I was really looking forward to Williamstown because it’s one of the few festivals I’d been to before, back in 2004 when I went with my previous short film, Spin. I’d had such a great time there that I knew I wanted to go back as soon as I had a chance, so I was thrilled when Steve Lawson, the dynamo of an executive director, called last summer to let me know that they were accepting Love & Other Unstable States Of Matter. I finally had my chance to head back to Williamstown…
Before the festival, I spent a couple days in Brooklyn with my girlfriend Emily, so we only had a short flight from La Guardia to Albany. A driver met us with a placard with my name on it (I’m starting to get used to that!) and chauffeured us through the Berkshires to Williamstown. Though the trees were a bit barer than they’d been when I was last there, the mountains were still a gorgeous, blazing orange.
The driver dropped us off at our hotel (the festival put us up, a really nice gesture that almost no other festival offers to short filmmakers). After settling in, we set out to explore Williamstown, which didn’t seem to have changed at all in the last seven years. We walked down Spring Street to the festival’s home base at Images Cinema, dropped off some promotional postcards and picked up our passes to the weekend’s various events.
After some much-needed coffee and lunch and a quick change of clothes at the hotel, we headed back to Images for the opening night movie, The Lie. We got a chance to say hello to Steve Lawson, who also didn’t appear to have changed a bit since I’d last seen him. He was as warm and welcoming as ever and introduced us to Josh Leonard, the writer-director-star of The Lie, and his co-star and co-writer, Jess Weixler.
Two shorts played before the feature: an Irish comedy called The Heist and a musical short called Be Like a Duck. The latter turned out to be made by Sandra Boynton, whose very funny and charming cartoons I grew up with (I’m pretty sure my mom still has a Boynton coffee mug at home). It turned out Sandra was in attendance, and she and Steve did a brief Q&A after her short. I was a bit star-struck to see this icon of my childhood in person, and was happy to hear that she had another short screening the next day.
After a brief introduction, The Lie screened. Based on a T.C. Boyle story, it was a very funny (and often hilariously uncomfortable) story of a couple struggling to balance their youthful dreams with the pressures of being responsible parents. It was really well done, featuring great performances front to back. I found out during the Q&A that they’d improvised a lot of the dialogue, which helped account for its naturalistic feel. Josh had given all the lead actors writing credits, which I thought was a classy move.
After the movie we walked a few blocks to the opening night party at a restaurant called Hops & Vines. Emily and I made a pact to be good minglers (not a natural state of affairs for either of us). After sampling the snacks on display, and with drinks in hand, we set about it, and it turned out to be much less scary than I had feared. If there’s a single word I’d use to describe the atmosphere at Williamstown, it would be “friendly.” We chatted with Steve, several loyal festival-goers (of which there are many) and again with Josh and Jess. We also had a chance to meet another filmmaker, Brad Silberling, who brought one of his many features to the festival a few years ago and has been returning ever since.
After a great evening, Josh and Jess drove us back to the hotel where we collapsed, exhausted but looking forward to our big day…
In the morning we met my friend Kate and her mother for brunch. Kate is one of my oldest and closest friends, and not only did both she and her mom donate to the movie, but during shooting she flew out to LA and volunteered a week of her time on set. So I was really, really happy that they could be there for our screening.
There was a good turnout at the theater, which I attribute partly to the festival’s popularity, and partly to one of my favorite aspects of it, which is that they only show one film at a time. As an unknown filmmaker, it’s really nice not to be competing with some much bigger film that’s playing at the same time.
While mingling in the lobby I got to say hello to Nathan’s brother Tod and Tod’s daughter Rachel, who’d driven in for the screening. After going to a couple festivals solo, it was so nice to be surrounded by friends for this screening. Steve introduced our movie, saying a lot of nice things about it, about me as a director and about my previous movie, Spin. As usual, I held my breath as the movie started. As a lot of you know, the first few minutes of the movie are more dramatic in tone than the rest, so it’s always hard for me to gauge how it’s being received at the beginning. Once the kitchen scenes started, though, I knew we were doing fine. People were laughing in all the right places, and at least a few people somewhere behind us were absolutely losing it, which was just music to my ears.
