Watching (and talking) movies in McMinnville

Local filmmakers involved with the McMinnville Short Film Festival discuss the role of video stores, film festivals, and "This Is Spinal Tap" in their work

The 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival was too big a meal to consume entirely last weekend, but I did get to a screening in the largest auditorium at Coming Attractions’ multiplex, which was pretty full Sunday afternoon. Between that and watching a few online, I caught about 15 of the record 50 films shown over two days. Only a few left me cold; most films — none longer than 20 minutes and many no more than 10 — were very good, and a few were excellent.

A complete list of this year’s films, nominations and winners can be found
here.

Festival organizers Dan and Nancy Morrow are friends, but I feel like I’m on solid ground in saying that the McMinnville Short Film Festival is a polished affair, organized by serious film-lovers who know what they’re doing. I hadn’t attended a film festival before (having a kid puts a damper on extracurricular stuff like that), but I was impressed with both the quality of the work on the screen and the informal, yet professional presentation. It is also encouraging to see a mainstream movie theater chain (Southern Oregon-based Coming Attractions, which runs many small-town theaters in Oregon and several other states) work with locals like this, handing over its largest screen for two days for a homegrown show. I hope to scoop up a bigger helping in 2020.

One of the weekend’s big crowd-pleasers was Sac de Merde. A barely 14-minute comedy about a young New York woman’s dating woes, it includes what is possibly the funniest and most outrageous sex scene I’ve ever seen in a film. Sac de Merde came from California, directed by Greg Chwerchak of Los Angeles. The film was nominated in five categories and received the festival’s top honor, the Grand Jury award, along with awards for directing and original short story, which was written by the trio of Chwerchak, Arielle Haller-Silverstone (who was also nominated for her acting in the film), and Gabrielle Berberich.

Arielle Haller-Silverstone was nominated for a Best Actress award for her work in the McMinnville audience favorite, “Sac de Merde,” which she also co-wrote.

He Calls Them All By Name, directed by Chad Sogas (who splits his time between Portland and Brooklyn, N.Y.) also impressed this year’s judges, garnering six nominations and winning in four categories, including: Best Actor (Ted Rooney), Best Sound Mixing (Noah Woodburn) and Best Editing (Katie Turinski). (The festival named two Best Actors; the second was Moussa Sylla in La Rage.)

Sogas’ film is an eerie piece centered on an intense confrontation between a tenant farmer and his drunk, gun-toting neighbor. Shot entirely outdoors at night, it was inspired in part by Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic short stories and films such as In Cold Blood and A Face in the Crowd. The story is pretty thin gruel that falls just short of being a complete enigma, but it clearly spoke to the political unease of the times. The technical skill on display, direction, and acting were outstanding. Greg Schmitt’s cinematography was extraordinary, and the film deservedly won for that as well.

Chad Sogas, director of “He Calls Them All By Name,” checks out a shot on
the set. His crowd-funded short was nominated for six awards at the 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival and won four.

This year’s keynote speaker was Portland indie filmmaker James Westby, who talked for 45 minutes and offered extended sneak peaks of his upcoming feature, which looks at the rise and fall of the video store. (If you’d like to watch the festival awards dinner and Westby’s keynote speech, it’s online here.)

Interestingly, Westby has never been one for making shorts. “I just started making features,” he told the crowd Sunday night. “I just wanted to be the Coen brothers and Sam Raimi. The films I made early on were very rigidly scheduled and produced. I storyboarded them. They were kind of like mini-Hollywood films, but done dirt cheap. I made seven feature films. A lot of them you’ve never heard of and will never see. Some of them you just have to throw away, even if they cost a lot of money.”

Before the festival, Westby and I traded emails. I’d been told prior to contacting him that he was busy editing At the Video Store (he expects to finish in a couple months) and might not have time for questions, but if he didn’t, he made time. Here’s our exchange, edited for clarity:

Portland filmmaker James Westby says the loss of video stores will make it more difficult for “film nerds” to educate themselves.

What are some of your earliest and most vivid memories of film, either experiences at the theater or with whatever home-video format was hot when you were younger?

