2009 Cassavetes Award Presented to Actor J.K. Simmons

J.K. SimmonsAs terrifying as J. K. Simmons was as white supremacist Vern Schillinger in the acclaimed HBO prison drama OZ, it’s a little hard to imagine that he got his start as a singer, graduating from the University of Montana with a degree in music. His acting career began onstage with an off-Broadway stint in the 1987 musical Birds of Paradise; following a quick rise through the ranks, he made his Broadway debut in 1990 and went on to appear in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Das Barbecü, and as Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls.

By 1994 he had already turned to the big screen, landing roles in The Ref and The Scout that were soon followed by The First Wives Club, The Jackal, Anastasia, and Celebrity. Recognized both for his versatility and his deep voice, he caught the eye of some of the industry’s top directors – repeatedly. Sam Raimi cast him in For Love of the Game, The Gift, and the ongoing Spiderman series in the key role of newspaperman J. Jonah Jameson. He undertook the unforgettable role of Garth Pancake, an explosives ace with irritable bowel syndrome, in the Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake of The Ladykillers (and he worked with the Coens again in Burn after Reading). He appeared in Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican opposite Brad Pitt, in Joan Chen’s Autumn in New York, in Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules, and alongside Sam Elliott and Joan Allen in Campbell Scott’s Off the Map. That was all prior to the sensation that was Jason Reitman’s Juno (SDFF 30) – in which Simmons “brought down the house,” to quote Roger Ebert, as Ellen Page’s father Mac MacGuff. (Simmons also appeared in Reitman’s satirical Thank You for Smoking). Simmons continues to be in high demand for the small screen as well: he’s a major player in TNT’s The Closer, as he was in the classic series Law & Order.

With that “classic gangster mug,” as then–New York Times theater critic Frank Rich called it, J. K. Simmons was born to be an amazing character actor in the tradition of Ned Sparks and Eddie Albert. But stars are made, as Simmons is proving with simultaneous muscle and grace he shows in every part he plays – and for that we at SDFF 32 are grateful.

In this podcast interview, Simmons and noted film critic Robert Denerstein discuss the works of John Cassavetes, Simmons’ long career on stage and on screen, and look back on his most memorable characters.

Panel: Indie Film Roulette

Indie Film RouletteWant insight into some of the ugly truths about the indie biz? We’ve devised a way for you to see how filmmakers think – not as they’re taught in film school but as they must, on their feet, in the real world where circumstances shift and money changes hands.

All of our panelists were given a premise and asked to tell us how they’d approach it. We then began throwing them a variety of curve balls. How did they cope with lost financing, casting catastrophes, and other obstacles that can hold a film back on its way to the screen?

Meanwhile, the audience participated in what we’re calling “indie roulette” and voted on which panelist would ultimately get to make his or her project. Sure, it’s a game, but as it unfolds, we think you’ll gain valuable perspective on the often risky world of filmmaking.

Panel: Who Has the Write Stuff?

Who Has the Write Stuff?Doctors keep them stashed in drawers, lawyers dream of selling theirs, and legions of fledgling scribes hope they’ll discover the secret to fashioning them from scratch.

We’re talking about screenplays, seen by many as gateways to a creatively satisfying and lucrative career in movies. Taking a cue from Peter Hanson’s documentary Tales from the Script, our panelists examine their calling with all its frustrations, triumphs, and rewards. They tell us about the potential gaps between script and screen. They consider the writer/director relationship, citing examples from their own experiences. Most of all, they let us know whether having the write stuff is enough to get a screenplay off your desk and into the theater.

Panel: The Environment in Focus: Four Films and a Panel

The Environment in Focus: Four Films and a PanelEnvironmental advocacy has become a powerful cultural touchstone; as such, it is a core concern for the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival.

SDFF 32 presented a panel discussion with the directors of So Right So Smart and Split Estate as well as local corporate leaders, who examined the ways in which environmentalism can make good business sense. Can small but responsible companies make a difference?

