A Preview of the Santa Barbara Film Festival

Sundance may be acquisition heaven, Toronto the premiere capital for previewing major independent releases, and Cannes the pre-eminent spot for seeing Hollywood glitz and glamour overseas.

But after 22 years one thing has become crystal clear: the Santa Barbara International Film Festival occupies a very important place on the film festival calendar. Nestled between the Golden Globes awards and the Oscars as firmly as the city itself basks between the ocean and mountains, SBIFF, as it is casually known, has staked out important territory in movieland, one voters, studios, filmmakers and stars themselves simply cannot ignore.

Yes, roll out the red carpet for a full lineup of dignitaries, but make sure it’s paved with Oscar gold. For once again, SBIFF has snagged the cream of the crop of last year’s indies, with every single one of the major tributees sure to snag at least an Academy Award nomination (and some, such as “The Queen’s” Helen Mirren, who gets SBIFF’s Performance of the Year award on January 25, are shoo-ins for the statuette itself).

To be sure, SBIFF lured a reasonable number of Oscar hopefuls and other big names even before Roger Durling took over as artistic director for the 2004 festival. But in the last few years, the festival has been unerring in its selections of tributees with virtually every award receiver also getting an Oscar nod around the same time they’re showing up in our fair city.

And for at least two years running, the main tributary has walked away with a golden boy, or several, on Oscar night: Peter Jackson, George Clooney. If this year’s Modern Master – Will Smith, award night January 27 – fails to follow suit, it will likely be because fellow SBIFF tribute man Forest Whitaker – the “Last King of Scotland” star who gets the American Riviera Award on February 3 – takes it away. Al Gore, who received SBIFF”s third annual Attenborough Award on February 2, will likely add an Oscar to his mantle for best documentary for “An Inconvenient Truth” next month, while “Dreamgirls” writer-director Bill Condon (Montecito Award, January 29) might have made the best picture winner.

As always, the panelists are equally impressive: the writers’ seminar alone accounts for 70% of the scribes nominated for the Writers Guild, usually a strong precursor of the Oscars, while the Directors, Producers, Composers and Women’s panels are equally front-loaded with likely nominees.

“I was always something of a freak, even when I was a kid, in picking Oscar winners,” Durling recalls. “It’s uncanny and I can’t explain it, but it’s something I’ve done long before I was involved in this business.”

Of course, Durling has long said that he, like a sizeable minority of festival-goers, cares little for the fanfare and Hollywood glitz, preferring to focus on the films themselves. Fortunately, SBIFF is loaded up in those other areas too. Recognizing that “you can’t compete with Sundance,” Durling has all but thrown in the towel on independent American, even going so far as to remove the country’s name from the category. Instead, the self-confessed “film geek” has beefed up the other sections and sidebars, especially in foreign films, documentaries and Santa Barbara filmmakers. The latter had so many entries, in fact, that Durling and staff had to turn away nearly half of the hopefuls, and one film was so good it made it into the main competition, he says.

Meanwhile, SBIFF has taken giant steps on the national stage, too. Durling proudly points to a new sponsorship from The New Yorker magazine, a grant from AMPAS (the film academy) and special issues about the festival from both Variety and Hollywood Reporter as validation of his efforts.

But you don’t need our words or anyone else’s to tell you just how popular and important SBIFF has become. Just get online and check out the full schedule at (www.sbfilmfestival.org) and get ready for the invasion.

It’s Miller’s Time

It’s not your fault if all you know about actress Sienna Miller is the affair dubbed Nannygate in which then-fiancé Jude Law cheated on her with his children’s nanny. Or more recently that she incurred the wrath of Western Pennsylvanians during an interview on the set of the 2007 film “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” when she jokingly referred to the city with a rhyming profanity.

After all, only three of her movies (the remake of “Alfie” – where she met Law – the British crime thriller “Layer Cake” and the romantic comedy “Casanova” with Heath Ledger) have even been released in the United States, with none of them making a dent at the box office.

But consider Miller merely tabloid fodder at your own peril. While her earlier work surely exhibited capability, any lingering thoughts of her as just another pretty face get exploded by her performance in “Factory Girl,” which will screen next Thursday at the Arlington Theatre as the opening night film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Miller turns in one of the great performances of last year as Edie Sedgwick, the Santa Barbara native born into enormous wealth who fled for the life of a socialite in New York and became perhaps pop artist Andy Warhol’s favorite muse in the mid-1960s, before increasing drug use eventually led to her death, back home in Santa Barbara, at age 28. The movie might be a bit simplistic, somewhat narrow and not particularly illuminating, but Miller is a marvel.

The actress conveys nearly simultaneously Sedgwick’s outsized personality, fierce and often manic energy, utterly irresistible charm and the deep vulnerability that lies within. The performance was the result of a lot of study and hard work, Miller says.

“I did a year’s worth of research, so much that I felt like a detective,” she reported over the telephone from Los Angeles earlier this month. “I read her biography like a bible, watched every movie she was in, heard tape recordings of conversation between her and Warhol that were at the museum.”

Miller was inexorably drawn to Sedgwick at first sight. “I saw a photograph that came with the script and I instantly fell in love with her,” she recalls. “I had a complete girl crush. She had this quality that was absolutely luminous and magnetic and I found her captivating and intriguing.” Still, she demurred from the suggestion that she has a lot in common with Sedgwick at the same age, with neither taken seriously despite a true interest in their art. “You find traits in the character you relate to personally,” Miller says. “But obviously she had a very destructive life. She was running away from many more demons than I have luckily ever experienced.”

