Month: June 2014

Maiden Voyage to the Nantucket Film Festival

Fresh from the Provincetown International Film Festival, I am gearing up to attend the Nantucket Film Festival, which I have never attended before. In fact, although I’ve lived on Cape Cod for 14 years now, I have never even been to the island of Nantucket, and I am very much looking forward to sharing my observations with you when I get over there for the festival program on Sunday, June 29th.


Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!

The festival officially kicks off on Wednesday, June 25, but there is a special pre-festival event on Tuesday, June 24 that I really wish I could attend because it brings together two of my loves: the cinema and one of my alma maters, Berklee College of Music. At 7:30 p.m. in the Dreamland Theater, the Festival brings us a screening of the 1923 silent film classic Safety Last directed by and starring Harold Lloyd, accompanied live by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. While Chaplin and Keaton are the best known silent film comedians, Lloyd rounds out the top three, and a still from this film, in which Lloyd hangs from the hands of a clock tower, is probably one of the most iconic representations of the silent era. Janus Films has released a new digital print, and this is a particularly wonderful way to see that new print because of the orchestra accompanying it. Catch it if you can!

This is the 19th year that the Nantucket Film Festival has come to the island, bringing with it not only a range of independent films, but a particular focus on screenwriters. Almost since the beginning of the festival, Mystelle Brabbée has been a major force driving its direction. She first became involved as an intern 18 years ago, after hearing about the festival’s first year from a friend of a friend. She quickly moved on to program the festival, which she did for 16 years, then became its artistic director and executive director in 2012.

“It’s a whole different world now,” she says, reflecting on how the festival has changed. “In the early years it was very loose and studios had no idea how to work with a festival.”


Nantucket Film Festival’s executive director Mystelle Brabbée.

Now, the festival is bursting at the seams with programming, often involving high profile talent and all of the things that go along with bringing movie stars, major directors and screenwriters, and films with a lot of advance buzz to the tiny island of Nantucket. Throughout all this time, Brabbée says the focus has not wavered; it’s only grown to include more avenues to explore the art of storytelling in cinema.

“In the early years we had very few documentaries,” Brabbée admits. “But over the years, we recognized that good storytelling is good storytelling, in all its different forms, narrative or nonfiction… and our audiences love documentaries.”

This year’s festival includes 21 documentary features, as well as several nonfiction shorts, in addition to the 25 narrative features, plus more narrative shorts and special screenings. While the focus on storytelling, and screenwriting in particular, has not changed, Brabbée says the audience really has. She says, “The need to recognize a screenwriter is a little different today. Today, I think your average filmgoer will recognize when a script is good; they’ll say, ‘that’s really well written.’  So that has changed over the years, which gives us the chance to do other things around screenwriting, things that aren’t in the public eye as much.”

As examples, she cites the festival’s Tony Cox Screenwriting Competition, as well as additional services and programs to help mid-career as well as emerging writers with completing their scripts and getting them produced. “The screenplay that won last year was optioned and it just finished shooting with Jennifer Aniston,” she adds.

This year, the Screenwriters Tribute Award goes to Aaron Sorkin, a writer who is best known for television (West Wing, The Newsroom), but who is also a successful feature film screenwriter (Money Ball, A Few Good Men). It’s an interesting time for the film world as more and more people look toward television for high quality work, particularly in terms of the writing. But Brabbée says she’s not worried about any shortage of great films.

“We’re in the business of highlighting those movies,” she says. “But I do think that screenwriters, or writers, are often playing in both world–not everyone; some are strictly TV or strictly writing screenplays for film–but you will find more and more there is a crossover. [Sorkin]’s a perfect example… maybe he got his start in one, but he’s able to go back and forth in between and he’s done great work in both.”

Additional honors will be presented to documentary filmmaker Steve James, whose 1989 film Hoop Dreams breathed new life into theatrical documentaries and who comes to the festival this year with a documentary about the wonderful Roger Ebert, Life Itself. In addition, the New Voices in Screenwriting Award will go to Mike Cahill, whose new film I Origins is creating a lot of dialogue in film circles.

