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Unscreened Thoughts on a First Fest

Schedule misunderstandings, format glitches--it's all part of the new chief's job.

July 30, 2000|STEVE LAWSON | Steve Lawson has been a dramatist, journalist and TV writer. When not running the Williamstown Film Festival, Lawson directs the Writers in Performance series at the Manhattan Theatre Club and is currently finishing a screenplay, "Nobody Laughed Last."

Film festivals seem to be popping up everywhere these days. Which makes the job of being a festival director roughly akin to being one of the castaways on "Survivor." We asked Steve Lawson to keep a journal of his experiences running the Williamstown Film Festival--in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts--for the first time.

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March 20: First full day as director of Williamstown Film Festival. Really excited. Have no idea what I'm doing.

At the time, this journal entry seemed like half-jocular hyperbole born of the exhilarations and confusions of a new job. Little did I know what a baptism of fire the next three months would turn out to be.

WFF was born in 1998. Several residents of Williamstown, Mass., and recent Williams College alumni resolved to launch a festival where filmmakers, students, fans, critics and industry pros could convene to explore the quicksilver nature of a rapidly changing medium. We wanted to salute the past in the shape of classics, celebrate the present through seminars with guest artists, and do our damnedest to see where film may be heading in years to come. But would the Berkshires--already famed for such cultural icons as Tanglewood (music), Jacobs Pillow, (dance) and the Williamstown Theatre Festival--welcome a new kid on the artistic block, especially one devoted to pop culture?

Nervously, WFF mounted a fledgling weekend in June 1999: three independent titles in two days plus a distinguished honoree, "The Manchurian Candidate" director John Frankenheimer. He was a delightful raconteur; the indies were erratic but watchable; and we broke even. Still, it was clear that if such a festival was to flourish, it couldn't be run by committee. Thanks to a longtime local base (college, theater), a background writing television and film, and connections in L.A. and New York, I was named WFF's first executive director this year--and immediately started losing my hair and my mind.

Here's a brief journal of the highs and lows, pleasures and perils of putting a film festival together in 14 weeks for $35,000.

March 22: A generous friend pledges enough to ensure a survival salary for me during April, May and June. Feel very cocky. This fund-raising is a snap.

March 24-25: Next nine people I approach turn me down.

March 28: Must have a cell phone for the job. Look into cost.

March 29: Cell phone out; seems mountains block electron waves (?). Get second phone line instead.

March 30-April 1: Bell Atlantic guy spends three days disconnecting wires and poking holes in my walls. Receive his bill; hope it's just an April Fool's joke.

April 4: First push to try to bag "The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy," the so-called gay "Diner," which had done well with audiences at Sundance in January. Director Greg Berlanti/co-producer Mickey Liddell like idea of it coming to WFF because our co-founder/ board member Ben Weber has a big role.

April 5: Slogan for short films competition ("Send Us Your Shorts!") not exactly pulling them in. Talk with board members Gene Klein and Lee Harrison, decide to drop contest this year.

April 9: Float festival honoree trial balloons past Newmans, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, John Sayles, David Mamet. All unavailable shooting, will be away, tired of awards, etc.

April 14: Finish writing 250 personal letters appealing for support. Hand paralyzed.

April 19: Meet in North Adams with top guns at MASS MoCA (largest contemporary arts facility in the world). We can slot a film there in June; great. But it can't be shown in 35 millimeter; not so great.

April 24: Sole print of Jeff Janger's crime caper, "Fools Gold," is not at his house in L.A., but in Amsterdam. Take Aleve; agree to split cost of transatlantic shipping.

April 27: New "Hamlet" out with Ethan Hawke. Will this affect our inclusion of similar brooding-guy-seeks-revenge film "Let the Devil Wear Black"?

May 1: "Origin of the Species" producer David Nickoll can only join us for a day, means redoing screening schedule. Since he's flying himself in on his own dime, can hardly object.

May 5: Talk to Boston Globe reporter; tell her my job means wearing many hats: blend of P.T. Barnum, Freud, Machiavelli, travel agent. Tell three consecutive callers this is not the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Tell determined woman a second time.

May 8: Jonathan Penner, lead actor in "Let the Devil," can come if director Stacy Title doesn't go to Avignon--if she does, he has to stay home with kids. Does this happen in Cannes? Surf net for air-fare deals. Upbeat message from Jay Craven, director of our opening film: He can be here June 30. Only problem, festival opens 23rd. Send urgent e-mail.

May 13: Determined Woman calls again. No, this isn't the theater festival. She asks if I'm totally sure. By now I'm not.

May 19: David Strathairn--old friend, protean actor--agrees to come up and talk about his career. (Not as an honoree: "That'd make me feel like I've died.") Look up filmography: 55 movies in 20 years. Will his clips reel tribute run an hour?

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