In the Before Times, for many years, one of the ever-popular features of SBIFF has been its Writer’s Panel, routinely packing the Lobero Theater on Saturday afternoons with curiosity-seekers and the ample population of aspiring screenwriters among us (present company probably included).
What a difference a COVID year makes. As with other ensemble grouping events at the festival — including Saturday night’s star-studded roster of dazzling, Oscar-nommed performers, the “Virtuoso Awards” package — the perennial Writer’s Panel, moderated by Variety’s Anne Thompson, swapped the usual real time/under-one-roof event for the site-unspecific mosaic of zoom screens from around the world. Both events looked like nothing so much as a “Hollywood Squares”-style stacked modules, albeit peopled with some of the most impressive writers and performers to have enlivened our screens, warmed hearts and afflicted social conscience in 2020.
Of course, the essential contextual difference was that “Hollywood Squares” represents cheesy kitsch, while the sum effect of these two SBIFF programs was to remind us that, however tragic and disorienting the past year was, its cinematic harvest was unusually strong, risk-taking, and diversified.
One of the unique treasures of the past year in film was the film Sound of Metal, represented on Saturday in Santa Barbara (well, not exactly in Santa Barbara) by writer-director Darius Marder and strikingly immersive actor Riz Ahmed — in fact, an articulate Brit, vs. the more primal, hearing-challenging punk drummer role in the film. Ahmed faced multiple extra-thespian obstacles in his work, learning both heavy-punk-rock drumming and ASL (American Sign Language) for the film.
“Those things put me in my body differently,” he said. “On a fundamental human level, I was enriched. This film steps into different subcultures. People from the heart of those subcultures — drumming, the deaf community, the addiction community — are appreciating it, which is very satisfying.”
Florian Zeller, the French playwright turned acclaimed first-time director for his inventive and deeply touching The Father, spoke about the novel approach of his work for both stage and especially screen, in which the audience is distinctively plunged into the reality-warped perspective of a dementia patient (Anthony Hopkins, in one of his most masterful roles to date: if he doesn’t win the Oscar, justice has left the building).
With his play, Zeller said, “There was something cathartic about it — putting the audience in a subjective position, in the character’s head. And I thought film would be a perfect way to make it more immersive….I wanted to do what only the cinema can do. We put the audience in an active position, in a labyrinth, a puzzle. I wanted the audience to experience to not know what is real and what is not real.”
Hopkins aids considerably in that immersive task — and Zeller zealously pursued the actor, knowing he was the ideal actor for the job, even changing the language to English and the character’s name to Antony.
The “Virtuosos Awards” show was an embarrassment of riches, and blessedly stretching into realms of work by women and African-Africans, for a welcome change. Add to those attributes the dynamics of lockdown-era cinema, and a star of the year has to be Zendaya, who teamed with colleagues who put together the one-location, impromptu project Malcolm and Marie together, with in-house money and bountiful indie film gumption. “We were figuring it out,” she said. “We lived in this bubble together.” We know the feeling.
References to signature, powerhouse 2020 scenes riveted our screens and reminded us of stunning moments of recent vintage: a subtle unnerving of first-time actor Sidney Flanigan’s pregnant adolescent in Never Really Always Sometimes; the infamous confrontation with real life/real sleaze Rudy Giuliani with Maria Bakalova in Borat Subsequent Movie Film; and, with Pieces of a Woman’s Vanessa Kirby in a cathartic outburst and Ellen Burstyn and a daring 25-minute, unbroken and painful birth scene.
As for the challenging experience of the latter, Kirby recalled that “I probably went through six different feelings. I was terrified. Then it started to dawn on me that, when it’s a play, you’re terrified when you step on stage, but you just have to do it. I realized that could be a massive gift.”
Echoing a recurring theme on the actors’ panel of facing fears about their particularly difficult roles, Bakalova applied a poetic analogy: “If you jump, you might start flying. If you’re nervous about something, that means you care about it.”
Screenwriter Peter Baynham, from the Borat team, fielded the question of why Sacha Baron “Borat” Cohen chose to return to the role after the first film 14 years ago: “One word: Trump. This is the reason.” Alas, then came “the small problem of insurmountable problems in making it,” alluding to the gambit of the punking reality TV tactics of its creation.
Apart from Sound of Metal, another keynote music-oriented film last year was The United States vs. Billie Holiday, with a memorable turn in the role of the great jazz chanteuse and general American icon Holiday by singer Andra Day, in what is miraculously her first film role. Comparing herself to her legendary subject, Day said, “We are both black women living in America. We are here and should be seen. We have to present our stronger selves to people, even if we don’t feel that way inside.”
Tellingly, she commented that it was “fear, interestingly enough, that informed the character. I’m sure she felt that same way, every time she sang `Strange Fruit’ [the haunting lynching song Holiday made famous] to fight for equality.” Asked about the musical connections with her subject, Day said, “I loved her tone and her phrasing. She is the mother of jazz because of her phrasing. She changed my idea of what a singer was. I’m always more in my chest and Billie was in her head. I found her voice through her breath.
“It was muscle memory, learning how to do that. It was a physical transformation. I try to take care of my voice, but I started chain-smoking and drinking so much gin, not taking care of my voice. It had to earn, in a short time, what Billie earned in 44 years.”
Everybody loves writer-director Chloe Zhao and what she — and the monstrously fine “anchor” Frances McDormand — wrought with the poetic ode to the beauty and necessity of American uprooting, Nomadland. On the Writer’s Panel, Zhao spoke about the process of writing, and rewriting, as the shoot progressed. She spoke of this film — and a film generally — as “an organism. When you give it oxygen, it’s going to grow and change. You don’t really stop writing until the last day. The book [an original book, by journalist Jessica Bruder] was a collage. She went far and wide in capturing a time in this country. Behind every sentence was the sense of collective loss and grief, what they believed was a dream and wasn’t anymore.”
A running theme in both panel discussions was the self-revealing fact that 2020’s crop of films which grabbed at us most effectively came from outliers, ideas and artist and sensibilities defying moldy notions of how a Hollywood film is supposed to behave or be birthed.
Closing out the writer panel, Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) suggested this “has been the year of the writer.” Baynham seconded the motion, adding that this year’s degree of screenplay originality “is a bit scary. All these movies are fantastic. I keep being told ‘this is what they’re looking for this year.’ But it’s whatever rises to the top. It’s always about originality. You think ‘that’s an amazing idea. I wish I’d thought of it.’”
SUNDAY AT THE CINEMA, LIVING ROOM-STYLE, OR DOWN BY THE HARBOR: Recommended SBIFFstuff on Sunday’s list: my favorite film of this fest so far, Fear (Strah), from Bulgarian director Ivalyo Hristov; the enigmatic-edgy Guatemalan film The Ghosts (Las Fantasmas); and the affecting Apartheid-era film Poppie Nongena, at once personal and pumped with righteous revolutionary fervor.