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Nantucket Film Festival Celebrates Risk-Taking Writers

“Nantucket has been a creative refuge for decades,” multihyphenate Ben Stiller says. “The festival has coalesced the film-writing community and celebrated individuality — in a way that is part of being on the island: independent, isolated (so as to) foster risk-taking.”

Stiller’s parents — Jerry and the late Anne Meara — were original supporters. “I’ve watched this thing become an amazing success that celebrates real talent.”

A Nantucket Film Festival board member, Stiller often attends the fest, which turns 20 this year. He regularly hosts a lively, SRO All-Star Comedy Roundtable that has welcomed Mike Myers, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Brian Williams, among others.

The event will kick off June 24 with A24’s David Foster Wallace drama “The End of the Tour,” starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. Documentary “The Best of Enemies” about the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 presidential election, concludes the festival June 29.

“This festival has a real identity,” Stiller says. “Thanks to a lot of very dedicated people it has survived and grown. This is not a sales tool or a place to make deals. NFF is a place to find great young filmmakers and soak in the creative process.”

It is, however, also a place to connect. As festival director Mystelle Brabbee recalls, “Ben Stiller met John Hamburg at the first NFF in 1996 when we screened Hamburg’s debut short film ‘Tick.’ Their collaborative relationship struck up then and John went on to co-write ‘Meet the Parents’ and ‘Zoolander.’ He also co-wrote the sequels ‘Meet the Fockers’ and ‘Little Fockers.’

“Every year I hear about new collaboration that formed here,” Brabbee adds about the intimate Massachusetts festival that was founded in 1996 by brother and sister team Jill and Jonathan Burkhart. “Nantucket Island has shaped us in every possible way. Having a film fest 30 miles out to at sea gives attendees a sense of being far away, or being cut off from the mainland, and there’s a ‘we’re all in it together’ spirit. For industry members, we are not a market but a destination. Between the island and its beauty, with the fog rolling in and everybody is in the space together in the spirit of storytelling and collaboration.”

Indeed, storytelling forms the festival’s core, inspiring Variety’s Creative Impact Award to scribe Beau Willimon (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) and the Screenwriting Tribute to “Chinatown’s” Robert Towne. Writers Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and Leslye Headland (“Sleeping With Other People”) will also be honored June 27.

The festival’s screenwriting focus has expanded from film to include television and online platforms. In that spirit, one of the festival’s its most original and spontaneous events, the Showtime-sponsored Late Night Storytelling, is hosted by NPR’s Ophira Eisenberg. Locals and celebrities entertain and compete in an open-mic monologue face-off session.

Board member Mark Greenberg, CEO of Epix, who has been involved in the festival for 19 years, remembers the night in 2004 when Jim Carrey took the stage.

“In the early days, the late Anne Meara and director Bobby Farrelly co-hosted. Jim Carrey got up and must have done 20 minutes of standup. I had never had seen Anne Meara cry, she was laughing so hard. He brought the house down talking about Indians on the reservation — how can you make this funny? He just went off; it was just fabulous.”

The night climaxed offstage when an unfettered Carrey, after shutting down the afterparty, accompanied a local restauranteur home for a spontaneous meet-the-kids moment at 3 a.m.

What happens on the island stays on the island, but the partnerships initiated there continue on as creative partnerships.

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