In addition to the sheer magnitude of films that screened at this year’s SXSW, there were a number of intriguing conversations and keynotes with actors, filmmakers, and reviewers throughout the week, and it was a challenge to decide which ones to attend. I managed to work several into my schedule, and these are among the sessions I found most rewarding:
In town for the SXSW premiere of his new film, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Demolition, Gyllenhaal participated in a conversation with director David Gordon Green, discussing the directors he enjoys working with and his process for climbing under the skin of a character.
He was forthcoming about the fact that he is drawn to such challenging roles as that of Louis Bloom in 2014’s Nightcrawler. He also told the audience, when the inevitable Donnie Darko question came around, that he still counts Richard Kelly’s cult classic as a piece of work he’s most proud of, adding that if anyone wanted to know what is going on inside his mind, they should see that movie.
You can see Gyllenhaal and Gordon’s conversation here.
Barbara Kopple and Joe Berlinger
The famed documentarians had new works screening at this year’s festival (Kopple with Miss Sharon Jones! and Berlinger with Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru), so they sat down for an afternoon discussion of their craft and provided some reminiscences about the sometimes challenging but rewarding process of preserving real lives on film.
Kopple told fascinating stories about working with the legendary Maysles brothers and the obstacles she faced as working a young female filmmaker in rural Kentucky circa 1976 when she was making Harlan County USA, her first film as director. She was optimistic about the future of the documentary form, with the methods of digital production allowing these films to be produced on virtually any budget, along with a wide variety of distribution models to enable the work to be seen.
Berlinger discussed the making of the groundbreaking Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. He recalled how he received the full support of HBO’s Sheila Nevins when, during filming, he called to tell her that he was starting to doubt that the young men being held in custody for the murder of three little boys were actually guilty of the crime. He also described the the mayhem that went on on behind the scenes during the production of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, made during a time when the band was on the verge of imploding.
Leonard Maltin and Louis Black
Film critic and historian Maltin spent an afternoon reminiscing with his longtime friend, SXSW co-founder Black, about their early days as young film enthusiasts in New York. They regaled the audience with tales of their trips to shady areas of town for rare screenings of films they’d longed to see, and hilariously described the strange people they’d encounter in these “film societies.”
Together, they painted a vivid picture of the joy of cinema as it was experienced back then when there were, of course, no such things as VCRs or DVRs. As Black put it: If a film you wanted to see was scheduled to play on television, you waited until it came on and you sat down and watched it. Sometimes the station wouldn’t even bother to carry the film it had scheduled, disappointing these fledgling film buffs and prompting them to place an angry call.
The Museum of Modern Art and the revival houses of pre-Disneyfied New York were also spots to see rare, foreign and unusual films, and when they weren’t making those odysseys into the unknown, they spent time poring through film rental catalogues, dreaming of what other cinematic riches they could experience. When Maltin located a film rental company that charged $4.00 to rent a 16mm print of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The 39 Steps (cheap even back then), he pointed out that the price came out to only about ten cents per step.
Based on that short conversation alone, their story has the makings of a great book.
Gale Anne Hurd
Known for producing such hits as The Terminator (which she also co-wrote), Aliens ,and The Walking Dead, Hurd delivered a thoughtful keynote on Tuesday, March 15. She described what it was like working her way from the very bottom to become one of the most successful producers in Hollywood today.
Like others, she found herself working with Roger Corman for a pittance, but it was worth it for the incredible opportunity. Filling in wherever she was needed, she found herself handling the lowly production tasks no one else wanted to do, until she eventually made it to head of the marketing department (without a raise, of course). She worked on grindhouse titles like Humanoids from the Deep, but she also reminded the audience that Corman was a proponent of foreign cinema, bringing works from such masters as Bergman and Fellini to American screens.
This gig led to the phenomenal success of The Terminator, a partnership with director James Cameron, and bigger films. Ironically, even as the budgets got bigger and her responsibilities increased, the treatment of women as second-class citizens still remained. She recalled that while she was interviewing prospective production staff for Aliens in London, these men would ask her when the “real” boss was going to come in. Fighting for equity in Hollywood is something Hurd strives for to this day.
Afterwards, she participated in a lengthy Q&A and gave encouragement to the many young filmmakers in the audience who sought her advice.
You can see her full keynote here.
Photos by the author.