Not to be outdone, RiverRun 21
Having earned the kudos of both MovieMaker Magazine (“Top 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee”) and USA Today (“One of 10 Amazing Film Festivals Worth Traveling For”), the 21st annual RiverRun International Film Festival is once more poised to take Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad by storm when it opens April 4.
With over 170 – and still counting – films from 47 different countries and “robust advance ticket sales” according to RiverRun executive director Rob Davis, this year’s festival looks to be the biggest, brightest yet. This year’s Master of Cinema recipients will be the husband-and-wife duo of actor/director Richard Benjamin (Goodbye Columbus, Westworld, My Favorite Year) and actress Paula Prentiss (Where the Boys Are, The Parallax View, The Stepford Wives), and former studio executive and producer Mike Medavoy (Black Swan, Shutter Island, Zodiac).
This marks the third year that Davis has been the festival’s executive director, and he confirms that it’s a 24/7 job. No sooner will the curtain fall on this festival than the RiverRun staff begins preliminary preparations for next year’s. Does he eat, sleep, breathe, and live the festival?
“Yes,” he laughed, “in a manner of speaking.”
With more than 30 years’ experience in the film-festival realm, is he as eager and enamored as ever?
“Yes, totally,” he said, although he is always quick to point out the efforts of the staff and festival volunteers, to say nothing of the audiences who have made RiverRun the success it is today.
Dale Pollock, former dean of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking and a current faculty member, was a major force in engineering RiverRun’s Eastward expansion from Asheville and Brevard to Winston-Salem. He’s the only emeritus member of the festival’s board of directors and was awarded the Visionary Award last year.
“RiverRun has experienced more growth than I ever anticipated,” Pollock said. “It was very gratifying on a recent trip to Los Angeles to discover that everyone I spoke to in Hollywood had heard of and respected RiverRun! I feel very proud of my role in establishing RiverRun in Winston-Salem, but the festival has grown so much, I don’t really mind being a footnote in its current history.
“Rob Davis has taken the festival to a new level since assuming the RiverRun executive directorship. His year-round screenings of classic films, the great retrospectives we now do at the festival, and the quality of honorees have all elevated the festival significantly. This is probably the most racially, gender and nationality-diverse line-up we have ever had, (with) some very exciting films to look forward to.”
The festival received approximately 1,700 submissions and is still fielding inquiries. Indeed, three features – the French farce C’est la Vie!, the romantic comedy Olympic Dreams, and the romantic drama The Tomorrow Man (starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner) – were added to the schedule only days ago.
“We always keep a few spaces open in the schedule for last-minute additions, and we’re delighted to be able to share these three terrific films with our 2019 audiences,” Davis said.
In addition to the films, parties, and other mainstays of the festival – rest assured, Saturday Morning Cartoons is back (April 13 at Hanesbrands Theatre), as is the outdoor family screening (the 1968 Ian Fleming adaptation Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, April 13 at Bailey Park) – Davis is particularly pleased with the selection of panel discussions this year.
On April 6, the festival will present “Preserving Historic Places” at Hanesbrands Theatre, which showcases the efforts of citizens of Elkin who took it upon themselves to renovate and restore the Reeves Theater, which had been built in the 1940s but fell into disrepair. There will be a screening of the documentary short Reeves: A Home for Music with filmmaker Michael Lippert in attendance.
On April 7, “Modernizing the Silents” will be held at UNCSA Main Theatre, featuring a special screening of a recently restored print of the 1915 silent film Fanchon, the Cricket from the Mary Pickford Foundation, featuring a newly commissioned, rock-tinged score by Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach. Ducatenzeiler, a Lollipop Records artist and frontman for the rock band Mystic Braves, and Chris Heckman, professor of Film Music Composition at UNCSA, will be on hand to discuss using modern music for classic silent films following the screening.
“It’s the only time Mary Pickford appeared with both her sister Lottie and brother Jack on film,” Davis added. “Mary died thinking the film was lost!”
One of the most popular panels, “Pitch Fest,” returns this year (April 12 at Hanesbrands Theatre), in which student filmmakers pitch their ideas for new documentaries to a panel of expert judges in the hope of winning a cash prize and industry recognition.
Rachel Raney, executive producer of the PBS documentary series “Reel South,” will host the “Reel South Panel” April 12 at Hanesbrands Theatre, in which she discusses the popular program’s commitment to showcasing independent documentary films about the American South, and how it offers opportunities for filmmakers to submit both features and shorts.
