Across the world, from Venice to Toronto to Telluride, as film festival season comes gradually to a close, the news from such bastions of cinematic glamor and glitter is that this year there is much less glamor and practically zero glitter.
As the Screen Actors Guild strike continues (though the Writers Guild of America has reached a tentative agreement with the studios as of this writing, which bodes well), high-profile films are being presented without their stars, who are generally prohibited by SAG rules from promoting projects developed and distributed by the major studios and producers they are striking against.
Rather than view absence of actors as a problem, the Mill Valley Film Festival, now in its 46th year, has elected to see it as an opportunity.
At MVFF 2023—running Oct. 5-15 at venues from Mill Valley to San Rafael—where there are plenty of highly anticipated films on the schedule, the emphasis has shifted from those movies’ stars to their directors.
Expected to appear on stage this year are such behind-the-camera luminaries as Sophia Coppola (with her new bio-drama, Priscilla, about the turbulent life of Elvis’ wife); Philip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence, Clear and Present Danger), with the twisty southern noir thriller, Fast Charlie; Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Loving), with the black-and-white drama, The Bikeriders; Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), with the erotic revenge comedy-drama, Saltburn; and Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven), with his provocative drama, May December.
“It’s really exciting for us, because we are getting back to our roots at the Mill Valley Film Festival, which was always meant to primarily be a filmmaker’s film festival, a director’s festival,” says Celeste Wong, the festival’s U.S. indies programmer. “The vast array of filmmakers that we have at MVFF this year is so impressive. We have the ability to honor directors who have decades of experience, are at the top of their game and whose films are really highly anticipated.”
Among those she highlights are George C. Wolfe, who will be presenting his new biopic, Rustin, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, starring Colman Domingo as the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a pivotal figure in the organization of the March on Washington in 1963.
“We would have loved to have had Colman Domingo here, because his performance in Rustin is incredible,” Wong acknowledges, “but this is absolutely an opportunity to honor the film’s director, who is best known for his work in the theater, and who we believe is going to be widely lauded for his work on this.”
That, she says, is just the tip of the cinematic iceberg.
“We can honor famous directors who’ve received Oscar attention for their previous films, alongside exciting up-and-coming filmmakers who are just at the beginning of their careers,” Wong continues. “Like Erica Tremblay, whose drama, Fancy Dance, is an incredibly moving and powerful film starring Lily Gladstone, which sheds light on underrepresented stories of Indigenous women. We are committed to bringing that kind of depth, and to be able to give some special spotlights to indie filmmakers who otherwise might get overshadowed.”
Another example is American Fiction, the directorial feature film debut of television writer-director Cord Jefferson, best known for his work on The Good Place, Watchmen and Station Eleven.
“He’s a well-known writer, but in any normal year, the focus would have been on Jeffrey Wright, the star of the film,” points out Bri’anna Moore, another key member of the MVFF programming team. “I love that we get to focus on Cord, because I think he’s going to be a director to watch over the next few years. It’s such a fun film, and he did a fantastic job.”
The Mill Valley Film Festival offers more than just films and onstage appearances with the folks who make them. Other offerings include panel discussions, workshops and keynote speakers, including Amazon Prime’s Ted Hope, giving a presentation titled “The Time is Now: Building a New Film Ecosystem,” Friday, Oct. 6, 2pm at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael.
“One other very cool thing we are doing this year is that we have two master classes,” says Moore. “We have one master class on directing with Chloe Domont. She is going to go into her process of directing, and I think it’s exciting because she’s a first-time feature director.”
Domont, who’s proven herself as director on television shows like Billions, Star Trek: Discovery, Ballers and Suits, is the director of the Netflix hedge fund thriller Fair Play, which opens its pre-streaming theatrical run on Sept. 29 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. The master class with Domont is Sunday, October 8, 1:15pm at the Rafael.
“We also have an animation master class with John Musker, a really well-known animation director,” Moore continues. Musker co-wrote the screenplays for Disney’s Aladdin, Treasure Planet, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog and Moana. The master class with Musker is on Sunday, October 8, 3:15pm at the Rafael. Says Moore, “I think that will be really exciting for our audience.”
What makes attending a film festival so much fun, of course, is the sense of discovery and surprise that comes from randomly selecting a little-known movie—perhaps one a viewer wasn’t expecting much from—only to realize they’d chosen something truly memorable. Asked to guess which movies in this year’s line-up are the most likely to bring that level of pleasant surprise, Moore points to director Luke Korem’s feature-length documentary, Milli Vanilli, screening Friday, Oct. 13 at 7pm and Sunday, Oct. 15 at 1:30pm at the Rafael.
“I think everyone of a certain age thinks they know the story of Milli Vanilli, but we don’t really,” says Moore. “What’s especially exciting is that Fab Morvan, one of the members of Milli Vanilli, will be here and will take part in the Q&A. I think people are definitely going to be talking about that one.”
For Wong, the film she predicts could be a sleeper hit is Radical, from director Christopher Zalla, screening Sunday, Oct. 8 at 11:15am at the Rafael, and again on Monday, Oct. 9 at 6:20pm at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
“It’s a U.S. film, but it’s based in Mexico,” says Wong. “It’s a true story about a teacher who basically revolutionized the way courses were taught at (his) school, and challenged his students to explore their passions and dare to dream larger than they were empowered to do before.”
To find the full schedule of the 2023 Mill Valley Film Festival and purchase tickets, visit MVFF.com.