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Sun Valley Film Fest Day Two: From Steve Gaghan and Adam West to ‘The Summit,’ ‘Chlorine,’ and a New Nat Geo Nature Short Competition

Sun Valley Film Fest Day Two: From Steve Gaghan and Adam West to 'The Summit,' 'Chlorine,' and a New Nat Geo Nature Short Competition

A day of peaks and valleys (mostly peaks), oddly bookended by two encounters with screenwriter/directors: one glamorous, famous, handsome, self-assured, garlanded with accolades and awards, including, yes, the Oscar; the other, an indie guy, quiet, subdued, self-deprecating, even apologetic.

The day began at 10 a.m. with the first of the festival’s three consecutive Coffee Talks, whose free admission included, yes, free coffee, today from Starbucks. But the main attraction was Stephen Gaghan, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” and Oscar-nominated writer-director “Syriana.” Casually dressed and boyish despite a headful of graying hair, Gaghan held his audience in the palm of his hand during a fast-moving hour of assured and amusing anecdotes that touched on his Emmy-winning apprenticeship with David Milch on “NYPD Blue,” – Gaghan lay down on the stage to show how Milch, a bad-back sufferer, would read, reject, and ball up 48 pages of Gaghan’s 50-page script – and how he arrived at transforming a single-character drug war script for director Ed Zwick into the multi-arced, multi-character “Traffic,” produced by Zwick and directed by Soderbergh. 

The relentlessly interesting Gaghan (in Los Angeles they would call him “good in the room”), who happens to be married to Standard Oil heiress and designer Minnie Mortimer, great-niece of Sun Valley founder Averell Harriman, said that he knew he wanted to be a writer when he was 7. To which his mother responded “Oh no, you’ll live in misery and go – and by go I mean die – teaching other people’s children, badly.”  (Thanks, mom!) Nowadays Mom gives Gaghan notes on his scripts, which so impressed current collaborator Malcolm Gladwell that he inquired if she’d do the same for his new manuscript.

Ensorcelled, I scribbled six dense pages of notes, regretting that my tireless colleague Michael Guillen was not there with his trusty recorder to capture every word and transcribe the hour for his The Evening Class blog. I hadn’t been quite so captivated since catching John Waters’ lecture/standup act.

Invigorated, I dashed out to try to catch one of Ketchum’s free buses to the Sun Valley Opera House a mile away, and was emboldened to run out into the street to make the one I’d just missed stop for me. “I stopped because there’s no one around,” the indulgent driver said, “but don’t do that again.” 

Thanks to him, I entered the Opera House for the 11:20 a.m. screening of “The Summit” just as the room went dark. I was gripped and moved by the powerful story of the famous and horrendous August 2008 descent down K2, the second-highest peak in the world, which claimed 11 lives.  The multi-national cast of characters, filmed both during their climb and descent and the survivors and family of the deceased subsequent to the disaster, were well-delineated and charismatic. Some of the astonishing footage was shot during the expedition and some was “convincing reconstructions.”
I, who was scared I’d fall while walking down the dark theater aisle, still don’t understand exactly what motivates these folks to endure the dangerous climb. Especially when told that for every four people who have reached the summit, another one has died. Seems impossibly lousy odds. 

Exceptionally, instead of rushing off to another movie, my Ketchum cousin Diana and I had a nice lunch – turkey-squash-cranberry salad for her, wiener schnitzel, cabbage, and potato salad for me– at the nearby mittel-European and charming Konditorei, which also boasts glass-fronted cases full of beautiful baked goods.

Afterwards Diana dropped me off at the Magic Lantern cinema in Ketchum in time for me to catch Lacey Dorn’s assured short film “Frontera,” in which a young Texas ranch wife, facing financial ruin, agrees to be a drug runner, with an unpredictable denouement.  I was stressed and engrossed during its brief 15 minutes, but brought up a bit short by its brisk, abrupt, and shocking ending. 

Luckily on my way out I ran into Will McCormack and two of the actors who’d participated in his “We Are Puppets” reading, who I’d happened to sit next to yesterday during Barbara Kopple’s “Running from Crazy” documentary about Mariel Hemingway’s family history of madness and suicide (more on Day One here), and who’d invited me to see their short “No Love Song” in Saturday’s Shorts Program 1. They’d just seen “Frontera,” and together we reconstructed the ending to our satisfaction.

