Hands Up: Spotlight on Whistler Film Festival 2017

While accepting an award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists at the Whistler Film Festival in 2013, DIY indie filmmaking queen Ingrid Veninger made a bold (and ballsy) plea for a $6,000 donation to help fund the development of six micro-budget films by women.  Two hands immediately shot up. They were Melissa Leo’s hands. Yes, that one. “I’ll do it,” the Oscar winner said.

“Melissa Leo standing up at the Whistler Film Festival was a pivotal moment not only for me, but the six female filmmakers in the pUNK Films Femmes Lab,” recalls Veninger.

One of the features that helped get made as result was Veninger’s own, Porcupine Lake, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and recently screened at the Whistler Film Festival—coming home to where it all began. “Melissa was our champion before advocating for gender parity was on everybody’s agenda. She lit the room on fire and inspired the six of us to write six new original screenplays in six months.” Lucky six.  When Veninger finished writing “Porcupine Lake,” Leo was the first, outside the Lab, to read it (and is an exec producer on the film). “She told me it was a story for every woman who has grown up, and that inspired me to keep going. In Melissa Leo we had a champion who we respected and admired.”

(L to R) Sophie Deraspe, Danishka Esterhazy, Michelle Latimer, Ingrid Veninger, Mars Horodyski, and Anais Granofsky of the pUNK Films Femmes Lab

Things like this happen at the still-growing but feisty festival where one moment you’re casually slinging beers with a famous star, another you’re skiing down the slope alongside an exec, and another making deals on a gondola.

The festival is also known for being particularly female-friendly, with 30% of all feature films directed by women and initiatives like Women in the Director’s Chair Industry Immersion, Women on Top Breakfast, Women in Film + Television (WIFTV) Vancouver Film Market Preparation Mentorship initiative, and of course, the New York-based Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ) EDA Awards.

“The Whistler Film Festival catapulted me into a network of female filmmakers fiercely committed to creating a body of work beyond that first or second feature,” says Veninger.

The whole process of making Porcupine Lake, from writing to casting, scouting, production and post, was captured in Julian Papas’ observational documentary, The Other Side of Porcupine Lake.

Kyra Sedgwick made her directorial debut at WFF

A familiar name stepping into less familiar territory was actress and producer Kyra Sedgwick, who attended the festival with her directorial debut, Story of a Girl. Sedgwick was also honored with the Artist Spotlight and Luminary Award.

Despite acting since age 16 and producing her first film at 27, Sedgwick admits to being apprehensive about directing. “I was scared,” she says, “I didn’t think that I’d know how to tell a story visually—I know the difference between great directors and shitty directors and I really didn’t want to be a shitty one.”

She didn’t even want to be a good director. “If I couldn’t be great, I didn’t want to do it.”  In the meantime, she kept re-directing movies she worked on in her head.  Finally, her husband, who happens to be Kevin Bacon, said, “You have to direct. I don’t know what it is that you’re afraid of but whatever it is, it’s not real, it’s just a story you’re telling yourself and you’re going to be a great director and I guarantee you’re going to be able to do it and, more importantly, I think you’re going to absolutely love it.”

So she did.

Poster for Sedgwick’s Story of a Girl, courtesy A&E Networks

While pitching another project at Lifetime, they asked if Sedgwick had a passion project she happened to want to direct. “It flew out of my mouth: Story of a Girl, I want to direct it.”

You see, Sedgwick bought the book back in 2007 and has been trying to make it as an indie film ever since.  She almost had given up. “People weren’t getting it,” she explains, “They didn’t think it had enough fireworks.” But to Sedgwick, everything that was happening on the page was one explosion after another.

What resonated most with her was “how hard it is to be a girl and all things and all versions to all people.” There’s been a renaissance of sorts as of late when it comes to female-focused storytelling from Lady Bird to Wonder Woman.

“It’s such a huge untapped market,” says Sedgwick, “In many ways it’s a man’s world and we have concentrated so much on telling boy stories—boys coming-of-age, boys going to war…I hope it’s the beginning of a trend. There’s such depth of story and feeling and a universality to [a lot of] these stories.”

“We’ve looked at art through the eyes of men for thousands of years. Far more famous men have come out from the literary world, the art world, the film world … it’s a man’s world, and women are still finding their voice.”

As to the idea of attaining perfection?

“You have to fail,” Sedgwick insists, “you learn more from your failures than your successes and perfection is elusive, and personal, and subjective—what does it even mean?” Directing became less to her about being perfect and more about being as real as she could possibly be every single moment to find the most authentic version of the story she wanted to tell. “That’s what I ultimately strove for, not making it perfect, which would have gotten in the way of every single creative instinct I had.”

Bill Pullman in The Ballad of Lefty Brown, courtesy A24 Films

Another familiar face at the Whistler Film Festival was actor Bill Pullman who was honored with an Artist Tribute and Achievement Award, and found his inner-cowboy as a sidekick who sets out on a dangerous journey to avenge his partner’s murder in Jared Moshe’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown.

“Doing a western is a bit like doing a Rorschach test,” jokes Pullman, “an opportunity to see some of your identity inside it.”

To him, Westerns are reflective of American culture. “Usually there is some aspect of them that you always question,” he says, “how does this thing set in the past reflect on who we are as a country now?” The mythology is so clear, explains Pullman. “The individual vs. the community, the rule of law and the importance of that—all these things, all these questions are relevant, especially now when the rule of law is in question in America. As much as it is a period story, people who are curious about going to see it are also curious about what it has to say.”

Like his character in The Ballad of Lefty Brown, who faces unforeseen challenges in a later chapter of his life, Pullman has embraced his own when it comes to work.

“This film was very scary to me in some ways,” he admits, “being that vulnerable at that age, not being the MAN, having everyone say that you’re the fool and not competent … inhabiting that space is really scary.”

But Pullman not only thrives on the challenges, he considers himself fortunate to have them. “I’ve been lucky to have gotten some challenging things lately.”

These days, there’s not much intent in how he chooses role. “You never know what will be given to you. It’s not so much does this role fit something that I’m looking for, it’s more about what’s this script, is it telling a story that’s interesting and I get compelled by in some way. And then I fit myself inside it.”

“It’s easier for me to say no to something,” he says. “I don’t have to do everything that’s offered to me. There will be another actor who will come along for whom it’s going to be the most important thing in their life.” 

The Whistler Film Festival’s Audience Choice Award this year went to the opening film, Darkest Hour and popular, sold-out screenings included The Disaster Artist, and I, Tonya.  Hardly a surprise. For some festival-goers, an unexpected treat was a live burlesque show following the screening of Becoming Burlesque.

Other cinematic highlights include Kate Novack’s doc The Gospel According to André about Vogue editor André Leon Talley, Alan Zweig’s Inuit documentary There is a House Here. A Worthy Companion starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jonathan Baker’s Becoming Iconic, and the last movie to star Sam Shepard, Never Here.

Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch event also returned this year and attendees got to hear first-hand from scribes such as Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan (Chappaquiddick), Maggie Betts (Novitiate), Dorothy Blyskal (Clint Eastwood’s upcoming The 15:17 to Paris), Samuel V. Franco and Evan Kilgore (Keeper of the Diary), and John Whittington (The LEGO Batman Movie). MM

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