Hollywood North Comes of Age: The Twentieth Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival
by D.J. Palladino
Maybe it's a truism that Hollywood neglects writers, but Santa Barbara doesn't. On the second day of the 20th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, invited behind the historic Spanish-styled Lobero Theater for liunch, I almost tripped over a casually clad, happy Julie Delpy, star and Academy-nominated writer of "Before Sunset." Whilst nearby under a tent eating buffet sat five of the most spectacular names in screenwriting circa this moment: Bill Condon ("Kinsey"), Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby"), Brad Bird ("The Simpsons," "The Incredibles"), Zach Braff ("Garden State"), and, hallowed be his name, Charlie Kaufman ("Being Jon Malkovich," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). "If a bomb were to go off here," said panel moderator Frank Pierson (who wrote "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dog day Afternoon" and is now president of the Motion Picture Academy) an hour later inside the theater, "It would set the movies forward ten years." No doubt, he meant backwards, but even an unconscious writer slur was here overwhelmed by the sheer number of true scribe stars and the lively attendees -- torn between lionizing Kaufman's majestic experimentalism or Braff's poetic lifestyle relevance -- frequently cheered on their feet.
There were all kinds of other stars for them, too. This 20th festival was the second for the new, flamboyantly coifed artistic director Roger Durling, who has emerged in this town as a star himself. Even the Chamber of Commerce named him Citizen of the Year. The difficulty was topping his remarkable first year coup, managing to lure Peter Jackson to a tribute in the movie palace setting of Santa Barbara's Arlington theater on the eve of Jackson's Oscar sweep. "It was something that I worried about since the moment last year's festival ended," Durling told me, referring to the ominous possibility of sophomore curse. He needn't have worried. Besides great support from year-round Hollywood Santa Barbarans like Jeff Bridges and others, Durling used his own never say die passions and attracted a mother lode of megastars.
Like Leonardo DiCaprio who Durling tapped for the festival's major honor. Mere days after Di Caprio accepted, his name rang out with Oscar nominations for "The Aviator." Durling's foresight was 20-20 picking Kate Winslet and Annette Bening, who also readily agreed to be honored a few weeks before hearing their Academy nominations announced. (Though Javier Bardem dropped out last minute, Catalino Sandino ("Maria Full of Grace") bent her schedule to come.) But the non-nominated roster was impressive too. The fest presented Kevin Bacon, Laura Dern and Paul Giamatti as well as the esteemed nature film director Sir David Attenborough.
Durling gave DiCaprio the fest's Platinum Award, which had in previous years been called a Lifetime Achievement Award. Opening with clips the young native Angeleno has amassed in his busy first decade and a half of acting from Gilbert Grape to Scorsese's latest, overwhelmed most of us. ("These are like my life experiences," quipped the young, very charismatic star.) Then after a 90-minute interview with Leonard Maltin, a longtime champion of the SB Fest, Martin Scorsese himself came out of the audience to present the award. Noting that at DiCaprio's age, just turned 30, Scorsese had only made "Mean Streets." This was, in fact, a lifetime of achievement. "And we can only expect better things to came," said Scorsese. The party after was star-studded with Christopher Lloyd, director Andrew Davis, Herman's Hermit singer Peter Noon and Depeche Mode songwriter David Gahan noshing near the Bacara Resort dance floor.
The elegant Bening was interviewed by Elvis Mitchell and Kate Winslet who tied the festival neatly back to her "Titanic" co-star Di Caprio who bravely sat through a few nude scenes and remarked on her career and child-rearing breast size changes. The celebratory tone rarely dipped.
And of course there were films. Durling's other major coup was convincing Woody Allen to premiere his film "Melinda and Melinda": on opening night. (Though it has played in Italy, it was the first time shown in the United States. Thematically, the festival has always run to eclectic groupings, though Durling, who was born in Panama has made an effort to promote Latino filmmakers from all over the globe. This year, with UCSB film professor Cristina Venegas, the fest presented Outro Lado da Rua from Brazil, Luis Mandoki's "Voces Inocentes" and the Bolivian film "Corazon de Jesus", among many others. Actor Tim Matheson ("Animal House") curated a sidebar of Asian cult films like Miyazaki's "Porco Rosso", Ji-Woon Kim's "Tale of Two Sisters," and the Japanese camp joyousness of "Cutie Honey." Rich in political documentaries like Adam Curtis' "The Power of Nightmares," the fest also played host to the world premiere of Dana Brown's Baja 500 epic, "Dust to Glory." Besides being the successful surf filmmaker ("Step into Liquid") and the son of "Endless Summer"'s Bruce Brown, Dana was a longtime SB surfer and journalist, making the sold out show another cause for celebration.
Far less joyous, however, was the mid-fest screening of Jeff Arch's adaptation of Dave Barry's "Guide to Guys." Opening with a tirade against the director-as-auteur opening signatory, Arch's film helped only to reinforce how important it is that somebody put a stamp of personality on a film -- his was banality incarnate despite the star power of John Cleese -- another Santa Barbara regular.
Closing night offered better entertainment. Jury awards went to "Deadlines," by Ludi Boeken and Michael Lerner for best International Feature. "Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action" won Best Documentary honors, and Raymond de Felita and Paul Reiser won best feature award for "The Thing About My Folks." Reiser's famous television role as an indy documentarian makes this seem a little art imitates life.
But final night fun was earned by Jeff Bridges, whom, as we have earlier noted, has been a great supporter of the fest, particularly since Durling's arrival. Closing with "Moguls," which Bridges helped produce, a Capra-esque comedy about a small town engaged in shooting a porno, the Arlington Theater seemed as crowded with star power as a big awards ceremony in nearby Hollywood. Walking up the aisle, it was possible to bounce off Rob Lowe, Bridges, Joe Pantaliano, Ted Danson, John Cleese, Robert Lesser, Dennis Franz, Jean Tripplehorn and Tim Blake Nelson.
Just before the film screened, however, Durling made a characteristically heartfelt pitch for all the rescues Bridges had made for this festival, which was perilously close to f;oundering three years ago. Besides "Moguls, Bridges has brought "Seabiscuit" and "Door in the Floor" to Santa Barbara as incredibly helpful benefits. In case people thought he was harping a little too much on the golden-haired son of Lloyd, Durling asked for a vote of approval.
"If Tribeca can have Robert De Niro, and Sundance has Robert Redford, why can't we have Jeff Bridges?" Coming to its feet, the attendees noted approval, and the evening felt like a kind of birth for a twenty-year-old vital institution.