It's that time of year when the Newport Beach Film Festival comes rumbling into town like an old-fashioned traveling carnival, offering wonderment and thrills for young and old alike. The Newport fest accomplishes this without the bearded ladies or scary, toothless carnies.
After a few shaky years early on, the NBFF has improved each year, and 2004's lineup offers a baffling assortment of good stuff. You could stay awake for weeks and still not catch up with everything you'd want to see at various theaters April 15 through 25.
We'll offer extensive coverage of the festival films in the coming weeks, but this week, we kick off the fun with a look at local filmmakers who are making their feature debuts. These directors will amaze and astound you as they discuss conniving financial partners, working in the trenches at MTV, trouble with UC Irvine's crack police squad, squabbles with African embassies, getting dumped by one's wife for a clown, swimming in New Age woo-hoo, and the long journey from a professorship at UCI to the director's chair and back.
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, none can dispute that our selection of Q&A's with these up-and-coming directors is the greatest show on Earth!
Tickets to most NBFF screenings are $10 and available by visiting newportbeachfilmfest.com or calling (949) 253-2880.
RICHARD MCKENZIE, ON THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF BEING MOTHERLESS
Richard McKenzie works as a professor at the graduate school of management at UC Irvine, a position worlds away from the video-rental-clerk job that an indie director typically holds down while he works on his debut film. McKenzie isn't your typical hungry young filmmaker, but the documentary he executive produced—Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America's Orphanages—is one of the most intense and unforgettable pictures in this year's festival.
OC Weekly: Did you grow up in an orphanage? Were you adopted? Richard McKenzie: I grew up in an orphanage in North Carolina in the 1950s. No, never adopted—and never wanted to be. I had an imperfect but, in many ways, an enviable childhood, in spite of the difficulties. What inspired you to make this film?
The genesis of the project dates to late 1994, when Newt Gingrich set off a media firestorm by suggesting orphanages might be a better care option than welfare and foster care. Child-welfare experts declared Gingrich's proposal "absurd," given that they knew that orphanages of the past "damaged" the children in their care. In the middle of the debate, I wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal in which I wrote that I knew the experts were wrong in the case of my home. The alumni had done well in life and gathered by the hundreds each year for a reunion to celebrate their childhoods. I was overwhelmed by e-mails, faxes and phone calls, mainly from alumni of other orphanages from all over the country who wrote to make two points. First, to say "right on." Second, "my orphanage was better than your orphanage." The alumni told me wonderful stories about how they also gathered each year in greater numbers for their homecomings.
I followed with surveys of more than 2,500 alumni from 14 orphanages. My findings stand in sharp contrast with conventional orphanage wisdom from the child-welfare experts: the orphanage alumni have outpaced their counterparts in the general population by wide margins on almost all social and economic measures, not the least of which are education, income and attitude toward life. The film idea followed easily from my being asked to speak at several orphanage homecomings. I knew this was a story that needed telling.
Nowadays, people are used to confessing all sorts of things about their lives, but that's not always the case with older people, who grew up in a more restrained time. Did you have any trouble getting your interviewees to open up about some of the dark subjects in the film?
There was no problem at all in getting the cooperation of the alumni. They were eager to tell their stories, knowing that they represented a dying group. We were able to put the alumni at ease by simply putting them in rooms in front of the cameras for two hours each and then following several alumni around their campuses, allowing them to explain the emotions various places evoked. We also filmed at the reunion dances and other events.
The film presents a very balanced look at orphanages; it's generally very positive, but you don't pretend that bad things didn't happen.
The film does not attempt to candy-coat the orphanage experiences of yesterday. The alumni tell stories that range from the good to the bad to the ugly. It is real, as we intended it to be. At the end of the first weekend of filming at an orphanage reunion, one of the cameramen found himself overwhelmed by what he had been hearing from the alumni all day. He asked, puzzled, "Why aren't there more homes like this today?" Perhaps many viewers will ask the same question on seeing the film.
What are you working on next?
Do you really want me to tell you about my economic-policy books I have under way? I plan to see what I can do to keep my day job at UCI.
Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America's Orphanages screens at Edwards Island, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach. April 20, 4 p.m.
MICHAEL SLÁDEK'S ALTERNATE REALITIES
Michael Sládek's strange, irritating, potent debut picture, Devils Are Dreaming, follows a frustrated, wannabe artist named Joseph who finds himself pingponging around in various realities, getting glimpses of other paths his life could have taken. Sládek's own life has taken many paths; the Newport Beach native appeared in theatrical productions at Laguna Playhouse and South Coast Repertory before he moved east and spent a few years working behind-the-scenes at MTV News. He's directed music videos, worked (off-camera) in the porn industry, and currently manages the Brooklyn band Stupid, which composed Devils Are Dreaming's hypnotic soundtrack. We won't be stunned if Sládek changes careers again sometime soon, but we hope he'll stick with this director thing long enough to make a few more films.
OC Weekly: What was the genesis ofDevils Are Dreaming?Michael Sládek:The project started as two separate ideas. The first was a story I was developing about a young couple, deeply in love, both working in the porn industry. The second idea was about members of an experimental theater company who have problems with their arrogant director. Eventually, I decided to merge the story ideas into one. Both were based loosely on my own experiences in the porn and TV worlds as well as in theater. How autobiographical was this story? Have you gone through periods of feeling like a failed artist? There was something about Joseph's desperation that made it seem like it came from a very deep, personal place.
The project is autobiographical in a number of ways but is linked by highly fictionalized circumstances and characters. [Joseph's situation] definitely came from deep feelings of my own, having run the gamut of creative endeavors over the years and at times feeling totally at a loss with my own abilities vs. the outside world's demand for success above all else. I believe most people go through this kind of breakdown at some point in their lives, wherein we stop, look around, and take account of where we are vs. where we thought we'd be or would like to be. [We] often feel like we've literally woken up as a different person than we'd expected.
I liked the film, but I was sometimes frustrated by it in the same way I'll sometimes be frustrated by the new wave filmmakers of the '60s. As much as your film sometimes drove me nuts, it really stuck with me. There's definitely something special there.
The film treads a fine line between alienating the audience and keeping them emotionally interested and entertained. In many ways, frustrated interest is what I was going for as a response from the audience so as to help them identify with Joseph's personal frustrations. My hope is that people will care enough about Joseph and find enough humor in the film to stick with it and that the film's pacing, imagery and music keeps the viewer from thinking too much about the pit of confusion in their stomach.
Was working at MTV a happy experience? Do you have any dirt on the VJs? Is Kurt Loder a coke fiend? Did Tabitha Soren do Jell-O shots off the bellies of interns?
I spent three years at MTV News and had a great time working for Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, John Norris, Serena Altschul and Chris Connelly because all of them are such great people. I probably would have bailed out on MTV much earlier than I did if it weren't for how cool they all were to me; I never had any desire to work there, let alone in TV. The only thing I miss is that regular paycheck and the benefits. I don't miss my cubicle at all.
Almost every first-time filmmaker makes a few spectacular blunders during the process. Looking back, what was your biggest mistake?
My favorite mishap was when we were shut down by Irvine police on our first day of shooting because we had our lead actor, Stephen Donovan, running through the UCI campus in his underwear and a robe, wielding a large kitchen knife. The shot we were doing was extremely wide, so Stephen had to run really far away from us over and over, and someone on campus eventually called the cops because all they saw was this redheaded, half-naked maniac running by with a knife. I managed to B.S. our way out of a ticket.
Devils are Dreaming screens at the Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach. April 19, 3 p.m.
THE FIVE STAGES OF BEER IS KILLING BRIAN MIX SOFTLY
Local boy Brian Mix's affable little ensemble picture The Five Stages of Beer is a romantic comedy with plenty of snark to ground it in reality and keep it interesting. It's not the kind of movie that rocks anybody's world, but the dialogue has the lazy charm of Kevin Smith on a good day, and it's certainly refreshing to see a contemporary American comedy that looks at love from the straight-dude point of view without including a few dozen fart gags.
