FESTIVAL: A Few Days in the Valley: The 25th Mill Valley Film Festival
by Sascha Paladino and Erin Torneo
(indieWIRE: 10.22.02) -- For the 25th anniversary of the Mill Valley Film Fest (October 3-13), indieWIRE decided to break from tradition in regional festival reporting. indieWIRE associate and photo editor Erin Torneo headed out to Marin County, but recruited her friend, filmmaker Sascha Paladino to give his perspective as a first-time festival attendee as well. After all, as regional festivals clamor for big films like "Bowling for Columbine," "Frida," and "White Oleander" to drive ticket sales and attract celebrity, their real value has always been in showcasing little-seen work (discoveries in Mill Valley this year included Iran's "The Deserted Station" and "Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly") and offering emerging filmmakers, like Paladino, a place to screen their work for an audience. So in addition to a journalist's report on the festival, indieWIRE asked Paladino to include his take on the Mill Valley experience.
Sascha Paladino: I've sent my short documentary, "The Subway Line," to a good bunch of festivals, and gotten a good bunch of rejections. But actually, this isn't my first fest -- or my first experience with Mill Valley. When I was 16, I made a Super 8mm short (with the overlong, angsty-adolescent title "The Man Who Put His Fear in a Bottle") that was accepted into the festival's now-extinct High School section. Now, ten years later, a film I'm really proud of is accepted, and this time I actually get to go.
Erin Torneo: Mill Valley, which is located just over the Golden Gate Bridge in wealthy Marin County, is populated by lapsed hippies-cum-yuppies, musicians, artists, writers, and various health food stores. "Simply because of the festival's geography, with Bay Area filmmakers like Francis Coppola and Rob Nilsson nearby, Mill Valley has been in the vanguard of digital filmmaking," said director of programming and Briton Zoë Elton. Screenings were held at Mill Valley's Sequoia Theater as well as in San Rafael at the Rafael Film Center. Rama Dunayevich, the Film Center's associate director of programming (and former Palm Pictures acquisitions exec), told indieWIRE that the Center successfully books many films without distribution year-round, thanks to its supportive, arts-friendly community and the strong word-of-mouth among them. MVFF also announced that the Rafael Film Center will undergo a name change in 2003, to coincide with a generous $2.5 million gift from patron Christopher B. Smith.
Paladino: At the Depot bookstore cafe found along the couple of blocks that make up Mill Valley's center, I chat with a friendly local who tells me that he used to write screenplays in Hollywood, including "Big Trouble in Little China." I love that movie! Kurt Russell battling supernatural demons in Chinatown. As he tells me stories about the making movies with John Carpenter B-movie, I decide that I really like Mill Valley. Everyone is so nice here. Plus, the hospitality suite offers free massages at the local spa, Tea Garden Springs. That's what I call hospitality. There I am given a badge that says: "Sascha Paladino. Filmmaker." It's just a piece of plastic, but it feels official.
Later, a young woman from a short film website spies the plastic and approaches me. She tells me about the site and asks what my film is about. "Well, it's a documentary," I explain. The smile fades from her face. "Oh. We don't show documentaries," she says, suddenly not interested in talking to me. She smiles curtly and walks off.
Torneo: The 11-day festival revisited highlights from its 25 year history with high-profile films and guests such as Baz Luhrman ("Strictly Ballroom"), Edward James Olmos ("Stand and Deliver"), and Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). At the Milos Forman tribute in San Rafael, film writer David Thomson interviewed the director about his work. Forman, whose Czech parents were killed by the Nazis and who left Communist Czechoslovakia for the U.S. in the late 1960s, shed light on the political underpinnings of some of his most famous films. "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) is his "Czech film." He explained, "The Communist Party was our Nurse Ratchet, telling us they're doing good for us, helping us out -- when they're really just imprisoning us."
Paladino: Disappointment. I get a call from the documentary programmer of the festival. They're going to cancel one of the two screenings of my film. Ugh. It's not selling well. I guess it was a little ambitious to program two films about art (my short, "The Subway Line," is about an artist who draws portraits on the NYC subway; and the accompanying feature, Tony Silver's riveting "Arisman: Facing the Audience," is about Marshall Arisman, a painter known for his disturbing pictures of serial killers) in a 300 seat theater on a Friday night. Instead, a third screening of Michael Moore's sold out "Bowling For Columbine" is scheduled, followed by a provocative, funny, and rabble-rousing conversation with Moore himself.
Torneo: Provocateur Moore was indeed the surprise guest of the festival, driving over from San Francisco to conduct a Q&A following his sold-out Friday screening. (The festival reported that some 44,000 attended this year's fest, with 129 of its 185 screenings being sold out.) Mill Valley seems to know its audience -- and so does Michael Moore, who said that "'Columbine' became a film about something so much larger than just our gun culture. It came to say something about why we have so much violence, both locally and in what we export internationally." International and local violence were clearly on everyone's mind. Earlier in the day, the congressional resolution for Bush's military plan sent local groups out to busy intersections in Mill Valley and San Rafael, where they protested with signs that read "No more empire for oil." Northern California's rich history of activism, coupled with an audience of wealthy left-coast liberals reading headlines about the sniper and Iraq made for a perfect Moore audience. News that he had received 50,000 signatures on his anti-war petition elicited clamorous applause. One audience member was festival tributee Ed Asner, who stood to ask Moore a question. The filmmaker, squinting into the audience to see who it was, stopped to tell the audience an incredible story about Asner: back when he was trying to make "Roger & Me," Moore had sent out hundreds of letters to people in Hollywood trying to get funding. The only person who responded, Moore recalled, was Ed Asner, who had even enclosed a check. "I don't think I've ever had a chance to thank you," said Moore. "At least not publicly." After several minutes of applause, Asner responded, "I'm never going to ask you another question in public again."
