I’ve been in Denver for over a week now and it’s been a great trip. As a curator consultant for Denver, part of my responsibilities are to host filmmakers and audiences. I float between screenings and help fill in when needed. There are always small fires to put out and tricks happening behind-the-curtain. I can’t give alway all the secrets to what’s happened so far in Denver, but in today’s post I’m sharing highlights of my festival so far.
Tuesday, Nov. 1 – Day before Fest
Upon landing in Denver, a volunteer driver takes me to the SIE FilmCenter where the staff is having their traditional kickoff cocktails. I walk in with big luggage in tow to see friends. Hugs abound. Toasts from the veteran leaders, Britta Erickson (Festival Director), Brit Withey (Artistic Director) and Ron Henderson (Fest Co-Founder) remind the staff how far we’ve come and what great moments lie ahead. 39 years in the festival world is no small feat. This team has something to be proud of. The evening winds down quickly as we all have days of work and parties ahead. As any veteran staff will tell you, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
Wednesday, Nov. 2 – Opening Night/Day 1
I spend a long lunch with programmer Matthew Campbell to catch up on life and work. I met Matt almost six years ago at Sundance and he has become one of my closest friends and confidants on the circuit. After splitting to get “fancified” (Opening Night is the only night I wear heels to a festival if I can help it), we meet up with Britta Erickson for the calm before the storm as she slips into her velvet, burgundy Jimmy Choos. A volunteer festival driver takes us and PR guru Katie Shapiro to the pre-film VIP party at The Crimson Room. Denver Board members and donors schmooze with champagne in hand and I meet a fellow SMU alum. We check the clock and Matt and I walk over to the Ellie Opera house to check on the red carpet. Film fans stream in pass the carpet dressed in their Denver chic attire. Local filmmakers are walking the red carpet, while others wait phones in hand to get a glimpse of Emma Stone who is due to arrive in a few minutes.
People watching at a red carpet is always fun. I enjoy watching the faces of people as they walk up, registering what is happening around them, feeling the energy in the air. Loyal patrons of the festival stop and say hello to the programming staff while other staff (like development, box office and operations) work furiously to get everyone seated and the show started on time. Emma arrives and as she approaches the red carpet flashes go off everywhere. The crowd moves in closer to the carpet and flashes continue. I’m always amazed to watch a celebrity at that level work. Because that’s exactly what she is doing. She stays focused on whoever is interviewing her while people scream her name and phones and cameras six-people deep go off all around her. The press team help direct her to the next interview. More flashes and screams. She’s posed throughout, never breaking focus on what she is doing. I always find watching a well-ran red carpet to be fascinating. The entire movement is controlled and organized. An image and brand is being showcased and captured. Don’t be fooled by what you see in magazines or online. PR is serious business.
While La La Land gets underway, some of the staff walk across the street to a bar for dinner. It is another moment to spend time with your festival family. You’ll be in the trenches for the next few days. Game 7 of the World Series plays nearby and the staff ends up watching it before hurrying off to the Q&A and Opening Night Party.
Friday, Nov. 4 – Day 3
E has arrived in Denver today to spend the weekend at the festival with me. After working a few hours at a nearby Starbucks I meet him and we hit up Bubu for lunch. This place hits the spot – we order the OG Colorado bowls, mine with rice and salmon and E’s with noodles and steak. I’m sure I’ll be back at this place again before leaving town.
We swing by the Lyft Lounge and the Festival Annex next. E tries out some of the VR setups while I speak to the festival alcohol sponsor from Argonaut’s. Later, E convinces him to try out the VR too.
