RiverRun turns 20 and is bigger than ever
Boasting 165 films from 40 countries, bolstered by the star power of Master of Cinema honorees Piper Laurie and Chuck Workman, and boosted by the efforts of its tireless staffers and volunteers, the 20th annual RiverRun International Film Festival is set to celebrate this year’s event in style.
The festival opens April 19 with a pair of opening-night selections: writer/director Bart Layton’s debut feature, the North Carolina-shot caper American Animals (at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art), and director Samuel D. Pollard’s documentary feature Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (at Hanesbrands Theatre).
“When I look at this year’s festival and all the festivals I’ve been involved with over the years, I am so proud of this particular schedule,” said RiverRun executive director Rob Davis. “I think it’s the best of the best. The RiverRun team – I don’t call them ‘the staff,’ because they really are a team – bring such enthusiasm and dedication to provide the best possible programming. I’ve said it before, and it’s true: It is a pleasure to get up every morning and go into work with these people.”
With a record number of submissions (over 2,000), “we would love to have included more, but we just had no space.” As a result, “this was probably the most difficult year in terms of programming.”
The festival began in Brevard in 1998, but it was Dale Pollock, former dean of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking and current faculty member, who oversaw its Eastern migration to Winston-Salem in 2003. At the festival launch party last month at SECCA, both Davis and Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines lauded Pollock as a “visionary.”
Although Pollock remains on RiverRun’s board of directors, he’s not as involved in the day-to-day operations as he once was, but said there’s very little he would change.
“I am always amazed at how much the festival has grown and the manner in which the community embraces it,” he said. “We are now able to get the top films that come out of Toronto and Sundance, and film distributors respect RiverRun and its audience. The fact that Piper Laurie and Chuck Workman will attend demonstrates that RiverRun is an important destination for beginning and master filmmakers.”
RiverRun is now the longest film festival in the state, and an important component to the region’s cultural flavor, but there have been tough times over the years, and the fluctuating economy – both locally and nationwide – is a constant concern.
One filmmaker not surprised by RiverRun’s resilience and growth is Ted Newsom, whose fun-filled horror pastiche The Naked Monster screened at the 2004 festival to a sell-out crowd at The Garage. This was back when the festival, having not yet established its identity (or impact), actively sought submissions to fill a four-day schedule.
“I never had as much fun in my life as I had at RiverRun,” Newsom said. “Everyone was so enthusiastic. Everyone was so friendly. The audience really liked the movie. I got to meet the mayor; I got to meet Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris – which was interesting since my former writing partner John Brancato and I had written the original draft of Spider-Man back in the ‘80s.”
The 2018 festival includes world premieres (Saints Rest and In Pursuit of Justice), U.S. premieres (Eye on Juliet, Retreat, The Beginner, Severina), East Coast premieres (Fort Maria, Leave No Trace, Angels Wear White, The World Before Your Feet, Walden: Life in the Woods, The Devil We Know), and Southeast premieres (Dragonfly Eyes, The Desert Bride, When She Runs, Phantom Cowboys, Who We Are Now, Maynard).
Filmmaker Jeremy Workman, whose feature documentary The World Before Your Feet earned rave reviews at the South By Southwest festival where it made its world premiere, attended last year’s festival as a “PitchFest” juror.
“For years, I’d always heard about RiverRun from filmmakers, and everyone always mentioned how it was one of their favorite festivals,” he recalled, “so it was cool to be invited as a juror last year. We actually presented the award to the student Aaron Paul Lovett, whose pitch, Gays for Trump, is now in the festival as part of the NC Shorts Program One this year. I’m excited to see the finished film!”
The NC Shorts Program One will be screened April 22 and 27 at Hanesbrands Theatre.
Jeremy Workman said the first day at RiverRun he saw what made the festival special.
“It has such an intimate, personal feel – with the filmmakers hanging out with the audiences and just everybody being in the same place together,” he said. “The screenings are packed, and the audiences are just so excited and eager to see these great films. It has become a real honor amongst filmmakers when your film is invited to RiverRun. Every filmmaker says the same great things about RiverRun.”
Jeremy Workman is the son of Chuck Workman, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who will receive the Master of Cinema award. Chuck’s 2013 documentary What is Cinema? and his Oscar-winning 1986 live-action short Precious Images will be screened April 28 at UNCSA Main Theatre. His documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles screened at the 2015 festival.
