Director Joe Dante Shows Sierra Spirit

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At the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, held  May 25 through 29th, director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Innerspace) received the first annual Sierra Spirit Award. We interviewed Dante, learning about his past, his films, and his future plans.

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What inspired the director to get started in filmmaking? His love of cinema of course.

“I wrote about movies, I watched movies. I never really thought I would end up making movies – I thought the process would be too hard. I remember seeing Lord of the Flies in New York in 1963. I saw it many times. I went back, and I counted the shots, and I thought, I can’t do that, it’s too hard, I’ll just write about movies,” he laughs.

Dante enjoyed his first job as a trade reviewer, but when friends moved to Los Angeles to work with Roger Corman, they encouraged him to join them.

“They said come out, see what you might like to do. So I did, and I started editing trailers. You really have to cut to the essentials with trailers. Some films were good, some weren’t, but the other trailer editor, Allan Arkush, and I both learned a lot from working on them all.”

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Above and below, Dante receives the Sierra Spirit Award from longtime friend and ensemble actor Robert Picardo, who hilarious played the role of “Cowboy” in Dante’s Innerspace.

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Eventually, Dante and Arkush asked to make their own film. They decided on the title Hollywood Boulevard, and put together a film that followed the iconic formula of many of Corman’s genre pictures at the time. The script riffed on the “three girls” formula popular at the time.

“We made our three girls starlets as opposed to nurses and teachers. But all the films basically it was three girls having adventures and taking their clothes off. Making them starlets, we could use existing action footage from disparate trailers, jungle settings, Bonnie and Clyde type settings, sci fi, we had actions scenes for all of that. We wrote the story around the stock footage we had access too, and basically cast our three girls in each of these types of film. It ended up being a pretty accurate depiction of being a starlet and making movies in the 70s,” he recalls.

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Above, Dante chats after receiving his award with Robert Picardo and festival programmer Paul Sbrizzi.

Although the film had a limited release – “just another movie thrown out into the drive-in world,” Dante says – later it was considered to have a “certain charm. But it’s so politically incorrect it’s embarrassing.”

But without having crafted the film, Dante says he wouldn’t be talking to us today.

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“We went back to editing, but the trailers improved because Roger was distributing some quality films by directors like Fellini and François Truffaut,” Dante relates. “We wanted to make more films ourselves. Two projects came up: Piranha, and Rock n’ Roll High School. I preferred the latter, but Allan wanted that project, so I got Piranha.”

Piranha marked the real start of Dante’s career.

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“It came to me as not very good script, but John Sayles was one of the talented young people on Corman’s short list. He was hired to rewrite it, and added a lot of satire to it and some political angles, both of which pleased me. We made a somewhat unexpected take on what would’ve been a drive-in movie exploitation film otherwise. It kind of got me noticed,” Dante says self-deprecatingly.

Dante has had a recent series, Splatter, produced for Netflix, and he says the film industry itself has changed; he prefers to come up with his own ideas and projects and work on his own funding. “Things are so different today. No one comes to you with a script and says let’s make this movie. They come up with a project, and if you’re interested you become attached to it while they try to raise money for it using your name. You spend more time begging for money than you do filmmaking.”

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Regardless of how the process has changed, Dante lives, breathes, and loves movies, calling the movie-going experience itself a spiritual one.

His filmmaking sensibility is finely honed. “Writing reviews in the late sixties and 70s , I covered such a cross-section of films, even porno films. I had a really good handle on the business, I didn’t even realize I’d put away as much knowledge about the movies as I had, and it really helped me in Hollywood.”

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His magazine writing also contributed to the respect Dante shows to his writers. He’s well known for providing remuneration in the form of a small on-screen part simply to get the writer on-set.

“It started with Piranha. I wanted John Sayles on the set to work things into the script that I’d found when we were scouting locations. I like to have the writer around, and the only way to get them on location is to give them a part.  It’s important to have the writer there to rework or add to a script. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage,” Dante asserts. “With Piranha, we used a ‘resort’ called Aquarena Springs. There were dancing chickens, and Ralph the Swimming Swine as a part of the attraction. I wanted Sayles to add the location into the script, so I brought him down to our location.”

With many of Dante’s films depicting fantastical elements – such as the miniaturization premise of Innerspace, which screened at the festival as part of the tribute to Dante,  we asked what the director would do now when it comes to such elements.

“It’s difficult to do something like that now,” Dante ruminates. “Everything has been done really, including self-aware movies like Scream, that have highlighted all the cliches. It’s hard to come up with something new and still give the audience the kind of genre film they want to see. There’s a limit to how far you can go off the beaten track,” he notes.

He cites Cabin in the Woods as an example of a film in which “they turned audience expectations on their head, but that’s tricky to pull off, although the audience gets more for their money so to speak. Still, that script sat on the shelf for three years before it was produced.”

One aspect that affects filmmaking today most strongly, Dante believes, is the use of technology, from drone shots to CGI, which the director didn’t have when he crafted Innerspace. Instead, he relied on actors, a witty script, and techniques from well-crafted models to break-away clothing to handle the action. “Today, technology is the tail that’s now wagging the dog,” he says. “It’s the reason we get the movies we do, in order to utilize it.”

