Meet the Filmmaker: Nate Simms

This Sunday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m., the Saratoga Film Forum welcomes local photographer and filmmaker Nate Simms to screen and discuss his documentary Brunswick. The Film Forum spoke with Mr. Simms via e-mail about the film.

What is your background as a filmmaker?

I was an amateur still photographer for a few years, but always with the goal of trying to do something useful with the images. Those thoughts just shifted over into video when I first started working on this project [Brunswick], but I never had any formal training at all. This was really just a “figure it out as you go” type of thing. I guess the first time I ever filmed anything was the first day of working on this.

Tell us about the film and the issues it deals with.
To me it’s a few different stories being told at once. There is a personal story of a farmer and his relationship to his land and to another family he had known his whole life, but there is also a larger cultural and political story of how and why we collectively do things in America. That sounds pretty grandiose, but basically the root issues and topics to me would be things like farming, development, local politics, connection to place and land, trust, betrayal, and so forth.
As I understand it, the theme of the film is that Brunswick is trying to balance economic development with retaining its essential rural character. What are the tradeoffs? What are the challenges? Are there any solutions?
Well, that could be a really long answer, but any talk of economic growth assumes that we believe we should be living in an economy where “growth,” as it is commonly understood, is the goal. I guess I don’t buy into that entirely, so I am starting from a different place in that discussion. Despite the fact that towns like Brunswick talk a lot about how they value their rural character, it seems to me that they are not exactly being proactive in figuring out ways to actually help farmers make a better living (or to make a living, period), or encourage smarter building practices, or whatever. Although “solutions” is not a word I would want to use, I think the first step in progressing away from the current mess is to reject a few commonly held ideas (like what an economy should look like, or what constitutes success, etc.). That, of course, might not be possible.
Is Brunswick the only town you know of that is dealing with these issues?
I would guess that most towns are dealing with these issues everyday. Conflicts of interest in local government, farmers or land-owners facing tough decisions about what to do with their land, etc…Brunswick is just an example in my mind of what’s happening everywhere and a lot of people who have seen the film have said that their town was experiencing the same or similar problems.
What would you like viewers to come away with after watching Brunswick?
It would be great if people who maybe didn’t know what was going on in their town checked into it a little. When I started filming this, I knew nothing at all about what was happening in the area on that level and it was interesting to watch things unfold. Ultimately, even if someone doesn’t like the film, they might find themselves in a discussion about the issues raised and that would be cool.

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A Tolkein of His Esteem

The perennial challenge for anyone attempting to adapt a novel to the screen is to get all the important plot aspects in and have it all make sense—all without losing a lot of the details that made a novel worth adapting in the first place, or having the movie end up being eight hours long. Such was the challenge of adapting the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and such was the challenge of adapting the author who could perhaps be considered the Tolkein of espionage fiction: John le Carré. (It is also the challenge of the movie blogger to succinctly summarize an author’s rather eventful early life.)
Born David John Moore Cornwell in 1931, he went to school at Oxford and it was during this time that he started working undercover for the MI5, the British Security Service, spying on lefty organizations (or organisations, if you prefer) and searching for possible Soviet agents (this was the 1950s, after all). He became an MI5 officer in 1958, and two years later transferred to MI6, the foreign intelligence service. It was at this time that he began writing novels. An MI6 rule at the time barred Cornwall from publishing stories and novels under his own name, so he was required to adopt a pseudonym: John le Carré (French for “John the Square,” apparently). It took a few tries, but the third novel was the charm: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) was his international breakthrough. Just as well, too: he had to leave the service in 1964 (he could work full-time as a novelist by then) after his cover was blown to the KGB by a double agent. If this sounds like a plot from one of le Carré’s books, it kind of is: the British double agent who outed him—Kim Philby—inspired the character who turns out to be the mole George Smiley pursues in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. (Like Cornwall, Smiley was forced into retirement prior to the events of the novel.)
The book was published in 1974 and was a bestseller, and was volume one of what would become known as le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy” (back to a Tolkein comparison), the subsequent volumes being The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979).
The current movie tie-in paperback edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy runs to 400 pages, and fairly dense pages at that, so you can see the challenge for a screenwriter. The BBC solved this problem when it first adapted the book in 1979—they did it as a seven-part miniseries (starring Alec Guinness as Smiley).
The latest adaptation, which the Saratoga Film Forum is screening this weekend—Thursday and Friday, March 22nd and 23rd at 7:30, and Sunday, March 25th at 3:00—is a “mere” 127 minutes. Look for a cameo by Cornwall/le Carré himself as an extra during one of the flashback “Christmas party” scenes.
And at 80, le Carré is still writing. His most recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, was published in 2010. And it’s only 320 pages.
Note that the Saratoga Film Forum will also be screening the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (starring Richard Burton) on Monday, March 26th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Spring Street Gallery at 110 Spring Street in Saratoga.

