Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Day 4: Sierra Spirit Award Recipient John Sayles and More

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With a triumphant screening of John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, an extended q & a with director Sayles, star Vincent Spano, and Sayles’ life and creative partner Maggie Renzi, day 4 of the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival was packed with film pleasure.  Day 4 also brought  the documentary Olancho and the narrative dark comedy Neighborhood Food Drive.

Olancho tells the story of talented Honduran musicians who perform and record songs for members of a local drug cartel, and songwriter Manuel’s escape to the U.S. Involving footage of life in the Honduran region of Olancho, terrific portraits of Manuel, his band, and his family all make for a fascinating look at a relatively isolated portion of Honduras, as well as its music. First time filmmakers Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold taught school in the region in 2010. According to Griswold, “We taught for over two years, and some of the children we were teaching were kids of the narcos. We knew enough people that when we came back to film, people knew our intentions were good. At first we didn’t realize how important the connections we made were to keeping us safe, such as Manuel’s father  – but these relationships helped us a lot and got us out of situations that would have otherwise been dangerous.” Valdes adds “In Olancho, death is a part of everyday life. I taught 6th graders, and not a day went by without someone saying who they’d found dead on the street. You don’t think about it until you come home, and your mom at Thanksgiving says ‘that’s hairy.'”  Following the travails of Los Plebes de Olancho lead singer Manuel, as well as the wild exploits of accordian player Orlin,  viewers get an insightful look at Olancho’s world.  An elegaic short about life in Havana, Paloma, preceded the film.

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The witty short Crown Prince directed by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik opened for the narrative Neighborhood Food Drive. Crown Prince played with the concept of a prince from Luxembourg set loose in New York City. Burch notes that the cast was “all comedians” and she wrote “character bios but then let the actors do improv based on that.” Shot in a glossy black and white, the piece was a fun crowd-pleaser. The directors are currently working on a feature project. Neighborhood Food Drive, directed by Jerzy Rose and co-written by Rose, Mike Lopez, and Halle Butler, is an exceedingly dry dark comedy about a struggling Chicago restaurant, its deluded owners, a naive intern,  her waiter boyfriend, and their professor/couples counselor hosting a fundraiser.  What comes together is less a charitable event than a disaster. Peppered with in-jokes, a fun/scary synth horror score,  and “hall of mirrors strangeness,” as writer Butler attests,  the film lives up to Rose’s hope that it would be “like nothing anyone would ever have seen before.”

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The screening of John Sayles’ classic Baby It’s You was as enjoyable as it was still cutting-edge after all these years. The film was made in 1983, but its strong performances and tight, smart, emotionally real script by Sayles are still fresh. The high school to college love affair is deftly portrayed, and the direction is emblematic of Sayles as a true “actors director.”  After the screening, co-star Vincent Spano presented the Sierra Spirit Award to Sayles. “John Sayles exemplifies the spirit and dedication of remaining independent. He has a dedication to getting films done his way,” Spano says. In graciously accepting the award, Sayles added “You don’t do these things alone. I write, direct, and edit most of my movies, but you are working with so many talented people – my favorite part of the job.”  Producing partner Maggie Renzi has worked on 14 of Sayles’ 18 features.  “We were very lucky,” Renzi says. “There used to be an art house audience and our movies fit into that niche, and then VHS happened, and you could fund anything. It was a very lively independent marketplace; you could get money for $3-million movies. Now you cant get money for $1 million movies.  It’s much harder for filmmakers today.” Sayles notes that on the positive side, access to filmmaking equipment and skilled filmmaking personnel is much easier today.  As to Baby It’s You,  which was the only film Sayles has ever done screen-tests for “”When Vincent came in, I said that’s the guy. He was just right for the part. A week before we started shooting, Paramount wasn’t sure about their actors and wanted people of their own. But I held my ground.” He also held his ground in regard to story, rejecting a studio re-edit and ending up with the film he’d wanted to make, albeit one that received limited release at the time. Spano  points out “He has a lot of faith in his actors. The character, the story, it’s there on the page, and it was pretty certain who the characters were. He gives you everything you need.” Likewise, Sayles was impressed with the work of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who recently passed away.  “He was the best operator I ever worked with…I never had to look in the camera after the third day, he got what I wanted.”

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With an after-party at the local nightspot Rafters – and live music by Jelly Bread,  day four of the fest that rocks the Sierras drew to a close, promising more fine films tomorrow.

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  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke