — a sister studio to Raleigh Studios in Hollywood — and toured the Industry Expo, vendors touting insurance, crew hiring, local housing, and car and equipment rentals. Even though I was quick to tell them that I was not their target audience, I accumulated pens, caps, and cup sleeves galore. I was more intrigued by the line-up of food trucks, including the Dolce Vita pizzeria, Pullin’ Pork, Taco de Paco, Community Coffee, and the nicely-named Fleur de Licious, featuring porchetta sandwiches. But I was there for an imminent luncheon, so instead I explored the main office building, where I could see that all the morning’s workshops were gratifyingly full.
The luncheon featured green salad with chicken, pasta salad with shrimp, and the kind of mildly interesting boosterish speeches about the festival and Louisiana film production that don’t demand full attention. I was more interested in speaking with the two adjacent tables of young students from the Baton Rouge Mentorship Academy, a college-prep high school. They were an important part of the focus of the festival (whose full name is Louisiana International Film Festival and Mentorship Program), but they were whisked away into workshops before I got very far.
Afterwards I was treated to a fascinating tour of the studios by Director of Studio Operations Patrick Mulhearn, who pointed out the creative re-use of certain perks put in by rapper Master P when the facility was going to be the site of his recording studios: shark tanks designed to be visible from his glass-walled shower, a helicopter landing pad, and a basketball court that became one of the complex’s more intimate studios. It’s here, I’m told, that Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (as impersonated by Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson) were in bed together when they were rudely interrupted by the sound of automatic weapon fire from the “Battleship” set across the lot. Mulhearn also said that some enterprising Twihards attempted to sneak onto the lot by boarding the “Battleship” crew bus, but were summarily discovered and dispatched. The walls of the main office building are lined with huge blowups of photographs from some of the most famous movies shot in Louisiana, including “Louisiana Story” by Robert Flaherty and Martin Ritt’s “The Long Hot Summer.” Mulhearn points out Paul Newman, and reflexively I say “And that’s Anthony Franciosa,” which he seems pleased to know.
I hitch another ride back to downtown Baton Rouge — the city feels a bit like the other LA to me, the one with minimalls and neighborhoods connected by freeways, and difficult to explore without a car. But the rest of the day was to be contained within not much more than a block: three screenings at the Manship Theatre and a reception at the Old Capitol building.
The days’ screenings: it’s doc day!
“Life According to Sam” showed at Sundance and is to be broadcast on HBO in the fall (Indiewire’s interview with the director here). Sam is a hyper-intelligent and articulate child who suffers from progeria, the rare and fatal aging disease that affects about 250 children worldwide. Sam’s parents are both doctors, and we follow the family for years as his mother supervises the first-ever drug trial for progeria victims who come to her from all over the world. It’s both delicate and moving. Jeff Consiglio, its editor, who also edited “Sam”‘s directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix’s Oscar-winning “Inocente,” which is showing later today, is in attendance, chatting with the audience afterwards (which includes an aunt of a young girl currently enrolled in the third drug trial undertaken by Sam’s mom).
At intimate film festivals, I must say, the access is amazing. When I stand up after the screening, the young artist Inocente herself, who has changed from the pink tulle ballerina skirt I glimpsed on her in the hotel lobby earlier, catches my eye and says “Did you cry?,” initiating a wide-ranging conversation I might not have initiated myself.
The second doc is Jeff Kaufman’s lively, densely-populated “The Savoy King,” which debuted at the New York Film Festival (our TOH! review). It tells the story of the charismatic handicapped drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, who played to enthusiastic white and black crowds at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the only integrated dance spot in Harlem, and discovered Ella Fitzgerald, who led the band after Webb died. It’s composed of marvelous vintage footage, contemporary interviews with denizens of Harlem and the Savoy who are now in their nineties, and voice-overs by a dazzling array of stars including Bill Cosby, Andy Garcia, Billy Crystal, and Jeff Goldblum. Kaufman is there, accompanied by velvet-voiced, towering New Orleans musician Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, who was another of “The Savoy Kings” voiceover artists, and is something of a renaissance man, being an ex-NFL football player and naturalist as well. (Full disclosure: Jeff’s son Daniel is my godson, a talented filmmaker in his own right, who supplied excellent, stylish, mysterious graphics of lyrics for the film’s end credits.)
After a brief foray across the street to the reception, which features sushi, cocktails, and lively live piano-playing by 88-year-old Henry Gray, who has played with, among others, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and, inevitably, the Rolling Stones. It’s held up a dizzying spiral staircase and under an equally dizzying stained-glass dome held up by one gravity-defying column. I think that if Mark Twain had gone inside the Old Capitol building (which if course wasn’t yet old), he would have liked it more.
I tear myself away to see the 10 p.m. screening of “I Am Divine,” by accomplished documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz who previously directed HBO’s “Vito” (Indiewire’s interview with Schwarz). If you’re a Divine fan, this movie is right up your alley — I am one, and yet I was totally ignorant of her disco career. If the John Waters star is unknown to you, you’ll be a fan after you see the movie. Again, Schwarz is there and totally available for conversation afterwards.
It would be a perfect day if I could have found something delicious to eat afterwards. Bars up and down Third Street, which borders the Shaw Center, are hopping, almost maniacally so, but food seems to be in short supply, as Ian Birnie and I seek sustenance.
We give up and get tuna sandwiches to go at Jimmy Jones, a better-than-Subway chain that I only have seen and patronized one other time, in Boise, Idaho, on my way home from the delightful Sun Valley Film Festival. On our somewhat circuitous route back to the hotel, Ian photographs an old-fashioned haberdashery with window displays right out of “Mad Men,” and I spy a cute little bakery called Strands Cafe, that looks worth checking out in the morning, before a day of at least four more films. And Yelp and Urbanspoon agree!