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Imagine There’s No Kevin…

Lionel Shriver’s 2003 book We Need To Talk About Kevin is a somewhat unconventional thriller, in that it’s an epistolary novel, or written as a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian, the titular Kevin’s mother, to her estranged husband Franklin. (I’ve always wanted to write an epistolary novel but I could never afford the postage.) The book, Shriver’s seventh, was adapted for radio by the BBC in 2008, and ran as a series of 10 15-minute episodes that ran every day as part of the Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour drama series. (For those wondering, Lionel Shriver was born Margaret Ann Shriver.)
BBC Films acquired the rights to a film adaptation as long ago as 2005, but various financing snafus and development staved off the start of actual production until 2010. Autor Shriver was offered a consultative role, but declined, stating that she “had it up to [her] eyeballs with that book.”
The Saratoga Film Forum is showing We Need to Talk About Kevin this weekend, with screenings last night (sorry for the late post; it’s been “one of those weeks”…), tonight at 7:30, and Sunday at 3:00.
Without giving away too much—no “spoiler alerts” here—I suspect bits of this film will be rough viewing in light of certain recent events, and the film will likely stimulate no small amount of discussion (which we like; that’s what we’re here for!). An interesting review I came across on Busted Halo, “an online magazine for spiritual seekers,” written by Jake Martin, a Jesuit priest and movie critic, said:
Kevin is a story of hope for a new millennium, an It’s a Wonderful Life in the age of school shootings and planes crashing into buildings — a world-weary world that has been bombarded by nihilistic themes in their narratives for the better part of a century. It is a world where any attempts to offer a message of mercy, conversion and redemption must be done deftly and authentically, because at the end of the day, sometimes the community won’t rally around you and more often than not Mr. Potter carries the day.
The reviewer concludes:
We Need to Talk about Kevin in fact needs to be talked about, as what it is attempting to do by marrying the darkest, most nihilistic components of contemporary cinema with a redemptive message is groundbreaking.
It bears mentioning that, despite the title, the film is not about Kevin so much as it is about Eva and her deteriorating state of mind. 

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Art Carnage

This week’s Film Forum screening, Roman Polanski’s dark comedy Carnage, features a screenplay adapted from French playwright Yasmina Reza’s Le Dieu du Carnage, or TheGod of Carnage. Its English-language adaptation, translated by Christopher Hampton, whom you may recall as the screenwriter for A Dangerous Method, was originally Lay Waste to England for Me. Or, in other words, “carnage.” Interestingly, the setting for the film adaptation was moved to Brooklyn, but was actually shot in Paris because of Polanski’s fugitive status. The God of Carnage won a 2009 Olivier Award for Best New Play, and three 2009 Tonys (Best Play, Best Leading Actress, and Best Direction). It had also been nominated for a slew of other Tonys.
Theatergoers in the 1990s may recall Reza’s previous theatrical triumph, the 1994 play Art. (Arthad also been translated into English by Christopher Hampton.) Art played on Broadway from February 12, 1998, until August 8, 1999, and won the Tony for Best Play. It would run for more than 600 performances.
Art has many things in common with Carnage, most notably the veneer of civility being quickly eroded and characters’ flaws making themselves manifest through cutting barbs. In Art, it’s slightly more absurd and almost Seinfeld-esque; Serge (played in the original cast by Victor Garber) buys a phenomenally expensive, completely white painting, perhaps the most emblematic example of “modern art.” His friend of 15 years Marc (originally played by Alan Alda) is aghast, and their friendship fractures because Marc can’t believe what his friend considers “art.” A third friend, Yvan (Alfred Molina), is stuck in the middle and doesn’t really want to take sides. But soon, the three of them are engaged in a bitter war of words that, when you get right down to it, is not really about the painting or art. Just like the escalating battle in Carnage is not really about two kids fighting in a park.
The juxtaposition of the kids at the beginning of Carnage with the subsequent behavior of their parents suggests that we never really grow up as much as we think we do, and that the playground is just a rehearsal for the so-called “real world.” And the twist ending of Carnage suggests, perhaps, that children are far wiser than their elders.

