SANTA BARBARA, Calif., “I think there’s only one way, forward, for women, and we are 51 percent of the world, so 51 percent of women should do movies,” Austrian director Eva Spreitzhofer (“What Have We Done to Deserve This” a.k.a. “Wo mit haben wir das verdient?”) said at a red carpet event at the last Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) (a still from the film is this article’s featured image).
With #MeToo and #TimesUp ushering in a new era in filmmaking culture, one hopes that such gender parity can be achieved. The optimism for same was palpable at SBIFF with Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close in town to receive the Maltin Modern Master Award for his extraordinary career.
“I am definitely seeing changes and I’m very hopeful,” Close, nominated by the Academy for the seventh time for “The Wife” this year, told me. “I think this generation is going to make a difference.
“We need to mentor women however we can—those in the entertainment world and elsewhere.”
Close was presented her award after torrential Southern California rains scuttled the event the day before. She was joined on the red carpet by Leonard Maltin himself, the film writer, professor and TV personality.
“I had the most wonderful day. I was reading, I watched a movie,” Close said with a smile of how she spent her time during the day when her ceremony had been scuttled. “It was a quiet, lovely day.”
Fellow 2019 Oscar-nominee Richard E. Grant (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) described his early-morning notice that he had received his first ever nod as rather surreal.
“I posted a thing on Twitter and Instagram, and it got 3.4 million hits,” he said of the morning of January 22nd, when the noms [sic] were announced. “I was so excited I couldn’t believe it. But when I look back, it seems completely insane.”
In keeping with the Swiss-born, South African-trained, actor’s surreal year, he will be seen in December in the as-yet-untitled Episode IX of “Star Wars.”
“I saw ‘Star Wars’ when I was twenty years old as a drama student in 1977,” he said. “If you’d told me that forty years later I’d be in the final ever ‘Star Wars’,” he wouldn’t have dared believe it.
Grant’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” co-star Melissa McCarthy walked the red carpet ahead of being bestowed the Montecito Award at the Arlington Theater. McCarthy, also Oscar-nominated for that film, said she will soon be restarting her fashion line, and believes there is no difference in how she prepares a character for a comedy versus a drama.
“I think for each persona, you still build the character the same way,” she said. “Every comedy character I’ve ever played, I’ve wondered ‘What are they afraid of? Why are they lashing out?’”
An actor who is certainly no stranger to character-driven performances is Sam Elliott, one of several artists honored at the SBIFF Virtuosos Award.
Elliott’s basso profundo voice is unmistakable, so it’s little wonder his character in 2017’s “The Hero” was a washed-up actor now making money doing voiceover work. He told me in an earlier interview for that film that when he first read the script for “The Big Lebowski,” it said the narrator spoke “in a voice not unlike Sam Elliott.”
However, he said he has not yet seen co-star Jeff Bridges’s Stella Artois Superbowl ad.
“Santa Barbara is beautiful,” he said here. “The people are great, the restaurants are great.”
When asked what he most recalled about making “Tombstone,” the ensemble Western about the Earps and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Elliott said the cast made that experience so memorable.
“When I think of ‘Tombstone,’ I think of Kevin Jarre, who wrote the script and was the first director of the piece,” Elliott told me. “It’s the people that I remember more than anything.
“I’m not in this business to make money,” he said with that unmistakable grin. “It’s about the work.”
Shining a light on the issues
SBIFF, which was held January 30th – February 9th, was rife with amazing documentaries and films that sought to raise awareness about our world, whether in narrative or nonfiction format. Several focused on the harvesting, or over-harvesting, of animals for consumption, or poaching.
“Sharkwater Extinction,” from Canadian documentarian Rob Stewart, continued his quest to expose the problem of shark finning, wherein sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and then tossed back in the water still alive to drown.
Sadly, Stewart died in a diving accident as he was completing the film, but his parents, Brian and Sandy, are hoping to keep Rob’s mission to end shark finning at the forefront.
As well as finish their son’s film in his absence.
“We actually managed to hack into his iPad [which] Apple said wasn’t possible to do,” Sandy said. “We found a story outline [and] all of his scene descriptions—exactly what he wanted to show, exactly what he wanted the viewer to see.”
