It’s a Wrap: Denver Film Festival

The Denver Film Festival ended yesterday. After living in a hotel for 14 days, I’m ready to sleep in my own bed again. I’m also excited to catch one or two nights of AFI FEST, a festival I worked three years for and have been a fan of for longer.

Here’s how the last weekend of Denver went down.

Friday, Nov. 11 – Day 10
My day started earlier than usual with a private screening of a special selection of short films for a large group of students from the Denver School of the Arts. At 11:45am, the school bus arrives and the SIE FilmCenter is suddenly flooded with teenagers. They head straight to concessions for popcorn and sodas. The teachers and I try to hustle them quickly into the theater. After watching an hour-long program, I host a Q&A with two of the filmmakers present, Williams Naranjo, director of A New Civilization, and Bryan Petsos, director of LIGHTNINGFACE. We discuss the shorts influences and the different paths to making films (including the pros and cons of film school). Each person gets to filmmaking differently and I feel it’s important to tell students the realities of their choices before they take out massive student loans.

I leave the SIE and head back to the UA Pavilions, where I spend the next several hours hosting intros. Food choices are not as exciting between these intros as time is limited. A salad at Corner Bakery disappoints and I go back to 5280 Burger Bar again for dinner since it’s one of the only decent options that is also open late. My final intro is the Late Night Shorts Program. My day wraps around 11:30pm after a fun Q&A with Petsos and The Itching animator Adam Davies.

Saturday, Nov 12 – Day 11
The final weekend is here and I sleep in a little later and catch a few minutes of college football in my hotel room. After stopping to eat a large salad at Modern Market, I find my way back to the Pavilions theater. The Documentary Shorts program is screening for the first time of the fest and after introducing them to a packed audience, I stay to watch the films again in the theater’s wing. Sometimes, when the films are screening for the first time, I like to stay and feel the reactions or energy of the audience. This particular block was very powerful to watch given the past week and I sensed the audience felt it too. After, Soy Cubana producer Robin Ungar joined me for a Q&A. She shared stories of how they filmed in Cuba and the struggles of being a first time filmmaker. Afterward, I meet Hunter Gatherer director Josh Locy. I had introduced his film the day before, but he had several flight issues that kept him from arriving in time to attend our Q&A. Once his film begins, Josh, programmer Matthew Campbell and I head downstairs to grab a quick bite to eat and catch the remaining half of the LSU vs. Arkansas football game. (Geaux Tigers!) Josh tells us about his travels on the festival circuit and we discuss Fraud and other films traveling around.

The night continues on and my feet begin to hurt. Two more late intro’s completed and it’s finally time to head over to the Closing Night Party following the festival screening of Jackie. I arrive to the venue – the Children’s Museum – slightly before the Closing Night crowd and chat with some of the jurors in town. As everyone arrives, they discover the various exhibits of the museum: a bubble room, kinetic energy display and more. Patrons play with festival cocktails in hand. After catching up with a few staffers, I call it a night (early – at midnight!) and sadly miss the epic dance party that started sometime later.

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DFF39 Closing Night Party at the Children’s Museum.

Saturday, Nov. 13 – Day 12
Here we are. The last day of the festival. Always bittersweet.

It begins with the Festival Awards Brunch at The Curtis Hotel. Filmmakers, guests and blurry-eyed staff grab Mimosas and Bloody Marys from the hotel’s terrace bar. It’s another beautiful day in Denver and the sun is out. (The city has still have not had their first snow of the season, but global warming does not exist…)  After mixing and mingling, the awards show begins. Festival leaders, Britta and Brit, take the stage while brunch is served. I grab a seat with Josh Locy, Matthew Campbell and guest services manager Caleb Ward. Just as the American Independent Narrative Feature Jury takes the stage, Josh has left the table for a moment. Matt, Caleb and I know he is the winner and quickly look around the room trying to find where he’s gone to. Matt jumps up to run out to the lobby and tries signaling to the jurors to “stretch it out”. They fail to notice his signals. As Matt walks out one door to the lobby, Josh walks back into the ballroom through another door. I jump up and now chase down Matt. We all are seated again as the jury announces Hunter Gatherer as the jury winner. I watch Josh’s face as he hears his film’s name. (Always fun to do.) After Josh gives an acceptance speech and returns to the table, we laugh over the almost-missed moment and awkwardness that would have ensued had he been out of the room.

