Monday, October 31, 2011

Hell's Half Mile and Beyond...

 I arrived in Michigan for the Hell's Half Mile Film and Music Festival and, along with filmmakers Rider and Shiloh Strong & Alexandra Barreto, we were driven from the airport into Bay City, where the festival takes place.

Bay City is a sleepy town on the Saginaw River that has a rich and storied history - in addition to being a fascinating area from a historical standpoint, it's also a place that's ripe for film crews... it's a very picturesque town and no matter where you stand, you can envision any variety of scenes. The one that kept coming up in my brain was a zombie flick - odd since I'm not a huge horror fan. But yeah. Zombie apocalypse. You're probably thinking: "Why zombies?" Well.

Here's a picture of Bay City at around 2pm in the afternoon:

Here's another:

Curious what Bay City looks like at night?

So, yeah. Not much different. Now, to be fair, there is a thriving bar scene just across the River, but in general, Bay City proper, looks pretty much like these photos.

Anyway. The Strong Bros., Rider's girlfriend Alexandra (herself a filmmaker with a short in the Fest) and I got into town just in time for the opening night party...

Festival Director Alan LaFave and I at 
the Opening Night Party.

The next few days were pretty great. I got to see a stunningly beautiful film by writer-director Jasmine McGlade Chazelle called MARIA MY LOVE based on an extremely personal story by her friend (and now my friend) Lauren Fales, who also co-stars in the film. 

I also became fast friends with Rider, Shiloh and Alexandra.

Rider, Shiloh and Alex had three short films in the Fest that they had either written, directed, produced, or acted in. In a few cases, they had done all three.
The shorts all played together as part of a Shorts program and, when viewed as a whole, demonstrate a fascinating amount skill, creativity and talent... the first film in the series is called IRISH TWINS and was very impressive both in it's storytelling and tone. It's a drama that comes together very quickly and goes somewhere you didn't expect. 

The next short is called THE DUNGEONMASTER, which, not surprisingly, has garnered the brother interest in expanding the short into a feature. A unique and funny story that is well told and, again, impressive - especially when you know how low-budget it was.

Finally, I saw Alexandra's short METHOD about an actress who goes to some pretty extraordinary lengths to inhabit a role. If you know the film business and you know actors, it's pretty hilarious.

Living in LA and being in the indie film business can sometimes be a kind of soul-crushing affair. You love movies and telling stories, but the "business" end of "show business" is so often stifling... and trying to find money, particularly in this economy, is just hellish. Trying to shepherd a project through the development phase can take years, and that's just to get a script or property to a place where you feel comfortable taking it out to find funding. Funny thing is, these days, it's not too different in the big budget industry. The studios don't seem to have any interest in telling unusual stories or in creating challenging material - oh, sure, they'll do one or two a year to be able to champion during Oscar season, but by and large it's up to the indies to tell stories that don't have massive explosions or men with guns.

Sorry. Went off on a tangent there.

Going to Festivals is great because it offers you a lift - it reminds you that there are other people out there just like you, which as strange as it sounds, you can kind of forget.

Anyway. I was surrounded by inspiration at HHM.  Since I had been at the Festival before, in a way, there was a "coming home" element for me. Alan LaFave (the Festival Director) and I had become friends in the years that followed my last trip and so, when someone else fell out, Alan asked (on short notice) if I would be willing to moderate the panel on "Acting in Film." I was a little freaked out (not a fan of public speaking), but figured I could get by since the panelists would do most of the heavy lifting.

I raced back to my room and pulled up IMDB to get a better idea of everyone's work. It should be mentioned that, for a panel of people who are all younger than I am, they are a particularly accomplished group.

The panelists were: Rider Strong, Alexandra Barreto and Shiloh Strong (of the above mentioned short films), Lauren Fales and Brian Rieger of MARIA MY LOVE and Lynn Mancinelli who had appeared in a film which had played in an earlier year at the festival and who, in fact, was shooting a film in town while the Festival was going on! (She's fantastic, by the way!)

Me. Moderating the f*ck out of the "Acting in Film" Panel.

Shiloh Strong (L.) Lynn Mancinelli (C.) Brian Rieger (R.)

Rider Strong & Alex Barreto
(Thanks to Kari Maples for these shots)

After moderating the panel, we all hung out some more. And again the next day. And the next. We went to a few parties and had a really nice time. Somewhere, within those few days, GIRLFRIEND screened. I was really nervous, especially since I was the only person who worked on the film present and I knew I had to do the Q & A after... something I actually like to do, but get incredibly uncomfortable doing, nonetheless. 

Everyone else had already screened their projects (and they were uniformly good) which only added to my stress level. Don't get me wrong, I know GIRLFRIEND is a good film... what I didn't know was how it might play in Michigan. And since film is a subjective medium, one never knows how it will hit an individual. You'd be surprised at the range of reactions we've gotten in the past year! The end of the film is particularly polarizing, as you might imagine. Would my new friends, my peers, like it? Would they be moved? Or would it not work for them?

Lauren Fales, as it turned out, would end up being my cheerleader. A little ways into the screening, she grabbed my arm, looked at me and gave the most reassuring smile... "It's really good," she seemed to be saying. It instantly calmed me down.

After, at the Q & A, my new friends got the ball rolling by asking some questions (something we had done at their screenings) and ... it was just a great experience.

Since I've been back, I've spoken either by phone or email to all of them - emailed some scripts back and forth with a few of them and hung out with two of them... I'm looking forward to hanging out with them more and, hopefully, working with them.

So, uh, thanks HHM!

Well. I feel like I've written 47 pages and whoever is reading this probably got bored 9 paragraphs ago... so, I'll continue next time. A bit about the fabulous Mill Valley Film Festival and then on to a brief stop in North Carolina before heading on to New York.

Thanks for reading.


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