Wine country tourists traveling northern California this past weekend ran into a lot of Bruce Willis. The celebrity seemed to be plastered over any space made available to the Sonoma International Film Festival. The fest’s poster was of a rugged looking Wilis in an F150. Long flags lining the city square had the same image. “I’ll be there. Will you?” said the quote above the actor.
Even the industry party had Willis-paired wines from the festival’s wine programmer — “Pulp Fiction is a complex, lasting film. Much like this Pinot I’ve selected…”
“The Sixth Sense has a lot of dead people in it. This Chardonnay comes from grapes grown in soil where a lot of things died.”
The Sonoma International Film Festival was hit with two hard knocks this year. Long time fest heads Marc and Brenda Lohmer were ousted after last year’s fest. The struggle to regroup was made more complicated by a cash squeeze affecting all fests. Across the board, fests are losing big spending, presenting sponsors, forcing them to cobble together a lower fest budget from many smaller companies. It hits everything — from the number of films, number of screenings, days, and transportation.
Former Jackson Hole fest programmer Cevin Cathell (pictured with juror Jason White) returned this year, building a program with some strong fest circuit films including Anna Melikaian’s Russian drama “Mermaid,” Esteban Schroeder’s South American thriller “Matar A Todos,” Robert Kenner’s searing food industry critique “Food, Inc.,” and Bestor Cram’s doc “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.”
At Saturday’s Conversation with Robert Kamen, the writer behind the “Karate Kid” movies, “Taps” and “The 5th Element” spoke about his early success. Kaman grew to become an in-house script writer for Warner Bros — a fixer, though he terms it “script assassin.” When he was given “a ton of dough” to wield the studio mandate “I stabbed other people’s scripts to death.” He actually didn’t say that, but rather made Psycho-like stabbing motions with his fist.
Kamen said the beginning of the end of that unique job came when sat next to a screenwriter on a NY-to-LA flight. “He introduced himself to me. When I told him my name his hand retracted. I asked him ‘Oh, did I rewrite you?'”
“Twice, he replied. He didn’t say another word to me for the entire 5 hour flight.”
Now Kamen is in another unique position with director/producer Luc Besson, with whom he’s had a close relationship for 16 years on all sorts of projects, including the lucrative “Transporter” series starring Jason Statham, and recent the Liam Neeson hit “Taken.”
Kamen describes Besson as a gifted businessman and he made a prediction: “The moment Statham becomes too expensive, Luc will kill off that character in a ball of fire. I guarantee that will happen.”
In fact, Kamen — who owns a local vineyard — served as the antithesis to the fest’s celeb-love.
“Actors are the most charming shape-shifters,” he said. “They find the most vulnerable point in you and work it over to get more dialogue. I avoid all actors at all costs.”
Not Sonomans, who still come out en masse for a celebrity event. In that spirit Bruce Willis was put to work, even shooting what seemed to be a TV spot for the fest that ran before his tribute, where the star joked around with the crew about what fest he was actually speaking for.
The tribute itself was packed with $150 ticket holders. Everyone seemed to know everyone, especially fest chairman Kevin McNeely, who introduced Willis and moderator Amy Mann.
After a clip reel, Mann and Willis sat down. What Mann had in awkwardness, Willis tried to make up for in one-liners. Willis would rather be known as a “line memorizer” over legend or icon. He said the first two-and-a-half years of “Moonlighting” were his best. And he confessed that he “never wanted to take acting seriously” which prompted Mann to ask later “Do you feel a huge sense of responsibility with a film like “Armageddon,” or do you just say ‘Fuck it, it’s not my money?”
Willis smiled, saying nothing as the crowd rolled with laughter.