DID YOU READ

A film festival judge takes us behind the scenes of how awards are dolled out

The Sarasota Film Festival

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By Jordan Hoffman

At some point in mid-February one of the many publicists I deal with on a regular basis in New York asked if I was planning on going to the Sarasota Film Festival in April. If I had my druthers, I’d go, I said. I love film festivals. You watch movies all day and eat prosciutto-wrapped asparagus all night. But it didn’t look like it was in the cards.

My superpower, however, is getting publicists to think I am far more important than I actually am. Seriously, if it were an Olympic event I’d be a five-time medalist. I was soon offered a position on one of the three juries at this prestigious fest, which meant a couple of days down in Florida on someone else’s dime. Who was I to say no?

I’ve been on a festival jury before (2011 Fantastic Fest) and I have been a working critic for five years, but what the folks making the offer may not have known was that, in a previous life, I was (and hope to one day be again) an independent filmmaker. Two of my films have gone off to various corners of the Earth and each came back with their fair share of laurel wreaths for the poster. Did it make me rich and famous? No. But it kept me from hitting rock bottom a few times, as family members and girlfriends could remind me that, hey, at least we won that audience award up in Rhode Island.

Considering that I’d been “on the other side,” I was going to take my job as a juror very seriously. There were nine films in my section, a division dedicated to low budget and, in some cases, first time films. Five of the films were being sent to me on DVD, the remainder I’d see down during fest.

When the package came I popped ’em without doing any research. The first film I watched was called “In Our Nature,” and when the opening credits ran I was surprised to see some known Hollywood actors. Jena Malone (whom I’ve been fond of since “Contact”) and Gabrielle Union play opposite Zach Gilford and John Slattery.

The movie is awful. It’s everything you worry an independent movie is going to be. A bunch of whiners go up to a cabin in the woods to sit around and talk their feelings to one another. The camera doesn’t move, the scenes are endless and I immediately regretted saying yes to being on the jury. What if the other 8 movies were this bad?

The next movie I put it was called “Richard’s Wedding.” It starts with two people walking down a street in Brooklyn just yapping. The scene doesn’t end, but they’re being a little funny. It has a neo-Seinfeld vibe. Then I notice that some of zings get really good. Still there’s hardly anything resembling a plot and the camera and sound work make it seem like this flick cost 89 cents to make, but I find myself laughing out loud quite a bit, then really starting to like the characters.

“Richard’s Wedding” soon presents itself as something of a three-act play. In the first act, a man and a women walk to an apartment to meet up with others before going to a wedding. In the second act they hang out at the apartment and rib one another and drink. In the third act they all go to the park where the wedding is, of course, a disaster.

Something odd happened when they got to that apartment, however. When the actor opened the door my skin got cold. I KNOW that guy! The actor playing the douchey rich guy was actually someone I worked with for two years back in the early aughts. We both worked part time at a horrible place and made fun of our dipshit boss. In fact, he even showed up for one quick line of dialogue in my first film.

I was devastated. Clearly this was a conflict of interest, no? I mean, I would be rooting for my friend, right? But the thing is, I was really digging “Richard’s Wedding” on its own merits – and I haven’t seen this actor in at least five years. I pressed on.

The third film was called “Welcome to Pine Hill” and it grabbed me from the first scene. It is a moody and evocative film about an African-American from Brooklyn trying to sever the ties to his criminal past by working a boring job in Manhattan. He discovers he has inoperable cancer and decides he must settle his old debts before he can find peace.

Wow, I just made the movie sound really maudlin, and I swear it is anything but. It is artfully shot and understated – and loaded with natural performances and finely observed set pieces. I’m instantly smitten with this film and don’t see how anything else could top it.

Then I see the next film and think, hey, this one is pretty good, too. It is called “The Unspeakable Act,” and my mind is somewhat blown. The titular act is incest, but this is no exploitation film. It’s like Eric Rohmer’s “The Green Ray” meets Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress.” It has mannered, almost surreal dialogue and is shot with bright colors in one of those gorgeous Victorian Brooklyn homes like in “Sophie’s Choice.” It is one of the most steadfastly true to its own peculiar vision things I’ve seen in quite a long time.

