One of my favorite film genres is sci-fi mystery. It’s also a genre indie filmmakers have thrived at, which includes some of my favorites such as Never Let Me Go (2012), The Machine (2014), Ex Machina (2015), and one of my faves that screened at Twin Cities Film Fest in 2014, Time Lapse.
One of the most intriguing films that played at TCFF this year is a feature film debut by Canadian filmmaker Sasha Louis Vukovic. I had the pleasure of meeting Sasha as well as lead actress Teresa Marie Doran briefly during the film fest, but we didn’t get to connect for the interview until after.
Thanks to FC blogger Holly Peterson for the review and interview questions!
In the summer of 1929 -at the end of the golden age of exploration- an expedition of Ivy League University Botanists enter an uncharted forest on the North American frontier. Tasked to study the native flora, the students unearth a deadly organism and are soon in a fight with nature itself, where they must use their limited resources to understand, survive and escape the wild and terrifying forest that surrounds them.
FlixChatter review (courtesy of Holly Peterson):
A misunderstood villain is not a new idea. Excessive violence perpetrated at the hands of a gentle being goes back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the 1800s and I am sure I could come up with an earlier example if I weren’t so gosh darn tired right now.
Point is, that although audiences are used to villains being villainous, we also understand that sometimes a villain just doesn’t have the right tools to express their good will. Everyone would get along fine if they could just talk out whatever is bothering them.
But what happens when a dealer of death, a perpetrator of violence, is not just misunderstood, but completely oblivious? What if it isn’t even sentient?
That’s the story Flora chooses to explore.
A group of intrepid young scientists treks out to a secluded forest to study it, only to find that their point of contact has gone missing. As the scientists try to unravel the mystery of this disappearance, they also begin to study the forest, which they gradually realize is more dangerous than they anticipated. Flora builds a sense of creeping dread with an intense score and several one-off scenes of tempers flaring and traps being set that you can’t help but expect to snap whenever the score begins to build again.
My one quibble with the film is that it wants its audience to see that it is diverse and doesn’t trust us to notice without calling it to our attention. This is problematic because it really isn’t that diverse to begin with. Half of the characters are white males. The Asian character goes off on a weird, unnecessary tangent about his heritage. One of the female characters has a really awful emotional speech about how she’s “just a nurse” because “they” wouldn’t let her study. The other female character doesn’t even get to tell her own story – it is told by a man behind her back and is an annoying soapbox moment about how talented and unappreciated she is because other people in her field cannot see beyond her gender. There is nothing wrong with a character facing adversity because of their gender or their race, but when six people are stranded in a forest, that is probably the adversity we should focus on.
Of course, there were a couple “DON’T GO INTO THE DARK CREEPY HOUSE BY YOURSELF” variety moments, but I think that’s kind of par for the course as far as horror/suspense goes. Humans don’t always use their best judgment and for the most part I thought the “what are you thinking!?” moments felt pretty organic.
The actors’ performances are solid and it is a compelling experience to watch a group of people fight for their lives without fighting against anything. Definitely worth a watch!
Sasha Louis Vukovic is a filmmaker from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. A graduate of the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts, in Chicago, Illinois; his 2017 debut feature, Flora, won Best Feature Film at the London International Science Fiction Film Festival, and Best Original Screenplay at the Amsterdam International Film Festival.
Q: Where did the idea for the story come from?
The idea for the story came from my personal lack of knowledge about my ecosystem. I was amazed by how little I knew or understood about the Flora that surrounded and interacted with me everyday. So many people come and go through life subsisting and relying on Flora with very little thought of the life of those organisms. I was also fascinated with creating a non-malicious antagonist. A villain with no villainy. Something beautiful and strong.
Q: What was it like shooting a period piece on a budget?
It was excellent fun. And actually a great creative box within which to imagine and create. Every element of the script was written with budget/period in mind. So I actually found it to be quite an interesting puzzle. The period was far more boon than bane.
Q: What was the most challenging part of the shoot?
The most challenging part of the shoot was by far contending with Nature. As the entire film is shot outdoors, we dealt with bugs, rain, heat, wild rivers, storms and dense forests. In many moments it felt as if we as a team were on an expedition into a dense wild forest as well. Thankfully a little less toxic than in the film.
Q: What is it like writing a script about / acting against a non sentient “villain”?
Again, a wonderful challenge. Creating action sequences in which characters are ostensibly running from a stationary pursuer was intersting.
A lot of the film focuses on the eeriness of how silent the forest is, coupled with the mystery of what befell the past humans who inhabited it. That way, suggestion and ambiguity does a great job at allowing the audience to build up a monster in their heads.
Then, the key is creating a believably toxic environment, from which there is an immediate need to escape. Think about the urgency that befalls people during an earthquake or hurricane. Flora is about non-symbiosis, about what happens if we have to run from nature.
Q: How did you find your composer?
Our composer Nathan Prillaman is incredible. He was introduced to me by one of our lead actors/executive producers Dan Lin.
Nathan and Dan went to school together as kids and right around the time that we were hunting for our Composer, they ran into one another -for the first time in years- at a dim sum restaurant. It was fantastic luck, and lead to a great creative partnership.
Thanks Sasha for talking to us about your film!
For more info about the making of the film,
check out this article from Sound & Picture magazine:
There aren’t enough days in TCFF to post all the reviews. In fact, I still have a few more TCFF reviews coming your way next week, which will be interspersed with new release reviews such as Only The Brave, The Foreigner and The Snowman.
Thanks to TCFF blog contributor Andy Ellis for these reviews. Definitely something to check out when it’s released near you.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown review by Andy Ellis
If there is one thing that makes The Ballad of Lefty Brown stand out from other westerns it’s Bill Pullman‘s performance. The story itself is a different take on the revenge-type western, because the underdog takes center stage. Lefty Brown (Pullman) witnesses his partner get murdered in front of him, and vows to find the men responsible.
For a western it’s great. There’s plenty of gun fights and suspense to go around. And there are definitely scenes that allow the supporting cast to shine. Peter Fonda plays Edward Johnson, Brown’s partner, and does a great job with the limited screen time he has. Kathy Baker is great as his wife Laura playing a woman is suddenly dealing her husband’s death, keeping the farm going, and finding out who killed her husband. Tommy Flanagan shines as the hardened Federal Marshal Tom Harrah and a longtime friend of Johnson and Brown, who is still trying to overcome a tragedy from his past. Jim Caviezel and Diego Josef also have great supporting parts that make for very memorable scenes.
This, however, is Pullman’s film. If there ever was role that would should garner him some sort of acclaim from critics and awards voters, this would be it. He transforms into Brown, a sidekick with a who no one sees as someone who is capable of successfully avenging his partner’s death. He’s got a bad limp so he’s not always the smoothest at moving, may be mentally slow, and other peculiarties as well.
He overcomes all of that, with a few missteps along the way, with a determination to get justice for his friend. Even with everyone telling him someone else will take care of it, he’s going to get it done or die trying. Everyone can come along for the ride if they want.
Yes, the story is about revenege. But it’s also about one man with a really big heart. And despite all the obstacles in his way won’t even let the possibility of death get in the way of getting justice for his partner, a man who gave him everything.
Little Pink House Review by Andy Ellis
Academy Award-nominated actress Catherine Keener (Get Out, 40-Year-Old-Virgin) may find herself in the running again with Little Pink House. Adapted from the book Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict, it’s centered around Susette Kelo (Keener) and the events that led up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Kelo vs. City of New London. The decision allowed the government to bulldoze neighborhood property for the benefit of a multibillion-dollar corporation.
The story consists of many characters, but there are two that stand out the most: Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn who plays Charlotte Wells. She’s hired by the governor of Connecticut to convince the citizens of New London to let the government buy their homes. Tripplehorn delivers a great performance as Wells who is undeterred by any obstacles put in her way, but you still really hope she fails.