I rushed off to a 3 p.m. press conference for what we’d been told was exciting news, and learned of a partnership among Nat Geo WILD, the Sun Valley Film Festival, and the African Wildlife Foundation: the first annual WILD to INSPIRE Short Film Competition, accepting submissions starting April 1st through October 1st of nature films no longer than 5 minutes.

The top three finalists will be screened at the 2014 Sun Valley Film Festival, and the grand prize winner will receive a trip to AWF’s African nature park in Tanzania, apprenticing with a National Geographic filmmaker. I won a ton of swag, including a fancy journal, a chic gray knit cap, and something called a paracord, which I was told was a “survival bracelet.”

Afterwards it seemed appropriate to attend the 3:45 screening of Nat Geo Wild’s “The Wild West,” one of a three-part series set to debut on the network in June, back at the Opera House. Upon entering I was given two more chic knitted caps, one in black-and-white, one in red. Thank you, Nat Geo Wild!

Luckily for me, this story of the various wild inhabitants of the Western desert – gila monsters, rattlesnakes, scorpions, hawks, buzzards, mustangs – was influenced stylistically and tonally by spaghetti westerns, a favorite genre of mine, and “Rango,” which I also enjoyed – and, the cherry on the sundae, the somewhat cutesy anthropomorphized narration was lent gravitas by the insinuating voice of Timothy Olyphant, another weakness of mine.

In the same venue at 5:30, the labor of love “Starring Adam West” documentary, helmed by James Tooley, Ketchum-born-and-bred filmmaker son-in-law of West, was pure pleasure. There’s the inherent charm of the puckish, witty 84-year-old West, the poignant nature of West’s career – three years of success as Batman, followed by decades of struggling to escape typecasting, and a current renaissance of voice-over work for Seth MacFarlane and adulation from Comicon crowds – and a cleverly intertwined multi-year quest of getting West a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  We expected the Ketchum-dweller to appear onstage afterwards, alongside his beautiful daughter Nina, Tooley, the film’s editor, Matthew Johnston, and cinematographer Blair Madigan, but were told he was home sick, alas.  Tales were told of raising half the film’s budget through Kickstarter, and locking the print just last week.  A distributor will be sought through the film festival circuit – “We’re taking business cards!”

I stuck around for the 8:00 p.m. screening of “Chlorine,” an independent feature with an intriguing cast: Vincent D’Onofrio, Kyra Sedgwick, Michele Hicks, Dreama Walker – and more familiar faces popped up as the film unspooled, including Tom Sizemore and Elizabeth Röhm.  I found the tone unsettling: the central family of D’Onofrio and Sedgwick and their two adolescent children all seemed in crisis, and all the people surrounding them were cruel, feckless, betraying, and mean-spirited. I was reminded of “American Beauty,” but less so.  Amazingly, after everybody did everybody dirt, there was a surprisingly sweet-tempered ending, in which at least D’Onofrio and Sedgwick seemed reconciled.

Writer/Director Jay Alaimo, carefully and stylishly dressed in a cool aesthetic of plaid trousers, blue shirt, dotted tie, and corduroy jacket, seemed almost apologetic, oddly modest, self-deprecating, and very soft-spoken – he didn’t use the mic he was given, and we strained to hear both him and the questions from the sliver of the audience that stuck around. 

Even though I hadn’t really warmed to the film, I was immediately impressed when he said it had been shot in 17 days, which seemed almost impossible (especially when he said that many other scenes that he shot didn’t make it into the film), on a tiny budget, in super 16.  I was interested in a discussion of side-by-side testing of the Alexa digital camera and 35mm Fuji film for a new project – he preferred the digital – and just shot a project he directed for hire, “The World Within,” digitally with two cameras at once, not only saving time but, he said, capturing amazing energy in performances.

Still, I was left with two wistful soundbites: “I think this film [“Chlorine”] has been jinxed in a lot of ways that make me laugh,” and what he said was a quote: “Filmmaking is the least artistic of all the arts” – to which Amaino added “It’s true, and it’s a bummer.”

I mused as I walked back to the Lodge on how both the ebullient Gaghan and subdued Amaino had said that they knew they wanted to be writers from the age of seven.  (Separated today only by a dozen hours and, well, don’t ask.)  I peeked into the crowded Duchin bar off the lobby, where a jazzy piano/drums/bass trio was playing a song from a Broadway musical that I almost recognized and knew I liked.  People were dancing, ballroom-style!  Festive.

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