Santa Barbara fest: On the Waterfront

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Santa Barbara International Film Festival executive director Roger Durling doesn't claim to have psychic abilities, but he does profess to have a knack for picking high-profile honorees just as they're about to hit career peaks.

"It's instinct. I try not to overanalyze it," says Durling, in his sixth year as director of SBIFF, which begins its 24th edition Thursday and runs through Feb. 1.

Whatever it is, it works. When Durling chose Mickey Rourke for this year's American Riviera Award in early September, the prodigal star's comeback vehicle "The Wrestler" had yet to land its distribution deal with Fox Searchlight. A few weeks later, it was radiating awards buzz. More impressive is his selection of Clint Eastwood for this year's Lucky Brand Modern Master Award. When he tapped the actor-filmmaker for the honor in February, he was still in postproduction on Universal's "Changeling," and Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino" was just getting a green light.

The choices are made early out of necessity.

"Our tributes are not just handing out an award," Durling explains. "It's a whole evening where they sit down and we go chronologically through their career, so you can't just invite them two months before the festival and say, 'Come on over.' We've got to prepare these evenings with the montages and the clips and everything else months in advance."

Related: Hollywood luminaries receive SBIFF's highest accolades

The festival kicks off tonight with a screening of Yari Film Group's political thriller "Nothing But the Truth" -- with director Rod Lurie and stars Alan Alda, Angela Bassett, Kate Beckinsale and Noah Wylie in attendance -- and closes with the world premiere of "Lightbulb," directed by Jeff Balsmeyer (2003's "Danny Deckchair").

While SBIFF's nightly star-studded red carpet events are the primary lure for the press -- not to mention such sponsors as Lucky Brand jeans, Chopin vodka and Qantas Airways -- Durling and program manager Candace Schermerhorn are equally proud of a diverse film lineup that reflects the seaside city's populace and its passions with such special sections as Latino Cinemedia ("Thirty-five% of the community is Latino," Durling says) and Reel Nature, programmed by renowned nature cinematographer and Santa Barbara resident Mike deGruy. There is also To the Maxxx -- an extreme sports films sidebar inspired by local surf culture -- which will feature the world premiere of "Waveriders," a documentary by Joel Conroy about Ireland's connection to surfing.

Durling is most excited about this year's lineup for the Eastern Bloc section, featuring films from former Soviet satellite countries, including writer-director Bohdan Slama's "The Country Teacher" from the Czech Republic and director Javor Gardev's adaptation of the Vladislav Todorov novel "Zift" from Bulgaria.

As in previous years, SBIFF also boasts a significant educational component that encompasses both industry panel discussions like "Directors on Directing," "It Starts With the Script" and "Movers and Shakers"; and youth-oriented programs such as Field Trip to the Movies, which brings together over 2,500 fifth- and sixth-graders from around Santa Barbara County to participate in an interactive filmmaking experience with Hollywood pros.

It all fits under the umbrella of SBIFF's motto, "discover by day, dazzle by night."

"I think that's the kind of dance that Santa Barbara has to do," Schermerhorn says, "because we have an audience that's curious and looks for new things that nobody else is going to see, yet they also love and appreciate being able to see the bigger names and everything that's succeeded."
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