The Virginia Film Festival: notes for a screenplay

The Virginia Film Festival: notes for a screenplay

Here’s an idea: The Virginia Film Festival, now in its 20th star-studded, "talented unknown-studded," vibrant year, would be a great subject for a film. With that in mind, we asked Richard Herskowitz, VFF director since 1994, to consider his fondest memories of the annual event in light of a few screenwriting terms. Here’s what he came up with.  

Richard Herskowitz, director of the Virginia Film Festival

Establishing Shot—the memory that says to you: "This is what the Virginia Film Festival is all about"

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The Dog Day Afternoon premiere had everything. We brought one of the world’s leading contemporary artists, Pierre Huyghe, who had given us his art installation on Dog Day Afternoon for display at the Art Museum.  Pierre Huyghe’s installation was called "The Third Memory," and it was so incredible to be able to bring it to the Art Museum and have it coincide with our film and our discussion.

It was just the kind of synthesis of art and film and typified our desire to be a festival of all the arts.

That kind of encounter of crossing over film and art and sort of having facilitated the meeting of the screenwriter with the subject and having that happen, that was one of our great moments.

Jump Cut—two separate memories that are edited together in your mind

In 1995 we brought the blacklisted writer Paul Jericho.  He was on a fantastic screenwriter’s panel with younger and older screenwriters.  One of the most moving things about that panel was when one of the younger screenwriters, Mari Hatta, turned to Frank Pierson and Jericho and told them how much their films had meant to her as a writer.

Then, in 1997, we brought a blacklisted director, John Barry, who had emigrated to France. Incredibly, the day before our festival started, Barry got a call that Jericho, who was a friend of his, had left some kind of tribute event organized in Hollywood in which Hollywood basically apologized to the blacklisted writers in the film industry for what they had done to them.  And leaving that event, Jericho had gotten into a car accident and died.

Barry, who has also since passed away, was one of the most unforgettable guests for me both for his reminiscences at the screening and the conversations we had between screenings, which were so jaw droppingly powerful and moving that I can’t begin to tell you.  I remember asking him if he was going to write an autobiography with all of these stories and he said he was, but as far as I know, he never completed it.

Freeze Frame—a memory that you hold in your mind like a still photograph

One of my favorite, most blissful nights at the Festival was in 1995 when we had our closing night party at the airport. We brought a salsa band from Washington and they were performing there.  Late in the night, Ruben Blades got up and joined them for a rendition of "Guantanamera" that he stretched out for close to half an hour.  You cold see in the faces of the musicians how honored they were and you could see in faces of that crowd that we all felt it was an experience nobody was going to forget.

Zoom—a memory that closes in on a particular guest you were honored to meet

I spent about three hours in the Boar’s Head dining room with Jason Robards and he was telling story after story about his life in the theater with fellow actors like Colleen Dewhurst and Christopher Plummer.  He was the nicest, most generous person.  He was like that in the same way as Vanessa Redgrave was.  A lot of the stars we have brought here have been unbelievably accessible and generous.  Vanessa Redgrave was the last person to leave the party at the Art Museum and talked to everybody.  

I think a lot of that has to do with the atmosphere created at the festival and with the atmosphere in Charlottesville.  Often, filmmakers and actors come here thinking they are coming to a normal film festival and that they are going to be in their publicity "hide" mode.  For example Anthony Hopkins, when he showed up he probably figured he was going to be dealing with tons of press and receptions, and the first thing he did was meet with students in the drama department.  It completely relaxed him and showed him that this was not going to be your typical festival.  He ended up giving the students as much advice as he possibly could.  His mood was so good throughout the course of the day that by that night, when he was on stage, he was electric…literally standing up and performing parts like his Nixon part right there on the stage.

Another great memory was the ovation for him as he left the stage with Roger Ebert, who told him, "Tony, I’ve done hundreds of these things and I’ve never seen anything like this."

Montage—a series of memories strung together in your mind

Roger Ebert made an enormous impression on me over the years. I think he is one of the best teachers whom I’ve ever encountered and his way of orchestrating the discussions for the whole audience is something that was just remarkable.

In my mind I have a whole montage of memories of Ebert, one of them being his absolutely masterful interview with Nicolas Cage.  It was after Sonny, a difficult film that had made the audience very uncomfortable.  You could actually feel the real tension in the room as to how the Q and A was going to go and what Ebert was going to say about the film.

There was no one who could have conducted that conversation better.  He talked about Cage’s whole career as an actor and asked him great questions.  It so relaxed Cage and the audience that you could just feel this immense sense of relief from everybody.

What people didn’t know that was going on was even more stressful than you could even imagine.  Just before Ebert and Cage went on stage, Cara White, a leading film publicist and longtime festival consultant and now board member, told me that there were tabloid reporters in the audience who were determined to ask questions about Cage’s relationship with Lisa Marie Presley, who was there in the audience that night.

I asked Ebert to please do the whole interview himself and not to open the floor to questions.  And Ebert again did such a masterful job that nobody even noticed there was no audience participation.

Shooting Script—a memory that has the perfection of a final draft of a screenplay

We had been looking for a long time for an interviewer as good as Ebert was because, obviously, his health issues have made him not able to return for the past few years.  We really feel grateful that we found David Edelstein, who is now the film critic for New York Magazine.  He has a very different style from Ebert, of course, but he is funny and smart.

Last year the rapport he created with Robert Duvall was truly something to behold.  The first thing Duvall said after coming on stage following the screening of The Apostle was how funny it was after a film about an evangelical preacher to be out there being interviewed by a New York Jew.

You could see in Duvall’s body language how pleased he was as the interview went on with Edelstein’s evident admiration for The Apostle and for Duvall’s film work as well as for his incredible knowledge of the medium.  They had an absolutely perfect rapport.

Reverse Angle—a memory of an experience that totally surprised you

The visit of "Dog," John Wojtowicz from Dog Day Afternoon.  He was in the audience for opening night 2003 when we did the screening of Dog Day Afternoon and we brought Frank Pierson, the screenwriter.  Pierson was meeting him that night for the first time and he was the subject of that film.

All the sudden I started hearing barking sounds coming from the audience and it took a while to realize that was Wojtowicz’s signature voice, how we voiced approval.  Based on the success of Dog Day Afternoon he decided to give himself the nickname "Dog" and one of his characteristics was to use a bark to express approval.

I was very nervous about the "Dog" and Pierson encounter because after I had set it up, I discovered that the film Dog Day Afternoon had created problems for Wojtowicz in prison because the movie implied that he had possibly ratted out his partner to the FBI and it turned out that his life was in danger, and it was not true.

Pierson had felt guilty about that.  I became very nervous that Wojtowicz may have stored up years of resentment that he may have let loose when he got on stage.  I was in a state of terror.  Then he gets up there and presents the most moving testimonial, saying it had taken him a while to come to the realization that he felt immensely grateful that a screenwriter as talented as Frank Pierson had been the one to dramatize his life.

Aerial Shot—the thoughts that go through your mind when you think of the Virginia Film Festival as a whole, as if from a certain distance

What pops into my head is the unusual combination of filmmakers who meet each other.  When we brought Sigourney Weaver we also had the punk, avant-garde filmmaker Craig Baldwin, who showed up at the reception for Sigourney Weaver and scarfed up as much food as he possibly could and could be seen doing so in the background of a number of photos of her from the event.  

Also, I think of experimental Su Friedrich, who is returning to the Festival this year, going on a tour of Monticello with Roger Ebert.  What happens is you get these unexpected encounters of people from totally different worlds of film.