Nantucket Film Festival Celebrates 20th Anniversary With High-Profile Lineup

Associated Press
Robert Towne

The festival, which has attracted and honored acclaimed screenwriters and films in recent years, is recognizing Chinatown scribe Robert Towne and honoring longtime supporter Anne Meara, who died at the end of May.

For the past 20 years, the Nantucket Film Festival has honored acclaimed screenwriters like David O. Russell, Aaron Sorkin, Judd Apatow, Harold Ramis, Charlie Kaufman and Alexander Payne. The festival, held over six days in the secluded island community, has also screened and presented awards to future Oscar nominees like Boyhood, Last Days in Vietnam and 20 Feet from Stardom.

This year's festival, which begins Wednesday, will present its annual screenwriters tribute to Oscar-winning Chinatown writer Robert Towne and honor Bachelorette writer-director Leslye Headland and Liz Garbus, whose Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? will screen as the festival's centerpiece film.

When selecting films for its lineup, executive director Mystelle Brabbee, says that it's all about the writing.

"Our founding mission from the start of the festival has been to shine a spotlight on great screenwriting and great screenwriters and raise the cultural awareness of the craft of screenwriting and that had evolved over the years to include excellent storytelling as well [in documentary films]," Brabbee says. "For us in particular [a good story] is what drives us."

Indeed, when the festival is trying to pick between various narrative contenders, they often ask which one has a better script, Brabbee adds, singling out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Noah Baumbach's Mistress America as two particularly well-written titles among this year's lineup.

Nantucket visitors and residents will also have the opportunity to see several buzzy titles before they hit theaters, including Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg's David Foster Wallace movie The End of the Tour, which serves as the festival's opening night film; Headland's latest film, Sleeping With Other People, starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie; The Stanford Prison Experiment; and Richard Gere's Time Out of Mind, which has been making the festival rounds.

Guests at this year's festival include Jacqueline Bisset, Theo James, Lili Taylor, Pete Davidson, Denis Leary, Robin Wright, Chris Matthews, who will conduct a number of Q&As, including one with Towne, and A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc, who will participate in a panel about female screenwriters.

Those high-profile attendees join past well-known guests like Glenn Close, Mark Ruffalo, Jenny Slate and Ben Stiller. Stiller, Matthews and Dubuc are also on the festival's board along with such high-profile individuals as Brian Williams; Mark Greenberg, CEO of Epix parent company Studio 3 Partners and sports, tech and indie-film mogul Ted Leonsis.

Brabbee says she thinks the film's remote, paparazzi-free location helps them attract high-profile guests.

"It's fairly removed and you feel it when you're here. You don't feel like you're part of the mainland," she says. "When guests get out here, there's no paparazzi here, you're very protected, and there's kind of a spirit to the festival, and often collaborations are formed and projects are initiated here. There's something that feels more incubator-like about our festival than festivals where people go to sell their films. We're definitely a destination."

One of the festival's regular high-profile guests was actress, and Ben Stiller's mother, Anne Meara, who died at the end of May and whose support for the festival is being recognized this year via video tributes.

Brabbee explains that it felt too soon to do a physical tribute, particularly considering that her family is doing a memorial for her in the fall. But they've commissioned both a short-form and long-form video. The former, which is more personal, focused on the work she did in Nantucket and will screen in front of many films. The longer video will screen in front of the opening- and closing-night films and before this year's late-night storytelling event, which she co-hosted for 10 years.

Meara, Brabbee says, was "a physical part of the festival for the last 20 years ... her thumbprint is on the festival in every way shape or form ... She was a true friend of the festival, and we want to remember her."

The festival has also put together a video to commemorate its 20th anniversary, one of several ways it plans to mark the occasion.

"There are things on the ground that will feel celebratory for those who are here. It's a larger, more lavish party and you'll recognize that the festival is going on around town," Brabbee says, noting that after hours of lobbying, the festival was able to get the conservative community to agree to let organizers hang banners advertising the festival on lampposts up and down Main Street.

She argues that presenting Towne with the annual screenwriters tribute, whom she points out is "a legend in screenwriting circles," also makes this year's honor more significant.

Towne, however, remains humble, saying that this award, like any other, is "a little bit like winning the lottery" and that he didn't really know what to say.

Fellow honoree Headland jokes, "it's about time," that she was recognized after her relatively short career in the industry. But in all seriousness she said she was surprised since she feels like she's never won an award, apart from a medal she received from the National Latin Festival in high school. The fact that it's a writers' festival, she said, also makes her feel like she's being honored by her peers.

Headland will also get to see how the Nantucket community reacts to her new rom-com, which has been playing various festivals since it debuted at Sundance, with the movie getting a different reaction from each crowd, she says.

The 20th Nantucket Film festival runs through June 29.