FESTIVALS: Unsung Flock to New England: Writers, Women, and Innovators Feted at Nantucket
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 06.25.02) -- Nantucket is the perfect locale for a film festival devoted to the screenwriter. Considered more subdued than its glitzy neighbor Martha's Vineyard, this mass of land situated 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts is, like many writers, quiet, secluded, and largely isolated from the outside world. As James Schamus said over the weekend, "Screenwriters are pretty marginal figures, so to have a festival like this one, which brings us out of whatever holes or garrets we're inhabiting, is really something extraordinary."
Schamus, the always bow-tied Ang Lee collaborator, attended the seventh edition of the Nantucket Film Festival (which closed Sunday) as the subject of its annual Screenwriter's Tribute. ("Right now, I'm working on a low budget independent film called 'The Hulk,'" Schamus quipped.) And for a couple days there, he and fellow Good Machine co-founder Ted Hope, in town for festival competition jury duty, were the stars of the show. Appearing at Q&A sessions following retrospective screenings of Good Machine hits such as "The Wedding Banquet" and "The Ice Storm," the duo finished each other's sentences, reminisced about the old days, and offered insights into the craft and madness of creating movies together one last time, it seemed, before setting out on their post-Good Machine careers.
This year's festival placed even greater focus on the writer as the unsung hero of the filmmaking process -- even though its honoree is as much a producer as a writer. (Hope: "There are plenty of CEOs out there who want to be writers, but James is the only writer I ever knew who dreamt of being a CEO.") New initiatives for 2002 included a panel on screenwriting, a storytelling night, a critic's discussion about the top screenplays of the last decade, and readings of screenplay excerpts (among them Kenneth Lonergan's latest) courtesy of theater group the Naked Angels, which brought stars Natalie Portman, Rosie Perez, and "Law & Order"'s Jesse Martin to the island). Unfortunately, many of these new events suffered because of a lack of microphones and also small venues, shutting out many fest-goers.
But aspiring screenwriters had plenty to ponder, as one couldn't spend an hour in Nantucket without hearing some valuable kernels of advice: Here's my top five: 1.) Get your script to a director you admire. 2.) Great writers are great listeners. 3.) Great scripts are about the silences in between the dialogue. 4.) Read William Goldman's book "Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade." 5.) It can take 15 screenplays and 10 years before receiving any recognition.
Debra Granik, winner of this year's Tony Cox Screenwriting Award for her gritty love story "Down to the Bone," hopefully won't have to wait that long. The jury, made up of Adrienne Shelly, the Farrelly Brothers and Oren Moverman, deemed the script the "bravest and most honest" of the hundreds of those submitted. "There's a tendency when you get to the end of a script to Hollywood-ize it and give it the big ending," commented Pete Farrelly, "but this didn't need the big ending. There's not a false note in it."
"When a story is not very commercial, there's no welcome mats," said Granik, accepting the award. "I often wondered why I wrote this story if I couldn't get it made. And then something like this comes along and it very much strengthens you." Granik, whose film "Snake Feed" won best short at Sundance 1998, will independently produce her feature debut this fall. Perhaps the award's $2,000 stipend (along with a leather-bound edition of the screenplay) will help propel her work from script to screen.
Writer/director Tim McCann also received a boost at the fest: his assured second feature "Revolution #9" garnered him top jury honors, beating out such big names and specialty studio entries as Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People" (UA), Zhang Yimou's "Happy Times" (Sony), and Gary Winick's "Tadpole" (Miramax). Along with Przemyslaw Shemie Reut's "Paradox Lake" (which also screened), "Revolution #9" represents the kind of true, innovative indie that deserves such recognition and, more importantly, the backing of a distributor.
"Revolution" premiered in Los Angeles last year, nabbed slots at such prestigious fests as Telluride and Toronto (where it unfortunately screened post-September 11), and received a stellar review in Variety. But this adept tale of a man's abrupt schizophrenic downward spiral (played by newcomer Michael Risley) and the struggles of his in-denial girlfriend (Adrienne Shelley at her best) remains without a release. "Revolution #9" could have been just another superficial paranoid thriller, but vivid performances and a genuine rendering of the gaping holes in the mental heath system makes the film all the more gripping and worthy of wider exposure. Post-screening, McCann joked of his film's disturbed protagonist and anti-Hollywood ethos, "If he'd won the Nobel Prize in the end, I think we'd have a stronger shot [at distribution]."
Nantucket also raised the profile of another often-overlooked segment of the industry: women-centered pictures. Stories of female self-actualization nabbed the three top spots in the festival program: "Made-Up," a mild comedy about beauty and aging, starring Brooke Adams, directed by her husband Tony Shalhoub and written by her sister Lynne Adams, opened the festival; the festival's centerpiece selection was German writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck's sensitive portrait of an uptight chef confronting motherhood and romance in "Mostly Martha" (which took home the best screenplay award); and Miguel Arteta and Mike White's latest effort "The Good Girl," starring Jennifer Aniston as a depressed small town clerk longing for excitement, closed the fest.
While all three films have their moments of comedy and compassion, some Nantucket residents reacted as if these works were revelations -- beautiful, necessary depictions of conflicted women characters that deeply touched their souls. I wouldn't go so far, but to hear attendees talk about them, it's clear that the film festival has cultivated some passionate arthouse viewers. More willing to forgive a movie's faults, Nantucket's audiences seemed elated at the chance to witness something -- anything -- different from the norm. Even the shorts programs sold out.
Jill Goode, who left her role as artistic director to step into the shoes of Nantucket's festival director (and principle fundraiser), called this year's event "Lucky 7." "After September 11," Goode said during the four-day event (cut back from its usual five days because of money troubles), "we weren't sure if we were going to be able to move forward." With funding scarce, Goode and the festival's buoyant new artistic director, Mystelle Brabbee, had to face the possibility of dramatic cutbacks for the fest's seventh edition. But December rolled around and major sponsors Showtime, NBC, Absolut, and Westwood One finally came through. At the Screenwriters Tribute, Goode relaxed for one brief moment before running off to introduce a screening, "I think we're going to be around for awhile," she said. "We've really turned the corner."
During one of the festival's "Morning Coffee With. . ." hour-long discussions, James Schamus, Ted Hope, and novelist Rick Moody offered insights into the challenges of creating art and making movies. "The quality I look for in a director is complete desperation and the willingness to sacrifice everything in their life to get their movie made," Hope said. Summing up, moderator and indie film editor Steve Hamilton replied, "I guess the operative idea here is obsession, just carrying on" -- which seems to apply not only to writers and filmmakers, but audiences and festival directors, as well.