Connections abound at this year’s film festival

Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, shows Thursday at the Paramount Theater. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, shows Thursday at the Paramount Theater. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

The lead-off film at this year’s Virginia Film Festival (Nov. 3-6) is remarkable in its story and its timing. As
we look out from our fledgling blue state to the country’s contentious societal landscape, the nasty presidential campaign to be decided on Tuesday and the glaring Supreme Court vacancy, director Jeff Nichols syncs up history and heartache in a story with far-reaching political and emotional themes. Based and filmed in Virginia, Loving (right)is already slated for awards-season glory.

Governor Terry McAuliffe announced the film in September, saying, “Loving captures an important moment in the history of the commonwealth and tells a story that speaks to the triumph of love over division—a story that resonates in our world today. The film also shines a deserved spotlight on Virginia’s thriving film industry, which continues to be an important driver in our work to build a new Virginia economy.”

Loving, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, shows Thursday at the Paramount Theater. —Tami Keaveny

Paul Begala does War Room retrospective

Twenty-four years ago, an unknown governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton ran for president and, seemingly against all odds, won. Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker were there to capture the race that “changed the way campaigns were won,” according to The War Room’s trailer. Political consultant Paul Begala was there, too, traveling with Clinton around the country.

And Begala travels to the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville for what could be a surreal screening of the 1992 race, days before an election in which the wife of the guy he was stumping for seeks the presidency herself.

“Compared to today, it was a mutual admiration society,” says Begala of the election that unseated President George H.W. Bush, one of the most gracious men ever, who vents in the documentary, “I’m getting sick and tired of every single night hearing one of these carping little liberal Democrats jumping on my you-know-what.”

Today, Bush and Bill Clinton are best buds, and Barbara Bush calls Clinton her fifth son, Begala notes.

June 25, 2016 - Pasadena, California, U.S. - PAUL BEGALA participates on day one of Politicon 2016, a non-partisan political fan fest which bills itself as an ''unconventional political convention.'' The agenda for the event includes panel discussions, debates, podcasts, film screenings, comedy, art and music.(Credit Image: © Brian Cahn via ZUMA Wire)
Paul Begala is joined by The War Room directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, for a discussion led by Larry Sabato on November 5 at Culbreth Theatre. Photo by Brian Cahn

Begala’s interest in politics took hold at the University of Texas, where he was student government president. He worked on a campaign for a state senator seeking the U.S. Senate. His candidate lost, but he met Ragin’ Cajun James Carville, and the two started working together in the late ’80s.

And when he met Clinton, he’s said many times, it was political love at first sight.

Begala says he hasn’t watched The War Room with fresh eyes in a while, but notes the obvious: “Carville had [more] hair and I had a beard.” Besides period elements like the “brick cellular phones” and fax machines, the news cycle was every 24 hours (not a 24-hour cycle), a notion that now seems “so quaint,” he says.

The campaign pioneered the rapid response. A 24-hour team tracked the West Coast media all night, and “hit the ground running every morning,” says Begala. Also new: “The aggressive use of satellites to do media,” he says. “We could put Clinton and [George] Stephanopoulos on the air in local markets. We realized local media was seen as more credible than the national media. We could sit George in a studio in Little Rock” and he’d do an interview in Florida.

“Paul played a critical role in the 1992 presidential election,” says UVA pundit emeritus Larry Sabato, who will discuss the film with Begala, Pennebaker and Hegedus. “Without him—and James Carville and George Stephanopoulos—I doubt Bill Clinton could have been elected. Not only is Paul a superb strategist, he has a marvelous wit that can defuse a crisis or disagreement, as he displays frequently on CNN.”

Begala says he hasn’t had time to reflect on the lessons from the 2016 race, but he learned from Bill Clinton, “Elections are about the voters’ future, not the candidate’s past. It should be about their lives and their families and their future.”

He says, “Donald Trump has hijacked this election” with a campaign that is “vile and disgusting.” About the October 9 debate, Begala says, “I was really creeped out because Hillary has been my friend for 25 years. His manner—he was uncomfortably close.” When voters asked Clinton a question, she approached them, looked at them and answered the questions, he says, while Trump looked at the camera. “He’s a TV star,” Begala says.

