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I haven’t written a “Films Gone Wild” column for awhile as I have been on a non-stop tour of festivals (The Dallas Comedy Festival, HollyWeb Festival, The Dallas International Film Festival, EARTHxFilm, the Florida Film Festival, and the Harlem International Film Festival) more or less back-to-back-to-back. For all but one of those, I am the publicist as well as serving in various other capacities, including; the talent outreach person, filmmaking panels or Q&As moderator, spokesperson, and other additional consultation that goes into many other aspects of producing and managing a film festival.

And because of that fact, because of my appreciation for what it takes creatively, energy-wise, entrepreneurially, what is required in regards to film knowledge and general people knowledge, etc, etc, etc, and even more etcs…. I have immense respect for those that do it right.

And in my opinion, the Florida Film Festival in Orlando gets it right by every metric you can think of.

I was asked to be on the Narrative Features Jury this year, along with the über talented Claire Carré, who I knew from having her and her award-winning film, EMBERS, at a couple of my fests, and IFC’s Justin Szzalczyk, who I had yet to meet, even though he’s had a hand in the post-work on a laundry list of film favorites of mine (including THE BABADOOK, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, YOU AND ME AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, and WEINER). The lineup of films were more than solid and diverse in genre and style, including; Valerie Weiss’s THE ARCHER, Aaron B. Koontz’s CAMERA OBSCURA, Bill Watterson’s DAVE MADE A MAZE, Dorie Barton’s GIRL FLU, Wayne Roberts’s KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, Dash Shaw’s MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, Tom E. Brown’s PUSHING DEAD, Ian Macallister-McDonald’s SOME FREAKS, Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff’s THE STRANGE ONES, and Musa Syeed’s A STRAY. Most of them had screened at my fests or fests I was covering as press, but I had actually only seen two of them, so I was looking forward to the movie watching. I was also looking very forward to movie watching unencumbered by being responsible for the PR or machinations of the film festival. Yes, I had the responsibility of watching movies with an eye toward judging them and choosing a winner, but there is a HUGE difference that I was appreciative and excited about.

An action shot of a jury deliberating.

An action shot of a jury deliberating. (Photo by David Lawrence)

 

And the truth is that when you are a member of the jury at a film festival, you are catered to like anyone would ever hope to be catered to in their wildest movie-watching dreams. It’s a great gig, only bettered by being a jury spouse, as Augustine Frizzell (A MINOR SETBACK) informed me at Sundance this year. Her husband, David Lowery (PETE’S DRAGON) was on the jury there, which allowed her access and entry to damn near everything without even the responsibility for the judging. I believe it is what one calls a “sweet gig.”

However, I have often either had the responsibility or assisted in the effort to recruit jury members for a film festival and it actually isn’t very easy, especially on the celebrity side of things to get people to give up so many days and travel, etc. In fact, it is a pain-in-the-ass unless the festival is a major one or has an exotic and/or exciting location. The main reason being that personal publicists just don’t want to deal with the headache (they believe) of taking the ask to their client and then, God forbid they accept, and then they’ll have to deal with schedules and work they just don’t want to do. For the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles one year, I think I went through more than 30 asks/invites to be on the jury to score 2 people. So….it’s difficult. Anyway, back to the awesomeness of the the Florida Film Festival…

Let’s start with the theaters. The films I saw at the Florida Film Festival screened in two different locations: The Enzian Theater (1300 South Orlando Boulevard), and the Regal Winter Park Village Theater (510 North Orlando Boulevard).  The Regal is one of those theaters with the cushy reclining seats and little tables so you can eat while reclined Lay-Z-Boy style while watching your movie. Can’t beat that unless you have a tendency to become sleepy during films, then maybe a little too tempting. But that was no problem for me with the films we had lined up for us and the way the schedule had been set. The Enzian is set up like a grand living room with a screen and a stage, tables and seating for full-on dinner and meals, even some sofas strategically set up as well. It actually reminded me of the classic dinner theater scene in SOAPDISH where Kevin Kline’s character is playing in “Death of a Salesman” at the “Playhouse/Steak House.” I LOVE that film, so I was an easy mark for this place, but even if I wasn’t, it was very comfortable, the food was great, and the screen/presentation was top-notch. I’ve had technical issues at theaters at my fests in the past, so I never take that part of this for granted.