Keener, who resembles the real-life Kelo pretty well, delivers a great performance of a woman starting over. She just wants to be able to live in her home, but when Wells and the government try taking that away she’s determined, passionate, and rarely loses her composure.
These two women lead a talented supporting cast including Aaron Douglas, Miranda Frigon, and Callum Keith Rennie. They and many others all contribute special moments to the film.
The fact that this is a true story makes it that much more powerful. It’s a story about defiance, courage, and hope. Despite its outcome, this is a movie that have you cheering from your seat.
Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?
I’ve mentioned several times that my favorite parts about covering Twin Cities Film Fest is about discovering new films, filmmakers and talents. Well, one of my favorite discoveries in all three fronts comes courtesy of this coming-of-age drama, DARCY.
Gus Birney, the young starlet of TV’s “The Mist” (based on a story by Stephen King) is making her feature film debut in the independent narrative feature DARCY. DARCY marks the first narrative feature film debut for co-directors Heidi Philipsen-Meissner and Jon Russell Cring. In co-directing DARCY, both John and Heidi made it a priority to consider both gender viewpoints when interpreting the script and its characters’ behaviors, another factor not lost by the film’s cast. Most of the production’s crew was carried by women below and above the line. The film’s ensemble cast includes: Johnathan Tchaikovsky (“Keep The Change”), Paulina Singer (“The Intern”), David Thornton (“The Notebook”) and Bernadette Quigley (TV’s “Mr. Robot”). The 17-year-old newcomer is the daughter of veteran New York actors Reed Birney (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) and Constance Shulman (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”).
My review of the film:
Billed as “A girl’s awakening in the sunlight of harsh reality,” DARCY is a coming-of-age tale about an innocent teenage girl living with her parents in a seedy motel on the edge town who meets a stranger that changes her world.
The film presented the contrast between the unwholesome surrounding of her family business and Darcy’s innocence and being so sexually ‘green.’ Casting is so important in any film, but especially a film like this where it hinges on the believability of the protagonist. Fortunately Gus Birney did a fine job and you’re immediately taken with her as she attempts to navigate her life without much guidance from her parents. We see the world through Darcy’s eyes, and frankly in this world there’s really no good role model for a young woman. Even her mother at times behaves inappropriately with seductive male costumers coming to her motel. One thing her mom said to her is one every teen should take to heart however… “Don’t be in such a rush to be grown up. It’s not what you think it’ll be.”
The film gets more interesting with the arrival of a stranger… a brooding young writer Luke whom Darcy takes an immediate liking to. I like the moment of their meet-up, innocently enough when she was working the front desk and he came down to borrow a pencil sharpener. The chemistry between the two leads, Birney and Johnathan Tchaikovsky, is palpable. It’s fun to watch them being drawn to each other but each hesitate to get too close. The film takes its time to reveal just what’s really going on with Luke, which adds to the mystery.
Sustaining the motel is the practice of taking in occupants who have until only recently been incarcerated, an arrangement that Darcy’s parents have arranged with the Department of Corrections for a price. Naturally there are unsavory scenes in this seedy operation, but they’re not gratuitous. I have to say I’m not fond of those scenes but they’re there to serve a purpose, to fully understand the world Darcy lives in. Kudos to co-director Heidi Philipsen-Meissner who had to wear multiple hats as a performer as well in the role of Toni. I also think the scenes between Darcy and Luke, the heart of the story, is beautifully-shot and acted.
The film takes place over one Summer. It’s an honest, realistic portrait of an innocent young woman on the brink of adulthood. Don’t expect a neat resolution tied with a big red bow, because often times, life just doesn’t turn out that way either.
Q: Congrats on your debut feature film! What’s the inspiration behind this project and how much of the story was inspired by real life?
JON: I think when you start from real life and then expand upon it you can find a really cool alchemy in writing. I lived in a motel for over a year and my wife and co-writer has brought a lot of her personal family experiences. Then you stop judging your characters and see where they take you.
Q: Looks like you changed the name from This Is Nowhere to Darcy, what’s the reasoning for the title change?
HEIDI: I think it was just part of our journey along the way. When I started making this first feature, it was with the idea of making it for a super micro budget on a weekend with friends in the biz… and, thus, the title THIS IS NOWHERE felt especially real… almost like a rallying cry… and had to do with the location of where our main character, Darcy, lived and the place that she was in the world: Nowhere. But as the journey of making this film continued, and I worked with one of my mentors Larry Jackson (Mystic Pizza) and Jeff Dowd (aka The Dude) in getting it out there to test audiences prior to completing the final edit, it became evident that the title THIS IS NOWHERE, did not fully encompass the center of the story. Darcy may have felt like she was “nowhere,” and we wanted to take the audiences on that journey through “nowhere,” but, truly, in the end, it was about DARCY… this girl on the cusp of womanhood, who would most definitely not stay “nowhere” in her life.
Q: What makes DARCY different than other coming-of-age films or those dealing with youth growing up?
JON: I grew up on great coming of age films but there always seemed to be this escapism of trying to create your own world outside of adult influence. Sort of the Charlie Brown syndrome. My experience growing up is that your life and decisions are dominated by those older than you. Everybody in this film is trying to get by, but it all comes from a self-centered place. That tends to lead to dark conclusions. Darcy isn’t a simple story, but neither is life.
HEIDI: The majority of coming-of-age that I have seen, i.e. Stand By Me, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Anne of Green Gables…. Have either been more about the coming of a young male’s life, or very rose-colored and about the coming-of-age about a young female as directed, editing and created by a male. Those are very different eyes and things you focus on… the male gaze versus the female gaze. And, honestly, in many ways, I often most thought about the story of “Lolita,” only we’ve completely turned Lolita on its head and made it about seeing the world through Lolita’s eyes if we could.
Further, this film does not steer clear of those unfortunate experiences that youth sometimes witnesses when the responsible adult is nowhere to be found. (If anything, it’s a wake-up call to our society that we are not connecting to our young ones and losing our sense of connection to those in our communities who don’t necessarily “fit in.”)
Many films try to do the opposite – pretend that all is perfect in the world in spite of life’s hardships. But this one looks at the resiliency of a girl who refuses to be a passive bystander in her own life, even though she has to behave like one to keep the adults in her world from getting on her case even more.
Q: How did you end up collaborating together as directors and what has the experience been like?
JON: We admired each other’s singular creative projects so collaboration made sense. It also is a story that needs multiple voices, male and female, to tell it. It has been a fabulous process.
HEIDI: In what the big film industry meccas of NYC and LA consider “nowhere” – upstate NY – Jon and I saw talent in each other and the drive and passion to want to do more. Though we are both Type A personalities in our own ways, we found that the fact that we were bringing two different genders together as directors to create the fully equal perspective in our film made the collaboration all the more exciting, fulfilling and eye-opening, while allowing both of our voices to be heard.
Q: Heidi, you also had a supporting role in the film. How does acting in the film help you tell the story as a filmmaker?
HEIDI: When you get into the skin of one of a complex character like, TONI, who is, in effect, both a prostitute, but also a mother and wife, you have to do a lot of research grounded in reality to understand her. You just get so much closer to the creative, evolutionary process of exploring the emotions, the forces driving her, as well as what is holding her back.
You can’t fake those emotions – at least, I can’t. And understanding TONI –who was, in essence, a “Darcy” without a safety net who never left “nowhere,” but fell in through hard times, sex abuse, violence, drug use, probably mental illness, desperation and, ultimately, only had one thing keeping her going: the love for her child, Peanut—was a huge part of unlocking the key to the rest of the characters for me as a director.
