FESTIVALS: Quality Films, Damn Good Oysters, and Screenwriters Galore in Nantucket
by Mark Rabinowitz
(indieWIRE/7.12.2000) -- The Nantucket Film Festival (NFF) wrapped on June 25th, and featured it's customarily solid lineup of features and shorts, along with several staged readings, panel discussions and a wonderful tribute to writer/director Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull"). However, don't expect any tales of skinny-dipping or softball games this year, as those traditions took a year off. The tradition of rainy days took time off as well, and festival-goers were treated to five days of glorious sunshine. As Executive Director Jonathan Burkhart mentioned, "This is lousy weather for making money." Even so, many screenings were packed, and there was a general feeling of contentment as this screenwriter-centered festival unspooled for its fifth annual go-round.
The trip to the little New England paradise called Nantucket is a two-fold adventure. You must first get to Providence, Rhode Island or either Boston or Hyannis, Massachusetts. From there it's either a ferry or puddle jumper airplanes. It is possible to actually fly direct form New York City, but that method is pretty much priced only fer the swells. Those of us traveling on a budget do it the long way:
After missing my first train from New York, I spend 2 1/2 interminable hours in Penn Station, waiting for the next one. After training to Providence, I sprint to a waiting cab, having only 35 minutes to catch the last flight to the island. At the airport, I realize that the last round of gin and tonics on the train had made it impossible for me to pay for my cab with cash. Using a credit card I waste a valuable 3 or 4 minutes waiting for authorization and am soon dashing through the airport pell-mell, realizing with terror that the Cape Air desk is on the other side of the terminal from last year!
I arrive 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time and find no gate person, no plane on the tarmac. An airline employee in the area tells me that he thinks the plane has gone, but he will check for me. A few panicked minutes later, a Cape Air employee appears and asks: "You going to Nantucket?" Apparently, they contacted the plane, which had just taken off, and the pilot agreed to circle around and pick me up. You don't get this kinda service with the majors!
Arriving on island, I and panelist/juror Ray Pride are whisked off to our lodgings to dump our bags and then to The Boarding House for a late supper and drinks with festival staff and guests. . . except there was no food to be found, as it was after 10 pm. Settling for drinks and dry rolls, we hash out some panel details (as I am performing double duty on this trip, journalist and panel coordinator) with festival co-founder and artistic director Jill Goode. By this time, Ray and I are famished and a little buzzed, so we make our way to the late night taco stand and slurp down some spicy eats. I trek the half-mile back to my B&B, and crash, ready for the five days of movies, parties and other fest activities.
As this year I had resolved to attend the entire film fest, I was on island early enough to make the Showtime luncheon in honor of the winning screenplay in the fest's annual competition. This year's winners were Paul N. Lazarus III and Morris Fink, for "DaVinci's Gift" and Fink was on island to accept the award. When Ray, Jill and I arrived at the lunch, waiters were carrying trays with various concoctions, including Bloody Marys, champagne and Bellinis.
This year's fest has improved a bit since last year's edition (which was also excellent). For one, the opening "night" film "The Tao of Steve," was at 4pm, with the party held at a humane 7:30pm. "Steve" was written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jenniphr Goodman and stars her sister (the film's female lead) Greer Goodman as well as Duncan North, on whose life and personality the film is based. It was picked up at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival by Sony Pictures Classics, and will be released in early August. Star Donal Logue received a special acting award from the jury at Sundance, and it's a fine film with a marvelous lead performance, and a truly funny and intelligently written script.
The festival unfortunately continues with a ticketing policy which, while easier for the festival to manage and allows for the sale of more passes, is quite inconvenient for non-pass holders. Individual tickets don't go on sale until 15 minutes before show time, so non-passholders have no guarantee of getting a seat when they arrange for a babysitter, make dinner reservations, drive from the other end of the island, etc.
This year's fest was once again very well programmed with several of the films having garnered awards and critical praise over the preceding several months. In addition to the opener, the NFF presented several exceptional films. Among these were Sundance 2000 multiple award winner "Girlfight," written and directed by first-timer Karyn Kusama. It features an outstanding performance by lead Michelle Rodriguez as a headstrong high school senior who learns to channel her anger through boxing, much to the displeasure of her father (the always good Paul Calderon). Supporting performances are all knockouts.
