Eight years in, the Sun Valley Film Festival, running March 13-17, has established itself as a laid-back, picturesque event, where you’re as likely to be struck by the beauty of the setting — in the shadow of Idaho’s Bald Mountain — as by the films on screen.
Per executive director Teddy Grennan, this Idaho resort town, a three-hour drive from Boise, already has a rich cinematic history.
“Averell Harriman, who owned Union Pacific, wanted to start a ski town in the mountains, and he didn’t know how to launch it. So he hired this wunderkind, one of the original Mad Men who launched Miami Beach in the early 1900s. And the guy said, ‘Look, you own a rail line. Invite up all the Marilyn Monroes, all the hangers-on, and put it on the house.’ And they did just that. The only thing they asked for was to own the pictures of them — Hemingway, Gable, all these people — having fun in the snow, eating and drinking on the mountain.”
“It was the first ski resort in North America, so it was kind of cemented in Hollywood’s mind as the original Shangri-La, the place where Hollywood goes to frolic under the winter sun,” says festival director Candice Pate.
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This year’s programming slate will include “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” a documentary about the musician’s life and career, directed by friend of the festival A.J. Eaton, and “Her Smell,” Alex Ross Perry’s blistering drama about a ’90s punk rock superstar played by Elisabeth Moss. Perry will receive the Rising Star Award for Directing.
Grennan also mentions “The Biggest Little Farm,” John Chester’s doc about sustainable farming, and Peter Strickland’s surreal, stylish ghost story “In Fabric,” which will be featured at a midnight screening.
“We like to say that our programming is a mixed bag, a little like KCRW’s ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic,’ with an old Stones song smashed up against LCD Soundsystem,” Grennan says.
“We do feature indigenous and Idaho-based films and filmmakers, and part of our mission is to help shine a spotlight on the beauty of this place and the magic of shooting here,” Pate says. “It’s tricky because we don’t have the tax incentives that necessarily facilitate it.”
Alongside the screenings, filmmaker Hannah Fidell will host The Film Lab, an in-depth feedback session sponsored by Variety. Filmmaker-actor Jay Duplass will serve as the judge.
Winners of a pre-fest competition will travel to Sun Valley, where the film will be screen-tested for audience feedback. Afterward, filmmakers will lock and complete the film with Los Angeles-based post-production company The Farm, which will provide up to $185,000 in services.
Duplass says he is eager to help budding filmmakers benefit from a process that has helped his brother Mark and himself through their career.
“We’ve never been through a festival lab formally, but we essentially do it for ourselves,” Duplass says. “We share scripts at every turn. When we audition actors, we often explore and improvise for at least 30 minutes with them. We invite the feedback of our crew around us as we’re shooting. We test our edits relentlessly on our peers to make sure that they are actually receiving what we are sending.
“Workshopping deconstructs one of the most dangerous misconceptions about filmmaking … that you make something from your brain in a vacuum and then you release it unto the world, and then audiences either like it or don’t. Why wait until the end?”
Also, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Zootopia” scribe Phil Johnston will host the Screenwriters Lab, with former Sundance programmer Trevor Groth serving as the judge.
Pate calls the Film and Screenwriters labs “definitely ongoing” projects.
“It’s stuff that we want to build on, eight years in, as we take a minute to reflect on what’s helped us be successful. It’s been fostering this intimate environment and connecting people with opportunities to further their career,” she says.
Variety will present Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad” with the Pioneer Award, which honors an individual whose career choices are reflective of a trailblazer.
“Aaron is an Idaho resident, he’s from here,” Grennan adds. “We’ve been trying to get him here for years. He’s also coming with his film ‘The Parts You Lose,’ directed by Christopher Cantwell. It’s going to come as a work-in-progress, screening before we give him the award.”
In addition, “The Cove” director Fisher Stevens will receive the Snow Angel Award, honoring an individual for outstanding advocacy work with a focus on environmental sustainability, and actress Meg Ryan will receive the festival’s top honor, the Vision Award.
Though it is sure to be a star-studded affair, Sun Valley sees itself as a boutique gathering, sidestepping the industry hoopla of Sundance and Telluride. It caters to a crowd that’s both well-heeled and folksy.
“Sun Valley is the kind of place where folks land in their G5 and then jump into their beat-up F-150,” says Pate. “It prides itself on being low-key, yet sophisticated.”