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SXSW’s Janet Pierson: “The Choices Were Really, Really Hard”

SXSW's Janet Pierson: "The Choices Were Really, Really Hard"

Last April, Janet Pierson was named the new producer of the SXSW Film Festival and Conference. She replaced Matt Dentler, who had served as producer of the fest since 2004. Pierson brought with her a long history in the independent film world. In 1986 she and husband John Pierson began producer rep work that eventually lead to the release of groundbreaking work including “Roger and Me,” “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Slacker” and “Clerks.” A board member of the Austin Film Society, she was the co-creator of the TV series “Split Screen” on the Independent Film Channel.

Nearly ten months after taking the position at SXSW, Pierson has revealed her first SXSW lineup, and her first fest commences in just a few weeks. She talked with indieWIRE‘s Eugene Hernandez via instant messenger about her thoughts on SXSW 09’s slate, and what she’s looking forward to at the festival, which runs March 13 – 21, 2009 in Austin, Texas.

Eugene Hernandez: Janet, I was just wondering, could we try something different and do a brief “IM Interview” sometime this morning, as a follow up to the lineup being announced?

Janet Pierson: Sure!

EH: Well, the easy first question is how *you* feel about your first SXSW lineup (now that you’ve been able to unveil it)?

JP: Very excited and the slightest bit nervous – hoping the world feels as good about it as we do. ‘World’ sounds grandiose… but I mean the external world that cares… There were extremely hard decisions to make. More good films than we had room to program.

EH: Looking at the narrative competition, there are some familiar names both in front of and behind the camera. What can you offer in terms of a preview of what to expect from this crop of narrative competition titles? Behind the camera I am curious to see what Daryl Wein and Kris Swanberg are each up to, while on screen I’m intrigued by a movie with Mark Duplass and Melissa Leo (“True Adolescents”).

JP: I feel great about the narrative competition – think all 8 films are really strong! Daryl Wein had a doc at SXSW last year, so this is great to see him working in the narrative form.

I knew Kris Swanberg’s name would jump out. When I first met Joe, and saw “Kissing on the Mouth,” Kris was very much part of the filmmaking team. After we met, she sent me a short she’d made which I thought was terrific. Can’t think of the name, but it was basically women from all over the world bathing their child. It was very simple and worked on its own terms, which is how I feel about “It Was Great But I Was Ready To Come Home.” It sets up a very specific ambition or world, and then perfectly realizes it.

EH: The festival has obviously become synonymous in recent years with the so-called “Mumblecore” scene (and you’ve been a champion of many of those films and filmmakers). To what extent is there a connection to that work this year, or how do you view that scene in the context of SXSW now? Or is that something you’ve even thought about at all?

JP: Oh sure I thought about that. I had no preconceived notion about how the programming would play out other than to try to continue the great work of my predecessor, Matt Dentler. I thought he really got this great balance between micro budget new discoveries (a term I prefer to mumblecore), and hilarious Hollywood films, great docs, etc. So I thought a lot about programming discovery films – more so than mumblecore per se.

When it came down to the hard choices, we erred on the side of newer voices. You yourself told me that’s what you love about SXSW! And there’s the obvious connection with mumblecore – the new Andrew Bujalski film “Beeswax,” which I love! And Swanberg’s new film, and several others. There was one significent film which would have fit perfectly in that vein too, but it just couldn’t finish in time. Can’t talk about it, but I’m sorry about that.

EH: Well on the point of “discovery,” that has been quite palpable at SXSW in recent years. It’s been an extremely energizing aspect of the festival, particularly as it relates to a DIY aesthetic and approach, both on the narrative and doc sides of the fest.

JP: I’m very excited about a number of debuts this year! Hope y’all agree. As I said, we think the narrative competition is really strong, but so are the other sections!! Emerging Visions has some exciting new filmmakers…

In a couple of cases too, we made the decision to show films that had been around on the fest circuit because we’re so high on the filmmakers – like with Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” and Matthew Newton’s “Three Blind Mice,” just to name two. I’m sorry, I’m in one of these, “I love all my children” modes.

