Montclair Film Festival: Industry Ties Bring Stephen Colbert, 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' To NY Suburb

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'

Buzzed-about movies from other festivals, including opening night film 'Hello, My Name is Doris' and the Beach Boys' 'Love & Mercy,' are among the highlights of the fourth annual event, which kicks off Friday night.

The fourth annual Montclair Film Festival kicks off Friday night with the Sally Field-starring, Michael Showalter-directed Hello, My Name is Doris. The screening will be the first local opportunity for many people in the New York metro area who weren't at SXSW to see one of that festival's most buzzed about films well before Doris' reported 2016 release.

Doris is just one of the darlings from festivals like SXSW, Sundance and Toronto that will play at the New Jersey film festival over the next 10 days. For a number of these films, their Montclair screenings are the first in the New York metro area, giving people in the industry-filled and arts friendly community an early look at buzzed-about titles. In addition to Doris, Montclair will host screenings of Sundance sensation Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, executive produced by Montclair resident Nora Skinner, and well-received Toronto film Love & Mercy, about the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, which was written by Oren Moverman who's close with the festival's executive director Tom Hall.

Those connections are just some of the industry ties that have brought Montclair buzzed-about movies and star-studded panels, including a Q&A with Richard Gere and Stephen Colbert, who has long supported the festival and whose wife Evelyn is vice chairman of the festival board and has been involved with the festival since its early days. Patrick Wilson, who's hosting another panel is also a local.

"There are so many people who live in Montclair who make their living working in the media, film, television, that we've been able to find several films that we're showing in the festival by people who were born and raised in Montclair," Evelyn Colbert says. "It's kind of this wonderful home run in terms of being able to support our community but also lots of professionals right at our fingertips, who are actively supportive of what we're doing and make their living in this district."

Like most regional festivals, Hall says Montclair puts together its lineup through connections, films from other festivals and submissions, starting at Toronto and working through March to finalize the film schedule, trying to put together a diverse selection of movies they really like and new work.

With Earl, "[Skinner] went to bat for us with Fox Searchlight and we really loved that movie when we saw it," Hall says. "It's the perfect film for our audience and we really wanted to be engaged with the filmmakers so we went hard after that movie the minute we saw it."

Hall adds they're also looking for the right films for the local crowd.

"We have a sophisticated audience here in Montclair. We want to find work that speaks to our community," he says.

"Montclair as a community has a very vibrant arts community and a long history of supporting the arts," Evelyn Colbert adds. "[It's] a very diverse community and very interested and savvy group of people, and they're interested in seeing all kinds of films…There's a very good appetite for the arts."

Indeed, Evelyn Colbert, who pointed out that the festival was started in part to help the town recover from the recession, explains that both she and her future-Late Show-host husband hope that the festival will inspire local kids the way the Spoleto arts festival in Charleston, South Carolina did for them.

"Stephen and I both grew up with that festival and our families became involved and Stephen was in a play and I worked backstage. So for the two of us, we kind of witnessed firsthand the impact that a festival [like that] can have on the community," Evelyn Colbert says. "I think Stephen would agree that our exposure to art as young people really changed our lives in terms of our wanting to be involved in the arts. So when we had this idea, we both felt that having a small community have a group of artists come and demonstrate their talents [to those] who live there [would] impact [the community] in a really great way. We hope to do that with Montclair, to not just see an economic boom, but kids that come to these films and talkbacks might think [that they would want to direct a film or make a documentary or see a film that speaks to them and gives them encouragement]."

Now in its fourth year, this year's festival has expanded to 10 days from 7 days, spanning two weekends, and added filmmaking awards, competitions and audience prizes for the first time, "which brings a whole new level of professionalism and excitement to the festival," Evelyn Colbert says.

One of those awards is named for late New York Times media reporter and Montclair resident David Carr, who died suddenly in February, with another named for late documentary filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky, also a Montclair resident.

"They and their families were in town and involved with the festival. How do you address and properly honor them at the festival?" Hall says, explaining that screenings felt too short-term as a way to honor Carr and Sinofsky. "We talked to both families and asked if we could offer an award in their name in perpetuity. It wouldn't just be a one-off thing but every year we would offer a David Carr award, which we're really targeting to reflect the journalistic principles that David embodied."

In terms of the future of the festival, Hall envisions a year-round presence, "becoming a destination for artists who are coming to the state or to the area to receive feedback on their work and then local professionals," saying that there's a 12-month "opportunity both in film education and exhibition and maybe creating space for dialogue around the art of film and programs around the art of film."

As for this year's festival, both Hall and Evelyn Colbert said they were looking forward to Doris, with Hall also looking forward to the festival's centerpiece documentary about Mavis Staples and Colbert looking forward to Earl and some of the documentaries made by local filmmakers.

"It's great that people who were raised in Montclair went off and made a film and now it's back in their hometown," she says.

The Montclair Film Festival runs through May 10. More information about the festival is available here.