We got a great ovation and Steve brought me up to do a short Q&A. I got to talk about where the idea for the movie had come from, as well as about casting Joanna and a few other topics.
The feature was a retrospective documentary about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence project in Napa and Sonoma. I’m a big fan of their work, so it was really cool to learn more about one of their iconic works. The filmmaker, Wolfram Hissen, spoke afterward. As we left the theater, people started coming up and congratulating me, and it felt so good to hear how well the movie had connected with them.
After a coffee break, we returned to the theater to watch a great program of short films. Highlights included The Beaufort Diaries, an innovative animated film about a drug-addicted, screenwriting polar bear (seriously), and Penguin Lament, the other short film from Sandra Boynton, which was a really impressive and funny musical piece about life as a penguin, delivered with deadpan pathos by John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting.
Afterward, as we were saying our goodbyes to Kate and her mom, someone came up to me. It was Sandra Boynton herself! She had come up just to tell me how much she liked our movie. It really blew me away to get props from someone whose work I so admire.
After a quick change of clothes, we caught a ride to the benefit dinner with Joe Finnegan, the festival’s board president—exactly kind of experience that makes Williamstown such a great festival. The dinner was at Mass MOCA, a monumental museum built in a defunct electrical parts factory. It’s a vast complex and looks every bit like the late nineteenth century industrial center it was, only now it’s filled with huge works of modern art. I wish we’d had more time to explore the museum itself—it’ll definitely be worth a return trip.
Over drinks, Emily and I got to meet the makers of The Beaufort Diaries and talked more with Josh, Jess and Brad. Jess had carved a pumpkin in honor of the festival, earning Steve’s undying devotion. At dinner, we were seated with a really interesting group of folks, including two couples who are festival supporters and board members, and Paul Clermont, the professional photographer documenting the festival. We had a great, wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from movies to orthopedic surgery to prison conditions.
After dessert we all crossed the courtyard to the theater, where Steve introduced the gala film, Lynn Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, a powerful, disturbing movie about the effect of a school shooting on the mother of the shooter. It was extremely well-directed, but also very draining. After a brief Q&A, everyone emerged into the lobby a bit shell-shocked, and conversation was subdued, though we did get to meet Gaylen Ross, who directed Caris’ Peace, a documentary we’d be watching on Sunday.
Gaylen gave us a ride to the after-after-party, which was held in Joe Finnegan’s barn. The property was decked out with tiki torches and the barn rafters were strung with Christmas lights. There was hot apple cider and Halloween candy, and I think everyone’s spirits were immediately lifted. In that setting it was just impossible not to have a good time. We chatted with Steve, whom I’d barely had a chance to see all day. I’m guessing this was his first chance to take a break.
Emily and I ended up outside under the stars, chatting with Josh, Jess and Brad. That has to be one of my favorite things about film festivals—the chance to talk about movies with filmmakers I admire and learn from their experience.
I had to drag myself out of bed, but by the time we’d taken the beautiful walk back to the theater, I was awake and ready for our last day at the festival. There was a bagel brunch laid out, so we ate and greeted our fellow festival stalwarts, now familiar faces.
Steve and Gaylen introduced Caris’ Peace, which was a deeply personal, very touching doc about Caris Corfman, a star at Yale Drama School who had begun a very promising acting career when she was diagnosed with a brian tumor. The surgery that saved her life destroyed her ability to form new memories (and caused many other health problems). The movie followed her struggles to write and perform a solo theater piece, but it was really about the community of family and friends who rallied to her side and helped her live with a terrible disability. Gaylen was a close friend of Caris’, and the movie felt like a love letter. It got a very strong response and the Q&A afterward was nearly as moving as the film itself.
We said goodbye to Steve and the others we’d gotten to know over the weekend, met up with Kate for lunch and a bit of wandering around town, and then it was time to be on our way to the airport and home. I couldn’t have asked for a better festival experience.