This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, again driven in part by its emphasis on women in film, offered 37 features by ladies behind the camera. While almost 34 percent is not enough to call it equality of the sexes, it’s light years beyond the minuscule participation of just a few short years ago.
Annette Bening appeared with fellow actors (Elle Fanning and Lucas Jade Zumann) and writer/director Mike Mills of 20th Century Women to accept the festival’s first ever Ensemble Spotlight Award. In a face-to-face interview with Bening, she told us about prepping for the role of the mom, based on Mills’ own mother.
“I talked to Mike about [her] and what I experienced was his version of his mom,” Bening said. “But I’m thinking, ‘Yes, but what did she think? There is a lot of contradiction in her. Once you get into that, you know you’re getting into something good.” Advice for actress wannabes?: “Get educated,” Bening urged. “Travel. Fall in love. All that is so important in figuring out how to be a young woman in the world.”
Nicole Kidman, who is co-producing and co-starring in an eight-episode HBO series Big Little Lies with Reese Witherspoon and was here to kickstart her latest film Lion, said, “There is a lot of power in working together with other women,” citing the energy they feed off of one another. Her first taste of women in power came from … her mom. “My mother would bang the table and roar, ‘I’m the mother in this household!’ She would scare the hell out of me and my sister.” Of her wide breadth of roles, Kidman explained that she picks her parts “instinctively and emotionally. I always try to be as brave in my choices now as I was at 19.”
For the role of the teenage brat, director Mills’ alter ego in 20th Century Women, he looked at 400 boys before choosing 15-year-old Zumann. “I needed a boy who hadn’t had sex but wants sex, who would get into a fight but would lose the fight,” Mills said.
“Being a teen and playing one, especially playing [the writer-director as a boy], that was huge and there was a lot of opportunity for self-reflection,” Zumann said. “It allowed me to view my human disorders.”
Palo Alto-born and Cupertino-raised Aaron Eckhart, on stage to introduce Ben Younger’s Bleed for This, in which he has a critical supporting role, accepted a Spotlight Award, talked about his role as trainer Kevin Rooney to boxing champion Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) and made the audience laugh when he answered a question about shaving his face.
At the opening night screening of Arrival, actress Amy Adams emphasized her view that, although there is a science fiction element to the film, “what intrigued me was that it really is a mother’s story.” Together with Eckhart’s perception that Bleed is really a story about family, not a boxing movie, we’re getting the impression that Hollywood is telling us that the obvious isn’t—and nothing is as it seems.
Asked where she thinks civilization is headed since Arrival does seem to touch on that, Adams replied, “The film really does say something about how we need to proceed forward. But as to where humanity is going, wow, I would ask you that! You know, if we had a bottle of tequila … this is a long conversation.”
Matteo Norzi, co-director of Icaros: A Vision plunged into the Peruvian jungle to create a drama about the mysterious shamans who utilize the plant-based hallucinogen ayahuasca for healing. “Despite the rumors, it is not a cure for cancer,” Norzi told his audience, “but it’s a way to cope with the consequences of your destiny.” From what he told us, his very production could have used some of that: “Bats attacked the makeup woman at night,” he said, “a tarantula terrorized (two crew members), everyone came down with a strange disease, and a producer broke a bone.”
A festival film that had better luck was Borrowed Time, a 7-minute animated short by locals Andrew Coats and Lou Hamad-Lhadj, utilizing the talents of numerous Pixar employees. It has now played at an astounding 17 film festivals.
Hard to believe, but Emma Stone, who co-starred in the second Opening Night film, La La Land, confesses that she had chronic panic attacks as a kid, only to discover that what caused stage fright in others was a panacea for her. “I was in a school play and I remember being on stage and the feeling of being safe,” she said with a million-dollar smile. “Acting gave me a place to put that emotion. It was and is therapeutic and rewarding for me.”
Festival audiences once again voted for their favorite film. The winner this year is—the envelope please—Lion, the tear-jerker in which Kidman plays an adoptive mother to an Indian boy, and raises him in Tasmania.
International heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal, dressed in casual chinos, a purple sport shirt with tails hanging out and a dark blue sport jacket, was about as laid back and natural a big screen personality as we have ever encountered. He plays a cop on the trail of commie activist poet Pablo Neruda in Neruda, and a jilted hubby in You’re Killing Me, Susana.
“I love my character (in Neruda) because he thinks he is the best policeman in the world, taking his job very seriously, it’s funny,” Garcia Bernal said, chuckling. “He wants to prove to the poet that he’s not stupid. That is the mindset of a fascist-oriented person. [Neruda] gave voice to our worst nightmares and his death hit hard on the world’s soul. It was the death of democracy. We can only hope he was not poisoned.”
The film was directed by Pablo Larrain, who received Variety’s International Director of the Year award at a festival screening of Jackie, about Jacqueline Kennedy with Natalie Portman in the title role. As to Garcia Bernal’s other motion picture, Susana, the popular actor, who gained fame with Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mama Tambien, said the book upon which the film was based “is a long, rambling novel, very internal and very funny with incredible energy. But it is not structured to be a movie. It took some time to get there.”
He gave a Valentine send-off to an enthusiastic crowd when he announced, “It’s my fourth time here [in the Bay Area] and my greatest pleasure is to come and share my film with you and see how you guys like it.”