Getting the It in ‘It Girl’

It was a weird confluence of art and life at the VIP party atop Paseo Nuevo opening night. As the liquor flowed amid myriad emotional exchanges, there were lots of hugs and kisses and emotional exchanges between director George Hickenlooper and star Sienna Miller – who portrays Edie Sedgwick (the Santa Barbara native turned 1960s “It Girl”) in the biopic “Factory Girl” – and Sedgwick’s family members and friends who turned out for the opening night screening in the film’s local debut.

The Sedgwick clan – including Edie’s ex-husband Mike Post – reported that Miller’s performance was remarkable, and often uncannily reminiscent of Sedgwick, who died in 1971. But most withheld judgment about the film itself.

Anne Sedgwick, who married Edie’s youngest brother Jonathan Long after the starlet’s death, says the couple moved their family from Montecito to northern Idaho when their children were 15 and 12 “to shield them from being raised in this privileged lifestyle.” It was a move middle child Hana-Lee (named after the highway in Hawaii and not the land in the “Puff the Magic Dragon” song) says she hated at the time, but agreed with mom that she now thanks her parents for their sacrifice. The proof: Hana-Lee’s just a month into a new job with Google in the Bay Area.

For her part, Miller stayed at the party for more than two hours, mingling with the press, VIPs, friends and all, gamely answering questions, posing for photos, and charming the crowd. Hickenlooper closed down the upstairs bash, when he expressed his love for the Santa Barbara fest, which has allotted him coveted closing night positions in the past and now this prestigious kick-off slot. Asked to comment on the negative reviews the film received in the Los Angeles press, Hickenlooper said, “It’s simple. They saw an early cut without all the psychological counseling segments.”

Maybe so, but we stand by our original opinion: Miller was robbed of a best actress nomination, but the film itself is rather shortsighted.

The Dadvocate

Chris Gardner made his way down the red carpet Saturday night much more slowly than Will Smith, the actor who portrays him in the current film “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Playing against type, the role has earned Smith his second Oscar nomination for best actor (after “Ali”), but Gardner couldn’t have been more pleased than the star, as he enjoyed every moment of his 15 minutes of fame.

“That boy’s got talent! Will captured the entire struggle, the commitment and the passion for my child,” Gardner said moments before Smith passed by amid a sea of flash photography. “About the only thing that would make me happier (than the film) is for my son to find the one thing that makes him happy and begin to seriously pursue it.”

When asked what Chris, Jr., who turned 26 the day before Smith received the Modern Master award, remembers from the period covered in the movie, Gardner said: “In his own words, he says that every time he looked up, his father was there. I’m just happy that I could have the opportunity to break the cycle of men who aren’t there for their children.”

Festival Tidbits

The quip quotient was way down on the three big panels this year, but what was lacking belly laughs was more than made up for in detailed discussions and sometimes painfully honest confessions from the filmmakers behind most of this year’s top movies.

At one extreme of the directors panel was “Little Children” director Todd Field, who set the tone in his first remarks of the morning: “Directing is an excruciating process,” he said. “I get no joy in it at all.”

Pixar creative chief John Lasseter, who co-wrote and directed “Cars” (as well as “Toy Story” and other Pixar animated classics) lives at the other end of the spectrum. “We have fun in everything we do,” he offered at one point, noting how he and his staff stand near marquee stars as paparazzi snap away on the red carpet at awards show. Time and again he referred to the pleasures of teamwork, a unique concept at the studio, where the story is king and egos are banished.

“All the expensive animation in the world will never save a bad story,” said Lasseter, who admits that he casts his films partly by examining potential actors’ families: “If they have kids, I know we got ‘em, because they’ll be the heroes in their families.”

Wide variations in process were also the order of the day when the writers got together on Saturday afternoon.

“I never make any kind of research,” admitted “Babel” writer Guillermo Arriaga. “I hate it. I’m very lazy. I never outline. And I confess I don’t have an (expletive) idea about my characters. That way they surprise me.”

Arriaga’s comments left “The Queen” and ”The Last King of Scotland” writer Peter Morgan scratching his head. “I can’t imagine a process more different than mine,” said the self-confessed research fanatic who called outlining “the most intoxicating bit.” Still, Morgan admitted he needed nine months just to “detox” from all the spinning he heard from insiders at Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

Meanwhile, Michael Arndt said he honed his screenplay for “Little Miss Sunshine” until “my forehead was bleeding.”

Despite their differences, just about every writer on the panel agreed with the 80/20 rule, which states that the final fifth of the screenplay takes four-fifths of the time.

“You bump into the ceiling of your own imagination, hit the limit of what your original idea was,” said Arndt, adding that the final push is what separates a great screenplay from mediocre ones that “Hollywood is awash” in. “Like the Keebler elves, you can’t rush richness,” he said.

But by the end, it was back to doom and gloom, courtesy of the cerebral Morgan.

“Writing is rooted in a dark, ugly and toxic place,” he said, in response to a question from the audience about persevering. “It’s an obsession. Behind every artist is a dysfunction. I write because I have to write.”

On Becoming a Tyrant

Despite a long a varied career that has seen actor Forest Whitaker play roles as diverse as the sensitive soldier Jody in “The Crying Game” to jazz legend Charlie Parker in “Bird,” no one could blame “The Last King of Scotland” director Kevin MacDonald for thinking the actor too “sweet and gentle” to take on the role of the brutally sadistic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. But Whitaker’s uncanny portrayal has made believers out of all, including critics who have virtually unanimously praised his work as the best of 2006 and the Academy voters who have nominated him for a Best Actor Oscar.