I get a return of the queasy feeling again when I realize that the director, Dan Sallit, is someone else I know. He, at least, I haven’t seen since around 1997, but way back when I met him when I was working for an independent producer in New York.

The last film I watch on DVD called “See Girl Run” also has some known stars, Robin Tunney and Adam Scott, and it might even be worse than “In Our Nature.” And I really like Adam Scott, so this was particularly annoying.

A few days later I fly down to Sarasota and immediately proceed to get my ass kissed by volunteers and filmmakers who see the word “jury” on my badge. I’m a married man and don’t get out that much, so this was a very gratifying experience.

I quickly confess to the fest director that I kinda-sorta know some of the people involved in some of the films. I expect to be sent back to New York on a bus. I’m told, however, to just be fair, and be a professional, and let everyone else on the jury know.

I meet my two fellow jurors. One is an old friend, Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York, whose tastes often align with mine, and a fella I don’t know named Michael Dunaway from Paste Magazine. (After fifteen minutes, however, I feel like I’ve known him for years. He may be the most gregarious person I’ve met.) We were three not at all angry men.

On my own I see Kris wife-of-Joe Swanberg’s “Empire Builder.” Another story about people going up to a cabin in the woods, but this one stars the current low budget it-girl Kate Lyn Sheil, and that alone makes it stand out. It is a really emotionally reserved and subtle film about marital infidelity, but it doesn’t get too hysterical. How could it have time, it is only 72 minutes? I like the movie a great deal, but I’m not bananas for it.

After this came a real joy, Jonathan Lisecki’s “Gayby.” The premise may not jump out as the most original idea in the world – gay man and straight woman decide to have a kid, shenanigans ensue – but the writing is really hilarious and the extended supporting cast is simply fantastic. We jurors watch this as a group and everyone has a good time.

After this came another Kate Lyn Sheil vehicle, “Sun Don’t Shine.” This time she’s on the lam with her boyfriend after stabbing her husband. Even though there’s a lot more stuff going on in it, I find myself more intrigued by “Empire Buildier.” But, really, it shouldn’t be a contest. Oh, wait! Actually, it IS a contest! And I’m the judge! Pressure!

The last film we saw was called. . . um. . .oh, crap I can’t remember the name. And I can barely remember the movie. Hold on, let me look it up again. Ah, it was called “Leave Me Like You Found Me.” It’s about people walking around the woods being mad at each other.

So we’d seen our nine films. (And I snuck in two other ones not in our category, too.) Then we had to hammer it out. Where best to decide? Brunch!

The nine jurors (three panels each with three people) gathered and the head of the festival (the esteemed Tom Hall) quietly observed the discussion, fingers poised over an iPad ready to take the names of the winner.

The only rule was that we pick at least one winner. We could give jury prizes, too, but we should restrict it to only two. So this meant we could honor three films.

From my point of view, I wanted to give the awards to the movies I liked best, but also the ones that could really benefit from an additional laurel leaf on the poster.

I really loved “Welcome to Pine Hill,” and it won the best film at Slamdance. An additional award would make it seem like a mandate, and, hopefully, help the film get distribution. “The Unspeakable Act,” however, is a really challenging film, and this was its debut. An award first out of the gate could help this uncompromising film get programmed elsewhere. Then there was “Gayby” and “Richard’s Wedding,” both very funny and crowdpleasing.

Of the three groups there, we were the first to reach a decision that everyone could sign-off on. I’d like to believe that it is because we picked the right winners.

