Middleburg Film Festival, Day Three: Interviews, Conversations, A Symphony Concert, and I, Tonya
Day three began with a dash to see I, Tonya. The film started at 9.30 and by the time we headed downstairs, the line was already winding around the corner of the hallway. I queued up, coffee in hand, buzzing with excitement.
Most ticket holders were still adrenalized by films they had seen the previous day, and others were murmuring their memories of Tonya Harding. Living in London, I somehow remembered seeing the story of Nancy Kerrigan on the news, less sensationalized in the British media than here, but it still made international headlines. The name Harding conjures up all things negative and the ugly duckling as they liked to call her because she wasn’t the all-American girl that Nancy Kerrigan was.
Neon has followed up Colossal and Ingrid Goes West with this release starring Allison Janney and Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. Some are regarding I, Tonya as the latest great mockumentary in the vein of such classics as This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show. However, it would be unfair to just categorize I, Tonya in those terms alone, when really it is a great film in its own right, largely due to the tour de force performance by Margo Robbie, who manages to bring genuine heart and great depth to Tonya Harding. Allison Janney is perhaps the film’s MVP as Tonya’s mother, capturing the tone of the film with a masterful blend of dark humor, meanness, sacrifice, and love (in her own demanding way). In the end, it is her zingy humor and bite that make Mrs. Harding iconic.
Although Tonya Harding avoided severe prosecution for the attack, many people today still think of Harding as a trainwreck villainess. If you go into this film with an open mind, by the end of it you may see her in a different light — as a talented skater who could have been revered instead of sensationalized for fifteen minutes, if not for a momentary burst of bad choices. Regardless of your personal verdict, I, Tonya is simply brilliant with laughs galore and one of the must-see films of the season.
Immediately after that, I dashed over to the Sundlun Library to hear Dee Rees talk about filmmaking and Mudbound. Rees said she was honored when her first film Pariah was chosen for Sundance. Unlike most other films screening there that year, Rees went without an agent or representation. She hoped the film and the work would speak for itself. Pariah was made the opening night film of the festival and Focus Features would pick the film up for distribution. Roger Ebert would name it as his favorite film of the year. She returned to Sundance nine months ago with Mudbound. Unlike Pariah, the film didn’t immediately sell, there was no bidding war, and Rees said the film was being compared to another film made the previous year. Eventually, Netflix stepped up and paid $12.5 million for distribution rights.
Speaking about the craft of making the film, Rees told the audience that the principle crew were all women — from her DP to makeup artists. In consideration for the opportunities she’s had, she wants to provide the same opportunity to women by hiring them on her films.
She also talked about her most challenging shot. Joking, that she thought the tank and war scenes would be hard, she said she found that easy. Instead it was the opening scene that presented the most headaches — in which her characters must dig a hole in the ground to bury a body, with a storm looming in the background. Rees found the muddy conditions particularly hard to shoot in.
Mudbound had screened the night before, and it is a powerful film. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography is absolutely striking and visually audacious against the backdrop of the Mississippi Delta. The film draws you in, feeling for Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) as he goes off to war to fight for his country, then returning to the farm where his family lives as a changed man. It’s post World War II and America roils with hate and racism. It’s a world away from the tolerance he saw in Europe, an experience that opens his eyes and transformed his way of thinking. In the midst of the racist brutality he has to contend with in his own country, he makes friends with fellow soldier Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and the two form a bond that runs deeper than their skin tones. The film is at times harsh with moments of cruelty that will make you flinch, but Mudbound is extremely thought-provoking and outright absorbing, a riveting experience all the way through. Rees told the audience, “Mudbound is an investigation of who we are as a country. This is not new – this is who we are. It’s not past tense. This is who we’ve always been. The tablecloth is just being pulled back.” If you haven’t been paying attention to Dee Rees, start now. She is one to watch.
Rees was presented with the 2017 Visionary Award by Sheila Johnson.
I realized I hadn’t eaten and it was nearing 1 pm with another interview lined up. So, I asked my partner Jennifer, who was in between films herself, to order me room service. On an off-topic note, the crab cakes at the resort are to die for. I’m not typically a fan of crab and that comes from opening an aunt’s fridge once and seeing a live crab just sitting on the shelf waiting to be dinner. I didn’t touch crab for at least thirty years after that. I also didn’t like the taste. However, the crab here at the Salamander Resort, served on a brioche bun and with a divine dressing melts in your mouth and is highly recommended. I ordered it twice over the course of three nights because it’s just that good.
I dashed up to my room for a few minutes, ate that delectable crab cake, and dashed back down to interview Scott Cooper, director of Hostiles. Since this isn’t LA where typical interviews take place inside hotel lobbies or press suites in Beverly Hills, we sat outside on a bench in the sprawling resort because it was an unusually mild October day.
