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First King of the Festival


Forest Whitaker Talks Acting, Uganda, and Why Idi Amin Wasn’t All Bad

by Matt KettmannPaul Wellman | photos by

Forest%20Whitaker.jpgIn The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker becomes the notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. To deliver the performance of a lifetime — and one that’s likely to land him the Oscar after already netting the Golden Globe — Whitaker spent months researching Amin’s life and legacy, learned to speak Swahili, and mastered the distinct Ugandan accent. And I would know because, last year, I spent nearly a month in Uganda, covering their presidential elections and reporting on the country’s 20-year war against crazed northern rebels. Whitaker comes to the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, February 3 at 8 p.m. to accept SBIFF’s Riviera Award. We spoke a couple weeks ago about his role, Ugandan politics, and Santa Barbara. This is an edited version of that Q&A, which can be found in its entirety online at independent.com.

What did you know about Idi Amin before doing the movie? Very little. As a kid, I had this idea of a mad dictator who killed all these people, but I really had no idea. As I get older, I keep in check my opinions on individuals who are presented to me that way from other countries, particularly people of color. I don’t know what is really occurring, so I don’t know anything. And then I went on this real long journey of research, both intellectual and emotional, to understand and play this guy.

How? I started in Los Angeles, nine months beforehand. I started studying all the documentary footage I could find, and read all the books I could find on him, and the interviews. One of the main keys was studying the history of the region and then the big key was studying Swahili. I had to trick my mind into believing that English was my second language, you know, like when trying to formulate my words. When I got to Uganda, my dialect shifted from a technical understanding into a more organic phase — what different sounds meant, what gestures meant, how one word is played with.

And certainly, I met a million people, too. I met with Amin’s brothers, his sisters, his ministers, his generals, his girlfriends. Then it was trying to understand, at the core, what it’s like to be Ugandan, and then understanding the concept of what it’s like to be a father figure of this country and what it’s like to be a father in an African family.

Forest%20Whitaker%20Street.jpgThough you play this brutal dictator, not every Ugandan thinks he’s so evil. How did you come to realize that? It’s like the actor who played my minister — he said they wouldn’t have theater in Uganda if it wasn’t for Idi Amin. Then another person will say he started that radio station, Number One. And the other one will say Idi Amin got everyone to start speaking their native languages again because they were losing them and he forced them. The unfortunate event of kicking out of the country all the Asians was celebrated in Uganda, because Indians controlled 80 to 90 percent of the economy. Historically, or mythically, they don’t treat the Ugandans very well. That’s what everyone told me. So now I’ve met many Ugandan businessmen who are African Ugandans. [In Amin’s time] there weren’t really any African businessmen. But now there are, and it’s because he kicked out the Asians.

Then all of a sudden you start to see, it’s not necessarily an excuse, but you start to see a different face, a different part of Idi Amin. [Pan-Africans explain that] he’s one of a few African leaders who said, “Get out. We can take care of ourselves.” And they had to leave, and they did.

Did you have to navigate some of the Ugandan politics during your time there? The government and [President Yoweri] Museveni truly gave us complete usage of the country. The movie was made for eight million bucks, and we could have never made it in the manner it was made without Museveni’s help. As a result, the military you see in the movie is really the army, Entebbe Airport is really Entebbe, and we’re really in Parliament.

I read that you used native Ugandans in the crew. How’d that work out? It was positive, but it also had difficulties. Maybe 50 percent of the crew was Ugandan, and probably 90 percent of them had never worked on a film before. They were learning as they were going. But it was different for some, because if you hire a tailor, he’s still a tailor. It’s just getting used to the rhythm and the like.

But I think, personally, two things: One, just being in Uganda, for me as an actor, I couldn’t have played the part if it was shot somewhere else — South Africa specifically, which is where they wanted to shoot the film. Secondly, those people who worked on the film worked so hard on it, and it helped keep the authenticity of the film. Because they would say if something wasn’t really correct or if something was wrong. It was daunting, too, for me, because every time I gave a speech, I was surrounded by people who had actually seen Idi Amin speaking.

