by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
After 25 days and 450 films (features, documentaries and shorts), which included 49 world premieres, from a record 92 countries, the 41st annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) has come to an end. New Zealand sensation The Dark Horse picked up Golden Space Needle audience awards for both Best Film and Best Actor for veteran Cliff Curtis, while Inside Out, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Shaun the Sheep Movie and Good Ol' Boy rounded out the top five picks by the audience for the prestigious award.
Other Golden Space Needle winners included Romeo is Bleeding for Best Documentary, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) for Best Director, veteran German character actor Nina Hoss (Phoenix) for Best Actress and the sensational Even the Walls for Best Short Film. Grand Jury winners - handed out by collection of critics - included Hungary's Károly Ujj-Mészáros for Best New Director (Liza, the Fox-Fairy) and The Great Alone for Best Documentary, while the idiosyncratically bizarre, and in many ways intoxicatingly wonderful, Chattie Catties picked up the Best New American Cinema prize in something of a minor upset.
Personally, I saw plenty of sensational motion pictures, including Pixar's Inside Out, Mr. Holmes featuring an Oscar-worthy Ian McKellan, the superb Gemma Bovary, the pitch black noir comedy-thriller Cop Car with Kevin Bacon, the devastating documentary 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, what might be Studio Ghibli's final masterpiece When Marnie Was There, the rollicking comedy Sleeping with Other People and Noah Baumbach's latest collaboration with muse Greta Gerwig Mistress America. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl lived up to the hype, as did Shaun the Sheep Movie, The Overnight, Cartel Land, Heaven Knows What and opening night sensation Spy. Best of all might just have been Mark Christopher's 54: The Director's Cut, the filmmaker finding redemption 17 years after Miramax bastardized his version which debuted to empty theaters back in the summer of 1998.
All of this is fine. Fun, even, especially for cinephiles who spent the majority of SIFF's 25-day onslaught digging into everything from archival prints of Satyajit Ray's magnificent Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu) to New Zealand's gore-filled Heavy Metal-centered youth gross-out horror-comedy Deathgasm. But what about the filmmakers themselves? What's it like for a local moviemaker who finds himself in the middle of all this chaos for the very first time? What is his SIFF experience like?
Enter John Portanova, the talented writer/director of the giddily entertaining Valley of the Sasquatch. His fun, frantic, devilishly creative low budget debut was a father-son story gone horribly wrong, a somewhat estranged pair heading into the woods to repair their relationship only to discover Big Foot isn't as big a myth as everyone thought. Not so much original as it is just exceedingly well put together and conceived, the film is a gleefully gruesome B-movie that delivers the goods on what was an obviously minimal budget, the director delivering the type of genre calling card worth taking note of.
Portanova didn't just make an appearance at SIFF as part of his own film's screenings. No, he made an entire month of it, running between venues going to as many events as he could while making sure all his fans and friends on Facebook and Twitter knew exactly where he was every step of the way. He made the most of his SIFF adventure, and as such I thought it would be interesting to touch base with him about his experiences. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What was it like? Finding out your film, Valley of the Sasquatch, had been accepted into SIFF?
John Portanova: It was very exciting. I've lived my whole life in Washington and this film is one that is set here, we shot it here and it was partially inspired by a true story of a Sasquatch attack on Mount St. Helens. Having such strong local ties made it great to be accepted into the biggest festival in the state.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As a local filmmaker, did you ever allow yourself to dream that you could have one of your films play in the festival?
John Portanova: This was my first feature as a director, but the third for my production company The October People. We had submitted, I think, a short and one of the features to SIFF in the past and not gotten in, so we knew how hard it was to get in even for local filmmakers. I try to have a more realistic view of what any given project will do, so I don't get caught up in the what ifs of festival acceptances or distribution. I thought it'd be a great fit for a movie about a local legend to play at SIFF and was very happy when we were accepted.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Why Valley of the Sasquatch? Why this story? What was it about this idea, this concept, that sparked your imagination and made you realize this was a film you just had to make?
John Portanova: I've loved Bigfoot, UFOs and the paranormal my entire life. I grew up reading books about them and watching investigative shows such as 'Unsolved Mysteries' and 'Sightings.' As soon as I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker I started jotting down stories I thought I would like to turn into scripts. One of the first things I did was think back to that true story of the Sasquatch attack on the mining cabin on Mount St. Helens. Inspired by that story I wrote down one sentence on a piece of paper, 'Night of the Living Dead with Bigfoot.' That was really the main spark of inspiration for the whole thing. Luckily the budget point of making a siege movie in a cabin in the woods with minimal characters was low enough that I was able to accomplish it after producing and writing just a couple of features.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me about that first screening over at the SIFF Cinema Uptown. What was going through your mind? What were you thinking?
John Portanova: It was great. We had a sold out show even though we were playing the same weekend as the Sasquatch Music Festival and Folklife. I think that shows how supportive the local film community is and how much people love Bigfoot.
