Santa Barbara fest uses big stars to help small indies

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Santa Barbara International Film Festival director Roger Durling is a bargaining man. He's willing to give people what they want -- as long as he gets what he wants in return, which is why SBIFF is equal parts fancy and flights of fancy.

"Internally, our mission is to showcase really unique films that are off the beaten path," says Durling, who has been the festival's director for five years and is overseeing the 23rd annual event, which begins today and runs through Feb. 3.

"I also understand that in order to get notoriety and attract attention, you have to have big stars. But that's the window dressing of the festival. And while everyone's waiting for Angelina Jolie to walk down the red carpet," he says with a laugh, "they're going to go into the theater and see a film. So why not have it be the biggest surf film of the year, which is having its world premiere?"

With more film festivals entering the fray, Santa Barbara, under Durling's leadership, has claimed its niche: Screening more than 200 films, it asks its audience to dabble by day. In exchange, it dazzles them at night, with honors to select actors, as well as special focuses on director Norman Jewison and Julie Christie this year.

When it comes to the movies themselves, Durling and programming director Candace Schermerhorn, who is also a documentary filmmaker, pride themselves on presenting the unexpected in programs that center on Latino, Eastern European and nature films, as well as entries from Asia. (The Asian films are largely selected by actor Tim Matheson, who has a passion for anime and cult favorites.) Says Durling, "I have five really strong programrs whose knowledge is practically academic in their particular film niches.

"The only things you won't see here are films that have been seen a lot on the festival circuit. Candace knows better than to bring those films to my attention. But if it hasn't seen the light of day, that's a qualification right there," he continues.

Durling and Schermerhorn might play up the festival's eccentricity, and to be sure, there are flashes of whimsy: Ethan Kuperberg's "To Fly," a claymation short film about a barnyard pig who longs to be an aviator, and Amanda Ellis' short film "The Vaudevillian," about a ventriloquist and his dummy trying to survive in the Dust Bowl, are among the selections. But with the festival beginning two days after the Academy Award nominations are announced and with Hollywood on full alert, it also highlights many pedigree filmmakers.

This year, Austria's foreign-language Oscar entry, Sony Pictures Classics' "The Counterfeiters," Stefan Ruzowitsky's Nazi drama that played at the Telluride and Toronto festivals, will unspool alongside Kazakhstan's submission for Picturehouse, "Mongol," directed by Sergei Bodrov, and Belgium's entry, "Ben X," directed by Nic Balthazar. Also screening will be Israeli festival favorite and 2007 Festival de Cannes' Un Certain Regard winner "The Band's Visit" (Sony Pictures Classics) and Picturehouse's "La Vie en Rose," the Edith Piaf biopic from 2007 for which star Marion Cotillard is an Oscar hopeful.

For filmmakers of these smaller, international projects, having a film at SBIFF comes with multiple benefits. Notes producer Ehud Bleiberg, whose film "A Band's Visit" has a nearby release date of Feb. 8: "It's a chance to build the cachet of the film and remind people that it's coming soon to the area. Each person who goes into the cinema and comes out talking about it builds awareness."

In addition, several high-profile English-language films will make their world or U.S. premieres at SBIFF. Adam Brooks' "Definitely, Maybe," a romantic comedy for Universal about a couple's impending divorce starring Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin and Rachel Weisz, will have its world premiere on the fest's opening night in anticipation of its Feb. 14 release, with the Jack Black docu "D Tour: A Tenacious D(ocumentary)," directed by Jeremy Konner, also premiering. Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes add their star power with Focus Features' "In Bruges," Martin McDonagh's feature about two hitmen in Belgium, and Timothy Spall and Elizabeth McGovern appear in Nicholas Renton's retelling for PBS of E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View."

Such recognizable names and projects give Durling and Schermerhorn the maneuvering room they want to add the films they hope will surprise and intrigue the festival's some 50,000 attendees. Among the more obscure films premiering at the festival are Richie Mehta's "Amal," a Canadian feature for Seville Pictures about a rickshaw driver who inherits an estate, and Anne Slick's "When Clouds Clear," a documentary about a town in Ecuador that unites to fight the mining industry.

What all of the programming has in common, Durling insists, is that it is intended to resonate with the locals, who comprise 60% of the audience. "The program may sound a little psychotic, but all of the different sections represent Santa Barbara," he says. "People have loved the environment for years here, so they flock to nature films. And 30% of the community is Latino, which is why we have so many Latino films. My passion is Eastern European films, so I put that section in the festival."

Films that keep their focus close to home include the premiering surf film "Bustin' Down the Door," Jeremy Gosch's documentary about 1970s surfers who revolutionized the sport; the surfing movie "One California Day," Jason Baffa's documentary about six hot spots along the coast; and Jennie Reinish and Louise Palanker's docu "We Played Marbles," in which Holocaust survivors now in Santa Barbara recall the war.

For the festival's closing night, Durling and Schermerhorn have chosen 1988's "Cinema Paradiso" and director Giuseppe Tornatore's "The Unknown Woman" (Outsider Pictures), which is Italy's Oscar entry. Landing the film for its U.S. premiere is a score for the festival, Durling admits, "but the directors are starting to actually come to us. It's like, 'Excuse me, I'm supposed to be busting down your doors.' But Candace and I are such film geeks, and we're so passionate and excited about everything. I dare you to find a filmmaker who doesn't come here and have a good time."


With honors: Who’s getting tapped for special mention at this year’s SBIFF

Cate Blanchett
The Modern Master Award -- Jan. 26
"Modern Master for her is an understatement -- she's a master of her craft, and anybody who successfully portrays Queen Elizabeth and Bob Dylan in the same year is an alchemist," says SBIFF director Roger Durling. "I think she's in a category by herself -- definitely one of the greatest artists of the 20th century in film."

Javier Bardem
The Montecito Award --  Jan. 28
Notes Durling: "This award goes to someone who has done two or more classic performances, and Javier has already done (2000's) 'Before Night Falls' and (2004's) 'The Sea Inside,' all classic performances, and this year he had (Miramax's) 'No Country for Old Men.' I'm in awe of him: He's so prodigiously talented; I'm flabbergasted at his range."

Ryan Gosling
The Independent Award -- Jan. 29
"This award is new. We had all of these big stars, and we'd have the film festival showing a lot of indie fare, and we wanted to honor someone who has made strides in the indie world. Ryan is like a maverick -- he's been out there since such a young age and making such strides in the independent world. I'm a huge admirer of his work," Durling says.

Casey Affleck, Marion Cotillard, James McAvoy, Ellen Page, Amy Ryan
The Virtuoso Award -- Jan. 30
"Every year we do a big tribute to people's careers, and there's always these people who do standout performances but don't have the filmography. So we thought: Do separate small evenings where we have conversations with them and show their films. And this year we thought about putting them all together. They all agreed within an hour to do it together, so we created a Virtuoso Night. These five are exemplary young performers, and it's a pretty awesome group of people," Durling says.

Tommy Lee Jones
The American Riviera Award -- Feb. 1
"(Jones) is one of the great American actors working today, and he did two amazing performances this year -- 'No Country for Old Men' and (Warner Independent's) 'In the Valley of Elah,' which are quintessentially American roles. He's an American icon," Durling says.

Angelina Jolie
Outstanding Performance of the Year Award (for Paramount Vantage's "A Mighty Heart") -- Feb. 2
"Her performance is just stunning (in "Heart"). That she shed the Angelina Jolie persona and totally became Mariane Pearl so humbly, it's wonderful. (She) gets lost in this character, and you forget that the movie star we all know is there," Durling says.
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