Everyone is saying this is your greatest role since Charlie Parker in Bird. Were you aware you were doing something great? I knew it was a really complicated, intense character to play, and I knew it was going to challenge me. I can’t say I knew it would be received in the way it’s being received, because clearly it’s being received so well. I can say I knew if I could pull it off, it would be something unique. I was afraid maybe I couldn’t, too, and maybe that’s what fueled me to work so hard. I felt like I had done what I could do and, in the end, people were saying it’s got something to say, that my performance was really strong and powerful and special. So it means a lot to me because I got so much from being there, and the chance to give back, too; you don’t always get that in a role. It’s a great gift to me. It’s a reward for working so hard because it could have also just disappeared.

What are your thoughts on Santa Barbara? Santa Barbara is one of the places where my family goes the most as a vacation spot. We even spent the Millennium there when the century changed. It’s close, it’s quiet — we love it. Yet it’s still arty and sophisticated. The people are interesting. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at real natives walking up the street.

Coming Up for Air

A Midfest Report from SBIFF

by Josef WoodardPaul Wellman| photos by

Miller%20%26%20Hickenlooper.jpgDroves of regularly well-adjusted citizens found themselves sucked into dark rooms last weekend, depriving themselves of proper sleep and diet. Yes, it’s time for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which in its impressive 22 years has established itself firmly on our cultural calendar. For some, it’s a time to get face time with Hollywood’s work force, including stars. For more serious types, SBIFF is an excuse to escape the real world, while also, ironically, experiencing more of the world than would otherwise be possible in a given 11-day period.

Sacha%20Baron%20Cohen.jpgIn the flesh-and-blood news after SBIFF’s opening weekend, Will Smith played the real-life role of America’s Nice Guy, and Sacha Baron Cohen was England’s Bad Boy. Smith charmed his way through a “this is your life” evening of clips and chatter at his Modern Master evening at the Arlington (we’re all still scratching our heads as to what possibly makes him a “modern master”). Meanwhile, Borat was Boorat: Baron Cohen, appearing mostly as Baron Cohen, was generally a rude a-hole who left a stinky vibe in the Lobero, apart from some obviously rehearsed comedy bits being filmed for Borat!’s DVD release. Cameras and basic civility were not allowed in the theater. Word had it that Helen Mirren, at her tribute evening, was a very different kind of Brit, an articulate and witty sort, and without any prima donna airs or stuffy Queenly mien.

Helen%20Mirren%20Award.jpgSome of the more interesting film folk encounters at SBIFF happens at panels, where the filmmakers — not just the acting window dressing — talk about their craft. At the director’s panel, we got words to the wise from some current faves. The star of this panel was clearly Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Amores Perros — his masterpiece so far — wowed the SBIFF crowd a few years ago, and whose much Oscar-nominated Babel features local boy Brad Pitt and more story stitch-work. Responding to a question about whether he’s emotionally haunted by the often dark terrain he gets to in his films, Gonzáles Iñárritu compared his situation as a director to that of a doctor, saying, “You cannot get too attached, emotionally, or you will kill [your characters]. You have to live it, but you also have to be careful.”

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, of Little Miss Sunshine fame, win sleeper-hit-of-the- year bragging rights. Faris touched on what made this movie special: “We wanted it to be a comedy, but it had to be believable. If it wasn’t truthful, it would be a hollow laugh. The biggest challenge was to create a family with a history.” Mission accomplished.

Will%20Smith%20Group%20Award.jpgMore cogent commentary came from Todd Field, who was on this panel years ago following his luminous In the Bedroom and is now promoting the intriguing Little Children, intriguing mainly because of its avoidance of the usual Hollywood crutch of sympathetic characters and happy endings. Directing, he noted, “is always about process, which you must trust,” later musing about “the strangeness of how things come together in a film.”

On a lighter note, we also learned about the early work life of John Lasseter (Pixar domo and director of Cars and the Toy Story series), who was once the Oscar Meyer Weiner driver in Hollywood, and a tour guide on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride. Show-biz aspirants take heart.