My Picks for the Festival this year…

INTERNET'S OWN BOY, THE1DOCUMENTARIES: The first three of these picks were also my picks for the Provincetown International Film Festival, but it is worth highlighting them again for those of you who did not get out there last week.

Art and Craft – The subject of this film is Mark Landis, an eccentric (perhaps autistic) art forger who has fooled dozens of major art institutions with his remakes of masterpieces, never accepting a dime for any of them. Really a fascinating story.

An Honest Liar  – This documentary about the Amazing Randi not only tells a great story about a magician who set out to expose the deceptions behind faith healers, spoon benders, and psychics, it also tells it in a brilliantly structured film. This is not a movie that peters out toward the end; in fact, the last 20 minutes may be the most revealing.

The Internet’s Own Boy – The story of a bright young idealist, Aaron Swartz, who was quite literally destroyed by misguided policies and the desire of some government officials to make an example of him as he tried to open up knowledge to those beyond the Ivory Tower.

Life Itself – This one, I admit, I have not yet seen. Based on the director Steve James’ record of making beautiful, truthful documentaries, and also my great admiration for its subject, film critic Roger Ebert, this is a top pick.

NARRATIVE FEATURES: Here again, the first two films were in Provincetown last week.

Calvary  – This Irish drama starts off as a black comedy and evolves into a powerful piece about the dimensions of morality, taking as its subject a Catholic priest who is told in confession that he is going to be murdered by a man who was abused by another priest, as a child.

Love is Strange – Alfred Molina and JohnLithgow star in this film by Ira Sachs that looks at an older gay couple who, upon getting married, ironically, end up having to live apart because of the fallout from their decision. It is not a political film; Sachs seems to prefer a more philosophical approach to love. Despite its questionable title, the film is both very funny and very moving.

Boyhood – Although I haven’t seen this film, its production concept, as well as the track record of director Richard Linklater, are enough to make me want to feature it here. Filmed over a period of 12 years with the same young actor, it tells a fictional coming of age story, but it has a quasi-documentary element to it as the actor himself does come of age throughout the process of making the film. Intriguing, no?

I Origins – As mentioned above, the writer of this film Mike Cahill is being honored at the festival this year. This film has been a festival favorite since its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Part science-fiction, part love story, it comes highly recommended to me and I recommend it to you because this is one that people will be talking about and whether you like it or don’t like it, it seems to be one of this films that will generate some dialogue.


Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin will be honored at this year’s Nantucket Film Festival.


As I said, this is my first time going to Nantucket, but in addition to their great slate of films, they also have a lot of signature programs that look absolutely wonderful. There is the All-Star Comedy Roundtable on Sunday, which features comedians discussing their writing processes (but I’m told, in a funny way!), including Jenny Slate, the star of Obvious Child; Afternoon Tea and Talks with the Steve James (Life Itself) and documentarian Rory Kennedy on Sunday, Cathleen Sutherland and Ellar Coltrane (producer and star of Boyhood) on Saturday; and on Thursday, there will be a staged reading of Strange Calls, a Nantucket-set script about mysterious strange phone calls and the police officer who must investigate, written by Donick Cary. The reading features actors Tom Cavanagh and Fred Willard.
My plan for Sunday is to take in two of the films I have been most eager to see since I first heard about them: Life Itself and Boyhood. I will be posting thoughts about the films and the atmosphere, once I get to Nantucket, here and on Twitter, so subscribe to both!



