Looking over the film festival circuit, our dance card is
getting pretty full. Sundance, Slamdance, Tromadance, X-Dance, not to mention
time-trial festivals and minor ones that can't afford promotion. But other than
the Open Mic Night competition at Tower Theater, every film fest is pretty much
run by people out-of-state, leaving us with no festival to call our own. But
that officially changes this weekend.
The Salt Lake City Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, bringing in a wide array of cinema from across the country. Ranging from fantasy to relationship to documentary both real and fake, the festival makes an impressive showing for its first year. But don't take my word for it go check it out and judge for yourself. I got a chance to chat with several members of the staff about the festival and the plans for this weekend, plus their thoughts on the film industry and more.
Matt Whittaker, Josh Rathbun, Chris Bradshaw and Jessica Braiker
Gavin: Hello all! First off, tell us a little bit about yourselves, and how did you first take an interest in film making and movies?
Matt: My name is Matt Whittaker, co-director of the SLCFF. I was born, raised, married, and am currently residing in the Salt Lake valley. And let me tell you that it is a good place to be! I'm obviously a film nut. I'm also a musician, and a wizard at the ten key. I enjoy a good game of Jenga and “Tim & Eric AWESOME Show.” What else is there to say? I'm not sure when it happened. It's gotta be something chemical that took place sometime between conception and the first time I watched “Cool Hand Luke” with my dad. It could have happened the first time I saw “Raising Arizona.” That was pretty life-altering. I just wanted to make movies. I wanted be in movies. I wanted to do anything that had to do with movies! I guess that's what led me to this point.
Jessica: I remember watching “Dawn Of The Dead” as a kid and having this growing concern that not only did I need to worry about dinosaur islands and great whites terrorizing my beaches, now there is the possibility of lumbering brain hungry monsters emerging in slow motion from any corner at any time. I think that was the beginning of my appreciation of film. Movies that have the ability to displace you for a couple hours into an environment that is not composed of smoke and mirrors but legitimacy; that is art, when there are no lines between reality and fantasy- there is just you and the trash compactor and you're only hope is RD-D2, all the while wondering when the water monster will return.
Chris: I think it all started with Mortal Kombat, I know that’s a weird place to start but here we go. When I was younger (about ten or so), I loved the game Mortal Kombat; when I heard there was a movie coming out I was stoked! Until I saw it, and then I was just sad. When the credits rolled I thought... “If I made movies, I would make them right and I wouldn’t disappoint the hell out of everyone.” I started making my own movies soon after that. You know, the classic “steal your dad’s video camera and record your friends lighting things on fire”… classic! In high school I got a little more serious about film. I shot a couple short films, one of which won a High School Technology Student Award and a scholarship. Since then I have worked locally on a number of projects from student work to feature length documentaries.
Gavin: Have any of you worked in film either locally or nationally?
Matt: I have worked both locally and nationally as an actor, director, and cinematographer. Everything "professional" has been more on the acting end of the spectrum however. I have done stuff in the Midwest, shot commercial spots, worked on some features and shot plenty of my own independent stuff. Actually... I am both ashamed and proud to admit it... I was a principal actor in the 2007 Sci-Fi Channel film “Ice Spiders.” My name was Steven. Pretty bad stuff. Hell, really bad stuff. But, it will eternally be considered one of the worst movies ever made. Not the worst however... that honor goes to “Troll 2.” That movie is amazingly bad... Point is, it's an honor to be a part of something as horrible as “Ice Spiders” and to have it stand out as a major life accomplishment.
Gavin: Where did the idea for the festival come from?
Chris: If you had asked me that six months ago, I would have said I was inspired by independent film, my love of cinema and the arts… Now I believe I was inspired by the devil; who wants me to die of an ulcer. All jokes aside; the festival has been stressful but enlightening to say the least. I really am excited for this year’s event.
Matt: Salt Lake City didn't have a film festival named in its honor. Knowing this, we walked into town, guns blazing, and gave it one.
Gavin: With all the other festivals or “dances” that come through Utah, why start a new one?