Finally, Pollock will host the provocatively titled panel discussion “Death of the Movies?” (April 13 in the Mountcastle Room at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts), wherein he discusses how many audiences prefer T.V. content over movies, and how they can watch current movies in the comfort of their own home, at the touch of a button. Will traditional cinema survive? (Judging by last year’s record-breaking U.S. box-office grosses, it’s not dead yet!)
While there are bound to be many new faces at this year’s festival, some familiar ones will be there too. Among them are Stephen van Vuuren, the Greensboro-based filmmaker who will be presenting the world premiere of his documentary In Saturn’s Rings, which takes the viewer on a breathtaking journey through space as it details the 1997 Cassini-Huygens mission, a collaboration between NASA, the ESA (European Space Agency), and the ASI (Italian Space Agency), in which an unmanned space probe was sent to study the planet Saturn.
The mission lasted nearly 20 years, and van Vuuren was amazed that its many discoveries weren’t as widely covered by the media as he thought they should be, given the amount of data – and the extraordinary photographic images – collected. When a film is touted as being “years in the making,” that is most certainly true of In Saturn’s Rings, on which van Vuuren has toiled for more than a decade.
“Not only is the film fascinating, but the story how Stephen made it is equally fascinating,” Davis said. Van Vuuren and members of the production will be on hand for the April 13 screening and subsequent panel discussion at UNCSA Main Theatre.
“I’m grateful that the film is finding the audience and recognition it deserves,” van Vuuren said. “It’s the first long-form multi-plane form photo-animation in history, and perhaps the only one as necessity was the mother of invention. We took the camera where motion-pictures cameras have not and can not go – yet. Even though it was made for the giant screen and full-dome industry, because it was created as a crowd-funded nonprofit by all volunteers, we made the film without interference and thus could directly translate our passion for real images from space directly to the film without bogging it down with charts, graphs, and talking heads. It’s a pure experience of visual and music designed for the big screen.”
The film is narrated by LeVar Burton, the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning actor well remembered for his performance as Lt. Geordi LaForge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and its feature film spin-offs. If, as the opening narration of “Star Trek” goes, “space, the final frontier” – then In Saturn’s Rings proves there’s a lot of that frontier yet to cover.
“LeVar was my first choice, and we were lucky to get him,” van Vuuren said, “and he’s everything you would want him to be: a true class act and a voice narration god. We also had a great co-writer who helped polish his narration, local writer/director L.M. Oliver.”
Van Vuuren made his RiverRun debut in 2005 with The Golden Girl and the Sea of Tranquility, a short film he describes as “a personal, experimental found-footage film.”
In Saturn’s Rings, however, could be described as his magnum opus.
“It’s humbling and gratifying to have the film at RiverRun because from my first screening in 2005 to now, the festival has grown dramatically in both scope and prestige, so it’s a real honor to have this film included, and RiverRun is doing folks in the Triad a big service as we lack a giant-screen theater of any kind, and the only planetarium – at the Greensboro Science Center – is too small for even a modest family-and-friends screening. So this will likely be the very best opportunity for us here to see the film locally at UNCSA Main Theatre.”
Another festival veteran is director Martha Stephens, a 2006 graduate of the UNCSA School of Filmmaking, whose latest film To the Stars will be screened April 13 at UNCSA Main Theatre. Her award-winning drama Pilgrim Song (2012) and the award-winning comedy Land Ho! (2014) – which she co-wrote and co-directed with fellow UNCSA graduate Aaron Katz – were hot tickets at past festivals.
“I do enjoy coming back to the Piedmont – especially in the spring – and I check out all of the old haunts that still exist,” she said. “Winston-Salem has changed dramatically these last 10-15 years! P.B.’s Takeout is a tried-and-true favorite, although I don’t eat meat anymore.”
To the Stars, which premiered in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is set in the 1960s and details the friendship that develops between timid teen Kara Hayward and brash rebel Liana Liberato. The film was shot in black-and-white (by Andrew Reed) and is the first feature that Stephens didn’t write herself. “I was inspired by the yearning and aching that oozed from the script,” she said. “I loved the setting and characters, and thought it was due time to make a kind of iconic female coming-of-age story.”
Stephens said that establishing a rapport with first-time screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary proved easy. “I adore Shannon, and our collaboration couldn’t have gone any smoother,” she said. “There was a real sense of trust between us. She was beyond generous with allowing me to personalize the storytelling through my specific film language. As I read the script for the first time, I saw it in gorgeous monochrome. In my mind’s eye, I discerned it would heighten the drama while freeing the audience to innately focus more on character because it’s less adorned. I wanted to strip it down and focus less on the idealized, candy-colored world of mid-century America. It takes place in a dusty farm town in rural Oklahoma, and black-and-white really adds to this as opposed to taking anything away.
