The 36th annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has officially begun, and instead of tapping out the usual humdrum preview piece I thought it might be fun to sit down with Artistic Director Carl Spence and let him do the majority of the heavy lifting for me. After all, when youíre talking about a 25-day festival spotlighting 405 features, documentaries and shorts from 67 countries why not turn to the man responsible for helping assemble this smorgasbord to help put it into some sort of cohesive perspective.
Paul Dano and Kevin Kline in SIFF Opening Night film The Extra Man © Magnolia Pictures
Sara Michelle Fetters: As the artistic director of SIFF, what sort of guidance or direction do you give the programmers as they assemble the lineup for the festival?
Carl Spence: My driving force has always been not so much trying to give the audience what they want but to my mind in knowing who your audience is the great thing about the Seattle Festival and what makes it so different from other festivals is that it has been widely embraced by the city and is so eclectic in its programming mix that it [hasnít] programmed Films with a capital F but really celebrated films of all subjects and budgets and hasnít distinguished between a Hollywood film versus an art house film or a film from Brazil or a film from the U.S.A. It doesnít say one is more important than the other. It doesnít discriminate.
And thatís sort of the driving force for me. [SIFF] can go from lowbrow to highbrow and everything in-between while also encompassing pieces of all the other arts like music and dance. There are a lot of different pieces that go together to make a strong festival.
Sara Michelle: Talk a little about this yearís LGBT lineup. On paper this appears to be one of the most diverse group of films Iíve seen from SIFF in quite some time.
Carl Spence: It is. Weíre always looking for interesting films across all boundaries and while weíre not specifically looking for gay or lesbian films we are looking for good films and whether specifically or tangentially we always seem to end up with a [good] selection that will be of interest to the [LGBT] community. Weíre also happy to present our annual Gay-la film, Violet Tendencies with Mindy Cohn from ďThe Facts of Life,Ē which is sort of a fun, light comedy about the ultimate faghag who still hasnít found a boyfriend and decides to leave the nest of her gay friends to see if she can find a relationship on her own.
Sara Michelle: Are there others films in this yearís LGBT series youíd consider standouts?
Carl Spence: Howl is an amazing film. [Itís] about the life of Allen Ginsberg and itís structured like one of his poems. It really stands on its own. But then I think all of the films in the [LGBT series] stand on their own. Each in their own way is a standout.
A scene from Mediterranean Diet © Messidor Films
As part of ďAmbiente: A Celebration of Spanish FilmĒ series there are some titles I gay and lesbian audiences will respond to. There is Room in Rome which is a remake of the Chilean film In Bed. Weíre showing Alicia Schersonís new film Turistas which revolves around two women. Then we have Mediterranean Diet, which really isnít a gay film but is still about a mťnage a trios between a woman, her husband and her lover.
Sara Michelle: And then there is Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, maybe the most controversial film SIFF has screened in years.
Carl Spence: It had some controversy coming out of Tribeca but I think that was all [overblown], like someone was trying to use it as a way to get some attention. But, in the end, I donít really think there was much to the controversy. Even with the important issues that were brought up itís still an exploitation film and made in that style, and I think people need to keep that in perspective.
Sara Michelle: So you donít foresee any trouble with showing that film?
Carl Spence: I donít think so. No. Itís an exploitation film. Itís like any of those films, like watching a Russ Meyer film. Itís no different than any other exploitation film. Itís not doing anything in a derogatory way. I think itís great and a lot of fun. It is definitely a midnight film and it isnít for everyone [but] I donít see anything negative about it.
Sara Michelle: Talk to me a little about the opening night film, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulciniís The Extra Man.
Carl Spence: That movie I just felt it was about these awkward people who donít really fit in anywhere who all found each other and one [while] one is so different from the other they all just sort of make sense as a group. And Kevin Kline just sort of kills me whenever heís one the screen. In this role he is totally back in form and heís either funnier or as funny as he was back in A Fish Called Wanda.
Sara Michelle: Thatís one of my favorite movies of all time so I canít quite say heís that good, but I do agree he is just fantastic in the movie. He steals the whole thing.
Kevin Kline in The Extra Man © Magnolia Pictures
Carl Spence: He does. And I think it is just a perfect match between him and Paul Dano who underplays his role wonderfully. [The movie] is very inventive, not just in the writing but technically in regards to the art and set direction and to everything else. I just really enjoyed it. I think it is something that is enjoyable thatís also by a pair of filmmakers whom I really respect and whom Iím always excited to see what they are going to do next. Itís just a perfect way to open the festival.
