The Valley on Film

In the last 18 years, the Northampton Independent Film Festival has evolved, and even gone away for a while. In 2012, after that hiatus, it became the Northampton International Film Festival and gained a new abbreviation: it’s not the “NIFF” longtime Valley film fans remember, but the bolder (and harder to pronounce) “NoHoIFF.”

NoHoIFF board member Gabrielle Chanel explains, “We changed the short name when we rebooted the festival in 2012. Many of the locals refer to Northampton as Noho, and we wanted to rebrand the festival with a friendlier name. One that resonated with the community.”

And the change to “international,” she says, reflects the opening of the festival to works from farther afield.

Whatever the name, it’s the same kind of sprawling event, featuring loads of films—many local—and related happenings. Ground zero for this year’s installment is Northampton’s Academy of Music. Things kick off Friday, Oct. 10, and the Fest holds a gala that night at R. Michelson Galleries in downtown Northampton.

The Valley has long boasted an impressive roster of writers, artists, and musicians. It’s also seen its share of filmmakers, with notables like Florentine Films, the production company name shared by its members Ken Burns, Roger Sherman, Larry Hott, and Buddy Squires. It’s little surprise that NoHoIFF has featured plenty of works produced in the Valley, and this year’s crop of films includes a fair number of homegrown efforts and films with local connections.

The God Question (screening Saturday, Oct. 11 at 5 p.m.) is a particularly ambitious Valley project. Not only was the feature-length work filmed here, its cast is primarily made up of local members of the Screen Actors Guild. That’s despite its sub-$50,000 price tag. SAG has, writer/producer Stan Freeman says, found ways to help filmmakers with small budgets. Because he found eight SAG actors in the vicinity, Freeman didn’t even have to pay travel costs for actors.

Freeman, a longtime science writer, concocted a tale of a near-future when computers have gained super-intelligence. When the first such machine gets too meddlesome, the project is shut down. That doesn’t stop a computer scientist (Keith Langsdale, who’s got a long list of credits that includes Law & Order, Chicago Hope, and Hear No Evil, See No Evil) from using a copy of the code. With it, he asks a question brought up by philosopher Jane Hurst (Cate Damon, whose face may be familiar from her many New Century Theatre appearances). It’s the question of God’s existence. Things don’t go according to plan.

Though the film, like many an independent production, has some rough edges—uneven sound, some staid dialogue, and lots of static shots of conversations—it’s also bolstered by Langsdale’s easy manner and impressive acting chops, not to mention the film’s compelling conceit and the further questions it raises. As a bonus, filmgoers can play “spot the location”—the eagle-eyed will note that more than one campus serves as the film’s UMass, and the restaurant scene takes place at a Northampton institution.

Another local offering comes from Elyria Films, the team of Elizabeth Foley and Peter Hobbs. It’s called Anniversary (screening Saturday, Oct. 11 at 2:45 p.m.), and it begins as a farcical romp through an anniversary party, then turns serious. Like the best shorts, it presents a complete tale, but leaves you wanting more. The couple at its center, played by Court Dorsey and Jeannine Haas, offer great performances as an obsessive, socially awkward professor (Dorsey) and his frustrated wife (Haas), also a professor.

Among the other films with local connections you’ll find Paper City, a documentary look at Holyoke; Cherry Cottage: The Story of an American House, which examines the history of a house in the Berkshires; Raising Matty Christian, a look at the life of Canton, Mass. resident Christian, born without complete legs, arms, or tongue; and Oil & Water, which follows the efforts of Amherst’s David Poritz, who went to Ecuador in a bid to launch the first company to certify oil as “fair trade.”•

 

NoHoIFF: Oct. 10-12, Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton. For info, schedule and tickets, visit nohoiff.org.

In the last 18 years, the Northampton Independent Film Festival has evolved, and even gone away for a while. In 2012, after that hiatus, it became the Northampton International Film Festival and gained a new abbreviation: it’s not the “NIFF” longtime Valley film fans remember, but the bolder (and harder to pronounce) “NoHoIFF.”

NoHoIFF board member Gabrielle Chanel explains, “We changed the short name when we rebooted the festival in 2012. Many of the locals refer to Northampton as Noho, and we wanted to rebrand the festival with a friendlier name. One that resonated with the community.”

