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Film Festival: The jury speaks
Nelson George

SOMEONE’S GOT TO decide who wins at the Savannah Film Festival, and that responsibility resides with its jury. Last week I got a rare chance to sit down with all four of them, and here is virtually the entire conversation.

The jurors are:

Lois Chiles -- Actress perhaps best known as “Holly Goodhead” in Moonraker, also starred in Broadcast News and TV shows like CSI: Las Vegas.

Timothy Dalton -- Classically-trained British star of stage and screen best known as the eponymous star of two James Bond films and most recently in Hot Fuzz.

Amy Ephron -- Producer, novelist and screenwriter of such hits as Born on the Fourth of July and Out of Africa, also known for her blogging at the Huffington Post.

Nelson George -- Influential cultural critic, African American indie film producer and screenwriter (She’s Gotta Have It, Chris Rock Show), and former Billboard black music editor.

We spoke to them sitting around a coffee table last Tuesday above Leopold’s Ice Cream on Broughton Street.

You’re a very diverse jury, but the filmmakers at the Festival are still overwhelmingly a white male group. Do you ever take into account a filmmakers’ personal background when evaluating a film?

Amy Ephron: I asked about some of the filmmakers' backgrounds, because I was interested in a couple of the documentary filmmakers and their documentary background. I felt like it was relevant to something we were trying to decide. But it only factored in after we liked a lot of things.

Timothy Dalton: Obviously generally it’s not, we just choose the films.

Besides the general criteria we all agree on about what makes a good film, does each of you bring a particular “stamp” to your role as a juror, a particular aspect you want to bring to the table?

Timothy Dalton: Absolutely not. It’s a complex evaluation. There are lots of good things in movies, and sometimes unfortunately certain bad things. And you weigh the mix against another mix against another mix. And you listen to your fellow jurors and their points of view.

So there’s a lot of discussion?

Lois Chile: A lot.

Timothy Dalton: Not always. I’ve only been on a jury once before, and some things are just clear, but when there’s difference, then there’s difference.

Nelson George: When there’s not great disparities in quality – in other words, if you have everything great then you have a problem. If there’s usually one thing that’s much better, it leaps out.

What do you do when you encounter a movie that’s great in every other way, but has one egregious, fatal flaw?

Lois Chiles: You mean like the end? (laughter all around)

Timothy Dalton: Are you wanting to change your mind? (laughs)

Lois Chile: No, I was just speaking for a fellow juror.

Timothy Dalton: If it’s a film that doesn’t have a fatal flaw then that one’s going to be ahead in the game, isn’t it? Fatal flaw is a bit of an exaggeration, because if it’s a “fatal” flaw the movie’s over, forget it. We’re talking about really good movies here, that people have worked hard on, brought imagination, hope and talent to and everybody makes mistakes. I mean, how many perfect movies do you ever see?

Nelson George: Unless that fatal flaw is so big, like, “Oh my God, they messed it up at the end but it was so amazing.” That happens too. Endings are tricky because not just at this festival but films I’ve seen at the theatre, you can really be rolling with them a long way and if the ending somehow feels false or whatever.

Timothy Dalton: You walk out unsatisfied.

Nelson George: Yes. You’re always better off having a bad beginning, if you can keep people in their seats long enough...

Amy Ephron: What was really exciting, I have to say, was all the animation was completely great. Every single one of those pieces. We’re watching a whole cutting edge thing. If we were at a festival ten years ago, then animation was a dead art. And now it’s like this new fabulous happening thing, and it’s great. It’s art.

Timothy Dalton: That’s true, the animation was superb.

Amy Ephron: Now if the price would come down a little bit of making them, and I think it’s going to...

Nelson George: Well, it doesn’t cost as much to make, as I look at how much studio prices are inflated, you can make a lot of those much cheaper. Look at what Richard Linklater does with this stuff out of Austin. He does stuff for like $8 million.

Amy Ephron: The animation was exciting. And it was exciting to know there were all these people sitting around working,. Writing these things. It’s like a little short story form. And I think theatre’s are going to have to start showing them. How much fun! We could have little animated shorts in front. If anybody was smart they’d start doing that.

Timothy Dalton: As long as it’s not a corollary of this more visually oriented society. Kids are growing up not listening and not reading as much, but they’re watching more and more TV.

Amy Ephron: Well, it’s a new kind of cartoon. There have always been cartoons.

Timothy Dalton: One thing that the schools teach, they’re lways talking about this, they worry about how the kids are all becoming visually oriented. They don’t listen and they’re not internally imaginintatve, it’s pctures, pictures, pictures, pictures. Rather than words, words, words.

But look at the younger generation with blogs and Myspace pages. They’re writing much more on a daily basis than my generation did.

