Lights-camera-action meets peace-love-and-happiness as the Woodstock Film Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary from September 30 through October 4 with film screenings, industry panels, musical performances, and the promise of celebrity sightings on Tinker Street and beyond.
As usual, the slate is filled with much-buzzed-about motion pictures. In the drama The Eclipse, Valley resident Aidan Quinn plays a widower visited by ghosts in a sleepy Irish town. Rebecca Miller’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee concerns a 50-year-old woman’s move to a retirement community to be with her much older — and, unbeknownst to her, philandering — husband. Richard Linklater’s new film, Me and Orson Welles, stars Zac Efron as a teenager cast in a 1937 stage production of Julius Caesar directed by the titular titan. And Against the Current, written and directed by Hastings-on-Hudson’s own Peter Callahan, involves a heartbroken man’s endeavor to swim the length of the Hudson River.
This year’s event, the largest yet, will boast “a good number of luminaries — perhaps more than usual,” says Meira Blaustein, the festival’s cofounder and executive director. One of those luminaries, the Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke, will be on hand to present the Maverick Award to Linklater, the Austin auteur who directed him in the romantic classics Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.
This year, panelists will talk at length about the future — of independent cinema, of film criticism, of filmmaking technology. “We will also show some films that explore the future and technology, focusing on artificial intelligence and the growing relation between mankind and computers,” says Blaustein. This theme is also evident in the poster that graphic artist Milton Glaser (creator of the I § NY logo) designed for the occasion: The abstract shapes on the black field have a futuristic, almost sci-fi, feel.
But the focus on tomorrow doesn’t mean Blaustein has lost sight of yesterday. “It’s amazing to me to think back,” she says. “Ten years ago, we didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the town.”
Blaustein teamed with Laurent Rejto, now the director of the Hudson Valley Film Commission, with the notion of founding a new festival in the area. “We wanted to bring this to a place so steeped in art and culture — so filled with artists, set in a beautiful place, but so close to New York City, where independent film was beginning to bloom,” she recalls.
With its artistic bona fides, Woodstock was a logical place to set up shop — but it was not, curiously, the first choice. “Originally, it was supposed to be in New Paltz,” Blaustein says, “but that didn’t work.”
The festival debuted in September of 2000 with a slate of documentary, feature, and short films; panel discussions featuring Quinn and fellow Valley actor David Strathairn; and a now-recurring segment on women in film. Despite its shoestring budget and an operating staff comprised almost exclusively of volunteers, the festival was a rousing success.
“We had no money,” Blaustein recalls. “There was a dream and a very good plan.” And they’ve stuck with it. Subsequent festivals, while expanded in size, have not deviated much from the original blueprint. “It caught on so fast, almost like a fire,” she says. “So many people wanted to be a part of it.”
One of the keys to Woodstock’s success is the strong bond between festival and community. Filmmakers lodge at private homes; staffers crash on couches. Films are not just screened in Woodstock, but at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck and the Rosendale Theatre as well; the awards presentation is in Kingston, so the attendees are not confined to the village. Special events encourage the filmmakers to get out and enjoy the bucolic scenery — in past years, for example, Mirabai Films has organized hiking expeditions. If filmmakers like what they see, of course, they’ll consider shooting in the area in the future — which is one of the festival’s objectives.
“We’ve built a connection between filmmakers and the Hudson Valley,” says Blaustein. “It’s something that’s good for everyone.”
Against the Current screenshot by Lisa Carvile
One of the featured films at this year’s festival is Against the Current, the endearing story of a grieving man’s quixotic attempt to swim the entire length of the Hudson River, from Troy to New York City. Writer-director (and Hastings-on-Hudson native) Peter Callahan was a high-school dropout who drove a cab for several years before returning to school and earning a master’s in journalism at Columbia University. His 2001 feature Last Ball was shown at film festivals in more than 20 countries. Hudson Valley spoke to Callahan about his current project.
The Hudson River plays a prominent role in this movie. What was your inspiration for the idea of swimming the river?
Peter Callahan: The Hudson River is really a part of me. I grew up on the bank of the river; I looked at it every day as a kid. I could see it from my window. It has a majesty and grandeur that captures my imagination. At the same time, I enjoy stories about people who attempt unusual feats — journeys that are a little oddball.
You’ve assembled a terrific cast — Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk, and of course Mary Tyler Moore. What was it like working with such well-known actors?
PC: I met them all at the same time. The fact that you write something in your room, and then a few years later, there’s Mary Tyler Moore showing up in your movie — it’s pretty cool.