After hosting my first intro of the festival, E and I sneak out of the neighborhood for a proper dinner at Meadowlark Kitchen. The wait for a table was one of the stranger experiences we’ve had dining, but the hostess managed to seat us fairly quickly. For dinner: the Denver Nuggets (fried chicken thighs) and a BLT (with tasty candied bacon). We watched the couple at a nearby table who are clearly on a first date, but seem to be hitting it off well. We cheer them on from the sidelines. We pack up the leftovers and move on to the Reel Social Club party for Folk Hero & Funny Guy inside the bottling area of Great Divide Brewery. Matt Campbell happily eats the leftover chicken and BLT (there’s always a staff member who hasn’t eaten yet) and we chat about the day’s highlights. Later, I catch up with actor/filmmaker Chike Okonkwo and Kevin Polowy from Yahoo Movies. They are on the Maysles Brothers Documentary Jury this year (the same jury that brought me to Denver for the first time five years ago) and we chat about documentaries and cool things to do in San Francisco. Next thing I know it’s nearly 1:00am and time to catch a Lyft to my “home” at the hotel.
Saturday, Nov. 5 – Day 4
An “early” intro at the theater for me takes me to the UA Pavillions around 11:00am. Festivals shift your routine. Suddenly 11:00am is early and lunch is around 3:00pm. E and I sit in to watch Donald Cried, a film about a 30-something Wall Street banker that returns to his hometown and is forced to meet up with his childhood friend Donald. Getting to see a film (and a comedy at that) helps to perk up the day. Later, we grab a table at a nearby bar to watch part of the LSU v. Alabama game while I duck up to the theater to do my intro of another Shorts program. Filmmaker Isabella Wing-Davey has arrived for her short The Rain Collector. She shares some of the artistic influences of her short and a fun production story from the shoot with the sold-out audience.
I run over to the next auditorium to see filmmaker/programmer Mike Plante. His short The Polaroid Job screens before the feature Fraud. E and I stay to watch Fraud which I’ve been hearing about for months. After viewing, I admit I like the concept and thought-provoking conversation the film creates. But after a comment by the filmmaker in the Q&A, I feel there is a cheat that breaks the rules of the film/concept, my trust as a viewer and ruins the film for me. E and I discuss it at length as we walk to the Annex. The more we think about it the film feels like an experimental narrative and not a documentary (though it seems the filmmakers want the film to be thought-of as a doc), but the film makes us think and that is good with me.
At the Annex, we watch SAGindie Director Darrien Michele Gipson school programmer Matthew Campbell in beer pong and chat with filmmakers Isabella Wing-Davey and Brianne Nord-Stewart from Beat Around the Bush. Thank goodness we get an extra hour of sleep with the end of Daylight Savings. We all need it.
Sunday, Nov. 6 – Day 5
E and I call around town to find a good breakfast spot, but by 8:30am the four places we’ve called all have an hour wait at least. We decide to grab take out from Denver Biscuit Co. and walk our meal to the City Park to enjoy before watching the 50th anniversary screening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the SIE FilmCenter. It’s my first time to see this film in its entirety. It’s a doozy to watch before noon, but I am glad I finally got to see it in a theater. We catch a shuttle back to the Pavillions and I host the Shorts 1 program again with Isabella. A few patrons pull me aside in the Lyft Lounge later to discuss the program and share how much they enjoyed it. While on a spell of quiet downtime, E and I debate on what to do for dinner. We decide to try Finn’s Manor. The place had a Southern vibe: a large patio with different areas for sitting, the bar decorated with moss and beads with small food trucks in one section of the patio. Our mission: to try the BBQ at Owlbear food truck. We chat with the woman serving and discover that the owner of Owlbear is from Colorado and spent time previously working at Franklin’s in Austin. She knows how to answer the key questions about brisket and serves up the last of it for E. I order the pulled pork sandwich. We are in heaven. This BBQ is legit and outside of Texas. An amazing find. PLUS the bar serves Bayou Rum. I have yet to find anyone outside of Louisiana that serves it (Bayou is distilled just outside my hometown). Finn’s Manor is now my new favorite place in Denver.
All in all, the festival is going well and I’m finding a few food gems too.
Drop me a note in the comments if you’re curious to see any of the films I’ve mentioned above or have a recommendation for a restaurant in Denver.
I’ll catch up with the remaining highlights next week!