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San Luis Obispo International Film Festival 2012: A Weekend of Wine, WETA and W.R. Hearst

San Luis Obispo International Film Festival 2012: A Weekend of Wine, WETA and W.R. Hearst

San Luis Obispo (pronounced San “Loo-iss” Obispo, for the uninitiated) is a location scout’s dream, with its rolling hills lined with trees and vegetation of many kinds, all within jogging distance of the shores of the Pacific. This past weekend, the picturesque landscape proved to be a worthy complement to an event that some film aficionados assumed would never happen while others wondered why it hadn’t already come to pass: the screening of “Citizen Kane” at Hearst Castle.

It’s one of Hollywood’s most classic open secrets, the idea that Orson Welles and Herman Mankewicz based the title character of Citizen Kane partly on the exploits of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Much of the film’s action takes place at the fictional Xanadu, an apparent stand-in for Hearst Castle, the majestic manor that Hearst built in nearby San Simeon, CA.

So when Wendy Eidson, director of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival (SLOIFF), approached the family about showing the legendary film on the Hearst Castle grounds, she didn’t foresee the event actually happening. “Quite honestly, when I mentioned it, I was sort of joking,” Eidson said on Friday, just hours before that proposal was to become a reality.

Stephen Hearst, William Randolph’s great-grandson and the vice president/general manager of Hearst Corporation’s Western Properties was one of the people from whom the major go-ahead was necessary to obtain. Given the unflattering portrayal of his great-grandfather, which was a point of contention among many family members at the time of the film’s release and soon after, many assumed that the descendants of William Randolph (who is known in the family as “W.R.”) would not be amenable to having the film shown at the very venue it seemed to pillory.

However, Stephen maintains that, for him, there was little controversy. “I actually said yes right away. I didn’t see it as that big of a deal,” Hearst said, indicating that a majority of the surprise and outrage over the convergence of the two entities has come from the press and not the Hearst family. “‘How dare you? How could you?’ are some of the things I’ve heard from people. Quite frankly, I think it’s time to grow up and bury the hatchet.”

And so, 71 years after the film’s release, the hatchet was buried at the Hearst Castle Visitors Center, as a sold-out crowd filed into the theater to watch “Citizen Kane” on the five-story screen. Hearst Castle is a 45-minute drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from San Luis Obispo, but the event seemed like a natural tie-in for SLOIFF 2012. Eidson remarked many times over the course of the weekend that the screening was “a dream come true.”

Before the evening show, members of the press and selected guests were invited to the actual Castle for an abridged but specialized version of the tour that nearly 40 million visitors have received since the estate was made public over a half-century ago. As the bus carrying the special attendees made its way up the hill, period vehicles accompanied them on their trip. (Among them were a ‘47 Chrysler Windsor, a ‘59 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, and a pair of Woodies loaned and operated by members from the local Woodie club.) Those who had taken the general tour before recognized Hearst’s dining room, living room and the glorious Neptune Pool, but no guests had been allowed to enter as they did on Friday, through the front door at Casa Grande, the castle’s main house, just as W.R.’s famous friends would have done in the 20th century’s early decades.

Later that evening, after the crowds had settled in the theater, various film historians and festival personnel took turns welcoming the audience to the historic night. Author Victoria Kastner, familiar with the Kane mythos through her work on a biography of Marion Davies, the actress who lived with William Randolph Hearst for many years, spoke about how the real-life inspirations for the film’s characters differed from their on-screen portrayal. TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, whose grandfather co-wrote the script with Welles, revelled in the folklore of the film’s star and greater world of Old Hollywood.

After the film, proceeds from a silent auction went to benefit Friends of Hearst Castle, cementing the mutual benefit of the estate’s upkeep and the community of cinephiles who had gathered there.

Even after history was made on Friday, there was still a weekend of screenings and recognitions left to go before the close of the festival. The festival’s award show took place on Saturday evening at the downtown Fremont Theater. The 72-year-old venue has been the regular home for the end of festival ceremony, which features various awards in Narrative, Documentary, Shorts and Students categories. Each award was announced not by a festival board member or a celebrity bussed in from out of town to make an impression, but a local community member, be it a writer from the local news weekly, a local morning radio host or a local banker.

The festival also took time to recognize the work of Academy Award-winning film editor and festival advisory board member Neil Travis. As Travis took the stage to accept the festival’s President’s Award after a reel of his work was shown, the room gave him a standing ovation. “I’ve forgotten half of those films,” Travis said, during a poignant moment. “But I look back on them with great pride and joy.”

The night also featured the bestowing of the King Vidor Award. Past recipients of this recognition for Career Achievement have included actors Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Peter Fonda along with directors Robert Wise and Norman Jewison. This year’s honoree was Sir Richard Taylor, the creator and director of the WETA Workshop, a visual effects house that has worked on some of the most significant effects-heavy productions of the last decade, most notably the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

In his acceptance remarks, Taylor spoke eloquently and seamlessly about the merits of perseverance and creative continuity in artistic endeavors. “We started 25 years ago in the back room of our apartment and we never imagined that it could unfold as it has,” Taylor said. But a majority of the special effects guru’s sentiments were not reflections on his own career, but advice for the community members and out-of-town visitors who had film-related aspirations. “Talent is latent until you unlock it with your passion and enthusiasm,” he said.

Taylor’s eagerness to reflect the spotlight onto the audience was a prime example of the theme that ran throughout the whole festival. SLOIFF is not about drawing attention to its own magnificence, but using the efforts of the festival to truly support local filmmaking.

A significant portion of the audience for the awards ceremony were college students from nearby Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Despite the gloom of impending finals, most of the audience who remained after the awards ceremony for a Q&A with Taylor and fellow industry experts were aspiring filmmakers and artists, looking to glean words of wisdom from an industry titan. For the college crowd, Taylor added, “Look at the people you’ve enjoyed collaborating with and think about how they might be part of your future instead of waving goodbye.”

Amidst the pageantry is a distinguishing element of the festival that was literally at the heart of the slogan for SLOIFF 2012: “Film. Wine. Fun.” Alcohol sponsorship is a feature of many different festivals, but San Luis Obispo lovingly indulges its wine surroundings. Every evening celebration and networking event had a hearty selection of whites and reds from the immediate region. Among the documentary features, one with a direct wine subject even had a tasting immediately following the screening.

The intricate involvement of wine in the proceedings is perfectly in line with the festival’s emphasis on highlighting the attributes of the central coast. While many festivals take care to feature the filmmakers and products of the region, SLOIFF really is a cross-section of the area.  This year, even as the county celebrated its own slice of cinematic history, the town didn’t lose focus on what gives the festival its spirit: the city itself.

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