It’s been eight years since your last movie. What have you been up to since then?
PC: I’d probably written the script for this movie in 2002, that took about a year. Then it’s a matter of trying to find people who have the right passion and the ability to get a project off the ground. I also wrote two or three other scripts and I did some teaching at Mercy College in Westchester; an introduction to movies class.
Peter Callahan photograph by Lisa Carvile
Joe Fiennes is in the water a lot in the movie. How did he handle that?
PC: He’s wearing a wet suit, so being cold was not an issue — except during November reshoots. To have an actor who wasn’t gung-ho about getting in the water would have been difficult. But that’s not a double — that’s Joe Fiennes, at least 98 percent of the time.
The Hudson River, as you know, is actually a tidal estuary — its current is affected by the ocean’s tides. What were the challenges of making a movie on the water?
PC: It’s hard to shoot on the Hudson River — on a river that’s got a tide, that’s changing direction four times a day. You’re trying to coordinate several boats to get your shot. It’s gorgeous scenery, gorgeous location, but difficult to capture that beauty.
You shot this film up and down the Hudson Valley. Were there any surprises for you, any spots you didn’t know about?
PC: There were some nice discoveries, like Plum Point in Newburgh. It was fun to shoot in Troy, to have that industrial feel. The Hudson Highlands in Cold Spring. We shot a lot of different areas of the Valley that show up in the film, even if only for a few seconds. We really showed off the area in all its glory.
What’s next for Peter Callahan? Any more plans to keep the cameras rolling locally?
PC: I have another screenplay set in Hastings-on-Hudson that I’d like to direct next. I like this area, I love the Hudson Valley, I’d love to write and film stories here the rest of my life if I could.
Against the Current will be shown at the Woodstock Film Festival on either Oct. 2 or 3. Callahan and his film then embark on a Quadricentennial Hudson River Valley Tour, with screenings and Q&A discussions at various locations in the Valley. Visit www.hvpg.org for complete details.
2000: At the Bearsville Theater, chairs are put away and the music cranked to the max as a closing-night screening of Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads documentary, turns into a dance party. The unofficial dance-off winner? Septuagenarian cinematographer Haskell Wexler and his wife.
2001: The mood is somber as the show goes on just one week after the September 11 attacks. “That year, more people from New York came — it was the first time they’d ventured out of the city,” Blaustein recalls. It was a cathartic experience. “They wanted to make their lives mean more, to seek more meaning in their work.”
2002: The musical mountaintop redoubt that is Allaire Studios is the setting for “the most amazing party in the history of parties,” Blaustein says. Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon of the jam band Phish, then on hiatus, dash off an impromptu show with Maverick Award winner Tim Robbins.
2003: At a panel discussion after the world premiere of the Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven, 11-time Academy Award nominee Elmer Bernstein — composer of more than 200 film scores, including Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which he won the Oscar — dazzles the sell-out crowd with his grace and humility.
2004: On a gale-force windy day, Matt Dillon literally blows into town to watch Peter Gabriel present the Maverick Award to Mira Nair, director of Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Marsala, and Kama Sutra. Eschewing rock-star pretensions, Gabriel stays at the Woodstock Inn on the Millstream and takes breakfast with the indie filmmakers in attendance.
2005: Hudson Valley resident Aidan Quinn presents the Maverick Award to a gracious Steve Buscemi. Buscemi spent the weekend milling around the festival with his young son, comporting himself more like the firefighter he used to be than the motion picture actor he now is.
2006: The assembled crowd sings “Happy Birthday” to Luisa Williams, saluting her scintillating debut performance as a would-be Times Square suicide bomber in the Julia Loktev feature Day Night Day Night. A giddy mood is made giddier by the presence of Timothy Hutton.
2007: The unlikely pairing of Patricia Clarkson and Steve Guttenberg at the “Actors Dialogue” panel is comic gold, as the two play off each other like they’ve been doing this for years.
2008: Silent Bob strikes back! Accepting the Maverick Award, the ribald Kevin Smith is so funny that documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock said “he laughed so hard, he almost spat his wine at everyone at his table,” Blaustein recalls.
Photographs courtesy of: elmerbernstein.com (Elmer Bernstein); Adam Rejto (Peter Gabriel & Mira Nair); Dion Ogust (Timothy Hutton); Aperture (Patricia Clarkson & Steve Guttenberg); Veronica O’Keefe (Kevin Smith)