SANTA BARBARA, Calif. | The 34th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) ended over a week ago but organizers of this fete of movies, celebrities and all things cinema have already announced the 2020 iteration will be bumped up a bit next year to Jan. 15-25, which may put it in direct competition with other festivals like Sundance.
No matter, as the 2019 version closed out with awards galore and more amazing works from filmmakers established and on the way up. What they all have in common is the desire—nay, the hope—for their films to find a larger audience in an increasingly crowded and ever more fractious marketplace.
Here then are some great films, and their creators, Screen Comment met last week, and whom you should keep an eye out for in the years ahead.
STORIES OF LOSS AND COPING
Loss will touch us all, and two rather different narratives at SBIFF found fictional characters dealing with death in rather different ways. Actor Nick Paonessa (pictured; “Modern Family,” “Unscripted”) came to the fest with his short film “Jack,” about a man (Ryan Gaul) coming to terms with the fact that the titular cat might not be long for this world.
“The movie is about acceptance and denial. And he has a really hard time with this news,” Paonessa told me. “By the way, it’s a comedy.”
Gaul’s character is so attached to Jack the cat that he watches Red Sox games with only the feline for company.
Although they say never to work with children or animals, the cat used to “play” Jack belonged to Gaul, the lead actor, so the animal wasn’t terrifically skittish, even with a light meter in its face from Australian cinematographer David Lepper.
“Getting takes where the cat would emote and give us what we needed was a little bit tricky,” Paonessa said, but added the creature was “a really good scene partner” for Gaul.
“A Thousand Miles Behind,” likely the best narrative film I saw at SBIFF, is a small film with an incredibly large heart that deals frankly yet tenderly with the most tragic circumstances imaginable. Actor Jeffrey Doornbos (“Arrested Development,” “Famous in Love”) stars as Preston, a middle-aged man with a comfortable suburban life whose wife and daughter are one day tragically killed by a drunk driver. Distraught beyond words, Preston hits the road on a Ducati, for where, he knows not.
Writer-director Nathan Wetherington has fashioned a modern fable in a minimalist style, moving his camera infrequently and relying upon Doornbos to carry the entire emotional heft of the piece. Doornbos is magnificent, with his unkempt beard seemingly bearing as much of the grief as the rest of his face.
Wetherington said he was moved to write “A Thousand Miles Behind” after beholding a documentary whose subjects included a father who lost a child in the Sandy Hook school shooting.
“I realized the motorcycle is a perfect visual metaphor for the grieving process,” Wetherington said. “It’s uniquely ‘yours.’”
Wetherington told me that the script providentially found its way to Jason Chinnock, the CEO of Ducati Motorcycles North America, who loaned the production a Scrambler Desert Sled bike for the (very brief) shoot.
“Our film has a very seventies’ feel to it, and the Scrambler would fit right in,” Wetherington said he told Chinnock. “They dropped it off at our house one day [and said] ‘Call us when you’re done.’”
“I’ve been riding for about ten or twelve years,” Doornbos, who plays Preston, told me, which came in rather handy for this movie. “When you’re grieving, sometimes you’re not always weeping,” he said. “I trained for theater and the stage, and that’s different than film.
“I leaned on Nathan a lot to say if you ever see me ‘pushing,’ just tell me to stop. Other times Nathan said, ‘Let’s do it again, but this time don’t think about anything.’”
Wetherington said the time from when he first put pen to paper on the script until the film wrapped was precisely a year. He and his team worked with the meagerest budget of just $25,000, but through careful attention to detail, exceptional minimalism and some clever drone footage of Doornbos riding the highways of California, the film could easily pass for a million-dollar production.
“I had two lights for the entire shoot,” director of photography Keith Dunkerley said, to much laughter at the screening. “Bigger shows are like big machines [but] sometimes the sun is going down and you just” have to shoot with what’s available, he said. “It was a ton of fun for me.”
The road genre is one of the most sacred of American film types, with characters frequently trying to escape something and/or heal themselves, but Wetherington said he wasn’t trying to “answer any questions for anybody.” Rather, he wanted to tell a simple, yet highly affecting, tale of one man on a motorcycle.
But perhaps Preston’s fictional grieving process will help someone in the audience going through something similar.
“All we are saying is you’re not alone,” Wetherington said. “Wake up tomorrow and just put one foot in front of the other.”
INDUSTRY VETS MOVE INTO THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR
Rafael Monserrate (pictured) has been kicking around Hollywood for years, working as a producer and sometimes-actor and occasional director. Monserrate was at SBIFF with his new film, “Peel,” a work starring Emile Hirsch as a quirky, rather isolated young man just trying to find out where he belongs in the world.
