With 230 films from 65 countries, 60-70 degree daytime weather, chats with John Sayles, James Newton Howard, Marc Shaiman, Jason Reitman, Joe Wright, and Adam Shankman, plus more stars than there are twinkling in the heavens, the Palm Springs International Film Festival doesn't need to exaggerate its assets. Yes, at the 19th annual gala, awardees and presenters included Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Stockard Channing, Halle Berry, Daniel Day-Lewis, Norman Jewison, Marion Cotillard, the casts of "Hairspray" and "Juno," Emile Hirsch, Jerry Weintraub, Drew Barrymore, Mary Hart, Mary Bono, Ricki Lake, and Jamie Foxx. You could hardly cut into your Beef Wellington without spritzing a former or future Oscar nominee.
Why all the talent? According to Variety, over 30 Oscar voters have Palm Springs down as their main address. And who knows how many claim this former stagecoach stop as their home away from home? Showing up here is part of an astute campaign strategy.
Festival Director Darryl Macdonald--the man who also put the Seattle, the Hamptons, and the "rejuvenated" Vancouver fests on the map--agrees. Tanned and remarkably rested in the midst of all his responsibilities, he noted that Palms Springs after all screens every country's foreign language Oscar submission.
"The producers and sales agents worldwide certainly are utilizing this festival as a showcase in their own strategy to gain a Oscar nomination," Macdonald said. "Unfortunately, there's 63 films submitted and only five can get nominated. That card this festival has played and played very well for a whole large number of years.
"People are also crediting Palm Springs with giving directors, actors, actresses, and composers, for that matter, a showcase that is really going to help in their campaigns... Last year 28 different nominations emerged out of our lineup... But you know ultimately it's not about awards. I don't think filmmakers anywhere, any filmmakers worth their salt, make a film in order to win awards. They make them first and foremost for themselves to tell the stories they want to tell, and the next thing they think of is an audience."
And when Macdonald chats about helmers, he knows of whom he speaks. "We have an adage at film festivals--I probably shouldn't be saying this for your outlet--but the smaller the film, the bigger a pain in the ass the filmmaker's going to be. It's not a generality, and it seems to bear itself out. Anybody who works at a film festival, either in hospitality or programming, will tell you this, "It's the people who haven't yet tasted success who are the most demanding people to deal with. In general the bigger the star, the easier they are to deal with. It's not always the case, but often enough it is."
"With a certain amount of success comes a certain amount of self assurance. Directors you particularly see this in. Actors less so. They have no demands and if something goes wrong at the screening-- heavens forbid it's the screen in the wrong aspect ratio or the print is scratched or whatever--they tend to be mellower.
"But a first-time filmmaker, who it's his baby up there on the screen in front of an audience for the first time, will just freak out, go ballistic, and think the world has ended.
"That being said, I've been in a situation where a huger European director, I'll name him-- Bernardo Bertolucci --because I'll never forgive him, upbraided me publicly onstage in the most ungracious way because of a glitch that happened at the opening night screening of one of his films at the Seattle Film Festival. The audience booed him."
All went well and no one booed at Helen Hunt's directorial debut, "Then She Found Me," the opening night offering. This tale of an unhappy, recently dumped Jewish woman (Hunt) who discovers her biological mom is a very loud talk show host (Bette Midler) received a mostly favorable response.
"It took ten years to make this 90 minutes of film. You can imagine how much it means to me that we have been programmed into this incredibly beautiful spot in this vibrant, fertile festival," Hunt told the crowd.
Earlier in the day, she shared with indieWIRE the tale of how she got hooked up with the production company Killer Films. "I had met with Christine Vachon just in general, hoping as an actress that they would think of me for a small movie. I want people to know that I like to have a good part, whether it's going to be big or small. So I had met with them. Then when this screenplay was finished, I knew that it would be better as a small film. So I thought it was a long shot that Killer Films would think of it as their kind of movie, but Christine read it right away, and she said, "We love it. We want to make it.' It's one of the few episodes in the making of the movie that was easier than I expected rather than harder."
What was the hard part?
"Getting it paid for," Hunt noted. "Getting money to make it was unspeakably hard and took a ridiculously long amount of time. I ended with a very small check, but what that small amount of money afforded was the right to just make the movie with the actors I wanted without anybody giving me notes on the script."
Indie pioneer John Sayles and his producer/companion Maggie Renzi decided to sidestep Hunt's agonies, and they have bankrolled and are distributing "Honeydripper," a musical exploration of the black plight in the 1950s South, with their own hard-earned cash.
One reason Renzi explained was Sayles' relationship with studio heads: "I think there are ways in which John is somehow, and it is not what he tries to be, but sort of the conscience of the film business. I think his very presence raises questions about how films are made and what their worth is. I think he does never intend to be but I think sometimes people think of him as a bit of a scold."
As for this first stab at self-distribution on his 16th film?
Sayles explained, "Yes, we've put together a team on our own this time. We've certainly been very close to the distribution [in the past] as we were with "The Secaucus Seven." But this time, we've actually put together a team with Ira Deutchman and four sets of publicists. Will Packer who's the producer of "This Christmas"; and others. We've put together this team of people who are making all the decisions together."
