What happens during film festivals when a perfect alignment of writers, directors, actors, key industry players turn out for a networking social event? Powerful connections born under the stars. It happens more than inexperienced film festival organizers realize.
Navigating through Netflix last week, I came across Frozen River, its opening scene to this day, remains one of the most riveting. A closeup of a visibly distraught character Ray Eddy’s face (Melissa Leo) tells the whole story – desperation after a husband abandons his family taking all the money saved for their home, a double-wide trailer. What she and another down-on- her-luck woman, Lila Littlewolf, (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlor employee, do to make money (smuggling across the northern international border) to keep their families together is strikingly similar to the hazardous decisions people make today in their attempts for a better life.
I first saw Frozen River at Sundance 2008 and then at the Lake Placid Film Forum. Writer-director Courtney Hunt was much praised and Melissa Leo won critical acclaim including the Best Actress award from the Independent Spirit Awards, New York Film Critics Circle Award, Sundance Film Festival and many others during that year on the film festival circuit.
It was, however, the 2007 Woodstock Film Festival in October that I remember watching Melissa at a social networking event where I noticed her intensity, her serious face to face conversations with individuals, huddled over drinks, talking strategy for the making of a film that could have a major impact on audiences and critics alike.
It was impressive to see the team at Lake Placid for a Q&A after the screening. Later, I asked to do a podcast with Melissa and did so at her home in Stone Ridge, NY. I was already a Melissa Leo fan since the television series, Homicide: Life on the Street. It was during my years living in the Washington, DC area, the series was set in Baltimore, a tough area at the time. Her role as Detective Sergeant Kay Howard was my hero. She was a tough cookie, no make up, no nonsense, worked hard, knew her stuff, acted decisively and was respected by rank and file members of the police force.
We talked about her boldness in taking such character roles. Seemingly written exclusively for her or because she makes the character so much her own? I believe she draws upon hellish ordeals that reflect the character’s angst and recourse. Powerfully intuitive as an actor. It wasn’t long after her performance in Frozen River, there came focus of public and media attention earning her several nominations and awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Whew.
Following the Frozen River viewing on Netflix, I had to watch another one with Melissa in it. Lo and behold, Yuri Turchyn and I watched The Fighter, (2010) where she won several awards for her performance as Alice Eklund-Ward. Winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, The Fighter grossed $93 million in U.S. and Canada. In other territories, it collected $35 million, for a worldwide total of $129 million. Not bad.
In 2017, I wanted Yuri to have the best film festival experience ever, so it was off to the Sundance Film Festival. On January 20, we watched the premiere of Novitiate. Set in the early 1960s, it’s a story of the effect the Vatican II council had on the Catholic Church as seen through the eyes of a hard core, old-fashioned Mother Superior, Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair, played by non other, tough cookie with heart and soul, Melissa Leo. Just as the first time in 2008, I walked away from the screening talking for hours afterwards about the story, the writing, direction, its main characters, another superb performance. The rest of Sundance 2017 is part of another amazing story.
What makes this assemblage so consequential is the knowledgeable and competent festival directors’ and film programmers’ understanding for bringing together the elements and people allowing such remarkable projects to take shape. It can become quite the springboard of success for actors and the filmmakers adding positive reputation to the film festival. When it does happen, the festival director may feel the satisfaction of a seasoned matchmaker in their after parties and/or award events. Ultimately, creating opportunity for filmmakers is more important than just selling tickets for the bottom line. It makes for another great film festival experience.