EH: Understandable. Certainly don’t expect you to choose favorites! On the doc side – from a cursory glance at the film descriptions of the films in competition – it seems as though there are a number of ‘personal doc’ or individual portraits (rather than broader ‘issue oriented’ work). Is that accurate? Or am I reaching here to put things under an umbrella? And what can you offer in terms of a preview of the styles, approaches or themes you see in the competition docs this year?

JP: Perhaps. Doc programming, while exhilarating, is excruiating – because there are so many great, incredibly well made films about incredibly important or fascinating subjects. The big topics this year seemed to be food and oil. But in the end, we had to go with the combinations that excited us – filmmaking and subject.

The choices were really, really hard. We certainly thought long and hard about balance, but yes, not overall themes. And in terms of being new at this – definitely some learning curve in terms of pacing. I hope to have a better handle on it next year. That is – the pacing of screening the 3,500 submissions and making good programming decisions.

EH: Finishing up, I am particularly excited about a number of non-competition screenings. Whether it be the premiere of Gerald Peary’s film criticism doc, or Gary Hustwit’s new doc – or being able to catch Spike Lee’s “Passing Strange,” which I missed at Sundance – or any number of new films. Seems like a great mix of new work and films from other fests. What sort of balance did you hope to strike in that regard this year? Seems like a great mix of new work and films from other fests.

JP: That was the goal! Really, I like all the films so much I’m having trouble scheduling… because I know people are going to have tough choices picking which ones they can see in the short amount of time. I know it’s a complicated time marketplace wise… and the audience for independent films is fractured and niche based… but there’s no shortage of filmmaking talent!

“Passing Strange” was my favorite film at Sundance (from those I saw…) and while I was watching it at the Library in Sundance I was just like, “I need to see this at the Paramount in Austin!!!!” I’m a bit deliriously happy actually to have something so wonderful from Spike Lee in my first SXSW line-up.

EH: You mentioned “Beeswax”, which I get to see very soon in Berlin! But I am wondering how it feels to be on screen at a film in your first fest as well. I am so excited for that moment in Austin! I haven’t really asked you how you feel about that experience now. (So why not ask you in public!)

JP: It was so ridiculously hilarious when Andrew approached me about being in “Beeswax”… But I think he did because of seeing “Reel Paradise.” So at least I’ve already had the first shocking experience of seeing myself on screen at a festival.

When Andrew and I met – he had seen “Reel Paradise,” and I’d seen his work [acting] in “Hannah Takes the Stairs” – which I think he’s brilliant in! So we already had that familiarity thing… then we just really liked one another. I thought it was ridiculous when he asked me, then I set about helping him find the better person. You know, he does use non-actors.

Actually, a couple of different thoughts here though and I don’t want to run on and on, but this was important to me personally. I’d recently read “The Year of Yes,” this book about a women who decides to change up her dating patterns because they aren’t working. So she says yes to every guy that asks… just to be more open. Now, I didn’t need that romantically – being crazily happily married for over 25 years… But I did think it was important on a more personal activity level. So I decided to say ‘yes’ more than ‘no,’ which started with Andrew’s film, and even figured in with taking the job at SXSW.

And it turned out that the part Andrew wanted me to play was so me-ish. I tried to help him find some better candidates, but ultimately I got the part. And I loved it. Now it’s kind of silly… I’m barely in the movie so the conversation shouldn’t be about me. But it’s a fantastic film!! So I’m thrilled to be able to show it!

EH: Is there anything else you are dying to share about the fest? Things you feel we should notice?

JP: I feel incredibly priviledged to have been asked to run this festival. I’ve been such a fan of it for so many years – and love the evolution that took place under Matt Dentler. It’s been fantastic to travel around the country and hear the love people have for SXSW! So I just hope everyone enjoys this year’s fest as much as they’ve come to expect. We feel great about the line-up and hope the ultimate feedback reflects the same.

This was both a daunting and exciting experience putting together the line-up – but it made all the difference to be supported by my experienced staff who contributed in so many ways – Jarod Neece – who also took point on the Midnighters, Charlie Sotelo, who’s a strong force in the doc programming, Lya Guerra, who took the lead in a lot of the international, Stephanie Noone with newcomers Rebecca Feferman and Claudette Godfrey. Not to mention all the great volunteer contributors who toil invisibly on the screening front line.

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