It would be unfair to my fellow jurors to lift the veil back too far, but we came up with a compromise we could live with. “The Unspeakable Act” is a movie that is intense and unique and wholly original. It would win best film. We all loved “Welcome to Pine Hill” (though, I may have been its strongest booster) and felt a special jury prize was in order. Much of what makes that film so memorable is its lead role, so we gave a prize for performance to its lead actor Shannon Harper. Next we wanted to award something for writing, and, at the end of the day, we felt we had to salute the zing-tastic “Richard’s Wedding.” We felt a little guilty about leaving “Gayby” out to dry, but just a few days later it landed a distribution deal, so I think it may have all worked out in the end.

So that’s how the sausage gets made. I left out all the stuff about the parties that included Mexican wrestlers, the Flying Wallendas and David Carr, but to experience an extended weekend at a place as welcoming and enriching as the Sarasota Film Festival is really something you need to do on your own. I also recommend wearing the coveted purple lanyard because it can get you in ANYWHERE.

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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


4. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


5. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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Scarface Al Pacino

Nose Dive

10 Crazy Facts You Might Not Know About Scarface

Say hello to Scarface this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection/Universal Studios

We learned a lot from Scarface. Don’t get high on your own supply. Never trust anyone. And definitely don’t bring a gun to a chainsaw fight. So what happened behind the scenes during the making of this cultural sensation? We nosed around and found some things about Scarface you might not know, which you can catch this month on IFC. Say hello to our little facts below.

1. Brian De Palma almost directed Flashdance instead.

Scarface Brian de Palma
Everett Collection/Universal

Producer Martin Bregman offered De Palma a chance to direct Scarface while the director was filming the 1981 cult classic Blow Out.  Initially De Palma said “yes,” but then politely declined as he was too busy. He signed on to direct Flashdance instead in the hopes of getting the producer to greenlight his script on the Yablonski murders. De Palma made it about two weeks into pre-production on the dance flick before quitting.  Bregman offered Scarface to De Palma again, and the rest is history. What a feeling!


2. Michelle Pfeiffer was hangry throughout the shoot.

Scarface Michelle Pfeiffer
Universal

The actress would give a star-making performance as Elvira Hancock, the chic wife of gangster Tony Montana, but her experience behind the scenes wasn’t quite as glamorous. Pfeiffer ate very little on set to maintain Elvira’s slinky, cocaine addict look. When production stretched from the predicted four months to six, Pfeiffer was frequently starving and irritable. Might we suggest a Cubano sandwich?


3. Al Pacino’s performance was inspired by Meryl Streep.

Scarface Little Friend
Universal

It may seem hard to believe vulgar, violent cocaine kingpin Tony Montana has much in common with the reigning Queen of the Silver Screen, but Pacino saw something useful in one of Streep’s most iconic roles. Streep’s Oscar-winning turn as the titular holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice made a serious impression on the actor, citing her deep commitment to the tiniest details of playing someone from another country and world as his largest influence on how he played Tony. Who knew Al Pacino is a Meryl Streep fanatic? Stars really are just like the rest of us!


4. Oliver Stone was fighting his own cocaine addiction while penning the script.

Scarface Cocaine
Universal

Hooked for a year or two prior to beginning work on Scarface, Stone realized his work was getting “shallower” and bank account smaller. He and his then-wife moved to Paris as a means of cutting off his access to the drug. Stone wrote the screenplay “cold sober” in a dark room while living in the City of Light.


5. F. Murray Abraham had firsthand experience as a gangster.

Scarface F Murray Abraham
Everett Collection/Universal

As a teen in El Paso, TX, Abraham was a self-described “hoodlum.” Long before he was causing trouble as henchman Omar Suarez, the young Abraham ran around with a local gang stealing cars, getting into fights, and occasionally going to school. All that changed when the speech and drama teacher at his high school gave him March Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to read in front of the class. He was hooked, and his gang days were over.


6. Al Pacino’s hand got stuck to a gun barrel.

Scarface Machine gun
Everett Collection/Universal

In addition to accidentally being cut by a rogue shard from a plate thrown by Michelle Pfeiffer, Pacino suffered another injury on set. During a rehearsal for a gunfight, he mistakenly grabbed the barrel of the prop gun after firing several rounds, and his hand got stuck to the hot barrel. The burns were so bad, Pacino couldn’t work for two weeks.