SOAPDISH

SOAPDISH

 

The Enzian also served as the festival’s hub, with a great outdoor bar, and a Tiki hut nearby to hang out in, as well. Creatively conceived and designed in the name of fun. If I was a filmmaker with a film at this fest, it would be very easy to find places to connect with the other filmmakers and even go to some quieter areas for more conversation, as well. And let me focus again on the creativity of the design and décor of the spaces. No festival has budget dollars to just throw money at these spaces and have them art directed to hell’s cocktail party and back. But blank walls save for a single film poster scotch taped to one of them and a fold out table with a box of snacks in their original container or a cooler with some cans of soda, doesn’t cut it either.

And that attention to detail and/or the prioritization as to where that attention to detail should be focused routinely comes from the top. And this is where I have to give a big nod to Executive Director David Schillhammer, Programming Director Matthew Curtis, and Programming Coordinator Tim Anderson. Those positions are fraught with epic headache-inducing crises and tough judgment calls, and thankless task after thankless task. And David, Matthew, and Tim, managed to both do whatever they had to do to command their film festival ship, and heard the cats that are the filmmakers, jury members, patrons, sponsors, film fans, etc. They also quite obviously have good film programming chops, and also display poise befitting Mr. Roarke from “Fantasy Island.” They also clearly enjoy doing what they are doing or are very impressive actors. Again, I know as much as anyone where the stress comes from and where the pain-in-the-assery lives, and that trio is impressive. And fun. I look forward to coming back to the fest, hopefully as a filmmaker, because I know the enjoyment level will be huge.

Florida Film Festival Executive Director David Schwilllmer (Photo by David Lawrence)

Florida Film Festival Executive Director David Schillhammer (Photo by David Lawrence)

 

Of course there are dinners and parties and what have you, but I don’t really judge film festivals by that. This is where I differ from those “25 Best Fests” or “50 Fests Worth Your Entry Fee” lists, as they seem to inordinately focus on the parties. Maybe, it’s that I’m older, maybe it’s due to the fact that I have never been a party regular. I don’t drink in any significant way, I have better conversations with other filmmakers outside of the parties so they aren’t my first choice when it comes to that, if my wife, Justina Walford is with me, her party shelf life is usually even shorter than mine. So we both kinda suck in that regard. Unless there is the dutiful karaoke appearance(s). Then maybe we might stay a little bit longer, because like most people, we are drawn to the karaoke like moth to flame. So parties… I get it. But they are not at all what a festival makes, as far as I am concerned. And the reality with the Florida Film Festival experience for me, was that we arrived during the second half of the film festival – after their big Opening Night Gala and other parties had already happened. So, I didn’t seek out any other ones that weren’t placed automatically on my schedule as that just isn’t something that is a big deal to me.

Talking before the talk - Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by David Lawrence)

Talking before the talk – An Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by David Lawrence)

 

I did have one major extracurricular activity, so to speak and that was “An Evening with Billy Crudup” following a screening of JESUS’ SON. Matthew Curtis reached out to me before I got there to ask if I would be interested in moderating that conversation, and I metaphorically almost twisted an ankle trying to respond as quickly as I could with an emphatic “YES!!!” I think Crudup is like an unsung hero of so many films. As I told him at the beginning of our talk, looking at his filmography, I had this vision of that moment when you’re picking teammates on the playground for kickball and you’d say to yourself, “I gotta get Billy on my team, because he always helps his teams win.” He actually got a big grin on his face when I said that, and he replied, “So I’m like the utility player, right?! I like that.”