When I act and direct, this experience does two things for me: First, it keeps me grounded in what my fellow actors have to go through and ensures that I respect their process (because I am going through the same thing), it bonds me closer to them, and, second, it gets my head in the game as a director as to what the story is all about… grounding me in the truth of the imaginary circumstances.
And – okay, I lied – there are three reasons – lastly, it enables me to do something with all of that emotion and energy I am processing as a director. When you are a director, it is more of an analytical process than emotional… and I love being able to go through the full journey to bond with my fellow actors, while steering the “directorial ship” as well.
Q: I’m really drawn by the relationship between Darcy and Luke. Could you tell us a bit about casting Gus and Johnathan specifically?
HEIDI: First off, I have to give props to our Casting Director Caroline Sinclair – I met her while coordinating and working with her on several features prior to producing and directing my own and I never dreamed that she would say “yes.” But when I approached her with the script, she loved it from the beginning and was one of my biggest supporters as both a producer and director.
Caroline is the one who said, “I think you REALLY have a special script, here. Don’t rush this. Give it time and when you are ready, let’s cast it with some great actors.” And she did just that.
Finding “Darcy,” was no easy task. She had to be able to portray that very special age of 15… you know, we are different, much different, developmentally at 15 than we are… even a year later..
And even when my Executive Producer Kathryn McDermott was urging me, “Don’t cast a child. It’ll be brutal on our schedule, our budget and the expectations of working with child labor laws,” I couldn’t help but see something in Gus that we hadn’t seen in the 18-year-olds coming in. It was that naïve innocence, but also that “I’m becoming an adult and I will conquer the world!”
We girls do think that way – you know—until, unfortunately, as we get older and we are told that we are only special in how we help to define a man in our lives.
I also want to give props to Tracy Nicole Cring… she is the Co-Writer, Director of Photography and Muse of Darcy. I believe, deep down, that she is the original Darcy… Tracy, Jon and I had gone over and over in our creative visualization of art works and styles of the way we saw Darcy.
And so, when Gus walked in, tall, lanky, a bit like a dear-in-headlights, on the one hand, somehow evoking an old English painting, like John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, yet fully modern with an undercurrent of tough-girl faith in her dreams, maybe it was subconscious from all the prep we had done, but something just “clicked.” That was it. She WAS Darcy.
As an aside, Kathryn McDermott, who teaches Production Management at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and was my teacher and mentor in film school, tells me that she now has a “caveat” when it comes to teaching her students. The case of Gus Birney and “Darcy” is the only one, she says, where it went “right;” otherwise, she still advises against hiring children on your first feature on a low budget.
In the case of Johnathan Tchaikovsky, who plays “Luke,” that was truly magically, as well. We had done several castings by that time and were, originally, looking for a character with a southern accent, most likely from Tennessee, and the rest of the look – i.e. cowboy hat, boots, torn jeans….
And then, right at the very end, one of the last to be seen, in walks this guy from the Bronx, who reminded me of a young Robert DeNiro, yet had something very zen like Richard Gere in “A Master and a Gentleman.” I’ve never experienced it until that day – this actor literally came in and TOOK that role. He owned it. There was no one else who could do it or WANTED it as much as he did.
And I’m happy to report that both actors were so committed from day ONE. They never backed down or gave us any reason to regret casting them.
JON: Gus Birney is a star. When she came in we knew there was something truly special there. Jonathan reminds of me of a young Brando and their chemistry together was palpable. These characters are struggling with appetites and they break your heart. Their relationship is complicated and evolves and I am also struck by the depth these actors brought.
Q: The nature photography is really beautiful, it’s as if it’s a deliberate juxtaposition to the seedy motel setting. Where’s the filming location?
HEIDI: Again, that was a deliberate action. In partnering with Tracy, our Director of Photography, and all of the creative visuals that we had accumulated to emulate a certain look, we came up with this idea of making the interiors feel so uninviting, cramped, crowded, dreary, lonely, even a bit frightening… while the outdoors would be the opposite: inviting, free, full of life, hope, peace of mind. I have to give kudos to the entire team for making that happen.
We shot the film on location at the Catskill Mountain Lodge in Palenville, NY and in downtown Catskill, NY. Gorgeous – gorgeous countryside there.
JON: We shot in the Catskill region of New York. Tracy Cring as Cinematographer wanted that feeling of two worlds. Where Darcy lives is so completely different from the beauty once you exit the motel. The grass is definitely greener outside.
Q: Lastly, this film is brutally honest and doesn’t have a perfect ending tied w/ a big red bow. What is the main thing you like people to take away from the film?
HEIDI: Not sure if you read my blog in the Huffington Postthis past week, but that pretty much sums it up. For me, as a women director, I did not want a “happy bow” ending – and that’s certainly not what Jon and Tracy wrote as co-writers.
As an aside, I will admit that we DID try it after being advised from outside sources – re-edited the entire ending and made it “happy,” –but it didn’t work; our test audiences were too smart and knew that it just didn’t feel right. They rejected it.
And these days, in the wake of the Weinstein sexual harassment cases, I guess you could call it a disruptive innovation statement very true to current times: We women are not going to pretend that our world is rosy when it is not. And the men who respect and love us don’t want us to. At some point, something needs to be said about how we are forced to keep a smile on our face while enduring harassment and abuse and discrimination. But that means facing the flaws and the struggle NOW.
Darcy’s future may very well be rosy – but not just yet.
JON: I really believe it’s a message of empathy. Caring is a political act nowadays. When you live with these extremely flawed people I hope you can feel something for someone who is struggling. It’s easy to box people up and say this is all they will ever be. This film turns those conventions around. As far as the ending, I find tragedy doesn’t come obviously. We survive our own mistakes.
So much fun meeting the DARCY cast/crew!
Even after getting off the plane, Johnathan was in a jovial mood
Heidi, Johnathan & Jon took a fun selfie
It was so much fun meeting Heidi, Jon and Johnathan at their hotel. It’s palpable Heidi and John had an effortless rapport as they could practically finish each other’s sentences. As we’re about to wrap up on our interview, Johnathan arrived from the airport! What a lovely bunch, definitely one of the highlights covering TCFF for me this year.
The 8th annual fun-filled cinematic marathon has officially wrapped last night with yet another festive closing night party.
Pardon the lack of post yesterday as it was literally an extremely jam-packed day and I’ve also been hit with a bit of a cold and cough. Every single TCFF staff and volunteers pretty much ran on adrenaline around the 11-day film fest, but hey, time still flew when you’re having a great time!
The best part of covering TCFF is discovering new films, filmmakers, and talents. And boy, just in the last two days of the fest, I saw three of my top 5 films…
The three films may seem very different on the outset in terms of setting and plot, but they actually have similar themes of letting go of the past, growing up and celebrating life for what it is. The female-led Instructions For Living, directed by Sarah Heinss based on a script by Heinss and Morgan Owens, deservedly won the Audience Award for narrative feature.
Writer/Director/Actress Sarah Heinss, Writer/Actress Morgan Owens, Actor Drew Paslay, and Producer Maggie Hart were at the red carpet, interviewed by our host Amanda Day, on the first screening of the film on Saturday 10/21.
Two of my fave films starred this year’s Indie Vision Breakthrough Award recipient Josh Wiggins, who’s absolutely phenomenal in both films, playing the teenage son of Matt Bomer in Walking Out and J.K. Simmons in The Bachelors. This 18-year-old young man certainly showed an incredible range as well as screen presence. I think people will hear more of him in the future and I’m glad to say I first saw Josh at TCFF and got to talk to him a bit at the after party.
Here he is being interviewed by one of our awesome hosts Rachel Weber before the Walking Out screening:
On the festival’s closing day, TCFF also honored actress, and Minnesota native, Rachael Leigh Cook (who’s the lead in the modern adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the festival’s coveted North Star Award.
On Saturday I started the day with learning from great filmmakers!