We get bombarded by celebrity glitz and hype all year ’round from an increasing number of media-saturating angles. The real core and deeper value of this and many another good festival is the window it offers on both international cinema and international worldviews. At SBIFF, the world awaits, and one can sample from perspectives around the globe.

A list of memorable international films seen on opening weekend, for this viewer’s money: the Bosnian slice-of-life film Grbavica, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s hypnotic neo-noir film Lights in the Dusk, the bittersweet (ultimately opting for sweet) Russian orphan saga The Italian, the German films Pingpong and The Lives of Others — a cool domestic psychodrama and an engaging Berlin Wall-era history lesson, respectively. Mexico’s In the Pit is a disarmingly strong documentary about a mammoth bridge construction project in Mexico City, but is actually a humane exploration into working-class realities, along with nuts-and-bolts marveling about civil engineering.

In a film-about-film corner unto itself — another critical aspect of any thinking film festival — is The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Despite the titillating title, it is a funny and incisive analysis and deconstruction of Hitchcock, Lynch, Chaplin, Tarkovsky, etc., by the droll, scruffy and on-location scholar Slavoj Zizek.

For real-world relevance and cinematic zeitgeist, the most significant film of the festival so far (as seen by this scribe) was the rough but moving Ahlaam, filmed cheaply and guerilla-style on the streets of war-torn Baghdad. Writer/director Mohamed Al Daradji, an active and approachable guy around town for a few days, spoke after the first screening about his intent to show the Iraqi torment at ground level, with empathetic personal stories. He summed up: “These people are humans, not just part of the numbers of dead every day in the media.”

Highlights of this weekend’s live-artist-meets-film front are tonight’s conversation with the festival’s guest director, Michael Apted, following a screening of 49 Up, the latest installment in his visionary documentary series (Thu., Feb. 1, 6:30pm, Victoria Hall Theater, 33 W. Victoria St.), and a screening of An Inconvenient Truth, with Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim in the house (Fri., Feb. 2, 6pm, Arlington Theatre). Forest (Last King of Scotland) Whitaker speaks at the Riviera Award (Sat., Feb. 3, 7:30pm, Arlington Theatre). Saturday’s panel discussions are Women in the Biz (Feb. 3, 11am, Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.) and Composer’s Panel: Scoring the Film (Feb. 3, 2pm, Lobero Theatre).

And remember, when you’re handed those ballots at the door to your designated theater, do take a second to vote after the films. This is the stuff the Independent-sponsored Audience Choice Award is made of. We’re all critics on this bus. Join in.

Doing Something About It

Davis Guggenheim, Director of An Inconvenient Truth, on Environmentalism and Al Gore

by Gerald Carpenter | courtesy photo

2006_an_inconvenient_truth_001.jpgDirector Davis Guggenheim takes very little credit for the phenomenal success of the Oscar-nominated documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Far from claiming to be the auteur of the film, Guggenheim said he is “more like … a midwife.”

Guggenheim, who comes to S.B. with Al Gore on Friday, February 2 to receive the Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking, admitted that before Truth, he had not been an environmental activist. “I’m pretty well-read and I probably would side with the earth in most environmental issues,” he said. “But it wasn’t my primary thing in life.”

That was before he was approached by producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender, who said they had an idea for a movie based on Al Gore’s slide show. “My first instinct was that it was not the best subject for a movie,” said Guggenheim. “I tried to talk them out of it.” But then he attended a slide show and “was kind of shaken — to the core.” So he agreed, explaining, “My objective as a filmmaker became to try to capture that experience so that regular people like me would have the same experience.”

“Regular” might describe Guggenheim when discussing his prior environmentalism. But as a director of such breakthrough television series as Deadwood, The Shield, Alias, 24, ER, and NYPD Blue, he is by no means a civilian in Hollywood.

There’s no question, however, that his involvement with An Inconvenient Truth exponentially grew his visibility. The Oscar nomination came through the day we were scheduled to chat, and his office was in an uproar, teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed. Yet during our conversation, his responses were thoughtful and generous.

One of his concerns was keeping the film above partisan politics. “I think it will always have the reputation of being a film with a political agenda because Al Gore is in it,” he said. “But I think most people find it pretty even-handed. It’s not preachy or sanctimonious. It doesn’t take any pot-shots.”

