A Few Words with Roger Durling

You’d think with all the work that goes into getting ready for the film festival, the days leading up to SBIFF would be no laughing matter. But executive-artistic director Roger Durling always has a good chuckle this time of year. The source never varies: it’s the chasm between people claiming how much they care about the movies but having all of the fest’s buzz surrounding the stars rather than the films.

“It just cracks me up,” Durling said earlier this week, just 10 days before SBIFF 2009 opens.

This year’s anecdote concerns the reporter from Variety, the film industry bible that last year named SBIFF one of the top-50 festivals in the world, a ranking shared with less than a dozen other such events in the United States.

“She mentioned that very few stories ever run on the film lineup, and doesn’t it bother me,” Durling recalled. “Why aren’t there more articles on the movies? Then she asked me the same questions the rest of you do, only about the stars and the glitz and glamour.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“I understand that it’s the nature of the situation,” Durling said. “I’m totally at peace with it. The stars get you sponsors and coverage and noticed by everyone. Variety would not even be talking to me otherwise, so you have to see it as everything else is icing on the cake.”

Indeed, that icing comes with a lot of dough.

“You get $35,000 because a sponsor wants their name associated with a star,” he explained. “And then you use that movie to pay for all the small films from Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia. Stores have been using window dressing to attract people for years, and get you inside to look at the other stuff.”

We’ll be talking about that stuff – the movies that make up the meat of the festival – in next week’s issue. But in the meantime, Durling is in line for a knee-slapping time once again come next Thursday, when the cavalcade of celluloid heroes from Hollywood once again descends on the our little burg 100 miles north. The glitz and glamour – and gold, as in Golden Globes and Oscars – factor is perhaps higher than ever.

Already, SBIFF ’09 is earning kudos for once again demonstrating remarkable prescience in showcasing performers who proved winners at last weekend’s Golden Globe Awards. The list includes three surprising selections handed out to two actresses few predicted stood a chance: Kate Winslet, a double winner for best actress drama (“Revolutionary Road”) and supporting actress (“The Reader”), is also a rare second-time honoree at SBIFF (she receives the Montecito Award January 23) and newcomer Sally Hawkins, who bested a crowded field including Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson to take home the Globe for best actress comedy (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) and will be part of the Virtuoso Award on January 28. Comeback kid Mickey Rourke also notched the Golden Globe for best actor drama for “The Wrestler”; he’ll be honored with the American Riviera Award January 31.

Even Durling admitted some of them were a shock. “Things shifted and made me look like a genius.”

Other SBIFF 2009 tributes are earmarked for Clint Eastwood (Globe nominee for his music in “Gran Torino” receives the Modern Master Award on Jan. 29, presented by Globe best actor nominee [and former Modern Master] Sean Penn), Kristin Scott Thomas (Globe-nominated for “I’ve Loved You So Long”; Cinema Vanguard Award on Jan. 27), and Penelope Cruz (her performance in “Vicky Christina Barcelona” was snubbed by the Globes, but the film won best picture comedy; her tribute for Outstanding Performance of the Year on Jan. 27 – just like Angelina Jolie’s at 2008 SBIFF when she failed to receive an Oscar nod for “A Mighty Heart” – might be Durling’s only cloud in an otherwise clear crystal ball).

And Hawkins’ fellow Virtuoso Award winners reads like a Hollywood tip sheet’s Hot List: Viola Davis (Globe supporting actress nominee for “Doubt”), Rosemarie DeWitt (“Rachel Getting Married”), Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”), Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) and Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”).

Not to mention the filmmaker panels, always a cinephile’s highlight of the festival. With no strike looming on the horizon this year – the writers’ job action and a curious case of simultaneous flu caused that panel’s cancellation last year – the seminars are back at full strength and boasting the important names behind some of the year’s most important films.

Already confirmed for the directors panel (Jan. 24) are Golden Globe winners Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Andrew Stanton (“Wall-E”), and nominee Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”), with overtures out to Globe nominees Sam Mendes (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), one whose film was nominated, Gus Van Zant (“Milk”), and one who should have been, Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”). The writers (also Jan. 24) have inked “Milk’s” Dustin Lance Black and “The Visitor’s” Tom McCarthy, with the scribes of “Doubt,” “The Reader” and “Dark Knight” considering attending.

The second weekend’s panels also boast some big names: producers of “Slumdog,” “Rachel,” “Milk,” “Frozen River,” “The Reader” and “The Visitor” are confirmed as is the costume designer of “Button.”

Even the jury has two former Oscar nominees: “Monster House” director Gil Kanen and veteran actor James Cromwell.

This year’s Academy Award nominations won’t be announced until the morning of Jan. 22, about 12 hours before SBIFF 2009 gets going. But, as always, we’re sure to log quite a few names on the roster.

All of which also strikes Durling as a bit humorous.

“It’s funny, but when I first applied for this job six years ago,” said the man who everyone, including himself, refers to as the Film Geek, “they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the Hollywood stars aspect of the position. I guess I’ve done OK.”

“Nothing But the Truth” to Open Festival

“Nothing But the Truth,” the new political thriller-drama from “The Contender” writer-director Rod Lurie, was supposed to contend for Academy Awards and other year-end honors. But that was before the film’s distributor The Yari Group (“Crash”) went belly-up all of a sudden a few months ago, leaving Lurie and his highly touted film without a home.

But the shock for the writer-director – which he called “a drive-by shooting” and an “unqualified disaster that made me want to put my head in an oven” – turned into good news for SBIFF, as “Nothing” has been slated to open the 2009 festival next Thursday at the Arlington.