7. Glenn Close wasn’t “slutty” enough to play Elvira.

Glenn Close
Sony

Al Pacino wanted Close, whom he knew through the New York theatre scene, as Elvira. However, producer Martin Bregman wasn’t convinced she was “slutty enough” to play the coked-out sex symbol. Close wasn’t the only high profile actress turned down for the coveted role; other contenders included Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Sharon Stone, Kelly McGillis, Melanie Griffith, and Kim Basinger, all of whom presumably didn’t possess sufficient levels of sluttiness according to Mr. Bregman.


8. Tammy Lynn Leppert disappeared shortly after filming.

Tammy Lynn Leppert
Universal

The 18 year-old actress, model, and former child beauty-queen appeared as Manny’s (Steven Bauer) distraction while he was in the lookout car during the infamous chainsaw scene. Leppert was last seen in Cocoa Beach, Florida on July 6, 1983 just five months before Scarface hit theaters. Authorities speculated Leppert may have been three months pregnant at the time of her mysterious disappearance and that her missing persons status could be tied to several serial killers and drug trafficking networks around the area. Her current whereabouts are still unknown.


9. F. Murray Abraham’s mother didn’t approve of Pacino’s foul mouth.

F Murray Abraham
Universal

Scarface is full of expletives with the F-word being used well over 200 times in the nearly three-hour film (the scorecard feature on the Platinum DVD edition reportedly averages its use at 1.32 f–ks per minute of the film). It’s no surprise many were turned off by the kingpin’s profanity laden mouth including wife Elvira onscreen and F. Murray Abraham’s mother. After a screening of the film in 2011, Abraham’s Italian mother asked the actor to “tell Al not to use that language. It’s not good for the Italian people.” Cuban drug dealers may be tough, but you really don’t want to mess with an Italian mama!


10. The infamous chainsaw scene was based on a real incident.

Scarface Chainsaw
Universal

Screenwriter Oliver Stone spent several months in Miami with local law enforcement and the DEA doing research and was drawn to a particularly gruesome real case. A major drug smuggling ring headed by Mario Tabraue (who became one of the major inspirations for Tony in the film) dismembered Larry Nash with a chainsaw and burned his body in July 1980 after discovering he was an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Tabraue was eventually arrested in 1987 as part of the FBI’s “Operation Cobra” at his home in Dade County while his wife threw $50,000 cash out the back window, which was caught by a federal agent. By the time Tabraue’s drug ring was busted up, it was worth over $75 million. Say goodnight to the bad guy.

See what Scarface would look like as a sitcom below.

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Breaking-the-girl-web

Iceland Bound

Watch Fred Armisen’s Dreamy Music Video For El Perro Del Mar’s Red Hot Chili Peppers Cover

Fred returns to Iceland in his new music video

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Photo Credit: El Perro Del Mar

Created by two seasoned musicians, Portlandia often uses music as its satirical base. But while the show allows Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to shine as masterful comedians and occasional singers, Portlandia has yet to offer a dreamy full-length music videos shot in Iceland. Fortunately, Fred was able to make that happen by directing the music video for El Perro del Mar’s down-tempo cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Breaking the Girl.” In the video, a valet in Los Angeles attempts to track down the owner of a lost car key all the way to Iceland. In addition to directing the video, Armisen also stars as the globetrotting valet.

Fred — who is no stranger to music videos, having directed clips for artists like Neil Michael Hagerty & the Howling Hex and The Helio Sequence — recently spoke to Rolling Stone about working with El Perro Del Mar (the musical alias of Sarah Assbring) and his love for the Chili Peppers’ music. Documentary Now! fans also know that this isn’t Fred’s first trip to Iceland. No word on whether he attended an Al Capone Festival on his return visit.

Check out Fred’s sweetly relaxing music video for El Perro del Mar’s “Breaking the Girl” below.

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