Phoenix Film Festival!

Standing under the poster at the party pavilion.

The last six months have been rather wonderful. To date, we’ve traveled to four film festivals (Shriekfest, Eerie, Nevermore, and now Phoenix/IHSFF), and each experience has been a positive one. We’ve been treated well by the organizers and staff, met some great fans and filmmakers, and seen some terrific films. Phoenix was no exception.

DAY 1:

The festival itself takes place in three separate spaces, that are part of a large (huge, actually) strip-mall. The Harkins Plaza cinema is a multiplex – and very well maintained, with good seats, tasty popcorn, and decent-sized theaters. The ticket office is located a short walk away, and the main event space – the “Party Pavillion” – is in another event hall at the mall. Several vendors and companies rented tables in the Pavillion. They also ran events and kept a bar going. On Sunday, a miniature version of the local Comic Con occupied the space. Having a central hang-out is a great thing – it lets filmmakers and audience members connect more easily, and provides some space for the occasional chill-out.

1PM: EDUCATIONAL PANEL

At 1pm I was on an education panel, talking to about a hundred high school students about independent filmmaking. This was a lot of fun. I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, I was in great company – Leya Taylor, the DP and producer of Found., Alev Aydin, star/writer/producer of Lonely Boy, Ben Shelton, writer/director of Waking…, and Gerry Santos (producer) and Drew Thomas (writer/director) of Channeling. The event, organized by Bob Marquis, was really focused. The students asked some really good questions. We talked about preproduction, coming up with creative solutions to budgetary problems, and the “glory and grit” of independent filmmaking. Scott Schirmer, director of Found., recorded some of it – you can find it here.

Found.

Then it was off to see a film I’d been wanting to see since meeting Scott, Leya and some of the team down at Nevermore – Found. This film is great. Our hero is a twelve-year-old boy, who’s being bullied at school and trying hard to figure out who he is. Oh, and his older brother is a serial killer. It’s a coming of age story, a meditation on the nature of horror and sexuality, and a family drama, all wrapped up in one disturbing package. Winning performances, great cinematography, solid writing – and they made it for $8000, with a tiny crew. This film is tearing up the festival circuit, and deservedly so. It won the Best Horror Feature at Phoenix!

Then I wandered over to the Party Pavilion, met up with the great folks from Sader Ridge – and hung out with them and walked the vendor booths. There were some pretty cool folks there, setting up shop, including the Arizona Film and Media Coalition (azfilmandmedia.org), who are fighting the good fight to keep production in Arizona; the Phoenix chapter of the IFP, who are doing a great job of putting educational events together (ifpphx.org); and the local Screen Actors Guild chapter.

Sader Ridge

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to check out Sader Ridge while at the festival, but Matt Medisch (writer/producer) and Jeremy Berg (writer/director) gave me a screening copy, which I watched later. This is a really terrific film! It’s also one of the more unsettling psychological horror stories I’ve seen in a long while. When Samantha inherits a house from the family she never really knew, she takes a trip to inspect it and the surrounding property. But as soon as she arrives her memories start coming back to her – or are they hallucinations? Her friends start acting strangely – or is she witnessing normal 20-something jealousy? As her sanity starts to unravel, she has to figure out what’s real and what’s not, and where this trip down memory lane is leading her. It’s done really well, with an emphasis on building tension. The film features some really strong performances, and beautiful cinematography, music and sound design. It’s also having good luck on the festival circuit.

After checking into the hotel, freshening up a bit, and grabbing a quick bite of *delicious* Mexican at Filiberto’s, it was off to the Friday night screening of Found In Time. The film got a good reception, and the audience asked some great questions afterward.

DAY 2: Lonely Boy

I managed to drag my ass out of bed early for the 9am screening of Lonely Boy, and I was very glad I did. This is a wonderful film. Written and starring Alev Aydin, directed by Dale Fabrigar, and produced by Alev and Troy Daniel Smith, this was a beautiful portrait of Frank, a man who’s trying to date while in the middle of job, family, and psychological crises – he has schizophrenia. This film somehow threads the needle – it portrays Frank, the lonely boy, as a real human being, and not just as an object of horror, ridicule or slapstick humor. The performances, editing, music, direction – it was all totally there. Good stuff.

