Riverrun 10: A reel wonderland

by Mark Burger

Ten years in the making

With less than 48 hours to go, the 10th annual RiverRun International Film Festival is ready to rock, roll and unreel – and for this double-digit birthday, organizers have planned several celebratory events that might best be described as “unreal.”

For one thing – or two things, actually – there will be a pair of acclaimed actors receiving the festival’s coveted Master of Cinema award this year: Pam Grier and Bill Pullman.

They will join the esteemed company of 2005 recipient Cliff Robertson and 2006 recipient Ned Beatty. Both Grier (who was born in Winston-Salem) and Pullman have distinguished themselves, not only in the realm of mainstream, high-concept cinema, but also in the world of independent films.

This year’s festival marks the sixth since it came eastward (from Brevard and Asheville) to Winston-Salem, a move engineered principally by Dale Pollock, then the dean of the NCSA School of Filmmaking.

Now the co-chair of the festival board (alongside Gordon Pleasants), Pollock is essentially the RiverRun godfather, content to leave the day-to-day operations in the capable hands of executive director Andrew Rodgers.

In fact, most of the time when I called Pollock with a RiverRun question, the answers tended to be as follows:

“You might want to ask Andrew about that.”

“Andrew would be the best person to talk to.”

“Call Andrew.”

Nevertheless, Pollock is still actively involved in the festival, and is delighted to have overseen its expansion since the move to Winston-Salem.

“I think when you look at Winston-Salem and the growth of developing an audience and educating people as to what a film festival is, the response has been amazing.”

Now firmly entrenched as one of the premier annual events in the City of the Arts, the RiverRun International Film Festival is always looking to expand, but not at the cost of its distinctive personality and charm.

According to statistics calculated by the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, the RiverRun International Film Festival has an annual impact of nearly $3 million.

Every year, the festival has steadily grown – attracting more submissions, more attendees and more attention. According to festival figures, nearly 8,800 tickets were sold in 2005, followed by 9,000 sold in 2006 and 10,000 last year. That translates into box-office revenue of $43,483 in 2005, then $49,300 in ’06 and $56,700 last year.

The first year that the festival was presented in Winston-Salem, the number of attendees was approximately 3,000. Last year, it was 11,000. In 2003, there were just over 100 films submitted. This year, there were over 1,000. Eight countries were represented at the 2003 festival. Last year there were 25; this year, 26.

According to Rodgers, this year’s festival budget was approximately $500,000, “which is very modest when compared to other festivals – Sarasota, Nashville, Virginia – which are about the same sizes as ours.”

“It doesn’t get more difficult, but there are new challenges every year,” Rodgers says. Fundraising and sponsorship is an ongoing, uphill battle, despite the financial and physical support of such organizations as the Arts Council, the city of Winston-Salem and NCSA.

“We’ve always got to fight for our funding, especially with so many other groups vying for corporate attention, so we’re very grateful for the support that we have gotten this year… and every year, for that matter,” says Rodgers.

Among the challenges this year is the matter of parking, particularly at NCSA. At previous festivals, finding a parking space there usually wasn’t a problem. But, with the campus makeovers in the last year, a lot of those parking spaces don’t exist anymore.

“Parking will be a challenge,” Rodgers confirms with a sigh, but – espousing the boast that “we’re a well-oiled machine!” – he and the staff are looking into a solution. Shuttles to and from NCSA might be the most logical answer, especially given the number of screenings and events there. That may require a lot of shuttles.

“If that’s what it takes,” says Rodgers, “then that’s what it takes.”

Star power

As no Master of Cinema award was bestowed at the 2007 festival, it’s a double-barreled thrill that two esteemed actors will be receiving the award this year.

Pam Grier’s career began with a series of low-budget exploitation (sometimes called “blaxploitation”) films for such producers as Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Such films as The Big Doll House (1971), Women in Cages (1971), Black Mama, White Mama (1972), Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) emphasized her stunning physique and fiery attitude – and frequently outgrossed studio films at the box office.