Knowing he couldn’t top Al Gore’s presentation of the facts, Guggenheim’s concern was to make a story of it. “After I saw the slide show,” he said, “the key for me was, ‘How do I personalize it?’ The information Al gathered is so brilliantly assembled, and that is certainly the thing that shakes you. But in order for me to ask an audience to sit for 90 minutes in a darkened theater, I had to get them personally invested in a human being. I think that’s why people watch movies, and not for facts and figures. So, I wanted to tell the story of how Al Gore came to this — how he has been struggling for 40 years to tell this story, and how the many obstacles he has encountered along the way have threatened to vanquish him. So, today is a great victory. Now, Al Gore is going to be at the Academy Awards.”

Gore was reluctant to put much personal information into the film. “His one requirement,” said Guggenheim, “was the science be presented accurately and fairly. And my one requirement was we get personal. And it took time for me to earn his trust.”

The director coaxed an exciting narrative of discovery out of his subject. “The spark,” said Guggenheim, “was young Al Gore in college, signing up for this class. Who would have known it was [global warming visionary] Roger Revelle, a visiting professor?” Gore had his eyes opened and has spent the rest of his life trying to open our eyes.

Now that he knows him, Guggenheim is baffled by the image of Gore as arrogant or stiff. “The Al Gore I came to know must have always been that way — thoughtful, witty, considerate, driven. He’s funny, and when he’s got the venue where he can speak his mind, he’s brilliant.”

Guggenheim’s own career options are suddenly much wider. “I love documentaries,” he said. “I’m lucky to go between dramatic stuff and documentaries. There is nothing more satisfying than making a good film and then feeling that, after the audience sees it, they might go out and do something about it. But nothing will ever come close to this experience. Something happened with this movie that is above and beyond the movie. Things are happening. Things are changing. I feel very lucky.”

The 4·1·1 on the 10-10-10

An Inside Look at SBIFF’s Student Filmmaking Contests

by Molly FreedenbergPaul Wellman | photo by

SBIFF%20Opening%20Night.jpgThe Santa Barbara International Film Festival is an especially exciting time for young filmmakers and screenwriters — and not just because they might hear Will Smith speak or bump into Sacha Baron Cohen at Java Jones. Thanks to the 10-10-10 Student Filmmaking and Screenwriting competitions, Santa Barbara high school and college students have a chance to actually participate in the festival and, with help from professional mentors, in the film industry. In fact, last year’s addition of the Screenwriting Competition to the four-year-old Filmmaking Competition makes the process even more of a real-thing-in-training than it originally was.

This is how it works: Santa Barbara high schools and colleges held internal competitions to select the five best screenwriters and filmmakers from their institution. From those submissions (65 writers and 30 filmmakers this year), a judging panel chose five for each contest from each school level. First, the writers were paired with industry mentors and given Grimm Brothers fairytales to adapt into 10-page scripts. Next, those scripts were passed on to filmmaker finalists, whose responsibility it was to turn them into 10-minute films on a 10-day production schedule.

And just like in the real film business, the writers and directors engaged in varying degrees of collaboration: some writers were finished when they handed their scripts over, while others worked with directors on rewrites up until the last day of shooting. Since scripts are judged separately from the films made from them, the writers don’t necessarily have to be that involved.

“My name is going to be up on the screen as the writer,” said Charles Heining, a 21-year-old Brooks Institute of Photography student who worked closely with the directing finalist, 24-year-old City College student Dylan Penev, on his adaptation of Cinderella. Some of the changes Penev requested, said Heining, were cutting down scenes for time and changing the Fairy Godfather character from a gangster to an effeminate gay man. But Heining didn’t mind. “I’m not squeamish about cutting my own stuff,” he said. “And ultimately, [the film] is [Penev’s] vision, so I figured I should be trying to make it a collaboration.”