Two of those filmmakers’ films are one of the finalists for Best Feature Film award, Alex and Andrew Smith for Walking Out and Kurt Voelker for The Bachelors.
TCFF announced its 2017 award winners Saturday evening, recognizing films in ten top categories. The 11-day event showcased more than 140 titles — 60% of which were directed by women — and facilitated a broader conversation around the social cause of addiction (our theme for this year’s Changemaker Series)
The full list of 2017 award winners:
Best Feature Film: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” directed by Martin McDonagh.
Best Documentary: “Human Flow,” directed by Ai Weiwei
Best Short Film: “Cat Killer,” directed by Wes Jones.
Audience Award, Narrative: “Instructions For Living,” directed by Sarah Heinss (Runner-Up: “Aquarians,” directed by Michael M. McGuire)
Audience Award, Non-Fiction: “Coyote,” directed by Thomas Simmons (Runner-Up: “Victor’s Last Class,” directed by Brendan Brandt)
Audience Award, Short Film: “Hearts Want,” directed by Jason P. Schumacher (Runner-Up: “Wet Dreams: One Woman’s Chance at Touching Gold,” directed by Darren Coyle)
Indie Vision Breakthrough Award — Narrative: Madelyn Deutch (screenplay, “The Year of Spectacular Men”)
Indie Vision Breakthrough Award — Non-Fiction: “8 Borders, 8 Days,” directed by Amanda Bailly
Indie Vision Breakthrough Award – Best Performance: Josh Wiggins (“The Bachelors” and “Walking Out”)
Fun Is Good Bill Murray Comedic Shorts Award: “Lady Lillian,” directed by Amber Johnson
North Star Award for Excellence: Rachael Leigh Cook
TCFF 2017 Changemaker Award: Lexi Reed Holtum, executive director and lobbyist of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, for her work advocating on behalf of Steve’s Law and the 2015 state funding that enabled first responders to have the resources they need to implement the law.
Congrats to ALL of the TCFF 2017 winners!!
You can watch the video of the awards ceremony on FB by clicking the image below (the LIVE video cannot be embedded here)
Of course THIS was the biggest surprise of the night… at least for me!
Apparently the TCFF Award Finalists were announced on Friday 10/27 afternoon, but I didn’t check it until much later. To be a finalist amongst these great short films is just unbelievable… I’m still pinching myself!!
Best Short Film: “Afterword,” directed by Boris Seewald; “Cat Killer,” directed by Wes Jones; “Hearts Want,” directed by Jason P. Schumacher; “Resolutions,” directed by Tamara Fisch; and “Sundogs,” directed by Elizabeth Chatelain.
We didn’t win Best Short but as you can see in the picture above, we did win the Audience Award, woot woot!! That’s a second one for our director Jason P. Schumacher, his short film Sad Clown won the Audience Award in 2014.
I was a nervous wreck on the red carpet as you can see below… but hey I survived 😉 Check out Jason’s blue hair for Halloween, inspired by X-Men’s Mystique!
I’m so thrilled to have my dear friend & Hearts Want‘s lead actress Sam Simmons in town for the main TCFF premiere! She flew in from L.A. just hours before the red carpet and looked stunning as ever. So fun seeing Sam reunited w/ her co-stars Peter Christian Hansen and Noah Gillet last Thursday. I gotta say our short film’s cast are VERY easy on the eyes aren’t they? And they’re all so darn talented and fun to work with, too!
Here are some of the pics from Hearts Want‘s red carpet on Thursday night. Thanks to Dallas Smith, TCFF’s lead photographer for some of the photos.
With my dearest friend Vony & her daughter Chloe who’re extras in the film
‘Lily’ & ‘Jacques’ reunited briefly on the red carpet
Associate shorts programmer Angela Andrist joined us on the red carpet
With TCFF’s lead photographer Dallas Smith
I couldn’t have done HW without my husband & co-producer Ivan
With makeup artist Petra Riedel, Sam & producer Kirsten Gregerson
With HW’s oh-so-easy-on-the-eyes cast
I LOVE our amazing team!!
With HW’s lead actress Sam Simmons
The cast had a laugh just before the interview went live
See the recap of TCFF festivities in images
(again thanks Dallas & team) in Smugmug.
Well the film fest may be over but I’ve still got a few more reviews I’ll be posting in the coming weeks (Ruin Me, Flora,Walking Out, The Bachelors, etc.) as well as my interviews with the filmmakers from Darcy, actor Adam Ambruso, and more!). For a daily recap with reviews/interviews, etc., check out the TCFF page.
We have passed the halfway mark! What a hectic, whirlwind week it has been. I spoke to TCFF Managing Director Bill Cooper the other day and he said something about all the staff having ‘festival brain’ and that’s definitely how I feel. I’ve watched so many films it’s kind of a blur!
Thankfully I have awesome guest bloggers to help me out… such as Sarah Johnson who’s helped me with reviews of the short films, as well as the Legends of the Road documentary. Being a huge baseball fan, that’s the one Sarah couldn’t wait to see!
So here are her reviews:
Full disclosure: I am a big baseball fan and love the game’s history so am not the most unbiased person to review “Legends of the Road” and therefore I will not be giving it a rating. However, as soon as I saw this movie on the schedule I knew I wanted to see it. As a reviewer often has to see and objectively review movies that may not be appealing to them personally, I felt the opposite could also be true.
The film itself is well done, directed and edited by award-winning documentarian Gary Thomsen, who also happens to be a former Seattle teacher. It tells the extraordinary story of Thomsen’s students from Chief Sealth High School in Washington and their classroom project: to uncover the history of barnstorming, a baseball phenomenon from the early 20th century where all black teams traveled throughout the country playing in money tournaments against local white town teams for a cut of the gate. The project then culminated in a summer long re-creation of this era with a 5,100 mile, 71 day trip done on bicycle while playing 33 games along the way.
These ballplayers (some may have heard of the most famous ones including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson because they also played in the more well known Negro Leagues) helped dispel the notion of white supremacy, not just on the field, but in society, leading Martin Luther King to say that “they laid down the first plank in the civil rights movement.” This is where the film really shines – the story is about much more than baseball. Former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil, who came to national prominence with his vivid descriptions of black baseball in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary “Baseball,” is also one of the stars of this film. “This is about the history of our country,” O’Neil says at one point.
One of the other large aspects to the film is another thing that is not new: adults underestimating what kids can accomplish and bureaucrats not in classrooms dictating how students should be taught. “This is not part of the curriculum, nor is it part of anything I’ve seen in vocational education. I don’t understand why you want to do this,” June Rimmer, the chief academic officer for Seattle Public Schools, said. I’d like to check back with the students involved in this project in 20 years and hear their memories on their breadth of work that was “not part of the curriculum.”
For this project, students conducted all of the research, honed public speaking skills to make presentations to companies in the hopes of securing sponsors for the trip, managed logistics of food, lodging and game preparation…as well as shot footage to be used in the documentary. There were two distinct groups of students involved with the trip – those on the logistics and production side and the baseball players who rode bicycles from town to town (often covering more than 100 miles per day) and then played in games throughout the trip. “It was incredibly challenging logistically,” Thomsen says at one point. Gee, you think? At one point I began to wonder if young people could have been the only ones to pull this off – the movie doesn’t mention anything about how (if at all) the bike riders went about training for this adventure. Perhaps that’s something you don’t need to worry about when you’re in high school – oh, to be young again.
The film is very comprehensive in covering all aspects of the project, from the origination of the idea to the celebration at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City at the end of the trip. Just because I’m a fan of baseball history, the one thing that left me wanting more was the end product of all of the research – where did all of that information end up? I’m assuming it was sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame but even a mention of this at the end of the film would have helped. Baseball fans will certainly appreciate “Legends of the Road” but other audiences should also enjoy this addition to our nation’s ongoing conversation on race and education.
