As the Sarasota Film Festival rounded the corner on 20 years this past April, it did so with a subtle swagger not seen in nearly a decade. Balancing nigh one hundred feature-length films and twice as many shorts, not to mention auxiliary events and special screenings demanding multiple venues, programming flowed seamlessly into a weeklong conversation of cinematic discovery. Staff moved with certainty and the whole affair retained the air of purpose, passed on to the audience in a sense that made each ticket a prize and every film a privilege. Perhaps a self-confidence born of self-knowledge, as SFF enters its third decade, the festival takes a firm grasp of what it is and what it wants to be—a filmmakers’ festival. More than soirees and celebrities, the festival remains dedicated to those upcoming, aspiring and independent artists. And for filmmakers like Kendall Goldberg, the 22-year-old writer/director who returned to SFF this year with her feature-length debut and the world premiere of When Jeff Tried to Save the World, the distinction makes a difference.

Actor/director Eric Stoltz signs an autograph on Opening Night outside of the Sarasota Opera House. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

ACTOR JON HEDER AND WRITER/DIRECTOR KENDALL GOLDBERG OF WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

With only a few hours until the world premiere of her directorial debut, Goldberg finds herself at the bowling alley, reclining and laughing among the neon madness of Sarasota Lanes off Fruitville Road, with strikes echoing in the background and her star, Jon Heder, on the couch next to her. A household name after the cultural phenomenon that was Napoleon Dynamite, Goldberg’s When Jeff Tried to Save the World sees Heder giving one of his most understated and nuanced performances yet as the titular Jeff, a neurotic bowling alley manager forced to take charge of his life as his comfortable station becomes uncertain. Today he’s making fart noises, pressing his palms to his mouth and blaring like an elephant. Goldberg keeps laughing and faux-bemoans an inauspicious start to the press circuit, but she’s used to uphill battles by now. “You can plan your life,” she says, “but it’s most definitely not going to be exactly how you write it down on paper.”

Actor/director Eric Stoltz signs an autograph on Opening Night outside of the Sarasota Opera House. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

COMEDIAN BO BURNHAM POSES FOR A SELFIE WITH FANS AT THE SCREENING OF HIS DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, EIGHTH GRADE. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

At age 22, Goldberg’s undoubtedly one of the youngest professional filmmakers at the festival, and When Jeff Tried to Save the World took five years of her life to make, working while a student and via Skype with writing partner Rachel Borgo. “The process is a bit of a blur,” Goldberg says now, but it all began years ago with the bowling alley. Nothing to do with childhood memories—she’s no bowler—Goldberg, as an artist, finds herself attracted to locations. And bowling alleys, with their retro aesthetic and oddball perch on the edge of fringe and Americana, provided a warm, colorful and fertile ground for the imagination. Soon, Jeff would be born. But obstacles remained for teenaged Goldberg. As each year passed and summer arrived, Goldberg found herself back in her mentor’s office, feeling unprepared and unable to mount the production. Time, money, experience—did she have enough of any? “It was at a moment when I was going through a lot of changes in my life,” says Goldberg. “And it took me a while to realize I was writing my own fears and anxieties into this character and this vessel that is Jeff.” Jeff needed to make a choice, and so did she. Her mentor stepped in. Make a short film first, he said. See how it goes.

Actor/director Eric Stoltz signs an autograph on Opening Night outside of the Sarasota Opera House. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

FILMMAKER AUSTIN MCKINLEY. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

 

Actor/director Eric Stoltz signs an autograph on Opening Night outside of the Sarasota Opera House. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

SPORTS LEGEND NICK BOLLITTIERI IS ALL SMILES BEFORE THE PREMIERE OF LOVE MEANS ZERO. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

A STEPPING STONE 

Actor/director Eric Stoltz signs an autograph on Opening Night outside of the Sarasota Opera House. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

ACTRESS VIRGINIA MADSEN IN THE FILMMAKER’S LOUNGE ATOP THE ART OVATION HOTEL.

Like the short story for aspiring novelists, the short film has long held a place as a stepping stone to the feature-length debut, and proving ground for artists looking to garner support for a future endeavor. Unfortunately, outside of YouTube and the like, space for short film in regular programming is all but nil. For all these reasons, festivals like SFF play an important role as oases in the networking desert for these productions and the artists behind them. 