Provincetown Film Festival

Ale Abreus' film "Boy and the World" shows in this year's Provincetown Intl. Film Festival

Ale Abreus’ film “Boy and the World” shows in this year’s Provincetown Intl. Film Festival

Well, here it is. The Provincetown International Film Festival kicked off last night with a number of really good films, several of which I was able to see in advance. I have to say, I have seen a lot of good work so far this year. If you missed Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur or Brazilian filmmaker Ale Abreu’s Boy and the World, you can still catch them in the festival. These are two very different, but really wonderful films. The first (which screens again at 9:45 pm on Thursday, June 19) is another great Polanski film about a stage director casting for a play he’s written about the sado-masochistic book Venus in Furs. The film version is based on David Ives’s play, and it is primarily an ongoing dialogue between the director and the actress auditioning for the lead role. Embedded within that dialogue are provocative ideas about sex, gender, and power. The other film, Boy and the World, (showing again at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, June 20) is an animated featured with a nearly wordless script–almost the polar opposite of Polanski’s film. The visuals are imaginative and fluid and there is an attention to cinematic details in a similar vein to The Triplets of Belleville (2003), only with stronger emotional resonance as it explores a young boy’s journey to find the father he misses deeply.

For more about what not to miss, check out my preview in Provincetown Magazine.

For that issue of the magazine, I was also able to interview Canadian director David Cronenberg, who is receiving the Filmmaker on the Edge Award this year, and American director Jonathan Demme, who will be attending the North American premiere of his new film A Master Builder, right here in Provincetown this Sunday, June 22 at 7 p.m. That film is based on and adaptations of the Ibsen play The Master Builder by the brilliant Wallace Shawn, whom you might know from his numerous character acting roles in films such as The Princess Bride, or from TV’s Gossip Girl, or, if you’re a cinephile, from the 1983 Louis Malle film My Dinner with Andre, in which he starred with Andre Gregory. Both Shawn and Gregory are in A Master Builder, which Demme tells me was shot in one week. That might seem extraordinary, but Gregory (himself  a legendary avant garde theater director) had worked with Shawn and the cast for 10 years preparing the staged version, which was only slightly changed for the screen. You can read the full story on A Master Builder on the Provincetown Magazine website, as well as my interview with David Cronenberg.

Well I’m off to see some more movies today. I hope you are, too!

It’s Complicated: Traversing the Transgender Image


Directors Antonio Santini (l) and Dan Sickles (r) pose with Puerto Rican drag queen Zahara, one of the subjects of their film, “Mala Mala.”

Earlier this spring, I attended the Tribeca Film Festival, where I saw a number of films that dealt with issues of gender identity. (I wrote about one of them in a previous post on that film festival. )Such issues have been dealt with in the cinema for a long time – even in mainstream movies (remember Dog Day Afternoon?)–but I have been struck recently by the attention to this area of the human experience in recent movies.

In this article, which originally appeared in Provincetown Magazine‘s May 15, 2014 issue, I took a look at three such films. I am re-running this article because one of the films, Mala Mala will be showing at the Provincetown International Film Festival next week, so you can take a trip to the Cape tip to see this documentary. It screens at 9:45 p.m. on Friday, June 20 and at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday, June 21.

Here is the link to this article: It’s Complicated.


The Late Great Gordon Willis

The late great Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

The late great Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

On July 15th, 2003, I had the pleasure of interviewing master cinematographer Gordon Willis. I was writing a story on the Woods Hole Film Festival, which was presenting a Master Class with Willis that year (which I also attended).

Born in Queens, N.Y., Willis lived in Falmouth and confessed he didn’t really like to get too involved with film societies, etc., but he made an exception for the Festival. Willis left a significant mark on the world of film. He was often called “The Prince of Darkness” for his ability to use darkness in creating a stunning cinematographic look. You can see it in his major works: The Godfather (both I (1972) and II (1974)); Annie Hall (1977); Manhattan (1979); Klute (1971); Zelig (1983); All the President’s Men (1976); and many others. These are films that show the mark of a visionary cinematographer who held his own with strong directors.

Willis passed away on Sunday, May 18th here on the Cape. I was able to dig up my transcript from our  interview and, although it reflects a different cinematic landscape being 11 years old, I’d like to share some of it with you here…..

