Friday, April 06, 2007


Last Saturday, after my LAVC class, I took a flight out of Burbank to spend the rest of the weekend at the Sacramento International Film Festival.

I’m not a very good traveler and even the shortest trip feels like I’ve been away for years. I’m never very comfortable on a plane; my legs don’t appreciate the cramped quarters and my ears despise the change in altitude. I don’t have a fear of flying, but the various airports seem to exploit the minimal dangers involved.

At Burbank, there is an exhibit dedicated to Amelia Earhart – an odd homage when more successful fliers could be profiled. (This is tantamount to a Charles Lindbergh exhibit in a daycare center.) The fact that Earhart’s ill-fated flight is prominently featured in the airport “terminal” has an ironic sense of foreboding while boarding an aircraft.

The Sacramento Airport is adorned with big posters featuring “The Faces of Global Terrorism,” which provide a rogues gallery of swarthy desperados and potential suicide bombers.

My paranoid eyes were compelled to seek out the possible suspects who might be flying with me. I spied a shifty looking character who resembled El Shukrijumah (on the right side of the collage, sixth photo down under Bin Laden). I was prepared to notify the authorities, but he ended up being a Sicilian from the University of Palermo.

To make travel matters worse, I hate hotels. After seeing a 20/20 episode where some sort of ultraviolet light was used to show hotel bedspreads soaked with saliva, blood, mucus, semen, urine and fecal matter, the first thing I do in any hotel room (even at the Bellagio) is carefully remove everything from the bed that doesn’t reek of bleach. (And I won’t go anywhere without my travel size Luminol.)

The festival put me up at the DELTA KING – an authentic paddleboat converted into a hotel. It’s located at the dock of Old Sacramento – a tourist attraction that pays homage to the California Gold Rush. Since I’m not a big fan of hotels, I prefer new ones. (I’m a fucking nightmare in Europe.) New hotels appear more hygienic and unsullied. Old world charm is atmospheric and beautiful but guarantees all sorts of salacious and unsanitary history. However, I didn’t travel to Sacramento to spend any time in the hotel room; there was lots to see and do.

Film festivals are always fun – especially if you avoid the films. Recently, at ICM, I brought in Geoff Gilmore, Co-director of the Sundance Film Festival, to speak to the trainees, and it was a very interesting glimpse into how the world of a film festival operates year round. Although Geoff was nowhere near Sacramento last weekend, Martin Anaya, founder of the Sacramento International Film Festival, takes on similar duties.

Resembling a hybrid of Larry Flynt and Peter Lorre, the passionate but plegmatic Anaya champions up-and-coming writers/filmmakers in the NorCal area, providing all sorts of educational and professional opportunities to those in the cinema arts.

The festival is a not-for-profit arts organization with year round activities, culminating in the weekend event each spring. Anaya’s hands-on approach is to bridge the gap between Northern and Southern California and provide more filmmaking experiences for artists north of San Francisco. This year, the fest was home to over 80 films, and although it's relatively small and lacks the clout of Sundance or even the bacchanalia of Austin, it's only in its third year, and Anaya is determined to make it a contender – especially since its home is the state’s capital.

The 2007 big attraction was SPECIAL, a film directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore and starring Michael Rapaport as a man whose medication leads him to believe he has super powers. The film won the Special Jury Award. The Outstanding Film Award went to THE ELEPHANT KING directed by Seth Grossman and produced by Emmanual Michael.

The festival also devotes screenings to non-fiction films discussing environmental issues via its VISIONS program. Films this year included DISCOVER HETCH HETCHY, narrated by Harrison Ford, that tells the tragic story of Yosemite Valley's “lost twin” - a magnificent valley that was dammed and flooded under 300 feet of water for use as a reservoir, and HOW CUBA SURVIVED PEAK OIL, which won the festival’s award for Best Documentary.

However, it was probably the 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL which drew the largest crowd. This sort of event is popping up all over festivals now. It is a competition where groups of filmmakers make a short film in two days.

Sixteen ten-minute films were entered in this competition – all of which were screened at the CREST - Sacramento’s last picture palace, an art deco theater which opened in 1948 after completely remodeling its predecessor, the Hippodrome.

I judged the 48 HOUR FILM FESTIVAL (which only took about three hours) along with two lovely ladies. I was joined by local casting director Sally Forcier and story editor Donie A. Nelson. While some of the films suffered from the lack of production time, a few rose to the challenge. To even out the competition, each group chose a genre from a hat, and each film had to feature a Sacramento location, a flag, the name “Stella Starlight” and the line of dialogue, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” which was lifted from STAR WARS.

The winning short was MERCY, a story about a terminally ill woman and her husband who torture a man to motivate him into killing them both. Filmmakers Erik Espera and Ryan Todd chose the genre “romance” out of the hat and thought it presented all sorts of possibilities. Leaning toward the darker side of the genre (like ROMEO AND JULIET), the group started brainstorming immediately. However, with too many Indians (and not enough chiefs), Ryan took over the writing duties and completed the script at 4am Saturday morning, only to lose it all in a computer mishap. Having to rewrite it from memory, the team hastened the filmmaking process by using two directors and two cinematographers. The film was edited while the movie was still in production.

The team incorporated the campy line from STAR WARS in a clever, unobtrusive way. They went to the local CW affiliate and shot the popular anchor reading a phony news story, using the Obi-Wan Kenobi quote. The footage was shown on a TV set in the background of a convenience store.

The cast features Jason Bortz, Christina Marie, Brian Rife and Gary Amato. Bortz gave the best performance of all entries, which helped bolster the good production values and contribute to the win.

Other entries included HELL MARY, BLACK WIDOW and BLACKOUT, which was directed by Brandon Slazas and would have taken second place had there been a prize.

All those involved agreed that making a movie within a weekend is an amazing challenge and a great learning experience. Interested filmmakers should be on the lookout for local fests that might have similar competitions or even consider organizing one.

As always, I met with a group of writers to hear pitches and give feedback at the 24th Street Theater. It was a two-and-a-half hour session that included talking about concepts, story construction, marketability and the business in general.

Donie Nelson, former head of the legendary MGM Story Department, helped out and it was fun to hear her take. Afterwards, a group remained and we chatted for over an hour. One ardent filmmaker pitched a story of Cyrus the Great. In the vein of BRAVEHEART, it had some potential. Of course, I told him those sorts of stories are often developed within the studio and are usually a very tough spec sell. But he noted the difference between his epic and its predecessors: His story is a musical. To prove this, he presented a “sizzle reel,” which cost $20,000 to produce and featured a fully orchestrated musical score with singing and dancing. Think more in the tradition of Tazieh, not Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Despite my overall discomfort with traveling, I enjoy meeting new people and chatting about filmmaking and the creative process, and film festivals are a great place to discover and inspire new talent. I always have a wonderful time in Sacramento thanks to Marty and all the hospitable filmmakers. For those in the NorCal area, who don't get a chance to visit Los Angeles, perhaps we can rendezvous at the Crest next spring.

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