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2005 Santa Barbara Film Festival Goes Platinum
by Susan Royal


Annette Bening
To properly celebrate the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Platinum 20th anniversary, Festival Director Roger Durling pulled out all the stops. Says Durling, “It’s the most ambitious film festival we’ve had.” In addition to the more than 140 films, including 12 world premieres, 11 U.S. premieres and the prestigious Opening Night special preview of Woody Allen’s latest film, Melinda and Melinda; the festival had more than its share of stars and Oscar-nominated filmmakers. Receiving tributes at the festival were Leonardo DiCaprio, who was presented the Platinum Award by Martin Scorsese; Annette Bening, the Montecito Award; Kate Winslet, the Sapphire Inspired Award; Kevin Bacon, the Riviera Award; and Sir David Attenborough, the Attenborough Nature Filmmaker Award.

The festival benefits greatly from both its geographical location (only 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, making it easy for stars and filmmakers to attend) and its timing (right after the Academy Award nominees have been announced, making it strategically important for stars and filmmakers to attend.) Beyond those already mentioned, some of the other stars attending included Jeff Bridges (representing his film The Moguls, which was the Closing Night selection), Michael Keaton (who presented Annette Bening with her award) and Radha Mitchell (who starred in the Opening Night Woody Allen film).

This year saw the addition of the “Conversations With” series, consisting of screenings followed by a question and answer session with an actor from the film. Participating this year were Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church (Sideways) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace). Other Q&As were conducted with Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, David Duchovny, John Cleese and Dave Berry -- the Centerpiece Film selection was Dave Berry’s Complete Guide to Guys. Both Cleese and Barry are local Santa Barbara residents, as is the film's director/writer Jeff Arch.

Actor-director Tim Matheson, also a local, curated a sidebar of cult Asian films. Local documentarian Russ Spencer programmed the festival's surf and extreme sports sidebar.

THE PANELS

The festival has long been renowned for its panel series and this year was no exception. Participants in the “Movers and Shakers” panel, moderated by Variety Deputy Editor Elizabeth Guider, included producers of The Aviator (Graham King), Ray (Stuart Benjamin), Finding Neverland (Richard Gladstein), Sideways (Michael London), The Incredibles (John Walker), The Motorcycle Diaries (Michael Nozik) and The Woodsman (Lee Daniels).

Each producer talked about the challenges of making their film. For Graham King (The Aviator), the biggest challenge was the shooting schedule. The last film he did with Martin Scorsese was The Gangs of New York, which notoriously went over schedule. Said King, “When you do a film with him there is a lot of coverage, a lot of debate and a lot of second unit. The Beverly Hills airline crash scene alone took three weeks. But he brought Aviator in only one day over schedule.” King says many people think he’s the biggest gambler in Hollywood. “No one would make Traffic or Gangs. That’s why I get to be in business with great people like Leo and Marty and Johnny Depp.” (He recently signed a three-picture deal with Depp.)

Michael London said the biggest challenge with Sideways was that director Alexander Payne didn’t want star names, which financing sources always want. Said London, “Alexander wanted these two guys to come across as real losers and didn’t think it would work with famous people.” They also had to deal with a screenplay that, at 140 pages, was too long.

It was the subject matter of The Woodsman -- a pedophile attempting to redeem himself -- that made funding the film so difficult, said Lee Daniels. As one of the producers of the very successful film, Monster’s Ball, Lee had been told by that film’s financiers that they wanted to fund his next project. But as soon as they heard the subject matter, they passed on The Woodsman. He had to piece the financing together by going to private individuals, including Serena Williams and Mariah Carrey.

John Walker explained that animation director-writer Brad Bird was new to Pixar and they had to convince Pixar that the next picture they should make be The Incredibles, and not Toy Story 3 or one of their other projects. “We also had a problem with our visual presentation. It made it look like we were doing an animated Bergman film.”

According to Stuart Benjamin, “It took 15 years of knocking on doors to get Ray made.” Eventually they got real estate and telecommunications billionaire Phil Anschutz to fund the $3 million development costs. When director Taylor Hackford pitched it to the majors, the response was that “no one would be interested in a black bio-pic period piece.” Anschutz offered to co-finance the production costs with any studio. When there was still no studio interest, he put up the entire $35 million budget himself. Once the film was finished, they showed it to the major studios which one by one passed on it until Universal stepped up to distribute it. The film did $20 million on its opening weekend and has gone on to great success, including two Golden Globe awards and six Academy Award nominations. Benjamin said he is now “working hard to enjoy the moment, since it took so long to get here.”