For Austin McKinley, a Sarasota filmmaker who came to this year’s festival with the short A Week in the Life: Behind the Scenes at the Sarasota Orchestra, SFF represented a rare occasion for widespread viewing of a niche production. Embedded with the production crew at Sarasota Orchestra, McKinley captures the unsung efforts that bring this local resource out into the community, and the heights it could reach with just a bit more support. “When you go to a concert, you see a bunch of chairs there and you see that there’s a flow between the numbers,” he says, “but most people don’t give any thought to how that is accomplished.” So McKinley brought the film to SFF. “I thought this would be a great fit,” he says. “A film that would really mean something to them because it’s taking place in their town.” 

Short film also provides room to experiment, and what better place to embrace the experimental than a festival where people gather to learn more about the form. Just ask Trent Girado, who premiered The Titan at SFF this year, the first installation of an ambitious five-part project exploring, among other things, the literary connections between Herman Melville and German Romanticism. Highly abstract, Girado knows the likelihood of a theatrical run remains miniscule despite attracting talent from productions like Moonlight. Festivals like SFF provide the only opportunity for the work to be viewed as intended—and for Girado to get his vision across. “I’m establishing a style and a rhythm,” he says, “and the best place to explore that is in a film festival setting.”

Armed with a condensed script, and a cast and crew including Heder, Goldberg set out to make her own short film as proof of concept. All she needed was the right location. She searched 40 bowling alleys around LA, before finally finding the perfect spot just south of Chicago, where she almost cried walking through the pit behind the pins and seeing it all like she imagined years earlier. Shooting her 22-minute version of Jeff, Goldberg submitted it to only three film festivals, including SFF, where it screened in 2017 to a warm reception. And before the week was up, the festival asked Goldberg to return with her feature-length debut. “They told me that before I even made the feature,” she says. “This festival, for sure, has been really supportive.” And that’s a big part of what a filmmaker’s festival should be, according to writer/director Brett Haley, who made his feature-length debut at SFF 2010 with the world premiere of The New Year, which won the Audience Award and was named Best Narrative Feature. Haley has since returned three times, including this year with Hearts Beat Loud, a movie about a single dad trying to keep his only daughter close through a shared musical bond, and which garnered another Audience Award for the filmmaker. “You can always count on there being a full audience at your movie in Sarasota,” says Haley. “That’s a big deal, and that’s not every film festival.” A welcoming audience and a well-run festival can be the “light at the end of the tunnel” for the frustrated filmmaker stuck in the editing room. “You meet friends for life here,” he says. “Filmmakers are a support system, and film festivals bring filmmakers together.”

 

TAKING THE PLUNGE

“We used that short as a really good learning experience,” Goldberg explains today. “I had thought at the time that I could handle making a feature film, and I was totally wrong,” she says. “Had I made the feature then, it would have been garbage.” On the couch next to her, Heder interjects. “You think so?” he asks. “One year’s time is all you needed?” From his perspective, joining the project early and even appearing in Goldberg’s thesis film, Gloria Talks Funny, Goldberg and Jeff were surefire from when he first read the script.

“I was on board with a feature from Day 1,” Heder says, who found in Jeff a character he could approach in a new way. Unlike cartoonish characters he’s played before, neurotic Jeff and his bowling alley home felt real. “Like a toned-down version of myself, to a certain degree,” he says. Instead of looking for superficial tics and mannerisms to create a caricature, he had to embody a character. And to Heder, the hunger of an independent filmmaker outweighs any perceived lack of experience. “Most likely, this is someone who has a voice,” he says. “They’re excited, they have a vision—they’re doing this because they want to be there. So they always look good to me.” 

Goldberg and Heder returned to the bowling alley in Lansing with plans to persevere. And whether it was wrangling up more than a hundred extras and a live band for the Friday Funday sequence (“Filmed on a Thursday,” quips Heder) or figuring out how to nail a crucial, but complicated, action shot with expensive equipment on the greased-up lanes, a grip sliding around in his socks and the camera in the path of a barreling bowling ball, the crew would figure it out as they went. It’s a baptism by fire that any director can understand. To hear Rudy Valdez tell it, he wasn’t even a filmmaker when he started making The Sentence, a documentary chronicling a family—his family—torn apart by the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing. That was more than 10 years ago.

