In its 62nd year, the Rochester International Film Festival moves online next week
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As a budding teenage filmmaker in 1975, John Gray made the trek to Rochester to take part in what would become the Rochester International Film Festival, and take home the Shoestring Trophy for his short film “The Building.”
“I think I was 16 years old, it was my first 16mm film,” Gray recalled. “I didn’t know much about film festivals. I took a train up there — it was an extremely grueling train ride from Manhattan to Rochester.” But once he got there, “it was a great time, it was heady — I have great memories of the festival.”
The ensuing decades have been active for Gray, who has written and directed many feature films, directed the ABC series “Empire” about the rise of Caesar Augustus, and created the CBS series “Ghost Whisperer” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt. His resume includes historical drama, family comedy, thrillers, everything from a movie about the Manson family to a remake of the NFL tearjerker “Brian’s Song.” He’s directed the likes of Lance Henriksen, Donald Sutherland and Stephen Seagal.
And next week, Gray’s back at the Rochester International Film Festival. Or rather, his work — “Extra Innings,” a short narrative about an interview between a reporter and a cranky baseball manager, a conversation that isn’t what it seems — will be; not the director himself. For this year, due to the novel coronavirus, there will be no physical festival, no three days of viewing clusters of short films at the Dryden Theatre. RIFF will be entirely online this year, with 28 short films available to be viewed on the festival website, rochesterfilmfest.org, from June 21 through June 27. (Trailers and the program book can currently be accessed there.) Viewers can register at the site starting June 21.
The festival is a celebration of short films, all 30 minutes or less, from creators from around the globe; countries represented include South Korea, the U.K., New Zealand, the Russian Federation, Germany, Canada, Australia, Israel and Italy, as well as U.S. locales from Brooklyn to Walla Walla, Washington. They include documentaries, animation, comedy, drama, experimental work and more, with subject matter ranging from jazz to dementia, from prickly artists at hilariously murderous odds to a 102-year-old woman who finds herself a viral sensation.
Making the best of it
This is the 62nd year for the festival, presented by Movies on a Shoestring Inc. Each year, a screening committee watches each submitted film, fills out comment forms and discusses their impressions of the films. They vote on what films move on to final judging, with a panel of judges from among the screening committee members determining which films will be screened and receive the Shoestring Trophy.
That’s an arduous and involved process any year — but considerably more so in these socially distanced times when it all had to be done online, noted Josephine Perini, one of the steering committee and judges as well as a member of the board of directors.
“When you don’t have the interaction with other people there, it gets a little challenging,” she said.
And she readily admits, an online film festival isn’t quite the same thing, not the communal experience the fest has been since founded in 1959. “One of the biggest (challenges) is not being able to have the huge event at the Dryden with every film, and then a Q&A afterward,” she said.
But as with so many things in this year of pandemic and isolation, it is what it is — and they’re determined to make the best of it and look on the bright side. People who may not have been able to come out to the physical festival will be able to view the films, she noted: The films are viewable by people within a roughly hundred-mile radius, she said, speculating that this could put the festival on the radar of some people from the Buffalo and Syracuse areas — some of whom may be filmmakers who’ll submit films in subsequent years.
For now, they’re concentrating on this year, and a diverse palette of 28 short films.
44 scarves, 1 icon
Among those films is “The 44 Scarves of Liza Minnelli,” a documentary by Russell Brown — assisted by 43 of his friends — in which scarves once owned by the iconic theater star are employed in metaphorical ways to suggest aspects of Liza.
It all started when Brown bought the scarves at auction, a collection of many different colors and patterns, and a simple impulse: “I want them. I want to own them!” he said. And he began thinking about how a collection of objects can be infused with deeper meaning, can be representative of a life, or of people’s impressions and interpretations of a life. So he had 43 others fly, drape, wear or somehow make use of the scarves in ways that suggest an aspect of Minnelli — whether her persona, her theater and film work, her activism — and he wove the resulting footage into a coherent structure, something of a mosaic or collage which suggest something about Liza, and also something about everyone taking part.
It’s a bit of a departure for Brown. “Generally, filmmaking is a very controlled activity, and I was sort of excited about the idea of something that didn’t have a form or shape,” he said — his vision would be dependent on the diverse visions of 43 other people.