And the change to “international,” she says, reflects the opening of the festival to works from farther afield.

Whatever the name, it’s the same kind of sprawling event, featuring loads of films—many local—and related happenings. Ground zero for this year’s installment is Northampton’s Academy of Music. Things kick off Friday, Oct. 10, and the Fest holds a gala that night at R. Michelson Galleries in downtown Northampton.

The Valley has long boasted an impressive roster of writers, artists, and musicians. It’s also seen its share of filmmakers, with notables like Florentine Films, the production company name shared by its members Ken Burns, Roger Sherman, Larry Hott, and Buddy Squires. It’s little surprise that NoHoIFF has featured plenty of works produced in the Valley, and this year’s crop of films includes a fair number of homegrown efforts and films with local connections.

The God Question (screening Saturday, Oct. 11 at 5 p.m.) is a particularly ambitious Valley project. Not only was the feature-length work filmed here, its cast is primarily made up of local members of the Screen Actors Guild. That’s despite its sub-$50,000 price tag. SAG has, writer/producer Stan Freeman says, found ways to help filmmakers with small budgets. Because he found eight SAG actors in the vicinity, Freeman didn’t even have to pay travel costs for actors.

Freeman, a longtime science writer, concocted a tale of a near-future when computers have gained super-intelligence. When the first such machine gets too meddlesome, the project is shut down. That doesn’t stop a computer scientist (Keith Langsdale, who’s got a long list of credits that includes Law & Order, Chicago Hope, and Hear No Evil, See No Evil) from using a copy of the code. With it, he asks a question brought up by philosopher Jane Hurst (Cate Damon, whose face may be familiar from her many New Century Theatre appearances). It’s the question of God’s existence. Things don’t go according to plan.

Though the film, like many an independent production, has some rough edges—uneven sound, some staid dialogue, and lots of static shots of conversations—it’s also bolstered by Langsdale’s easy manner and impressive acting chops, not to mention the film’s compelling conceit and the further questions it raises. As a bonus, filmgoers can play “spot the location”—the eagle-eyed will note that more than one campus serves as the film’s UMass, and the restaurant scene takes place at a Northampton institution.

Another local offering comes from Elyria Films, the team of Elizabeth Foley and Peter Hobbs. It’s called Anniversary (screening Saturday, Oct. 11 at 2:45 p.m.), and it begins as a farcical romp through an anniversary party, then turns serious. Like the best shorts, it presents a complete tale, but leaves you wanting more. The couple at its center, played by Court Dorsey and Jeannine Haas, offer great performances as an obsessive, socially awkward professor (Dorsey) and his frustrated wife (Haas), also a professor.

Among the other films with local connections you’ll find Paper City, a documentary look at Holyoke; Cherry Cottage: The Story of an American House, which examines the history of a house in the Berkshires; Raising Matty Christian, a look at the life of Canton, Mass. resident Christian, born without complete legs, arms, or tongue; and Oil & Water, which follows the efforts of Amherst’s David Poritz, who went to Ecuador in a bid to launch the first company to certify oil as “fair trade.”•

 

NoHoIFF: Oct. 10-12, Academy of Music, 274 Main St., Northampton. For info, schedule and tickets, visit nohoiff.org.

 

 

Q&A with Stan Freeman,

writer and producer, The God Question

 

Advocate: What was your inspiration for the film?

Stan Freeman: I worked most of my career in newspapers as a science writer and in the late 1990s, I was seeing a lot written about the coming age of super-intelligent machines. People were speculating about what machines smarter than humans were going to be able to do, about how they could make breakthroughs in things like medicine. One thing I read, though, talked about how these machines were going to be able to make breakthroughs in the soft sciences as well, in economics, psychology, and even philosophy. I immediately thought of this story.

However, I didn’t see the possibilities of it as a film until about 2009. I actually read a story in the Advocate about a short film a photographer had made with a prototype of a new camera put out by Canon that cost about $2,500 and that shot high-definition video. I looked at the film online. It was called Reverie and you still can find it on Vimeo. It was a sensation, and it knocked me out. It looked as good as any big-budget Hollywood film. You knew immediately that filmmaking had changed. You were going to be able to make a film for a few thousand dollars instead of a few million.

