How the Virginia Film Fest begat “Breaking Bad” and more

Virginia native, and “Breaking Bad” creator, Vince Gilligan (right) made a fortuitous connection at VFF in 1989 that led to his television success. Image: courtesy of VFF Virginia native, and “Breaking Bad” creator, Vince Gilligan (right) made a fortuitous connection at VFF in 1989 that led to his television success. Image: courtesy of VFF

Some film festivals are all about making deals. The Virginia Film Festival—not so much. And yet, Mr. Jefferson’s University’s annual fall movie-thon, now in its 26th year, has generated encounters that led to the critically acclaimed AMC hit TV series “Breaking Bad,” movies like Kick-Ass 2 and The Jane Austen Book Club, and a gang of Charlottesville-connected filmmakers working in Hollywood.

“It’s a great opportunity for filmmakers,” said festival director Jody Kielbasa. “I hate to use the word ‘networking,’ but often lifetime connections are made, filmmakers often return, and some graduate from short films to features.”

The second Virginia Film Festival in 1989 spawned the connection that years later led to “Breaking Bad.” “I had just won an Oscar that year for Rainman,” producer and festival board member Mark Johnson remembered.  He was also a judge for the Governor’s Screenwriting Competition, and the winner blew him away.

That was a Richmond-born guy named Vince Gilligan. “That’s how we met,” said Johnson. “I tracked him down because I was so impressed with his work.”

Johnson also recalled that director Steven Soderbergh was living in the area at the time and the two got together with Gilligan.

Johnson later made Gilligan’s winning screenplay, Home Fries, into a movie starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. He also introduced Gilligan to “X-Files” creator Chris Carter, and Gilligan wrote 29 episodes for that series, and was a writer for “The Lone Gunmen.”

And when AMC aired the first episode of “Breaking Bad” in 2008, Johnson was executive producer. He’ll team up again with Gilligan on his new series, “Battle Creek,” set to air next year. Meeting Vince Gilligan, said Johnson, “is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”

Johnson says he’s kept in touch with a number of filmmakers he’s met at the Virginia Film Festival, such as The Parking Lot Movie director Meghan Eckman, who filmed her 2010 documentary in a Corner lot. “We’re still trying to do a television version,” said Johnson.

He also met fellow UVA grad Julie Lynn at the film festival. “She tracked me down, we had coffee on the Corner and she came and worked with me. Now she’s producing,” Johnson said.

“We shared a professor in the drama department—David Weiss,” said Lynn, who also sits on the festival advisory board. “There’s a direct connection with Mark and the film festival and me getting a toehold in movies.”

Lynn’s Mockingbird Pictures produced The Jane Austen Book Club, which she said is about her only movie that wasn’t screened at the Charlottesville festival. She’s brought Albert Nobbs and its costar, Mia Wasikowska, and the Rodrigo Garcia-directed films Mother and Child and Nine Lives, the latter starring Sissy Spacek and Kathy Baker, both of whom attended the festival in 2005. Remember when Morgan Freeman was here in 2006? That was thanks to another Lynn film, 10 Items or Less.

And she says that Arie Posen, the director and writer of her latest film, The Face of Love, which screens on November 9, is co-writing a film set in Charlottesville.

Richmonder Megan Holley also won the Governor’s Screenwriting Competition. Producer Glenn Williamson, another UVA alum and festival board member, was on the jury, and optioned her screenplay, Sunshine Cleaning. “That’s another connection,” said Jody Kielbasa.

American Film Institute president Bob Gazzale was an early director of the Virginia Festival of American Film, as it was then called, and he said he “definitely” would not be in his current position without the Virginia fest.

“Jean Firstenberg, then the president of the AFI, was on the board,” said Gazzale. He’d been working at the film festival for five years following his graduation from UVA when Firstenberg invited him to come out to Los Angeles to the American Film Institute. “She was sitting beside Charlton Heston,” remembered Gazzale. “How’s that for gravitas?”

Jeff Wadlow calls the Virginia Film Festival’s impact on his career “tremendous.” Wadlow, the writer/director of Kick-Ass 2, said, “Growing up in Central Virginia, there weren’t many outlets for someone interested in film. I was frustrated at 13 years old by the lack of opportunities.” His mother, State Senator Emily Couric, apparently got that.

“I remember vividly in the seventh grade my mom pulled me out of school for two days to see Roger Ebert’s shot-by-shot of Citizen Kane,” said Wadlow. “That got it started.

After graduating from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, Wadlow won the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Competition for his short film, Living the Lie. He used the money from that to make his first feature-length movie, Cry Wolf, in Richmond. By 2004, Wadlow, too, was sitting on the Virginia Film Festival advisory board.

That year, the festival’s theme was “Speed.”

“I said to [then festival director] Richard Herskowitz, ‘Why don’t we do a production component with an emphasis on collaboration and mentoring?’” recalled Wadlow. “Richard said, ‘Great, you can do it.’”

And thus was born the Adrenaline Film Project, the make-a-film-in-72-hours competition, now celebrating its 10th year. (See sidebar on page 26.)

A couple of Adrenaline alums have gotten into USC and NYU film schools, “a major accomplishment because they’re highly competitive,” said Wadlow. Another, reality show producer Steve Robillard, has won an Emmy.

“I stay in touch with a lot of Adrenaline filmmakers who come to L.A.,” said Wadlow. “It’s important to know people on all levels.”

And it’s not too unlikely that one day they’ll be bringing their work to the Virginia Film Festival.

“I think we have an affection for each other and where we come from,” said Julie Lynn about the UVA grads and Charlottes-villians who work in Hollywood.

The Virginia Film Festival provides a platform for independent filmmakers to meet—and to form relationships, said Kielbasa. “It can be incestuous,” he laughed, “in a good way.” —Lisa Provence




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