Rebecca Alvin: How did you get involved with the Woods Hole Film Festival?
Gordon Willis: I don’t know, it’s like everything that I’ve done. Actually, I’m kind of a recluse when I’m not shooting. I’ve never been socially oriented, even in California. I’d go out to dinner. I’d go to wrap parties once in a while. I go out to dinner with friends and stuff, but I never really availed myself of film festivals especially, you know….I teach at colleges, film schools, etc. So to answer your question, it’s not something I try to do. I have friends who like to do it, but I don’t. If somebody gets me on the phone and I feel like doing it, I’ll do it. In this case, you know it’s just down the street, and I live here and feel like I’d like to contribute something to anyone who’s interested.

RA: Do you live here year round?
GW: I do live here year round, in fact winter around here is my favorite time.

RA: How long have you lived there?
GW: I don’t know, time doesn’t leave a big impression on me. It’s like I don’t remember anything. It’s like it was yesterday. I think all in all, 12 going on 13 years now.

RA: You originally went into theater, correct?
GW: My original background, well yes. My family’s in the motion picture business. My father was a makeup artist for Warner Bros. I sort of grew up knocking around in the family. And I wanted to be an actor for a while. I did a lot of summer stock. In fact I did a number of years up in Gloucester… But I found that…stagecraft and then finally photography, were better….Luckily, I forgot about acting (laughs). Then I was in the service and I was lucky enough to get a bypass photo assignment….I came out in the 70s. Then I did my time as assistant cameraman, operating cameraman, all that….

RA: How has your work changed over the course of your career?
GW: That’s an interesting question actually. You’re the only one that’s asked that. I don’t know, I look at things that I first shot on my first job….and you become more sophisticated. You don’t carry a lot of baggage with you. What you learn over a period of time, if you’re smart, is that you subtract, not add. So I think if you look at things that I’ve done, you’ll see that I’m a minimalist; I reduce. I believe in the elegance of simplicity. I think over a period of time that’s what happens. Over 35 or 40 years of dealing with it, you learn to throw away and not add, so I think simple. Not simplistic, but simple.

RA: Do you have a favorite film you worked on?
GW: Well, I have a bouillabaisse of things that I like watching, retrospectively. I think probably Godfather II was the most–I’m proud of that movie based on the fact that it is quite an accomplishment. And I think that a lot of the choices that were made by me and by Francis Coppola were the right ones, and it’s probably, in my opinion, better than the first one…I also loved things that I did with Woody [Allen] and Alan Pakula. You know, I loved Klute, one of the first movie I did with Alan Pakula, and I loved Manhattan, which I did with Woody, and Annie Hall and some others, so I have a place in my heart for a lot of stuff. But if someone put me up against a wall and said, “pick a movie,” I’d probably say Godfather II .

Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part Two"

Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part Two”

RA: You worked with a lot of great directors. How does the process differ with different directors?
GW: Well, that’s a little like asking who’s your favorite wife, you know. I’ll simplify it by saying I was a very lucky person, because all the people who gave me the benefit of working with them were, first of all quite intelligent, but also very nice people. And without exception, I had the freedom to formulate the visual structure of every movie that I’ve ever worked on… Mostly I worked with a lot of writers, which was a good experience because if something wasn’t working, we could always just rip the page out…And that was always good. So there was that difference, like with Francis and Woody it was easy to fix things from a writing point of view. Alan Pakula was a different kind of thinker; he probably kind of over-thinks stuff. I’m just the opposite. But I’ll tell you what tied us all together was we all loved movies and we all had the same sensibility of what should happen on the screen. So , probably the most difficult operating relationship I had was with Francis, but it was a good one. In terms of the three times that I was with him, the first time was very bumpy, but the last two were fine. But all the rest you know, as I said, I didn’t deal too much with politics with any of these people. We were very, very easy and close. I mean working with Woody was like working with your hands in your pocket. And I don’t mean that he wasn’t difficult to deal with to get it right, it’s just that it was a very pleasant experience.

