It's been a good three years since I last chatted with the people behind the Salt Lake City Film Festival on this blog, and let's be honest, they've kinda missed me ... kinda. --- The nonprofit fest got its start in 2009 with nothing more than a handful of films and a couple of screening locations for people to check out films over the summer, and have since grown to taking over The Tower, The Broadway and Brewvies for a four-day extravaganza of indie cinematic fun. This year marks the fourth-annual event, with triple the films kicking off on Thursday, Sept. 20, and if the world really does collapse into nothing come December, at least they're having fun with the prospect of being the last great film festival to hit Utah.
Today, SLCFF organizers Matt Whittaker and Chris Bradshaw, Resolution co-directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, Off Label co-directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, and Cartoon College director Josh Melrod, discuss the festival itself and some of the films you can check out this weekend. (All photos provided by either the directors or SLCFF)
Matt Whittaker, Chris Bradshaw, Josh Melrod (seen below), Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (seen below)
Gavin: Hello, everyone. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Matt: My name is Matt Whittaker. I'm the co-founder/executive director of the Salt Lake City Film Festival. I'm a Salt Lake native with a background in film production, acting, music and nonprofit administration. When not working for free, I work for free doing other things, like playing music and being married.
Josh: I, along with Tara Wray, directed Cartoon College, a documentary that follows a group of students struggling to make it at an incredibly rigorous cartooning school. This was my first movie as a director and Tara’s second. Before filmmaking, we used to edit and publish a literary magazine in New York. We’re also married, though we weren’t when we started making the movie.
Chris: I'm Chris Bradshaw, artistic director for the SLCFF and freelance filmmaker.
Michael: Justin and I live in Portland, Ore., and have been making films together for over six years.
Gavin: Getting right to the film festival side of things, that last time I chatted with you was during the first year. How has it been for all of you working on the fest over the years up to this fourth one?
Chris: At this point, we know what we are doing, we've done it many times over and so there are very few surprises. I like being able to tackle our objectives and move things forward with community partners, sponsors, and years of information at our fingertips. Our first year, we had to feel our way around and figure out how to accomplish our goals. Now, we get to push the boundaries.
Matt: I can't speak to this for everyone, but for me, personally, it has been a gaggle of ups and downs, challenges and worthwhile results. I had no idea what I was getting myself into the first year. Sometimes that type of ignorance is definitely bliss because once the magic wears off, you realize that this thing needs to be nurtured like a small child ... and you can't just pawn it off to society when it turns 18. For some of us, our dedication to this effort remained strong, while for others there was a degree of disenchantment -- not so much with what we were doing; rather, how hard it was going to be to get to where we wanted to end up. Fortunately, over the past four ... yikes ... years, I have had amazing people who stuck with it and continue to dedicate a lot of time to a collective passion -- and collective headache.
Gavin: Since starting, how have you seen the festival impact the local film community, both for patrons and players?
Matt: Well, initially, at least with other community-based film organizations, we experienced a fair degree of pushback. That seemed odd to us, as we have never sought to take over anything in the community. We just wanted to add our specific piece to the puzzle. For crying out loud, give Salt Lake City an ACTUAL film festival that touts its name! That's why we're here. Fortunately, the pushback has subsided over the years, which has allowed us to create some amazing partnerships with amazing people and organizations. We are all so interconnected now and it's critical that we continue to stay connected. As for patrons, it's so awesome to see people just show up to screenings. Rarely -- if ever -- do people leave our films disappointed. Again, the SLCFF is not focused on the obscure; rather, the best overlooked films out there. That's not to say that we only select films that have smaller festival runs. Many of the films premiered at top-tier festivals. Our bent is that the films shown at SLCFF are Utah premieres and that's about it.
Chris: It's always overwhelming to sit in a theater full of people laughing or crying and realize that they are not going to just simply walk away from this screening and forget all about it. A lot of the films we've shown impact people on a deeper level than Hollywood fodder can. That's the beauty of indie film -- it's boundless and fearless.
Gavin: Being a nonprofit and working outside of the other major film festivals, you've had a lot more challenges to overcome as far as promotion and programming. How hard has it been meeting those challenges and pulling off the festival every year?
Chris: It's been ... emotional. But once we had our board of directors in place, everything came together. We are really lucky to have their experience and leadership.
