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THE MAN FROM NANTUCKET TAKES A BACK SEAT

by Eric S. Arnold

  Panel Discussion
Panel Discussion, "Surviving the Sophomore Effort": (L to R) host Jim McGlynn, Davidlee Willson, Dan Brown, Jerry Takovsky, and Xachery Irving.

What makes the Nantucket Film Festival special? Well, the location, for starters, but four years after its inception the festival has not succumbed to glitz and glamour, and it remains a six-day celebration of the art and craft of screenwriting.

Oddly enough, this screenwriting festival was co-founded by a former cinematographer, Jonathan Burkhart, and his sister, Jill Goode. So why the emphasis on screenwriting from a former cinematographer? "Screenwriting is the most important part of the process," remarks Burkhart. "Everyone works off the script."

Which is why the festival began with the presentation of the Tony Cox Award for Screenwriting to Polish writer/director Janusz Glowacki. In addition to his award-winning script Hairdo, Glowacki's screenplay version of his stage play Hunting Cockroaches was a competition finalist, and Billboard, a film Glowacki co-wrote, also made its U.S. Premiere at the festival. Though initially the star of the show, Glowacki provided the biggest disappointment in an otherwise exciting and inspiring week. During the first screening of Billboard, at least half of the audience at the Gaslight Theater walked out, and less than a third of the audience remained when the credits began to scroll. Unnecessarily violent, and maker of obvious statements rather than contemplative points of discussion, Billboard pulled the plug on Glowacki's spotlight.

The Autumn Heart quickly moved into the space vacated by Glowacki, and the film required the addition of a third screening due to popular demand. Such was also the case for the world premiering films American Detective and Catalina Trust, but neither film generated hype on quite the level of The Autumn Heart, which shared the Audience Award with The Children of Chabannes. The Autumn Heart is the rookie screenwriting effort of Davidlee Willson (who also stars in the film), and though he based the characters on his actual family members, the story itself is fictional. Nevertheless, Willson has written a strong character-driven script in which his family reunites after a divorce that separated a brother from three sisters for two decades. "I wrote the script during my first Christmas in L.A. away from my family. The idea stemmed from how I'd feel without my three sisters," admits Willson. He also confesses that he "started writing out of boredom" when he was living in his car in L.A., trying to become an actor. "I had to entertain myself somehow," says Willson, and that entertainment is well transferred to the audience.

Despite The Autumn Heart's favor with Nantucket audiences, the film currently lacks domestic distribution. One producer in attendance remarked that Willson's emotional introduction to the film on the festival circuit may be what gets the audience involved and interested, but the film may have difficulty standing on its own. However, there are enough attributes to The Autumn Heart that make it worth the price of admission, and Willson remains a screenwriter who has the potential to draw more audiences and more awards.

Rise and Shine
The condensed schedule of the Nantucket Film Festival forced everyone in attendance to choose between screenings, seminars, and staged readings, but daily long lines of filmmakers and fans outside the Cambridge Street Restaurant demonstrated that Morning Coffee With·, a surprise panel of screenwriters, directors, and producers, had little competition from early screenings.

Unfortunately, host Sarah Greene, herself an established producer, often steered the conversation to her own filmmaking endeavors (zzzzz). Upon this realization, Burkhart was quick to point out that Morning Coffee With· "should be dedicated to the writing process. It has to go back to that format, though it will always float away with talk about how producers get involved."

On the final day, when Greene yielded the helm to former agent, former studio executive, and current independent producer Jerry Takovsky, the daily dose of caffeine and indie film talk went out with a bang. With guests writer/director Nancy Savoca (Dogfight, Janis), actor/writer Clark Gregg (What Lies Beneath), and writer/director Desmond Hall (A Day in Black and White), this fabulous foursome provided more laughs, information, and entertainment than Greene and her guests could have on seven cups of coffee, much less one.

The Oddballs: Documentaries and Shorts
Why documentaries - films without "Written by" credit - were even included at a festival dedicated to screenwriting is anyone's guess, but no one can fault the selection. Capacity crowds were drawn to American Chain Gang, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, and The Children of Chabannes, the latter of which shared the Audience Award with The Autumn Heart.

A guest on the first Panel Discussion as well as at the second day's Morning Coffee With·, American Chain Gang director Xachery Irving iterated that the toughest lesson to learn in documentary filmmaking is to avoid redundancy, which unfortunately neither The Children of Chabannes nor Sex accomplished. However, all three documentaries told stories that needed telling, and Irving, who is currently writing a narrative feature about the juvenile justice system, is another Nantucket Film Festival standout whose career is off to a brilliant start.