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Josh Locy accepts the jury award for HUNTER GATHERER at 39th Denver Film Festival Awards Brunch.

After all the awardshave been announced (except the Audience Awards – those ballots are counted through Sunday night), I head back to my “home” at the Pavilions. As I wait in the lobby for my next intro, I see Jim O’Heir. He’s in town supporting his film Middle Man. I introduce myself, tell him I’m a fan of his work and thank him for attending the festival. We chat about his visit, living in Los Angeles and how people have begun to recognize him more often now that Parks & Recreation is on Netflix compared to when it was being broadcast. He’s a lovely guy and at one point stops to take a photo with some fans that recognize him while buying tickets to the film.

The night ends with the annual staff party at the SIE after all the films have ended and the production team has loaded out some of the non-screening venues. It has been twelve days in the trenches during one of the more emotional weeks of the year. There are drinks, dancing and hugs. And more drinks.

That’s a wrap on another festival. The crew will soon be at work preparing for their 40th year. Excited to see what’s in store.

Thanks Denver for a memorable two weeks!

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About this historic week…

I don’t know about you, but the past week has been rough.

I spent the 2008 and 2012 Election Nights in Los Angeles at AFI FEST (which is happening now by the way). In 2008 I was still living in Texas and was away from home for the evening. In 2012, I had moved to California four months earlier. Each night was different, but they were memorable. Los Angeles felt alive. Watching the results with fellow art and film lovers was the best place for me to be.

Watching Tuesday’s results surrounded by Denver staff and patrons started with the same mood, but as the night wore on the room became somber and quiet. I texted friends and family as each state’s prediction rolled in. At some point I couldn’t hold back my tears any more. A feeling of deep dread and loneliness sunk in. I found Britta and we hugged and cried.

The next morning, I wondered if audiences would show up. Thankfully they did. My eyes puffy and red from hours of crying, I stood in front of a room full of Denver locals who bought a ticket to see short films. It was a sliver of restored hope. I wanted to be in a movie theater that day to see stories about diversity and overcoming struggles. They did too.

Being in a theater that day wasn’t about avoiding an issue or the situation. It was about remembering who we are; remembering humanity, respect and love. I love curating films because it sparks conversation. And now more than ever we need to communicate with each other, to listen. Not point figures or walk away. Cinema and art are a tool for respectful dialogue. The films created out of this dark moment in our culture will be powerful and that brings me hope.

Wednesday night I stood in the wings of the theater for all 90 minutes to watch the short films again with the audience. This was a place of community and inspiration. It was where I needed to be. I grieved for the dreams I had before Tuesday night as each short played. I remembered how important my part is in a larger movement. I’m so thankful to have been working at a film festival this week.  We may not be curing cancer (which is what us veterans say when problems occur during the event), but we are making a difference in promoting and showcasing art.

To any filmmakers reading this, I am so excited for how this week will inspire you. Use this energy to make something special. Use your unique voice is important. And if you’re from the city, explore the stories of rural areas. (Lord knows there are plenty of LA-based stories out there already.) If you’re from the country, visit the city and see the diversity.  Our country is desperate for change and we all feel abandoned in some sort of way. Now is the time for film to create community and conversation, so let’s get to work.

Highlights from the Denver Film Festival

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.

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Emma Stone on the DFF39 Opening Night red carpet for LA LA LAND

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.

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DFF39 Reel Social Club Party at Great Divide Brewery

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.

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Brisket and pulled pork sandwich from Owlbear BBQ 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!

Sunday Mornings

Good morning from (a warmer-than-normal) Denver!

