The annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) transforms the streets of the luxurious beach town of Santa Barbara into a cinephile’s utopia. This year’s festival ran from March 2 through 12, and through The Heights, I had the opportunity to attend the festival for two days, watching premiere after premiere and meeting other curious festival-goers.
Screening more than 200 films produced across the globe, SBIFF also gave out awards to honor creatives responsible for many of the best films of the year.
This year, the festival honored artists such as Kristen Stewart for Spencer, Penélope Cruz for Parallel Mothers, Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman for Being the Ricardos, and Benedict Cumberbatch for The Power of the Dog.
I attended the festival’s “Outstanding Directors of the Year” awards, celebrating Paul Thomas Anderson, Kenneth Branagh, Jane Campion, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, and Steven Spielberg for each of their films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards.
The awards began with a red carpet ceremony, followed by a speech from the festival’s executive director, Roger Durling. Noting the hiatus the festival took last year due to COVID-19 concerns, Durling’s welcome message was met with an uproar of applause from the audience.
“It’s just amazing to be back in person,” Durling said.
Still, COVID-19 concerns altered parts of the awards presentation. While all five directors engaged in Q&A sessions to comment on their careers and their films, only two were actually in attendance. Campion was unable to travel from her home country of New Zealand after testing positive for COVID-19. Hamaguchi and Spielberg were unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts
But Anderson and Branagh engaged in in-person Q&As about their respective films Licorice Pizza and Belfast.
Anderson discussed how childhood stories from his longtime friend Gary Goetzman, a well-known American film producer, inspired scenes in Licorice Pizza.
“Gary is the kind of guy who will say something to you one night, while you’re drinking, he’ll say, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I was arrested for murder?’” Anderson said. “He is one of these characters that is just full [with] every story.”
Anderson spoke about Goetzman acting in a televised production with Lucille Ball, the waterbed company Goetzman founded as a teenager, and his delivery of the waterbed to the house of legendary Hollywood producer Jon Peters, all of which are plot points of one central character, Gary Valentine, in Licorice Pizza.
While listening to the conversation, it was obvious that the film was heavily influenced by these stories and became a dramatized and biographical account of flashes of Goetzman’s life growing up in the San Fernando Valley. For a film that feels like a true presentation of life in the ’70s, it is through Anderson’s real relationship with Goetzman that the film possesses such authenticity.
With Licorice Pizza as my favorite film of the year and Anderson as one of my personal favorite filmmakers, it was inspirational to hear about his willingness to adapt honest moments he found in the lives of people around him. It is amazing to be reminded that even the best artists working in cinema are just people making the best story they can from whatever tools and experiences they have.
Branagh, who discussed his film Belfast, also talked about how he revived childhood memories to inspire his work. Nominated for six Academy Awards, Belfast is a coming-of-age tale that follows a young boy in Northern Ireland in 1969 as the conflict known as “The Troubles” is beginning to take shape.
Branagh said that the film began as a story about the last day of his childhood innocence, as he gave a detailed account of witnessing the explosion of a petrol bomb in his neighborhood at only 8 years old.
Branagh also touched on how the COVID-19 pandemic presented a time to look inward and find inspiration from past experiences. In his very personal film, Branagh reflected on how he assumed a childlike vantage point while telling the story of his youth during political chaos. The perspective allowed him to rediscover the music and tasks of daily life that helped him survive during the tragic times of his childhood.
“I felt that this time was also, partly, to understand what were the coping mechanisms? How did you find a way to laugh in dark times?” Branagh said. “But also, really, to shake hands with who you are, who you were, and how those two things still exist.”
Branagh communicated to the audience how he felt a powerful obligation to return to the early years of his life and confront all of the forces that have haunted him since. His words were a testament to how personal and reflective a movie can be.
After both Anderson and Branagh had their own Q&A sessions, they came back to the stage to conclude the ceremony, receive their awards, and talk with each other.
Taking the conversation away from moderator Scott Feinberg’s initial question, they fell into a discussion about what it is like to work with first-time actors, especially as they stand alongside cinematic titans while in front of the camera. Licorice Pizza had first-timers Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman working alongside Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper, while Belfast had 10-year-old Jude Hill working with Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.
Watching both directors sit together was a riveting experience, as they both come from such different backgrounds but shared many of the same thoughts regarding the filmmaking process.
Both Anderson and Branagh agreed that once getting on set, concern over acting experience does not take a front, so long as the actors are doing their best with working together.
“Everyone is always reacting—you are reacting to what’s in front of you. Everyone gets excited by the kind of energy that’s happening,” Anderson said. “The energy is always going to be led by the 10 year old because they are the freshest from the source.”
Feinberg ended the discussion by asking each director to name a favorite film that he had seen in the last year, hoping to highlight titles that festival-goers may not yet be familiar with. Anderson recommended Norwegian festival darling The Worst Person in the World citing his appreciation of the fantastic performances in the film.
“[It] is like a miracle—that we should kind of cherish [that] it exists,” Anderson said.
Branagh recommended horror flick Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh, emphasizing the challenges that come from countering dull horror tropes and praising the film’s ability to deliver high levels of suspense. He said to Feinberg in a final message that the entire cinematic year should be celebrated.
“I would say this has been—at least, in my humble opinion—it’s been a great year for film,” Branagh said.
Featured Image by Shaun Taxali / Heights Staff