Nashville Film Festival
Good films and good times prevail at the annual fest in Music City.
Actresses Carrie Preston, Nicole Kidman, Beth Grant, and Famke Janssen at the fest’s 2012 edition.
PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY NASHVILLE FILM FESTIVAL
Each April, the Nashville Film Festival rolls out the red carpet for showbiz legends, A-list celebrities, and up-and-coming indie filmmakers. At the same time, festival organizers also put out the welcome mat for movie buffs, star gazers, aficionados of serious cinema, and of course the many folks who always are looking for a good reason to visit Music City.
“The reason why you want to come here,” says Brian Owens, the festival’s infectiously enthusiastic artistic director, “is, number one, it’s a much easier trip than it would be to go to Cannes or Park City or even Toronto. And you’re going to get the same quality of movies, but in a much more relaxed atmosphere.
“And after you’re done watching movies,” he adds with a hint of wink-wink mischievousness, “you can go hit the honky-tonks on Broadway.”
Established in 1969 as the Sinking Creek Film Celebration, The Nashville Film Festival is one of the oldest continually operating events of its kind in the United States, and has long enjoyed the status of a “qualifying festival” for Academy Awards consideration in short-film categories.
The widely respected film journal MovieMaker ranks it among the top 25 U.S. festivals “worth the entry fee,” while the influential website IndieWire.com reports that the Nashville Film Festival “often is the premier regional film festival stop in the South for future indie favorites.”
And for those who like to party, IndieWire notes: “Even after a full day of screenings, filmmakers and festival guests have been known to keep going into the early morning hours, soaking up Southern hospitality, food, and fantastic live music in the city’s bars and clubs.”
Appropriately enough for a film festival in Music City, the Nashville Film Festival routinely programs features and documentaries that focus on music and musicians. “There’s at least one Johnny Cash documentary submitted every year,” Owens says, then quickly adds: “But, obviously, they don’t always make it onto the schedule.”
Not surprisingly, documentaries about country music legends — such as the 2012 offerings Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin’ the Devil’s Cage and Hank Cochran: Livin’ for a Song and 2013’s Jim Lauderdale: The King of Broken Hearts — loom large in the lineup.
But there’s as much diversity in the annual Music Films/Music City competition as there is throughout the rest of the festival schedule. Consider this as evidence: The 2013 Nashville Film Festival showcased a mini-festival of recent Kurdish cinema, an opening-night screening of Mud (starring Matthew McConaughey); the acclaimed music-themed documentaries Good Ol’ Freda (about Freda Kelly, a devoted secretary and friend to The Beatles) and Muscle Shoals; the regional premiere of director Jared Moshe’s well-reviewed western Dead Man’s Burden; and popular indies The Spectacular Now, The Kings of Summer, and The Way, Way Back.
“[Our audience is] always looking for something deeper than the standard thing you’ll find at the multiplex,” Owens says. “And that can go in multiple directions. Like, in the same year that I can sell out a movie with Kris Kristofferson in it, I can also sell out a Russian musical or a Japanese samurai movie. That’s the wonderful thing about our audience: They’re willing to go on the journey, no matter where it may take us.”
One of those directions is true south. Owens takes particular pride in his festival’s emphasis on regional films and filmmakers. “Films that have a Southern appeal certainly are going to play well here,” he says. “The problem is, a lot of movies that are made about the South by people from outside the South tend to stereotype the South. Whereas when you have Southern filmmakers who have roots in the area, they know the actual drama and the actual comedy that can be found here, without presenting it in a disrespectful way. And that comes across in their movies.”
A prime example: Randy and the Mob, a genially oddball comedy written and directed by Georgia-born Ray McKinnon, which received the Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Nashville Film Festival. McKinnon — who portrayed Rev. H.W. Smith in HBO’s Deadwood and won a 2002 Oscar for his live action short The Accountant — starred in the title role as a Georgia restaurateur who unwisely borrows money from a loan shark to keep his barbecue joint solvent. But the scene-stealer in the movie was a pre-Justified Walton Goggins, playing a sympathetic mob enforcer who gradually endears himself to Randy’s family, friends, and customers.
Goggins and McKinnon returned to the Nashville Film Festival two years later as co-producers and co-stars of That Evening Sun, a richly atmospheric drama — “filmed entirely in Tennessee,” Owens proudly notes — based on a short story by Tennessee-born author William Gay. Starring Hal Holbrook as an aging farmer who flees a nursing facility and returns to his family home, only to find a longtime enemy (McKinnon) has rented the place, the film won the Audience Choice Prize. Holbrook received a special Lifetime Achievement honor when he appeared at the festival to introduce That Evening Sun.
Star power always is major attraction at the Nashville Film Festival. The celebrity guest list has included the aforementioned Kristofferson, who received a 2011 Career Achievement Award from fellow music legend Emmylou Harris; Brad Paisley, who introduced his directorial debut, the comedy short When Mom’s Away, at the 2010 festival; and the late Patricia Neal, who was presented her 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award by friend and Cookie’s Fortune co-star Lyle Lovett.
Oscar-winning star Nicole Kidman was on hand for a fest-sponsored panel discussion about women filmmakers in 2012 but had to leave immediately afterward to attend husband Keith Urban’s Grand Ole Opry induction the same evening. William Shatner, who was in Nashville for the 2009 premiere of William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet, stuck around to receive a very special President’s Impact Award: a customized acoustic Gibson guitar adorned with the work of artist Mandy Lawson.
When Dead Man’s Burden premiered at last year’s festival, lead actress Clare Bowen — already in Music City for her continuing role as Scarlett on the Nashville TV series — was able to grace the red carpet prior to the screening. “Now that so many of them have moved to town,” Owens says, “we’re expecting an even larger showing by the Nashville cast at this upcoming festival.”
Everyone — Nashvillians, out-of-towners, stars, fans — seems to enjoy the casually festive mood of the proceedings. “The funny thing is,” Owens says, “people will ask me sometimes, ‘Do I need to dress up for that?’ And I remind them that if I say yes, that just means, for guys, put on a blazer with your jeans. And for ladies, that means you can wear cowboy boots with your dress.”
You’d expect nothing less than down-home at the Nashville Film Festival — and that’s just the way Owens likes it. “We’ve actually had more than one instance with a celebrity guest where their manager will call up ahead of time and ask, ‘What’s my client expected to do?’ And we’ll say, ‘Well, we’d like you to arrive on the red carpet in front of the theater before the film at such-and-such a time and then stick around for a Q&A after the film.’ And then they’ll ask, ‘But what’s the rest of the itinerary?’ And we’ll say, ‘Have fun. That’s what people do here. This is Nashville.’
“Once they settle into that,” Owens says, “they keep wanting to come back.”