Monserrate, who trained as an actor in New York, discovered within himself a natural talent for coaching and working with other performers. In addition to Hirsch (“Milk,” “Into the Wild”) “Peel” features other recognizable names like Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy,” “Heat”). But even with Monserrate’s industry connections, he nonetheless chuckled good-naturedly when I asked if it was still difficult for him to raise money even “on the inside” of the biz.
“It’s a great question, and one we as independent filmmakers face all the time,” he said. “The art of all of this is [balancing] budgetary needs, the commercial needs, and the artistic and creatives side of things.
“It took about a year to land the financing and about three years to then put everything together, rewriters and casting and everything,” Monserrate said. “My team got it over to Sony, who passed at first. They liked the story, but they said, ‘Who is this Rafael Monserrate guy?’ But it got me in the room.”
Eventually Sony bit, based partly on an executive’s belief that “Peel” was somewhat of a modern update of “Being There.” Getting Hirsch on board to star helped seal the deal.
But no matter how much money he had, or didn’t have, to make his opus, Monserrate, an admirer of the films of Alexander Payne, said he would have gotten nowhere without a great script in hand.
“I was looking for a story about brothers and was character-driven in tone,” Monserrate said of “Peel,” adding he managed to find the script by Lee Karaim being pitched on Craigslist, of all places (he then had frequent collaborator Troy Hall do a rewrite polish.)
“The film is really about the power of innocence and purity that sometimes has the ability to heal in a world that sometimes can be cynical,” Monserrate said, adding it’s also a coming-of-age story. “And it’s about who is our tribe in life? Is this where we belong?
“What all the actors responded to was that, at at one point or another in their lives, they felt like an outsider, like a misfit,” he said. “And they felt [‘Peel’] truly spoke to that feeling. And it was a celebration of it’s OK to be different.”
If Monserrate’s tale of finding the right actors to work on a passion project may be somewhat typical for a Hollywood insider, the film created by fellow entertainment industry vets Joseph Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader is downright absurd. The duo, whose day job is working on the Nat Geo show “Life Below Zero,” premiered at SBIFF “Zulu Summer,” the most unlikely documentary of the festival—if not of the century thus far.
To even describe “Zulu Summer” would seem ludicrous were it not 100-percent true: A radio DJ in Butte, Montana, named Dark Sevier gets a message from a Zulu prince in South Africa saying he and his entourage, who have never even left their home country, would like to come to Butte for a cultural exchange.
“I was waiting for the asking of a credit card number,” Sevier, understandably incredulous at first, says early in the film.
However, no such ask ever came. Rather, Prince Siboniso Zulu and his friends, who broadcast from their own radio station in Nongoma, South Africa, had found Sevier and his broadcast partner, Clark Grant (“Dark and Clark, our names rhyme; that was the whole premise of our show,” Grant says in the film), and began a cross-planetary correspondence that ended with a proposal to visit Butte, a onetime mining town of 30,000 souls known for little else outside Big Sky Country.
But come 10,000 miles they did: the prince and three of his fellow Zulus, who lived in a rental home in Butte in the summer of 2017 in a real-life “Coming to America.”
“We didn’t know exactly what story we were going to tell. At first we through the arrival of the prince would be the conclusion of the movie,” co-director Litzinger said following their SBIFF premiere, which received a cheerful standing ovation. “It became clear that the Zulus were going to be the focus of the movie.”
First-time visitors to America could understandably be expected to visit New York, Florida or California. But small-town Montana?
“You could still run a tab [in Butte] at the grocery store in the nineties,” Sevier, who was once an actor in L.A. before moving to Montana, said after the screening. He added that Mokai Schux Malope, one of the subjects of the film, told Sevier “you can’t tell who is rich and poor here. There are no showoffs.”
Smiling Butte residents are seen interacting with the Zulus, asking them questions about their homeland that seem either touchingly naive or genuinely curious. The South African entourage all insist they were treated nothing but warmly during their time in Montana, a conservative state of only one million people spread out across nearly 150,000 square miles, that nonetheless welcomed them with open arms.
And of those one million Montanans, only 4,094, just 0.43 percent, are black, according to the Missoulian.
“It’s a story without drama or a train wreck,” Sevier says at one point during the film.
There is very little discussion of politics, no arguments, and any fish-out-of-water misunderstandings are treated with the lightest and most genuine of humors on all sides. When not shaking hands with civic leaders, taken on mini-road trips to Glacier National Park and meeting members of the Crow Nation, the Zulus were rotated between the homes of Butte residents for dinner and beers—so much beer.
“They have really bad water, so they drink beer all the time,” Sevier told me over lunch following the screening, adding his overseas guests became rather fond of Budweiser during their stay in America.
The Zulus, part of the first “post-apartheid generation,” still must deal with nearly seventy percent unemployment in their land, intermittent internet and the lack of indoor plumbing, Sevier said. One of his new Zulu friends said that, in remote South Africa, his people are trying to “catch up” to the problems America has now.
