NBFF: Smaller, Shorter & Uncut

The fabled film festival has learned that less is more

NBFF: Smaller, Shorter & Uncut

The first—or close to the first—filmmakers I ever interviewed were these two guys who had made a couple of short films and were just then breaking out their first feature. We were all around the same age; one fellow had gone to high school in Newport Beach while the other graduated in Laguna Beach, but they had not met until college, at UC Berkeley, if memory serves.

Anyway, Scott McGehee and David Siegel were nice guys, intelligent, articulate and very serious about their little indie, black-and-white, mistaken-identity thriller Suture, which hit the festival circuit in 1993. It was about a luckless fellow who agrees to assume his wealthy half-brother's identity, but then loses his memory and is disfigured after his bro tries to blow him up (so the villain, who'd already murdered his father, could essentially kill himself off).

The plot had all the great elements of modern noir, but the greatest twist of all involved the casting. The bad half-brother was played by Caucasian actor Michael White; Dennis Haysbert, before he was cast as the first African-American president on 24 and the Allstate Insurance pitchman, gave a hauntingly tortured performance as the good half-brother. None of the other characters, including the blast victim's doctor, played by thirtysomething's Mel Harris, notice that Haysbert is black and White is, uh, white. It was up to the audience to watch colorblind to appreciate a ripping good yarn.

Riley Kern


Visit newportbeachfilmfest.com for show times and more.

McGehee and Siegel would go on to make better-known pictures that unfold slowly, just as the films of the European masters who no doubt still influence them. Their next film, 2001's The Deep End, is a murky gem with Tilda Swinton playing a Tahoe City mother who tries to cover up what she believes to be her high-school-senior son's murder of his gay lover. That was followed in 2005 by the filmmakers' much-lauded Bee Season, in which the marriage of Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche falls apart while their daughter, played by an amazing young actress named Flora Cross, competes in a spelling bee.

Compared with Suture, The Deep End and Bee Season were fairly traditional, but McGehee and Siegel's next project, 2008's Uncertainty, returned them to unusual storytelling form: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins are a young couple with a child on the way who run off in different directions on the Brooklyn Bridge. Each reach separate realities, with one having them visiting her family in Brooklyn, and the other getting them involved with a criminal in Manhattan.

What Maisie Knew, McGehee and Siegel's latest, is a modern retelling of the Henry James novel, starring Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård and Steve Coogan. It's also a Spotlight selection on April 26 at the 14th annual Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF). I haven't seen it, but I am confident it's the kind of uncompromising work the fest and filmmakers are known for. (Festival programming director Amanda Salazar told me it's "challenging.") What Maisie Knew is also the kind of film that rose to the top when programmers of the April 25-May 2 NBFF made their final selections based on this cue from previous audiences: Give us less.

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Years of growing what's become one of Orange County's top cultural events since its 1999 founding—out of the ashes of the Newport Beach International Film Festival—led to more and more short and full-length feature, documentary, and/or foreign films being programmed, until the 400-film mark routinely appeared in the festival's rearview mirror.

This year, there will be about 350 films from more than 50 countries. The reduced count is not because of a poorer quality of submissions—quite the opposite, according to Salazar. She explains that in the past, finding screen time for 400-plus films required multiple showings at earlier weekday hours over the multiday event. Those were, frankly, hard to sell and lightly attended. Showing that many films at several different venues—Fashion Island, Edwards Big Newport, Triangle Square, Orange County Museum of Art, Sage Hill High School, the Port, the Lido—also presented technical problems, as finished (or nearly so) entries arrived at the festival office in various formats. Not all venues were open before the 2012 festival to test the flicks on the various projectors. Despite crossed fingers at the public screenings, glitches wound up canceling some showings.

Then came the customer surveys, which indicated a desire for more screenings on weekdays, when people can actually make them: after 5 p.m. In recent years, the festival had at least four screens showing films beginning around 3 p.m. on weekdays. So, for 2013, the decision was made to take this baby step toward a brave, new, less-is-more world: Nothing is being shown before 5:30 p.m. on the opening Friday (April 26); the weekend stays the same (programming begins at 11 a.m. both days); April 29 and 30 have three films going off sometime in the 3 o'clock hour. Then on May 1 and 2, it's back up to four, although some are repeats of films that screened earlier in the week.

"We're trying it out," said Salazar, who has assumed the director's role previously occupied by her colleague Erik Forssell. He became the all-new director of operations to ensure (fingers crossed until numb) each showing goes off without a hitch. Forssell told me his first order of business was to ban projector-munching Blu-rays.

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