Matt: It's an interesting dynamic with the nonprofit piece. It opens so many doors, but also opens an entirely new floodgate of responsibility. On top of that, we as staff expect things to change ... and to become easier. It's just not that way. However, with our distinction as a nonprofit, we are now poised to solidify the foundation of the festival and hand it off to the community. What I mean is that with our newly appointed board of directors, Chris and I can continue the day-to-day affairs and allow the board to steer the festival into the future. I have always had this dream that in 20 years -- long after I have left the festival -- I can come back to 24th annual Salt Lake City Film Festival, which lasts 2 weeks at 20 different venues, etc. The festival is so challenging to pull off. A four-day event with 25 sub-events -- screenings -- is no easy task, especially when the work, preparation and coordination is done on nights and weekends.
Gavin: You've steadily been pushing the fest back from summer into the fall. Why the slow push over time, and are you looking to become a part of the winter festivals one day, or would you prefer to remain independent?
Matt: We have NO intentions of ever becoming a winter festival. We found over the past four years that an August festival is limiting in terms of both interest and scheduling. Competing with other events is not something we aim to do. In the past, however, that is exactly what we did. And as our marketing budget pales in comparison to some of the events we have been competing with in years past, this time around, we did as much due diligence as possible to ensure that competing events were limited. Not to mention that September is so nice! The weather is cool; the leaves are changing. There something so cinematic about that image, especially for a film festival.
Chris: No, sir. We figured we were missing out on the college demographic, so we pushed it back to September, when school would be back in session.
Gavin: For this year's festival, you'll be at the Tower, the Broadway and Brewvies. How has it been working with those venues and putting together a solid schedule?
Chris: Brewvies is amazing -- just amazing; whatever we need, Andy, the manager, makes it happen. The Salt Lake Film Society always goes the extra mile to make sure our screenings and events are seamless; they treat our event as if it were their own
Gavin: While we're on the topic, how has it been pairing with the Salt Lake Film Society to promote the festival and bring it to a wider audience through its venues?
Chris: They do whatever they can to promote our event; it's just good business for everyone.
Gavin: This year, you've got a nice addition of local films including Intro and Must Come Down.
Chris: We do indeed; I'm really excited about them both. The one film I really don't want anyone to overlook is Resolution; it's one of my personal favorites this year -- drama, horror, comedy all wrapped into one perfectly constructed masterpiece.
Gavin: For the directors, how did each of you get involved with filmmaking, and how was it for you learning the craft?
Donal: Mike is a self-taught filmmaker, who has worked in everything from digital effects to music videos to short narratives and, now, documentary. I'm a photographer and began working in film when I collaborated with Mike on the feature October Country. We both think the real question you should ask is, “How IS it learning the craft?” Filmmaking is ever-changing and we are constantly learning -- at least, we hope.
Josh: I used to make little camcorder movies when I was a kid, and spent one year as a film-studies major in college before changing my focus to writing. Part of the reason for the change was that I discouraged myself into thinking that making films was too hard. Tara, meanwhile, went to see a documentary called To Be and To Have one afternoon in 2004, and came home with the idea that she would make a movie, which she then did. It was a doc called Manhattan, Kansas, which I helped her produce, and it premiered at SXSW in 2006. She helped me see that it’s completely possible to make movies and that this is what I should be doing.
Aaron: I got started making Star Wars fan films with my friends in sixth grade, and until my film-school education at FSU, I was self-taught through Internet forums, as well as trial and error. I had the strange fortune of learning the craft before the art, although, fortunately, one comes closely behind the other. Because of this ,I've always been strongly attracted to the visual side of filmmaking. After seven years of directing, I was almost solely a cinematographer for three years before I started moving back into directing with Justin.
Justin: I studied film in college, but the majority of my filmmaking education has come from just saving up money by working random jobs and using that money to direct films.
Gavin: Where did each of you get the ideas for your films, and what made you decide to film them?
Josh: In 2005, Tara read an article about the cartooning school, The Center for Cartoon Studies, in The Boston Globe. It had just opened its doors and was attracting a lot of famous cartoonists as visiting faculty, people like Chris Ware and Lynda Barry, who we’re both fans of. The school is in this really small town, White River Junction, Vermont, and we thought than anyone willing to pick up and move to this out-of-the-way place to study comics must be really dedicated, and such people seemed like good subjects for a documentary. We spent a year convincing the school to let us make the movie, and when they finally agreed we moved to Vermont.
Justin: I spend about five hours a day writing everyday, so it's increasingly hard to pinpoint where the ideas come from. In the case of Resolution, though, it was a story written to best suit myself, Aaron, Pete and Vinny -- our two leads, as well as the resources that we had available to us, such as the cabin and the amount of money in my checking account. Also, I like the idea of telling a "cabin in the woods" story in the "woods" that I knew growing up in San Diego, and always love creating new mythologies totally different from the well-worn path of vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc.
