A Weekend in Nantucket: Ninth Annual Fest Continues to Shine a Light On Storytelling
by Eugene Hernandez
When it debuted in 1996, the Nantucket Film Festival (held this year from June 16-20) ushered in a new wave of Summer weekend resort film festivals here in the Northeast. Newport joined the fray in 1998, followed by Provincetown the following year and then Lake Placid got into the mix in 2000. The events compete for films, filmmakers, sponsors, and industry attention, sometimes on overlapping dates during the month of June. Nantucket's fest, after a brief period of tough financial times a few years back, has emerged as a leading weekend festival among those held in June or in any other time of the year for that matter.
Debra Granik was presented the Moby Dick Award for best screenwriting for her Sundance '04 debut, "Down to the Bone." Shane Carruth won the best writer/director award from the jury, for his first feature, "Primer," another Sundance prize winner. And the festival's first best storytelling in a documentary prize was awarded to Ruth Leitman's "Lipstick and Dynamite."
Audiences selected Chris Smith, Sarah Price, and Dan Ollman's culture-jamming doc "The Yes Men" as their favorite feature film in the festival, with one of the film's subjects, Andy Bichelbaum, joining "Farmingville" directors Carlos Sandoval & Catherine Tambini, "Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed" director Shola Lynch, and "Weapons of Mass Destruction" director Danny Schechter, among others, at a rousing Saturday discussion of the "art of the political story" moderated by distribution consultant John Vanco. [More on that session will be included in an upcoming indieWIRE article about documentaries today.]
Terri Edda Miller, writer/director of "Dysenchanted," won the best screenwriting prize for a short film, while the Teen View on NFF prize went to "Krumpet" and audience voting in the short film category singled out Matt McCormick's "American Nutria." The Tony Cox Award for Screenwriting, named for the former chairman and CEO of Showtime, was presented to Jennifer Maisel for her script, "The Last Seder."
With a solid, but not too voluminous, program of films mixing fest circuit favorites and international hits offered in an intimate, comfortable setting, the event is a nice respite from other festivals that try to pack way too many movies, parties, panels, and programs into a short period of time. Born with an emphasis on screenwriting, the festival has evolved slightly to embrace other aspects of storytelling and returns each year with a few annual quality events and a hospitable staff. In recent years, under the steady guidance of executive director Jill Burkhart and artistic director Mystelle Brabbee, the Nantucket Film Festival has garnered increasing celebrity attendance and wider awareness.
The annual late-night storytelling event is a particularly notable highlight, although this year's third installment was neither late at night (it began at 8 p.m.) nor was it as intimate an affair as last year's gathering. The event was held in the cavernous Sconset Casino, an auditorium better suited for the annual screenwriters tribute the following night. Actress Anne Meara and writer/director Peter Farrelly ("Stuck on You," "There's Something About Mary") hosted the evening gathering, welcoming a mixture of notable and local storytellers who were willing to stand up in front of a roomful of people to tell a potentially embarrassing story. Bringing down the house this year was spastic storyteller Jim Carrey, who related a particularly funny tale about how he was caught masturbating in his parents' bedroom as a teenager.
On the same stage the next night, NBC's heir to the nightly news throne Brian Williams offered another year's batch of humorous jokes at the expense of NBC and Nantucket Island life, prodding locals in particular about their preppy wardrobe. After a round of perhaps a bit too much cheerleading for NBC, led again this year by General Electric vice chairman and head of NBC/Universal Bob Wright, the evening turned the spotlight on this year's honoree, Charlie Kaufman. Carrey, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Focus Features co-president James Schamus were among those offering witty and sincere remarks in honor of the generally shy writer who seemed to take it all in stride.
Describing his public life as "an artificial construct" for the purpose of promoting his own movies, Kaufman told me the previous day that he keeps his public and private lives quite separate. Shortly before the brief interview, a publicist handling the honorees round of conversations with journalists warned me that the writer "hates bad questions," advising me, "don't ask him how he feels about receiving this award."
With his game face on for the chat, Kaufman was warm as he shared some insights into his own work. "I want to be honest," Kaufman explained, "It's what I am interested in -- exploring an idea that is truthful for myself." Explaining that his films provide him a way to explore the dynamics of human relationships, Kaufman added that he writes stories that he is interested in seeing, and that he is pleased when other people find those stories interesting as well.
As for his next project, Kaufman said that he is at work on a new script to be directed by his good friend Jonze. "It's not a genre movie," Kaufman added, debunking rumors that the pair are planning a horror film. Afraid to talk too much about the movie, something he tries to avoid while at work on a script, Kaufman only offered that the story is both scary and troubling.
The looming handler watching the clock as Kaufman and I chatted about screenwriting made me realize one challenge that will face Nantucket Film Festival organizers as they continue to court celebrities and wider attention. How do they maintain the intimacy and camaraderie that makes their weekend fest, held outside the big city, a nice respite from the bigger, more impersonal events out there?
As Charlie Kaufman and I wrapped up our amiable chat, the aforementioned publicist returned to ask Kaufman, "Was that painful?" referring to the group of interviews Kaufman had just finished. "Don't say that in front of a journalist," Kaufman warned politely, seeming a bit embarrassed. "No, it was not painful," he added, slightly smiling.