Brown’s film resume includes documentaries, short films and feature films, most of which deal with the lives of artists and also seem to explore human connections — like “Angel and the Gypsy,” which starred Cybill Shepherd as a woman throwing an elaborate Spanish-themed dinner party hoping to reconnect with a man she once loved in Spain, or his work in progress, “Loren and Rose,” featuring Jacqueline Bisset as a once-iconic actress, and her friendship with a budding filmmaker played by Kelly Blatz.
Brown has never been to the Rochester festival, though he wishes this could have been the year to change that.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Rochester — I’m actually a little bit let down that the festival is online,” he said. “I was going to use it as my excuse to go!”
‘It just explodes’
Maverick Moore, a one-time skateboarding videographer who’s now a writer, director and editor for narrative films, turned for inspiration in his most recent film to a relationship that had always fascinated him: the stormy, to put it mildly, connection between German director Werner Herzog (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Nosferatu the Vampire”) and actor Klaus Kinski.
How stormy? Deadly stormy.
“I’m fascinated by Werner Herzog and his films, and his legacy — and including his legendary working relationship with Klaus Kinski,” Moore said. “They made five films together, and they had this really turbulent working relationship — at one point in time, each of them seriously planned to murder the other. They pushed each other to the extreme — I think that contributed to the art they made together. … There’s not many partnerships in cinematic history that are quite as interesting or unique or dangerous as their collaboration was. Just because of their working styles and personalities — when you put it together, it just explodes.”
Moore had some fun with that explosion: “My Dinner with Werner” is actually a farcical comedy set in the '80s in which Herzog and a beautiful young woman share the most awkward of dinner dates — made even more awkward since she was put up to the meeting by Kinski as part of a murder plot. The encounter involves poisoned wine, projectiles, a hapless waiter — and chickens.
As Moore put it, he liked comedy, and he always had a Herzog-Kinski movie in the back of his mind, and then one day realized, “Oh, I could make a farce about this pair — and it just kind of clicked. They’re already so exaggerated, in that they’re so adaptive to farcical comedy; the things they said and did to each other are so over the top, it just adapted to comedy so well.” He just had to take their already exaggerated relationship, and take it even further over the top.
‘Always the characters’
To go into the inspiration for Gray’s “Extra Innings” would end up giving away some poignant twists. The basic concept: A reporter gets an interview with a prickly Boston Red Sox manager, who is by turns reflective and enraged when the questions turn personal. It’s a character study, in which both men’s characters slowly reveal themselves to each other and the viewer
“I’ve always been interested in characters — no matter what the genre is, my entry into it is always the characters,” Gray said. “I’ve tried hard not to ever repeat myself — when I did movies, I tried to make each one very different than the one before.” A glance at his filmography bears this out: A 1995 family comedy about a juvenile delinquent and the gorilla he befriends (“Born to Be Wild”) was followed by 1996 buddy-cop action comedy, “The Glimmer Man” with Stephen Seagal and Keenan Ivory Wayans, which in turn was followed by a pair of historical dramas, “The Day Lincoln Was Shot” and “The Hunley” about the Confederate submarine.
“It all comes down to characters, and I want to tell their story,” he said.
He’s done series television, as well, notably “Ghost Whisperer,” and notes that it’s a different beast from making films — it’s nonstop, with one episode being filmed while two more are in different stages of production, for instance. “It’s like jumping on a moving train,” he said.
Filmmaking amid the pause
These days, production facilities are shuttered due to the pandemic. It doesn’t mean everything stops for filmmakers; Moore noted it allows time for writing, for planning, for fine-tuning finished work. But obviously there are challenges: Brown, for instance, has finished the initial cut of “Loren and Rose” but has never seen it in a theater setting, a crucial step for filmmakers to consider the impact of the work.
And, Gray notes, the times will require some changes in the creative process, for verisimiltude if nothing else.
“Everything we know has gone out the window,” he said. “Once we do get back, we don’t know how it’s going to be. Do you shoot a scene in a restaurant, do you shoot a scene in a school? Nobody’s shaking hands any more. How do you do a love scene?”
Then again, the situation also allows for some creative options: Gray recently directed a murder mystery in Zoom, “Exit Package” — in which the murders take place during a Zoom meeting.
As with the film festival, it’s making the best of a situation and seeing what new possibilities present themselves. But again as with the festival, it’s not quite the same.
“The main thing that it’s really kind of solidified in my mind is how important the theatrical, communal experience of filmmaking, and film-watching, is,” Brown said. “... Now that we don’t have it, we realize how important it is, and how meaningful it is.”
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