It seems the collaborations with the most learning potential, though, are those between students and mentors. Dos Pueblos High School student Alex Dunn said Jeff Arch (who wrote Sleepless in Seattle) was a great help with his screenplay adaptation of Hansel and Gretel into a story about a media mogul, his kids, and their evil stepmother. For Levi Michaels, an 18-year-old San Marcos student (and Indy contributor), working with Robert Michael Lewis (Kung Fu, The Invisible Man) was invaluable. “I would tell him my idea and he would say, ‘Yeah, you could do this to make it better, or you could this or this,’” said Michaels, who adapted Little Red Riding Hood as a story about a high school student who sleeps with her math teacher to get into college. “That was a big help. … He filled in the gaps for me.” In fact, it’s this experience that has inspired Michaels to seek a career in the film industry.

All 10 films will be screened, and all winners announced, at 1 p.m. on Sunday, February 4 at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. The winning films in both the high school and college categories also will be screened during the festival’s closing ceremonies at the Arlington Theatre later that night.

Film Noir

The Brooks 35mm Project

by Brett Leigh Dicks

As rain fell on Santa Barbara last Saturday night, the flashes of light that pierced the cloud-laden skies were unusually confined to the Riviera. This wasn’t some strange climatic aberration, but rather the 2007 installment of the Brooks Institute’s Kodak 35mm Project. Huge banks of lights were erected outside the institute’s Jefferson Campus which, in addition to flooding the building in light, simulated random flashes of lightning.

Inside the building, the scene resembled a form of poetic chaos. Teams tended to cameras and monitors, actors familiarized themselves with marks, and technicians were locked in deep conversation. For the past few years, Brooks Institute has staged the Kodak 35mm Project at the same time as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. With the community drenched in cinema, the project’s producers capitalize on the abounding excitement and inject it into their annual student project.

Unlike last year, which saw the project utilizing both the city and the festival as a backdrop, the 2007 offering is confined to Brooks’ several campuses. While the production remains untitled, it is a romantic horror film centered on two young adults trespassing through a haunted school. The project utilizes the expertise of numerous industry mentors, but its execution resides completely in the hands of the students. And while the project offers the students hands-on experience in the production of a film, perhaps one of its greatest assets is the sense of community it instills.

“One of the students pointed out that this is art school and we don’t have a football team,” offered the project’s executive producer Judy Trotter. “But, for these students, this is their big game. It’s a once-a-year thing that brings the entire student group together. So much of art is a solo journey. As an artist you are off in your own world doing your own thing, and this is the moment when these students learn to work as a group and as part of a team.”

With a crew numbering 150 and the estimated value of the project topping $1 million, the Kodak 35mm Project is certainly no small affair. As valuable as the collaborative side is, the project also provides an opportunity for students to think on their feet. The production requires months to plan, but its execution takes place during just a handful of days. And, as familiar as students may be with their skills and craft, the real-world application of those talents always throws up more than the occasion hurdle.

“Yesterday we got our last shot off at two minutes to midnight and we finished right on time,” explained first assistant director Robert Hargreaves. “But things have become a little crazy today because of the rain. And there are so many more concerns with all those people working outside with the electronics in the rain. So stressing about what’s going on outside while also stressing about what’s going on inside has been a new challenge.”

Challenge is what the Brooks Institute’s Kodak 35mm Project is all about. And as the students work with mentors to pull together this year’s film, the experience will no doubt stand them in good stead for the challenges that lay ahead in their chosen careers.

A Matter of Tact

Tom Cavanagh and Heather Graham Tip Their Hats to Classic Modernism

by Brett Leigh Dicks| courtesy photo

graymatters09_high.jpgAs two dancers frolic across a dance floor to the elegant serenade of Irving Berlin’s smoky standard “Cheek to Cheek” in the opening scene of Gray Matters — which premieres this Sunday, February 4 as SBIFF’s closing-night film — it’s not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but rather the whimsical pairing of Tom Cavanagh and Heather Graham. The couple saunters and slips and trips and turns across the wooden floor of a New York dance studio before hitting their stride, much to the delight of fellow dance students.

“That dancing was so fun,” explained Graham. “I have always loved dancing and dance scenes in movies, so it was great to have the chance to work with a choreographer and finally do it. It was hard; we were sweating our butts off out there. But it’s also a high too — doing a dance scene like that is a complete rush.”

