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"Ice Cream", "Friends", "Pigs" and "Loved": Our Picks from t

"Ice Cream", "Friends", "Pigs" and "Loved": Our Picks from t

"Ice Cream", "Friends", "Pigs" and "Loved": Our Picks
from the Santa Barbara Film Festival

by Tom Cunha and Gail Kearns

Stuart Gordon’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” which previously screened
at this year’s Sundance festival, proved to be an enormous crowd pleaser
at its west coast premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film
Festival. The film stars Joe Mantegna, Esai Morales (who does his own
singing in the film) and Edward James Olmos and is written by Ray
Bradbury in a highly original and enjoyable tale which contains all the
wild antics and characterizations of an animated feature (though it’s
not), blending music, comedy and slapstick in a story that centers
around five financially down on their luck East L.A. men who purchase an
amazing suit that changes their lives.

While this is undoubtedly a family film, it holds appeal for adult
audiences as well as children. On hand at the screening was writer
Bradbury, director Gordon as well as stars Mantegna and Clifton
Gonzalez. Bradbury first wrote “Ice Cream Suit” as a short story, later
adapting it into a stage play which, incidentally, was directed by
Gordon and starred Mantegna in Chicago back in 1973. “Sometimes dreams
do come true,” said Mantegna referring to collaborating again with
Bradbury and Gordon on the film adaptation, “I’ve lived with it for 25
years now. It’s one of those rare moments that makes me proud to be in
the business that I’m in.” The film was financed by Disney and said to
be budgeted around $5.5 million. The studio’s initial intention was to
release the film directly to video, but now Disney seems to be
considering the idea of running it theatrically, which, based on
audience response at the festival, could turn out to be good idea if
positioned well and marketed appropriately. Director Gordon encouraged
audience members to write letters to Disney, encouraging them to give
the film a theatrical run.

Philip F. Messina’s comedy “With Friends Like These…” had its world
premiere at the SBIFF, where it was met with a glowing response from
attendees, ultimately taking home the audience award. The modestly
budgeted film has drawn the interest of distributors and looks to be
securing a deal in the near future. Starring Adam Arkin, Robert
Costanzo, David Strathairn, Jon Tenney, Amy Madigan, Laura San Giacomo,
Elle Macpherson, Beverly D’Angelo with cameos by Bill Murray, Garry
Marshall, Michael McKean and Martin Scorsese, “Friends” tells the story
of four struggling actors whose friendship with each other is put to the
test when they end up vying for a starring role in a new Martin Scorsese
film. Messina is certainly familiar with the material, having worked in
the business now for years as both a writer and a director. “That’s the
world I was very interested in. It’s the world I’ve been in my whole
life. Whether you’re an actor or a writer, it’s the same thing, you
don’t know what’s gonna happen next year.”

Among Messina’s accomplishments in the independent film world were
serving as one of the founders of the AIVF (Association of Independent
Video and Filmmakers) in New York, out of which he helped form the IFC
(Independent Feature Project). “We were trying to do that
stuff back in the 70’s. It’s very hard to do,” says Messina, referring
to the process of making an independent film. He acknowledges that it
was getting executive producer Penny Marshall and producer Robert
Greenhut attached to “Friends” that really got the ball rolling and
attracted the high-profile cast. “Once we had Penny and Bob, their cache
allowed me to get all these actors. I was able to call the agents up and
they responded. They regarded the project as a Penny Marshall/Bob
Greenhut picture.” Despite the presence of heavyweights Marshall and
Greenhut, Messina emphasizes that it’s definitely a small project. “It’s
still an independent movie. It’s still a low budget film. It’s still the
same risk.”

Sandy Tung’s “Confessions of a Sexist Pig” also had its world premiere
at SBIFF. “Confessions” is an amusing romantic comedy which focuses on
a womanizer soap star who meets the one girl who may actually force him
to change his ways. The film stars attractive newcomers Edward Kerr and
Taylor Howard in the leads. Kerr plays the title character Jack, who
openly reveals his love of women and his disdain towards commitment.
Tung, who previously directed the 1991 teen track drama “Across the
Tracks” with Brad Pitt and Rick Schroeder, set about making this film
back in the early 90’s with Pitt (before he was Brad Pitt). “We went
out with the script and . . . kept getting things like, ‘If you could
just get Billy Baldwin or C. Thomas Howell we’ll finance it.'”

Erin Dignam’s “Loved” was another SBIFF highlight. The film was shot
over a year ago and screened at both the Toronto and Seattle Film
Festivals, and looks to finally be closing in on a distribution deal.
Starring Robin Wright Penn, William Hurt, Amy Madigan and featuring a
memorable cameo by Sean Penn, “Loved” is a difficult film to define and
categorize. It’s an absorbing, intelligent and thought-provoking film
that explores love and abuse in an insightful manner, different from
other films (most of which are primarily made for tv) that have dealt
with similar subject matter. The film boasts terrific performances by
the entire cast, particularly Wright Penn who nicely handles the
challenging role “I always write with actors in mind,” says
writer/director Dignam, who wrote the role specifically for Robin. “You
can’t take a script like this to a company and have them want to make
it. You have to have actors to say, ‘I’ll do this,’ to get it made.
After I wrote it, I went to the actors. When they said yes, I took it to
[financiers]. But I don’t think this would have ever had a chance of
getting made if I didn’t have actors that had names.”

