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Steve Martin, Screenwriters and the Stiller Family: 20 Years of the Nantucket Film Festival

Steve Martin, Screenwriters and the Stiller Family: 20 Years of the Nantucket Film Festival

READ MORE: Aaron Sorkin in Nantucket on How He Almost Didn’t Pitch ‘The West Wing’

For 20 years, the Nantucket Film Festival has been bringing art house fare to the sunny Massachusetts island south of Cape Cod. Founded by brother and sister team Jill and Jonathan Burkhart, the festival has carved out its identity as a writer’s festival.

Since its first year, the festival has hosted the Tony Cox Screenplay Competition, which recognizes promising screenplays by emerging writers. Past winners include Patrick Tobin’s “Cake,” which went to be made into a film starring Jennifer Aniston, and “Down the Bone,” Debra Granik’s eventual directorial debut. In addition to a cash prize, winners receive an all-expenses paid, month-long artist-residency with the Screenwriters Colony, a mentorship program dedicated to supporting the next generation of writing talent. Past mentors have included the late Bingham Ray, writer-director Patty Jenkins and actor-writer-director Campbell Scott.

Furthering their commitment to being a writers festival, NFF also awards accomplished writers with their annual Screenwriters Tribute Award. Last year’s recipient was Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin.

With the 20th edition of the event launching tonight, our oral history brings the history of the festival back to life through the words of those who experienced it.


John Johnson
(NFF Founding Board Member, Screenwriters Colony Founder)

I remember Jonathan [Burkhart] calling me up and saying “Jill and
I are thinking about doing a film festival — what do you think about it? 
Want to help us do that?” and getting super excited. When I was
12, my summers on Nantucket were oriented around movies — both the
blockbusters that were at the Dreamland like “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” but also the
repertory series at the Gaslight like” Captains Courageous” and indie greats like “Harold and Maude.” These film experiences, seeing them with a group of
people in a theater were seminal to my development. So when Jonathan
invited me to help develop an event that would kick off the summer in Nantucket,
steeping people in appreciation for storytelling for the screen, my heart leaped
out of my chest.

Ben Niles (Alumni & 2015 Filmmaker)

I first
heard of the Nantucket Film Festival in 1996. I had two questions… where is
Nantucket (I grew up in Georgia) and what happens really at a film festival? Filmmaking was never really on my
radar when I was young. I always loved and appreciated films but I came from a
family of art directors and print was our medium. My first experience with the
Nantucket Film Festival was to design their posters and programs from years
5-8. My wife, Kari, had been on the Nantucket screening committee back in 1996
when the festival was in its very first year and she introduced me to all the
crew. It was a kick working with folks
like Jill Burkhart, programming director at the time, and Mystelle Brabbée, who
is now executive director of the festival. But
filmmaking itself
? Designing festival posters would have to do.

 (NFF Founder)

A month after completing the very first
Nantucket Film Festival, I walked into the NY Mayor’s office of Film and Television and said, “What have I done by creating a film festival on an island? 
I’m totally exhausted and I don’t think I can do it again.” The
woman behind the desk squared herself to me and said, “You have created a
living, breathing entity that will go on with or without you.”

Bob & Suzanne
Wright (Bob, Former CEO NBC Universal / Suzanne,
Founding NFF Board member)

We were so excited when the Nantucket Film
Festival was born! It is a match made in heaven. Where else can you watch
the best new films and rising artists, pay tribute to the industry’s leaders,
laugh with the best comedians and catch a wave in between? Brian Williams gave the best & funniest
speech when he told of his efforts to take his family out to catch a whale. He
shared his love for Nantucket, but thought that the cobblestones, while lovely,
were too hard to navigate. He thought it would be much better if the town would
just pave over them! Jim Carrey’s remarks had us laughing all over
town and with Steve Martin and Lorne Michaels as well, we have been treated to
talent as big as the whales.

Mark Greenberg (CEO and President of EPIX and NFF Board Member for 19 years)

Tony Cox was my mentor in the important industry. I had the opportunity to work with him at Showtime and HBO. He was a leader in the industry, always supporting diversity and women’s issues. Tony passed away in 1995. He and his wife Heidi, have a home on Nantucket. After his passing I reached out to Jill and Jonathan Burkhart, the founders of NFF, to establish a way to pay tribute to Tony and recognize his influence on the industry. In 1996, NFF created the Tony Cox Screenplay Competition, to highlight emerging talent and showcase the craft of the written word.


Jill Burkhart (NFF Founder)

I will never
forget our Opening Night Film in 1998, our third year. It was Brad Anderson’s

“Next Stop
Wonderland.” About 25 minutes into the film as
everyone was really getting into the story, the power went out on the entire
island. We had to get everyone out of the theatre, people stumbled out into the
street in front of the Dreamland yelling and screaming — we were so upset and
Brad looked so disappointed. It was terribly anticlimactic; the only thing to
do was go drink and drown our sorrows.