As the scene suggests, Gray Matters offers reverence to those classic ’40s romantic comedies that were so stylishly laced with music and dance. Graham plays Gray, a vivacious advertising executive, to Cavanagh’s elegantly awkward Sam. And while the film might very well seek to encapsulate the essence of those by-gone classics, writer and director Sue Kramer also packs a very contemporary punch: Gray and Sam are actually brother and sister who end up falling for the same woman.

“It is a very personal film on so many different levels,” explained Cavanagh. “Sue Kramer has a sister who is gay and she is foremost telling that story. But she always wanted to do romantic comedies, so this film is also a tip of the hat to the ’40s comedies and musicals. In both of these aspects the subject matter really means something to her.”

There is certainly no questioning the exquisite execution of this story, for joining Graham and Cavanagh is Bridget Moynahan as Charlie, a suitably desirable love interest for the siblings, and Rachel Shelley as the professionally demanding Julia Barlett. Alan Cumming and Sissy Spacek also chime in to further color this irreverent ensemble. But as strong as the cast might be, they would be nothing without Kramer’s script.

“It’s very easy for actors to take credit for the end result,” affirmed Cavanagh. “But really it all comes down to the writing and script. And, with this film, Sue gave us such a personal story and incredible script to work with. All the humor and tenderness that we present comes from the writing. I think often times it’s those stories, the ones closest to the heart, that are the ones best told.”

As vibrant as the cast might be, the essence of the film revolves around the charismatic connection made between Graham and Cavanagh’s sibling characters. “Sue thought Tom and I would have chemistry together,” said Graham. “And we do have a lot of similarities. We both talk really fast, as you have probably already found out! But Tom was really sweet. He basically said, ‘Just beat up on me as much as you want.’ So it was fun to think of each other as brother and sister and push each other around and tease and make fun of one other.”

And as close siblings, it makes sense they would inevitably be attracted to the same type of person. As the story unfolds, Sam and Charlie embark upon an exploration of their romantic alliance, while Gray sets about trying to understand and accept who she is. And, just as Cavanagh and Graham’s dynamic transcends the screen, Cavanagh and Moynahan’s does too. “It’s weird because sometimes it happens that you do have the dynamic of the movie with the people involved,” laughed Graham. “I definitely got along great with Bridget, but Tom and Bridget had a really fun relationship too. They got along really well and, I know it just reflected the story of the movie and it’s not like they ever meant it, but sometimes I did feel like the third wheel.”

But Gray Matters is ultimately a film of inclusion, that timeless story where love knows no barriers. And as much as this story is about challenging society’s norms, it’s about challenging the internal ones, too.

“I liked the idea of the traditional romantic comedy style with a very unlikely story,” concluded Graham. “It’s not some dark, tortured movie about being gay. It’s very sweet and celebratory and about embracing who you are. It’s about learning how to accept and love yourself. And I think that’s everyone’s journey in life regardless of who you are or what you’re going through.”

Celluloid Peeps

Film Festival Highlights

Text & photos by Shannon Kelley Gould

Day One

“Pace yourself, Shannon!” This advice came to me around midnight on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s opening night from SBIFF Creative Director Roger Durling. Maybe he was simply concerned my carriage would turn into a pumpkin, my dress (okay, pants) into rags, and my entourage into mice. But after looking at the clock, I determined he was right and darted out of the La Dolce Vita-themed Paseo Nuevo, snagged myself a cab, and landed at home in time for a quick game of keep-away with my dog and with enough wits about me to set my alarm.

If you’d seen that night’s premiere of Factory Girl, the tragic tale of local lost soul Edie Sedgwick, you’d understand why I took the Durl’s advice to heart. While the cast was fabulous  —  the flick was dark, offering a dizzying glimpse of a wild ride that spiraled quickly downward into a sadly clichéd abyss. Not exactly the kind of movie that puts you in party mode, but then, that’s beside the point on the festival’s opening night, when 11 days of movies, movie stars, and parties were stretched out before me, just waiting to be enjoyed. And I had no intention of missing a single bit of it. Sedgwick may have lived fast and died young, but I was happy to peep fast, pretend I’m young, and pace myself.