Whitaker, who revealed the details of his passion for the role following a Cinema Society preview screening several months ago, returns to town on Saturday to pick up the Santa Barbara International Film Festival American Riviera Award. We got an update on his take on Amin over the telephone last week.

Q. What drew you to take this role?

A. As an artist, I was fascinated by the possibilities of the complexities of the character as an artist. Also, as a kid I had had a cardboard image of this man as a mad, raving dictator. I’m always curious when people project images like that as to what the reality is. I thought it would be interesting to go underneath the surface and discover his reasons for making the choices he did, whether they were horrific or idealistic. Finally, I’m an African-American who had never been to the continent of Africa. So it was a chance to touch my ancestry and source in a different way. My whole job was to learn what it was like to be African from the inside out.

Idi Amin is a dark and villainous character, and you’re a shy, quiet guy, soft-spoken and somewhat reserved. Was it a question of playing against type, and how did you transform so convincingly?

I started off trying to understand the language – not just the accent – because I thought it was a key into the way he dealt with the world. I needed to put my mind in a way of thinking so that English was my second language. So I went to Uganda and submerged myself in the culture for more than a month, trying to absorb the continent, and living as though I represented the country. So when I say in the movie, “Uganda embraces you,” I truly feel that I am Uganda. That’s a lot to fill yourself up with.

I met with Amin’s brothers and sisters, and did other outside research, but the main thing was the deeply internal work. There was meditation to change my energy, to find his obsessions and let me live completely in that. He was completely passionate about every aspect in life – his loves and hates were so large – and that made him become this larger character. He wasn’t faking things – he’s truly happy when Nicholas [Garrigan] comes, and deeply hurt when he thinks he’s been wronged, and utterly betrayed when he believes someone has done that. That kind of clarity of emotion made him become bigger.

I heard that you stayed in character through the entire production.

I guess I was. It wasn’t until the end that I truly realized I was always in some form of character even when I thought I had dropped it. The last day, I lost the accent and tried to scale back the energy, and my assistant had never met me as me, and almost didn’t recognize me.

I was always sort of searching for the character, and anything I found out about him I would keep with me. But it wasn’t as if I was walking around dictating to people what to do. I was just living in the behavior and only eating Ugandan food, for months. I couldn’t have committed any more than I did. In the true dharma concept, I gave myself in service to the character.

Warming Up to the Subject

“An Inconvenient Truth”’s Al Gore and documentarian Davis Guggenheim receive the Film Festival’s David Attenborough award for excellence in nature filmmaking Friday night at the Arlington Theatre. Guggenheim discussed the movie – now the third highest-grossing documentary in history and one that has been credited with bringing the issue of global warming to the forefront in American politics – over the telephone recently.

Q. How did you come to the project?

A. The producers suggested the idea of making a film about global warming based on a slide show presentation by Al Gore. I thought it was a terrible idea and I spent an hour trying to talk them out of it. But they dragged me to see him. After about fifteen minutes I was hooked, and by the end I was shaken to the core. I knew I had to find a way to make a movie that would somehow capture the experience I’d just had.

Was it intimidating to realize you’d be working with the Vice President, a man who nearly became our country’s leader?

It was mostly exciting. I only knew him through his run for president, the thirty-second sound bites, and the debates, but our political process is a very distorted lens. When I spent a lot of time with him I realized he’s a funny, soulful, thoughtful and deeply committed guy. You can’t help but be taken over by his sense of mission.

You weren’t really even all that interested in the issue when you started.

No, and I wanted to keep that tone. I didn’t want to make it as an environmentalist. It was critical that it wasn’t one of these angry or sanctimonious or finger-pointing films – the message about global warming was for everybody. There are plenty of liberal Democrats that are still cranking their air conditioners and driving Chevy Tahoes. It was important that it played to people like myself.

How did you accomplish turning a staid presentation into such a popular film?

I knew the audience couldn’t sustain ninety minutes of looking at charts and graphs, so the trick of the translation was how to personalize the slide show. My father (Charles, a four-time documentary Oscar-winner) told me the audience always had to be invested in a person. I shot all this footage of Al in Tennessee and on the road and had the stuff from the 2000 election, but I didn’t know how it would fit together. Some people thought it was strange to cut to the personal stuff and even Al didn’t think it was relevant. But then one of the producers mentioned “The Last Waltz” as a parallel – they’re on stage in a concert, but you get to know them in these little vignettes.

How much was Gore involved in the process? It’s his work, did he have final cut?

He’s spent thirty or forty years collecting the science, so he really needed to make sure it was handled correctly, and none of the producers felt as qualified to be the final arbiters in that area anyway. On the other hand, he agreed that the story, the shape and the structure of the film were all my domain. So it never got uncomfortable at all. We were all on the same mission. I look at it as one of the most charmed experiences of my life.

I know some people left feeling somewhat doomed, that there were no solutions.

My feeling was the film should first make its case that global warming is real and it’s urgent that we do something about it. If the audience takes that away, it’s enough. And if they’re desperate for solutions, we can lead them there – the end credits and website have lots of ideas – but that’s another movie.