'Walk the Line,' 'Buckle Brothers' among films from former students

AFI alums fuel opener, other pics

It happens every year — American Film Institute alums make their mark in the AFI Fest lineup.

Eleven of the more than 120 films chosen this year are in some way tied to former students. But just because a filmmaker graduated from AFI doesn’t mean automatic acceptance into the festival.

“There’s absolutely no special consideration,” says AFI Fest programming director Nancy Collet. “Most of the time we don’t even know the films have anything to do with AFI. Sometimes people mention it in a letter but the submissions are separated from those as soon as they arrive. It’s a very diplomatic and careful process.”

That said, Collet is quick to add, “I’m always excited when I find out that some of the films were related to AFI. It makes me glad we chose them. It speaks to the high level of training the fellows receive at the conservatory.”

Among the alums’ films she recommends festgoers keep an eye out for are docu entry “The Art of Flight”; American Directions selection “Swimmers,” featuring Tony winner Cherry Jones; and black-and-white comedy “Mutual Appreciation,” from Andrew Bujalski, director of “Funny Ha Ha.”

Here’s a closer look at three films in this year’s lineup that have ties to AFI’s film school:

Walk the Line

(Gala Presentation — Opening Night)

Already a critical and audience favorite after fest exposure at Telluride and Toronto, the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” will open the fest Nov. 3. Co-writer Gill Dennis was in AFI’s first class, alongside such luminaries as David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Caleb Deschanel, and now he’s a teacher at the conservatory.

He labored on the “Line” script for eight years, during which time it landed with director James Mangold, a former student from Dennis’ days at CalArts. “It was great. I called him boss and he called me sir,” Dennis says about working with his former student on a major Hollywood project.

The scribe adds that one of the biggest challenges in bringing Cash’s life to the bigscreen was making sure the concert performances held as much dramatic weight as the rest of the film. “The thing that usually happens (in a musical film) is you get to the song and the movie stops,” Dennis explains. “We spent a lot of time making sure there was something going on between the performers onstage or someone in the wings or in the audience. It’s a continuation of what they came onstage with.”

Buckle Brothers

(Intl. Doc Competition)

Rodeos and inner cities might seem like polar opposites, but not so in this world premiere documentary, which mixes hip-hop culture and the cowboy lifestyle. Filmmakers Marquette Williams and Marcus Franklin follow four young people from South Central and Compton who compete on the rodeo circuit. “There’s an ideology of what is black. Black is what you are, not what you do,” Williams says of the unconventional subject matter.

Though neither Williams nor Franklin are AFI alums, Franklin’s father is: He’s director Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress,” “One False Move”). Williams says the elder Franklin was among several AFI alums that mentored the project every step of the way, offering moral support and invaluable knowledge, but the film had to stand on its merits during the submission process.

The filmmakers were so intent on premiering the doc in Los Angeles they turned down invitations from two other festivals while waiting to hear from AFI.

Williams, a father and 20th Century Fox employee who made “Buckle Brothers” during his nights and weekends, is hoping audiences will challenge their own stereotypes and discover that “being a cowboy transcends all racial boundaries.”

THE BIG WHITE

(Special Screenings)

“We don’t use the f-word,” scribe Collin Friesen jokes about this snow-filled dark comedy, which has already garnered comparisons to the Coen brothers’ “Fargo.” “I’m from a cold-weather climate and I’m used to snow. A lot of the things I write are going to have snow on the ground.”

Although he’s originally from Winnipeg, Canada, Friesen wrote “White” during his days as a screenwriting student at AFI in the late ’90s. His teachers responded positively, but it didn’t look like there would be much of a future for the quirky project.

“Every year they submit one script from each writing group to put up for a scholarship award,” Friesen recalls. “I was hoping this would be the one, but it wasn’t even judged the best of my writing group.”

But that was then and this is now. With a star-studded cast, including Robin Williams, Holly Hunter and Woody Harrelson, the festival was only too happy to program the pic this year.

Friesen couldn’t be more pleased: “I’ve been to the AFI Fest before, but I took a pledge about two years ago that I wouldn’t go to another film festival until I got a movie into one. Now I can go back.”

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