Everybody’s Fine Reprises Classic Italian Film

Kirk JonesGiuseppe Tornatore’s 1990 classic Stanno Tutti Bene tells the story of a widower who, lonely during the holidays, embarks upon a tour of Italy to visit his children (all named, appropriately enough in this bittersweet melodrama, for characters from Italian operas). Everybody’s Fine Director Kirk Jones transplants the film to contemporary America – where the members of extended families, separated by long distances, have increasingly have become strangers to one another. Jones adapted the original screenplay, cowritten by Tornatore and Tonino Guerra (a collaborator of Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, and Theo Angelopolous) to explore the ways in which an impromptu train trip serves as an education for a father (Robert De Niro, in the role originally played by Marcello Mastroianni) who comes to learn more about his grown children than he ever imagined – or, perhaps, wanted to know.

In this podcast episode, Jones joins noted film critic Robert Denerstein to discuss the making of Everybody’s Fine, fatherhood, and working with De Niro.

Two Spirits Documents Collision of Native American Culture and Small Town Intolerance

Lydia NibleyIn 2001, 16-year-old Fred Martinez was brutally murdered near his hometown of Cortez, Colorado. He was poor, Navajo, and transgendered – a girl in a boy’s body. Fred was blessed to have grown up with the cultural belief there are four genders, not only male and female but mixed identities like his. Among his own people, he was accepted as nádleehí, a word that means “one who constantly transforms” in the Navajo language; it connotes a spiritual and sexual being who is also known to and honored by other Native American cultures as a “two-spirit person.” The traditional roles of such people have included healing, mediation, and the parenting of orphans. The tragedy of Fred’s life, however, is that also he grew up in small-town America, where far narrower views of both ethnicity and gender ultimately proved fatal to him.

In this podcast episode film critic Robert Denerstein is joined by Two Spirits co-producer Lydia Nibley, who gives us some additional background information on this film.

Two Spirits will be screened at 12:30 PM on Saturday, November 21 at the King Center.

Hal Holbrook Honored with Excellence in Acting Award

Hal HolbrookDon’t misunderstand: Hal Holbrook was very happy and deeply grateful to receive this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival Excellence in Acting award. But if you push the Emmy- and Tony-winning legend on the subject, he’ll suggest that maybe the prize is a tad premature, because he still considers himself, at 84, a student of his art. “Even now,” Holbrook says, “I’m learning more about film work.”

In this podcast episode, Holbrook sits down with noted film critic Robert Denerstein to discuss his long career. Holbrook and Denerstein talk about his most famous role, as witty sage Samuel Clemens in Mark Twain Tonight!, how Sean Penn picked him for his Oscar-nominated role in Into the Wild, and his newest film, That Evening Sun, which screened at this year’s Starz Denver Film Festival.

Lee Daniels Taking in Success of Surprise Hit Precious

Precious, the Opening Night film of 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival, set a limited-release record this past weekend by selling $1.8 million worth of tickets at just 18 theaters, proving once again that the festival has a knack for foreseeing surprise hit films (see Juno and Slumdog Millionaire from the past two years).

In this video podcast episode, Precious Director Lee Daniels joins film critic Robert Denerstein backstage during the film’s screening at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver to discuss the making of the film.

You can also listen to Denerstein’s interview with Precious co-producer Sarah Siegel-Magness.

Panel: It’s a Documentary, But Can You Trust It?

It's a Documentary, But Can You Trust It?In this Starz Denver Film Festival discussion, our panel of documentary filmmakers discuss how they build stories and create drama while remaining true to the facts. They examine questions of style and substance, considering different approaches to the art of the documentary – from fly-on-the-wall realism to frank advocacy. They touch upon everything from the role of research to the use of staged footage in what has become one of our most vital cinematic genres. And they discuss how the world’s best-known documentary filmmaker – Michael Moore – has impacted audience expectations for nonfiction films.

This panel featured six filmmakers with documentaries screening at this year’s festival: Paul Osborne (Official Rejection); AJ Schnack (Convention); Julie Speer Hunniford (Swift Justice); Michael Sladek (Con Artist); Donal Mosher (October Country); and Michael Palmieri (October Country). Film critic Robert Denerstein moderated the discussion

The Last Station Recounts Leo Tolstoy’s Final Years

Michael HoffmanIf you attended last night’s Big Night film, The Last Station, you are undoubtedly more versed in the life and times of legendary Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

In this podcasts episode, The Last Station director Michael Hoffman joins noted film critic Robert Denerstein. The two discuss the making of the film, Tolstoy’s complicated relationship with his family, and the desperate grabs for power and affection from many of Tolstoy’s hangers-on.