For the Republican party, Trump “has a very real chance of fracturing the party and creating a civil war,” observes Begala.

And he compares political parties to churches. “The successful seek out converts,” he says. “The unsuccessful hunt down heretics. That’s a recipe for failure and disaster.”

Begala, who went on to serve as an adviser to Bill Clinton in the White House, and now does political commentary on CNN, runs a pro-Hillary super PAC and teaches at Georgetown University, admits that he sometimes misses working on a campaign.

“There’s something undeniably thrilling being in a campaign’s headquarters,” he says. “They draw passionate, idealistic young people,” as well as cold coffee and pizza. “It’s a younger person’s game,” he concedes.

“What a blessing to be in Charlottesville just before the election,” he says. “When Larry Sabato reached out to me, I jumped, and when anyone else asked, I said I was already booked.”—Lisa Provence

HBO darling Danny McBride shifts character in latest comedy

Bad news for fans of Kenny Powers, the cocksure protagonist of HBO’s critically acclaimed “Eastbound and Down.” Danny McBride, who co-created the blissfully ignorant star pitcher with a bad mouth and penchant for cocaine and women, says we’ve likely seen the last of his alter ego.

Good news for fans of McBride. He and writing partner Jody Hill created a new HBO show, “Vice Principals.” The decidedly darker half-hour comedy features McBride as Neal Gamby, a down-on-his-luck school administrator clawing his way to the top.

More good news: McBride and Hill will show two episodes of “Vice Principals” on November 4 at the Culbreth Theatre as part of the Virginia Film Festival. The duo will also field questions from the audience afterward. McBride offered C-VILLE a sneak peak of that convo late last month.

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride star as co-vice principals intent on propelling McBride’s character, Neal Gamby, to the top of the administrative food chain. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival
Walton Goggins and Danny McBride star as co-vice principals intent on propelling McBride’s character, Neal Gamby, to the top of the administrative food chain. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

C-VILLE: So you grew up near Charlottesville?

DM: I did—I grew up in Fredericksburg and we went to Charlottesville all the time. That has always been a staple since I was a kid. It’s such a cool little town, such a beautiful area.

Does anyone from your hometown come out in your characters?

You know I think some of the characters are an amalgamation of different personalities I saw growing up. Everyone wasn’t like Kenny Powers and Neal Gamby, but there are definitely different male figures that are in there.

What sets Gamby apart from Powers?

The biggest thing is their heart and their egos. Kenny Powers is an egomaniac. He’s obsessed with his self-image, his celebrity and putting his mark on the wall. Gamby is a more principled man. He’s been mislabeled in a way, but in his heart he cares about things outside himself. He cares about the school.

Are there any similarities between them?

I guess the fact that I’m playing both of them and they swear a lot. Kenny’s unaware of how he comes off, but the tragedy of Neal Gamby is he is aware people are turned off by him.

I feel like both of them have an underlying anger.

Anyone can be angry. I guess these guys are weirdly both dreamers. How their life was supposed to be doesn’t stack up to what it is. When Kenny’s dreams don’t work out, he doubles down. When Gamby gets passed over, he puts unrealistic expectations on what things would have been like. He thinks a position in a high school would fix a lot that it probably wouldn’t.

“Vice Principals” is definitely not the over-the-top comedy “Eastbound” was.

I honestly don’t find a lot in common between the two shows. “Vice Principals” has kind of a fucked-up sensibility and as the show progresses and people see what’s up—they would be hard-pressed to say it was the same thing. When you’re a comedian people show up because you’re in something, but it’s that tightrope walk of giving people what they want to see but also reinventing the thing.

The show’s only running two seasons. Why did you guys do it that way?

It was just kind of what I am drawn to about television. I see shows that go on for season after season, and if you can nail that it can be very lucrative. But TV can also just be a chance to tell a story in a longer period than an hour and a half.

So there’s no bringing Kenny Powers back?

Jody and I had some of the best times of our lives making that show and working with that character. But I think that for both of us, we loved that ending and I don’t know what we would do to beat it.

