Making The Scene
Actors and fans alike love the laid-back atmosphere at the homegrown Woodstock Film Festival. Here’s a sneak peek at this year’s festivities
by Frank Slate
what’s it all about?
For four frantic days this October, the eighth annual Woodstock Film Festival… no, that sentence is wrong. It should read: For four laid-back days this October, the eighth annual Woodstock Film Festival will turn a quirky little arts town into one of the foremost “small”-movie festivals in the U.S. Nearly 15,000 visitors are expected, and —
Hold on. Fifteen thousand visitors, crammed into a town the size of a bran muffin, and you’re saying it’s going to be “laid-back”? Film buffs knocking each other down in their eagerness to catch some of the best new documentaries, dramas, comedies, and shorts by today’s independent filmmakers? Laid-back? Are you crazy?
Relax. Take a deep breath of the mountain air. This isn’t Sundance or Toronto. It’s Woodstock, and the Woodstock Film Festival is special. As indie producer Jesse Scolaro says, “It’s a different sensibility up here.” It will be crowded, yes, but it will also be casual. There will be stars, but no pushing and few — if any — paparazzi. Here, industry players connect, not by hustling, but by hanging out; Blackberries are likely to stay in back pockets or even be left behind at the homes of the many volunteer hosts for the weekend.
“That’s one of the reasons this festival is different,” says celebrity journalist Martha Frankel. “At Sundance, everybody stays in condos; here, people are staying in beautiful Woodstock homes. There are no hotels, so everybody’s walking around town, meeting at restaurants, at the Bear or Joshua’s. You can spend the weekend seeing movies, or just hang out and talk to young filmmakers.”
The festival — which will also be crammed with workshops, celebrity-led panels, an awards ceremony, and parties — was founded by filmmakers Laurent Rejto and Meira Blaustein in 2000. Their selection of Woodstock was highly calculated: They knew of the town’s reputation as a haven for music and the arts, and figured it would be a natural for films as well. It seems they were right: Attendance has more than doubled since the festival’s early years. And Blaustein estimates that they now screen more than 2,000 films per year.
“Woodstock has carved out a niche among festivals,” says screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, a festival advisor. “Meira and Laurent have really dedicated it to edgy, political, independent filmmakers.”
Of course, lots of behind-the-scenes work makes it all possible. Take Jeff Kantor, the festival’s technical director, who has to figure out how to transform Woodstock’s town hall and community center into appropriate spaces to show feature films. While the projectors, screens, and other equipment are important, the big requirement is blindingly obvious: darkness. The solution is for the festival’s “pipe and drape” crew to come in to the venues a day or so ahead of time and put up prefabricated window coverings, made of an opaque theatrical draping that resembles velour. A similar material is used for the floor-to-ceiling curtains that block both light and sound, effectively creating separate spaces for lobbies, ticket lines, and so on.
The festival’s reach now extends to other towns on both sides of the river. An increasing number of actors, writers, producers, and others in the industry have been drawn to the Valley by the festival and put down roots in the form of second homes. And big shots like Aidan Quinn, David Strathairn, and Ethan Hawke sit on the board of directors. An associated film commission promotes filmmaking throughout the Valley, leading not only to major productions such as War of the Worlds and The Night Listener, but to the occasional short film written and shot by high school students with commission assistance. The festival staff also reaches out to all the high schools in the Hudson Valley, resulting in approximately 100 to 200 students showing up at the festival annually to attend panels and discussions with A-list actors, directors, and producers. “I love working with the young people,” says Blaustein. “It is one of my favorite parts of the festival. A lot of them go on to study film in college and then we’ve been able to help them get jobs when they graduate. I take a lot of pleasure out of that.”
As for the future of the film festival? “We have no interest in becoming bigger,” says Blaustein. “We want to keep strengthening the community of filmmakers — the same community we create. And that is happening.”
warm your heart, or blow your mind?
To give an idea of the range and scope of films to be screened over the festival’s four days, let’s look briefly at three works likely to be highlights of the festival: two dramas and a disturbing documentary.
Oswald’s Ghost You can walk out of The Cake Eaters uplifted, walk right into this movie — and get sucked down into a whirlpool of disorientation over what the Kennedy assassination has done to America’s psyche. Director Robert Stone, who lives in Rhinebeck, is interested in the various conspiracy theories mostly because of what they say about our desire to make sense of the inherently senseless. Or as a historian cited in the film puts it, “How could someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald have killed someone as consequential as John F. Kennedy?” This is the sort of film that Blaustein likes to cite when she describes the festival as “edgy.”
Red Angel Audiences love to watch shorts almost as much as aspiring filmmakers love to make them, says screenwriter Matthew Ross. He should know: Not only has he written two shorts himself, but one of them, Lola, recently landed him a deal to write and direct a full-length feature based on the same characters. (The film is scheduled to be shot on location later this year in Brooklyn.) Meanwhile, his other short, the provocative Red Angel, will be showing at the festival. An adaptation of an Eric Bogosian play, it stars Rhinebeck resident Fisher Stevens, and relates the pungent curdling of a one-night fling between a famous writer and a not-so-famous young admirer.
Chicago 10 Directed by Brett Morgan, this documentary also takes you into the past — in this case, the protest in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the subsequent trial of various activists, including Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale. Morgan, who directed the 2002 film The Kid Stays in the Picture, an autobiography of film producer Robert Evans, has chosen an unusual visual technique for Chicago 10 — rotoscope animation. Once done by hand, but now fast-forwarded by computer, rotoscoping involves tracing cartoon-like images on top of live-action film to produce the actual animation. Morgan uses rotoscoping for reconstructions of courtroom scenes, then mixes these scenes with archival footage. Is the result brilliant, baffling, or both? You get to be the judge.
For more information on the festival, visit www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.