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Scripting panel tops S.B. fest

SANTA BARBARA — A screenwriting panel featuring some of the hottest names in the business was the highlight of the first weekend of the 12th annual Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival. Fest thus far has been heavier on interesting tributes than on notable new films, although one documentary emerged from the pack as a real gem.

Paul Weiland’s Italian-lensed “Roseanna’s Grave” from Fine Line, with Jean Reno and Mercedes Ruehl, proved an inoffensive but far from distinguished opener on Thursday, and none of the indie premieres over the weekend — including Andrew Gallerani’s Hollywood success comedy “Just Write” with Jeremy Piven and Sherilyn Fenn, Sondra Locke’s outlaws-on-the-run drama “Do Me a Favor” starring Rosanna Arquette, and Lynn Roth’s romantic comedy “Changing Habits” with Moira Kelly and Eileen Brennan — seem poised for big commercial breakouts. In fact, most of the indies on view here have veered toward the lightweight, not the edgier stuff normally expected at fests.

‘Hardbody’ stands out

One standout, however, is S.R. Bindler’s “Hands on a Hardbody,” a technically deficient but hilarious docu about a contest in Texas in which the winner is literally the last man (or woman) standing with one hand touching a new truck, which is the prize. The film makes the most of the wacky subject’s humorous and thematic potential.

Tributes were paid to thesps Debbie Reynolds, Barbara Hershey and James Woods, and lenser Haskell Wexler. Harris Tulchin presented a panel on how to finance low-budget features, but the real all-star event of the weekend was a screenwriting seminar moderated by Fox 2000 prexy Laura Ziskin and featuring “The English Patient” writer-director Anthony Minghella, up from L.A. the morning after winning the Directors Guild award; “Sling Blade” writer-director-actor Billy Bob Thornton, who was received like a superstar; Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, scenarists of “Ed Wood” and “The People Vs. Larry Flynt”; “Risky Business” writer-director Paul Brickman; and “One Fine Day” scribe Ellen Simon.

Writers’ work on bigscreen

Initial discussion centered upon the extent to which the writers can expect their ideas to be represented onscreen, and how much they can be involved in the subsequent filmmaking process. Brickman bluntly said that, “The end of your work is when you come back from Kinko’s. After that, it’s out of your hands.”

Very much contrasting were the experiences of Karaszewski and Alexander. Stating that they enjoyed very good collaborations with both Tim Burton and Milos Forman, Karaszewski suggested that, “With the very good directors, we’re on the set almost every day and they welcome out suggestions, they’re not threatened by us.”

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