Now in its 32nd year, the Mill Valley Film Festival is dedicated to screening the best in independent and world cinema. Taking place October 8 – 18 in Mill Valley, California, the 11-day festival sells more than 40,000 tickets each year and welcomes moviemakers from across the globe. This year’s opening night selections include the much buzzed-about Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and The Boys Are Back, starring Clive Owen. With its gala celebrations, workshops, panels and seminars, as well as the opportunity to mingle with moviemakers in a breathtaking San Francisco Bay Area setting, it’s no wonder Screen International named Mill Valley a Top 10 U.S. Film Festival.
MM recently caught up with festival founder Mark Fishkin to discuss this year’s exciting festivities.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): How did the fest originally get started?
Mark Fishkin (MF): The year was 1977; I had just moved to Marin County to try my hand as a screenwriter. I was cognizant of the prolific artistic community in residence, and appalled that many filmmakers were not having their work screened in any meaningful context. The town of Mill Valley is beautiful and oozes charm; I was reflecting on all of this, having just returned from the budding Telluride Film Festival.
The local film community at the time was coming into its own. George Lucas was here, as well as Michael Ritchie, James Broughton, Larry Jordan and many others. John Korty had an office in Mill Valley. Carroll Ballard was using George Lucas’ estate to edit The Black Stallion. It was such an exciting time. There was a huge void to be filled, and so a group of dedicated volunteers and I leaped over the chasm to create what is the Mill Valley Film Festival.
MM: Mill Valley is known as a “moviemakers’ festival.” How has it gained that reputation?
MF: The first look for any filmmaker is an incredibly important moment in the life of their film—the presentation must be excellent. For example, we have devoted immense resources to ensure that the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, one of our two main festival venues, is the ideal environment for film.
As part of our long-term strategy, we have recently facilitated the purchase of the Sequoia Twin theaters in Mill Valley, our original venue for the MVFF. We will not be the operator at this time; however, our long-term vision is to provide a similar standard of excellence at the Sequoia as we do at the Rafael.
Our commitment to the filmmaker goes beyond the physical and economic to something much more personal. Program director Zoe Elton and (as well as the other programmers) encourage conversation with filmmakers before the festival; we ask what do they perceive will be the outcome from their involvement with the festival? We encourage candid conversation regarding the possibilities during and after our festival or the festival cycle.
The symbiotic relationship between the Film Center and the Mill Valley Film Festival is also unique: For some festival films, their future might include theatrical distribution at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. As one of our yearly goals, we target a specific number of MVFF alumni to have a theatrical run at our venue.
MM: This year marks Mill Valley’s 32nd anniversary. What’s the secret to the fest’s longevity?
MF: There is no particular secret, except perhaps to “know thyself.” Don’t try to be something that you’re not, and pay the highest attention to detail within the framework of your resources. Accentuate your strengths, and try to be as honest as you can.
MM: Can you reveal any films or events at this year’s festivities? Anything you’re particularly excited about?
MF: Mill Valley has a reputation as a balanced film festival; integral to the curatorial process is the importance of including a wide range of films. Our emphasis has always been on honoring the art of film. We are proud to honor two exceptional actors with tributes this year. Uma Thurman, who has delighted audiences worldwide for over 20 years, will be honored and feted in conjunction with a screening of her new film, Motherhood. We will also honor Woody Harrelson, a gifted, dynamic actor who invests the most varied of roles and films with exceptional truth and heart. Accompanying Harrelson’s tribute will be a screening of his powerful new film, The Messenger.
Other highlights include two Spotlight programs; our Spotlight on Clive Owen begins with a retrospective clip reel and onstage interview, followed by a screening of his breakout film Croupier. In honor of his contribution to the art of cinema, Owen will be presented with the Mill Valley Film Festival award. In our second Spotlight program, the MVFF award will also be presented this year to Jason Reitman, who at the ripe old age of 31 already has two Academy Award nominations under his belt: Best Director and Best Motion Picture (Juno). Reitman’s bold and deeply felt new film Up in the Air will screen as part of this year’s program.
We have a couple of fantastic music programs, which are always a highlight of the festival. This year, we are presenting a concert to follow the premiere of Soundtrack for a Revolution, a film that documents the history of the civil rights movement and the music that powered that movement. Icons Among Us celebrates the music featured in the outstanding jazz documentary series Icons Among Us: jazz in the preset tense. Musical artists for this electrifying program include bass virtuoso Rob Wasserman, guitarist Will Bernard and drummer Dale Fanning. Our music programs are always hotly anticipated.
Director of programming for the festival, Zoe Elton—as well as all the programmers—have focused on curating a diverse, exciting program. There are some 41 countries represented in over 140 films. I am proud of the fact that the Mill Valley Film Festival has a reputation for a well-balanced range of films, with something for everyone; a good film can affect the way we look at ourselves, each other and the world. It’s with that truth always in mind that the festival has earned its audience’s trust.
MM: According to your Website, the fest’s Active Cinema program helps “connect the dots between issue-rooted films, interested audiences and the individuals and organizations.” Could you describe exactly what Active Cinema does and how it affects moviemakers?
MF: As a cultural organization, we have discussed the concept of Active Cinema for many years. We have always been motivated by film’s ability to inspire. Our goal is to reach and maximize the participation between the audience, the filmmaker and the particular cause that the filmmaker has brought to light. As part of Active Cinema, audiences can find out exactly what they can do to make a difference. This leads to the filmmakers maximizing the work that they have done. Last year’s Active Cinema program included a dozen film screenings, inspiring speakers and guests, networking, filmmaking and treeplanting. Trees were planted in Boyle Park, Mill Valley in honor of the subjects of Active Cinema films: Wangari Maathai (Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai) and the late Chico Mendes (Children of the Amazon). In this way, film jumps from static to “active.”
MM: What do you hope the legacy of Mill Valley Film Festival will be?
MF: My hope is that it we will always remain a relevant, vibrant organization that promotes the best in cinema. Things are changing rapidly and film festivals will have to change with the times. Our goal has always been to support the filmmakers and give audiences the best possible experience.
MM: Anything else you’d like to add?
MF: Don’t miss the Mill Valley Film Festival this year!
For more information on the Mill Valley Film Festival, visit http://2009.mvff.com.