I got to interview Zoe Elton, Director of Programming at The Mill Valley Film Festival, 3 days before the close of this year's fest. She's been with the Festival since it's inception 32 years ago, when she sort of fell into the position at random. Previously she worked in England as a theatre director and writer. Check out our conversation below to see what she has to say about the video art community in the 80s, how documentary has changed, it feeling like a "vintage year" for film, and on what programming for the Mill Valley Film Festival is all about. (The italicized parts are the things she said that I feel are especially awesome or interesting.) Thanks Zoe!
ZoeElton & director John Woo Oct17 2009 by Tommy Lau
What was the attendance last year?
Just shy of 40,000.
And about how many films are there this year?
Around 150 films this year.
What's the mission of the Mill Valley Film Festival?
To celebrate film as art and education.
Has that stayed the same for the 32 years?
That's always been the core thing... this festival has never been competitive. The role model for us back then was Telluride... Given the proliferation of festivals in the past ten years, it's been interesting to go down that path [of being non-competitive].
Structurally and ambiently it's very different than being a competitive festival. Look around, it's beautiful (Looks around at the park we're sitting in- people sit on benches in the shade of big green trees, sunshine, flowers, as were nestled between the hills in Mill Valley). We bring filmmakers here from all over the world, and there are great connections made in this environment.
What is the Festival budget?
I don't know the exact number, but the Festival is part of California Film Institute (It's a sort of umbrella non-profit for the Fest). The Festival is the major part of CFI. There's also the Smith Rafael Film Center and CFI Education. The Smith Rafael Center has esteemed guests all year round.
What came first, CFI, or the festival?
In 1978 the festival began. Then a few years later CFI started. 12-15 years later we were offered the chance to open the San Rafael Film Center...Last year the Sequoia Theatre went on the market. Mark [Fishkin, festival director] got a group of investors together to buy the theatre.
And in what capacity did you first get involved?
I was the first actual employee of the festival. I continued and developed the video festival.
What was the video festival?
Well there was a burgeoning video art community at that time... some people looked down on it. We asked one reviewer to come and he wasn't interested in reviewing the video portion- but a lot of people in this area were tracking what was ultimately going to be digital film. The video festival was a smaller, dedicated audience. There were a lot of really amazing innovators- Coppola was a really amazing innovator at the intersection of video and film...The videos we showed were a lot of short work, a lot of documentary stuff that had been made for TV and never made it on too, and documentary was a lot different then...
We would avoid using the word "documentary" for a while to describe a film because it would kill it at the box office. Then around the opening of the Smith Rafael Film Center, there was an upsurge in documentary.
What do you think are some of the reasons for the upsurge in documentary?
I think there are several reasons. In a parallel universe, there was an upsurge in books where people were telling their autobiographies in a compelling way...And politically, people were looking for documentaries that told the truth. I think ultimately documentary makers are engaging with their art in a way that speaks to a larger audience...films like Rivers and Tides, Errol Morris's films, even films like the Buena Vista Social Club. You know before that in the 80s and early 90s a lot of documentary workers worked for PBS, so documentaries had this PBS aesthetic.
How have things changed since you've been with the festival?
Well, it's much more sophisticated now. It started as a 3 day fest and now it has grown to 11 days, and our reputation has grown immensely. A lot of times with descriptions or reviews of films you will now see "Toronto, New York, Mill Valley"
Did you get the job in programming because you were viewed as having an overall objective perspective on good film?
Well I came into it with the sense as a writer/director - no films were teaching programming etc. at that point in time...My partner at that time was a cinematographer, and I noticed that although we came at film from different parts of the art form, we often ended up with the same conclusion... A lot of the people working at the fest in the beginning were working artists...that sensibility is really important [The sensibility of knowing what it's like to be on the ground].
It seems to me there's a general rule of nature that if you're looking at 10 of something, whether it be film or paintings or what have you, there's always 1 amazing one, a few really great ones, a bunch of good ones, and a few not so great ones.
Being on a programming team, does it mean that everyone has a general agreement on what's good or does it mean everyone has a unique perspective that adds to the team?
In our screening committees we try to get people coming from diverse grounds... It's always about discussion. A part of it is that we all kind of get each other and definitely we would, you know hold each other to our arguments and opinions. It's about discussion- and there are certain things that are always indisputable.
What are the parameters for deciding whether to include a film in the festival?
Well, sometimes people say, ‘That's a Mill Valley film.' And we wonder what that means. We are very international- we have films representing 40 or 50 countries, so it's wide reaching. There's something about films that are smart, well-crafted, with a compassionate sensibility... overall they are films made by artists who are passionate about what they do. We have a lot of audiences who really support artists in achieving a vision. And the fact that we're not competitive- it really gives filmmakers a chance to offer their work up to the public, and there's always a good discussion...
Have you ever considered turning the festival into a competition?
A board member came back from Sundance once and said, let's make it competitive. We didn't see the reason for it.
Did any sponsors decrease their support this year? If so what did you cut to balance the budget?
Yeah. We made cuts across the board. We were pretty "lean" beforehand anyway- there wasn't a lot of fat to cut. We tried to balance it in such a way that we maintained quality, so that substance was still pretty significant. There were some staff cuts...it offered me the opportunity to do some "housekeeping"- I tried to restructure the department, make things go more efficiently without losing vision, quality. And I think I succeeded at that.
It feels like such a "vintage year" - a lot of really, really good films out there. I don't know why. Maybe a few years down the road we will see the affect of the economic crisis.
What's a particular festival film success story that sticks out in your mind?
There's one that's kind of great. Caroline Link did a film "Beyond Silence" that coming out of the Festival got picked up by Miramax, she got an academy award nomination for it, and her next film won an award.
Anything notable about the pool of films submitted this year?
We don't try to impose a theme or focus, but we do try to pull the prevalent theme from the pool- this year there was really an "Architects of the Avant-Garde" theme that emerged.
What's the hardest thing about being a festival programmer?
Really, really long hours. Another thing that's hard is when there are films we really, really love that we just can't fit in- making tough decisions.
What's the secret to making a good idea into a good film?
Being clear on what your intention is, and having the courage of your vision, and the courage of your aesthetic.
What do you anticipate as the role of festivals in the future?
Well I think one thing that festivals do now that won't go away is they bring the community together. One of the great things festivals do is bring filmmakers together with their audiences. Festivals offer a chance to come together. Filmmakers get a glimpse of their film's affect on audiences.