This past weekend in Marin, the posh Northern Californian county just beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mill Valley Film Festival kicked off its 31st season with several premieres and a wide, fascinating range of programs. With a few theatres scattered across Mill Valley and San Rafael's charming, boutique-laden towns, the festival enjoyed brilliant weather and an air of casual enthusiasm as the event kicked off with high profile guests, a mix of festival circuit favorites and a handful of new films.
Joe Wright: Collaborations and Casts of Thousands
The energy of the crowds on MVFF's first full day confirmed that one can hardly resist chatting about movie discoveries in weather as gorgeous as Marin's, and the distinctly conversational tone of the weekend carried over into an interesting "Masterclass" with director Joe Wright ("The Soloist"). Although the British filmmaker was delayed in transit, audiences bided their time by talking casually with fest programming director, Zoe Elton. Arriving in a bustle, Mr. Wright was coyly confused about why anyone would want him for a masterclass, but his every word was eaten up by MVFF-ers eager to get a glimpse at his hotly anticipated new project. After clips of his past work and insightful explanations of his process, we were treated to a peek at three scenes from "The Soloist".
Wright's new film is an adaptation of LA Times writer Steve Lopez's book about his experiences after meeting a homeless, Juilliard-trained musician on skid row (played by Jamie Foxx). It follows the journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) in his unparalleled exploration of the (often mentally ill) homeless community in Los Angeles, and features, astoundingly, a large ensemble cast of transients hired directly from the streets. Wright said that mental illness is something that he has wanted to explore for years, and leapt at the chance to make the film despite never before working in Hollywood. His only condition for eager producers at DreamWorks SKG was that he be allowed to employ real homeless extras on a real wage.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Mr. Wright after the masterclass and inquire about his thoughts on the project, as well as what has been a very rapid rise to career success since his first feature, "Pride & Prejudice" in 2005. The director (a very pleasant, and refreshingly frank guy) expounded upon a topic that had suffused the MVFF program's conversation: his personal style of production.
Since his early work in the UK, in short film, television, and theater, Wright has stuck with a close-knit group of filmmakers including cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, composer Dario Marianelli, production designers Sarah Greenwood and Suzan Wexler, and editor Paul Tothill. He explained that in addition to valuing the artistic and emotional safety of working with close friends, he finds that a stridently collaborative filmmaking style enables him to create work that is as thematically multifaceted as his staff. This approach also involves an especially surprising emphasis on working with extras. As evidenced in both his prior features (most poignantly the 1,000-man strong, 5-minute long Dunkirk take in "Atonement"), Wright emphasized the beauty of investing in a community of people as part of the filmmaking process, and communicated to me a dread of the Hollywood style of production that involves randomly assigned technical staff to an impersonal production.
With "The Soloist", he explained, working with the homeless community in LA was greatly rewarding. The rag-tag group was reportedly deceptively intelligent, "fun, ridiculous, obviously crazy, and deeply human," he said. Until the premiere of "The Soloist" on the opening night of AFI Fest on Oct. 30th, we won't know fully the result of this collaboration, but if the excitement of the MVFF audience is any indicator, his project is surely one to watch.
The film opens on November 21st.
First Weekend Picks: "Hafez" from Iran, "Let The Right One In" from Sweden
Beyond Saturday's afternoon session with Joe Wright, the event's reputation for variety is confirmed in this year's spotlight on socially motivated "Active Cinema", an impressive collection of international fare, salutes to a gallery of contemporary and classic cinematic luminaries, and even a fhildren's film festival.
Festival founder-director Mark Fishkin asserted in a welcoming letter to attendees that despite currents of defeatism in the air of the American industry, the modern state of independent filmmaking hasn't suffered at all. MVFF's slate confirms that if one at least considers the impressive range and volume of indie productions this year, a cynical attitude is difficult to maintain.
Opening night flaunted Gina Prince-Bythewood's anticipated "The Secret Life of Bees" (starring Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning), and Friday sated excited audiences with premieres of indie newcomer "Around June" from local James Savoca, Rob Nilsson's "Frank Dead Souls", and Guy Ritchie's "RockNRolla". On Saturday the fest's string of Tributes kicked off with an apparent favorite of the 2008 circuit, Paul Schrader, and his tragicomic holocaust film "Adam Resurrected". The fest will also honor Sally Hawkins (in town with "Happy-Go-Lucky", Alfre Woodard ("American Violet"), screenwriter Eric Roth ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), and Bergman muse Harriet Andersson.
Although the festival offers few things by way of hot new titles, I found its menu of smaller international and indie films very exciting. This weekend an Iranian-Japanese co production, the North American premiere of Abolfazl Jalili's "Hafez", and the excellent Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In" by Thomas Alfredson (a great success at the Tribeca festival earlier this year that has since kept an inexplicably low profile) were worth particular mention.
In the coming week, this trend continues with a showcase of short animation from Japanese great, Osamu Tezuka, Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda's "Katyn", Josh Safdie's "The Pleasure of Being Robbed", and Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy & Lucy".
The Mill Valley film festival will continue its run until Sunday, Oct. 12.