Paladino: Since at my day job I write for a children's television program, I'm happy to see that the Mill Valley Film Festival is extremely kid-friendly. "Script to Screen: Young Filmmakers' Workshop" gives some energetic youngsters the chance to write, direct, shoot, and act in their own short film, with the results projected in front of an audience a week later. And at a special program called "Meet the Muppets," a screening of the new Jim Henson Company film "Kermit's Swamp Years" is followed by a puppeteering workshop for kids and a Q & A with Kermit's young toad friend Goggles. When one five-year-old girl asks the green puppet if he has a girlfriend, Goggles replies "Maybe we could start by going out for tea sometime?" (Goggles also mentions that he's no stranger to Marin County: "I used to hang out at Skywalker Ranch when Yoda was just a hand puppet!")
Torneo: Mill Valley also offered plenty of panels for grown-ups. In the gallery-like space of Oddfellows Theater, MVFF presented "The Last Draft: Screenwriters and Script Editors" on a Saturday afternoon. Tom Schlesinger, a screenwriter and script doctor, moderated a panel that included Scottish It-girl writer/director Lynne Ramsay, writer-director Andrew Litvack, whose first film "Merci Docteur Rey" closed the festival, and Julie Hebert, a writer working on her first directorial project, "Lying Awake." The intended topic of the day was the "midwifery" of script editors, but the audience -- comprising mostly aspiring and working writers living in the Bay area -- quickly shaped the 2-hour discussion into a "how-to" forum. Of particular interest was adaptation. Not only was Ramsay's "Movern Callar" (which was playing the fest) adapted from a novel of the same name, but also Ramsay is currently working on a screenplay version of Alice Sebold's phenomenal bestseller "The Lovely Bones." If anyone can capture the beauty and darkness and sadness of that book, it's her.
Paladino: As a fledgling documentary filmmaker, I make a special effort to see as many docs as possible. Sitting through so many documentaries, and hearing some of the filmmakers speak, serves as a great education. Mill Valley's got a particularly strong offering of music docs. "Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony" hits an especially potent chord. Lee Hirsch's beautiful film explores the role of music in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Beth Harrington's lively "Welcome to the Club -- The Women of Rockabilly" the careers of some true musical pioneers: 1950s stars such as Jane Martin (the "female Elvis Presley") and bee-hived Brenda Lee, preceded by the fascinating short "Cowgirls." Jump-n-jiving followed at the legendary Sweetwater music club, with a Rockabilly concert headlined by Rosa Flores.
There were also many films about films. "Lost in La Mancha," directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, is a hilarious and heartbreaking film that follows director Terry Gilliam as he begins to shoot an ill-fated adaptation of "Don Quixote" starring Johnny Depp. On location in Spain, Gilliam's grandiose obsessions and bad luck bring to mind Francis Ford Coppola and "Apocalypse Now." An injured actor, flash floods, and uninvited military planes zooming overhead all contribute to the chaos. But unlike "Hearts of Darkness," Eleanor Coppola's film about her husband's Vietnam epic, "Lost in La Mancha" doesn't have a happy ending. Fulton and Pepe bring wit and Gilliam era Monty Python-style animation to this cautionary filmmaking tale.
Torneo: It's odd to have the failure of one film launch another to success on the festival circuit, but Fulton and Pepe's careers have piggy-backed on Gilliam's work. (Their previous film can be found on the "12 Monkeys" DVD.) Similarly, Andrew Litvack explained that he was once James Ivory's assistant; his first film ("Merci Docteur Rey") is being released by Merchant/Ivory. However they got their work to the screen, the filmmakers at Mill Valley represented an impressive variety. From first-time short filmmakers to multiple-Academy Award-winning legends, from American filmmakers like Paul Justman ("Standing in the Shadows of Motown") to foreign voices like Carlos Carrera ("The Crime of Father Amaro"), Paul Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday"), Lynn Ramsay ("Movern Callar"), Fernando Meirelles ("City of God") and Aparna Sen ("Mr. and Mrs. Iyer"), the expansive festival has something for everyone.
Paladino: Finally the day of my screening arrives. The theater is a little more than half full. A good showing for a Sunday afternoon, I am told. Tony Silver (look for his first film soon on DVD: 1982's "Style Wars," captures 80s graffiti culture and the NYC hip-hop movement) and I introduce our films. "The Subway Line" is projected on a huge screen, in a real movie theater. People laugh. People applaud. It feels good. Tony runs to the back of the theater to adjust the projector before his film starts. An usher stops him, thinking he's me. "Great film," he says. It's one of those rare, out of body experiences. I feel like a filmmaker.