Sixteenth Virginia Film Festival Shows the Money, and the Movies
by Scott Mactavish
Autumn in Charlottesville, Va., is truly a site to behold and this year was no exception; the Blue Ridge Mountains painted a stunning backdrop for the 16th annual Virginia Film Festival and film lovers came out by the thousands to see good films. The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson and located in the visually stunning and surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Charlottesville, was once again host to the fest from October 23-26. The festival extended from the busy downtown mall area to the UVA campus, with public transportation available and plenty of restaurants, shopping, and entertainment along the way.
This year's theme was "Money," with more than 70 films unspooling over the four-day non-competitive event, accompanied by panels, parties, exhibits and performances. Festival Director Richard Herskowitz designed this year's program "to explore the extremes of having too much and too little money." The first two days focused on poverty and low-budget filmmaking with the last two dedicated to bloated budgets and affluenza. Several notable classic films were screened, including John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath," "How to Marry A Millionaire," and the world's first million-dollar movie, "Foolish Wives," by Eric Von Stroheim, which was accompanied by pianist Donald Sosin and singer Joanna Seaton. The heist film was well represented by entries such as "The Italian Job," "Three Kings," and "Reconstruction" and a handful of remarkable non-theme films screened, including the excellent documentary "This So Called Disaster," an intimate look at the inner-workings of a Sam Shepard play. Featuring Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, and Sean Penn, the digital feature -- produced by IFC -- drew compliments across the board. Several special premieres were well received, including Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions," an upcoming Miramax release, and "The Cooler," a Lions Gate release starring William H. Macy, Maria Bello, and Alec Baldwin.
Two dedicated and fiercely independent directors, Rob Nilsson and Charles Burnett, were honored for their commitment to and excellence in low-budget filmmaking. Nilsson presented three films from his improvised 9@NIGHT series, which he made with the Tenderloin yGroup, a drama workshop for homeless people in San Francisco. One of these, "Noise," premiered on the festival's closing night and was warmly received by an appreciative audience. Burnett, best known as the director of "To Sleep With Anger" presented his two latest films, "Warming by the Devil's Fire" from the PBS series "The Blues" and "Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property." which was particularly poignant, given the fact that Nat Turner lived and died in Virginia.
The 2003 Virginia Film Award went to legendary Hollywood hyphenate Frank Pierson, who won the Oscar for scripting "Cool Hand Luke," served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and most recently directed the Sundance sensation "Soldier's Girl," among other notable accomplishments. The opening night program kicked off with a screening of the Pierson-scripted "Dog Day Afternoon" and ended with a gala party at the impressive Virginia Art Museum on the UVA campus. Later in the weekend, Pierson offered a two-part shot-by-shot analysis of "Dog Day Afternoon", which sold out both days and was highly praised by those in attendance, including several seasoned Hollywood pros.
While much of the festival was dedicated to the art of film, there were a number of panels that delved into the business side. The "Meet the Producers" panel was comprised of several left coast players, including UVA alumni Marc Abraham ("Air Force One," "The Commitments"), Greg Williamson ("Forces of Nature") and Julie Lynn ("Wit"), who gave their take on the state of the business and fielded questions from a fascinated audience. Other panels included "The Art of the Deal" and "Where's the Money?" both moderated and conducted by seasoned pros, including Nancy Gerstman (Zeitgeist Films), Janet Graham Borba (HBO), and entertainment attorney Kirk Schroeder. One small disappointment was the absence of producer (and UVA alumnus) Paul Junger Witt, who was scheduled to speak following the screening of his film "Three Kings" but canceled at the last minute due to health reasons.
Throughout the festival, a number of filmmakers based in Virginia were introduced or showcased, giving credence to the theory that one need not live in L.A. or New York to actually create good work. Notables included financier and producer Barry Sisson, whose "The Station Agent" won the 2003 audience award at Sundance and second film "Charlie's Party" is currently in post, Temple Fennell, co-president of ATO Pictures, a company founded along with Charlottesville resident Dave Matthews and producer Johnathan Dorfman, and directors David Williams, Jake Mahaffy, and Sundance alum Kevin Everson.
There were a number of non-film events of note, including the fourth-annual Fringe Festival, held in conjunction with the main festival and presented by the McIntire Department of Art. Held in a former grocery store near the downtown mall, the Fringe Festival celebrated money and the lack thereof and appealed mainly to the younger student crowd. Poetry slams, fashion shows, and talent showcases were just a few of the events open to the public and in most cases, free. Of particular note was a "sermon" by Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, a performance artist based in New York City. Born Bill Talen, Reverend Billy rails against commercialism and commerce and ironically, was one of the few performers at the Fringe Festival that actually charged admission.
The most sought-after ticket was for the premiere of Robert Altman's "The Company," a glossy and intimate look at the life of professional dancers starring Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, scheduled for release by Sony Pictures Classics in December. On hand for an after screening discussion were co-stars John Gluckman and Suzanne Lopez as well as producer Josh Astrachan. Ballet fans will not be disappointed; the film is a visual pleasure and Campbell, an accomplished dancer who studied with the National Ballet of Canada, carries the lead role effortlessly.
The VFF has a decidedly tweedy, academic feel and the organizers like it that way. While not yet a major destination in the eyes of Hollywood, the VFF consistently brings world-class cinema to central Virginia and film fans seem to greatly enjoy the laid-back, urbane approach. When asked if the festival would ever include a competition, director Herskowitz replied, "Filmmakers can cite their film as a "Virginia Film Festival selection" (a rare honor, given the relatively small number of new films we select) without having to say they won first or second prize. Basically, filmmakers come to share their work with audiences and with each other, non-competitively, and we have no plans to change that."
The festival, by all accounts, was a rousing success. While this year there were no "marquee names" as in years past such as Nicolas Cage, Sigourney Weaver, or Sidney Portier, there were a few Hollywood stars attending as film fans but their presence was so low-key one would have to take second or third takes to identify them. This in itself is testimony to the power of great film and the board, staff, volunteers and participants should be proud. The only complaint is that several premiere films were scheduled opposite one another and tough decisions were made. This, however, is not necessarily a bad problem to have.