“He also left more projects that he was working on,” Brian said. “He left stories that aren’t quite finished and didn’t make it into the film.”
After Rob’s death at thirty-seven, his parents, together with some of their son’s filmmaking colleagues, combed through some 400 hours of footage to find the narrative for “Sharkwater Extinction.”
“The next thing was to go back through and see how much of that footage contained Rob, because he often did the voiceover afterwards or shot additional scenes,” his mother said. “We found enough that they were able to put together.”
“Between Rob’s notes and individual segment arcs he was creating, they had enough to patch and pull it together and still create most of the story Rob wanted to tell,” added Brian. “They got the message across about how this is going to be a great danger and how sharks are in all these different products and people are not aware of that.”
Shark fins are typically harvested and sent to the Asian market, with its ravenous appetite for shark fin soup. But the Stewarts say it adds nothing to the taste and adds but a small bit of texture to the mixture.
But things may be changing for the better.
“What we’re finding is that younger generations of Chinese really understand that this is not something that can be maintained,” Brian said, adding “Sharkwater Extinction” received a grand reception at a recent Hong Kong screening. “They’re pretty much [making] the rallying cry to make change [while] the parents and grandparents try to hold onto the tradition where shark fin soup was a status symbol.
“It has no real taste; all it does is add texture to the soup. Usually pork or chicken broth is used to flavor it. It just makes no sense whatsoever.”
The Stewarts hope their son’s legacy will be to continue to educate the public about how shark finning is unsustainable.
“Vote with your dollars,” Brian said. “People make choices every day that impact the natural world. But we hope that they learn something from the movie.”
Mariah Wilson’s “Silent Forests” is an engrossing documentary that tackles the illegal poaching of elephants and other animals in Africa, both for bushmeat and trophies. The film follows several anti-poaching activists who work in remote locations, as well as one former poacher named Jean Pierre, who got into it as a way to feed his family in a rather poor area, but now seeks to educate others about the wrongness of the practice.
“I think he’s ashamed of what he used to do, but I think now he’s proud to stand against it and being an advocate,” Wilson said of the former poacher seen in her film.
Location issues were legion for Wilson and producer/cinematographer Zeb Smith, with hostile jungle creatures, lack of basic amenities and even difficult government bureaucrats among them.
“There was a litany of requests” from the local authorities, Wilson said. “And then it was explained to me by the Wildlife Conservation Society that this is the starting point where you begin a negotiation.”
“It does teach you how much conservation activists have to go through every single day,” added Smith. “And the corruption is so prevalent that it’s not even really considered corruption. So it’s a very different way of functioning, which makes it particularly difficult for some activists who really have high moral standards.”
While the filmmakers are cautiously optimistic that things will change with regards to poaching, they also were happy to share humorous anecdotes about working in the field, such as hordes of insects interrupting a shot and bathing in the same rivers used by jungle creatures.
“When you get the infrared camera at night, after you bathed, and then you’re like ‘oh, there’s a bunch of crocodiles and snakes,’” Smith said. “That’s exactly where I bathed.”
Filmmaker Christopher Guerrero perhaps wasn’t seeking to create a stir, but one glance at the title of his move, “White Guys Solve Sexism,” would certainly raise an eyebrow or two. The short fictional narrative follows two lifelong friends who, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, realize that all of their favorite films are gender-biased.
“I think most people think it’s a comedy and it’s making fun of that concept,” Guerrero said. “But I love that too, so we can have a dialogue with somebody, because they do not solve it. It’s very much like white men overreacting to things they don’t even know about.”
The power of nonfiction
Other documentaries that made waves at the 2019 SBIFF include, “Fire on the Hill: The Cowboys of South Central L.A.” from Brett Fallentine, a rather unusual story of a horse ranch set amid some of the roughest streets in Los Angeles and the African Americans who find a sense of purpose there in the heart of gang land.
There was also “Ama” from Lorna Tucker, which exposed the repugnant history of the forced sterilizations of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government. (Given Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet this week about Elizabeth Warren, this doc has taken on even greater relevance.)