“I just wanted a voice,” says Valdez, “and wanted to be a voice.” And so when his sister, a mother of three, was sent to prison for 15 years for crimes committed years earlier by her ex-boyfriend, Valdez picked up a camera. For ten years, he would document his family’s struggle to hold onto hope and find clemency for his sister. “I promised my sister, her daughters and my family,” says Valdez, “that this is a terrible thing, but it’s only going to remain terrible if we let it—let’s make something good from this.” And if enough people see his sister’s story, then maybe society can find a better way to move forward, he says. But when Valdez looks at the film now, he also sees another story—that of a filmmaker honing his craft and finding his voice over ten years behind the camera. 

 

WORLD PREMIERE

Arriving at SFF 2018 with the feature-length version of When Jeff Tried to Save the World and prepping for the world premiere of her directorial debut, Goldberg takes stock in her own quiet way. This was the first festival to screen the short film and it was the one that encouraged her to move forward with her dreams of a feature. Whatever it is, something comes full circle tonight. “It’s surreal, man,” she answers. Around her, other filmmakers go through similar experiences, like Ralph Moffettone, whose completely irreverent debut film, Delenda, made its world premiere at SFF 2018. A dark dramedy about, among other things, a terrorist attack in New York City, teenagers looking to join ISIS and media professionals trying to capitalize on the whole mess, the film was never going to be an easy sell, but found a home, or at least a screening or two, at SFF. And for a $50,000 debut film with no stars, that’s a pretty good deal, says Moffettone. “No one is going to pick this movie unless they’ve watched it and they like it, so that alone speaks to the spirit of the Sarasota Film Festival,” he says. “There’s a sense of community here. It absolutely does stand out.”

But the Sarasota Film Festival scene isn’t just for the up-and-coming either—even Oscar winners and nominees make it a point to stop by. “It’s a great boutique film festival,” says Oscar-nominated documentarian Rory Kennedy, who won the SFF Audience Award in 2012, returned in 2014 and then again this year with the Closing Night Film, Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow. “I encourage other filmmakers to come as well,” she says. “You are part of a legacy and an institution.” Actor/director Eric Stoltz, who opened this year’s festival with the comedy Class Rank, agrees. “I’ve had several friends come here through the years who have spoken highly of it,” he says. “Festivals are terribly important, especially in this day and age when there’s no mass distribution unless you make a comic book film.” And for some, the festival represents a well-earned respite. “I love film festivals, because I love being able to be with the audience,” says Barbara Kopple, the Oscar-winning documentarian behind such films as Harlan County USA and A Murder in Mansfield, which played at SFF 2018. “It’s like the dessert after a long struggle,” she says.

Goldberg, however, is saving room. There will be time for dessert, no doubt, but each festival also marks an opportunity for a young director with big plans to ask fellow filmmakers and producers that all-important question: “Do you want to get on board the train? Because it’s about to leave the station.”

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Guttenberg on the 80s

 

IT’S BEEN A FEW YEARS since Steve Guttenberg enjoyed status as one of the biggest Hollywood film draws in the 1980s. But the Cocoon and Police Academy star enjoys a good throwback as much as anyone amidst the current ‘80s revival. Promoting his new film Chasing The Blues, which sees the actor de-aged for a trip back the ‘80s, he waxed nostalgic with SRQ about what he calls the “last of the authentic generations.” Right now, as memories of the ‘80s inform television shows like Stranger Things and Glow, and with remakes like It dominating the world of studio films, Guttenberg posits that audiences long for that pre-internet age of character and honesty. “It was a better time for the world,” he says. “With the advent of technology comes the advent of falsehood and the ability to ghost not only your emails but your personality.” On the flipside, social media and a different celebrity news culture requires stars face a scrutiny that didn’t exist in the time of Reagan. So audiences hunger for new episodes of Roseanne and McGuyver, while Broadway makes a musical out of Pretty Woman. And if it’s not ‘80s nostalgia, it’s another caped adventure. “But my point of view,” says Guttenberg, “especially on comic book and superhero movies, is that it’s a sign we don’t have people anymore with values and integrity.” He counts himself as a comic book fan, but he’s been astounded at the degree to which superheroes took over the screen. “The most successful movies today were Universal B movies—Flash Gordon and Superman and Batman and The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” he says. “You wouldn’t see Gregory Peck playing Batman.” But then, Peck and Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart seemed like real heroes playing flawed characters. Today, Guttenberg says, flawed stars play heroes striving to do the right thing. But at least festivals keep alive stories of human characters, even as the Academy Awards give their big prizes to monster movies. “Film festivals are where we respect real film,” he says. “We are all about authenticity.” J.Ogles