Westby: The most formative experience for me was going to the video store for the first time with my family in 1984 in Aberdeen and renting This Is Spinal Tap and Eddie and the Cruisers. We also rented the player. I can’t recall if it was VHS or Beta, but those two left a lasting impression, and not just because we watched them three times each. Only Spinal Tap stands the test of time. It turned out to have so many elements in it that would inspire me: a love for fake documentaries (Albert Brooks’ Real Life is also incredible), also the creation of well-written, melodic comedy songs. Furthermore, This Is Spinal Tap is a master class of acting. Nobody stresses that enough. There is not one performance in that movie that does not feel completely real. Eddie and the Cruisers is awful, but I kind of love it, too; probably mostly because of that experience of discovering it with my family.

Obviously, filmmakers learn so much from watching others’ work, but do you recall any directors who made an impression on you because you took it one step further to learn about how they worked?

LaserDiscs and then DVDs and Blu-Rays, with their behind-the-scenes featurettes, were from heaven. The one on Blue Velvet is fantastic. Another played on A&E and was about Scorsese and featured footage from the set of Goodfellas. Before all that, I devoured film books on directors. Cassavetes on Cassavetes and Scorsese on Scorsese and also Kubrick by Michel Ciment were my favorites. I didn’t go to college, save for a few semesters of community college, so these books were a huge part of my schooling. Actually, the first time that film-making was demystified for me was when we rented the VHS tape of the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which featured on-set stuff and profiles of crew members.

We’re all familiar with the decline of video stores and the rise of streaming, but I think less known outside the film community is the fact that the number of film festivals is booming. What your thoughts are on both?

The great Danny Peary, author of the Cult Movies books, told me that he felt the rise of film festivals emanated from the popularity of the “cult” sections of video stores, which he sees as the only genre that can be truly defined by its audience. The subsections in the cult section and the subcategorization of other sections gave power to niche films, and subsequently, programming and patronage of film festivals, particularly genre festivals. Perhaps there is also something related to the mostly impersonal process of streaming and the need for something to keep us all together in a public space enjoying our favorite kinds of movies.

You’re wrapping up post-production on a new film. Tell us about it. Is the focus exclusively on Movie Madness, or do you go after a bigger picture?

At the Video Store is a celebration of the stores I worked in over the years, a love story about Portland, with a particular focus on local combo shops, Movie Madness being one of them, an amazing video store as well as a film-history museum. The film features original songs and little surreal sketches, non sequiturs and funny anecdotes from several of my own personal heroes: John Waters, Todd Haynes, Nicole Holofcener, and others. It will hopefully make people laugh and cry, heartily.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m trying to get a spoiler out of you, but what is the future of video stores? Movie Madness is still going; McMinnville had a Blockbuster and two independents when I came here in the mid-1990s, and now we’re down to one family-owned store, the Reel Hollywood Video. It feels like a cultural extinction.

My movie is more a fluttery sort of collage, a collection of stories and recollections, a personal essay, than it is a deep history with a strong argument for What’s To Come. But what I have gleaned is that big film-nerd-paradise outfits (Scarecrow Video in Seattle, Movie Madness here in Portland, Vidiots in Santa Monica, and several others) have become nonprofit businesses that allow for donations, which allows them to function pretty much like they always did; they are like protected archives. So many people have supported these stores online with huge amounts of crowd-funding money to save them from extinction. People may not frequent video stores anymore, but they sure do seem to support their reason/need to exist.

The saddest result of this “extinction” is that there is simply no way to become a film expert and proper film nerd without a well-curated video store. I don’t think there are many folks left who think they will get a well-rounded film education from watching Netflix. Don’t get me wrong: I watch TV shows and documentaries on Netflix and Hulu all the time. But film history exists best in the video stores.

Portand filmmaker Jason Rosenblatt has been a regular at the McMinnville Short Film Festival the past few years and regards it as a key outlet to get his movies in front of audiences.

ANOTHER FILMMAKER I REACHED OUT TO was Jason Rosenblatt, who had several films in this year’s festival: Mork Chop, a quirky and intriguing take on the time-travel genre; Zero Night Stand, a dark comedy about a thoroughly awkward third date that had me laughing out loud; and Busy, in which a young woman’s plans are interrupted by a suicidal friend who calls for help.

Rosenblatt was born and raised in the Portland area and started making films on VHS video while attending Lewis & Clark College. He attended graduate school at Columbia College Chicago, but before graduating, moved to Los Angeles where he worked as a reader for entertainment and talent agencies after interning at Spyglass Entertainment. After having multiple projects “get off the ground and flounder” in L.A., he returned to Portland to make movies and raise his children.