Not content to remain a staple of the drive-in trade, Grier proved her versatility by getting better roles in bigger films. The first time I remember seeing Pam Grier on the big screen was in 1981, playing the murderous streetwalker Charlotte in Fort Apache, the Bronx. Her first scene, casually shooting two patrolmen in their car, left an indelible impression on this 13-year old (who probably had no business seeing the film in the first place!).

She was both tempting and terrifying as the Dust Witch in the 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and had the good fortune to co-star with Gene Hackman, the God of Cinema himself, in The Package (1989). She also played a cyborg schoolteacher on the rampage in Class of 1999 (1990) – and, what’s more, did it with flair.

Grier paid homage to her B-movie roots in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996) and in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), in which she played the title role and picked up Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for best actress. She also united with fellow “blaxploitation” legends Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree and Ron O’Neal in Larry Cohen’s underrated Original Gangstas (1996). She played Eddie Murphy’s mom in the mega-flop The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002), but managed to emerge unscathed. Currently, Grier is winning a new generation – and a new orientation – of fans with her turn as Kit Porter on Showtime’s award-winning, ensemble drama “The L Word.”

Grier will be presented with her Master of Cinema award on Saturday following a clips retrospective and an interview with Dale Pollock at 2 p.m. in the Stevens Center. The DVD clips for both the Grier and Pullman retrospectives were supplied, it must be noted, by one of the principal sources of obscure and hard-to-find films in the region, if not the entire state: Me.

“To have Pam Grier come home to Winston-Salem is very exciting,” Pollock says. “I was a big fan in the seventies when her movies first came out. From the first moment I saw her in Black Mama, White Mama, I was in love.” (So were about a million other guys.)

By coincidence, Pollock taught a film studies class last year that focused on black cinema, and one of the films he screened for his students was Coffy.

“She was the archetypal, strong, female figure – black or white – in cinema during the seventies and eighties.”

Pollock and Rodgers have tried before to entice Grier to revisit Winston-Salem during the festival, but only this year did her schedule allow it.

As for Pullman, the festival’s second Master of Cinema recipient, he made an auspicious screen debut in the 1986 box-office smash Ruthless People playing the dim-witted criminal Earl Mott, a character described by one observer: “This could well be the stupidest person on the face of the Earth.”

More funny business followed with Mel Brooks’ SpaceBalls in 1987, and then with a heroic turn as a scientist who encounters supernatural phenomena in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988).

Moving smoothly between independent and studio films, Pullman’s box-office hits also include A League of Their Own (1992), Singles (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Malice (1993), Casper (1995), While You Were Sleeping (1995) and the 1996 sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, in which he played US President Thomas Whitmore, a former war hero who spearheads retaliatory efforts against antagonistic aliens bent on conquering Earth. In 2004, he notched back-to-back hits with Scary Movie 4 and The Grudge, although his character in the latter film took a fatal dive early on. He also produced, directed and starred in a well-received remake of The Virginian (2000) on TNT.

On the independent front, Pullman scored with director John Dahl (a former acting student of his) in The Last Seduction (1994) and a hilariously obnoxious turn opposite Ben Kingsley in last year’s You Kill Me. Other indie films of note include Brain Dead (1989), David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), Igby Goes Down (2002), Rick (2003), Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy (2005), and, of course, in the festival’s opening-night film, Phoebe in Wonderland, in which he and Felicity Huffman play the parents of an imaginative but troubled child (Elle Fanning).

Bottle Shock, in which Pullman co-stars with Alan Rickman, had its world premiere at Sundance this year, and Pullman will soon be seen opposite Julia Ormond and Pell James in Surveillance, directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch (daughter of David).

Pullman will receive his Master of Cinema award following a clips’ retrospective (DVDs provided by you-know-who) and an interview with festival juror, film critic and Wake Forest University faculty member Peter Brunette on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Main Theatre of the ACE Exhibition Complex on the NCSA campus.

“We’re thrilled to have Bill Pullman here,” Pollock says, “and it’s in the same tradition of honoring Cliff Robertson and Ned Beatty. He’s not necessarily a matinee-idol romantic lead – although he has played those – but he always delivers well-crafted performances in every genre.”

Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood

Rodgers has seen every one of the festival’s 95 films, as well as more than 200 others. Almost every film, he says, is a North Carolina premiere. The US premieres include writer/director Gareth Baker’s black comedy The Baker, starring Damian Lewis and Michael Gambon; and Erik Nietzsche: The Early Years – Part I, written by Lars von Trier and directed by Jacob Thuesen.

It took the combined efforts of almost 30 people to pick and choose which films would make the RiverRun cut.

As it turns out, this festival is a little more leavened with humor than usual. It wasn’t particularly intentional during the selection process, but a light heart definitely runs through RiverRun this year.

“A lot of the films have very strong comedic elements,” observes Rodgers. “Of all the themes we’ve seen, that’s one of the most evident. Quite a few of the films treated the world in comedic terms… [and] these are the films we responded to.”

“There’s the stereotypical notion that film festivals only show dark, depressing fare,” Rodgers says with a laugh, recalling a “South Park” episode that mocked the Sundance Film Festival along those lines. “It’s a stereotype because some festivals do, indeed, emphasize – maybe too much in some cases – the heavier and darker films.”

The festival will have its fair share of dramas, but “we wanted to have a balance,” says Rodgers. “It seemed like something a little different to do, and good to do – to lighten things up a bit.”

Some of those good-humored selections include Son of Rambow, writer/director Garth Jennings’ crowd-pleaser, which Paramount Vantage acquired at the Sundance Film Festival for $8 million and will be releasing nationwide during the summer. Helen Hunt’s adaptation of April Lipner’s Then She Found Me, in which Hunt co-stars with Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and Colin Firth, is also expected to be a hot ticket at RiverRun. Unlike many independent films, and undoubtedly bolstered by its high-profile cast, it too will enjoy a wide release later this year. The film can easily be classified at a romantic comedy, but Hunt (who also worked on the screenplay) subverts standard expectations by grafting an emotional edge to the proceedings. The film is funny but it’s also honest – a real triumph for Hunt.

For comedy of a much darker – and bloodier – stripe, there’s Stuart Gordon’s Stuck, one of my personal favorites at this year’s festival. Gordon, a legend in the horror genre, is still best known for his outrageous HP Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), but in recent years has displayed his versatility with a startling adaptation of David Mamet’s play Edmund (2005).

With Stuck, Gordon displays that he has lost none of his outrageous humor or his fascination with flawed (yet credible) characters who are often their own worst enemies. The film, inspired by an actual story (!), stars Stephen Rea as an unemployed, middle-aged man whose life has bottomed out and whose luck has run out. Little does he know that life has one more, cruel curveball headed his way – in the form of Mena Suvari (also an associate producer of the film), as a party-hardy nurse who’s driving home from a club one night when she accidentally runs into Rea while he’s crossing the street, sending him flying through her windshield.

In abject panic, she drives home to her garage – Rea’s bloodied and broken body still planted on the hood of her car, halfway through in the windshield. And he’s still alive.

And the story has just begun.

Stuck is hardly mainstream fare; it’s better than that. Smarter, savvier, juicier – it’s well-acted, well-directed, and it works on numerous layers. It’s a little rough around the edges – at times intentionally so – but it’s precisely the sort of film that finds a happy home in a festival like RiverRun. (Nevertheless, the squeamish are forewarned.)

Party down

The place to be Friday night will undoubtedly be the Millennium Center, site of many of raucous RiverRun bash in the past. This year, however, marks another first at the festival: the addition of YES! Weekly as a sponsor. And there’s no better place than to celebrate this union than at the Jabberwocky Ball, which begins at 9 p.m. and is so named for the Monty Python cult movie of some 31 years ago. Tickets are $25 per person, $10 after midnight. It should be a night we’ll never forget… if only we could remember in the morning.

Admission to all regular screenings is $8, $6 for students. All-Access VIP passes, which entitle the bearer admission to all screenings and events, are available for $300. (One of those gets you into everything.)

For more information about the 2008 RiverRun International Film Festival, including a full and regularly updated schedule of events, see or call 336.724.1502.

Advance tickets can be purchased at the Stevens Center box office (405 W. Fourth St.) or at Watson Hall, on the NCSA campus (1533 S. Main St.). Call 336.721.1945. -Y!W