By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 22, 2009 at 9:10AM
"I lost my virginity here," Ben Stiller revealed to a small crowd at the Nantucket Film Festival on Friday night. "But that's not my story." As his legendary parents -- comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara -- looked on, Stiller launched into a delightfully candid anecdote about taking too much acid during his teenage years in Manhattan. The story tied into his familial connections in the room: Gripped with extreme paranoia, Stiller called his parents in Hollywood, where his mother was shooting an episode of "Love Boat." Meara, sitting nearby, said she handed the phone to her husband. "And then you had a drink, right?" Stiller shot back. The crowd delighted in the particularity of their exchange: Mother and son, joined together in comic unity.
The intimiate storytelling event, which has been a staple of the Nantucket Film Festival for eight years, provides just one example of the relaxed vibe the organizers strive to create. Completing its fourteenth year over the weekend, the festival fulfilled its agenda of focusing on strong examples of screenwriting -- and, by extension, storytelling in general. Each day began with a "Morning Coffee" panel at The Rose and Crown, a local pub with an intimate feel. The conversations were open-ended, but generally restricted to the creative process.
At Saturday's Morning Coffee event, "Transsiberian" screenwriter Will Conroy chatted with a diverse group of filmmakers and actors, including Cheryl Hines (attending with her directorial debut, "Serious Moonlight") and Oren Moverman (the writer-director of "The Messenger"). At one point, "The Messenger" star Ben Foster admitted that he hated reading scripts. Hines demanded an explanation. "I like reading books," Foster said.
Anne Meara joined the group at the front of the room, perhaps to provide some comic relief. "I know this is a good panel because not once has anyone said 'vision' or 'arc,'" she explained. Turning to Moverman and "Amreeka" director Cherien Dabis, who happened to be sitting next to each other, Meara maintained her momentum. "Israel and Palestine -- what a team!" she exclaimed. "I think I worked with you on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.'"
The cozy style of the festival, established in 1996 by Jonathan Burkhart and Jill Goode, helped give rise to a number of important collaborations, including one that led to this year's opening night film, "Cold Souls." Writer-director Sophie Barthes, who won the festival's screenwriting competition in 2006, met Paul Giamatti at a cocktail party and told him about her idea for the existential narrative, in which the actor plays himself. "Cold Souls" grew out of their subsequent discussions.
The festival also boosted the career of John Hamburg, whose directorial debut "Safe Men" screened at the festival ten years ago. Ben Stiller, a Nantucket regular since his parents began vacationing there in his youth, saw the movie and recruited Hamburg to write "Meet the Parents." The rest is history -- but not faded history, as the festival resurrected "Safe Men" this year for a special tenth anniversary screening.
It wasn't the only repertory aspect of the programming. A gigantic inflatable Stay Puft Marshmallow Man showed up in the backyard of the 'Sconet Casino, where a new 35mm print of "Ghostbusters" screened on Saturday afternoon in commemoration of the movie's twenty-fifth anniversary. Although numerous celebrities -- including Meg Ryan, Brian Williams and the entire Stiller clan -- could be seen making the rounds on the tiny Massachusetts island, nobody attracted more attention from the cameras than the iconic Marshmallow Man. The shtick, of course, belies the fact that "Ghostbusters" is indeed a classic movie. Time Out New York film critic Josh Rothkopf made this exact point on Saturday night, when the festival gave its annual Screenwriters Award to "Ghostbusters" scribe Harold Ramis. Accepting the honor, Ramis joked that his career relied on standing next to all the right people.
It's not much an overstatement to say that Nantucket offered a safe haven for many of the right people, if not the ones Ramis meant. Given its emphasis on quality stories over exclusivity, the festival is not a place for world premieres or sneak peeks. "We're not a market," said Artistic Director Mystelle Brabbee in a conversation with indieWIRE. "I know that we're screening a lot of films you might have seen at other festivals. They're cherry picked with the agenda of strong storytelling." The year's lineup, cobbled together by programmer Livia Bloom, included recent festival hits such as Andrew Bujalski's "Beeswax," Bradley Rust Gray's "The Exploding Girl" and Jonathan Hock's "The Lost Son of Havana," produced by the Farrelly brothers. Both Gray and Bujalski attended the festival, as did Peter Farrelly, who hosted Late Night Storytelling with Meara.
Beyond fulfilling the usual intention of spreading independent works to new audiences, many of the movies in the program inspired local activity. "The Cove," Louie Psihoyos's much-loved documentary about former "Flipper" trainer Richard O'Barry's battle to end dolphin slaughter in Japan, won the festival's audience award and inspired discussion of a petition to end whaling in the Nantucket area. Meanwhile, Kathryn Bigelow's naturalistic Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker" led to dialogue about depictions of American soldiers on foreign soil. First-time screenwriter Mark Boal won Showtime's Tony Cox Screenplay Competition, which recognizes an emerging screenwriter.
The festival also handed out the third annual Adrienne Shelley Excellence in Filmmaking Award over the weekend, which was established in the wake of the eponymous filmmaker's death to honor female filmmakers. Though "Amreeka" director Dabis received the award this time, the occasion seemed especially appropriate because "Serious Moonlight," which Hines directed from Shelley's script, served as the festival's spotlight film.
Like practically every other festival on the map, Nantucket dealt with the impact of a troubling economy this year, relying more on ticket sales than sponsors. And yet somehow, they reached the finish line. At the award ceremony for Ramis, executive director Colin Stanfield claimed he quoted "Animal House" -- Ramis's first script -- during the planning of the festival when the going was tough. "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" he asked.
The answer, for both America and the Nantucket Film Festival, was obvious.
Eric Kohn is a frequent indieWIRE contributor whose work also appears in numerous other publications, including New York Press, The Wrap and Heeb Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor. He regularly discusses independent film, pop culture and new media on his blog, Screen Rush. You can contact him via Facebook or Twitter.
- complete list of winners follows on page two -
Nantucket Film Film Festival winners:
Showtime’s Tony Cox Screenplay Competition: Jenny Deller ("Future Weather")
Showtime’s Tony Cox Award for Screenwriting: Mark Boal ("The Hurt Locker")
Showtime’s Tony Cox Award for Screenwriting (Best Short): Adam Leon and Jack Pettibone Riccobono ("Killer")
Adrienne Shelley Excellence in Filmmaking Award: Cherien Dabis ("Amreeka")
Best Storytelling in a Documentary Film: "The Cove" (dir. Louie Psihoyos)
Audience Award for Best Feature: The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos)
Audience Award for Best Short: "Abuelo" (dir. Mary Ann Kellogg)
Teen View on NFF Award: "Charlie Thistle" (dir. Bragi Schut Jr.)