OC Weekly:Out of all the stories you could have told, what inspired you to tell the tale of a man whose wife leaves him for a clown?Brain Mix:We set out to write a script that we could make with the assets we had. My partner Mark knew a guy with a bar, and he knew a band. I knew a guy with access to a good camera and another with a grip truck. And we both had a friend whose wife really did leave him for a clown. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. We took those assets, wrote a script and made The Five Stages of Beer. To be honest, I thought the writing and directing of this film were better than the performances, which I found more inconsistent. How did you first find your actors, and what did you think of how the performances turned out?
First, thanks for the compliment, but considering what they were up against, I think the actors were outstanding. Most were [members of the Screen Actors Guild] out of LA. You have to understand that a typical independent movie is shot over two weeks or more, about 18 to 30 shooting days. If they are really good, they can get 10 pages of script shot in a day. Which is great; I mean, Hollywood only shoots one to three pages per day. On The Five Stages of Beer, we had nine days to shoot total—consecutive days, no less, and on many of those days, we shot 16 pages! What I'm getting at here is that these were strangers who had to act like best friends. We shot the bar scenes pretty much sequentially, and I think you can see the chemistry build among the players. For a group of professionals thrown together for one week to make a feature film, I think they did a tremendous job. At the end of the movie, you feel for these characters. Maybe it's because they do build their performance, and they grow on the audience as they grew together on the set.
Why did you only have nine days?
Because we were borrowing all our crew off their regular jobs, and they were borrowing gear. So we decided we could only hold them down for one week. We shot Saturday to Sunday, straight through nine days. That was all we could afford, and we wrote the script to be shot that way. I think that was our strongest asset. We knew going in we'd have to keep the sets down to a bare minimum and keep the scenes close and conversational.
With such a fast shoot, it would seem like there must have been a lot of stress and the potential for disaster.
The only close call I can think of is that Sam Upton, the guy who played Mick, is a real kickboxer. During the boxing "date," Sam kept goading Jenya Lano, the actress playing Audrey, to really smack him. She did try, and we had visions of a late-night rewrite to incorporate a black eye or busted nose. That was very close to a full-contact scene. I wish we'd shot it last.
What sort of humiliating ordeals did you go through to get financing?
Mark and I made a little money before the tech bubble burst, and we used that to finance the film. Well, that got it through production and editing. Much of post and marketing has been coming out of our pockets since we wrapped. It's kind of like bleeding to death in a warm bath. You don't really notice . . . until suddenly your credit card bill comes, and then you're dead.
The Five Stages of Beer Screens at the Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach. April 19, 5:30 p.m.
RIP-OFF ARTIST NEARLY HARSHED JIMBEAU ANDREWS' MELLOW
Jimbeau Andrews, the writer/producer of the new surfing documentary Nihi, grew up in Orange County, graduated from Saddleback High and was a lifeguard for the city of Laguna Beach for 12 years. His Aloha Films offices are located in Laguna Beach. His film looks at Hawaiian surfing legend Titus Nihi Kinimaka as well as the more spiritual side of surfing.
OC Weekly: How did you first encounter Titus Nihi Kinimaka?Jimbeau Andrews: He and I met when I interviewed him for a Tow In film titled Strapped. We kept in touch after that, and I continued to visit him when I returned to the Islands. Our friendship grew, and in 2001, I became his business manager. I'm sorry . . . a "tow in" film? Strapped is the name of a Tow In surfing movie I produced. "Tow in" is when a surfer is towed into a wave by a jet ski. While I can appreciate the aesthetics of surfing, I can't understand why anybody would actually want to risk his life splashing around in the ocean like that. I simply do not get it. How do you explain the appeal?
As an avid surfer, I can understand Titus' devotion to surfing, and I have a sense for what drives him to risk his life in pursuit of his sport. The dedication that he has applied to his sport reflects the choices he has made in his life. I feel individuals like Titus thrive off the penultimate experiences in their sporting lives. And to a certain extent, the more capable they become, the more pressure they feel to push the limits of their skills.