“That made me sad,” Sevier said. “Their people were seemingly incredibly happy [with] a fraction of the things that we have. Mokai told me he went around asking people what our problems are, what makes us unhappy. And his takeaway was [the Zulus] are trying to get to the point where we have [our] problems.
“The people that I know [in Butte], they have more things but a fraction of what I saw as ‘quality of life’ in terms of mental and spiritual heart,” Sevier said. “The most heartbreaking thing was watching [the Zulus] trying to catch up to us. I want to catch up to them in that level of availability and presence and happiness.”
Indeed, when Sevier later went to visit the Zulus, the prince dug a flushing toilet in his own home for the visiting Americans, but one which utilized an incredible amount of the local water supply.
“They drained two months’ worth of water in a week for a [bad] toilet,” Sevier said. “But they did that for us.”
Sevier’s theories of why the Zulus chose Butte over any other place in the U.S. range from the ridiculous to the absurd, from their stations both going online the same day to a band from Butte recording a song about a Zulu boogeyman that somehow found its way to South Africa.
Litzinger and Schrader, the co-directors of “Zulu Summer,” would typically trade off on spending time away from their jobs on “Life Below Zero” in Los Angeles to fly up to Butte. Through modern technology, they were able to send footage back and forth and video conference on shaping the story.
“The fortunate thing is I’m the boss of the day job, so I could clear the schedule for two to three weeks so [Schrader] could go there,” Litzinger said at our lunch following the screening.
“There’s so many people in L.A. doing these [same type of] things,” Schrader added, affirming what I had heard from Monserrate, the director of “Peel.”
Litzinger said that Butte itself is as much a character as Dark Sevier and the Zulu prince. “Zulu Summer” might not have been possible to make elsewhere, he says.
“There are enclaves where there are human beings who are decent and amazing and nice like Dark,” he said. “I don’t think they would have had the same experience [elsewhere] with Dark providing that tour guide. They did travel outside of Butte [but] they didn’t get booed or heckled.”
“It defies the narrative,” Sevier added. “Our national narrative of racism and division I don’t believe is as prevalent as we believe.”
“And as our online comments would lead us to believe,” Litzinger responded.
Litzinger and Schrader remain hopeful they can get a distribution deal for “Zulu Summer.” It’s a positive, thoroughly entertaining and impossibly unlikely story they have captured in thier documentary, and one they hope to share as widely as possible.
“And then, secondarily, we kind of want to make our money back,” Litzinger said with a knowing look. “That would be nice. And then maybe keep telling these kinds of stories.”
FREE SPEECH, THEN AND NOW
Documentarian Brigitte Berman had finished filming Playboy founder and publisher Hugh Hefner prior to his passing in September 2017, but she still had much research to do for her film “Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America.”
“I used to have free access to everything; then it was gone,” Berman told me, adding she then had to work with Hefner’s estate to get the old photographs she needed to complete her film. “I was going to do it with a still camera and scan [the photos], but that was not to be,” she said. “But everything else I had. The footage, everything. Just in time.”
“Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America,” which screened at SBIFF, traces the largely unknown history of Hefner’s late-night television shows of the fifties and the sixties, wherein the playboy would “invite” the camera into his Chicago apartment, where he hosted lively parties attended by his famous friends. More than showing off, Hefner was introducing largely white American television audiences to black jazz musicians they might not otherwise ever know.
Hefner would later famously found the Playboy Jazz Festival.
Berman won an Oscar for her 1986 documentary “Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got,” and had worked on another documentary about Hefner with her late husband, Victor Solnicki. After that earlier documentary, she said the story behind Hefner’s late-night shows seemed a logical step.
“What was fascinating for my husband and I is that the things people talked about then, they talk about today. Human rights, civil rights, freedom of speech are thrust forward to our time today,” Berman said. “It’s the same zeitgeist.
“You don’t just want to make a film of the past, you also want to straddle the future and reach out to the young people. Because the world won’t change without them.”
Berman, who is Canadian, said it was important that she get her film seen in America, the home of Hefner and the birthplace of jazz.
However, she was well aware that “baggage” might come attached to the Playboy founder, particularly in the #MeToo era.
“I’m strongly feminist,” she said. However, “whatever his lifestyle was like, I didn’t completely approve of, but I don’t approve of everything my friends do. He didn’t hide it; he was who he was.
“But he did a lot of things that are undeniably amazing and [gave] voice to many issues and people who wouldn’t” normally have such a platform, Berman said, adding Hefner’s anti-Vietnam War views took bravery to voice at the time.
More than anything, Berman said it’s important to keep in mind that “Hef” was a champion of free speech, and it’s up to us to keep our guards up against those who would try to infringe on the right to expression.
“Around the world, freedom of speech is being bombarded,” she said. “I fear for what’s happening in Europe very much.
“It’s a difficult time, and we cannot take anything for granted,” Berman said. “We’ve got to be watchful and be aware.”