Festival Wrap: A Weekend Film School, Spaceballs Screening and Joe Pantoliano at Sunscreen Film Festival 2017

Through its unprecedented success on both the festival circuit and mainstream awards platforms, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has become the flagship film of Florida moviemaking.

Yet, though everyone seems to agree on the importance of this year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, locals are aware that beyond the glitz of Miami, finding visibility and opportunities for local storytellers is still an ongoing crusade. Fortunately, despite the state government’s reluctance to support the film industry through a tax incentive plan, there are hubs of hope. Actively providing guidance for aspiring creators, and determined to develop a sustainable cinephile culture in the city of St. Petersburg, the Sunscreen Film Festival (its 12th edition running April 27-30, 2017) has become one of the bastions in the fight to not only bring back production into the state, but to make St. Petersburg stand out.

To complement their features and short films programs, most festivals include a handful of conferences, panels or masterclasses, but few approach these sections in the comprehensive manner that Sunscreen has done for several years now. Comprising 16 workshops over three days and touching on all significant aspects of the process—such as acting, directing, producing, marketing, pitching, screenwriting, financing and legal procedures—this event offers, essentially, a weekend film school.

Over the years, organizers realized there was a thirst for these sessions: Locals wanted to learn about the industry and connect with likeminded people in the area. As Founder and St. Petersburg Film Commissioner Tony Armer puts it, “It’s great for anyone interested, but especially for people who have busy lives, or who never had the chance to film school and have no time to do so now, but still want to make movies.”

“That’s a huge part of what separates this festival from the rest,” says Programmer Joe Restaino about the Sunscreen crash course. “They are well-attended, and we have first-class speakers and directors.”

One of the acting-focused conversations, “Discovering the Male Voice,” included Robert Davi from James Bond (who also received the Lifetime Achievement Award), Joe Pantoliano (Memento, The Matrix), Don “The Dragon” Wilson (Batman Forever) and R. Marcos Taylor (Straight Out of Compton, Baby Driver). Its counterpart panel, “Discovering the Female Voice,” feature Daphne Zuniga (Spaceballs, Melrose Place), Selenis Leyna (Orange is the New Black), Edy Ganem (Devious Maids) and Eugenie Bodurant (The Hunger Games). In both cases, the discussion centered on surviving constant rejection, capitalizing on every role, continuous preparation, and the longevity of a career in a brutally competitive field.

Sessions dealing with marketing and social media, as well as one specifically tackling cause-related documentaries and spearheaded by producer Steve Michelson, were also popular among attendees. Professor Dave DeBorde from Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL served as moderator.

The weekend’s centerpiece, however, was the “Pitch Your Script!” class presented by UCLA’s Tim Albaugh, who has also worked as a consultant for Pixar. According to him, brevity and clarity are the two elements behind a great pitch. Rambling is the most common mistake made by “pitchers” in the professional world. They key, he says, is to “pitch a story about a person who has a problem and what they do to solve it. Nothing more and nothing less.”

Among a lengthy list of dos and don’ts, Albaugh also advised listeners to never pitch ensemble pieces or period pieces, as their complexity or budgetary needs tend to scare off potential supporters. It’s not that those stories aren’t worth being told, but they might not be as “pitchable.” While making a personal connection with the audience is pivotal and will support the story’s universality, the seasoned writer noted that the worst thing you can say about your script is “it happened to me.” The emotional relevance a story has to the writer is unimportant if it gets in the way of getting the point across clearly. Once Albaugh finished presenting his tips, a large number of audience members got to pitch their screenplays to a group of representatives from HBO, Sideshow Media, DC Comics & Entertainment, and other experienced indie producers.

Unsurprisingly, one of the final workshops dissected the challenges posed to filmmakers in the state, given current legislation regarding film production. Like other states in the South, such as Georgia and Louisiana, Florida once had a tax incentive program that attracted major projects, which provided opportunities for local students to be on a professional set and to build bridges with other production centers. Since that program’s recent sunset, the only alternatives have been incentives designed locally, like the one St. Petersburg is able to provide.

Besides his role at the festival, Tony Armer is also the film commissioner for the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, and has pushed to use the city’s incentive for web series and digital content to still support artists, even with limited resources. “We are going to make this happen anyway; you just gotta make it happen in a smaller way,” he adds. He understands that the large-scale studio projects might only come back to Florida if the incentive returns, and so is focusing on bringing smaller productions into the city. “I have half a million dollars set aside and, depending on what the project is, I can go up 20 percent in tax incentives, so I actively bring small features here. Instead of bringing one $10-million film, I’m bringing five to 10 films to which we can provide up to $100,000 each.”