This highly original film has been getting positive notices for some
time now, even picking up Independent Spirit Award nominations without
having been theatrically released and, more surprisingly, without the
promotional backing of a studio. It has, despite all of this, had a
tough time finding distribution. Dignam recalled a conversation she had
with one studio rep who really liked the film, but didn’t see how it
could be marketed to bring people in. “Basically people are afraid, and
they’ve been very candid about saying this, because I don’t say this is
the bad guy with the black hat and this is the good guy with the white
hat. Everybody’s both.” Dignam laters adds that “the film is designed
for you to take what you want from it and I wrote it that way.”

In addition to the highly acclaimed direction of Dignam, a number of
other female directors were on a hand for a seminar entitled “Women
Directors on Directing.” The panel, moderated by producer Janet Yang
(“The People vs Larry Flint,” “The Joy Luck Club“), included Leslie
Linka Glatter (“The Proposition“), Erin Dignam (“Loved“), Susan
Streitfeld (“Female Perversions“), Kristine Peterson (“Slaves to the
“), Donna Deitch (“Angel On My Shoulder,” “Desert Hearts“),
and Kirsten Clarkson (“horsey“). Glatter spoke out saying she hoped
women will someday get to the point where “this will not be an issue and
we won’t have to have a panel discussing this at all.” Until then
statistics show that 9 percent of movies last year were directed by
women. The fact that there are no distribution companies run by women
was a point made several times. Susan Streitfeld pointed out, you have
male distributors who sit around talking about what should be taken out
of a particular woman’s film because they don’t want to see it. “You can
make a film,” Streitfeld offered, “but then after you make a film what
happens in terms of people seeing it? What is commercially viable?”
Streitfeld feels “commercially viable” is a big trap because it leads
filmmakers into what the norm is, what’s being sold. “Eventually what
is commercially viable is what comes from your heart and when you find
the truth in something you want to say,” voiced Donna Deitch.
“Commercially viable comes from passion.”

“We are here because we have done films that are in the independent
world . . . but I’ve done six films before that and none of them are
what I would call film festival films. I would call them very commercial
films,” said Kristine Peterson, who before directing “Slaves to the
,” did a number of Roger Corman pictures. “I think we all
recognize what is a difficult sell and what isn’t and those are the
things that do come from our passion, but those are not the only works
that make up what women directors’ roots are, so maybe it’s important to
say where we come from.” Peterson pointed out that with “horsey”,
Kirsten Clarkson made a personal vision film whereas it took Peterson
six films to get to make this type of film.

The closing night ceremonies of the fest included prizes for the best
screenplays in the first annual Peter Stark Screenwriting Competition.
Susan Landau, Chair of the contest, gave prizes to Scott Spaulding and
Byron Stone whose comedy script “Drawing Life” won first prize about a
kid graduating from college who is forced to move back with his parents
because of financial reasons. Ultimately, the writers got the script
into the hands of Dan Akroyd who liked the project and that kept them
going on it. Based on a second script called “The First” the writing
team was able to secure an agent. Similar in theme to their first
script, Spaulding and Stone say they like to write about real situations
and the humor in everyday life.

Second prize went to Stephen Manners and Jane Walker Lloyd for their
screenplay, “Black Butterflies.” The script is based on the true life
story of prominent physician Dr. Walter Freeman who pioneered the
lobotomy. According to the writers, the toughest part of working as a
team is hammering out the story. Then it becomes more a matter of
correcting each other’s excesses and
bouncing ideas off the other person. When Lloyd got the phone call that
they had won second prize, she initially thought someone was playing a
practical joke, that is until she realized she hadn’t told anybody about
entering the contest except her husband. What does winning the prize
mean to the writing team? “It’s a validation,” says Lloyd. “It’s
difficult material and you always wonder if it’s any good.” What’s next?
Hopefully getting an agent, expressed both of the writers.

The first prize winners received $5,000 and an introduction to a
Hollywood agent. Second prize winner received $3,000. Honorable mentions
were awarded to Joan Lloyd for her script “Street of Lost Joys” and to
Alan Condren’s “The Monk.”

The final hours of the festival concluded with the World Premiere of
Robert Towne’s “Without Limits,” an impressive and powerful biopic
about the life of Olympic track runner Steve Prefontaine that stars
Billy Crudup (who’s excellent) as Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland as
his coach. Towne wrote and directed the Warner Bros. release, which was
originally scheduled for an April release but was wisely pushed back to
the fall, where it stands a better chance of receiving award
consideration and where it will also further distance itself from the
forgettable Buena Vista version, “Prefontaine,” which was released last

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