What can people expect from the event at the film festival?

I think it’s going to be the last two episodes of the first season. Jody and I came up in the film festival circuit. The Foot Fist Way got picked up at Sundance, so we love this sort of interaction with the die-hard fans of film and television. You usually get some interesting questions.

What’s the working relationship between you and Jody like?

We met in film school in North Carolina, and there’s a just a mutual respect. One of us can say something is dumb and you don’t get your feelings hurt. There’s no set way we do it. We both respect each other’s opinions and taste and things fall off the truck naturally.

Who came up with the idea for “Vice Principals”?

After we went to Sundance the first time, Jody came to visit me in Fredericksburg and we locked up and wrote a feature-length version, like a whole draft. But there was something about it being an hour and a half. It turned into any old buddy comedy. It didn’t have room to explore, and it sat on a shelf. But we loved those characters, and after “Eastbound and Down” Jody wanted to direct another film and I was looking to dive into something. We got a writers’ room together, blew up the script and it turned into 18 episodes.

You’ve worked a lot with Will Ferrell so I have to ask: What’s he like?

Will is one of the funniest guys I have ever met and a nice guy as well. You are not disappointed when you meet him. He has that rare ability to not even open his mouth and make you laugh.

Wikipedia says you were offered a minor league baseball contract. That true?

It is true. But you know, just because I played a pitcher doesn’t mean I know how to throw a baseball.

“Anyone can be angry,” co-creator Danny McBride says. “I guess these guys [characters Kenny Powers and Neal Gamby] are weirdly both dreamers. How their life was supposed to be doesn’t stack up to what it is.”—Shea Gibbs

Farewell Ferris Wheel looks beyond the bright lights

Last time you rode a Ferris wheel, did you pause to think about the person who clipped you safely into the cart and ran the controls that afforded you an aerial view of the twinkly carnival lights? Did you think about the people who assembled the ride in its place, piece by piece? Or the family that owns the carnival?

Filmmaker Jamie Sisley says he hadn’t thought much about that either, until he learned, though a 2008 article in Texas’ Brownsville Herald that a growing number of companies in the American carnival industry rely on migrant workers who come to the United States mostly from Mexico and Central America on an H-2B temporary non-agricultural work visa, spending as much as eight months of the year away from their families to work the carnival circuit.

About 66,000 H-2B visas are granted each year; many of the visa recipients work in the carnival, timber, crabbing/seafood and landscaping industries here in the U.S. They’re needed, Sisley says, because Americans aren’t very interested in performing manual labor jobs.

Farewell Ferris Wheel’s writer-directors Jamie Sisley and Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez will appear at Vinegar Hill Theatre on November 4 for a screening and discussion. Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival
Farewell Ferris Wheel’s writer-directors Jamie Sisley and Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez will appear at Vinegar Hill Theatre on November 4 for a screening and discussion. Courtesy of Virginia Film Festival

Sisley, who was living in Charlottesville, working at Red Light Management and dreaming of film school at the time, thought this combination of stories—the migrant workers, the carnival owners and the recruiters who connect the two—would make a great film.

He brought the idea to Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez, a music video director who, a few years prior, had called Sisley to ask why more Latin artists weren’t playing shows in town and what he—a WTJU DJ with a bilingual radio show—could do to help. Martinez had immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1989 and says he was eager to “bring light to the Latin community” and put a mic on voices not often heard.

“Both of us thought the characters were compelling,” Sisley says about their decision to shoot Farewell Ferris Wheel as a documentary instead of a narrative film. “Sometimes the truth is more interesting than fiction, and in this case, it was.”

For eight years, Sisley and Martinez asked question after question, got to know their subjects and followed each individual’s story to see where it led. Despite their own opinions on immigration and labor, they wanted to make an objective film, one that would spark conversation between all sides of this multifaceted story.

Farewell Ferris Wheel follows four main story lines: two legal migrant workers from Mexico; one guest worker recruiter who connects workers with carnivals across the U.S.; and a Maryland-based carnival owner. The film also features two legal workers’ rights advocates, including Mary Bauer, executive director of Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center.