Day Two

While, as Dame Helen Mirren put it during the SBIFF’s Outstanding Performance Award presentation on Friday night, “it’s always possible to make a tit of yourself,” she proved herself the anti-tit. She was charming, humble, and, at times, shockingly hilarious; stuck using a handheld mike due to some problems with the clip-on, she declared it too phallic and then proceeded to lick it. (What would Her Majesty say?) Roger Durling conducted the interview and when I caught up with him later, he said he was almost too nervous to enjoy it — that is, right up until the lights dimmed for a set of clips, when Mirren reached out for his hand, crying, and said this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her. William H. Macy presented Mirren with the award, declaring her a babe and noting that, while she’s known for “dropping her knickers” whenever given the chance, she’s one of the most gifted actresses around.

The after party, which went down at Brooks Institute’s Montecito Campus, was a sight. The estate is enormous and stunning, and although rumored to be haunted, it was on its best behavior. The grounds were lit up red and blue, quality snacks abounded, and men bearing trays of what looked like overgrown condoms circulated. (The mysterious items were actually samples of sponsor Innovative Skincare’s moisturizing sunscreen, which, according to Indy Healthspan columnist/aging-well guru Michael Seabaugh, works miracles. Upon hearing that, I — and everyone else within earshot — filled our pockets.) We called it a night pretty early, because this was but Day Two and we needed to rest up. And, as any smart girl knows, it’s always best to get out before making a tit of yourself.

Day Three

When Will Smith strolled across the stage to take his seat for the Modern Master Award event, he was bubbling with energy, and quickly got the crowd on board, earning laughs when he pointed to the piece of paper that was stuck to his shoe, which read, “Reserved for Friends of Will Smith.” No sooner had he taken his seat his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, appeared onstage, running up to remove the scrap that still dangled from his — it should be noted — very large shoe. It was a classic husband-and-wife moment, which was totally appropriate as, throughout the course of the interview, it became clear that husband and father are the roles Smith cherishes most.

Smith was animated, charming, and articulate, and more than willing to get deep, saying (more than once) he wakes up every day and thinks, “What can I do to make the world better today?” The artist formerly known as the Fresh Prince was totally inspiring in a non-preachy sort of way, but also not above going for the easy laugh, getting fresh with Maltin while demonstrating what it’s like acting in a special effects-heavy flick, turning to the plant behind him and saying, “Okay, Leonard, this is you,” and proceeding to give the plant gaga eyes while stroking it ever so gently.

Chris Gardner, upon whose life Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Pursuit of Happyness is based, introduced Smith, and quintessential movie star/couch-jumper Tom Cruise presented him with the award; it was obvious both men have tons of respect for the guy who taught the world how to get jiggy with it. (Na-na-na-na-na-na-na.)

I left feeling motivated to make the world a better place, but first, I had a party to hit. And what a party. Hundreds of filmies stormed the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Montecito, wandering from room to room, reveling in the decadence. (I heard the Biltmore had generously footed the bill, to the tune of $300k.) Music pumped as go-go girls danced in gauzy cages on platforms, while men ogled them from the dance floor. My date and I were taking it all in when some male coworkers excitedly gathered us up, announcing they’d lucked into a couch. We followed them to the prized perch, and weren’t especially surprised to discover why they were so thrilled, taking our seats directly beneath a perfectly sculpted — and not especially clothed — derriere.

We partied into the wee hours and, though the VIPs were in a room cordoned off and guarded by a young man who took his job very seriously (i.e., “No Press, sorry”), that velvet rope proved a non-issue, as star-gazing was fairly easy to come by: Chris Gardner on the dance floor, Christopher Lloyd in line waiting for a drink, Ron Livingston in the hall.

It was an over-the-top evening celebrating a truly down-to-earth talent. And for a moment there, soaking up the scene while sucking down a raspberry-stuffed chocolate bomb, the world really was a better place.

Email shannon@independent.com. For more peeps, visit independent.com.

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