Matt: There is no "dance" attached to our festival. We don't dance. Well, we dance in the winter. in the summer we soak in the sun and watch movies between dips in the river. Oh, and as far as this long list of supposed film festivals, try listing them in your head. Try to list all SALT LAKE CITY- based film festivals that ARE NOT attached to something else. I think you'll be surprised. All the "dances" feed off Sundance. Four Site Film Festival is in Ogden, not Salt Lake. Fear No Film Festival is a shorts festival connected to the Arts Festival. The 48 hour Film Festival takes place in other cites and is more of a workshop when push comes to shove. Any other film festivals in the Salt Lake valley are generally specific to a certain demographics and are often very small in scale. And don't get me wrong, they are ALL great and ALL vital to the progression of our community and its film landscape. Really though, I say why not? Why shouldn't we have a Salt Lake City owned and operated film festival? Really, why not? The digital age has made film accessible to filmmakers from all walks of life. Why not enjoy their stories and give them another platform? They want an audience and we want to give them one. And our Utah audiences are amazing, receptive people. If we can make this thing work Salt Lake City will have a locally owned Film Festival to compliment it's locally owned community. Not to mention there will be another great thing to look forward to during the dog days of summer.
Chris: That’s just it, I realized that having Sundance here in Utah is intimidating. Who would actively throw themselves into competition with the Walmart of film festivals? Here’s the kicker, we don’t want to compete, we won’t have to compete and we certainly don’t want to leech off Sundance’s success. Our festival takes place during the complete opposite time of year. If anything, I hope our festival will always be in good standing with any and all festivals. Film festivals have become a kind of theatrical distribution for indie’s. If a filmmaker gets his/her film into a dozen different festivals across the nation then in a way it’s had distribution and most importantly it’s found an audience. The more festivals the better.
Gavin: Who did you get on board for all of your primary staff?
Matt: We have an amazing staff of film-lovers, film nerds, and film jerks. When you are starting something that nobody knows about your first order of business should be get people on board who are passionate and connected with other people who are also passionate and connected. Fortunately, among some of my closest friends we found just that kind of drive and connectivity. These are people that embrace opening Pandora's Box.
Gavin: How did you decide on the categories you'd have for people to enter?
Matt: When you're a first year festival you're the beggar not the chooser. Separating programming into a mixture of shorts and features was about as far as we got. We did, however, have a short-lived high school shorts program which we canceled because we only received 2 submissions for it.
Gavin: What were some of the first submissions like that you got in?
Jessica: I think anyone else on the staff would agree that when we signed on to the project, and even in the beginning meetings we were expecting a small inaugural year, one day at the Salt Lake Library, a shorts program, and maybe a couple features from out of state if possible. When we started to receive films with awards from other festivals and emails asking for more information about the festival, I believe we were all humbled by what was becoming of the festival.
Matt: Right out of the gate we started getting some very great work from local filmmakers. In fact our very first film received, “Inheritance Of War” was one of the very first we selected for screening at this years fest. It is part of the free local film series at the City Library. As time went on we started receiving submissions from all over the place. Not to mention we invited a few films into the festival like “White On Rice.” This film is set for theatrical release in early September. So we're doing a "sneak preview" of it. It too is a phenomenal film shot here in Salt Lake with a fair number of Utah-based actors.
Gavin: What are the overall plans you have both venue and activity wise?
Matt: 3 day Festival, 3 venues, 15 feature length films, 14 shorts separated into 2 shorts programs, a closing luncheon, a BEST OF FEST screening, and an after party. That should keep everyone pretty busy.
Chris: This is what’s on the docket; We are screening a locals program on Friday from 11-5. Screening films made here in Utah. It is free to the public and don’t worry mom and dad, it’s clean. At the Tower we are screening films from 12-12 followed by Q&A’s from the filmmakers. At the Post theater we are screening films 7-12 (that’s two films a night) also followed by a filmmaker Q&A. Sunday is our BEST OF FEST screening held at the Tower theater at 11AM, it’s kind of a wild card ticket; you don’t know what your about to see. BAM! Sunday night is our after party held at the Urban Lounge and that goes from 9AM till god knows when. Our “Green Room” is at Niche Caffe and Park Café is providing breakfast for our filmmakers.
Gavin: Is there anything people can do to either help or volunteer during the festival?
Chris: I think we have enough volunteer staff for this year but for those interested in volunteering should check back with us next year. The one thing we absolutely need is support. It is so vital to the success of this festival that we fill those theaters. It is vital to the future of this festival. Please please please, skip that Hollywood formula piece of crap and come down to the Tower Theater for something fresh.