But I also knew this was going to change things for writers. A novelist or playwright controls the content of the novel or the play. They have the last word. Not true for screenwriters. They’ve never had the money needed to be the driving force behind a film, and as a result, they knew the script they handed in could be rewritten by almost anyone, the director, producer or even the lead actor. But with the cost to make a film with these new DSLRs maybe a tenth of what it would be using film stock, now a writer could sit in the driver’s seat in filmmaking. That’s when I started to take seriously the idea of making this story into a film.

 

How did you manage to hire SAG actors with such a low budget?

SAG evolved as filmmaking evolved in the last decade. When the costs of making films came down so dramatically, they responded with a type of agreement, the ultra-low-budget agreement, where you could hire a skilled SAG actor for $100 a day. It was aimed at independent filmmakers working on a shoestring budget. Actors were looking for good roles and if you wrote a script they liked, they might be willing to take the part, just for the chance to act in something they thought would be good.

In our case, many of our SAG actors will also get part of the profits, if there are any.

However, if I’d had to bring SAG actors from Boston or New York or anywhere else, the cost for travel, meals and hotels would have sent the budget through the roof. But this being the Valley, I found eight SAG actors within 30 miles of Northampton. They were able to drive home to dinner each day.

Our lead actor, Keith Langsdale, lived in Amherst. Yet, he’d acted on Broadway and in repertory theaters around the country. He’d also done a lot of TV, such as Law and Order and Chicago Hope. So I was very fortunate to find that much talent nearby.

As it was, we made this film for just under $50,000, which is considered a micro-budget film. Making a film for that little gives as a very good chance to make a profit. And just recently, we were picked up by a distributor, the Bridgestone Multimedia Group, which makes it more probable we can recoup our costs.

 

How was the Valley as a place to film?

Very good. Because so few films are shot here and because it is such as arts-centered area, we were welcomed nearly anywhere we asked to shoot. We offered to pay for locations, but some didn’t want the money. Debra Flynn at the Eastside Grill in Northampton let us shoot a scene there for free.

The big break was UMass though, which also let us shoot for free. The story was set at UMass, in the computer science department. People there read the script and gave us permission to shoot in many locations on campus, including the computer room. If they had said no, that would have probably been the end of the project. I hope they said yes because they liked the script and thought it would reflect well on the university.

 

Was it easy to find a good cast and crew here?

Luckily, yes. Because filmmaking has gotten so much cheaper, it’s created a kind of land rush of people who want to get into filmmaking. Me included, I guess. So you’ve got a lot of people pouring out of film schools with sophisticated skills. And again, the Valley, being the Valley, attracts its fair share of them, including actors.

However, our director, Doug Gordon, lives in Boston. He graduated from B.U. film school and has taught there on and off between documentary work. This is his first feature film. He liked the script and got together a group of his friends, all film school graduates he’d worked with previously, to be the crew. They would drive out each night before we were scheduled to shoot with a van loaded with equipment they’d rented in Boston. We shot for about 20 days in total in the summer and fall of 2012. I put up the Boston group at my house, with most of them sleeping on inflatable mattresses.

 

What’s your film background?

I got interested in fiction writing in college—I was actually an engineering major as an undergraduate. After college I had some short stories published in literary magazines and attended the MFA program in fiction writing at UMass. But like most writers, I explored other forms, including screenwriting. I would read the scripts of films I liked and absorb what I could. At 30, though, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make a career of this and went into newspapers. However, when newspapers started to fade a decade ago, I looked for other things to do and screenwriting again got on my radar because of the cost revolution in filmmaking.

 

Do you think you’ll make more films?

Making this film was a test in a way. I knew it was unlikely we would end up in the local cineplex, not as a small budget independent. But given how many people are watching movies online these days, if you make a film for very little money that has no recognizable names in the cast, can it make a profit if the story and acting are good, just in that online world?

If we make a profit, I have another script. If we don’t, then I’ll chalk this up as a fascinating adventure.•

 

Author: James Heflin

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