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RiverRun is ready to roll

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RiverRun is ready to roll

Last year, the bad news was that the 22nd annual RiverRun International Film Festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news this year is that the 23rd annual RiverRun Film Festival will go on as scheduled, offering a combination of safety-distanced, in-person outdoor or drive-in screenings and virtual screenings via Elevant, the virtual screening system employed by the festival.

This year’s festival, which runs May 6-16, boasts a total of 132 films (41 features, 91 shorts), representing 24 different countries. This year, the Master of Cinema award recipients are actor/filmmakers Lee Grant and Alan Cumming, with actor/filmmaker Finnerty Steeves receiving the Emerging Master award.

There’s only one place to go for a complete schedule of events and to purchase advance tickets: https://riverrunfilm.com/.

“This year’s festival is totally different for both the RiverRun team and our audiences, as all films are either virtual screenings and/or outdoor and drive-in screenings,” explained Rob Davis, the festival’s executive director. “While we’ve had practice with both formats over the past year, this hybrid approach promises to be a unique festival format, but it’s one that has been successful in other parts of the country.”

Whether this will be the format RiverRun will adopt for future festivals is anybody’s guess. Right now, the singular focus is on making this year’s event the best ever, both for the audiences and the filmmakers. The success of the earlier drive-in and virtual screenings indicated that the RiverRun audience is out there, and Davis confirmed that advance ticket sales have been good.

“Just as we were among the first Triad arts events to have to cancel in response to the pandemic, we are pleased to be among the first to re-emerge, albeit in a different format!”

What’s interesting with regard to virtual screenings is that they cannot sell out. “We can accommodate more viewers virtually than when confined by seat numbers,” Davis said. “In terms of the upcoming festival, we’ve already seen ticket sales out of the immediate area, including New York and other locales, so this hybrid model is actually making RiverRun more accessible this year than when we only featured in-person screenings.”

This year’s outdoor screening venues include the Marketplace Drive-In, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), the Kilpatrick Townsend campus on Fourth Street, the Winston Cup Museum, the Ramkat, and Bailey Park in Winston-Salem, with one outdoor screening at RED Cinemas in Greensboro.

“We are honored to be one of the primary venues for RiverRun 2021,” said Zack Fox, general manager of Marketplace Cinemas. “Rob Davis and his team have done an amazing job updating and adapting the festival to the new world. Our relationship with them has only strengthened in the past year with the challenges that COVID-19 handed all of us. Although the 2020 festival was canceled, we ended up offering 10 highly successful RiverRun screenings at our new drive-in. We are looking forward to the 10 nights of drive-in screenings during the 2021 festival and possibly even more throughout the year.”

The Legend

There are those who ponder what kind of career Lee Grant would have had were it not for the Hollywood Blacklist, which derailed her career shortly after making her screen debut in Detective Story (1951). Nevertheless, despite a 12-year gap, she forged a career that can only be called triumphant. She came back stronger than ever.

Grant received Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actress for Detective Story, The Landlord (1970), Voyage of the Damned (1976), and Shampoo (1975), winning for the latter. She earned seven Emmy nominations, winning in 1964 for Peyton Place (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series) and 1971 for The Neon Ceiling (Outstanding Single Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role), the latter a personal favorite of hers. The same year, she earned a second Emmy nod – in the same category, no less – for Ransom for a Dead Man, the second pilot for the classic NBC mystery series Columbo, in which she played the murderous Leslie Williams.

“What a great character,” she said. “She was so glamorous and deadly and sexy!”

As any fan of the series can attest, it’s the “guest murderer” who undergoes the dramatic arc in each episode. Peter Falk’s Columbo remains his same, dogged self, while the culprit’s emotional facade eventually crumbles.

“I know – how delicious, how delicious,” she said. “Peter made that character. He made that show.”

Grant’s versatility is evident in the wide range of characters she has played, in so many genres: In the Heat of the Night (1967), Valley of the Dolls (also ‘67), There Was a Crooked Man … (1970), Plaza Suite (1971), Airport ’77 (1977), Damien – Omen II (1978), Defending Your Life (1991), and Citizen Cohn (1992), which earned her another Emmy nomination.

That versatility extends to her successful transition to a director in the mid-’70s, helming both documentaries (When Women Kill, Battered, Women on Trial) and narrative features (Tell Me a Riddle, Staying Together). She was the first female director to win a DGA (Director’s Guild of America) award for Best Director for the 1986 television film Nobody’s Child, and she is the author of the best-selling 2014 memoir I Said Yes to Everything, detailing her life and career in honest, heartfelt terms.

And, now she’s a Master of Cinema, her award presented her by noted author and film historian Foster Hirsch (also a member of RiverRun’s advisory board) in a filmed interview that will be shown following the screening of Down and Out in America on May 10. What’s more, she didn’t have to leave her home in New York to receive it. “Isn’t Zoom amazing?” she laughed.