The festival also screened nearly twice as many short films as features, some packaged with features, and others screened together in four shorts programs. In years past, the shorts programs were so popular that many people were unable to get seats, and even with the addition of repeat screenings this year, many hopeful audience members were met with a similar fate. While Script Doctor took home the Audience Award for Best Short, other buzz-generating shorts included Baby Steps (starring Kathy Bates), Searching for Carrie Fisher, Desserts (starring Ewan MacGregor), Catfight, and the shock-doc Man and Dog, which captures the holocaust-like treatment of America's unwanted pets.

Screenwriting, Screenwriting, and More Screenwriting
Despite complaints that seminar discussions too often strayed from screenwriting, the saving grace of the Nantucket Film Festival was the annual Screenwriter's Tribute, dedicated this year to the legendary Jay Presson Allen. Although the event celebrating Ms. Allen was relatively short, it featured inspiring and funny speeches by emcee Brian Williams, Wendy Wasserstein, Jerry Orbach, and Allen herself, among others.

This event itself could not have set the Nantucket Film Festival above any other screenwriting celebration, but the screening schedule included top draws Marnie (1964), and Prince of the City (1981), two of Allen's most renowned films. In this way the slogan "where screenwriters inherit the earth" earned its claim, and also set the Nantucket Film Festival as the paradigm for the appreciation of the profession Allen helped to distinguish.

However, there were some hard lessons to learn from many of the other screenwriters in attendance. Though most writers answered audience questions after the screenings of their films, one in particular, Joseph Minion (On the Run) had relatively little to offer. Minion wrote the screenplay at the request of the director, and he had little to no involvement in the production, as is most often the case in modern feature filmmaking. And perhaps unknowingly, Minion did provide the audience with the cold hard truth that the screenwriter's role and responsibility in the filmmaking effort is often minimal at best.

The Ones to Watch
Nantucket Film Festival standouts included American Detective, Catalina Trust, Twin Falls Idaho, and the closing night film Coming Soon.

Of the four, only Twin Falls Idaho (perhaps the best written, directed, and acted film of the entire festival) has domestic distribution, and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics later this year. That is not to say that the other three films do not deserve distribution, but identical twins, co-writers, and co-stars Mark and Michael Polish prove with Twin Falls Idaho that they are filmmakers who know how to research a subject, as well as how to tell a story with just the right doses of pictures and words.

American Detective, the first film by writer/director Dan Brown, is also in a league of its own as the strange story of a loner-turned- stalker who believes he's investigating a serious case. Well-shot, well-acted, and complimented with an original soundtrack and opening credit sequence that are both nothing short of brilliant, American Detective is proof that great filmmaking can be accomplished with relatively little money, even with an advertising agency creative (Brown) at the helm.

Catalina Trust is the product of writer/director Will Conroy, who based the story on his own family's owned and operated Arizona inn. Despite cartoonish performances by some cast members, the captivating story sprinkled with savory moments of dialogue and mesmerizing photography make both Catalina Trust and Conroy's career, worth watching.

Coming Soon was by far the most controversial film of the festival, as Colette Burson's directorial debut received an unwarranted NC-17 rating from the MPAA. The story follows three upscale Manhattan teenage girls in search of their first orgasms, and is supported by a veteran cast that includes Mia Farrow, Peter Bogdanovich, and Spalding Gray. Though the film does slip into a bout of 90210-esque cheesiness when the main character (played by Bonnie Root) sees her classmate/suitor in an MTV music video, the writing and especially the acting of Farrow help to bring the film back to the realm of believability before the fade to black. Perhaps more riveting than the film's story, is the epic behind the MPAA's refusal to lift the NC-17 rating even though the film's language is far more intelligent than profane, and the actors show no more skin than one does in public. In Burson's post-screening Q&A, she explained which scenes the MPAA required her to cut for an R rating, which equally astonished the Dreamland Theater's audience of filmmakers and regular movie goers. Should a distributor show some courage and release Coming Soon, the MPAA will carry the sole burden and blame for any bad reviews or negative publicity Burson's film receives in its edited version.

Denouement
One surprising aspect of the Nantucket Film Festival was not how many wannabe screenwriters were in attendance, but how much encouragement they received from the morning and afternoon panelists, and the writers and directors whose films were screened in the program. Nantucket is already known for being unlike any other place on earth, which made it doubly intriguing to see established producers accepting unsolicited scripts. No, it doesn't mean that these scripts will be read much less bought, but it does mean that the industry's eyes are wide open and searching for great stories that deserve telling on celluloid.

And that is what a film festival should be designed to do: tell stories that audiences need and want to hear not just in film, but about filmmaking. Even though Burkhart claims that "you could have wrapped a towel around [his] head and beat [him] with a stick and [he] still wouldn't have run the festival differently," no one should ask him or his sister to do so. "Everyone [in Nantucket] starts restaurants, hotels, and T-shirt shops, and we brought culture," says Burkhart of himself and Goode.

And he's right. Even in its infant years, the Nantucket Film Festival is six solid days of focused, informative, and educational entertainment.


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