Sara Michelle: Well, and the last time Berman and Pulcini were at SIFF it was for American Splendor, a modern American classic in my personal opinion. It must be nice to have them back both because theyíve had so much success here in Seattle and because their last film, The Nanny Diaries, wasnít all that great?
Carl Spence: Well [The Nanny Diaries] I think was more a commercial for hire job while The Extra Man is definitely the film you would think they would follow up something like American Splendor with. Itís an enjoyable film and I think opening night audiences will be very happy with it.
Sara Michelle: Going back to your Spanish film series, why Spain? What led you to go in that direction for your spotlight series this year?
Carl Spence: Iíve always loved Spain and I went on a trip to Madrid and it sort of got me even more excited about Spain, and then we just got all these great films. We sort of have the cream of the crop of some of the best films made [in Spain] over the last year and ones that had just been completed and are coming out so just made sense to choose Spain as our spotlight country. Everything from Cell 211 which was the Goya Award-winner for last year to Agora, Alejandro AmenŠbarís new movie, will be showing.
A scene from The Dancer and the Thief © 6 Sales Alto de Las Cabanas
We got some great support from the Spanish government. Theyíre underwriting some of these filmmakers and this is great exposure for them. But I just think these are a great group of films. Garbo: The Spy is this really amazing Spanish double agent who helped change the course of the history of WWII. Me Too is another great movie co-directed by a couple of first-time filmmakers. Gordos is the new film from Daniel SŠnchez Arťvalo whose films are almost always shown in the festival. The Dancer and the Thief by Fernando Trueba was Spainís Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film and itís very inventive and quite nice.
And thereís so much more. [The lineup] sort of spans the entire spectrum. There are comedies, there are serious films, there are documentaries, but [overall] I think the program really gives a nice overview of the best in cinemas coming out of Spain.
Sara Michelle: So this is the 36th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. Where do you see it going from here? Where do you think SIFF will be when it say turns 45 or 50?
Carl Spence: Weíre planting the seeds right now to move into our permanent home in Seattle Center so thatís on the immediate horizon. That will give us a much stronger foundation to continue onward and will give us a much higher visibility in the community. So weíll still have our SIFF Cinema location but weíll also have a physical space that people can visit and will allow them to explore film 365 days a year.
Weíll also be doing quite a bit more educational programming. Right now we reach about 9,000 students throughout the year and weíre looking to expand that. Also, because weíll be at Seattle Center which is a big destination for tourists thatís another audience weíll be able to reach expanding our outreach globally.
So thatís what is on the horizon, and I think by doing that it will also strengthen what we do in regards to the festival as well. [SIFF] will continue in roughly the same shape and size as people have grown to love. Weíve set a strong foundation and it works well so I donít foresee a lot of changes. People do wonder if we should shorten it [the festival] because it is so long but Iím not so sure about that.
Sara Michelle: Well I personally love the festival as it is. Itís absolutely unique. You never know what youíre going to get. Each trip to the theatre is a curious adventure or an exploration and that is something I truly appreciate. I wouldnít change the shape and size of SIFF for anything.
Carl Spence: We work really hard to find films someone is passionate about. We donít always agree within our own team but we try not to just be a survey of cinema. Some years there is only one film from Iran while in other years there might be three or four. One year we might have the first screenings of some big Summer films out of Hollywood. Others we might not have any. There are no magic quotas. We donít have to show X amount of films from here [in Seattle]. Itís just more organic than that. We actively search out films during the year and we do a ton of research and outreach. We never know what the films we are going to show from year-to-year are and I think thatís a good thing. Seattle has its own beat and I really like it the way it is.
Sara Michelle: So, putting you on the spot, a person only has time to go to five films during the festival. What five do you send them to go see?
Emir Kusturica and Guillaume Canet in Farewell © NeoClassics Films
Carl Spence: Oh. Thatís not fair. Five films? What do I have them go see? Anything? How about Howl, The Hedgehog from France, Loose Cannons directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, Farewell Ė Farewell is simply a film everyone must see Ė and any film out of our New Directorís Showcase, but if I had to choose one Iíd say Angel at Sea. But thatís just a few. I could go on and on and on, but thatís probably enough for now.
- Portions of this artical reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
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