The biggest hurdle producer Richard Gladstein had with Finding Neverland was getting a director. Many of the directors they wanted passed. Marc Forster wanted to do it, but he had made only a couple of small films at that time. But once the producers saw a rough cut of Forster’s Monster’s Ball, they hired him.

The Motorcycle Diaries was adapted from the diaries of Che Guevara, leader of the Cuban revolution. For producer Michael Nozik and director Walter Salles, the challenge was to get the approval of Che’s widow. In Cuba, artists do not have the creative freedoms of those in the U.S. and so she had trouble conceiving of the director getting final cut.

Another popular panel was “It Starts With the Script,” moderated by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Frank Pierson. Each writer on the panel was either a current Writers Guild Award nominee, a current Academy Award nominee or both. They included Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Zach Braff (Garden State), Bill Condon (Kinsey), Julie Delpy (Before Sunset), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), John Logan (The Aviator), Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Jim Taylor (Sideways).

John Logan said it was very helpful to have Leo DiCaprio around, reading the lines aloud while he wrote the Aviator script. “Leo’s voice was in my head every second I worked.”

Frank Pierson asked if the others thought it was difficult to write the script when the film had already been cast. Bill Condon said he liked being able to tailor the role of Kinsey to Liam Neeson. “Kinsey was such an elusive character. Every account I read of him described him differently. It helped that I could write knowing what Liam would bring to the character just by his presence and underlying kindness.”

Julie Delpy spoke of the challenges of making the Before Sunset script exciting when “basically nothing happens in the story and they don’t even kiss at the end.”

When the discussion turned to structure and screenwriting craft, Zach Braff volunteered, “I don’t have much ‘craft.’ I got Cs in screenwriting class. Everyone with a datebook and cell phone passed on this....after giving me notes to turn it into a three-act structure.”

Braff asked Eternal Sunshine’s Charlie Kaufman if he’d learned anything from taking Robert McKee’s class. Kaufman responded, “I learned how to write Robert McKee as a character,” referring to his film Adaptation.

When Frank Pierson asked Paul Haggis how he felt about directors making changes to screenplays, Haggis replied, “Clint shot my first draft without changing a word. I was waiting for his notes, but he just said, ‘Script’s good’ and that was that.” Haggis had been in his car listening to NPR when he heard F.X. Toole interviewed about his book of short stories entitled Rope Burns. Says Haggis, “I was just swept away by the power of the stories and had to pull my car over.” He optioned the screen rights and wrote the script on spec. He had some trouble at first trying to fold four or five of the stories into the script. Once he narrowed it down to two stories it came into focus. “I just held onto what had originally moved me about the stories.”

Other panels conducted at the film festival included “Scoring the Film,” which included current Academy Award nominees John Debney (The Passion of Christ) and Jan Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland); “Creative Forces: Women in the Biz,” which included Academy Award nominated actress Virginia Madsen; and “Directors on Directing,” which included Alejandro Amenebar (Out to Sea), Kevin Bacon (Loverboy), Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), Nicole Kassel (The Woodsman), Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Joel Schumacher (Phantom of the Opera.)

THE AWARDS

The Audience Award for Best Feature went to The Thing About My Folks, directed by Raymond DeFelitta, from a script by Paul Reiser, who stars in this family comedy along with Peter Falk.

The Audience Award for Best Documentary went to Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action, directed by Roberta Grossman. The film tells the story of some of the most grievous but little-known environmental and human rights violations against Native Americans.

The American Spirit Award, given to “a unique independent feature that has been made outside mainstream Hollywood’” went to Mail Order Wife, written and directed by Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko. The film is described as “a caustic expose into the world of mail-order love.”

The Best International Feature Award went to Deadlines, written and directed by Michael Lerner with Ludi Boeken. The film “follows a beat reporter as he braves 1980s Beirut.”

For the rest of the awards, and more information about the festival, go to: www.sbfilmfestival.org.


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