SHORT FILMS reviews
“Humbug,” the short film highlighting those with no holiday spirit, will appeal to those who greet that time of the year with dread. As I am one of those people, I appreciated the premise of this seven minute piece. When Scarlet (Jessee Foudray) crushes a gingerbread cookie offered by her peppy neighbor Betty (Milly Sanders, also the writer), Betty decides to embark on a series of steps worthy of a horror film to change her mind. “We’ll have to do this the hard way,” Betty calmly tells Scarlet.
The scenario is well played by both actresses and the mix of over-the-top Christmas imagery and ghastly bodily functions will satisfy those who have had enough December cheer to last a lifetime. The ending was a little too convenient for me but overall this short film is an entertaining one.
Girl Meets Roach
I have reviewed full length and short films for the Twin Cities Film Fest for several years and sometimes I come across a piece of work that I’m not sure if it was meant to be reviewed. Such is the case with “Girl Meets Roach,” the 17 minute short film by brother and sister team Alison Zatta (Writer and Lead Actress) and Christopher Zatta (Director). In his bio, Christopher writes that he formed King Fish Productions as a platform to write and direct independent material.
I can only hope that they are using “Girl Meets Roach” as practice to hone their skills. The premise and execution of this story are entirely cliché – girl gets dumped by her boyfriend, we cut to obligatory scenes of her listening to old messages while moping around her house, the best friend comes over, the jilted girlfriend plans revenge…it just goes on. I appreciate the role of film festivals to support new work by independent artists and hope “Girl Meets Roach” was merely a practice turn to get experience in this field.
Describing “Afterword,” Director and Co-Writer Boris Seewald explains it as “A film about loneliness, self-discovery and one person’s pursuit of glory. It examines not only the wider journey of appreciation, but also the need to be heard by those who love and loved you, and the need to be heard by yourself.” Lofty goals for a ten minute short film.
What follows is a woman (Marama Corlett) bringing you into her world of philosophical ramblings on…well, pretty much anything. (One line in this film is “if you are a bird, watch where you poop.” I am not making this up.) The only highlight is the performance by Corlett – with her pageboy haircut, red beret and piercing stare she admirably draws you into her stream of consciousness. The rest of it still has me baffled.
“Tagati” Director Bill Haley is upfront about his short film being a sort of trailer for a feature film based on the concept presented at the Twin Cities Film Fest. “The Sopranos” in a roadside diner is how I thought of the opening scene, as Aja (LaTonya Grant) meets with a hitman named only as Badass (Mark Simms) to do away with her husband.
It’s a peek into a stylish film noir thriller complete with pulsating music and expert direction. Trailers are supposed to get audiences interested and excited to see the full length movie – this piece certainly succeeded.
“It’s not just a piece of cheese.” While there have been negative consequences about the advent of the internet and social media, one of the fun things has been the ability for people skilled in a particular niche to connect with others who share their passion. Such is the case in “Marieke,” the seven minute short film by Director/Editor Thomas Johnson, who profiles acclaimed Dutch gouda cheesemaker Marieke Penterman from Thorp, Wisconsin.
I am not a cheese connoisseur but I can relate to one’s appreciation for the finer aspects of a certain hobby or profession. (I am a big baseball fan and could spend all day talking about it.) Penterman cheerfully takes you into her cheese adventures, explaining how her cows have personality and the process that goes into hand painting a skin around the yellowish rounds to preserve it but still let it breathe. “Marieke” was a refreshing look into her world.
High school was a long time ago for me so watching films like “Science Olympiad” give me hope for the next generation. It not only features teenage students, it was also made by a teenage student, 17 year old Elise Tsai from the Twin Cities. She focuses on an extra curricular activity in which teams of 15 students compete in 23 events involving science, technology and engineering. The film focuses on Mounds View High School (a suburb of Minneapolis) and their incredibly successful team – winner of 11 state championships and five consecutive top ten finishes in the nation.
“You have to spend a lot of time looking up parts, trying them out and if it doesn’t work you have to try it again,” one student says. Seems like the work you need to put into anything in life to succeed. (Indeed, at the end of the film it notes that one of the participants is going to be studying Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.) Although their creations are fascinating, the kids are really the stars of the show and their positive energy and enthusiasm is infectious. As one student says, “at its core, it’s just fun.”
What a delight this film was on a familiar but rarely highlighted craft! In “Double Talk,” director Jessica Bernstein-Wax features the work of Spanish actor Joan Pera, who has worked as an onscreen dubber for famous actors, most notably Woody Allen. Often denigrated as the ugly stepchild in the film industry, it’s clear Pera takes pride in his craft, especially in the scenes with his son who also works in the same line of work.
He and his son enjoy a friendly rivalry when the father is called in to dub some of his son’s work. “There’s always room for improvement,” the son says, critiquing the job his father did. “In my case it’s hard,” the father replies. I don’t speak Spanish (or Catalan, the regional dialect also featured) but, having seen many Woody Allen films, it’s amazing how Pera replicates Allen’s voice intonation and mannerisms. Bernstein-Wax’s first film has been well received, garnering the Jury Award for Best Short Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival earlier this year. I can see why.
The Courtesy of Angels
Created by a French filmmaker, Valerie Theodore, “The Courtesy of Angels” has taken a universal story around the world. It tells the story of Louise (Delphine Theodore), a young caretaking assistant, and her interactions with an amnesic old man, Mr. Vadim (Andre Oumansky). This short film is in French with English subtitles.
The theme of interconnectedness among generations is global and I found myself drawn to one of the movie’s main lines – “well being is the courtesy of angels.” Theodore ably highlights the fragility of life and good health, something that translates in any language.
Tourvall II: Into the darkness
I’ve said before in doing reviews on short films that sometimes I’m amazed how filmmakers are able to create a fully developed plot in under ten minutes. At only seven minutes, at first I felt that Writer/Director Sean Skinner’s “Tourvall II: Into the Darkness” was taking too long to get to the point. After watching the entire piece, I came to the conclusion that there isn’t a point. But to the film’s credit, that didn’t make it any less entertaining.
We see Sven Skarnestad (Mick Karch) visiting former pro wrestler Tourvall “The Terrible” Johannsen (Joe Berglove) on his deathbed and reliving some of his past glory. The film aptly spoofs the crazy world of professional wrestling and the interjection of Jorge Gundersen (Edward Linder), an eager convalescent home employee, was an unexpected and amusing touch. (As Sven is sitting bedside, Jorge hands him a brochure and says, “Please take a moment to fill out the survey. We would love to your Yelp review. We’re also on the Twitter: #notjustaplacetodie.”) Silliness for sure, but what’s wrong with that?
Hearts Want’s premiere
Hearts Want‘s main TCFF premiere is today, Thursday 10/26 at 5pm (with red carpet interview at 4:30). There are a few tickets left for tonight, but act fast before they’re gone. Click on the banner below to get tickets.
Coming up tomorrow…
Two Minnesota-connected films are playing back-to-back tomorrow night… Twin Cities is actually produced by the director of Hearts Want, Jason P. Schumacher!
Stay tuned for interviews with writer/director of Twin CitiesDavid Ash and one of the main actors of Ruin Me, Alex Galick.
Thanks to FC blog staff Laura Schaubschlager for conducting the interview with writer/director Michael Ferrell. I figure since her name is Laura and she has a cat, it’d be fun for her to watch the film and ask the interview questions 🙂
Laura Gets A Cat is a fun, relatable movie that makes some creative choices with the ‘young person trying to find direction and purpose’ storyline.