“It has been such a bizarre time,” she observed. “Some wonderful things have happened, and other times it seems like the world’s falling apart. I feel lucky. I feel like we’ve all been very lucky to have survived so much.”

Simply put, “Lee Grant stands alone in the film industry,” hails Davis. “After winning the Best Actress award at Cannes for her very first film, Detective Story, and being nominated for the Academy Award, she was blacklisted and worked very little in film and television over the next 12 years. When she finally resumed her career, her acting résumé was filled with phenomenal performances in a number of films, not the least of which is In the Heat of the Night. It wasn’t too long before she began a second career as a director of note for both documentary and narrative features. She is truly a trailblazer in the motion picture industry.”

“Lee Grant will always be remembered as a gifted and versatile actress, but she is also an outstanding filmmaker – mostly notably for her acutely sensitive, indeed pioneering, documentary on transvestites and transgenders, What Sex Am I?” added Kevin Thomas, long-time film critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Down and Out in America, which will be screened May 10 at Marketplace Cinemas Drive-In, won the 1986 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (tying with Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got), marking the first Oscar won by HBO, and taking one of the earliest, in-depth looks at homelessness in America. In retrospect, it’s also a potent prophecy of how much worse the problems could, and indeed would, become.

“They’re worse,” she said simply. “I got to it when it was just happening, when it was just starting out. Now it’s a dump. All you could do is hold a mirror up: Look at these people. They’re losing everything.”

Despite having worked with such illustrious directors as William Wyler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby, John Sturges, Robert Altman, Arthur Hiller, and even Irwin Allen, she never gave a thought to stepping behind the camera. “They were like the Dads, and I was Daddy’s Little Girl. They took care of me. They had my back. But I just thought it was the most boring thing.”

Shortly after completing Voyage of the Damned and her Oscar win for Shampoo, Grant was approached by the AFI (American Film Institute) about participating in a new program, a women’s directing workshop. Her initial thought? “Boring,” she said with a laugh.

She admitted she could not have been more wrong. “It was a door unto heaven. I couldn’t get enough of it. It was thrilling. It was the most magical thing. It was like sliding down a mountain of delicious ice cream!”

“It is a great honor for RiverRun to award her a Master of Cinema, and we are delighted to be screening her Oscar-winning documentary Down and Out in America, along with a special interview for RiverRun she recently filmed with Foster Hirsch, which culminates in the presentation of her Master of Cinema award,” Davis said. “I have been involved in a number of awards presentations at film festivals in Florida and at RiverRun, and this is the one I’m most proud to have been part of.”

-Down and Out in America will be screened at 8:30 p.m., May 10, at Marketplace Drive-In, 2095 Peters Creek Parkway, Winston-Salem, followed by the Lee Grant/Foster Hirsch interview.

The Newcomer

When actor Finnerty Stevens decided to take the plunge into writing and producing an independent feature, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration: before/during/after follows Jennie Lonergan (Steeves), a classically trained actress of a certain age whose marriage collapses, sending her into an emotional tailspin.

“I had a story to tell, and it was about my first 16-year marriage falling apart,” she said. “Every divorce is different, and they’re all painful, but I wanted it to be about moving on, and I wanted it also to have humor. It’s a memory piece, and I’m so proud of it – our little indie!”

Although remarried with a young daughter, she did reconnect with her ex-husband to discuss her cinematic intent. “It was an interesting meeting,” she laughed, “but it was a good meeting because enough time had passed between us. We were looking forward to seeing each other again. I don’t think he’s seen the film (yet), but he said he was very proud of me.”

In addition to receiving a nomination in the Vision Independent Feature Competition at last year’s RiverRun festival, the film has won awards at the 2020 Dances With Film, the 2020 Grand Point Film Festival, and the 2020 San Diego International Film Festival. The film will be screened May 14 at RED Cinemas in Greensboro, with Steeves herself in attendance.

“We are thrilled to be showing Finnerty’s film before/during/after in-person in Greensboro during this year’s festival after we hosted its Southeastern premiere last year at Marketplace Drive-In,” Davis said. “Finnerty is driving down from New York to join us for the screening, and we’re thrilled to welcome a good friend back!”

Steeves, whose big-screen credits include The Great New Wonderful (2005), Away We Go (2009), Frances Ha (2012), the Emmy-winning 2019 HBO film Bad Education, and – yes – The Smurfs (2011), also starred in the comedy series Half-Life and is perhaps best known for her role as Beth Hoefler, imprisoned for murdering her three young children, in seasons six and seven of the award-winning Netflix drama series Orange Is the New Black.

Having heard how filmmaker-friendly the RiverRun festival is, Steeves submitted the film last year and didn’t have to wait long for a response. “It was our first ‘yes,’ and I just felt a connection to RiverRun,” she said. “It’s so strange. I can’t explain it. It just felt right.”

But, with the cancellation of the festival, “it seemed like the finish line kept scooting away,” she said.