I’m at the Denver Film Festival this weekend, so today is a work day for me. I needed that extra hour of sleep too. There are 39 films screening today and I’ll be hanging out with my shorts filmmakers. Day 4, let’s do it!

Did you watch game 7? I snuck away to watch the final innings of the Cub’s win. Nothing like being in a bar with people cheering with every little moment of drama. Even though I’m not much of a baseball fan, it was fun. And this sums up my thoughts on that night too. I hope you felt like you were part of a special night in history. Hoping for that same feeling on Tuesday night. (There may be tears. #ImWithHer).

Here’s a corner of the internet to peruse during your morning coffee ritual.

  • I listened to This American Life’s recent episode “Seriously?” on my flight to Denver. Take a listen here.
  • Another place to stream movies, but this time for the diehard film fans. The Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies launch FilmStruck. Curious to see how this platform performs…Will you sign up?
  • Dave Chapelle and A Tribe Called Quest on SNL November 12! Watch it for me (because I’ll be working).
  • I was honored to be on the nomination committee again this year for Cinema Eye Honors and the nominees have been announced!  If you haven’t seen OJ: Made In America (all seven hours of it!) or I Am Not Your Negro yet… get on it.
  • Looking forward to checking out Anthony Bourdain’s new cookbook, Appetites.

Short list this morning. Off to the festival.

Enjoy the day!

Film & Food: Denver Film Festival

Y’all, tomorrow is November.
That’s crazy right? I don’t know where October went, but here we are.

Tomorrow I am off to spend two weeks in the Rockies with my lovely colleagues at the Denver Film Society. The 39th Denver Film Festival opens Wednesday night, November 2, with a highly anticipated screening of La La Land. Lead actress Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle will be hanging out with Denver audiences at the beautiful Ellie Caulkins Opera House in downtown Denver.

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La La Land (2016)

As Shorts Curator of the Denver Film Festival, I spent most of my summer watching over 500 short film submissions for this festival. I narrowed it down to a group of 44 shorts from 16 countries, screening in blocks and in front of features. I’m so excited for the Denver audiences to discover these shorts. Watching audiences watch the films I’ve curated is one of the most satisfying parts of the job. It’s always fun to meet the filmmakers you’ve been emailing with for weeks and reuniting with those you’ve worked with before too. If you’re curious what shorts made the cut, take a look at the Shorts program here.

Once again, Denver’s program lineup is eclectic and unique. There are several films I want to see while I’m not on call with programmer duties (like the Closing Night film Jackie). Of the films I have seen though, this festival pair showcases a couple of peculiar occupations:

  • Obit – This doc focuses on the small group of The New York Times obituary writers.  Imagine trying to research and summarize, under a tight deadline and with great tact, a life lived so fully that it is chosen to have space in The New York Times. One of my favorite scenes reveals the clippings room. Rows and rows and towers of file cabinets all full of news clippings and photos of people. The talented writers share their knowledge and experience and the beauty in writing about death.
  • Actors of Sound – Another charming documentary that shows a behind-the-scenes look at foley artists. All those little sound effects in films are typically created in a post-production studio by talented experts. After seeing this film, I now know what makes up the noise for E.T.’s “voice” and I’ll never watch the film in the same way! I’m looking forward to hosting one of the Q&A sessions with director Lalo Molina and a foley artist from the film! I’m sure it will be a fun and memorable time.

This will be my third time in Denver and I’m still exploring the city with each visit. The trick with working festivals is knowing when you have a window to escape for meals. Often those breaks end up being short, so food is limited to what is nearby. I enjoy escaping into the Tattered Cover Book Store next door to the SIE FilmCenter. It’s my go-to for a warm chai latte and quiet moments spent walking the aisles of books. The Three Lions is a cozy nearby pub with tasty curry. One of my favorite meals in Denver last year was a solo brunch at Snooze an A.M. Eatery. I’m looking forward to another brisk walk downtown followed by a filling and flavorful benedict.

I’ll post again with a festival update soon. If you have any suggestions on restaurants, bakeries or bars to check out in Denver, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Happy Halloween!