Lights. Camera. Action!
Six Days of Celebrating Films & Writers
by: Joshua H. Balling
The 2017 Nantucket Film Festival rolls into town June 21, with an eclectic six-day lineup that includes more than 75 feature-length and short films, and a tribute to “Spotlight” screenwriter Tom McCarthy.
Now in its 22nd year, organizers say they’ve chosen a program of narrative films and documentaries that stays true to the festival’s founding principle, to celebrate the story – and the storyteller – on the big screen.
The Sundance breakout “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy based on screenwriters Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani’s real-life courtship, will be the opening-night film. “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power,” the follow-up to Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” closes this year’s festival.
“Whitney, Can I Be Me?,” Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the meteoric rise and tragic fall of singer Whitney Houston, is the centerpiece film.
“Our goal is always to try to bring to the festival the strongest work possible. In narrative filmmaking that’s strong screenwriting, in documentaries that’s strong storytelling. It allows us to highlight a broad range of approaches,” film program director Basil Tsiokos said.
“This lineup represents that diversity. The documentaries deal with issues both serious and light, history and current affairs. On the narrative side, there’s westerns, there’s female-focused comedy, speculative science fiction and mysteries. There are films by and starring newcomers, and others with very familiar names like Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Pullman and Burt Reynolds.”
More than 40 feature films will be screened, including documentaries like “After Auschwitz: The Stories of Six Women,” Jon Kean’s examination of six women who relocate to America after their liberation from the concentration camp; and “City of Ghosts,” Matthew Heineman’s chronicle of anonymous Syrian citizen journalists who risk their lives to stand up against ISIS. Narrative films include “The Ballad of Lefty Brown,” a neo-Western starring Pullman and Peter Fonda about a sidekick forced from his partner’s shadow who must confront the ugly realities of frontier justice; and “Marjorie Prime,” starring Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Lois Smith and Tim Robbins.
For the eighth year in a row, the festival will screen a Disney•Pixar film on opening day. This year it’s “Cars 3,” featuring the voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo and Armie Hammer, which Tsiokos called “one of our opening-day traditions. I’m excited. It should be fun.”
The 2017 festival will also include a full lineup of signature programs including the annual Screenwriters Tribute, which will be presented to Oscar-winning screenwriter McCarthy, whose credits also include “The Station Agent, “The Visitor” and “Up;” “Morning Coffee With ...” conversations with cutting-edge filmmakers; “In their Shoes” MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews’ discussions with noted screenwriters, actors and directors; and the return of Ben
Stiller’s Comedy Roundtable, hosted this year by comedian Pete Holmes, with Whitney Cummings and Kristen Schaal.
New this year and replacing “Late Night Storytelling” is “Late Night Letters,” “curated correspondence” from notable writers, politicians, actors and celebrities as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, Noel Coward, Richard Burton and Conan O’Brien.
“We stumbled upon some letters that were just so well-written, then we did more digging and found more, and they just show such great writing. It’s great storytelling in its own right,” executive director Mystelle Brabbée said.
Also on the program is a 30th anniversary beach screening of “La Bamba,” presented in conjunction with the National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts, with star Esai Morales in attendance, Brabbée said.
“We want to do programming that is inviting to the Hispanic community of Nantucket, to the entire community,” she said.
TRUE TO ITS MISSION
The festival was founded by brother and sister Jonathan and Jill Burkhart, who grew up on the island, to celebrate the art of screenwriting in the world of cinema.
“The idea way back in the beginning was that writers need more say, and to be presented as important. That is the reason we are here. We knew early on that the writer ought to be presented first and foremost as the reason films are made,” Jonathan Burkhart said of the festival’s origins.
“It’s crazy. Actors and directors get all the credit in this business. When the writers write, we work. I’m a producer. I don’t get a paycheck if there’s no screenplay. The writers deserve all the credit.”
Movies that have screened over the years and gone on to wide release and critical acclaim include “The Full Monty,” “Next Stop Wonderland,” “Girlfight,” “The Door in the Floor,” “Hustle and Flow,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger,” “Life, Animated” and “Boyhood.”
This year’s lineup (visit http://www.ack.net for the complete list with synopses) was chosen from more than 1,000 filmmakers’ submissions and programmers’ choices from other festivals.
“We typically aren’t seeking world premieres. Occasionally we have them, but we’d rather show a really great film shown elsewhere that probably won’t make it to your neighborhood theater than a mediocre film having a world premiere. It’s not that we’re rescuing these films from obscurity, but we think audiences will really appreciate them,” Tsiokos said.