Nelson George: No you can’t really use the internet effectively if you can’t read. It doesn’t help the illiterate to have the internet. Literacy is still primo.

Something I’ve noticed is that most student or novice filmmakers have a heaviness about their material. There’s very little real facility with comedy at that level.

Amy Ephron: Everyone’s first novel is sad. This is what you’re going to find with 20 yeaer old students. And also we’re in very difficult times. It’s very difficult to be light-hearted now. We’re in the middle of a dreadful, dreadful war. And even though they seem like they’re apolitical, the political events of the world always influence film and art and writing and commentary, and as much as we think they’re immune to it because they’re not out in the street... I have five kids, and a lot of them are at college now. They seem like they’re apathetic, but they’re not, they’ve got a very dark humor.

Nelson George: Well, most of the things I deal with have to do with crime, or AIDS, so I’m not exactly Mr. Happy. but humor’s always in there. Humor allows you to be darker actually, if you use it properly. I have a Myspace page, and I look at the stuff on there, there’s a lot of really sophomoric stuff – truly, as in sophomoric, made by sophomores. A really sharp sense of humor is really hard to develop. It takes time actually. The dominant comedy makers in the mainstream are all probably in their 30s or older. It takes awhile to get a point of view. It’s very rare that someone pops out at 21 making great comedy. If they do they get scooped up immediately.

Lois Chiles: Or it’s very broad usually at first.

Timothy Dalton: Exactly they can be funny, but not focused, perhaps.

Nelson George: Everybody has a sad story about their mother dying or something. It’s a Sundance joke, you go to Sundance and they’re all morose genres about their friends in school. That’s what you get, those are first films. They’re like first novels.

As film festivals continue to proliferate, do we risk having a “festival track” of films designed purely for that circuit?

Nelson George: You have it. You don’t risk it, it exists. I have friends of mine who’ve made films who’ve been on the road a year and a half, two years. They’ve been to Greece, They’ve been to Morocco, because if you can get out of Sundance or one of the bigger festivals and get some good notices, but don’t get a distribution deal, and you have that space in the middle, you can roll for a long time and get a lot of free meals. It’s a festival world, you can live on it for awhile. I’ve had guys call me, “Hey, I’m going to Morocco next week, I’ve got an extra ticket.”

OK, so certainly we also have a phenomenon where people have figured out a specific formula to increase the chances of winning a festival.

Lois Chiles: There’s no way to do that. By the time you get your movie in, that trend is gone.

So the trends morph too fast to plan ahead?

Nelson George: Yeah, 20 years ago you might have said Clerks was the way to do it, a stupid comedy in a small location. But then you have other films – Grace is Gone, which is playing here tonight, was a big winner at Sundance. This year it’s been poltical films, with tons of Iraq War films, and almost all of them have played the festival circuit. I’d hate to be the guy doing the Iraq War movie now. There’s going to be a certain exhaustion out there by the time that comes around, unless you have the most genius approach ever.

Without tipping your hands, are there any such trends or traits about the entries at this festival that jump out at you?

Amy Ephron: This is a very small festival. I don’t think you can see trends or traits.

Timothy Dalton: We looked at four feature movies? How many animations? Three or four?

Amy Ephron: I don’t think it’s a large enough selection to see a trend, although the shorts actually, a lot of them were really great and there were real stories. There are a lot of ways to make a movie now. And what we saw is a short is a very good way to get a feature. And what you see with shorts sometimes is, and we may have seen a couple of those, is where people were trying to do a little pirouette on the stage to say look, I can do this. And there were quite a number of those that worked really well.

Timothy Dalton: The thing that shocked me is why are documentary makers making feature length films? They’re making films that are much too long, that would have benefited by a lot of cutting, but because they can make a feature length it must mean something “different” or special, maybe for distribution or something. Some would have been a lot better if they’d been an hour.

Nelson George: I don’t know if it’s the Michael Moore movies or whatever, but featurelength documentaries are very, very fashionable. I’m producing one now. About hair. I’m doing it with Chris Rock. It’s a comedic take on hair. So we’re going to like a hair treatment plant in North Carolina, we’ve been to many, many beauty shops around the country. And you shoot forever. And if you have a comedian attached as the host, suddenly it has a commercial viability, post-Borat, right, or post-Michael Moore even. So this is a trend that’s been created partially by the technology. There’s a lot of pressure on us: “Well, it’s going to be a feature, right?” We’re not really sure. We think it probably should be like an HBO thing. We’re saying let’s see how good it is, and management is like, let’s make a deal now. And that’s now documentaries have changed. The filmmakers all know that. It’s a way to make money and get things in the can for relatively little money.