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Above, Dante, Festival Director Shira Dubrovner, and actor Robert Picardo.

As to Innerspace, even without today’s technology, the story holds up, the script is bright and fast paced, and the limited effects used still play well without looking dated. “It works,” Dante attests. “The comedy holds up. Originally they wanted it to be a straight spy movie, but I thought it was too silly.  So it became a comedy.”

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A comedy like much of Dante’s work, which has stood the tests of time and technology, reflecting the director’s intelligence and creativity and entertaining generations of film goers.

  • Genie Davis; All Photos: Jack Burke

 

Cinema Classics New and Old: ML Film Fest Day 3

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Above: Sierra Spirit Award recipient director Joe Dante, festival founder Shira Dubrovner, actor Robert Picardo at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

Saturday  – our third full day at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival started with terrifically insightful and fun interviews with Alex Simmons, director of Buddymoon and star/co-writer Flula Borg. That interview, along with a great session with director Joe Dante, awarded the first annual Sierra Spirit Award, will be published separately.

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Onto the films:

First up was Bodkin Ras,  in which an isolated Scottish town becomes a temporary hiding place for a fugitive, Bodkin.  Bodkin is  the only character played by an actor, all other characters are actual inhabitants of the Scottish town. Surprising twists and turns in a beautifully evocative setting make this a must see, directed by Dutch filmmaker and writer Kaweh Modiri. The combination of documentary story telling and narrative fiction was perfectly woven, resulting in a startling conclusion as inevitable as it is shocking.

Next up,  the short film I Would Like to Be Enraptured, Muzzled and on My Back Tattooed, a powerful  Brazilian short about a woman who may prefer to die than keep on living in her highly sexualized yet anonymous world. It made a great lead in to All the Colors of the Night, another film from Brazilian cinema, directed by Pedro Severin. The surreal yet somehow wonderfully novelistic story of a woman who discovers a dead body in her apartment the morning after a party, it’s a poetic tale related by shifting and unreliable narrators, as stunningly shot as it is haunting. There’s a Bunuel-like quality to the film, which will have you considering its realities long after the credits roll.

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Director Alex Simmons, left, and film co-star Flula Borg of Buddymoon, above

Buddymoon is unabashedly my favorite film of the festival, an inspired, loose comedy about friendship, the priorities of modern life, and a hiking trip undertaken by protagonist David and his best friend Flula after David’s fiancée dumps him just before their wedding.  Witty, fresh, and perfectly paced, this is a comedy that well deserves a scheduled mainstream release July 1st. Pitch perfect acting, dialog, and a lovely use of drone cinematography results in a comedy that has depth and never gets tired.

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Above, great give away “Honey Buddy” T-shirt from the film, which was originally titled “Honeybuddies.”

Director Alex Simmons has created documentaries and music videos for bands such as Death Cab and Sigur Ros, but this is his first feature. Simmons and stars Flula Borg and David Giuntoli were once roommates in LA, who had always planned to create a film together.  Giuntoli currently stars in ABC’s Grimm, the shooting schedule for which led to the team’s decision to shoot in the Portland area where the television show is also in production.  Produced on a shoestring budget and equally limited time frame, the economies of craft do not show on the screen.

“We had a crew of six,” Simmons relates. “All of us had so many different jobs. “ Flula Borg adds, “My job was counting everyone’s jobs.”  While shooting was accomplished in just ten days, it took Simmons two years to edit. Watch for this sweet, hilarious film in both theatrical release and on iTunes;  interview with the filmmakers  coming shortly to this site.

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Above: Robert Picardo with Joe Dante

The evening brought a tribute to director Joe Dante, who started his career working in independent cinema as an editor and director for Roger Corman.  Screened was the still-fresh Innerspace, a hybrid comedy-thriller with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Martin Short, and Robert Picardo. Crossing genres in such a thoroughly entertaining way is rarely done in mainstream cinema today, and this was a refreshing look at a purely fun genre film that was a true experience in clever storytelling.

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Following the film was the presentation of the Spirit Award to Dante, a truly iconic director. A lively discussion with Dante, actor Robert Picardo, who plays The Cowboy in Innerspace, and festival programmer Paul Sbrizzi included references to the extreme differentness of studio production today. “No one just comes up with a script  and asks if you want to make a movie. Now they come with a project, and if you’re interested, they try to raise the money with your name  attached. I prefer coming up with my own ideas and getting funded on my own. You find yourself spending so much time asking for money rather than filmmaking,” Dante says. A full interview with Dante, including his early filmmaking career in the indie world, will be appearing shortly on this site.

Summary:  arguably the strongest day of the fest so far, the ML Film Fest continues to surprise with challenging and exciting international films, a tribute to a true cinema icon, and the presentation of a comedy that is as fresh as it is funny.

It’s not too late to come up from LA or down from San Francisco and see what tomorrow’s Sunday closing has to offer. The relaxed and personal vibe of the festival creates experiences with filmmakers as comfortable as they are exciting. Cinemaphiles: take note.

