The 40th annual Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) sure knows how to pick ’em. This year, with fires raging through wine country, the brass just happened to schedule the documentary, Andre: The Voice of Wine, about a Russian aristocrat who turned Napa and Sonoma winemakers into true competition for the French.
Mark Tchelistcheff spent 10 years fashioning the story of how a Russian aristocrat, the director’s great uncle, ends up in Northern California and rescues its wine industry. “I dedicated the premiere to all those impacted by the fires,” Tchelistcheff says. “I called the festival organizers and I was able to push them to donate a portion of the proceeds of the screenings to help those in need.”
This year’s coveted Audience Award went to Mudbound, Dee Rees’ tale of one white family and one black family during the Jim Crow era. “Even if you are doing a period piece,” Rees said, “art reflects what’s going on contemporarily.” She took the stage to a standing ovation and received the Mill Valley Film Festival Award from MVFF Founder/Director Mark Fishkin. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Rees’ film “took the original material and deepened it by making it about two families [instead of one].” Look for Mudbound, which stars Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke, to be around on Oscar night.
Just as Rees claimed that a period piece mirrors what is going on in society (her Jim Crow story equals racism in 2017 America), MVFF Director of Programming Zoe Elton pointed to 9/11. “The films that year had to do with extreme circumstances and compassion,” she said. “It gave us a way to articulate our feelings.”
Jason Clarke also took the lead in Chappaquiddick, a grim retelling of the tragedy that impacted Ted Kennedy’s political career and cost a 29-year-old campaign staffer her life. We had a lengthy one-on-one chat with Clarke about political expediency versus political veracity, and about the incident in which Kennedy accidentally drove his car off a bridge after a party, resulting in the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne. Asked how he snatched such a juicy role, he said simply, “Big stars did not want to do it.”
“I, myself, was struck by the impact this had on his whole life,” Clarke said. “I couldn’t get it out of my head. He was essentially noble, but he had this fatal flaw. He wasn’t fully formed to inherit the Kennedy mantle. We are the sum of all our actions and Ted’s flaw was he walked away from this tragedy for nine hours.”
The Closing Night party in Mill Valley, featuring Green Chile Kitchen, Big Jim’s BBQ, An Affair to Remember and Fiorello’s Artisan Gelato, among others, clearly outdid Opening Night’s celebration in Larkspur.
Kristin Scott Thomas came out for her tribute and a standing ovation sporting an orange dress and short cropped hair. She co-stars with Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine in Darkest Hour. “I got inspiration from Clementine’s ankles,” she claimed, while denying that she was joking. “They were delicate, beautiful, strong, [and it showed] her strength of character. Language comes from the body.”
It took Scott Thomas awhile to learn that. “I was 18 at drama school in London and having a bit of a hard time,” she said. “I thought it was far better to be an acting teacher than an actor. I tried to move my courses but my dreams got shattered. So I went to France, although I didn’t speak French. But things come out never the way you think.”
She ended up getting mostly modest work until The English Patient came along. She met producer Saul Zaentz but felt, “we had a terrible lunch, so I told him it would be a horrible idea to hire me.”
That is precisely the strategy that Jessica Chastain spurned. Recalled writer-and-first-time director Aaron Sorkin, “Jessica walked into the meeting and she said, ‘You know, you should just give me the part.’ And I got scared and said, ‘OK.’” Sorkin’s Molly’s Game is another one likely to be vying for gold statuettes come Oscar time. The story of a Hollywood poker princess is gripping as Sorkin told it. “I’m saying the dialogue out loud when I’m writing,” he explained. “I’m hearing the dialogue and I want it to be musical.”
Director Todd Haynes could not agree more. “Music became the foundation for which my entire film [Wonderstruck] is based,” he said, “particularly in the long black-and-white section and particularly since my character is deaf. Rose is deaf and had never acted before. I got amazing tapes from deaf kids all over the country. She was exactly what I was looking for. Looks, touches, gestures—all of that spoke more than the trusted text.”
We ran into Berkeley filmmaker Santiago Rizzo at the Marin Country Mart on Opening Night. His film, Quest, follows a troubled and abused middle school graffiti delinquent. Rizzo told us, “The character and the incidents in my film are based a lot on things that happened to me. I stayed out late at night to avoid my stepdad, who had spent 17 years in prison. We are living in a tough world. There are a lot of dark shadows out there. My job now is to help kids who are being abused and to spread humility.”
Long-legged actress and filmmaker Greta Gerwig rolled out her Closing Night coming-of-age film, Lady Bird, that she describes as “a love letter to a city [Sacramento], though it’s very tough for a 10-year-old to say, ‘I really love my home.’” The film stars the talented Saoirse Ronan.
Over 40 years, the Mill Valley Film Festival has arguably become the signature festival in Northern California, admired and respected by both audiences and the industry. Each year, it has drawn top-drawer actors, actresses, directors, producers and writers. And there is always something that portends what is coming next—right here in our own backyard.