“A couple examples on the documentary side are ‘Monkey Business,’ about the creators of ‘Curious George,’ who escaped occupied France in World War II, and ‘Specttacolo,’ which was at South by Southwest, about a village in Italy that decided to narrativize its problems through a play. Both are about the power of art to transform lives.”
Advancements in digital technology have made it easier to produce films in the 21st century, and cable television has vastly broadened the platform on which to show them, which makes festival programmers’ jobs more challenging, but more gratifying, Tsiokos said
“It is easier to make films these days, and easier to have the opportunity to try to put them in front of eyeballs, but there’s a lot more noise out there, too. You have to suffer through the bad to find the good. It’s harder to separate the strong from the mediocre and the bad, since there’s so much out there, but that’s why we do this job. I love it. Being able to find hidden gems is what programmers live for,” he said.
“Part of the role festivals play is to put our stamp of approval on a film, and let our audience know this is something to spend your time on. Festivals are and will remain vital for that curatorial stamp of approval.”
This year’s crop of new films seemed darker than in recent years, and Nantucket programmers worked hard to provide a balanced lineup, Brabbée said. That doesn’t mean the program is full of rom-coms, she was quick to add.
“There is no question that Sundance kind of kicks off the real beginning of scouting of films for a June festival. It was immediately apparent the crop of films this year coming out of that festival was darker. There were a lot of political films, political commentaries. These films weren’t
just made in November. They’d been in the works, and maybe programmers were selecting films based on what has been going on in the world, and in our country, before and during the presidential campaign,” she said.
“For a festival in June on Nantucket, which is relatively smaller than Sundance, South by Southwest or Tribeca, we have to work harder to not have so many dark films, to have programming that’s varied, to include light-hearted films and romances.”
This year’s festival will also spotlight episodic television, where some of the best writing is happening today, Brabbée said.
“Festivals in general are having to change to accommodate where the best material is being screened, where the good writing is. Not only are we seeing it in film, but in television more and more. We’ll be screening sneak previews of shows like ‘Get Shorty,’ with Ray Romano and Chris O’Dowd. I have no idea how it’s going to land, but we have no choice but to expand with the times and the changes, and highlight the writing regardless of the vehicle,” she said.
“We’re all watching episodic TV in bed at night, or we might not even be watching TV on TV, but the need to watch good storytelling is not going to go away. Festivals have to get creative about what they are showing, and how they are showing it. There is so much good work out there.”
McCarthy will be presented the festival’s top honor, the Screenwriters Tribute Award, Friday, June 23 at the Sconset Casino. His most recent film “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s child-molestation scandal, was awarded the 2016 Oscar for best picture and won him (and co-writer Josh Singer) an Oscar for best original screenplay.
McCarthy began his film career as an actor before making his first critically-acclaimed feature “The Station Agent,” starring Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Williams. His next film, “The Visitor,” won a Spirit Award for Best Director. He also shared story credit with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson on the award-winning animated feature “Up.”
“Part of what’s exciting about Tom is that he’s smack in the middle of his career. He has huge things ahead, and a prolific career already behind him. He’s produced a lot of excellent films in not so many years,” Brabbée said.
“As a writer, director, actor and producer, he’ll be the first to say it all starts with the screenplay. Without a great script, you don’t have a great movie. His success as a director and producer lies in the fact that he writes his own material.”
For the first time, the festival assembled a jury of four writers to select the Screenwriters Tribute honoree: Barry Levinson (2012 Screenwriters Tribute recipient), Ben Stiller (festival board
member and presenter of its All-Star Comedy Roundtable), Nancy Meyers (2010 Screenwriters Tribute recipient) and Nathaniel Philbrick (National Book Award winner for “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”).
Previous recipients of the Screenwriters Tribute Award include Oliver Stone, David O. Russell,
Judd Apatow, Paul Haggis, Aaron Sorkin, Nancy Meyers, Steve Martin, Walter Bernstein, Ring Lardner Jr., Robert Towne and Charlie Kaufman.
Other honorees include Broomfield, receiving the festival’s Special Achievement in Documentary Storytelling Award, and David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, who will be presented the Creative Impact in Television Writing Award.
For complete coverage of the 22nd Nantucket Film Festival, pick up The Inquirer and Mirror. The festival program, also produced by the I&M, is available at the newspaper’s Milestone Rotary office, the film-festival box office in the Greenhound Building, 10 Washington St., and other locations around town. ///
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.