I was fortunate enough to attend the Meet the Critics panel and following that, the Meet the Producers panel, both of which were held at the Coronado Club Room and Boat House. At the first panel, Mr. Maltin was joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Joe Morgenstern, of The Wall Street Journal, Anders Wright film critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Josh Bard, film reviewer for Fox Channel 5 and KOGO 600 AM, and syndicated film critic and Entertainment Editor of the East County Gazette, Diana Saenger.
One of the questions that most of the attendees wondered about is how one goes about doing a film review. Maltin tells the audience that he is “looking for something fresh, something I haven’t seen before,” and he emphasizes that “there are no real…ground rules” when it comes to reviewing a film. Saenger states, “I want to be moved, I want to feel something…anger, joy, compassion. I want it to be done so well that I will think about it the next morning before I start writing.”
Bard is “dialogue-driven” and he likes “when characters are saying interesting things” and “when it feels realistic” and cites Quentin Tarantino’s films as good examples of dialogue-driven films. Before writing a review, Wright asks himself, “How well has this entire vision been considered and thought through, and brought to life?” He states that he looks “for a film that is about something slightly larger than the story it tells…where there is actually something that a director or screenwriting is trying to say and they’re using that film as a vehicle to say it.”
As for Morgenstern, he touches on the actual process of writing a review. He talks of “the prelude” of writing the review which can be “a very unpleasant and anxiety-provoking, five, ten, or fifteen minutes sometimes” when he confronts the “blank computer screen” as he tries to “do justice to whatever it is that I’m writing about.”
The panelists also discussed being confronted by what Wright calls, “readers who have an interesting attachment to a film.” Films become very personal to many viewers and can see a negative review as a real insult.
Many of the panelists also spoke of their pleasure in introducing readers to films that may not get any publicity and therefore would not have an audience. Morgenstern states that he would try and “give some of the precious space (in the newspaper)…to small independent films” and Wright says, “these little movies that people may not otherwise see, it is my great privilege to try and send people to.”
Morgenstern entertained the crowd with stories from his fifty-one-year career as a critic. He tells the story of being at the premier of Doctor Zhivago in New York City. During the film’s intermission, the crowd is silent as it files out of the auditorium. Morgenstern says that the film’s director, David Lean, misread the crowd’s reaction to the film. As he walks by a weeping Lean, he overhears him say to a companion, “They hated it…they hated it…I destroyed the book.” In unison, the audience responds with, “Awww.”
Later he tells the story of how he was at a dinner party in New York and is approached by “an attractive, middle-aged woman,” who demands, “Why don’t you like my son?!” Morgenstern replies, “Who’s your son?” and she answers, “Leonardo.” We all laugh as we learn that she is Leo DiCaprio’s mom.
The Meet the Producers panel was greatly entertaining and informative as well. In addition to Lisa Bruce, who produced the Academy Award-winning The Theory of Everything, the other panelists included Tani Cohen, producer of Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater, Disney producer James Whitaker, producer of The Finest Hours, and DreamWorks Animation producer, Suzanne Buirgy, producer of 2015’s Home.
The panelists spoke of the difficulty in trying to define what exactly it is that they do. Cohen, who produces many independent films, says, “I don’t even know how to explain it because every day is a different day.” She goes on to say that you, “build your crew…find locations…budget, cast it…you pretty much manage it on a daily basis.” She emphasizes the importance of knowing how to do “the nuts and bolts” when you are an independent filmmaker because you never know when you may be called on to do something.
Whitaker states, “As a producer…you’re ultimately responsible for the money, you’re ultimately responsible for the safety of the crew…the safety and care of the actors…the caretaking of the entire production.”
Buirgy says “the easiest way I learned…to encapsulate a producer’s job is you need to have a great story that turns into an outstanding film that you turn in on time and under budget.” Everyone laughs at this remark, the producers most of all. Buirgy stresses the importance of the job of being able to “see the forest through the trees” and to “remind” the directors “what their vision was when we began.”
For her part, Bruce remarks that the job of producer is “an incredible job but…it’s also one of the hot seat positions on a movie because…the producer” has to try and “keep everybody happy.” A large part of the job involves resolving conflicts even when you “are the source of the conflict.” Bruce continues, “The key role of the job” is that of “a half-therapist.”
All of the panelists spoke of the incredible amount of time it takes to get an idea all the way to the big screen. Bruce notes that with her film, The Theory of Everything, “it was a six-year journey for myself and about a nine-year journey for the screenwriter.” Whitaker’s film, The Finest Hours, just premiered the night before at the festival and he speaks of the utter exhaustion that comes from the lengthy process. “There’s a lot of…perseverance that’s necessary” and says that a key to that perseverance “is the first time you read something and you fall in love with it.”
The producers all spoke of the significance of finding some kind of balance in their lives, which is vital, because the work is so demanding and film projects can go on for years. Whitaker notes the importance of his family, who accompanied him to the film premier and happen to be sitting in the audience. Buirgy says, “You also learn as you get older that you don’t have to do every single thing yourself. You can rely on the amazing people you have around you.”
Both panels were thorough, lively, instructive, and fascinating. If the quality of these panels are any indication of what next year’s film festival may bring, you’d better mark your calendars now!