Another film that was getting very positive word of mouth (but I missed, dammitt!) was the U.S. Premiere of Austrian director Virgil Widrich's debut feature, "Brighter Than the Moon" (Heller als der Mond), while an extraordinary short film that I did see was Peter Sollett's beautiful and poignant debut film, "Five Feet High and Rising."
Other features screening included Brad Anderson's third film, the delightfully wacky sci-fi romance "Happy Accidents" featuring a winning performance from lead Vincent D'Onofrio, as well as first-time feature filmmaker Tom Gilroy's "Spring Forward," a touching story that follows the relationship between a recently paroled ex-con (Liev Schreiber) and his new work partner (Ned Beatty, in an Oscar-caliber performance). The closing night slot was filled by one of my favorite films of the past year, Katrin Ottarsdottir's charming award-winning "Bye Bye Blue Bird." As of now, the film does not have U.S. distribution, so if you get a chance to see it at a festival near you, please do!
As the NFF is a festival dedicated to the art of screenwriting, three staged screenplay readings were programmed, one of which I attended. It starred Grant Show ("Melrose Place"), Cara Buono ("Chutney Popcorn," "Happy Accidents") and others. The acting was mostly excellent, but the screenplay was awful.
Paul Schrader is easily one of the more outspoken filmmakers of our time, and he didn't disappoint in his various appearances around island as this year's tributee. One particular instance was at the post-screening Q&A for his extraordinary 1978 directorial debut, "Blue Collar." Packed with Schrader's trademark language (one film goer whispered that it might just be the "most profane movie I've ever seen."), the film is a look at greed, human relations and trade union politics, set in an auto plant in Detroit and features a remarkable performance by Richard Pryor, as well as great work from Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto among others. After the screening, before anyone could ask a question, Schrader launched into tales from the production, involving drug and alcohol abuse and rampant fistfights among the actors, and a constant clash between the method acting of Keitel and the largely improvised style of Pryor.
Once again the MC for the Screenwriter's Tribute at the 'Sconset Casino was NBC News' Brian Williams, who I hope will be the permanent MC of the event. Williams opened his largely off-the-cuff, often sidesplitting remarks with deadpan ease. "We wanted to do something typically Nantucket with the family today, so we took the kids whaling." He then went on to describe his daughter's landing of a 80 foot sperm whale and, in a surprisingly funny and vulgar turn, he pointed out that with the catch, they had far more sperm than they could actually use. I know, obvious. Trust me, it worked. After the predictably profane Schrader montage reel, Williams returned with a message for the kids in the audience. "Well, we certainly learned a few new words tonight, didn't we? Especially the 'mommy' one!" Vittles at the rather posh affair included Mumm Champagne, smoked salmon and once again, the best damn raw oysters I ever had.
Attendees at the tribute included Oscar winner James Coburn ("Affliction") on hand to honor Schrader; actors Molly Shannon (SNL); John Shea ("Missing," "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole"); Schrader's wife, actress Mary Beth Hurt ("The World According to Garp"); Jerry Stiller; Grant Show ("Melrose Place"); Chris Matthews (CNBC's "Hardball"), actress Maddie Corman ("Mickey Blue Eyes") and husband director Jace Alexander ("Law & Order"), and October Films Co-Founder Bingham Ray. Other on-island guests of the fest included actors Cara Buono ("Chutney Popcorn," "Happy Accidents") and Andy Richter.
All in all, it was a successful and pleasant festival experience, albeit with the usual hiccups, including last minute canceling VIP's, astoundingly stupid sponsors ("Oh, I guess we didn't tell the neighbors that we're having a party. Sorry.") -- who pulled one festival guest from a jacuzzi by his hair! As far as the lack of skinny-dipping and a softball game, if need be, I'll organize them, next year!
[Mark Rabinowitz is a co-founder of indieWIRE.com and former Associate Editor of ifcRANT. In addition to those two publications, he has written for FILMMAKER Magazine, Huh Magazine and others. He is currently writing freelance and returning to his filmmaking origins. He often wears hats, doesn't much care for eggplant and can cook his ass off.]