They shot footage at carnivals in Maryland, Virginia and Texas, and filmed migrant workers at their homes in Tlapacoyan, Veracuz, Mexico, about 14 hours south of the U.S./Mexico border. They filmed the carnival owner at home in Maryland.

The more Sisley and Martinez pulled the thread, the more the story unraveled and the more complex it became—the H-2B visa program is wrapped up in matters of politics, business, labor laws, human rights and each individual’s story. Sisley says that eventually, the issue became, “How do you weigh some of the issues with the opportunity? It’s a really tough subject” to present, to watch unfold before your eyes.

It was an especially tough subject for two green filmmakers to bite off for their first feature-length film, the co-directors say. At the outset, they were learning the simplest things: working the cameras, adjusting shutter speed, how to approach, light and interview their subjects. They had to find funding; they had to balance this project with many others. But those things pale in comparison to the emotional component of documentary filmmaking. When you follow subjects for years, “you do get attached to all these people you follow, and you do build these relationships, and it takes a toll on you, knowing all the problems they’re encountering,” Martinez says.

Sisley and Martinez say that Farewell Ferris Wheel is meant to inform viewers about the H-2B visa program—the legal migrant workers and the employers who rely on them—not persuade viewers to adopt a certain viewpoint. They didn’t want to turn anyone away from the subject with a biased documentary. After all, Sisley says, it’s hard to miss the fact that all of these people—whether they’re crunching numbers at a desk, recruiting workers or clipping delighted carnival-goers into Ferris wheel carts—are all just trying to survive. Nobody’s getting rich here, Sisley says. Not the workers, not the recruiters, not the carnival owners.

“Film gives you the opportunity to humanize certain subjects in a way other forms can’t,” Sisley says, and documentaries are particularly effective at provoking empathy and understanding in a viewer—from graying hair to wrinkles, viewers can see the subjects change before their very eyes. “Visuals give a different sense than the written word,” Martinez says. “When you read something, you can imagine. But when you’re actually seeing the visuals, [you know] that’s how it really is.”—Erin O’Hare

Dorie Barton finds her own answers in Girl Flu

The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie marked the first graphic depiction of menstruation on-screen. To say it wasn’t pleasant would be an understatement. What begins as a young woman getting her first period in the shower at school becomes fodder for a cruel prank in which she is doused in pig’s blood in front of the entire student body at prom. Most subsequent on-screen portrayals of menstruation have followed suit, using the subject as the basis for a gag or to make characters uncomfortable. This shortsighted perspective was not lost on actress-turned-director Dorie Barton.

“There’s a tampon, every now and then,” says Barton. “It shows up here and there [in films]. But the thing is, it’s really only used in a couple of ways. The main way that it’s used is to be a disgusting joke to either gross out a boy or to humiliate the girl. And then the other way that it’s used is like in Carrie, where it’s the harbinger of pure evil and proof of original sin. Really, I mean if this is what we’re showing young women—that periods are either gross and humiliating or they’re evil—it’s time to have a whole film that’s not just a throwaway gross-out, you know, that actually looks at what that transition really feels like.”

With Girl Flu, Barton’s feature-film debut as a writer and director, she aims to bring an honest and meaningful representation of the feminine experience to the big screen. The charming, lighthearted story stars Jade Pettyjohn as 12-year-old Bird, whose sixth-grade year brings about a lot of change: Not only does she move from the San Fernando Valley to Echo Park, but she also gets her first period. Finding it hard to rely on her irresponsible mom (played by Katee Sackhoff), Bird toes the line between childhood and adulthood as she navigates the nuances of growing up. Barton drew on her own experience to craft a relatable narrative.

“I remember even in fifth grade where they would show the really stupid films that were probably made in like the ’60s about, ‘Now you’re becoming a woman and things are different for you.’ And I remember that phrase just being really confusing to me and kind of pissing me off because I did not feel like whatever I thought was a woman. I was like, ‘I’m 11! That’s bananas!’ Just because something is happening to my body that already pissed me off, you know, but it’s like that doesn’t mean you’re a woman,” she says. “That whole idea of becoming a woman was one of the ways that the story got developed. I started thinking about what that meant—becoming a woman.”