Laura is a talented yet unsuccessful writer in her early 30’s living in New York City. She has a boyfriend who provides little excitement. Her two best friends who seem to have achieved all their hopes and dreams, if only to spite her. Good thing she lives mostly inside her head, daydreaming about all the wonderful things happening in her imaginary life. After she starts an affair with Ian, the performance artist and local barista, real life proves too complicated. She packs up a suitcase and moves to a small beach town in North Carolina. Even as she gets involved with some guy who lives on a mattress in his buddy’s garage, she hopes that Ian will bolt from his life in New York and chase her down. Through this series of troubled relationships and disconnected friendships, Laura learns that peace of mind is not necessarily found by chasing it.
Q: How much of this movie, if any, is inspired by real-life experiences?
The best way to explain it is: all of it. And none of it. It’s totally fiction. What’s most inspired by real life are the themes explored in the film. Laura and the people around her are in their 30’s mostly and dealing with the things that people in their 30’s are dealing with. There’s a thing I’ve heard often for writers; make it specific and truthful and it will be relatable. I strive for that. But still it’s all made-up make-believe.
Q: Why did you choose Wisconsin as Laura’s home state? How do you feel having a character who is a Midwestern transplant in NYC resonates with audiences?
Interesting that you picked up on that because it’s just mentioned in one line! Here’s the thought process when I’m making up something like that, my inner monologue as I remember it:
Hmmm, her childhood was probably somewhere specific. But not southern. Not California. Somewhere midwestern. But she threw off her accent a long time ago. She never quite fit in or felt at home. Somewhere she wanted to leave behind, but also somewhere that was encouraging, stimulating in some way. Maybe somewhere she took for granted. How about Wisconsin?
And there ya go, she was from Wisconsin. Also when I was younger I dated a couple girls from Wisconsin so maybe it was just that.
Q: The soundtrack for this film is excellent. What kind of work went into choosing which songs to include? What kind of music did you look for regarding creating a tone for the movie?
Thanks! The music we use in the film is entirely musicians that we know personally. We have my friend Melvyn Brown playing guitar and singing a song in the film. My friend Jeff Laughlin’s voice running throughout the film. David Mosey, who is friends with Chris Prine, our editor and co-producer. And Devin Sanchez, co-producer and actor, found the closing credits song from a friend in our neighborhood in Jersey City who heard the young woman playing on the subway platforms!
Even the background music in the various locations are all friends’ songs. So being able to collaborate with them and take their music around the country is a real honor for us.
Chris Prine is also the music supervisor. So the credit is his. He was also editor and music supervisor for our first film “Twenty Million People,” also featuring some great music. (Which you can watch online now: twentymillionpeople.com).
I think maybe the music fits the tone of the movie because it’s a lot of indie rock ballads. And if our film were a song, it would be an indie rock ballad. It’s probably just that simple.
And if it were a style of craft beer, I’d say it was a pale ale. Not too hoppy, but not super light either. I can think of these all day, this is fun.
Q: At the beginning of the film, Laura vents to her friend Heidi about how people seem to expect her to be more stable, exclaiming “I don’t even have a cat!” Why does having a cat represent stability or direction?
Well, it’s probably the first step for a lot of people, right? Being able to take care of a cat is like the bare minimum of adult responsibility. There’s also a line in the film that explicitly states that adulthood is NOT “steps on a ladder, like this, this, this, then this.” But if it were steps on a ladder, it might go:
Move in together
Of course some people just don’t like pets. Or kids. Or houses. Or marriage. So there is no normal, and that’s definitely one of the themes of the film. But just because there is no normal doesn’t mean that when the time is right, one shouldn’t embrace these, or other, aspects of adulthood. Ah, the things people in their 30’s are thinking about.
Q: In addition to writing and directing Laura Gets a Cat, you also co-star as Ian, the coffee shop manager with whom Laura has a relationship. Did you write the role specifically intending to portray it yourself, or did you consider casting someone else first?
It was the easiest role to cast! No, actually, it’s kind of hard to explain how I write for myself as an actor. But I’ll try anyway.
I always intended to play the role of “Ian” after I wrote the screenplay. But usually, if I’m writing something and think “This could be a part for me,” I’m not glued to that idea. I could keep writing and it evolves into, “Oh, actually this part would be better for my friend Josh,” or Ryan Gosling, or whomever.
Even after writing though, it doesn’t mean that the role is cast. Along with Devin and Chris, we have to make sure we’re objectively making the best decisions for the film. (Ryan Gosling is always the best decision).
But I grew up as an actor and have been acting in my own work for almost 20 years, so for me it seems natural. This will sound really pretentious but it’s how I express myself, artistically. I write and I act. A lot of my role models; Woody Allen, Ed Burns, Julie Delpy, Spike Lee, they write and they act in their movies. Not out of vanity or because they think no other actor could do it, but because that is how they tell stories, for whatever reason.
Laura Gets A Cat is playing at Twin Cities Film Fest on
Wednesday October 25th – 5:10 PM
If you haven’t got your tickets yet, get it here
Saturday was a jam-packed day for me. I’m bummed that I missed the early Filmmaker Brunch as I wasn’t feeling well so I overslept (hey bloggers are humans too!), but my morning started with two great film panels, part of TCFF’s freeEducational Programs!
The first panel was on Making, Distributing, Marketing & Watching: What’s the Impact of Digital? at 11:00am
Like many industries, the business of TV and Film distribution is certainly changing due to digital – whether you’re watching on your phone or tablet, dropping the cable package, making a web series or seeing a film online at the same time it’s in theaters…the landscape is shifting quickly.
I learned quite a few things from this very insightful panel… these are just small sampling:
Don’t create films in a vacuum
Make a beautiful film you believe in and passionate about, but also marketable
Marketing/PR is critical for film distribution even if your film is already on iTunes or some other platform, simply because most people don’t even know it’s there
The second panel is one I’ve been looking forward to as I’ve become a filmmaker myself this year…
Film Fatales in the Twin Cities
Members from the newest chapter of this global collective of female feature film directors discuss the power of collaboration in the fight for gender equality within the film industry.
It’s so inspiring to learn from Lisa Blackstone, Melissa Butts, Norah Shapiro,Missy Whiteman, and moderator Melody Gilbert. Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences making films, and for inspiring aspiring filmmakers like me to keep on keeping on and not to give up on my dream of making my feature film one day!
Here’s my quick thoughts on the two films I saw on Day 4…
This is the kind of heart-wrenching films that’s hard to watch at times, but you’re glad you did. Inspired by true events, it’s a story of a poverty-stricken young mother forced to move out of her condemned house. Anchored by a harrowing, bravura performance by Auden Thornton, the film transports you into her painful reality of a life and forces you to wake up from your comfortable confines of your own.
The protagonist single mother Angie can’t seem to catch a break… taking care of her toddler son and alcoholic, overbearing mother with only sixty five dollars to her name. Slowly it’s revealed she has been abused as a child. As if that wasn’t tough enough, she realized he’s the only person with money she felt she could turn to.
Writer/director Harris Doran made you truly empathize with Angie despite some of her questionable decisions. It’s a truly gritty, upsetting and even haunting film that made you want to scream for the injustices the character suffers.
Spoiler alert (highlight to read) One thing I wish I didn’t see was the topless scene towards the end, given the topic against abuse and sexual objectification of women. Yes perhaps it’s a deliberate choice of the filmmaker, but I feel that there are SO many ways to show what the character does/show without actually showing it to the audience. It’d still be just as impactful IMHO because the character (and likely the actress playing her) has gone through so much in the film. That’s just my honest personal opinion anyways, others might feel differently about this.
In any case, it’s a well-made, phenomenally-acted piece that should be seen. I sure hope to see Aiden in more films as she’s definitely one of the best actresses I’ve seen in my years of covering TCFF.
It’s October, so Winter is definitely coming soon. No, I’m not looking forward to snow at all, especially during my commute. But watching this film makes me appreciate just how beautiful is the Minnesota Wintry landscape. The film centers on a midwestern matriarchy guiding 12-year-old Florence through the rite-of-passage of her first deer hunt.
