Santa Barbara festival panels impress

Between awards season and the WGA strike, a pair of talent-filled panels concluding the Santa Barbara Film Festival on Saturday certainly had plenty of issues to dig into.

In a confab that was free-flowing, confessional and raucous, helmers gathered for “Directors on Directing,” moderated by Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, while Variety chief marketing officer Madelyn Hammond led a separate discussion of first breaks, glass ceilings and career ambitions in “Creative Forces: Women in the Biz.”

At the directors’ panel, “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” helmer Julian Schnabel likened the lineup to “six people in the back of the classroom screaming with their hands up.” Class clowns Adam Shankman (“Hairspray”), Jason Reitman (“Juno”) and Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “Superbad”) kept the room in stitches, while Brad Bird (“Ratatouille”) and Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) added spice of their own.

Topics included the impact of the writers strike, the prospective cancellation of the Oscars, the helmers’ influences and inspirations and, for a surprisingly whimsical and loquacious Schnabel, the overuse of the word “awesome.”

After Schnabel lobbied to have the word stricken from the English language, Bart offered Variety‘s own “boffo” as a replacement. Shankman suggested implementing the more auteur-specific “Schnabelicious.”

The panel saluted this year’s Oscar nominations of Schnabel, Reitman and Bird. Admitting to Oscar envy, Shankman lamented that his “Lycra-clad gymnastic pirate” in a Paula Abdul dance number on the 1990 Oscar telecast was as close as he would ever get to an Oscar. Schnabel hugged him in apparent support, then jested, “This is as close as you’ll ever get to an Oscar.”

The panelists thought the Oscar show would go on as planned, but all acknowledged the impact of the WGA strike.

Shankman referred to the flood of resumes he had received from topnotch crew people while planning a forthcoming project. And Apatow explained the massive losses a scribe stands to incur when an episode of, say, “Lost” is streamed through the Internet instead of rebroadcast on ABC.

When Bart gently suggested the negotiations might have been put off for another two years, Bird insisted, “People were told that for 20 years about DVD (residuals).”

There was less raucousness when the women took the stage at the Lobero later on Saturday afternoon, but the discussion was no less interesting.

Costume designers Mary Zophres (“No Country for Old Men”) and Rita Ryack (“Hairspray”) offered perspective along with editor Tatiana Rigel (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “There Will Be Blood”), while tyro scribe-helmer Carolyn Miller (“Still Waters”), doc producer Leslie Iwerks (“The Pixar Story”) and thesp Diedra Edwards (“Disfigured”) rounded out the panel.

All the women had tales to tell of their career tracks, and some touched on advice both received and given.

Miller recalled an early conversation with Brian De Palma while she was working as his driver on the set of “The Black Dahlia” in which the helmer urged her to quit that job and throw herself into realizing her dreams. That was a pivotal moment, she said, that gave her the confidence to commit herself to being a filmmaker.

Edwards said her mantra as a full-figured actress is “The attempt is the victory. The second victory is how you deal with the failure.”

As to questions about the proverbial glass ceiling, Iwerks said, “I’m in denial about it” and urged fellow panelists to push through preconceptions.

Ryack said her most instructive life experiences had come not through work but through her travels. Having been deep in the Himalayas, Ryack recalled her astonishment when she discovered the local Nepalese could quote “Rambo” and Schwarzenegger movies.

That sort of discovery, she allowed, “makes you feel that you should do responsible filmmaking.”

In jury prizes announced Sunday, the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema went to Richie Mehta’s India fable, “Amal,” while the Heineken Red Star award for indie helmer went to Tao Ruspoli for Slamdance-preeming “Fix.”

Foreign pic winner was fest hit “Beautiful Bitch,” by German helmer Martin Theo Krieger, while Pavel Giroud’s Cuban coming-of-ager “The Silly Age” topped fest’s Cinemedia section focused on Ibero-American cinema.

Thomas G. Miller’s “One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story” took the docu prize, and Anne Slick and Danielle Bernstein’s agit-prop doc “When Clouds Clear,” on Ecuadoran farmers battling mining companies, topped the contest for the Fund for Santa Barbara’s social justice prize.

Festwatchers were nonplussed by some of the jury’s curious choices, particularly the prizes for “Amal,” a minor pic that has been largely ignored since its Toronto preem and for Giroud’s middling effort in an exceptionally strong Cinemedia field. Win for the notably slight “Clouds” was rated as the oddest choice given competish that included previously lauded docs such as “Up the Yangtze,” “Autism: The Musical,” “Body of War” and “The Man of Two Havanas.”

(Rober Koehler contributed to this report.)

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