That both father and son filmmakers are attending this year’s event is “really and truly coincidental,” Davis said smiling. “Chuck was one of the people on our (Master of Cinema) list, and Jeremy came to last year’s festival, so as coincidences go, it’s a very pleasant and nice one.”
“We’ve been together at other times at other festivals, and I really like it,” Chuck Workman said, then laughed. “I suppose it could be a very weird kind of thing, but it works for us.”
Both father and son enjoy watching their films with an audience. “It’s not painful, it’s entertaining,” Chuck observed. “It’s like stand-up comedy. ‘Did this work?’ ‘Did this not work?’ Film doesn’t change. It’s gratifying [to watch] an audience laugh in the right places. It’s not painful; it’s entertaining.”
Although he’s made some narrative features, including 1985’s StoogeMania and 2004’s A House on a Hill, Workman has found his greatest success in documentaries.
“My own work is not necessarily ‘Hollywood work,’” he said. “When I started to go my own way, and in my own style, I had much better results. I like to push the style envelope as much as you could, with no restrictions. I don’t mind tripping over myself sometimes.”
Workman has earned 10 Emmy nominations for his editing work on 21 Academy Awards telecasts, and for the 2000 ceremony, Jeremy also earned one.
When it came to the Oscars, “I was kind of given my head, and there’s no question I’m so grateful for that. I wasn’t asked to play down to the great unwashed, and I had very little negative input, especially on the ones produced by Gil Cates.”
Kevin Thomas, for 50 years a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and a RiverRun juror in 2008, is familiar with the work of both Master of Cinema honorees.
“(Piper Laurie) is charming and unpretentious – a dear, special lady,” he said. “She has a wonderful speaking voice and a great laugh. The Master of Cinema award is well deserved.”
Thomas feels likewise about Chuck Workman’s selection.
“He is amazing in his mastery of montage,” he said. “His selections are so acute and so apt they pack such an emotional wallop.”
Jeremy’s film, The World Before Your Feet, follows Matt Green, a New Yorker determined to walk every single street in every borough of New York City, a distance of roughly 8,000 miles. Following Green’s footsteps was Jeremy, essentially acting as a one-man crew.
“I’ve been close friends with Green for nearly a decade and started hearing about his amazing walking adventures in the mid-2000s,” Jeremy related. “His walks didn’t seem to be about completing any set goal. It was more about discovering our world and the people who live here in a wholly unique and personal way. When he told me he was going to walk every street of New York City, I knew I had to somehow convince him to let me film it.”
Jeremy was born in the Big Apple and has called it home since college. Jeremy said while filming he discovered more and more new things from the city he thought he knew like the back of his hand.
“There were so many places that I saw for the first time and so many neighborhoods I was discovering,” he said. “It was a constant state of discovery for me. After making the film, I realized that I had lived most of my life in New York City, but I barely knew it. Although it’s set in New York, it paradoxically seems like it’s about the entire world.”
Jeremy said the audience for his film could be from anywhere. It is not a film just exclusively for New Yorkers.
“I really wanted it to be about the world and all the amazement and wonder that’s right in front of you,” he said. “That’s what always struck me about Matt’s walks – it’s this really simple act. Anyone can go out and walk the streets of their town, and yet by doing this simple act, there are these amazing, complex layers that suddenly appear. Suddenly, your world becomes imbued and enriched with all this wonder and possibility.”
When he was first considering the film, he discussed it with a colleague and mentor who happened to be his father.
“Growing up and watching him work, it seemed like such a no-brainer to follow in his footsteps,” Jeremy said. “Making documentaries and telling unique stories seemed like the best option around. I pretty much knew I wanted to be doing this by age 18 or so, but it’s really been fun to be making films at the same time as him.”
Another film that captures a distinctive and specific region of America is Moss, the fifth feature and second dramatic feature from filmmaker Daniel Peddle, who originally hails from Winston-Salem. Peddle, who discovered actress Jennifer Lawrence over a decade ago, also discovered Mitchell Slaggert, the male model who makes his screen debut in the title role, a restless teenager celebrating his 18th birthday along Carolina Beach. The film is as much a character study as a study of the rustic environment he lives in, a world where people lead simple and uncomplicated, but not insignificant, lives.