Were there any mishaps in the production of the film, either in the ocean or out of it?
When I went looking for production funds for Nihi, I was told repeatedly that the investment in a surf film was too risky. The crucial ingredient is cash, and when I found our angel financiers in Gregg Gaynor, Jonas Price and Aaron Egger, I couldn't have been happier. Unfortunately, we had another partner at the time who misappropriated these funds and set back our production plan by three months. I thought it was all over then, but the money came back just in time, and we jumped into production. But then our finances snagged, we ended up getting one-third less than we planned, and we ran out of money to finish the edit.
Jeez, that sounds like a terrible scramble.
It was May 1. We had arranged for a premiere at the Playboy Mansion for May 15, and we didn't have the money to finish the edit. Enter angel No. 4, Dr. Mark Fortune, whose contributions saved the day. But we needed the days and all the nights to finish. I remember being stuck in Lakers' NBA Finals traffic at 5 p.m. on the 10 freeway, and the premiere [was scheduled] at the mansion at 6. The sound engineer called to say that my company credit card didn't process, and he couldn't release the master he had just finished. That hole in my stomach didn't fill until a courier handed me the master at Hef's gate with less than a half-hour to screening. We had so many angels help out in this production that I truly feel this film was destined to be made, with or without me.
Nihi screens at Edwards Island, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach. April 17, 1:30 p.m.; and at the Orange County Museum Of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach. April 17, 3:30 p.m.
WALTER CRUTTENDEN'S ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE The Great Yearfeatures the combination of two documentary genres I'd typically cross county lines to avoid. It's equal parts somber, Discovery Channel-style science doc and one of those mystical, astrological, hippie dealies of the Chariots of the Gods school. Yet somehow these two genres work surprisingly well together; the film's seriousness and scientific rigor help to mitigate a lot of the New Age woo-hoo, while the more wacky stuff spices up the dry science. Screenwriter Walter Cruttenden has lived in OC since 1960, "when it was nothing but farmland and you could get a wave all to yourself!" He consented to an interview and was commendably polite in the face of my smart-ass questions. OC Weekly: Where did you first get the idea for all of this "Great Year" stuff?Walter Cruttenden: As a young boy, I always wondered why there is all this evidence of ancient cultures that mysteriously disappeared. The ancient Indians, the megalithic builders (Stonehenge, etc.), the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians and hundreds of other cultures around the globe seemed to decline into a worldwide Dark Age. Then, after a thousand or so years, the Renaissance began, and civilization was back on the rise. My teachers in school did not have a good answer [for this], but one day, I found a book by an Eastern Indian sage, Sri Yukteswar, and he mentioned that the rise and fall of civilization was due to our sun's motion around a companion star (meaning we are in a binary star system) and that this motion was also the cause of precession. So I set up a research institute to check this out and found there were a lot of problems with the current theory of precession . . . and lo and behold, it turns out the binary (sun) theory solves many of the problems! Doing further research, we found that consciousness, and therefore civilization, could indeed be affected by a stellar source, and furthermore, the myths and folklore of most ancient cultures describe this pattern of rising and falling ages based on the movement of the heavens. I thought, "How cool!" And then [I] determined the best way to tell the story was through film. You obviously have a lot invested in putting across this idea. Where does that come from? Why does it matter so much to you?
I had a bit of luck with investments and founding a few banking firms, which I sold to Fidelity and E*Trade, so it seemed right to give something back through our nonprofit organization and try to resurrect some ancient wisdom. Hey, the world needs it! It was Plato who coined the term "Great Year" to describe the cycle the Earth and man go through during the 24,000-year precession period, where the equinox can be seen moving through each of the 12 houses of the Zodiac, one every 2,000 years on average. Astronomers and astrologers alike agree we are at the dawning of the "Age of Aquarius," and the ancients said this is a time of positive change—although change is often preceded by misunderstanding or turmoil.
I've never taken astrology very seriously, but one of the things I liked about your film was that it wasn't pushy about it, and you obviously tried to be as scientific as possible. What inspired you to take that more rigorous approach, instead of the more typical, mystical approach?