RA: Do you have any pet peeves about working with directors?
GW: I block very quickly, meaning that once directors finish rehearsing and see what the scene is going to be, I’m very quick to pick up whether we need one shot to make the scene work or whether we need ten shots to make it work. So I perceive that very quickly and [then there are the] discussions that I have with the director after that, (I get his point of view and I give my point of view), and then, as I say, I block very quickly and I set camera very quickly, so I don’t like too much in-depth dealing with it. Alan was very bad with that. He would overthink it. Woody didn’t overthink much and moved very quickly… So the only thing I had a peeve about was overthinking: the What If syndrome, I called it–”What if we tried this?”…I had no patience for options. Six months after shooting  you look at all your options in the editing room, and you can’t remember what movie you made. I don’t care for that. I like camera cutting, making decisions and shooting, and if you just cut the slates off you’ve got the movie. Most of the time we’d do that.

RA: Is there a difference between working with Hollywood and working with independent directors?
GW: See that was one of the good breaks I had; I never really got bogged down with quote Hollywood types. I mean Francis wasn’t a Hollywood type, Alan Pakula wasn’t a Hollywood type. Woody certainly wasn’t a Hollywood type. Some of the others I worked with weren’t Hollywood. Although they may have been embedded there because of business reasons, their mentality was not structured that way. And it took me a long time to move into Hollywood and…. I always hated it… the studio structure and a lot of the people.

Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"

Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”

RA: Do you use video at all, or just film?
GW: I don’t shoot any film at home. I shoot the digital video and I shoot digital films mainly because I cut my own stuff, and it’s all home-related; it’s all my grandchildren. But the bottom line is I have control of it all… Let me be careful how I say this – technically, I’m not in favor of it, but the philosophies of shooting apply, whether you shoot video or you shoot film. How you do it, how you put it together, the thought process should stay the same. But, the mechanics of film, as opposed to video–film is still a more organic process. I think one magical part about film is that it is organic: the distance between the audience and the story. And I like that. Video has sort of this immediacy to it, which I don’t particularly care for when I’m watching a movie. I love it when I’m doing a film thing at home. I love it that way, but I’m not too enamored of it on the screen at this point. I’m not saying it won’t happen, because it is happening. But it doesn’t change, as I said, your thought process–it’s how you cut, how you think–but it is visually not the same.

RA: What about the significance of post-production now? Is the cinematographer’s role now limited?
GW: Well, the whole thing about being a photographer or a cinematographer was that there was this kind of mystery to it because nobody really knew what it was going to look like except you, (I mean if you knew what you were doing)… But, what a lot of people have tried to do,  they’ve tried to remove the barrier. They want this immediacy and they want this control, and the post-production problem is a problem. Actually, it’s  not problem; they can make it problematic because everyone wants to re-paint. I don’t like it. I never liked it even when we were shooting. I was very nasty about everybody sitting there at the end discussing options, and wanting all these options. You know, print it this way, we shot it that way. The other thing is a lot of people are in love with the visual. I mean I know it’s a very important tool. Like any tool, when you need it use it, but I don’t think you should jump into bed with everything that comes along. I mean it doesn’t replace thinking. It never will replace thinking.

RA: Do you have any advice to people starting out in cinematography?
GW: Okay, that’s what I’m going to talk about in the master class. I always ask this question and nobody knows the answer, or they won’t give it to me. I say, “can anybody give me a definition of what a camera is?” So I ask this question and everybody sits there and looks at me. Nobody wants to give me a stupid answer. Well, it’s a tool. It’s a tool. Film is a tool, videotape is a tool, an actor’s a tool, the director’s a tool, and your job is to transpose a script into visual imagery, tell a story. And whether you do that with a video camera or you do that with a film camera, the means is irrelevant. You can have preferences, but it’s irrelevant. The process should be the [thing]. And at film schools I wouldn’t let anybody have the film camera, if I had my way, or any camera, for the about six months, so other things would proceed. It’s not a good idea to shoot a lot of stuff, then go into a room to decide if there’s a movie in this pile of junk that you’ve got. So I think what people should learn is what’s the idea? What am I trying to say and how do I perceive this? And the most important thing is definition, because that’s missing from a lot of things. So people do not know how to do this, whether they have a video camera or they have a film camera. Definition – why I’m doing something. How they do it doesn’t matter to me. That’s craft. I don’t think you have art without craft; it’s part of the equation, but it’s not the most important part.