“I’m not sure why we don’t try to use this festival to kick off Oscar season in a bigger way,” Sony Pictures Classics’ co-President Tom Bernard observed at last night’s opening party for the Los Angeles Film Festival, which launched with SPC’s upcoming August 21st release, Grandma. Since it is only still June, others might disagree and want to stick with the standard Fall Fest trifecta of Venice/Telluride/Toronto as the “official” opening of the already grueling six-month-long season. At any rate, Bernard said SPC is going for it with their opener, particularly for lead actress Lily Tomlin and supporting actor Sam Elliott. And they should. The film, which originally premiered at Sundance, played extremely well with the LAFF crowd gathered at Downtown’s L.A. Live. And in fact, I counted a large number of Oscar voters in attendance, particularly from the actors branch. It was the same group you see often at Academy events during the season, so maybe this was a soft kickoff after all, at least for Grandma. Past Oscar nominee and Academy member Brenda Vaccaro was one of many who celebrated writer/director Paul Weitz’s human comedy. “This is the kind of movie we need more of. It is actually about people, ” she said. Weitz told me he shot the small indie in just 19 days. “Honestly it was originally a completely different idea, but I started to hear Lily’s voice in the character and I just did it. Weirdly I don’t even know where it came from. Seeing it in L.A. is so strange because I shot it here, but I shot it for under $600,000 bucks. It’s so strange to me to see it finally projected here,” he said of the perfect choice for this year’s LAFF opening night.
This was my second time seeing the film. Before it went to Sundance I was asked to see it and give an opinion, and like so many movies today, I was sent a link to watch it on my computer. Not the ideal way to see a movie but I was oddly affected by the film- even that way. But there is nothing to compare with seeing a work like this with a big audience on a big screen like Regal Cinemas Theatre #1 where it unspooled last night. Co-star Marcia Gay Harden is terrific in just a couple of scenes as Tomlin’s daughter in the road movie about an acerbic, hardened and cranky woman taking her granddaughter to get an abortion. She told me she had originally seen the film by herself in an office, but was so much more impressed viewing it this way with such an appreciative crowd. “It makes all the difference,” she agreed. There was immediate awards talk not only for veteran Tomlin, Oscar-nominated just once before in 1975 for Nashville, but also for never-nominated Sam Elliott, who just kills it in one eight-minute scene opposite Tomlin. The Supporting drumbeat has begun for him, also very fine in another indie out now, I’ll See You In My Dreams. “What can I say? It was a great year to get these roles (not to mention his recent Critics Choice award for Justified). And this one was just 11 pages,” he told me as he was besieged all evening by well-wishers. Weitz said he even had no idea the direction that Elliott was going to go with it. Earlier that night before the film played, Tomlin flat out predicted he would be nominated. “He is just so good in that scene,” she said.
Speaking of Tomlin, she was honored by LAFF at the festival yesterday with their Spirit Of Independence Award . It was presented by her co-star Julia Garner, also very fine in the film, who plays her pregnant teenage granddaughter in Grandma. She told me she was honored to be in a movie with the legend. “Every generation has their own specific Lily Tomlin memory whether it was Laugh-In, or then Nashville, or 9 To 5. For me it was when she played Ms. Frizzle on The Magic School Bus. But I never dreamed I would be playing her granddaughter one day,” she said. In a half-hour chat with LAFF curator Elvis Mitchell, Tomlin talked about her early inspirations growing up in a lower income Detroit neighborhood, playing phone operator Ernestine on Laugh In and using her middle finger to dial until censors figured out what she was doing, working with directors like Robert Altman and Woody Allen, etc. She was particularly funny when asked about championing Richard Pryor once she became hot enough to get her own TV specials. “We did two TV shows. He wanted me to go to a porno movie with him. I said ‘I will go but I will pay my own way. We went. It wasn’t that good,” she said to much laughter. She also revealed how she resisted doing 9 To 5 and tried to get out of the movie after she saw dailies from the first two days. “I just wasn’t good,” she said, but her now Grace And Frankie co-star Jane Fonda nicely talked her off the ledge and the rest is history. As for getting Grandma, the 75-year-old legend says, “It was one big gift to get a part like that in my juncture in life”.