With Girl Flu, Barton’s feature-film debut as a writer and director, she aims to bring an honest and meaningful representation of the feminine experience to the big screen. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival
With Girl Flu, Barton’s feature-film debut as a writer and director, she aims to bring an honest and meaningful representation of the feminine experience to the big screen. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

While Girl Flu is a coming-of-age tale about adolescence, the narrative also follows the parallel trajectory of Bird’s mom, Jenny, who has to face her own lessons about adulthood.

“The other part of the story that really is incredibly important to me is that I think that the fact that not all women fit into an easy mold of being mothers and that there’s all kinds of ways to be mothers,” Barton says. “There’s just so many different ways to be a woman. …If I can be part of showing more of that, I feel a personal responsibility to do that.”

After finding complex characters harder to come by in her own work as a television and film actress, Barton set her sights on writing and directing full-time.

“I worked really steadily through my 20s and 30s, but of course because I’m a female the parts just got less and less interesting and I just felt less and less motivated to keep pursuing acting,” she explains. “I had been writing some screenplays for a while. …But then I just realized that I really needed to invest in myself and that if I was going to have a happy, fulfilling career, then I needed to be the one creating content.”

Throughout her years on set, Barton gravitated toward directors and cinematographers, gathering all the information she could. Now, she’s using her time behind the camera to shed light on the complicated and multifaceted experience that is womanhood. She’ll be on hand to discuss the film November 4 at Newcomb Hall Theater.

“Becoming a woman—to me and in this film—is being true; finding your best, authentic self and learning to accept that,” Barton says. “That does mean that sometimes you have to make changes that you’re uncomfortable with and that’s not always something that’s by choice, but you do have a choice about how to deal with it. And you can either struggle or you can try to be graceful and thrive, whatever age you are.”

“There’s just so many different ways to be a woman,” director Dorie Barton says. “…If I can be part of showing more of that, I feel a personal responsibility to do that.”—Desiré Moses

Hot Air lifts off

When we last checked in on local filmmakers Derek Sieg and Jeremy Goldstein in 2012, they had written a script and were camped out on the Downtown Mall selling T-shirts, crowdsourcing and heavily promoting a “Get Nick” campaign in hopes of enticing Nick Nolte to star in their movie. More than four years later, Hot Air debuted on October 15 at the Austin Film Festival, where it won the jury prize for best comedy feature, and it premieres locally November 6 at the Virginia Film Festival.

Which seems appropriate to native son Sieg, whose first movie, the locally filmed Swedish Auto, starring Lukas Haas, pre-“Mad Men” fame January Jones and Mel’s Cafe, screened at the film fest in 2006.

“[Hot Air] was shot in Austin, but almost every other aspect took place here,” he says, listing fundraising, the soundtrack and post-production.

Another bit of local sourcing: Schuyler Fisk, offspring of Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk, is the film’s love interest. “She’s awesome,” says Sieg. “I’ve known her a long time.”

But things didn’t quite work out with Nolte to play the lead character, an aging lothario, personal injury lawyer and hard-partying restaurateur who fakes his own death to avoid jail time.

“Finding the right lead—that was a long and winding road,” says Sieg. “We finally found Jere Burns, who was perfect for the part.” Burns has been in TV series such as “Dear John” in the ’80s, and more recently in FX’s “Justified.”

Hot Air debuted on October 15 at the Austin Film Festival, where it won the jury prize for best comedy feature, and it premieres locally November 6 at the Virginia Film Festival. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival
Hot Air debuted on October 15 at the Austin Film Festival, where it won the jury prize for best comedy feature, and it premieres locally November 6 at the Virginia Film Festival. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

“He’s a character actor who hasn’t been a leading man,” says Sieg. “People recognize him but are not sure how.”

The movie was filmed in 2014 and has been in post-production for the past year and a half. After it screens here, Sieg and Goldstein will continue on the film festival circuit, ideally finding a distributor.

Their use of Kickstarter was early on in the crowdsourcing phenomenon, and they’re still working on some guerrilla marketing angles.