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Slice of Life

 

SARASOTA TODAY HAS THE reputation as a sports destination for everything from professional baseball to Olympic rowing, but there’s likely no institution that cemented the legacy for the region more than the Nick Bollittieri Tennis Academy, the school that grew into IMG Academy and provided a training ground for such icons as Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. The Sarasota Film Festival this year gave the living legend behind the academy his moment on the red carpet, screening Love Means Zero, a documentary about Nick Bollittieri’s style and career, at the Sarasota Opera House as the Closing Day Film. “This is a grand slam,” Bollitteri told SRQ. Directed by Jason Kohn, the documentary follows both the professional successes of Bollittieri and the personal burdens that came with it. That includes eight marriages—Bollittieri boasts in the film that if you asked him to name all his wives he couldn’t do it—and an ongoing feud with Agassi, perhaps his greatest protégé, who would not sit down for the film. But Bollittieri has no problem, he says, with the warts-and-all presentation. “Nothing is tough for me, baby,” he says, “or I wouldn’t be who I am.” Love Means Zero, which will have its broadcast premiere on Showtime in June, served as the anchor for the festival’s Sports in Cinema programming, which also included Killer Bees, a documentary on a black high school basketball team near the Hamptons embarking on a state championship run, and Daughters of the Sexual Revolution, a film telling the history of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, along with a screening of baseball classic A League Of Their Own.–J.Ogles

 

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Madsen and Masculinity

 

From her days as a scream queen in Candyman to an Oscar-nominated performance in Sideways, Virginia Madsen starred in stories rich with melancholy but also a glimmer of hope. At the Sarasota Film Festival this year, she came with Centerpiece Film 1985, where she plays a mother whose closeted gay son comes home to reveal to the family he’s dying of AIDS. 

For Madsen, she felt an odd kind of empathy with the son, played by Cory Michael Smith. While her mother had always supported Madsen and her brother Michael in their pursuit of the arts, Madsen’s fireman father never understood the uncertain life of actors. “I know he loved me and was very proud of me, but he couldn’t understand someone in their 50s being broke and unemployed,” Madsen recalls. “He would say, ‘Why don’t you have a real job.’ My life and my lifestyle, it was like I lived on another planet.” But her father’s emotions weren’t born of animus, she knows. “He was really afraid for me,” she says. “That was the bottom of it, not that he
was disapproving or hateful. It was just so far out of his wheelhouse. He couldn’t connect with me or my brother about what we loved.”

She sees much of that relationship between Smith’s character and his father, played by Michael Chiklis. Madsen showered praise on the performance. “He was not a brute or a villain,” Madsen says. “He just played him like he had a dilemma.” That’s part of why the Sarasota Film Festival included the movie in its Redefining Masculinity programming. A list of specially marked films also included Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a Spotlight Film on the life of the late Fred Rogers, The Rider, a docufiction about an injured rodeo cowboy, and Minding the Gap, a documentary about an aging skateboarder that ultimately won the jury prize in the Documentary Feature Competition. This film also looks back on the 1980s, and in a darker way than a coming Goonies remake will likely explore. “People are very romantic about the time and about how awful the fashion was—and it really was terrible,” Madsen says. “But we also have to remember how many people died. That shouldn’t be silenced. I wish this movie could be shown in high schools and churches, but that probably isn’t going to happen.” –J.Ogles