Aaron: We don't get to travel around to film festivals and deduct the trips on our taxes if we don't make films that get into them, so there's not really much of a choice there.
Michael: The ideas come from various sources and in various ways. Our first feature came from Donal's photography, and the original idea for Off Label was suggested by our producers, who were intrigued by the idea of human guinea pigs and drug testing. In the end, though, the films go through such an intensive exchange of ideas between the two of us that they become very much their own product no matter what their origin may be.
Gavin: What was the process like in putting your films together, from initial filming to the final cut?
Donal: Off Label began while our first film was entering festivals. We filmed across the U.S. and edited off and on for four years, with the last two years being really focused on binging the film together. It was daunting work at times.
Josh: It took a long time. The original premise for the movie was “a year in the life of a cartooning school.” We shot for a year, then edited for nine months, and then realized we needed to shoot more. So, we went back to shoot for another year. Then Tara got pregnant and we had twins, so that slowed us down a little. I pulled seven months worth of all-nighters to make the rough cut. Then we went back to New York to finish the movie with another editor, Chris Branca, who is excellent. In all, the project took us five years.
Aaron: I've been involved top to bottom with a lot of films, and Murphy's Law seems like it's always in effect. For some reason, Murphy took his law and went elsewhere for Resolution. Besides some minor hangups, it was just a smooth movie. Never easy, but few roadblocks. It's nice when a film is so small you can just run on the steam in your engines and not have to wait on a billion other things. It's not the only way to make a movie, but in this case, the gamble paid off.
Justin: Extremely smooth. We worked with some wonderful people, and Aaron and I are extremely self sufficient due to a collective 20 years of DIY filmmaking.
Gavin: Had either of you entered film festivals before? And if so, how was your experience with them?
Aaron: I had been to youth film festivals before my film-school education, but never anything like what we're doing now. I loved those festivals to death, of course, but youth festivals and mainstream genre fests are in completely different circuits.
Justin: We've both had short films play smaller festivals, but Resolution is our first experience playing so many great festivals. In all sincerity, there is nothing more fun than film festivals.
Michael: October County premiered in Los Angeles and won the U.S. Grand Jury Award at Silverdocs. It went on to play festivals worldwide. Off Label premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is following the same path. We are pretty seasoned at festivals, and it’s always a pleasure to show the films and meet other filmmakers. Making films can be isolating work, but the festivals are the cure for that.
Josh: Manhattan, Kansas played close to 30 festivals all around the world, starting with SXSW, and we were fortunate to go to a lot of them. We’re still early in our festival run for Cartoon College. It premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival and has played at maybe eight others so far; we have a lot more upcoming this fall and early winter. There have been a lot of great festival experiences for us. We’ve gotten to travel a lot, and it’s always fun to watch the movie with an audience and see and hear their reactions.
Gavin: What caught your eye about the Salt Lake City Film Festival, and what made you decide to enter it?
Donal: Our producers had a great experience at the festival a few years ago with another film of theirs, MARS, and they thought OFF LABEL would do well with audiences there. SLCFF has quickly become a really good regional film festival known for its bold programming.
Josh: We had a bunch of people from the area write to find out when the movie was going to play in Salt Lake City, so it seemed fortuitous when the festival requested a screener.
Justin: The programming from years past looks great, and it appears to have a really cool, scrappy spirit in support of films that take risks.
Gavin: What's your take on this festival and what do you think of the other films being shown?
Michael: The lineup at the festival looks really strong and varied. That’s always an exciting thing.
Josh: It’s cool to be part of a young festival like this one. The lineup is fantastic; there’s nothing stodgy. Color Me Obsessed, the Replacements doc, is a movie I really want to see. And it sounds like there are a lot of excellent shorts. Abandoned In Space, the one that’s on the bill with our movie, is in 3-D and looks pretty cool.
Gavin: What are everybody's thoughts going into this year's festival?
Josh: We’re just happy to be a part of it, and to make our SLC premiere here.
Donal: Off Label takes a very personal approach to a national issue. We are very excited to know how SLC audiences respond.
Gavin: Aside from your films and the fest, is there anything you'd each like to promote or plug?
Aaron: We have three more scripts ready to go that we're just now seeking financing and co-production for. They're all like Resolution in tone, but wildly different in plots. One's more of an action/horror, one's a romance, one's a western. We are also developing a few projects with some established companies, as well as a TV show and an upcoming short film. And yes, our doors are still open for business, too.
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