John Hamburg (NFF Alum)

It’s not an overstatement to say that the Nantucket Film Festival
literally changed my life and career. At the festival in 1998, Ben
Stiller saw a screening of my first feature, “Safe Men.” He apparently
liked the movie, and that weekend we met up and talked about working together
some day. In the years since, we’ve gone on to collaborate on many movies
including “Zoolander,” “Meet the Parents,” “Along Came Polly,” and most recently, “Zoolander 2.” I’m forever grateful to the festival for allowing our
paths to cross!”


Ben Niles (Alumni & 2015 Filmmaker)

In 2002, at the ripe old age
of 37, I had a slight career nervous breakdown of sorts. No longer passionate
about graphic design, I yearned for something new and was reeling. My wife Kari
asked, “What do you want to do?” “I think I’d like to make films about
animals,” I responded. Well, that was my first inclination. The first call I made was to
Jonathan Burkhart, a new friend at the time and co-founder of the Nantucket
Film Festival. Jonathan had been producing films since he was a kid and was
encouraging. “So, you wanna tell stories?” he asked. Going to film school wasn’t
an option for me but Jonathan was dismissive of that and said, “Just go get a
camera and dive in.” Buying a camera was something I could wrap my head around
but I was intimidated and had no idea where to begin. Still, I was hungry for something
new and realized maybe it was time for a crack at filmmaking—specifically,
documentaries. I was invited to some early “feedback” screenings for Mystelle
Brabbée’s film, “Highway Courtesans” (2006), and was inspired by her work. It was
especially helpful to have the opportunity see the process and watch her film
come to fruition.

Seeing it at festivals and attending the Q&A was doubly
inspiring. I had the bug! All the while I was attending the
Nantucket film festival most summers as a movie-goer, racing from venue to
venue while stuffing down a Taco Taco burrito. At first, I enjoyed the festival
and everything that came with it; biking all over island from screening to
screening, evening parties on the beach, skinny dipping and “morning coffee”
with notable directors, actors and industry big-wigs. I met Stacey Peralta, Ben
Stiller, Rachel Dracht, who rode on the back of my bike drunk (me, not her),
Zack Braff (and his dad), just to name a few. We always went home high on film
and ever so sleepy from all the fun. But over time I grew restless and wanted to
be a part of the festival in other ways. Eventually, I shot and directed a
very flawed film about a singer-songwriter for over a year. I made so many
mistakes it’s unbelievable to think it actually got made. I did not know what
“white balance” was or how to obtain it. Still, it was my film school 101. I
called on Jill Burkhart (Executive Director for the festival from 1995-2010?)
for feedback. I wonder what was going through her head watching this very crude
attempt but she was thoughtful and encouraged me to press on. I didn’t even
bother to submit it to the festival that year, recognizing I still had work to
do. During this whole period I was
leaning on friends pretty heavily and many had ties to NFF. Jonathan Burkhart
taught me how to craft a budget for my next film, “Note By Note.” The next
night he called and implored me to go watch “Rivers and Tides” at The Quad and
to call him back immediately. I did and that film opened up a whole new way of
thinking for me in my approach to film. Colin Stanfield (past NFF Director) helped to show me the ropes dating back to his days at IFP and was/is
always there for sound advice regarding story and insights to navigating the
industry. Tom Hall (past NFF Programming
Director) who has a great eye and always has words of
encouragement. Tom introduced me to another film, “To Be and To Have,” that
would resonate with me greatly, at the festival in 2003. “Go see this film and
let me know what you think,” he said. We still talk about it to this day. Katie Trainor, one of the best
projectionists you’ll ever encounter, schooled me on the various aspects of
theatrical screenings and film archiving. She was the head projectionist for
the festival for so many years and exemplified the dedication to craft that the
festival stands for. And of course, Jill Burkhart and
Mystelle Brabbée, who have been a constant sounding board, always accessible
and teeming with sage advice, for nearly 20 years.

Debra Granik (NFF
Alum & Winner of Showtime Tony Cox Award for Best Screenwriting in a
Feature Film in 2002)

I love the
organization and the festival. They do so much more than exhibiting
films. Their attention to the screenplay has been very motivating and
supportive for a generation of writers. There’s huge heart and passion in
and behind the festival. It’s an unusual brew of intimacy, island, and impact.
I don’t have a specific anecdote, but I do have great appreciation that this
festival is part of the film culture landscape.