Renzi added, "What we were really hoping to get was corporate sponsorship. We had some idea that it could be 'Delta Airlines Presents..." and I think that idea is a little ahead of its time or it will happen eventually, but not with an independent film. It will happen with a studio perhaps. Or maybe when Google starts making films or Amazon does. But it's been fun to work with people who are into innovative ideas like that. Some of them work out and some of them don't."
No self-distribution for Israeli Joseph Cedar and "Beaufort." With his critically acclaimed effort already sold in 15 territories, he's betting that Kino will serve his interests in the United States:
"What's nice about Kino is that they're a realistic and solid company. They know who they are. They pick films that they think they can distribute in an intelligent way. Breaking big is not necessarily their goal. It's more allowing a film to meet its potential even if that potential isn't that big. It's knowing how to reach that sort of potential."
"Beaufort" was part the fest's continually sold-out "New Israeli Cinema: L'Chaim!" sidebar along with Ran Tal's entertaining "Children of the Sun," a doc on children raised in a kibbutz; Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen's semi-successful dramedy "Jellyfish" about modern folks in flux; David Volach's powerful Orthodox Jewish tragedy "My Father My Lord"; Ayelet Menahemi's "Noodle," a crowd-pleasing El Al stewardess/abandoned Chinese child love story; and Oded Lotan's endearing "The Quest for the Missing Piece," a gay look at the practice of circumcision."
Did you know that there are "650 million circumcised men in the world, one fifth of the entire male population," that "circumcision is indisputably the most common surgical procedure in the world, " and that if you have a foreskin, you can probably thank Saint Paul for the extra sensitivity you have down there?
Another Israeli doc meeting with great success was Nadav Schirman's "The Champagne Spy," winner of an Israeli Oscar. When Variety wrote an article on his film and that he was adapting it into a narrative, he happened to be L.A. at the time.
"Three studios called me and then the agencies. Within 2 days, Friday and Saturday, I had an agent; I had a lawyer; and all these studio meetings. I felt like Cinderella in many ways. It felt like a dream. But at the same time it also gave me a sense of the industry. I felt like a stock. I felt like I was being traded. I felt these people were not necessarily interested in my story or what I wanted to do, but they didn't want the other people to get it. But I ended up with a really good agent and a lot of buzz. I was on the radar of the studios and they wanted to know what I wanted to do next. So maybe my next movie will be a studio film."
Also walking on air was Francine Bruecher of Swiss Films. She was promoting Bettina Oberli's "Late Bloomers," the second biggest grosser in Swiss history. Starring 87-year-old Swiss TV star Stephanie Glaser, additional theaters had to be added to all Fest screenings to satisfy overflowing crowds.
As for the best word of mouth, everyone was exclaiming over Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters" (Germany).
Milcho Manchevski's "Shadows," the Macedonian nom for an Oscar, however, is a tepid ghost story about impoverished country folk wanting to get their bones reburied so they can cross over to the other world. The hero, whose doctor mom is the culprit here, takes far longer to discover the cure than you will, but then he's too busy having ghost sex.
Enrique Fernandez and Cesar Charlone's "The Pope's Toilet" (Uruguay) is a joyful, knowing look at the impoverished who hope to make a financial killing when the Pope comes to their village. Our hero builds a potty for the expected crowds that never materialize. Based on a true story.
Two major successes are Calitos Ruiz and Mariem Perez's "Lovesickness" from Puerto Rico and Aleksi Salmenpera's "A Man's Job" from Finland. The first intercuts three outrageous love stories and the latter chronicles the life of an out-of-work handyman who turns to selling his body to women with major needs, including a 19 year old with Down's Syndrome. There are remake possibilities here.
One of the quirkier comedies that does deserve a stateside art-house run is Petter Naess' "Gone with the Woman" (Norway). (It's poster is an attention-getting spoof on "Gone With the Wind.") This hilarious take on obsessive, masochistic amour is beautiful technically as it is original in content. A young man who judiciously avoids commitment finds momentary glee with a female a who can twist him around both her pinkies at once.
Nic Balthazar's "Ben X" (Belgium) relates the true tale of a sensitive young man who is bullied in high school to such a degree that he takes on the identity of a hero in a computer game he plays daily. A sock-o surprise ending and manic game footage should click with younger cinemaphiles.
As for Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori's "Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm," while not cinematic, this effort contains fascinating tidbits about the history of vibrators, the diagnosis of hysteria, and women's rights.
One of the more beautiful films you'll ever see and every art historian's dream is Peter Greenaway's "Nightwatching," a highly complex and at times rambling take on Rembrandt, his loves, and his painting "Night Watch." This effort is as challenging as any Greenaway offering, and there were numerous walkouts at the screening I attended, but you just might not ever look at another work of art the same way after viewing this one.
As for Jielo Lee's deft debut offering, "The Air that I Breathe," your appreciation of his circular plotting will have a great deal to do with how tongue-in-cheek you believe the film is. If you accept Lee's exploration of four emotions as a black comedy, you'll be laughing with him. If you take Lee too seriously, you might at times be giggling at him. But with fine performances by Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, and Sarah Michelle Gellar and churning action scenes, you'll have to admit this is one fine calling card.