Michael C. Hall poses for a portrait at the Ben Kitay Studios in Hollywood… (Anne Cusack / LAT )
Michael C. Hall was happy to trade in his titular role as a serial killer on "Dexter" for a schlubby underachiever in the new independent film "East Fifth Bliss." The film gets its world premiere Thursday night at the opening of the Newport Beach Film Festival.
"It was nice to play a character who is completely not spectacular," says the actor. "He is not uniquely capable or afflicted. It was a nice change of pace."
Allowing actors to stretch is at least partly what film festivals are about, and "East Fifth Bliss" is just one of many U.S. independent features being screened for the first time at Newport. Others include a zombie road comedy, "DeadHeads"; "Waking Madison," with Elisabeth Shue playing a suicidal sex phone operator; a comedic superensemble including Horatio Sanz and Ed Helms in "High Road"; and "Balls to the Wall," a new film by "Wayne's World" director Penelope Spheeris about a struggling cartoonist who finds more success as a male stripper.
"We really like to find some of the best films that haven't been screened yet or picked up by a major studio," says Gregg Schwenk, executive director and chief executive of the festival. "For a film like 'East Fifth Bliss,' exposure like this really can jump-start its opportunities for distribution."
In "Bliss," Hall plays 35-year-old Morris Bliss, who is stuck in a bad state of New York ennui. He has no job and no prospects and lives with his laconic widowed father, played by Peter Fonda. A surprising relationship with a precocious daughter of a former high school classmate shakes up his otherwise static life.
The film is based on a novel by Douglas Light, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Michael Knowles, and was shot last year while Hall was on hiatus from "Dexter" and recuperating from cancer treatments. "Coming off six months of chemo — that thankfully was very successful — I was out of shape and wore a wig, which was useful because it made me feel different," he says. "It was a perfect time to play this character."
"This was low budget and a lot of fun to make," says Fonda, who will attend the premiere and take audience questions with Hall. "It's well-written, and there is depth and humor to the characters. It's a great example of how little you need to make a really interesting film."
The festival is showing 450 films from 50 countries over seven days, and Schwenk says there are movies for all tastes, plus many free events including a youth film showcase featuring filmmakers under age 18; a seminar on screenwriting with Aaron Sorkin, recent Oscar winner for "The Social Network"; and a John Wayne retrospective with the original "True Grit."
"John Wayne lived in Newport for many years and with the support of his family we continue his legacy every year," says Schwenk.
The festival also hosts a much-lauded action sports film series spotlighting 24 features and shorts capturing the best in surfing, skateboarding, skiing, snowboarding, cycling and motocross in some of the world's spectacular outdoor playgrounds.
"We have built, over the last several years, probably the best lineup of action sports films of any festival in the U.S.," says Schwenk. "Orange County is the epicenter for the action sports industry, so it's a natural fit for us to take the lead to get the best of action sports filmmaking to the screen."
Highlights include the West Coast premiere of "Splinters" which chronicles the evolution of indigenous surfing in Papua New Guinea; "Like a Lion," an in-depth portrayal of ski champion Tanner Hall; and "On the Grind," a film about the Long Beach skate scene.
The action sports spotlight film, "2010 XXL Global Big Wave Awards," chronicles the ultimate surfing competition and its annual awards held in Anaheim.
"2010 was considered one of the greatest big wave seasons in history," says the film's producer-director, Paul Taublieb, who will attend a question and answer session after the screening Saturday evening. Besides showing famous surfers catching some huge waves in Hawaii, Australia, South Africa, French Polynesia and Northern California, the film goes behind the scenes to tell compelling stories of these extreme athletes, such as Hawaii's Shane Dorian, who nearly drowned in a 60-foot wave as he surfed Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
"To have a film festival like this that combines mainstream entertainment with action sports films really validates it," says Taublieb. "It's not just about imagery and music. We are serious filmmakers with stories to tell."