LAFF RIOT, BOFFO: When you get six directors of hit movies together, expect to see guys pelting one another with jokes, put-downs, four-letter words, hijinks, one-upsmanship, and general clowning. (And these are people investors trust with millions of dollars?) Some at Saturday’s SBIFF-sponsored directors’ panel sponsored also had harsh words for the way studios treat the people who write the scripts - where it all begins. But before that, it was time for wisecracks.
Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad), reported that former president Bill Clinton asked for a copy of Knocked Up to watch on a plane trip. In return, Apatow said, he got “a really cheap set of cufflinks,” with a presidential seal.
Brash, young Jason Reitman (Juno) - son of Montecito’s Ivan Reitman - was incredulous: “You got cufflinks from a former president and you’re bitching?” As for Juno‘s chances of winning an Oscar, Reitman said, “This is winning right now. I’m happy to be at the party.”
“Can we have a ban on the word ‘awesome,’” begged Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). “It’s not cool to say ‘awesome.’”
“What about ‘daunting?’” someone suggested, to a chorus of hoots. Moderator Peter Bart of Variety reminded everyone at the Lobero panel that Variety had invented the old standby, “boffo!” More hoots.
“Is animation a craft or an art form?” someone asked. “Craftform?” wondered Brad Bird (Ratatouille). When an audience questioner asked for directing advice, Apatow suggested: “Work from your heart.” Bird said he can handle yes or no but, “I hate ‘maybe.’ Studio middlemen afraid to give you a straight answer suck your life away.”
When you’re making movies, you have to fight battles, observed Schnabel. You have to know when to say, “No, I won’t do that, or yes, it doesn’t matter.”
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s a nightmare,” said Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl). The irrepressible Schnabel recalled an event at the Cannes Film Festival, when he got an e-mail from someone he’d crossed swords with. It said, “Please don’t call me an idiot in public.” So, Schnabel said, he read it aloud to the assemblage. “He’s a Nazi. He destroyed a great book.”
Things really got serious when the current Hollywood writers’ strike came up and there was general agreement that folks who pen the scripts too often get less than the respect, and paycheck, they deserve. “I think the studios want to treat writers like workers in a Hormel meat packing plant,” lashed Apatow. “I think the studios want to rape the writers.” Too many writers are out of work due to the strike, lamented Adam Shankman (Hairspray). “It’s breaking my heart.”
To get an idea of what studio bosses think of writers, Bird recalled a convivial meeting with major studio biggies a decade ago about his directing a film. They loved him. “But when I said I wanted to write the script,” he explained, “it was like I had downgraded myself from director.”
GIMME WESTERN UNION: Back in the days when studios were running everything, one of the bosses sneered after someone suggested a serious movie: “If I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union.” Things have changed, and SBIFF spotlighted days of documentaries and important, message-filled films.
On Saturday night, as crowds lined up to watch star-power Angelina Jolie being honored at the Arlington, a full house down the street at the Metro Four sat transfixed at Best Wishes for Tomorrow. It’s the true story of the post-World War II trial of Japanese war criminal Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada, who executed a group of U.S. airmen he charged with indiscriminate bombing of civilians. It features Santa Barbaran Robert Lesser as the American defense attorney; Fred McQueen, son of Steve; Richard Neil; and famed director Takashi Koizumi, former assistant to the late, great Akira Kurosawa. All four were at the screening.
The Japanese-made film is a sympathetic treatment of Okada, but also raises serious questions about the morality of terror bombing of cities, done by all sides in WWII, whether it is a violation of international law and whether the side suffering the bombing has a right to execute the airmen as criminals, not POWs, without a fair trial. If war is hell, does anything go?
WHEN CLOUDS CLEAR: A different morality issue is examined by a documentary filmed by two American women who went down to a mountain community in Ecuador. Anne Slick and Danielle Bernstein, not long out of college, lugged cameras on their backs to Junin to make When Clouds Clear. There, seemingly powerless peasants rose up and fought their government and multinational corporations - first Japanese, then Canadian - that wanted to devastate their town with a copper strip mine. Slick and Danielle told the Victoria Hall audience Saturday that, while the Canadian group has licked its wounds and no mining is being done, the danger still looms.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at email@example.com or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.