  • Genie Davis; ALL PHOTOS Jack Burke

Film Lovers Nirvana: Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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Film buffs should head to the mountains this memorial weekend, as May 25 through May 29, The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival is serving up a bevy of unique films and festival favorites.

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The annual fest is opening for the second year in a mountain setting perhaps a little reminiscent – there is a ski season, and there are independent films on screen – of the Sundance Film Festival, but with a more intimate vibe.

Shira Dubrovner Festival Founder

Festival director Shira Dubrovner, above, is currently the artistic director of the Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre, but spent 17 years working in film here in Los Angeles. After successfully producing theater in Mammoth Lakes, with the help of her programming director, LA-based filmmaker and film programmer Paul Sbrizzi, Dubrovner started her film festival last year. Sbrizzi has programmed for Slamdance, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Outfest.

“I picked an amazing programmer who has programmed for fifteen years. He really knows how to identify amazing films and find raw talent,” Dubrovner says.

After moving to achieve a “more community-based lifestyle,” she worked exclusively producing theater in Mammoth Lakes. But Dubrovner says she missed working in independent film,  reached out to Sbrizzi,  and the fest was born.

Mammoth makes a great location for a festival. As a ski resort just five hours north of LA, many industry pros have second houses here, Dubrovner notes, resulting in a solid support system of filmmakers.

“Since we put on the festival, people have started coming out of the woodwork in terms of contributing to the idea and giving back to the community,” she says.

One such local, cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen, connected Dubrovner to her first sponsors, Red Digital and Panavision.

This year, the festival is showing over 50 films, including Saturday morning indie cartoons for children, 17 feature films, and 40 shorts.

“Around 20% of our films are world premieres. After the first year, Movie Maker Magazine named us as one of the top fifty festivals worth the entry fee, and that helped us to create a nice balance between festival favorites and obscure films that have not been seen. We’ve grown in the number of films we’re screening this year, but I like to not bite off too much more than I can chew, and become a well-oiled machine rather than growing too quickly,” Dubrovner explains.

One new addition is the festival’s Spirit Award, which this year is going to director Joe Dante. “He came out of the indie film world, starting in Roger Corman’s camp. We thought he would be the perfect recipient. He’s never been to Mammoth, but I think he’s going to fall in love with the area,” Dubrovner laughs.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Unimedia Images/REX Shutterstock (2586013a) Joe Dante Joe Dante at the Nocturna Film Festival, Madrid, Spain - 09 Jun 2013 Joe Dante was honoured at the Nocturna Madrid Fantastic Film Festival
Photo by Unimedia Images/REX Shutterstock (2586013a)

The Spirit Award event will screen Dante’s classic film Innerspace, followed by an award presentation, an in-depth Q & A with Dante and actor Robert Picardo, and a lively after-party.

The festival hosts all of its attending filmmakers, and some 26 films are sending directors, producers, and actors to the festival. Along with accommodations and festival passes, these filmmakers will be taken on excursions in the area, including a private tour to the ghost town of Bodie.

“It’s kind of like giving a party, you want all your guests to have a good time. I really want them to leave revved up, ready to move on to the rest of their career, and reconnected to nature. That does something to the spirit that is undeniable. I’m excited and proud to be a part of that experience for them,” Dubrovner reports. “Our filmmakers come first. We like to screen risk taking, unapologetic films made by creative, artistic people.”

But the festival director wants not only to inspire filmmakers, but her audiences as well. “I want them to leave still thinking about the stories and images they’ve experienced, so that it is a continuing process for them that doesn’t end when they leave the theater.”

Operation Avalanche
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Among the festival’s top picks are the quirky, engaging, opening night offering, Operation Avalanche, set in 1967, and involving the moon landing, Soviet spies, and stunning conspiracies; the intense Beware the Slenderman, the story of an Internet bogeyman; and closing night, Sonita, an inspiring story about Sonita Alizadeh, an 18-year-old Afghan refugee in Iran.

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Beware the Slenderman

“We have a mix of all different styles of filmmaking which support the indie film world,” Dubrovner says. “We schedule many films that haven’t been seen elsewhere, films that are edgy and push the limits.”

All but one venue are within walking distance of each other, making the festival’s logistics as personal as its warm director. Dubrovner has created a festival in which attendees can easily interact with filmmakers, and vice-versa.

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“We want to create an intimate and accessible experience for everyone. We kind of leave Hollywood at the entrance to the town, and just get back to everyone’s creative roots. When you’re inspired in a natural setting, the walls come down, it’s just artist to artist, filmmaker to audience. Accessible and intimate, that’s what I love,” she says.

As do most filmmakers and film lovers. So get ready to hit Mammoth mountain – where a still-new film festival is offering cinematic marvels alongside the region’s natural ones.

While many screenings are filling up, there are still tickets and passes available. See http://www.mammothlakesfilmfestival.com/#!mammoth-lakes-film-festival-tickets/cq53 for more information.

Note: We’ll be reviewing the festival lineup and covering the inaugural Spirit Awards as well.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Courtesy Mammoth Lakes Film Festival and Unimedia Images