Scott Rosenberg (2004 Showtime Tony Cox Screenplay Competition Juror)

The recent passing of Anne Meara brought me back to the summer I was on the festival jury (we gave the award to “Hustle and Flow,” but it was a film by the little-known-at-the-time Duplass Brothers that really caught my fancy). At the Late Night Storytelling, Anne and Pete Farrelly, convinced me to tell the crowd a very embarrassing tale from my past (losing a girlfriend to a local Boston sports hero). It was the highlight of a spectacular few days. I mean, a film festival on Nantucket? Cannes and Sundance and Toronto and all the rest can only weep with envy. And I can only weep for not having been back since.


Mystelle Brabbee
below (Executive Director, Nantucket Film Festival)

Martin was our Screenwriters Tributee in 2005. We had asked James Lipton
to conduct an on-stage interview with Steve. It was a great interview
with lots of laughs. James walked off staged when it was over, walked past
me, then turned around and simply said, “I’ve been waiting 30 years for
that interview, please tell me you recorded that” and then he walked
away. I never saw him again.”


Mystelle Brabbee
below (Executive Director, Nantucket Film Festival):

on and off an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is challenging. Every third day, we have “fog” on Nantucket and planes can’t get in
our out. Each year we produce staged reading of unproduced
screenplays. One year Talia Balsam and John Slattery were set to be in a
reading of “Spectacle” and they were fogged out. Anne Meara
ended up having to play the love interested of David Krumholtz (in his

Ben Niles (Alumni & 2015 Filmmaker):

In 2006 I managed to get “Note By
Note,” completed and I proudly screened at Nantucket in 2007. I felt I had
arrived—on some level—and it was particularly gratifying to join the festival
in this new role that it had helped to nurture in so many profound ways.

Mystelle Brabbee
below (Executive Director, Nantucket Film Festival):

Meara had been hosting our Late Night Storytelling event with Peter Farrelly
for years. He had similar comedic sensibility as Anne. That is to
say, a little on the blue side. Peter would play the straight guy next to
Anne’s saucy stage persona. One year, Peter couldn’t come to NFF and we
brought in another fun comedian to fill in. I brought this comedian to meet
Anne at a restaurant and before he sat down, Anne decided she would test out
this guys comedic chops and started taking pot shots at bald guys in baseball
caps (he wore a ball cap) the the catholic religion (he was catholic). After about a half an hour of this, the comedian excused himself and bolted out
of there. I followed him to his car but he was beyond upset at that point
and jumped in his car and screeched away. I went back and told Anne she
might have upset him a bit. She was shocked, insults were part of her world of comedy but it was superficial. In typical Anne fashion, she sent the guy flowers the next day.

Sophie Barthes (NFF
Alum & winner of 2006 Showtime Tony Cox Screenplay Competition)

The Nantucket
Festival and the Screenwriters Colony have started my career as a filmmaker.My
first screenplay “Cold Souls” won the screenwriting award at the NFF.
I had written it for Paul Giamatti. By a very strange twist of fate, Paul
Giamatti was there… at the awards party. He was presenting an award to
Alexander Payne for “Sideways.” So I took a sip of wine and  did
what a first time filmmaker should never do: ask an actor you admire if he
would consider being in your first film…! But I had a good excuse, it was written
for him.


Leonard Maltin
(Morning Coffee Host)

It would have been fun enough to attend the Nantucket Festival the
year William H. Macy and Stephen Schacter brought their underrated Hollywood
satire “The Deal” and hear them talk about it. But when I got to talk to their
star, Meg Ryan, in an onstage interview about her career, they not only
presented her award but serenaded her with a newly-composed song which Bill
sang, accompanying himself on the ukulele. You don’t get
experiences like that every day.

Moderating the morning conversations was
a treat for me—and I’m not what I’d describe as a morning person. But when you
have filmmakers like Doug Liman, Courtney Hunt, and Jonathan Levine on your
panel, there’s no fear of anyone being sleepy. The same is true of Late Night
Storytelling, where I was flattered to share the stage with professionals like
the late, great Anne Meara. In both visits to the
Festival, my wife and I have met interesting filmmakers, seen good movies at
the outset of their journeys, and enjoyed great camaraderie (and lobster
rolls). Who could ask for more from any gathering?


Jenny Deller (NFF
Alum & Winner of 2009’s Showtime’s Tony Cox Feature Film Screenplay

The Nantucket Film Festival has such a palpable creative synergy
between programmers, filmmakers, audience, actors, programming — all going down
on this astonishingly gorgeous, historic little island. You’re there for five
days, soaking it all in, and you make friends you’ll never forget. It’s the
kind of festival magic that is honestly very rare. I can count on one
hand the times I’ve gotten to actually meet and interact with one of my
all-time heroes. Nantucket was responsible for two of those! 2009, Lili Taylor
(who ended up starring in my film “Future Weather”). 2012, Judy Blume (author of “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” and other quintessential YA novels). And
I’m sure I’m not the only filmmaker this has happened to there. It’s that kind
of festival.

Fisher Stevens (NFF Alum & Participant/Supporter Since First

Nantucket film festival was one of the launch pads for “The Cove,” and is one of
the most creative, fun and interesting festivals that I have ever been too. We
are so excited to screen “Racing Extinction” there, and hope it has a similar
effect on the audiences as “The Cove” did. Bit of advice, Its also important
to wear sunscreen on the beach!


Ben Robbins
(Screenwriters Colony Artistic Director from 2010-2012 and Writer)

The collaboration
between NFF and the Screenwriters Colony has given me so many meaningful
memories and experiences it’s hard to choose just one. But most importantly, it
has given me wonderful people. Sure, where else would I have found myself
hanging out and talking as peers — free from industry nonsense and ego — with
luminaries like David O. Russell, Nancy Meyers and Paul Haggis? But perhaps
even more valuable to me have been the long line of Tony Cox winners who’ve
become dear friends through their participation in Screenwriters Colony. The
festival’s uncanny track-record in choosing Cox winners who are both supremely
talented writers and lovely human beings has been an incredible gift — both to
Screenwriters Colony, and to me, personally.”


Kyle Patrick Alvarez
(NFF Alum and 2015 Filmmaker)

I had one of my most
memorable movie going experiences at The Nantucket Film Festival, when I went
to go see “The Hunt” there in 2013. It was such an intense film to watch and to
watch it in such a small setting, in the “attic” of the larger screened theater
below. I sat on the floor to be able to properly read the subtitles and just
had this incredibly intimate experience and was so moved by the film and the
setting. I walked a mile back to my hotel with a filmmaker and his wife and we
could barely even speak about the movie because it shook us so much. I’ll never
forget that.

Destin Daniel Cretton
(NFF Alum & winner of Showtime Tony Cox Award for Best
Screenwriting in a Feature Film in 2013)

I remember our first screening of “Short Term 12” at
NFF because I got there late. I walked in the back door of this beautiful,
ancient building just in time to catch the last few minutes of our film, and
all I remember was how incredible that audience was. They were so engaged and
involved with the story it felt like I was in a lively town hall meeting. Once
the film was over, I had some very moving conversations with amazing people
that I will remember for a long time. I also had my first lobster roll there,
which I’ll also remember for a long time.


Tsiokos (Nantucket Film Festival Film Program Director)

Last year’s festival was my first as Film
Program Director. The film I was most excited about presenting was also one of
the first that I knew I wanted to bring to the island out of Sundance: “Boyhood.” Having heard from colleagues and friends about how magical the place was, I
thought a film that so uniquely transported a viewer through time would make a
perfect fit. I was thrilled that this was borne out on our closing night, as I
welcomed star Ellar Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland to the stage of
the Dreamland Theater audience to greet their enthusiastic audience for a
memorable Q&A. It made for the best festival wrap that I’ve experienced to

Mystelle Brabbee below (Executive Director, Nantucket Film Festival)

of the things I love most about NFF is the amount of collaborations that are
formed here, both in creative partnerships or actual projects. One year,
at our Late Night Storytelling event, there were oddly several stories told
about drug experiences, bad drug experiences. Ben Stiller, Fisher Stevens
and Amir Bar Lev all told a drug story. After that night, Donick Cary and
Mike Rosenstein launched a documentary titled “Bad Trip,” they have
filmed a ton of great drug related stories told by all sorts of people. The film is set to be done later this year.   

Steve James (NFF alum
& 2014 Documentary Achievement Tribute)

only had the pleasure of attending the festival once, but greatly enjoyed the
experience. It’s a beautiful setting and the festival staff is friendly
and super competent. And I thought the selection of films was an intriguing
mix of narratives and docs. I enjoyed my festival experience even more than the
fabulous lobster roll I had down by the water!

Donick Cary
(NFF Board Member, Show runner “Parks and Rec”)

The Nantucket Film Festival is one of the most anticipated events on our calendar every year– like Christmas but with more
lobster rolls. And less egg nog. But oddly not much less.

One of the things I
love the most about the festival are the signature programs — from facing
history to the comedy roundtable the range and scope of programs and topics
covered is always astounding. It always takes me the rest of the summer
to digest everything.

The incredibly
diverse and eclectic mix of people who attend is always so cool. A random
conversation one evening at the fest with Ben Stiller and Fisher Stevens (the cove)
led to me making a documentary called “Bad Trip” with both of them
producing. We’re wrapping up this winter after five years of shooting. Fingers crossed we’ll make it past the selection committee.

Somehow getting
people 30 miles out to sea onto a giant strip of sand, filling them with shrimp
and oysters and then putting them in theaters to watch some of the best movies
of the year is like no other cinematic experience. It’s totally
immersive, intellectually challenging and totally relaxed at the same

It’s a testament to
the movie selections that even on a beautiful beach day the theaters are packed
with smiling theater goers. Or maybe it’s all the gin and tonics.

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