Since making the film, Slaggert – who is scheduled to join Peddle at the festival – has completed five feature films, a Netflix series, and became the face of Calvin Klein, all in a two-year span.
“It’s quite the ‘Cinderfella’ story,” Peddle said. “I wanted to document that very slim window when Mitchell was becoming a man, but some of the boy was still there – and I really think we got it because, by the end of the film, Moss does seem different. I wanted to get the raw performance because Mitchell will never give another one of those, where he literally didn’t know what he was doing.”
Shooting on Carolina Beach, at the mercy of the water and the weather, was “such an adventure,” Peddle said.
“Every day we filmed was like a magical moment. I can’t but marvel at it all now, like how the hell we pulled it all off,” Peddle said. “A motley, hardscrabble crew of mostly first-timers? A cast of mostly non-actors, a shoestring budget, and braving to conspire with Mother Nature herself for 25 days? An incredible feat! It really is a testament to something willing itself on you, wanting itself to be pulled forth. I look at the film, and it all seems like a dream. A beautiful, magical painting. I love it!”
Piper Laurie, whose distinguished career includes a Golden Globe (for Twin Peaks), 12 Emmy nominations (with a win for 1986’s Promise), and three Oscar nominations (The Hustler, Carrie, Children of a Lesser God), will attend a special screening of The Hustler (1961) on April 22 at UNCSA Main Theatre, joined by noted author and film historian Foster Hirsch (Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen and Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King), who has previously participated in “RiverRun Retro” events.
“I think it is vital for any film festival that showcases contemporary work to include a Retro segment which honors important work from the past,” Hirsch said. “I know that Rob David shares my commitment to acknowledging film history, and we are both thrilled that this year the festival will be honoring Piper Laurie, three-time Oscar nominee and one of America’s favorite actresses.”
Born Rosetta Jacobs in Detroit, Laurie’s screen career began while she was a teenager under contract to by Universal, which yielded such forgettable fare as The Milkman (1950), Son of Ali Baba (1952), The Golden Blade (1953) and Francis Goes to the Races (1951), in which she shared the screen with everyone’s favorite talking mule.
Francis “wasn’t difficult,” Laurie joked, “but knowing I was being used in films that gave me nothing to do, I felt I had no purpose in life. I had no opportunity to be artistic.”
So she headed East to New York City, to hone her skills on the stage and live television. In The Hustler, her performance as Sarah, the doomed girlfriend of pool shark “Fast Eddie” Felson (Paul Newman) earned her an Oscar nomination. The film received nine nominations in all, including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Actor (Newman) and Best Supporting Actor (both Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott), winning for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (black-and-white) and Best Cinematography (black-and-white).
“It certainly is one my favorite films, but it took me a long time to get there,” she admitted. “It was something I was in. It was something I did. But it was different from what I’d originally envisioned.”
Laurie then took a 15-year hiatus to raise her daughter and participate in Civil Rights and the anti-war movement, before her unforgettable, Oscar-nominated comeback as Margaret White, the religious-fanatic mother of the titular, telekinetic misfit Carrie White (Sissy Spacek, who earned a Best Actress nomination).
“I had a good time, and it was very quick – only two weeks,” she recalled. “It was the first time I’d worked in 15 years.”
Laurie’s best-selling autobiography, “Learning to Live Out Loud,” was published in 2015, and she’s got two features due for release this year: White Boy Rich, co-starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Dern. The other is the award-winning Snapshots, co-starring Brooke Adams and directed by Melanie Mayron.
“I think it’s going to be a good movie,” she said of the former. “Matthew is very quirky and very talented. I’ve heard he’s terrific in the movie.” Of the latter film due for release she said, “we should have had 40 days to make it, (but) instead we had two weeks – in a heat wave, but we did it!”
After almost 30 years, Twin Peaks returned to the airwaves in 2017 on Showtime, but Laurie’s Catherine Packard was not among the returnees.
“I don’t think there was a place for me or my character,” she said. “My character was kind of a ‘silly/funny’ character, and David (Lynch) wanted to take it in a darker direction.”
Besides, she laughed, “They had plenty of actors, they didn’t need me!”
The 20th annual RiverRun International Film Festival runs April 19-29. For a complete schedule, advance tickets or more information, call 336.724.1502 or visit the official RiverRun website: http://riverrunfilm.com/.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2018, Mark Burger.