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Salute Our Shorts, Part 3

The Saratoga Film Forum’s weekend Short-Film-o-Rama concludes on Sunday, February 26th, at 3 p.m. with the last of the three short film Oscar categories: Best Documentary (Short Subject).
This category was established at the 1941 Academy Awards. The very first Academy Award winner in the category should give you some idea of the impetus for creating it: “Churchill’s Island,” a document of the Allied defense of Great Britain during World War II. A year later, at the 1942 Academy Awards, the War accounted for all 25 films nominated—and four special awards presented—in the Documentary category that year. The War and its aftermath continued to dominate the Oscars for much of the rest of the decade, and then Korea took over in 1950. So if we find an emphasis on current events among this year’s nominees—“Incident in New Baghdad,” “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” e.g.—it’s nothing new.
By the way, as you watch this year’s shorts, you may be wondering what the criteria for short films are. Well, according to the Academy:
A short film is defined as an original motion picture that has a running time of 40 minutes or less, including all credits.
This excludes from consideration such works as:
1.  previews and advertising films
2.  sequences from feature-length films such as credit sequences
3.  unaired episodes of established TV series
4.  unsold TV series pilots
The picture must have been publicly exhibited for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County for a run of at least three consecutive days with at least two screenings a day. Films must be screened in 35mm or 70mm film or in a 24- or 48-frame progressive scan format with a minimum projector resolution of 2048 by 1080 pixels…
The film must have won a qualifying award at a competitive film festival, as specified in the Academy Festival List. Proof of the award must be submitted with the entry….
A student film may also qualify by winning a Gold Medal award in the Academy’s 2011 Student Academy Awards competition in the Animation, Narrative, Alternative, or Foreign Film award category. Winners in the Documentary category are not eligible.
A short film may not be exhibited publicly anywhere in any nontheatrical form, including but not limited to broadcast and cable television, home video, and Internet transmission, until after its Los Angeles theatrical release, or after receiving its festival or Student Academy Award.  Excerpts of the film totaling no more than ten percent of its running time are exempted from this rule.
So there.
If you’re attending any of the Film Forum’s Oscar Comes Home parties or watching all by your lonesome, keep track of the winners—in the three Short Film categories, and/or in any or all of the other categories—this Sunday, February 26, kicking off at 7:00 p.m. on ABC. Visit the official Oscar site for more information than you may require, and even download a special Oscar iPhone and iPad app.

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Salute Our Shorts, Part 2

The Saratoga Film Forum’s weekend festival of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films continues tonight (Friday, February 24th) at 7:30 with the 2012 contenders for Short Film, Live Action. The changes in the actual name of this category track the evolution of cinema, in a way. When the category was first established in 1932, there were two categories, “Best Short Subject, Comedy” and “Best Short Subject, Novelty.” This lasted until 1936, when they changed the categories to “Best Short Subject, One-Reel” and “Best Short Subject, Two-Reel” and added a third “Best Short Subject, Color” category. The separate “Color” category was dropped after 1937, but the one-reel/two-reel division continued 1956, after which the category has been known as “Short Film, Live Action.”
Short films rarely if ever get any Oscar buzz, but it’s an important category for filmmakers. Many directors launch their careers with shorts, using the much shorter format and budgetary requirements to hone their cinematic storytelling skills before tackling a feature. The shorter format also lends itself to certain topics that may not be suitable for a feature-length production. Said Stefan Gieren, producer of nominated live action short, “Raju”:

Short film is an art form in itself and there are certain topics that I believe can only find their audience if they’re done well in short film. A feature film is something totally different.

In the dim and distant past, short films used to be shown before features (Pixar’s animated features are routinely preceded by a short, a rare exception these days), but film festivals are one of the only venues left to see some truly creative examples of filmmaking. And, of course, weekend screenings like the Film Forum’s.

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Salute Our Shorts!

This weekend, the Saratoga Film Forum is screening this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. They’re divided into three screenings: tonight (7:30 p.m.) are the Animated Short Films, tomorrow (Friday at 7:30 p.m.) are Live Action Short Films, and Sunday (3:00 p.m.) are the Documentary Shorts.
The Academy Awards’ Animated Short Film category dates back to 1932 (the 5th Academy Awards) when it was called Short Subjects (Cartoons). From day one, Disney dominated; the first ever animated short to win an Oscar was one of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies called “Flowers and Trees”which also, as it happened, was the first commercially released film to be produced in full color (two-color Technicolor had been around for a while). Although the poster and titles for “Flowers and Trees” reads “Mickey Mouse Presents,” said rodent does not appear in it. (Disney’s Mickey Mouse shorts were already a successful series in 1932, and remained in back and white for three more years since it was felt that they didn’t need the novelty of color to give them a commercial boost.) You can watch “Flowers and Trees” here—and remember, this was before LSD had been invented. Interestingly, “Flowers and Trees” began production as a black-and-white short.
Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies wasn’t the only successful cartoon series; it is actually tied with Hanna-Barbera’s Tom and Jerry cartoons for winning the most Oscars (seven each) in the Best Short Subject (Cartoons) category. The first Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry short was 1943’s “A Yankee Doodle Mouse.”
The Oscar category Short Subjects (Cartoons) lasted until 1971, when the Academy changed it to Short Subjects, Animated Films in 1971 (“animated films” perhaps having a bit more gravitas than “cartoons”) and, finally, Animated Short Film in 1974. 
So when you watch this year’s nominees, think about the cultural impact of their forebears, and of the legacy to which this year’s shorts are heir.

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