Saturday, my final full day at the fest, was a chilly windy day in Middleburg - horseback ride thwarted again! The unplanned theme of the day was girl power. The day began with a lively keynote conversation with AMPAS President Cheryl Boone-Isaacs. The moderator kept mentioning that she was the perfect person to be leading the Academy in these tough times and after listening to her for an hour, we can't disagree! It's quite obvious why they keep electing her. She's extroverted, quite funny, movie-loving, and knowledgeable about Hollywood with quite an interesting storied career behind her in film publicity. After that rousing breakfast conversation, the day ended with a standing ovation for Emma Stone and the dazzling La La Land (it's even better the second time!).
Inbetween those events a 13 year old Kazakh girl inspires in the documentary The Eagle Huntress, a very crowded panel on Presidents in the movies, and a conversation with four time Oscar nominated Production Designer Jeannine Oppenwall...
The Eagle Huntress
This documentary follows an eagle hunter and his eldest child, a 13 year old girl named Aisholpan who wants to follow in his footsteps. They're from generations of eagle hunters, a tradition passed on from father to be son. To be clear they don't hunt eagles but for the part where they steal them from their nests (a hugely memorable success); they hunt with the eagles, to capture foxes for fur to survive the harsh winters of Mongolia. The father trains the daughter anyway -- is it strange that I wanted them to break out into song about their rebel act a la Yentl?
The doc by debuting director Otto Bell is gorgeously filmed with what must have been very sturdy cameras and an agile camera team with many memorable eagle and mountainous landscaping related highlights. This doc, narrated in brief moments by Daisy Ridley, has the chance to become a breakout hit (in the admittedly small way that some documentaries do). It struck me as a little limited in its ambitions beyond the technical (how many scenes of "girls can do anything boys can do!" underlined passages do we really need?) when more background on the history of these nomadic tribes and the eagle hunting itself or even the centerpiece competition between the tribes could have helped elevated it beyond "inspirational story". But in the latter way it's quite a success; exiting the theater I saw two little girls about Alshopian's age excitedly tearing the highest rating into their audience ballot. [The films open on November 2nd in limited release.]
La La Land
Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle came for the Saturday night spotlight film. In the Q&A afterwards Chazelle revealed that he wrote La La Land before Whiplash and the anger that so permeated his Oscar hit Whiplash was in part his frustration that La La Land wasn't happening. People wouldn't even greenlight it with a tiny initial budget of $500,000... though our guess is they spent more than $500,000 on the opening scene alone once the movie finally got a greenlight after the success of Whiplash. Making La La Land was always his ultimate goal as a filmmaker... (the natural next question that was not asked: what next then, ferchrissakes, you're only 31 !). The second time through the movie I was able to focus a little more on the smart self-critiquing screenplay. And with better sound in the venue in Middleburg than the Princess of Wales has in Toronto (I complain about that theater every year but it's true!), I could make out most of the lyrics this time (even if the sound mix on the boisterous opening number still gives weirdly short shrift to the actual singing). The performances are also even lovelier on a revisit - may Emma & Ryan continue making movies together. Why waste chemistry like that?!
So Many Great Panels
Jazz and I ran from panel to panel together all day -- Saturday was by far the busiest day. If you'd like to watch the keynote conversation, Jazz periscoped the entertaining Cheryl Boones Isaac panel which addressed the Academy's diversity problem with interesting historical perspective on how people are/were invited and why the problem got so bad (the Academy didn't keep records of the demographics of their membership and it was a surprise even to them at how old and white male they skewed when the research was done).
I missed a tribute to the composer Henry Jackman that I wanted to attend but did make it to The Boxwood Winery (an exquisitely pretty and memorable place - but they only serve reds!) for a panel with the production designer Jeannine Oppenwall. She was there to promote Rules Don't Apply which has usurped her life for about five years now despite 10 months being her usual time commitment to a film. (To be honest, to these ears Warren Beatty always sounds like a near impossible person to work with even when people are speaking fondly of him! And I say this as a huge fan of his work.) People suggested Jeannine for the job because they knew she'd be able to stand up to him -- and she is definitely not shy about her opinions and an amusing conversationalist -- Warren resisted her at first because he wanted more referrals for the enormous job but Annette Bening made the difference giving Jeanine the unreserved thumbs up, 'you have to work with her.' The earlier parts of the panel were mostly dedicated to her Oscar nominated work on L.A. Confidential. She told a funny story about screaming at her date to stop the car when she saw the perfect location for the premiere arrest scene
Needless to say he never called me back for a second date"!
Other reveals: they built the whole classic Americana town in Pleasantville on the sly because the producers wanted them to find the locations instead to save money. Jeanine was really funny but the conversation was far too short for me. I wanted to hear stories from Ironweed, Seabiscuit, and Wonder Boys, too!
Saturday also featured a CNN panel with Janet Maslin and David Gergen on "Presidents, Politics, & The Movies". Gergen had just seen Jackie and pointed out that one of the strengths of the film is the notion that history belongs to those who write it. The bulk of the conversation was on Nixon which is the President he argued that Hollywood has been most obsessed with (I'd say it might be Lincoln, but that's quibbling). He previously worked for that President and felt Frost/Nixon (2008) captured him very well and that Nixon (1995), wasn't as accurate, focusing only his dark side. This seguewayed to a conversation about Trump. He said:
I do think he represents some of the same dangers: the sense of unbridled power, the sense of grievances that drive you. The narcissism goes way beyond Nixon's in Trump's case. I don't see any redeeming qualities but I do see a lot of the same qualities that bring back Nixon.
P.S. Before leaving town Sunday morning, I finally managed to get on a horse!
His name was "Whiskey" due to his coloring, roan, which was so pretty up close that it was not unlike Emma Stone's red locks if they were flecked with silver strands.
My butt and thighs are now sore as I type this but my eyes and heart had a great weekend at the 4th annual Middleburg Film Festival. Here's hoping they invite The Film Experience back next year!