The film stars Kate Beckinsale (“Pearl Harbor,” “The Aviator”) as Washington, D.C., investigative reporter Rachel Armstrong, who writes an explosive story that reveals the identity of a covert CIA agent, played by Vera Farmiga (“The Departed,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”) that creates havoc and leads the government to demand the identity of Rachel’s source. Despite the similarities to the real-life case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller – who went to jail rather than reveal her sources – and CIA agent Valery Plame, Lurie’s film got its genesis much earlier, as he discussed in a telephone interview.

Q. I understand you wrote this story before the Miller case.

A. I did the TV series “Commander in Chief” about the first female president, and one of my ideas was that a journalist writing negative things about the president would be put in jail for not revealing her secret sources. Geena Davis was going to pardon the writer to uphold her idea that “no journalist is going to jail in my United States.” But (producer) Stephen Bochco came in and fired me, and he torched almost every single idea I had.

But that left the story line open for me to pursue other avenues….I think that journalism done properly is among the most noble of professions. When the Miller-Plame situation came out, that gave me the situation to put my character in, but she’s nothing like the real Miller. I just used it as a framework. I didn’t pay any attention to the details of her story. And (the film) is also as much about how it affects her family, not just the politics.

To me, what was much more interesting was to do a movie as I always do about principles and how they sometimes can destroy us. (Rachel) is filled with these ideals, but they come into conflict with her personal life, raising her family. Upholding principles have mostly been things that men have had to deal with, from Muhammad Ali to Gandhi to Mandela; and it’s men who go off to war and leave their families behind. Putting a woman in that position was fascinating to me.

That’s been your modus operandi for a while, from “The Contender” to “Commander in Chief.” Why do you have such an interest in reversing gender roles?

I’ll tell you: it isn’t a very crowded field. I’m only half-joking. I was watching football games yesterday, and (the ball carrier) kept running right into the middle of the line, and I’m thinking ‘Why go where everybody is?’ I don’t want to do that. I want to be where I can penetrate.

Politics have also been a theme in your writing.

My dad was a political cartoonist, and we had ambassadors, senators and governors walking in and out of my home all the time. While most kids were looking at box scores, I cared how someone was doing in the primaries in Montana. (Now) I look at politics as one big movie. Think about the primaries this year and then the general election: what could be more entertaining than that?

What can you tell me about casting Kate?

She was recommended to me and seemed totally wrong at first. She’s very British and glamorous and that’s not this character at all. Then she showed me “Snow Angels” and that turned me around immediately. (After working with her), I think she’s one of the great actresses working in the English language right now. She comes through completely. She’s absolutely brilliant.

You were once a journalist yourself. Why did you leave?

I absolutely loved it, they were the best days of my life. But I wasn’t very good at it, and not nearly as good as many of the people I worked with. I just wasn’t an advanced writer or thinker.

But I can’t help asking, what would you do in the situation you put your character in for the movie?

I’d like to think I’d stick by my source…. But I’m human. I don’t’ know what would have happened if I were in a jail with a 500-pound sicko cell mate nicknamed ‘Body Fluid.’ I may have folded like a house of cards. But I do believe if you ‘re not prepared to go to jail to protect a source, you have no business in the journalism business.

SBIFF Alternatives

Can’t wait for SBIFF? Don’t want to brave the crowds anyway? Here are some movie choices that steer clear of the madness.

Beyond the Secret

Leeza Gibbons moderates an in-theater event on “Beyond the Secret,” the follow-up to the best-selling self-help book and popular DVD “The Secret,” that will be shown at the Arlington Theater on Thursday, Jan. 15 at 8 pm. At the taping the night before at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Gibbons will be joined by a panel of motivational experts including Bob Proctor – who narrated the original film – plus Marcia Wieder, Christian Simpson, Les Brown, Holli Walker, Mark Moffitt, Paul Martinelli and Steve Siebold. They will demonstrate how to apply the concepts from “The Secret” – including the “Law of Attraction” – in real, tangible ways, with a special focus on how to handle today’s turbulent economy and specific ways to improve your own life despite our nation’s financial setbacks.

The discussion will be shown in high definition with surround-sound audio. Get more details and tickets online at www.fathomevents.com/details.aspx?eventid=763.

Hitler Documentary

Fielding Graduate Institute offers a free public screening of “Operation Valkyrie: The Staufenberg Plot to Kill Hitler,” a newly released documentary film by Jean-Pierre Isbouts, LittD, who is on the faculty of Fielding’s doctoral program in media psychology. With “Valkyrie,” the Tom Cruise fiction film on the same subject, now in theaters, the timing couldn’t be better for Isbouts’ doc, which is based on exclusive interviews with survivors of the Staufenberg Kreis, their family members, and with noted scholars in the field. It features extensive dramatizations and CG animation, as well as rare color and black and white archival footage.

Isbouts is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and an art historian and author. His recent book, “The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas,” was published in 2007 by The National Geographic Society. He will introduce the film and, along with the media psychology students who assisted in researching the film, participate in a Q&A following the screening, 5:30 pm tonight (Jan. 15) at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. Visit www.fielding.edu for more info.

“Secrecy”

Tonight’s crowded calendar also contains a fine documentary screening at UCSB. “Secrecy” delves into the huge and largely invisible world of U.S. government secrecy, using interviews to examine various sides of the debate over the fine line between national security and the people’s right to know, all the while maintaining a focus on the question “Is government secrecy the key to victory in our struggle against terrorism, or our Achilles heel?” By focusing on classified secrets, those potentially harmful to national security, Secrecy explores the tensions between our safety as a nation, and our ability to function as a democracy.

Show time is 7:30 pm at Campbell Hall, tickets are $5. Call 893-3535 or visit www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.