By this point, I knew this was going to be a great talk - Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by David Lawrence)

By this point, I knew this was going to be a great talk – Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by David Lawrence)

 

Well, of course, he is much more than a utility player, which is one of the amazing things about Crudup. The guy is a TALENT. A leading man-level talent. He has that level charisma, and looks, and….talent. And yet – here is what is unique – he takes great pleasure at being in the service of the filmmaker’s vision, the story, the entire package. So maybe, he plays a supporting character role, maybe he just does a bit, or maybe he is one of the leads, if not the lead. But regardless – he’s signing up to be whatever the director and writer needs him to be to pull it all off. He enjoys that. Not a parakeet. A worker bee that has the plumage of the fancy bird.

Billy Crudup enjoying the "cross-examination" (Photo by Dave Martinez)

Billy Crudup enjoying the “cross-examination” (Photo by Dave Martinez)

 

So, we went through much of his filmography chronologically, in the hour we had to talk – which is a major luxury time-wise with these things, but also a big responsibility to keep it interesting and keep the conversation moving, so to speak, too. And that’s just fun, being able to ask a question about so many films that I haven’t seen anyone ask him before, but what was also singular about him was his frankness and candor and acceptance that at some points in his life he now believes that he mishandled the press and self-promotion and emphasis he placed on certain kinds of roles versus others, etc.

An Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by Dave Martinez)

An Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by Dave Martinez)

 

Bottom line, he’s self aware to a very rare extent for being the award-winning actor that he is. And to be clear, I’m not talking about simply being self-deprecating, which is great, but actually being self-aware. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he is absurdly charming, but the willingness to volunteer his opinion that he might have been an ass at times and pointedly thwarted his own career track for reasons he now, in retrospect, thinks was wrong.

Billy Crudup (Photo by Dave Martinez)

Billy Crudup (Photo by Dave Martinez)

 

Anyway, I was a fan before meeting and talking to Crudup, and came away from the experience and conversation with even more respect and I have to say, A desire to talk to him again and ask the myriad of questions I couldn’t get to because an hour wasn’t nearly enough with all that he has going on. Seriously, I will be pitching some of my other fests to honor Crudup, just so I can get that guy on stage again to talk his movies, and life philosophy, and more.

Crudup describing William Macy directing him to just fake it on RUDDERLESS - An Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by Dave Martinez)

Crudup describing how William Macy directed him to just fake it during a big scene in RUDDERLESS – An Evening with Billy Crudup (Photo by Dave Martinez)

 

So, the awards happen, and this is the rare fest where they don’t ask the jury members to take the podium and announce their selections. For someone like me, that’s actually disappointing because I love bragging about other people, especially other filmmakers, and telling everyone else why that person or director or actor is so damn great. But the show was fun and fast, the food was good – again, and that was that. Our winners were Bill Watterson’s DAVE MADE A MAZE, which is just an outstanding cavalcade of creativity, silliness, inspired left-of-center acting, brilliant art direction, and a refusal to stand pat and be satisfied until every jokey thread had been pulled and each theme had been completed. Just brilliant AND fun.

DAVE MADE A MAZE

DAVE MADE A MAZE

 

We were also instructed to choose a Special Jury Prize, and for that, I kiddingly, but eagerly pitched the idea of “Most Enigmatic Pet” with a three-way tie between the dog in A STRAY, the cat in THE STRANGE ONES, and the origami birds in DAVE MADE A MAZE. But Claire and Justin were having none of my nonsense, so instead, we opted to honor Robin Weigert’s wonderful performance in Tom E. Brown’s PUSHING DEAD. She, of course, is frequently the saving grace or the colorful stick stirring the drink in so many of the films she is in, and this was yet another case where she elevated and breathed life into a character making her fun and earning the emotional ties as well. She is money in the bank, that Robin Weigert.

Robin Weigert with her monkey in PUSHING DEAD

Robin Weigert with her monkey in PUSHING DEAD

 

And the Florida Film Festival is, as well. I am another convert to their cause of bringing the film joy and now will bust my ass to give them a reason to ask me back.