Bijou Abas plays the young protagonist and this is her feature film debut. I learned that she was in an episode of In An Instant with Hearts Want’s lead actor Peter Hansen back in 2016. I thought she did a wonderful job giving a reserved but assured performance, where most of the time she has to communicate only with her facial expression.
I have to say being that I’m not into hunting at all (can’t even hurt a squirrel!), all I had to avert my eyes during all the deer skinning scenes. The scene of Florence all alone in the woods after she killed her first deer is also tough to watch for me. The rite-of-passage story is nicely-told, as well as the multi-generation familial connections. The story is supposedly told from Florence’s point of view, but I find the film’s lacking a sharp focus. Apart from her aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner), the supporting characters didn’t seem fully fleshed out. At 104 minutes, I also think the editing could’ve been much tighter.
Overall it’s a gorgeous film with a quiet grace. Filmed in Hibbing, Northern Minnesota, at times the film is so beautiful it could double as a Wintry skiing resort commercial. Kudos to writer/director Karl Jacobs (who also played uncle Craig) for creating a compelling MN family drama with a strong young woman that many girls can aspire to. At the Q&A afterwards, Bijou seemed really delighted to play the lead role and sounds like she, as well as everyone in the cast/crew, enjoyed making this, too!
What’s in store for Day 6
Boy, Monday is jam-packed with a ton of amazing films!! Four strong documentaries – ABU, Legends of the Road, Purple Dreams and She Started It. There’s also three feature films, Blue Balloons, Butterfly Caught and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Day 3 of the Twin Cities Film Fest is actually quite a momentous one for me… If you know me well or have been following my blog and/or Facebook you might’ve guessed why.
I took the day off Friday because I knew it’s be quite an emotional day for me, showing my artistic baby, my passion project I’ve been working on the past year to the public for the first time. We had a private screening to the cast/crew and our close friends, but to actually seen it on the big screen in an actual theater is another thing entirely.
The moment the first scene came on screen, accompanied by the score… I went a bit verklempt, naturally. There weren’t many people in the theatre, which is typical for an early afternoon screening, but I’m so grateful to my friends, coworkers and even fellow bloggers who did come out and saw it… you know who you are, your support means a lot to me guys!
The Ties That Bind Us short block itself is chock full of wonderful relationship-themed films. Kudos to our short programmer Josh Dahlman and Angela Andrist for the awesome film selections! Of course I’m biased as to which is my favorite (hey you’re always going to think your baby is the cutest, right?) but I was truly impressed with all the films within this block: All That Was Broken, Head Above Water, Hearts Want, Heath Takes a Trip, Deadbeat, Resolutions, and Sundogs.
I really love Heath Takes a Trip, which is about a famous writer who suffers a breakdown and goes on a road trip with a stranger.It grabbed me right from the get go (which is quite a feat since it played right after my own film). It was emotional, funny, beautifully-shot, with a dreamy-like quality that has its own twist. It reminds me a bit of M Night Shyamalan’s Signs at times perhaps because of the corn fields, but also because it made you think one thing but it turns out to be another. I love Arch Harmon in the lead, as well as Ted James (who’s also the writer/director) as the rather whimsical stranger.
Resolutions is an intriguing, brutally-honest slice-of-life story of two couples that takes place over one New Year’s eve. It starts out like a low key celebration but as the evening progresses, something is revealed that turns things upside down for one of the four characters. It’s a simple setup that packs an emotional punch with the right amount of smolder and tension. The acting is brilliant, especially Nadine Malouf as Frankie. It’s got a female director, Tamara Fisch, who I hope will continue to make more films in the future!
Honestly, I don’t think I could really properly review a film such as A Gray State. I didn’t know much about the events surrounding the death of David Crowley, an Iraq vet who’s a charismatic aspiring filmmaker. I was going to read this New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson before we see this documentary, but I decided I’ll read it after. A few people sitting near me know the subject of the film so naturally it’s so emotional watching the film as I could hear sniffles all around. Since the filmmaker was based in Minnesota, I’ve seen some of the actors who appeared in the trailer of the feature film he wanted to make, called Gray State. In fact I took a photo with the main actor in that trailer, Danny August Mason, when his short film Windage played at TCFF a few years back.
I went into the film pretty much blind, and the way filmmaker Erik Nelson set up the film, he played up the conspiracy theory aspect. I think it’s best that you find that out for yourself why that is, which is rather obvious given the subject matter of making a film called Gray State. The film is set in a dystopian near-future where civil liberties are trampled by an unrestrained federal government.
Erik Nelson is no stranger to doing a film about a grim subject matter, as he directed Grizzly Man. The film’s executive produced by Werner Herzog whom he frequently collaborated with. At the Q&A, Erik revealed that he combed through Crowley’s archive of 13,000 photographs, hundreds of hours of home video, and exhaustive behind-the-scenes footage of David’s work in progress. It’s a heart-wrenching look at what looks like an ordinary family tackling an extraordinary project… but something along the way, something went horribly wrong. What actually happened and what people want to believe is at the core of the film and the lines between them are inherently blurry. It’s pretty riveting, unsettling and emotional film, one that will linger for a long time after you saw it.
Fun at Industry Night!
It was a warm Autumn night with temps in the 70s. Great to catch up with friends and some visiting filmmakers during TCFF’s Industry Night.
With talented filmmaker Ryan Grams & my phenomenal DP Ben Enke
Girls just wanna have fun!
With Hearts Want’s lead actor Peter Hansen
Stay tuned for my recap of a jam-packed Day 4 starting with two insightful film panels and two features, Beauty Mark and Cold November, back to back.
One of the many intriguing documentaries playing at this year’s TCFF is Victor’s Last Class, documentary about an acting teacher getting ready to end his life, and a student who attempts to change his mind.
Our blog staff Laura Schaubschlager talked to producer/filmmaker Brendan Brandt on the journey to making his film, where along the course of the project became more than just a filmmaker asking why, but became a close friend trying to change his new friend and mentor’s mind.
1. How did you discover Victor and his blog (and, subsequently, his announcement of ending his life)?
I’m an actor in Los Angeles. I was at a cast party after having just closed a play. The host of the party was a little upset, and when I asked why, he told me that his friend Victor was getting ready to kill himself in two weeks, and he didn’t know what to do.
I was fascinated with the story and asked if Victor would be willing to meet me. I just wanted to talk to him. Before we met, I read all his blogs and got a sense of who he was. At some point right before we met I got the idea to document his story in some way. So I pitched him the documentary idea sort of on the fly.
2. Why were you compelled to make this documentary? How did you hope to challenge Victor’s decision through filming this?
“Why was I compelled” initially is tough to answer. I’m not great at psycho-analyzing myself so there may be some subconscious stuff going on that I’m unaware of. If I was forced to guess I would say I had never truly experienced a death at that point in my life (other than losing a grandpa and grandma). I hadn’t lost a close friend or parent, so I think I was perhaps a little curious about it. That was at first. Then after I met Victor, I bonded with him in a very intense way, and I was compelled to “save” him. I had a mission, to talk someone out of killing themselves. I think that’s how I saw it after awhile.I hoped to do it by asking him some super smart questions. I was on a righteous mission! It sounds incredibly naive and a little arrogant to me now, but I really thought I could get into the philosophy and logic behind the decision and perhaps find a flaw or crack. I was convinced there was a chance to unlock some previously undiscovered angle, and when we fully looked at it, we could come to a different conclusion.
3. Last year, Jojo Moyes’s book Me Before You, which deals with the issue of assisted suicide and ending one’s life due to lifelong medical struggles, was adapted into a major motion picture. Have you read the book or seen the movie, and if so, how did you feel about the depiction of this situation after going through it yourself?