Matt: At this point we have our volunteers in place. The best thing people can do this year is to come. Come see a couple of movies. Hell, see every single one if you so desire. The success of the SLCFF is a gamble which is entirely in the hands of this community. But, it's a very safe bet in my opinion. This community is full of film lovers, film nerds, and film jerks.
Gavin: A little on films in general, what's your take on the current state of independent film making, both good and bad?
Matt: As I mentioned, the digital age has allowed films to be made and stories to be told. It has opened so many doors to voices that we need to hear. It presents us with so much talent that can embraced. Likewise, another door is opened alongside it... the door of complete crap. Oh, and believe me that door has swung wide... wide open.
Chris: I think it’s a wonderful time for independent film; with HD, digital editing and all the many ways to share your work, especially over the net. It is so much easier to make films than it was even ten or twelve years ago. On the other hand, The market is being flooded with digital productions. My fear is that a lot of great films will get lost in the crowd.
Gavin: Anything you believe could be done to make things better than they currently are?
Matt: I'd say know your limits with budget, but often times those are the most entertaining films. So really, I have no opinion.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the film festivals that come through every year, and are there any changes you wish you could make?
Matt: None whatsoever. Everyone is entitled to organize their festivals how they see fit. If I have no stake or responsibility for it's organization than the most important thing that I can do is support it in the same way that any other member of the community would support it- attend, buy tickets, participate in the Q&A's Etc...
Gavin: What's your opinion on local film makers and the work that's coming out of both colleges and the at-home directors?
Josh: I think it's great what is coming out from Utah. Nowadays, you can purchase a digital video camera and it's easy to get editing software. There have been a few small, local events I've attended that had neighborhood films submitted that were very entertaining. Plus, I think the film scene here is really starting to grow and our festival saw that with the local films submitted, which we did all we could to incorporate into this year's festival.
Chris: I’ve seen a lot of great work come from college students and at-home directors. You have to be fearless to make it in the professional world and I’m afraid too many of these filmmakers don’t step out of their comfort zone. Instead of finding a thirty something actor to play the part of Dr. Whoever they settle with a twenty something friend. That does not fly, not with festivals, not with audiences, not with anyone. There are plenty of talented actors, who are happy to work for free; send out a casting call, be honest about not being able to pay and see what happens. Like my father always said “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”
Matt: Come to the festival and see for yourself. It's amazing! Almost half our programming is Utah-based work and it is all great stuff. From “Sister Wife” to “Art” to “Dragon Hunter” to “Hi, My Name Is Ryan”... even “Troll 2” to name a few. We have great work coming out of our state, and our city!
Gavin: What's your take on the Open Mic Nights currently happening at Tower Theater?
Matt: Open Mic Night is indispensable. This kind of thing is as important to local film and future filmmakers as Kilby Court is important to local music and the future musicians that will replace us in fifty years. You know exactly what I mean.
Gavin: What are your opinions on both the Film Center and Film Society and the roles they play in the community and towards film in Utah in general?
Josh: I feel that with their presence they do a lot to promote independent film and they have good way of getting the word out on what they feature, through venues such as the Tower or Broadway to even the City Library or the Farmers Market. Not only that, but I feel that they bring in good independent films worth watching.
Chris: I love these organizations! The Salt Lake Film Society has provided this city with great independent film; which has been a huge part of my education. I don’t know what we would do without them… probably watching Michel Bay films, I shutter at the thought.
Gavin: After the festival, what can we expect from all of you the rest of the year?
Jessica: I'm not really sure what life will look like after the film festival, I intend to attend graduate school at some point, but I imagine after a couple of months I'll start to miss those muffins and doughnuts at our weekly meetings and get back to work on next years festival.
Josh: I think we'll all start working towards getting the next year's festival off the ground pretty early. We did a lot of work in a very short amount of time, having planned this first year back in Feb/March. So we'll probably be back to work on this near the end of this month or early next month.
Chris: We have a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of planning and such. But when we find time we’ll probably be running around town shooting our own films.
Matt: If we make it through this weekend alive I'm envisioning a collective Lagoon day for the entire city the following weekend. Thanks man.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Chris: The film “Hi, My Name Is Ryan.” Don’t miss this film, it will blow your mind. Visit their website.
Josh: All I'd like to say is thanks to anyone who has helped get the SLCFF where it's at, by attending the fundraisers we had this year to just helping get the word out on what we are doing. No matter the outcome, it's very appreciated what anyone has done for us.