Nevertheless, she remained in close contact with RiverRun. “From the beginning, they were so professional and so enthusiastic,” and although the festival couldn’t present the world premiere of before/during/after, how about presenting the southeastern premiere at the Marketplace Drive-In in Winston-Salem?

That screening, which took place last August, went “unbelievably well – I was very relieved,” Steeves laughed. “Working with Rob and (senior programmer) Chris Holmes and Zack Fox, they are incredible people, and so good to their filmmakers.”

The film comes replete with several nods to Steeves’s own life, including characters named after family and friends, and many of Jennie’s personal belongings are her own. Shooting took a mere 20 days, and although Steeves briefly considered directing (which she would like to do eventually), “I needed other pairs of eyes,” she said.

Thus, she tapped friends Jack Lewars and Stephen Kunkel to co-direct before/during/after. The latter is making his feature directorial debut and also appears in the film.

“People told me it was a huge risk to work with two directors – especially on a film with a limited schedule and a limited budget, but I loved collaborating with Jack and Steve,” she said. “I learned so much, and it was really fun,” she said. “It was an incredible experience, and I’m so glad I did it. I’m just so proud and relieved, and now I’m having fun just sharing it.”

-before/during/after will be screened at 8:30 p.m., May 14, in the parking lot of RED Cinemas, 1305 Battleground Ave., Greensboro, with Steeves in attendance. (Rain date: May 16)

The Veteran

As Davis will attest, Jeremy Workman is a friend of RiverRun. Twice he served on the jury, in 2017 and 2020, and his documentary feature The World at Your Feet screened at the 2018 festival. In addition, his father, Oscar-winning filmmaker Chuck Workman (Precious Images), was the recipient of a Master of Cinema award in 2017.

Workman’s latest documentary, Lily Topples the World, offers an in-depth profile of Lily Hevesh, the world’s greatest domino-toppling artist and the only woman in her field. It’s a coming-of-age story that combines artistry, passion, and unlikely triumph – and it recently won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

“I first met Jeremy Workman almost 10 years ago when we showed his film Magical Universe at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival,” recalled Davis. “He initially came to RiverRun during my first year when he served as one of the judges for ‘Pitch Fest,’ our program spotlighting college and university students and their documentary film projects. Later he returned to RiverRun with his documentary The World Before Your Feet, a sell-out and a crowd-pleaser in 2018.”

On a personal note, yours truly first met Workman at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival over 20 years ago (!), when his comedy short Claire Makes It Big screened there, and we’ve been “festival friends” ever since, catching up every few years.

“I’ve talked with Jeremy about Lily Topples the World, and his enthusiasm was boundless,” Davis said. “I was not surprised when it won the Grand Jury Award for Documentary Feature at the SXSW Festival earlier this year as Jeremy has a gift for selecting subjects that audiences find intriguing. We’re happy to have father and son as good friends of RiverRun.”

“I was super-eager for the film to play RiverRun, and there were a lot of moving parts,” Workman said. “Our sales partners have been asking to limit the film’s festival exhibition as we finalize our distribution, but since I had such a great relationship with RiverRun, it was super-important for me to play here. I really am so thrilled to be bringing the film, and everyone in the film community knows the high quality and high standards of RiverRun. I also love the audiences at RiverRun. They are so excited by the films and so eager to come out and support them. It makes for such a great experience.”

Workman isn’t certain he’ll be attending the festival in person. However, he’d like to bring Matt Green – the subject of his earlier documentary The World Between Your Feet – along with him. Still, there will be a filmed Q&A with Workman and Hevesh following the Marketplace Drive-In screening on May 14 and its subsequent virtual availability.

In 2018, while attending the festival with that film, Workman took a day to interview Nathan Heck, one of Hevesh’s collaborators and a noted domino artist in his own right, who lives nearby. “I filmed a whole day with Nathan, I even hired production assistants from UNCSA, and then managed to race back to the festival and introduce The World Before Your Feet!”

In addition to his filmmaking career, Workman is also the creative director of Wheelhouse Creative, a New York-based operation that creates trailers and coming attractions for feature films, the majority of which are independents.

“We’re still going strong,” he said. “We’ve pivoted a bit because of the pandemic and how so much of film exhibition moved to the streaming sites, but we’re still working on a ton of movies, including lots that have played at RiverRun over the years.”

Indeed, Workman considers those at RiverRun to be his friends, too. “I’ve been able to come to the festival multiple times and to get to know a lot of people involved, including Rob Davis, (program manager) Mary Dossinger, and Chris Holmes. So it’s very cool to be coming back and bringing Lily Topples the World to the festival.”

-  Lily Topples the World will be screened at 8:30 p.m., May 14, at Marketplace Cinemas Drive-In, 2095 Peters Creek Parkway, Winston-Salem, and will be available May 15-17 via RiverRun Virtual Theater. All screenings feature a filmed Q&A with Jeremy Workman and Lily Hevesh.

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2021, Mark Burger.

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