I never thought much about astrology myself, but it is clear the electromagnetic spectrum of our nearest star [the sun] has a profound effect on life on Earth. So, it did not seem that far-fetched to think that if we are in a binary system and moving in and out of the EM [electro-magnetic] field of a nearby star, it, too, might have an effect on man much like our own sun causes the seasons. Turns out there is a whole bunch of highly acclaimed research papers to support various facets of this hypothesis. I just thought it time to tell the story.
How did you go about securing James Earl Jones to work on this film? I did find myself wondering, "Does he believe in all this stuff?"
We just called up his agent and asked if James would narrate this at a nonprofit rate, and he said, yes, if he liked the subject. We sent off our script, waited a few weeks and finally heard that James loved the subject. After that, it only took him one day in a New York studio to do the narration on the then almost-completed film.
What part of the film are you proudest of?
Just finishing and hearing the comments from some of the viewers is the most gratifying thing. Some people even said they cried with happiness as they realized the implications. That feels good!
The Great Year screens at The Orange County Museum Of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach. April 20, 6 p.m.
ROB AITRO AND THE SCHLUB WHO WOULD BE KINGTogbe tells a story that sounds like a lowest-common-denominator comedy: an average white guy visits an African nation, is stunned when the locals proclaim him the reincarnation of their king, and suddenly finds himself ruling 300,000 people. But Togbe is not some laughless, Tim Allen comedy; it's a documentary. Sometimes life is stranger than anything Hollywood can dream up, as filmmaker and Fullerton native Rob Aitro explains. OC Weekly:When did you first hear about this crazy story?Rob Aitro: From producer David Klawans. He was my college roommate. David surfs the web, searching for true stories to make into films. He came across this story of an unemployed Dutchman who was found to be a reincarnated king in Ghana. He e-mailed me the story while I was crashing on somebody's floor at Sundance. We got the rights to film this man's life, and three months later, we were off to Ghana. What was the most difficult stage of getting this picture made?
We arrived in Amsterdam ready to start production before traveling to Ghana. A bomb was dropped on us when we discovered that Henk Otte, our main subject, was being denied a visa to travel to Ghana by an offhand remark he made in an Associated Press interview. So there we were: an entire film crew ready to fly to Ghana, and the entire production is ready to collapse because the embassy wouldn't release his visa. Then, without getting into detail (because we want people to go see the movie), things ended up working out.
Oh, come on! You say something like that, and of course I'm going to want to hear all the details.
Well, the crew decided to take a chance and fly to Ghana with Henk Otte's wife and son and pray to the gods that the embassy would finally give him his visa. It was absolutely crazy; we flew to Ghana not knowing if Henk Otte was ever going to arrive. If he didn't show, there would be no film. However, we were determined as a team to finish what we started. We had faith that sooner or later, the Ghanaian Embassy would give him his visa. The problem was that now we were all in Ghana without our subject matter and we hadn't budgeted enough money to spend the time without him there. Anyway, the embassy did finally give Henk his visa about a week later. Ironically, one of the better scenes in the documentary is his emotional arrival in Ghana. That's the beauty of documentaries: you never know what you're getting yourself into.
If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
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The biggest mistake was not realizing the amount of time it would take to complete this documentary. This film was shot in the summer of 2000, and it took three years to have the cut we were all pleased with. We always knew we had something special and that people were connecting to the film's subject, but, man, there were times it was so grueling. But we never stopped believing in the project. We had developed such an attachment to the man in the film, his family and the people of Ghana that we didn't want to let them down.
What part of the film are you proudest of?
I'm most proud of the unexpected things we found while we were in this African village, the history of these people, the effects of Christianity on their culture, and just to be able to show their struggle to survive and their amazing, happy and optimistic attitudes in dealing with the realities of their existence. I'm most proud the film shows the spirit of these people. . . . I think we, as Americans, can learn a lot from them. The response we have had from various screenings has really inspired us and made it all worth it.
Togbe screens at Edwards Island, 999 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach. April 18, 1 p.m.