I don't get nervous during screenings, I like to just sit there and hear how the audience is reacting to various parts of the film. We had a very vocal crowd. They were cracking up during the banter between Will (played by local actor D'Angelo Midili) and Sergio (David Saucedo) and jumping and screaming in all the right spots. There's one particular death scene near the end of the film that got the loudest mix of laughs, applause and groans that I've ever heard at one of our films. That was pretty amazing.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Then, a few days later, they had to move the second screening of your film into the large auditorium at the Uptown. That had to be a pretty amazing feeling.
John Portanova: Yeah, it was very cool. That's my favorite auditorium at the theater and I loved hearing the sound design and score on that great sound system. But the best part of that second screening was a dude, who was not associated with the film, showing up in a homemade Sasquatch costume. I took pictures with him on the red carpet and he sat and watched the movie in what I imagine was a very hot fur suit.
Sara Michelle Fetters: But you just didn't show up to be a part of your own film's local debut. You were here the entire festival. Going to screenings. Taking part in panels. Chatting up with fellow filmmakers, craftspeople and attendees. Why? What made you want to do that?
John Portanova: Honestly, I just wanted to take advantage of the filmmaker pass that was given to me by SIFF. Like I said before, I don't get my expectations up for future events that I have no control over. So I thought, I might never have a filmmaker pass again I better go and see everything I can! I love movies, which is why I make them, and so I wanted to see everything that looked interesting and meet as many people as I could at parties and events. Taking part in panels is something I love to do; I like to try and share whatever I've learned in my eight years as a Seattle filmmaker with whoever is interested enough to listen.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You also took part in Crypticon, doing events there during the day and then rushing to two, sometimes three SIFF screenings at a variety of venues immediately afterwards. Are you a glutton for punishment?
John Portanova: As a horror fan, Crypticon is one of my favorite events of the year. Unfortunately, it happened smack dab in the middle of SIFF and on the same weekend we were having our Seattle Premiere. So while I was trying to attend screenings and do press for Sasquatch, I was taking part in multiple panels and hanging out with my horror family at Crypticon. I made it through, but just barely.
Sara Michelle Fetters: On top of that, you made sure everyone knew what you were doing and when, charting your SIFF and Crypticon journeys via Facebook and Twitter. Why?
John Portanova: I don't mind watching movies by myself, but I thought if I shared my schedule each day maybe some friends would see it and think 'that sounds cool&I'll go too.' There ended up being a few people, yourself included, that became my festival buddies. We would watch multiple films together and were catching each other up on what the other missed. But besides wanting to hang out with people, I also liked to post the movies each day because SIFF is such a long festival that it's easy for people to forget what plays when. So I thought my daily posts would be a reminder of things that, in my opinion at least, looked good.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Why does SIFF matter? Is it too large? Or is it exactly what Seattle needs?
John Portanova: SIFF is important because Seattle is a city of film fans. We have the largest video store in the world in Scarecrow Video, we have multiple independent cinemas and, for the time being, we have this great bookstore in Cinema Books. We also have a very large film community. With these factors in mind it makes sense that we should have the biggest film festival in the world, which SIFF is, lengthwise. The only downside to having such a long festival is the extended lack of sleep and parking fees that accrue over the 25 days of SIFF.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk about being a local filmmaker. How hard is to get a film made in Washington state right now? What's the climate like for independent filmmakers such as yourself?
John Portanova: I think it's just as hard here as it is anywhere else to get a film made. You have to hustle, sometimes for years, to get a project off the ground. I have a little different vantage point because currently The October People make films at budget levels that things like the tax incentive don't affect us. We aren't going to go to another state because their incentive is better because our budgets are too low to even qualify. Plus, we just like it here!
I will say that if Washington state wants to create a thriving artistic community they should focus on supporting more of these smaller scale projects (micro-budget features, webseries, shorts) instead of focusing all of the incentive dollars on the latest big star who comes into town for a month once in their career. These smaller projects are what makes it so local artists can continue to have a filmmaking career and will keep them in Washington, so supporting that just makes sense to me.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What happens next with Valley of the Sasquatch?
John Portanova: We're going to continue traveling around on the festival circuit. We have our Canadian Premiere in a few weeks and we've gotten into a few fests that we aren't able to announce yet later in the year. We've also submitted or been invited to submit to many festivals that we haven't heard back from yet. We're also talking with distributors and trying to get our release squared away, hopefully for the fall or early 2016.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What happens next with you? A second film in the works?
John Portanova: The next film from The October People, which I will be producing, is called Ayla and we're aiming to shoot it here in Washington in the fall. We're currently raising some funds on Kickstarter for that. You can check out the campaign at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eliasganster/ayla-a-feature-film-about-life-from-death-reborn?ref=nav_search.
For my next film as a director, I'm adapting a book by a local author. It's my first adaptation, which has been interesting, but also exciting as the book is full of ideas that I never would of thought of myself. I'd describe it as a dark domestic drama melded with a ghost story. Valley of the Sasquatch was made to be a fun siege/creature feature, but with this one I want to make something very scary and full of nightmare imagery.
Sara Michelle Fetters: If you could encapsulate your entire SIFF experience into one short, succinct sentence, what would it be?
John Portanova: SIFF means popcorn for dinner and never getting enough sleep. (Laughs.)
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