Miller’s preparation also included two trips to Santa Barbara, where she interviewed Sedgwick’s family and friends, including Mike Post, the longtime counter worker at the Victoria Street post office, who was married to Sedgwick for the year before her death. She also broke into the Sedgwick Ranch to get a look at Edie’s childhood home.

“I climbed over the wall and started running up the drive to find the house,” Miller confesses. “About ten minutes into my run, I saw a sign that said ‘Beware: Mountain Lions in the Area.’ So I screamed and ran out.”

That would be the only time Miller exhibited any fear during the entire project. Despite a difficult role that includes sex and drug scenes so graphic that reportedly actresses from Katie Holmes to Kate Hudson turned down the part, Miller dove in full force, unafraid to shed her clothing and inhibitions in service to the story.

“If you’re an actress, you can’t have certain things you won’t do,” she explains. “It’s unrealistic and annoying to do a sex scene with a tee shirt on; that’s not what people generally do when they have sex. She really opens up to this person, and finally lets a man into her life, so it was very relevant. It was important to see Edie at her best in order to understand the fall, the tragedy, how she looked so wrecked at the end of the movie. You have to do it real, or there isn’t much point.”

Much more difficult, Miller says, was determining how to portray a real life character without resorting to impersonation.

“I didn’t want to be just a mimic,” she says. “I wanted to capture the essence of who she was, the fragility and vulnerability within her strong personality. Of course I was trying to copy her voice and her laugh – which was very hard, because my voice isn’t that husky, so I had to smoke a lot and sometimes shout just before the takes. Making her sympathetic was very hard. You are drawn by the fragility, but it’s very difficult to do that voice and that laugh and those mannerisms and not come across as pretentious. All you can do is hope you understand the person underneath the act, otherwise you can’t emotionally connect.”

Miller clearly succeeds in that area, creating a character that – if the movie finds any audience at all – should both rekindle interest in Sedgwick and provide a huge boost to Miller’s fledgling career, although early reviews have, inexplicably, hardly been kind.

“People have preconceptions about us and that can get in the way of seeing what’s on the screen,” she admits. “I don’t try to attract the controversy. All I know personally is I couldn’t have given any more to this movie, and I’m satisfied that I did my best.”

Reel Talk: Inside Information

Partly due to its timing immediately following Sundance, and also to the nature of film festivals in general, the movies at SBIFF have always been something of a hit-and-miss affair. For every unexpected small gem, there’s a clunker or two, even those with big names attached. And there’s never really been much help at navigating between them.

Even more important to some festival attendees, even after you’ve decided what films to see, there also hasn’t been much of a system for figuring out which screenings to attend – particularly since some of them have full cast and crew on hand for Q&A sessions that can really enhance the event.

In fact, the whole thing was so daunting that potential festival-goers such as Judy Egenolf and her husband, Rob, tossed up their hands altogether.

“Even though we love movies, we took one look at the schedule and decided it was just too complicated,” Judy explains. “We didn’t think it would be worth the effort to figure it out.”

But then the Egenolfs met Durling, who at the time was still the programming director of the festival, and were convinced to join Cinema Society, which screens single films, often with talent on hand, on a monthly basis. The following year, ready to take on the main event, they asked Durling whether he would come to a private party a few days before the festival and review the upcoming movies for them.

“We wanted to know which were the good ones so we didn’t waste our time,” she says. “We invited only thirty people, only one from each couple, so they could pass it on and make the festival easier to navigate.”

That humble informal gathering has grown a new public preview event for SBIFF. Judy Egenolf, now a SBIFF board member, has organized Sneak Peak, a luncheon-discussion at the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel on Monday. Durling will once again address the audience, sharing his favorites and other recommended films, and offering suggestions for the best possible SBIFF experience. Montecito actor and director Tim Matheson will then go over the schedule to discuss which films are generating buzz in Hollywood and elsewhere, as well as highlight which screenings will have cast members of directors in attendance, including an offering of funny and unusual tidbits of inside information about the invited filmmakers.

And, guests will be able to jot down the information inside the official programming guide, coming hot off the presses straight to the luncheon meeting at the Biltmore.

“They’re going to talk, and you’re going to take copious notes that will help you get the very most out of festival,” Judy says. “Instead of being outsider, you will know where the buzz is across all the categories, what’s hot and what’s not. The whole purpose is to make the festival more accessible to our own community members. Sometimes we’re the last ones to know.”

But perhaps the greatest benefit is the informal network that will be created by those who attend the preview luncheon, an invaluable resource for garnering information as the festival progresses.

“You will meet one hundred fifty other people who are of like mind,” Judy says. “They can be your contacts. It creates a community you can use as an extension of yourself to figure out what’s worth seeing and what you can miss.”

The Egenolfs utilized such contacts herself two years ago to catch a screening of the classic Italian epic drama “The Best of Youth.”

“We had no intention of sitting through a six-hour movie,” Judy recalls, as the couple figured they could see three other films in the same timeframe. “But someone we knew came out and said that the film was the best they’d seen in years, what movie making is all about. So we changed our plans and we were so glad we got to see it on the big screen.”

The network will be even more formalized this year, as the organizers are inviting people to add their name to an insider’s e-mail list, which will be disseminated each morning during the festival.

“You can write one line or a whole review or nothing at all, and just read what others have to say,” Judy goes on. “Either way, it’s so much more fun when you know what’s going on. When you get really into it, going to the festival becomes an incurable disease. I can’t wait for it to start.”