Oh man, I was not aware of that book or film. I will check it out when I’m ready to have a good cry.
4. Victor stated in the documentary that he didn’t believe ending one’s life has to just be due to physical pain (he gives the example of someone losing a wife and child in an accident and not being able to go on), but didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to say it would extend to mental illness.
What do you think? How do you feel it extends (or doesn’t) to mental illness? Where do you think the limit is?
Great question. Let me preface this with I don’t have a clear, concrete answer. One of the main lessons I got from this experience was that life is less ‘black and white’ and more ‘grey’. So you have to take it on a case by case basis. We can do a better job of seeking help for mental pain, and we can do a better job of treating mental illness. I didn’t like Victor’s car accident analogy in the moment. That seemed like an injury that, while horrific, would slowly, at least partially, heal with time, and deciding to die before giving it a chance to partially heal would be unwise. Maybe after 10 years, with no improvement in mental health, still devastated and unable to cope, I would be more willing to accept that.
All that being said, mental pain is often worse than physical pain, and ultimately an individual should be in charge of their own life. So, if a mental health expert could determine that someone who is suffering extreme mental pain and wants to die is not “crazy”, I would probably accept that. The main point would be to make sure they talk about it with experts and loved ones, and that we would get a chance to really explore that decision.
5. After going through all of this with Victor, what advice do you have for anyone who has a friend or family member considering ending their lives due to chronic pain or illness? You state toward the end of the film that while you understand his reasoning more, you still don’t agree with his decision; how do you come to terms with those conflicting feelings?
My advice would be to make sure you listen to the person. I’m very grateful I got to have this experience with Victor. And he was grateful I gave him that experience because we got to really investigate every facet of that decision. It was good for both of us, and I think it’s a healthy process to go through. Tell the truth, listen, question, and seek to understand. Not to be nit-picky, but I said: “I still don’t know that I agree”. I think that’s an important distinction. It goes back to my ‘things are grey’ point. I can’t say what he did was right or wrong. I don’t want to say that. But I do want people to look at it and think about it, and maybe make up their own mind.
When I made that comment toward the end of the film, I was hurting. I thought I made a pretty strong case to continue on. It was a little selfish of me to be honest. He was making my life better, and I didn’t want that to stop. It’s taken time and a lot of reflection, and the conflicting feelings are still there, but basically, at this point, I understand and accept. Wish it wasn’t the case, but I accept. Dealing with the conflicting feelings was interesting. As I spoke with his friends after the fact and heard their takes on it, I found myself swinging back and forth, and that continued for a while until I arrived at ‘there is no right answer. It just is.’
Brendan Brandt (Director/Producer), is a Los Angeles based actor who has been working professionally for the last twelve years in theater, film, and television. He’s appeared in prime-time dramas for CBS, sitcoms for ABC, Comedy Central, and CMT, and films that have been distributed by Netflix, Amazon, and Directv. In addition, he has been in over twenty commercials as a principal actor. His book “Waiting Tables, Dodging Bullets: An Actor’s Guide to Surviving Los Angeles” was published in 2010. Although he’s worked in the industry for twelve years, this is his first time directing a film.
Arielle Amsalem is an Emmy Award winning editor of feature length documentary films. After graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts film program, where she apprenticed under the editor Sam Pollard, Arielle started her career working on Spike Lee’s award winning documentary “When the Levees Broke” (2006), a film about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She has since been the editor of many feature- length documentaries including the Edward Norton produced HBO documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” (2009) for which she won the Primetime Emmy for Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming. She worked as a Producer on Jennifer Fox’s 6-part documentary series “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”, which premiered at Sundance and aired on the Sundance channel. Additionally, she has consulted on the production and distribution of many of the documentaries which she has edited.
What’s in store for Day 4
Today we are screening lots of movies, there is something for everyone!
Victors Last Class, Instructions for Living, Ice House, Coyote, Cold November, Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, Beyond the Trek, Beauty Mark,and two blocks of short films (Age of Innocence – coming of age stories, and True Life Inspired– documentaries).
WOW, Day 2 of the 11-day film fest has come and gone! I had to leave a bit early Thursday night for a prior commitment, but I did manage to see two films and also caught up w/ a friend & fellow film blogger Emmylou, who’s moved out to L.A. earlier this year.
Here’s my quick thoughts on the two films I saw on Day 2…
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s most popular stage work. In fact I just saw it recently at the Guthrie. I’m not a purist so I always enjoy seeing fresh interpretations of classic works, and setting it in modern-day Hollywood adds a layer of whimsy. Now, whether it works or not, I’d leave to Shakespeare enthusiasts, but I think this quirky adaptation is enjoyable even if it at times borders on the absurd.
Minnesota native Rachael Leigh Cook (who’ll be coming to TCFF at the second screening on closing night) plays Hermia who’s in love with Lysander (Hamish Linklater) and Lily Rabe plays Helena, who’s in love with Demetrius (Finn Wittrock). Interesting that before yesterday I didn’t know who Avan Jogia was, but I saw him two days in a row as he’s playing Puck here and he was in The Year of Spectacular Men. They retained most of the Shakespearean language, and as the film premise says… bold declarations, idiotic miscommunications and wandering amorous eyes feel right at home in the Hollywood setting where the studio honchos are practically royalty.
The film is more amusing than laugh-at-loud funny, though the literal interpretation of the character bottom (hard to get that actual butt head out of your mind!!). People who love Shakespeare AND Star Wars might get a kick out of this film. For me, it was a pretty enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, though it made me want to rewatch the dreamier 1999 version with Michelle Pfeiffer as a truly fetching fairy queen.
Now, THIS is the kind of movie I love to discover at film festivals! I don’t see very many silent b&w films, so seeing one that’s set in the Twin Cities by a MN-based filmmaker and crew is quite rare. I really love this one. I was quite swept away by its style, production design and the actors’ expressive faces. I even remember as I was watching, I looked around and wish more people had gone and seen this film.
Written and directed by MN filmmaker Andrew DeVary, If Memory Serves is a sweet, funny and sentimental tribute to the bygone era. A self-admitted Charlie Chaplin fan, he truly captured the simplicity and sweetness of the 1940s and there’s a poignant love story at the heart of it. The Cadet (Matthew Englund) and Mary (Morgan LeClaire) are two lovers who suffered a near-miss (I wouldn’t spoil how) and throughout the course of the film, we’re left wondering if and when their paths will ever cross again. DeVary created characters who are such delightful characters that it’s easy to root for them and want them to be together.
Most of the film is silent with only a couple of ‘talkie’ moments and during the Q&A, DeVary revealed the reason for that he likes the idea that ‘love allows communication to happen.’ I like the direction and pacing, which at an already swift 67 minutes never overstays your welcome. I also learned during Q&A that the film’s shot digitally in HD so it’s really to the editors’ credit that the film looked appropriately grainy and old school throughout, which adds to its inherent charm. Kudos to Simone LeClaire who’s the producer and production designer of the film. At a shoestring budget ($2300 bucks!) I thought the film looked believably set in the WWII period. I also adore the music by Twin Cities composer silent film composer Andy McCormick whose band Dreamland Faces often play live music for silent films.
I highly recommend this to classic film enthusiast, or even those looking for something off-the-beaten path. Given the subject matter dealing with love and memory, this is one film I’ll remember for a while and I hope it gets some kind of distribution so more people can see it! Check out the trailer below:
What’s in store for Day 3
Friday 10/20 is a very special day for me as at 12:30pm, my short film HEARTS WANT will be shown to the public for the first time… as part of the ‘Ties That Bind Us’ short block.
But there are also a ton of great films playing Friday…
Two great documentaries ABU and A Gray State (that I’ve blogged about here), and feature films 20 Weeks, Tater Tot & Patton, The Midnighterand Wilderness. See all of the films playing Friday here.