Discussing the film which had screened the night before, we talked about several key scenes including the scene where Rosamund Pike buries her children and husband. Cooper revealed that the children who are slaughtered at the beginning of the film were actually played by his own daughters and filming that was emotionally hard for him as a father to watch. He said the burial scene could not have been played with the same emotional intensity nor have been as effective if the actress hadn’t been a mother. Pike is the mother of two children. The scene was shot a few times and he said as he captures the look of the other soldiers watching her, what we’re seeing was in large part the real reactions on their faces.
Cooper also talked about the importance of making his casting as authentic as possible. Wes Studi plays the dying Cheyenne war chief traveling with Bale across the trail. Cooper says he consulted with Cheyenne and Comanche advisers to ensure the authenticity of the portrayal of Native Americans in the film.
Another interview followed, this time with Director of the festival and trailblazer herself, Sheila Johnson. I commended her on the excellent film festival and she explained love for the arts has always been in her blood, whether it was watching old movies as a young child or going to the theater. With the assistance of the Hollywood Advisory film Board, Johnson and co-director Susan Koch put together the best films, films that generate Oscar buzz.
The Saturday afternoon highlight of the festival each year is its symphony concert. Carter Burwell has previously played here, and this year, Nicholas Britell performed with a 75-piece local orchestra with his Caitlin Sullivan on cello. John Horn spoke to Britell in between selections of the score and they briefly discussed how technology helped his musicians send clips via dropbox to his studio in New York. Talking about working on Moonlight, Britell said director Barry Jenkins and he would order Shake Shack and work on the themes including the chopped and screwed technique that we hear throughout the film. He talked about his outlook when dealing with a film score, “My personal goal is always to find a soundscape that feels like it’s really part of the movie somehow and woven into the fabric of the movie.”
Whether it was hearing the keys on the Steinway or Tim Fain’s sparkling violin, the audience sat enthralled, as a backdrop of clips from Moonlight, Battle of the Sexes, and 12 Years A Slave came to life with Britell’s scoring. It was a delightful and enjoyable experience that only the Middleburg Film Festival offers. Britell was honored with the Distinguished Composer Award.
— @jazzt (@jazzt) October 21, 2017
The last film of the day was A24’s Lady Bird. The room was packed as Greta Gerwig introduced the film to the audience.
Lady Bird is a love letter to Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento. Saoirse Ronan plays the eponymous heroine, a teenager who (by her own definition) lives on the wrong side of the tracks with typical teen problems. Gerwig beautifully layers the film with teen troubles and at its core is a strained mother/daughter relationship. Lady Bird is beginning to realize that Sacramento doesn’t offer her much and she wants to go to college in New York, “where the culture is.” She informs her difficult and formidable mother and defiantly applies for college there. Lady Bird is funny, emotional, and refreshingly set in a time just before teenagers (and the rest of us) became glued to cellphone screens. The film is a truly delightful coming of age story, one we can all relate to. Lady Bird’s teen angst issues — whether it’s heartbreak over her first love, arguing with her parents, or finding a new best friend but later realizing your genuine best friend is the one you abandoned — is written with note-perfect precision. It reinforces Gerwig’s talent as a fine writer.
Heartwarming, heartfelt, and funny, Gerwig’s directorial debut is terrific on every level. Not only one of the very best films of 2017, it’s one of the best films about being a teenager we’ve seen in years. Greta Gerwig has delivered a winner in aces.
On a side note, I realized I’ve seen three Timothee Chalmet movies at the festival in the past three days; he appears in Lady Bird, Hostiles, and Call Me by Your Name. Lady Bird’s casting is stellar. Ronan is the perfect teenager finding herself and finding out about living life on her own terms. Laurie Metcalf’s Best Supporting Actress buzz is well-deserved as Lady Bird’s mother. An emotional highpoint, the airport scene is a pure perfection, as Metcalfe drops off Lady Bird to embark on her life’s adventure. We know she loves her daughter, yet does things throughout the film to drive her child crazy. They bicker incessantly. But their farewell scene is nailed with heartrending authenticity as Gerwig manages to capture the mother-daughter dynamic with absolute piercing exactitude. I flat out loved this film. Don’t miss Gerwig’s Lady Bird, you will laugh, you will cry, and you’ll want to call your mother.
Watch Greta Gerwig introduce her film:
And that wrapped day three of a great festival. It was on to the after-party with fellow Oscar bloggers and critics to break down our predictions and enjoy our annual time together. Day four was to be the screening of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and a morning conversation with women directors. Sadly, I would miss the Three Billboards screening, but happily I would get to chat to Greta Gerwig. Stay tuned for the Middleburg Wrap and my interviews with Gerwig and Scott Cooper.