Rosenblatt works a graveyard-shift job that allows him to write and work on films, including Vicious, which stars Angela Nordeng and Jason Richter from Free Willy, and his web series Ted Tantrum: the Self-Reliant Man. He’s been a regular at the McMinnville festival since 2015, when he entered Gerard. Rosenblatt was also great about taking time to talk shop. My questions and his answers, edited for length and clarity, appear below:

What do you like about the Mac festival?

Rosenblatt: My first year at the festival was 2015. Gerard was a weird film and even though I got it into other festivals, both screenings were empty, and I couldn’t get a sense of audience reaction. But at McMinnville, the theater was packed. The festival was a one-day event, and it really gave me a lot of confidence in my work. The festival is great because of the venue, a legitimate first-run movie screen, the Q&A’s (following each screening) and the dinners.

How do you, as a director, approach a short film?

My motivation for making shorts is that they are manageable in terms of budget, and with film festivals like McMinnville out there, there is a place to show the film to an audience beyond my direct, online contacts. The most rewarding moment I’ve ever had was at the McMinnville Festival in 2016 after the screening of For Dad (which is about a girl leaving messages on her phone for her comatose father), when a viewer thanked me for making the film. She told me how her own father went into a coma when she was young, and she desperately wanted to see him before he passed away. I’ve gotten a few messages from people online telling me how they like the film as well, but it’s not the same thing.

Shorts allow me to conduct experiments — shooting a film on an iPhone (For Dad), shooting only one of two participants in a conversation (Busy) or attempting to combine a high-energy prologue with a painfully awkward real-time scene (Zero Night Stand). A lot of my online audience is other filmmakers, and lot of the feedback I get on the script or the first cut of a film is from other filmmakers, so they definitely shape the final product. I have a regular collaboration with Sean Parker, who shot and edited Mork Chop and did the color grading on Busy, Zero Night Stand, and Age of the A**hole.

How has the calling-card aspect of film festivals worked for you over the years?

It is tough to say what doors have been opened by the short films I have done. I know that actors are eager to work with me, often regardless of the budget. I also have a calling-card feature and so far, I have not gotten too many calls, but at present my feature, Vicious, is only released in Denmark on the Blockbuster streaming site.

Some short films are made as a sample of a feature or a web series, but with my short films, I’m trying to tell a very short story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The three short films I am in preproduction on feel self-contained. The benchmark of success for each is acceptance into the McMinnville Short Film Festival and material for the reels of the actors involved.

What’s on filmmakers’ minds these days? What do you all talk about?

There are a lot of vacuums. For every artist, it feels like we are in one, and I am no different. Honestly, in order to facilitate a creative space to create stuff, often filmmakers have to ignore the market entirely, because it feels like it shifts so much. What I hear from cohorts is often “let’s just get it made, then we’ll figure out what to do with it.”

When I commit to making something, I try to have multiple ways that it can be a win for me and those involved. I could say, “Either this gets into Sundance and wins an Academy Award, or I am a failure,” but I don’t look at it that way. My thinking is, if we start the film and can’t finish it, at least the actors will have footage for their demo reels. If we do finish it and it’s good, we can get it into a festival like McMinnville and get it on IMDb. If we get into McMinnville, perhaps it will be good enough to earn an award nomination or win that can add accolades on IMDb, such as the nomination for Busy at this year’s festival. That way, no matter what, we get something out of this and the process makes everyone involved better, hopefully.

What’s next for you? What other projects you are working on?

Next up for these three films, I suppose Mork Chop will be made available for online consumption. This is the first festival appearance for both Busy and Zero Night Stand, so they might still have a few more to go before they join my Vimeo channel’s available-to-the-public selection. Additionally, Vicious has a domestic release date of Sept. 17 from Summer Hill Films. My web series, Ted Tantrum, is ongoing with new episodes every month on YouTube. I have three short films that are currently in preproduction and their primary target will probably be the McMinnville festival in 2020.

ARTS JOURNAL: Finished reading Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories with my 9-year-old last week, while I dived into a Del Rey paperback I bought for a couple of bucks at a used book store in Salem around 1978: Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first in an epic fantasy series featuring a thoroughly repugnant antihero. Also proceeding slowly but steadily through Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci biography.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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