We coaxed the Sarasota Film Festival’s Tom Hall and Holly Herrick out to Lido Beach for the photo you see here, but these two—the fest’s artistic director and director of programming, respectively—spent much of this winter and spring in darkened screening rooms, searching for the best new movies to show during this month’s festival, which runs April 9-18.
Hall, 39, and Herrick, 27, both grew up haunting movie theaters or, as Tom describes it, renting just about every film he could find in his neighborhood movie store in Flint, Mich. So the two, who both live in Brookyln (Tom with his wife and 18-month-old son) are fine with sometimes seeing five movies a day when attending other fests in Toronto, New York and at Sundance to cull the cream of the crop for Sarasota audiences.
"We really start locking things down after coming back from Sundance in January," says Holly. "We get a lot of films that have only shown there. And half or more of what we program comes directly from filmmakers submitting their work."
And what do the duo look for in choosing films for Sarasota? For one thing, says Tom (who also programs the Newport Film Festival), "This is a much bigger festival than the others we work on [Holly programs the Hamptons Film Festival as well]. That means we can show so many more movies and have more latitude to take chances, to bring in works that wouldn’t play otherwise. Because Sarasota is such an arts community, we’re always looking for movies that relate to the arts. And because Sarasota already has an art house theater [Burns Court Cinema], people are used to more challenging art or foreign film titles. Plus here we can also show classic films [like this year’s look back at Francois Truffaut’s "youth" films] because we have the time and screens we need."
The pair says that some of the biggest hits at recent festivals here have included the opening night films In the Shadow of the Moon, about the American astronauts who went to the moon, and last year’s The Messenger, along with last year’s closing film about A Chorus Line hopefuls, Every Little Step. "We continue to hear about that one," says Tom. "This audience is so interested in the arts and performance."
Do the two ever disagree about which films to choose? "If there’s something that Holly likes that I don’t, we give each other the benefit of the doubt and the film makes it in," says Tom. "We don’t argue that much, though. I’d say 98 percent of our choices overlap."
More insights: "We tend to skew towards personal stories, not genre pictures," Tom adds. "We don’t end up programming a lot of horror or sci-fi or crime." "Storytelling is important to us," says Holly. "We like innovative nonfiction." "Something with good visual components, not just talking heads in a room," explains Tom.
The programmers also stay away from choosing a specific theme for the festival. "But of course there’s often a zeitgeist out there that directors are part of," admits Tom. "Two years ago, it was the Iraq war; last year, it was children in distress. And immigration issues have been huge the last couple of years."
Hall and Herrick say that assembling the final line-up is a last-minute process. "It’s a complete tightrope walk," says Tom. "It’s not until people start saying, ‘Yes, you can show the film’ that we can start asking who’s involved with that film we can get down here—directors, stars, etc. Right now [in early March] we’re responding to what was just shown for the very first time two weeks ago. Often there’s stuff we love we can’t get, because they haven’t decided on the release date yet."
Once the festival actually opens, "We don’t sleep for 10 days, basically," says Tom. "We oversee everything from shipping the films to installing the equipment we need to show high-def; we have to get all the filmmakers here and set their schedules and get them where they need to be."
"I eat at every possible opportunity and I still lose weight," says Holly with a laugh. "But it’s great, because we’ve been alone and isolated watching the films, and now we get to interact with the audiences."
OK, so what will we see this month at the festival? Here are a few early favorites from Hall and Herrick.
The Extra Man. This opening night film stars Kevin Kline as a raconteur who leads a young man down the path of escorting older women about town in the hope of being remembered in their wills. "This will be a big hit," predicts Tom. "Variety says it’s Kline’s best performance in years."
Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. "It’s about their relationship after the premiere of The Rite of Spring," says Holly. Stravinsky is played by Mads Mikkelsen, best known as the villain in the James Bond film Casino Royale.
Opus Jazz. "This is a really great film featuring the choreography of Jerome Robbins," says Holly. "A ballet dancer who was close to him and her partner staged the dances with New York City Ballet dancers. It’s incredibly beautiful."
Two films somewhat related to politics: One, Convention, explores how Denver rose to the challenge of presenting the 2008 Democratic convention. The other, 11/4/08, interviews people around the world on the day leading up to Barack Obama’s election.
A few other intriguing titles:I Forgot To Tell You, starring Omar Sharif and shot in the South of France; Hadewijch, about a girl kicked out of a convent who gets involved with a radical sect of Islam; I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton as a wealthy Italian who has a sexual awakening in midlife; and Alamar, a "docufiction" shot on a fishing trip along a Mexican coral reef.
In addition, Hall and Herrick are excited about this year’s new Investors Lab, an innovation designed to bring together those planning film projects with possible financiers in a casual, controlled environment. Also new this year: a staged reading of a screenplay by Oren Moverman (writer of The Messenger), which will be directed by Steve Buscemi and may star Ben Foster and Patricia Clarkson in this adaptation of Williams Burroughs’ Queer.
There will be 160 films on the schedule in all (including shorts). For more, go to sarasotafilmfestival.com.