Sony Pictures Classics is a long time supporter of LAFF, frequently bringing their summer films to the fest. In addition to Grandma, this weekend they are having L.A. premieres for Diary Of A Teenage Girl and Infinitely Polar Bear where star Mark Ruffalo and others will be hitting the red carpet. SPC’s co-President Michael Barker was talking up some of their Oscar-baity sounding Fall entries as well, especially October release, Truth which stars Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as Dan Rather. He was almost breathless in describing Blanchett’s performance. “Just wait until you see her in this. She’s amazing,” he said echoing comments I recall him making at this same festival after-party a couple of years ago about her then-unseen Blue Jasmine and predicting she would go on to win the Oscar. He’s not going that far – yet. He also said Redford should get supporting attention. It will be interesting if we have a situation of two Oscar-level Blanchett turns, since her acclaimed work in Carol opens in December through The Weinstein Company. What to do? These are the kinds of headaches everyone should have.
Bernard said of the film, that CBS and Les Moonves may not be too happy with the way 60 Minutes comes off in this picture about the last days of Rather at the network after his damaging report about President George W. Bush and how he got out of duty in Vietnam. It is helmed by first time director James Vanderbilt, screenwriter of Zodiac among others. Both Barker and Bernard are also extremely high on Tom Hiddleston’s role as Hank Williams in the musical biopic, I Saw The Light , a November release from veteran producer Marc Abraham, stepping behind the camera for only the second time. And Barker again confirms a year-end release for Cannes sensation, Son Of Saul, which was just selected as Hungary’s official entry into the Foreign Language Film race, the first this year. Barker predicts it can compete in several other categories including Best Actor for Geza Rohrig. It sounds like they will be doing the same kind of release pattern they did for Amour, which eventually also nabbed 5 nominations including a Best Picture nod in addition to winning in the Foreign Film contest.
In terms of higher profile films SPC is a bit of a savior for this year’s LAFF lineup. But fest organizers are intentionally dialing down the glitz and star factor many fests thrive on and instead focusing on Los Angeles and its diverse population instead. As widely reported since they announced new programmers and a change in direction several months ago, LAFF is making good on the promise with a lineup of nearly 80 films, most directed by little-known first or second-time directors. An astonishing 40% of them are women, way over-indexing the industry average, according to Fest Director Stephanie Allain. The new dictum also includes increased participation from many different “people of color” as she told me. Diversity is not just a word for LAFF, it is a mission. “I would say our direction this year has always been our intention, which is we are produced by Film Independent and our mission statement is to support a community of artists who are diverse, innovative, and have unique points of view,” she said in emphasizing the strong L.A. connection they feel. By directing the programmers to seek these films (45 are World Premieres), LAFF hopes to finally establish a strong identity among major film festivals. If that means sacrificing starrier kinds of draws so be it. They feel this can be a real festival of discovery and meaning for Angelenos. And on top of that she is proud, that in addition to the many different programs and sections the fest is offering, they have also opened an “industry office” because just giving these many film discoveries a screening slot and Q&A is not enough. “We want to connect these filmmakers to the business and encourage executives to come Downtown and find new talent. Last year what we saw was that there was a bit of a buy. People bought films from the Festival. It was cool. And it was all these new places like Wellgo. So basically of any festival, because we are in L.A., we really do want to make connections,” she said.
And so far, according to Film Independent President Josh Welsh, the bold new direction of LAFF is working for the Fest which goes through June 18th when an Eli Roth-directed Live Read of Fast Times At Ridgemont High will serve as the closing night. “Diversity has always been a part of our focus in the past five years but now it is razor sharp. But I will tell you, when you do a program basically of first-time filmmakers it was a huge gamble for us and when we locked the program we said, ‘well we will see what happens’. What has happened so far is our box office is up about 30% over last year. I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, but we didn’t know what to expect. We could have tanked, we could have done well, but we are up so dramatically over last year, ” he said.