And Sieg is happy to report that there were no hot-air-balloon-meets-power-line incidents in the shooting. “Everything on the filming went beautifully except for the last day,” he says, when weather prevented a final balloon shoot. “We were able to move on without it.”—Lisa Provence

“Finding the right lead—that was a long and winding road,” says filmmaker Derek Sieg. “We finally found Jere Burns, who was perfect for the part.”

Check out these films with Virginia connections

Before the Fall

This reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is set in modern-day, rural Virginia and centers around the life of Ben (rather than Elizabeth) Bennet, an attorney who unknowingly insults Lee Darcy, a factory worker who has been wrongly charged with domestic abuse. They immediately dislike each other, which proves problematic when Ben falls in love with Lee. The film was shot in Washington, Smyth and Lee counties; director Byrum Geisler has lived in Virginia all his life. “I wanted to make a film that presented the complex people of this region in a more accurate way and captured the natural beauty here. Sexual preference is not love…love is love,” Geisler says.

November 4 at PVCC Dickinson Center

London Towns

London Town director Derrick Borte remembers the exact moment in 1980 when a friend handed him a cassette tape of The Clash’s debut album. When Borte hit play, he realized, “this was the music I was supposed to listen to.” He eventually wore out the cassette, but it was just the beginning of his relationship with the band’s music. There have been many Clash biopics, but London Town focuses on the band’s music and its continued influence on the industry. It’s “a glimpse into a brief moment in the life of one young boy, almost 40 years ago, set against the rise of punk, and a backdrop of social, political and racial unrest that is incredibly similar and relevant to what we see happening in the world today.” Borte, who attended Old Dominion University and currently lives in Virginia Beach, says he “made London Town to illuminate the power that music has to change your life.”

November 5 at Vinegar Hill Theatre

"MacBeth Unhinged" Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival
“Macbeth Unhinged” shows November 5 at Violet Crown Cinema. Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

Macbeth Unhinged

Actor Angus Macfadyen, known for playing Robert the Bruce in Braveheart and Robert Rogers on AMC’s “Turn,” makes his directorial debut with Macbeth Unhinged, a retelling of Shakespeare’s gruesome tragedy. The film, shot in Richmond in black and white and edited with vintage techniques, is “about the corruption of power: a king and queen in a tinted stretch limousine going slowly insane as they accumulate death and then find their own release in it,” Macfadyen says. He says the story of Macbeth—a thane consumed by a prophecy that says one day he will be king—is “a Shakespearean impression of the Scottish soul, how it sold out and chose for one of its folkloric heroes a Scottish terrier called Greyfriars Bobby,” a dog that slept by its abusive master’s grave, “unwilling to grasp its freedom.”

November 5 at Violet Crown Cinema

Hunter Gatherer

Lynchburg native Josh Locy makes his writing and directorial debut with Hunter Gatherer, a film starring “The Wire”’s Andre Royo as a man who is released from prison and returns to his former neighborhood to win back his girlfriend, only to realize that she and her family have moved on. Locy says the film is based on his friend’s experience as a drug-addicted pimp in 1980s Philadelphia. “I was drawn to the world of his stories but became more emotionally invested in the characters when I was able to inform my experience with theirs, and vice versa,” Locy says. Among other things, he says, the film explores the human need for connection.

November 5 at Vinegar Hill Theatre

The Rebound

What began as a volunteer promotional video for nonprofit wheelchair basketball team Miami Heat Wheels evolved into a four-year documentary film project for Earlysville-based director and editor Shaina Allen and producer Michael Esposito. “Our eyes were opened to a world we didn’t know existed,” Allen says, “and we realized that Miami Heat Wheels were not isolated in the issues they faced.” Adaptive sports are often overlooked, despite how transformative they can be for the athletes and their communities. Ultimately, Allen says, The Rebound is “a story of unwavering resolve and a testament to mankind’s innate ability to overcome life’s toughest challenges, including those beyond what meets the eye. The story we decided to tell can positively influence the way audiences view people that mainstream society labels disabled.”

November 5 at PVCC Dickinson Center

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