“I hope audiences sense the love that went into making this picture and feel as though they’ve been transported to another time and place.”
The 2019 RiverRun Spotlight section this year shines on United Artists, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The studio was founded by Hollywood luminaries Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks to grant artists more autonomy in their work. Over the last century, that standard has been upheld to a great extent. Such autonomy backfired in the instance of Michael Cimino’s 1980 fiasco Heaven’s Gate (which nearly ruined the studio), but the list of successes is long and grand.
RiverRun had always planned to mark the UA milestone, but, much to Davis’s surprise, “we are the first festival to commemorate the UA centennial, and as soon as we publicized it, we started getting calls from MGM (UA’s parent company), and they’ve been nothing but enthusiastic and supportive.”
To commemorate the UA legacy, the festival will present special screenings of the 1925 Mary Pickford silent drama Little Annie Rooney (April 6 at UNCSA Main Theatre), the Oscar-winning 1955 classic Marty (April 7 at UNCSA Gold Theatre), the racially-charged 1959 crime drama Odds Against Tomorrow (April 6 at UNCSA Babcock Theatre), the original 1962 James Bond thriller Dr. No (April 12 at UNCSA Main Theatre), the Oscar-winning 1967 mystery In the Heat of the Night (April 13 at UNCSA Main Theatre), and Martin Scorsese’s 1980 boxing saga Raging Bull (April 14 at UNCSA Main Theatre), for which Robert De Niro won the Best Actor Oscar as Jake LaMotta.
Medavoy, who was then the senior vice president in charge of production at UA, will be presented with his Master of Cinema award following the screening.
“RiverRun’s Master of Cinema presentation to Mike Medavoy marks the first time we’ve presented the award to someone whose career has encompassed the roles of agent, producer, film company founder, and CEO,” Davis said. “I know of no other executive in the film industry today who has the credentials and experience of Mike Medavoy. While he works with top talent on critically acclaimed and commercially successful pictures for today’s audiences, he also has an appreciation of the industry’s history and a keen sense of the future.”
Although Pollock had produced the 1996 Shirley MacLaine/Ricki Lake comedy Mrs. Winterbourne, which Benjamin directed and featured Prentiss in a memorable cameo, he had nothing to do with their selection. Davis said that they’d been on the RiverRun “wish list” for some time.
“He was a great director of actors in particular, having been a very good one himself,” Pollock said. “He could deal with everyone from Shirley to Ricki Lake, and that’s quite a range. Paula was only in one brief scene as a nurse who terrifies Ricki, but it was pretty amazing to see Richard direct his own wife!”
To honor Prentiss, there will be a screening of the 1964 Howard Hawks romantic comedy Man’s Favorite Sport, co-starring Rock Hudson, April 10 at Hanesbrands Theatre. Later that evening, Benjamin will be honored with a screening of the 1975 Neil Simon adaptation The Sunshine Boys, directed by Herbert Ross, co-starring Walter Matthau (who earned an Oscar nomination as Best Actor) and George Burns (who won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor), while Benjamin won the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor.
“Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin have distinguished themselves with notable acting careers encompassing film, television, and stage,” Pollock said. “Additionally, Richard is a distinguished film director. Both have filmographies featuring titles well-known to all moviegoers across a variety of genres. Additionally, this marks a historic occasion for RiverRun as we present Master of Cinema awards to a married couple!”
“My God, that’s fantastic,” Benjamin said. “We’re very honored.”
“Well, honey, we’ve been married a long time,” laughed Prentiss. “It’s really nice, a lovely thing. It’s a great surprise – and a very nice one.”
It’s evident that both Benjamin and Prentiss enjoy acting – and, in his case, directing – as much as they ever have.
“I can’t think of anything I’ve done where I didn’t learn something,” he said. “They were all enjoyable. It’s unbelievable to actually do it. You’re going to a magical place. You’re making magic. When I hear about someone complaining because their trailer wasn’t big enough or they didn’t like making a certain movie, I don’t understand it. Sure, it’s hard work, and sometimes the end result isn’t what you expected, but you’re getting paid to make the magic happen! It’s a blessing.”
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.
The 21st annual RiverRun International Film Festival runs April 4-14. For a complete schedule, advance tickets or more information, call (336) 724-1502 or visit the official RiverRun website.