June 11, 2003

IFP/LAFF 2003 kicked off the summer film season at the DGA (June 11–21) with interesting, complex females taking over the screen. From Catherine Hardwicke's dizzy adolescents in Thirteen, to Peter Mullan's sadistic nuns in The Magdalene Sisters (the Audience Award winner for narrative feature), sisters of all ages, shapes and sizes were the talk of LAFF. They were cheered closing night at the Wadsworth Theater, when Tracy Droz Dragos' personal exploration of grief for her father, Be Good, Smile Pretty, won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature. Likewise when Laura Gabbert's Sunset Story, a tale of two octogenarian political radicals, took home the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature

As Rachel Rosen, LAFF's Director of Programming, observed at a DGA–hosted lunch for LAFF of more than 90 people. "There is a trend this year toward stories with complex female characters. The films are not all directed by women. And it's not clear if these films are indicative of a larger trend. But they were stories that touched us as programmers as we went through more than 2,000 entries." [Screenings of Guild members Damon Santostefano's Last Man Running, Allan Arkush's Rock 'n' Roll High School, Robert Townsend's live commentary for Hollywood Shuffle, Charles Burnett's Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, and Mel Stuart's timeless Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, emphasized her point.]

Other speakers included DGA members Duane Clark, Robert Townsend, and also from IFP/LAFF, Festival Director Rich Raddon and Greg Laemmle. Jodie Foster knows better than most the challenges facing women in the industry. Foster teamed with her Panic Room director David Fincher, and moderator Kasi Lemmons, for a Guild-hosted "Director's Coffee Talk" that covered directing, acting, and everything in-between. Foster cited her education as a child actress (soaking up tips from crew members instead of watching TV in her trailer), as a prime determiner for jumping behind the camera. She called Panic Room the most technically difficult film she'd ever done as an actor, and "one of the most physically taxing." She surprised many when she revealed that acting was not her first love (directing/producing takes that prize), and that she approaches the craft from a more "technical and distanced" vantage point than most actors. Foster expressed praise for Fincher's preparation as a director.

Fincher referenced the ending of Seven to illustrate how a director can maintain his creative power in the face of daunting odds. "I appealed to [Seven's producer, Arnold Kopelson's] sense of immortality to preserve the head-in-a-box ending," Fincher said. "I said he could force an ending that appears more commercial or audience-friendly, or he could produce a film that will live on forever for an ending that's perfect just as it was written on the page."

A "Coffee Talk" on documentaries featured DGA members Penelope Spheeris and George Hickenlooper covering a number of topics with moderator Arthur Dong. Topics explored included: subjectivity versus objectivity — how far should the director go in inserting him or herself into the story; scripting a documentary and potentially exploiting your subjects for an easy laugh (and perhaps an easier sale); self-distribution on DVD, as Spheeris has done with her Decline of Western Civilization series; crossover, if any, for directors working in both narrative and documentaries; the surplus of documentary product versus the amount of viable distribution channels; and making a documentary without a salary in exchange for a back-end profit percentage, as both Hickenlooper and Spheeris did on their most recent projects.

Hickenlooper, whose The Mayor of Sunset Strip was a sold-out LAFF Centerpiece premiere, described documentary directing as "stitching together thousands of unrelated images through montage, to reveal the ultimate power of cinema."

The four panels that comprised the Low Budget Summit attracted SRO crowds. DGA members León Ichaso (Pinero) and Paul Quinn (Never Get Out of the Boat) highlighted a morning panel that tried to separate fact from fiction in low-budget filmmaking. Hot-button issues included: what types of stories lend themselves to low-budget movies; cultivating relationships with established actors, crews, and vendors for discounts and favors; directors establishing lines of creative compromises for the sake of the budget; working with your screenwriter to eliminate excess locations and characters prior to shooting; and working with the various Guilds and their low-budget contracts.

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