Armer travels to Cannes every year and fronts a booth representing his city among countries from around the globe. His is the only American city to have a place among international booths, rather than partaking in the market’s designated American Pavillion.

For Restaino, who goes through more than 700 films for the festival and still has trouble finding many Florida-made features, this problem will not last forever. “I believe it’s a cycle, and eventually there will be more really good independent films again made here.” Restaino is also a filmmaker and producer himself, and worked on this year’s closing night film, Albion: The Enchanted Stallion, a fantasy epic directed by Castille Landon.

Film highlights included a 30th-anniversary outdoor screening of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, followed by a Q&A with star Daphne Zuniga. The actress received the Best Actress Award for her role in Those Left Behind, a drama that had its regional premiere at Sunscreen. Starring John Leguizamo, Colombian prison tale Perros by Harold Trompetero snag the Best Latin Film Award and was one of the most talked-about films at the festival. Josh Helman’s directorial debut Kate Can’t Swim, which had its world premiere at Slamdance in January, stood tall as the Audience Award recipient.

Veteran actor Joe Pantoliano (L) at the Sunscreen Film Festival 2017

The recipient of the Legacy Award, Joe Pantoliano, was as much of a character throughout the festival as in his most memorable performances. To celebrate the unassuming actor’s accomplishments, Sunscreen Film Festival hosted an afternoon screening of Joseph Greco’s 2006 feature Canvas, one of the actor’s few lead dramatic portrayals, which is set in Florida. Speaking frankly, Pantoliano, mostly known as a character actor, revealed that his decision to star in Greco’s first feature was initially to counter the criticism towards some of his previous work.

“Myself and everybody else on The Sopranos, many years ago, were taking hits from the Italian-American groups saying that as actors we shouldn’t have played parts that give a negative connotation on Italian-Americans,” he said. “I was upset with that because, I thought, a great part was a great part. There was a part of me that was upset with that observation and I thought, this was a character that could be a good antidote for what I had done as Ralph Cifaretto. I took the job for those selfish reasons.”

Since Greco was a first-time filmmaker, Pantoliano wanted to protect himself. He agreed to play the part only if he could also serve as producer. He also convinced actress Marcia Gay Harden to co-star with him as a woman suffering from schizophrenia. Before making the movie, he admits, the actor had never paid much attention to mental illness because he personally hadn’t known anyone affected. Prompted by this memory, Pantoliano opened up about his own addiction to prescription drugs and his struggle to overcome it.

Unanimously acclaimed, one of his best roles was handed to him by Christopher Nolan, who cast him his debut, Memento, as Teddy. He fondly recalled his days working with the visionary director: “For Memento we rehearsed a lot and we had a very short schedule. I think we shot that movie in 23 days. Chris and his wife [and the film’s associate producer] Emma Thomas, for my scenes with Guy [Pearce], used three days to block them with Wally Pfister, the DP. We would talk about what was required in a small garage office. We would restructure scenes. [Nolan] is American-British, but he was raised in Britain, so we Americanized a lot of my dialogue. We’d shoot Monday through Friday, and then Saturday and Sunday we would go to our small garage office in California. Guy, Chris, Emma and I would go there and we’d fool around and improvise. Emma would type it all up and that was what we would shoot the following week.”

Another of his great working relationships, and perhaps the longest one, is with the Wachowski siblings. Pantoliano worked with them on their 1996 debut, Bound, their subsequent landmark film The Matrix, and more recently on their Netflix series, Sense8. “They were very charming, and they were able to mold you in a unique way,” he said. “In terms of communicating with an actor, first-time directors find that a lot of actors don’t like to be given line-readings, but they were doing it in an over-the-top, kabuki-type fashion. It was so much fun to watch and they got what they wanted.”

Anecdotes galore ensued, including many about his love-hate friendship with Robert Davi, but what Pantoliano emphasized most was his gratitude to those that have joined him along his way. “I’ve been very lucky to be picked by really smart filmmakers, especially because they were first-timers. If they were second-timers they wouldn’t have hired me,” he laughed. A truthful remark to end the fest. MM

The 12th Sunscreen Film Festival ran April 27-30, 2017.

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