“Echo in the Canyon” from Andrew Slater traces the beginnings of the L.A. music sound in Laurel Canyon, where Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys, Jackson Browne and so many others traded musical ideas, members and, in more than a few cases, romantic partners.
The doc stars Jakob Dylan as he sits down with many of his father Bob’s contemporaries as they wax nostalgic about the mid-sixties canyon culture that also gave rise to the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds.
“The film is more about the echo of creativity than it is about Laurel Canyon” itself, Slater said after a screening. “People wanted to come to California, but they wanted to be the Byrds.”
“Echo in the Canyon,” which is full of great anecdotes from the likes of Michelle Phillips, who reveals that when her Mamas and the Papas bandmate and husband, John Phillips, discovered she was having an affair with fellow bandmate Denny Doherty, John Phillips turned his anguish into the song “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and it became a hit for the group.
The film also features David Crosby, who was the star of his own documentary at SBIFF, “David Crosby: Remember My Name.”
Sometimes documentaries come together in unusual ways, and that was the case for “Esfuerzo” director Alana Maiello, who met winemaker Fidencio Flores by chance and suggested they work on a short film about his family, who have been working in the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley for generations.
“I put on my boots at three or four am, and they were there catching that,” Flores said of Maiello’s crew tracing his daily routine. “Everything down to our meals.”
Maiello said she sought to “give voice back to the people who are picking the grapes.”
“We [only] see the wine labels, the tasting rooms, but I felt like the roots and the history of the people who have been crossing the border for so long haven’t been told,” she said.
Esfuerzo, which is also the name of Flores’s wine label, means “effort” in Spanish.
“I’m going to keep educating my community and make progress,” Flores said. “That is why it’s called ‘Esfuerzo.’ If you put in effort, there will be a harvest.”
Movies about moviemaking are always popular at film festivals, and so SBIFF saw the premiere of “Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Films.” Director William Conlin and makeup artist Thomas R. Burman discussed the dawn of the next generation in special effects makeup borne out of “Planet of the Apes” a half-century ago.
“Tom had been looking for somebody to tell this story for a long time,” Conlin said. “He knew a lot of great makeup artists of the Golden Age, and their stories went with them when they passed. We wanted to preserve these stories, and being a lifelong fan of film, when he came to me with the idea, I think I cut him off before he finished the sentence.”
Burman and his wife, Bari Dreiband-Burman, produced the film, which features interviews with Guillermo Del Toro, Leonard Maltin and many others in conjunction with vintage test footage of the apes costumes. In the film, Burman relates how his boss at the time, John Chambers, had a temper and once smashed an ape mask Burman was working on.
“I spent four years in the Marine Corps, so that was just another day,” Burman brushes it off now, adding that he and Chambers had a longtime working relationship despite that incident.
Conlin said that even though computer graphics technology is so advanced now, modern makeup artists still rely on the old techniques to help the actors furnish a performance.
“People like Greg Cannom, who’s nominated for the Oscar this year for ‘Vice,’ embraces CGI as a symbiotic relationship with makeup because makeup allows the actors to feel something when they’re actually working,” Conlin said.
“When they sit in your chair, you’re doing their makeup for two or three hours, you can watch the transformation,” Dreiband-Burman added.
Conlin said makeup artists are the most important people on a set. They are the first to show up, often several hours before dawn, and the last to leave, spending all day with the actors they dress.
The composer for “Making Apes” is Shawn Patterson, who is a huge fan of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score but was careful not to try to imitate it too closely.
“There are absolutely a couple of moments throughout the score that I tip my hat to him,” Patterson said. “I didn’t want to rip [Goldsmith] off…but I could convey [the atmosphere] to an audience” by subtly tapping into Goldsmith’s motifs as needed.
Patterson said he once took a tape recorder into the theater with him to record John Williams’s “Superman” theme, which got him on the path to composing his own scores. He saw an ad from Conlin’s crew seeking a composer for “Making Apes” and made sure to get his name to the top of the list.
“I’m not a big believer in things always happening for the right reason, but in this story, I feel like I was meant to be here,” Patterson said. “I know that sounds corny, but, look, here I am.”