We can add another gem to the list of natural resources found in Montana—and with any luck, the first Five Rivers Festival of Film, held Thursday, September 17, through Sunday, September 20, at the Wilma Theatre and a couple of coffee shops around town, will prove to be a renewable resource.
The brainchild of Missoulians Lynne Shaara and Cinda Holt, both of whom have extensive histories in the film industry, this festival is something of an oddity, even beyond the fact of its location in our remote cinematic outpost.
Instead of shooting for a star-struck orgy kind of festival (glitterati, paparazzi, gratuitous snobberati, etc.) Shaara and Holt used their extensive connections within the industry to assemble a group of people—producers, directors, writers, production designers, editors and sound technicians—who have dedicated their lives to the art of filmmaking. The result was a dream weekend for any serious film buff, a virtual crash course in the drama and hard work that occurs behind the scenes of a motion picture.
Shaara and Holt made a concerted effort to allow the public maximum access to the minds of these artisans, scheduling a half-hour question-and-answer session after each screening and setting up three “confluences,” in which panels of filmmakers held forth on the nuances of their craft at local coffee shops.
I was only able to attend the middle two days of the four-day affair, and yet I still learned more about films in that short time than I have writing about movies for the past three years. My personal highlights of the festival include: • Ishi, the Last Yahi. A wonderful documentary about the last surviving Yahi Indian, who wandered out of seclusion in 1911 into the hands of ambitious anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. A chilling reminder of our own country’s holocaust juxtaposed against a redeeming tale of the mutual respect achieved by the two men.
Producer-director Pam Roberts shed some serious light on the task of making an 80-year-old story a powerful and immediate one. • The Fabulous Baker Boys. Production designer Jeffrey Townsend described the boggling logistics required for a series of 360-degree shots of Michelle Pfieffer crooning to Jeff Bridges while atop a grand piano. A scene that renders Viagra superfluous. • Hair. A movie that had a large impact on me when I first saw it as a blossoming hippie. Writer Michael Weller and production designer Stuart Wurtzel revealed the process behind the famous acid-trip scene without incriminating themselves. • Heartland. A tour de force in Western cinema, this movie captures the hardships and rewards of the real pioneer West. A stellar ensemble of talent (including executive producer Annick Smith) discussed the challenges of making a huge movie on a small budget. • Hearts and Minds. The 1974 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, this movie is simply one of the most powerful I have ever seen.
Director-producer Peter Davis and director of photography Dick Pearce weave an intricate web that allows proponents of the war to unwittingly condemn it in their own words. They mentioned afterwards that General Westmoreland, who opines on film that “Eastern people just don’t place much value on life,” actually repeated that statement three times for them while they worked out camera problems.
(Editor’s note: In addition, the festival saw the world premiere of Roger Hedden’s new film Hi Life. The film is a talky New York set piece, which focuses on the nuances of trust and truth among a gang of barflies in Manhattan. With Hedden on hand to elucidate the experience of making the film, the after-film talk was nearly as amusing as the movie itself.)
Both of the confluences I attended were held in the cozy confines of the Mammyth Bakery. The first one, “Writing for Film,” featured screenwriters Weller, Hedden, and a phalanx of local talent including Jim Crumley, Kevin Canty, Ed Taylor, and Annick Smith’s twin sons Alex and Andrew, full-grown, bona fide scriptwriters in their own right.
An excellent insight into the deal-making process that moves a script from page to screen, this discussion was highlighted by the garrulous Crumley, who compared a movie deal to a drug deal, except that “movie deals don’t usually involve guns.”
The last confluence tracked the entire process of making a film, from the seed of an idea to assembling the required talent. The Smith brothers, who have a script in pre-production, had their movie built step-by-step through the involvement of everyone from the producer to the sound technician.
Holt and Shaara deserve major kudos for the work they did in bringing this uncommon event to the Garden City. The festival was a miracle of volunteerism and shoestring funding (sources included state agencies, private contributors and local business sponsorships), and the two women are already at work trying to figure out how to do it all over again.
Here’s to hoping miracles strike more than once in the same place.
Ishi, the Last Yahi