Discovering the magic of film festivals

A movie-loving escapee from L.A. stumbles on the in-person star power he never found in Hollywood.|

I have loved the idea of film festivals ever since I moved to Northern California in autumn of 1981 and ‒ while applying for a job in downtown Mill Valley ‒ saw a stack of programs for the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. What is now a world-renowned 10-day-long cinematic showcase was then celebrating its sixth year. Aside from, I think, the Gregory Mark Bezat documentary “The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher,” and possibly John Sayles’ “The Return of the Secaucus 7,” I can’t remember any of the films that were being screened that year.

But I do remember thinking, “Some of the filmmakers are going to be there, too? In person? This is the coolest thing in the world!”

I didn’t get the job, but I’d discovered my new favorite thing. At the time, as a would-be screenwriter buzzing with notions of becoming a better, kinder version of Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross from “The Stunt Man,” I was besotted with dreams of making movies. And I realized while flipping through that imagination-capturing program that a film festival ‒ especially one that features onstage interviews with movie-makers ‒ was exactly the kind of event I’d been training myself for years to enjoy and appreciate.

I was born and raised in Southern California. Originally from the Inland Empire (Ontario, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga), we eventually moved to Los Angeles County, where from 1974 to 1981 I lived within spitting distance of Hollywood. When I became old enough to drive, my friends and I frequently traveled to places like the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard to watch movies. I saw the world premieres of “Fame,” “Hair,” and “The Muppet Move” at the CineramaDome on Sunset Boulevard. Around that time we also discovered Westwood, a district as crammed with movie theaters as Petaluma is populated with hair salons.

Westwood was the place to go on Friday nights, especially on the opening date of some new film, when lines would form early and snake down the streets beneath massive, 5-story-high enlargements of movie posters that covered the entire side of some buildings. I saw such films as “9 to 5,” “Altered States,” “Being There,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Excaliber,” “Stripes,” and the aforementioned “The Stunt Man.” After faithfully sitting through to the end of the credits, my friends and I would leave the theater and return to our car as those mammoth images of Peter Sellers, Harrison Ford, Dolly Parton and Bill Murray watched over us, chattering excitedly about whatever we’d just seen, as I incubated the ideas of movies I would somehow someday write and possibly even direct.

Never once, in all that time spent in the metaphorical front yard of Hollywood, did I ever meet ‒ or even catch a glimpse of ‒ any of those movie stars whose images rose like ancient obelisks around us. The only stars I’d ever met were Karen and Richard Carpenter, who lived in the same town I went to high school in, and whose cars I occasionally scrubbed and toweled off as a teenager while working at the small car wash they frequented. Other than that, though growing up in an area heavily peopled with movie stars, I never saw one face-to-face.

Not once.

Jumping forward to the fall of 1981, I was staying with friends in San Rafael while looking for work. I’d decided ‒ for reasons I can no longer clearly remember ‒ that my best path to making it as a playwright/screenwriter was to get out of Los Angeles and move to Marin County. Maybe it’s because that’s where George Lucas was, hanging out with Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman. Whatever it was, I had come to the conclusion that getting out of L.A. might afford me better opportunities for creative collaborations than I was finding in the shadows of Hollywood.

As may be obvious, I never did transform into the filmmaker I’d dreamed of, finding my way instead into play writing and ironically enough, film reviewing. It was through writing a movie column called Talking Pictures, in the early ‘90s ‒ while working in the production department of a newspaper in Marin ‒ that I found my way into journalism. That, in turn, brought be right back to the Mill Valley Film Festival, now celebrating its 46th anniversary.

Over the years, I’ve attended the annual event more times than I can count, along with numerous other such institutions like the Sonoma International Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Festival and others, all star-studded events that have given me the opportunity to interview and get to spend time with literally hundreds of famous filmmakers.

It’s ironic that it required me moving to the opposite end of the state from Hollywood to finally start seeing actual movie stars.

Either in interview rooms or on the red carpet in front of various festival venues, I’ve since had the opportunity to chat with people like Sandra Oh, Alexander Payne, John Travolta, Denis Villeneuve, Milos Forman, Ellen DeGeneres, Gael García Bernal, Willem Dafoe, Robin Williams, Tony Shalhoub, Cate Blanchett, Sofia Coppola, Brad Bird, Dustin Hoffman, Jamie Foxx, Kristen Stewart, Ben Affleck, Margot Robbie, Bradley Cooper, Sarah Silverman, Amy Adams, Amandla Stenberg, Steve Carell, Rosamund Pike, Timothée Chalamet, Aaron Eckhart, Bruce Dern, Sam Elliot ‒ and that’s just the ones I remember off the top of my head.

I still have many of their pictures on my cell phone, and their voices on any number of recording devices ‒ just in case I ever think I’m still back in L.A. dreaming of the magic of movies, and need proof that I do actually get to do this stuff for a living. Though all of this might seem like a mere consolation prize, given the loftiness of my initial intentions, I genuinely feel like I’ve found the spot I belong in. I’m still enamored of cinema and its power to inspire, and I feel privileged to sometimes be a small part of sharing the stories of how that magic is made and the people who do it.

And of course, this October 5-15, a full 40 years after I first learned of it, I will be once again attending the Mill Valley Film Festival, where I will have the opportunity to see and possibly talk with a whole new lineup of filmmakers ‒ directors like Todd Haynes, George C. Wolfe, Erica Tremblay, Cord Jefferson, Jeff Nichols, and Sofia Coppola, who I interviewed when she was starting out as a filmmaker with “The Virgin Suicides.”

I doubt she’d remember me, but I sure remember that conversation. I still have the cassette tape I recorded it on.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for 10 days next month. It should be fun. It always is, even if I’m technically working. Because after four full decades, I still think film festivals are the coolest thing in the world.

David Templeton’s “Culture Junkie” runs every month, give or take, in the Argus-Courier. Contact him at david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

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