Channeling

Suddenly it was time for Channeling, a really terrific sci-fi/thriller written/directed by Drew Thomas, and produced by Laila Ansari, Gerry Santos, Thomas, Kelly Andrea Rubin (co-producer), and Kip Brown (post producer). This is a “near-future” sci-fi film that combines a lot of different genres, and does it well. The “gimmick” is an EyeCast, a camera that works like a contact lens – it affixes itself to your eye – and livestreams what you see to the world. The more radical things you do, the larger your follower stats. A lot of eyecasters want to get sponsorship. But how far would you go to get it? When one “bad” brother is killed while EyeCasting (an accident that might really be a murder), his older sibling comes home and assumes his identity, to try and figure out who did it and why. Good performances, a really slick (in a good way) look, and a compelling story make this is a really enjoyable film.

Shorts!

I took a break from features to check out some shorts, and was suitably impressed. A few standouts: Life on the River, by Chris Remerowski, was terrific. On the surface it’s a gritty drama about two homeless people who end up camping out by a river, which becomes a kind of sanctuary for them. But who are they? Where did they come from? The twist is too smart to reveal here. The cast is really good and the music is haunting.

Menschen also gets a special shout-out. It was written and directed by Sarah Lotfi, whose last short The Last Bogatyr was a national finalist for the Student Academy Awards. Menschen follows an Austrian captain who’s trying to keep his remaining troops alive at the end of World War II. Desperate for shelter and recooperation, they occupy a farm. A woman and her developmentally disabled son live in the house. After a raid by partisans, the boy loses his mother. The captain, to everyone’s surprise, takes the son under his wing, and takes him with the troops. This has to be one of the most unusual World War II films I’ve ever seen, and it really works. It’s touching without being maudlin, and feels very curent despite being a period piece. And it looks damn more expensive than it cost, thanks to some very sharp technical and producing work.

After a delicious dinner at the local diner with the Found. and Sader Ridge crew, I caught Errors of the Human Body. It was a very good film, but it didn’t really draw me in. The basic idea is that a famous, but now disgraced, American cancer researcher ends up working in Germany, invited by his former grad student (and crush) to work on an exciting new tissue regeneration project. But there are other folks at the lab with less benign motives, and our hero is fighting the inner demons from his past.

After seeing the film I was able to catch up with the Channeling team a little more and talk about the film and their work. Then it was off to bed.

DAY 3: Found in Time Again and Panels

The last screening of Found In Time, at 11:55am on Sunday, sold out! The crowd was very generous and had some terrific questions. The projection was noticeably better as well – I was told later that the bulb in the other room was a bit old (it’s amazing how much of a difference these things make).

Then it was off to check out the panel discussions. First up was the “Writing Horror” panel, which featured Scott Schirmer and Leya Taylor from Found., Matt Medisch from Sader Ridge, David Pruett, director of the Dark Carnival International Film Festival, and Tara-Nicole Azarian, who at the age of fourteen has directed several award-winning horror shorts. They had some really good advice on writing horror, working on a budget, how to make it compelling and scary (instead of merely gory), and why it’s such a good genre to work in. Check out the YouTube video of the panel.

I was on a panel with Gerry Santos from Channeling and Professor Carl Varnado from Scottsdale Community College, moderated by sci-fi writer, Sci-Fi Programming director, and cool guy Mike Stackpole, on world building. This was a LOT of fun, as we dished about sci-fi films that “got it right,” those that “got it wrong,” how to build a believable world on a budget, and other topics.

There was much more to this trip – friendships started, conversations had, food eaten – but that’s all I can fit in one blog entry. The staff at the Phoenix Film Festival were just awesome, and they made us all feel very welcome. This is one of the key things about festivals – if the staff is cool, then everyone else is too. All the filmmakers I met were generous with their time, answering a ton of questions from me (where did you shoot/what did you shoot on/how long did it take you to post/etc.). I can’t say enough good things about the experience, so I’ll just stop now. Until the next festival!

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