Adapting to Ourselves: Williamstown Film Festival Celebrates 15 Years
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
By Nichole Dupont
He remembers the first year like it was yesterday. A few indie films sprinkled in with funny shorts and a documentary or two, the distinct feeling that this could be a “thing.” Now, Steve Lawson — veteran director of the Williamstown Film Festival — cannot imagine a Berkshire autumn without the brief interlude of comedy, drama, and premieres that bring thousands of moviegoers and dozens of (famous) artists to the county’s northern reaches.
“People are not just going to a movie,” says Lawson of the faithful and the new. “It’s an experience they can be part of. It’s more of an occasion. The audiences is being entertained and picking up knowledge.”
The festival begins on Wednesday, October 30, with a talkback with John Irving (yes, you read that right, John Irving is coming to town!) and runs through Sunday, November 3. While Images Cinema is once again home base for WFF, several ancillary feasts and fetes will be held at places such as MASS MoCA, Hops and Vines, and the Purple Pub. In fact, food is a pretty sizeable dish in this year’s film smorgasbord. Thursday night (Halloween) has been designated Food Film Night and will feature two very different directors’ cuts; the brutal quest to find the perfect chicken wing and the 25th anniversary of France’s most elegant picnic. Matt Reynolds, a former correspondent for Reuters (he spent several years in Slovakia), is a first-time director of The Great Chicken Wing Hunt about his odyssey to find the perfect chicken wing. For him, the documentary experience was driven by a personal quest. And an obsession.
“This movie was so close to my heart,” says the upstate New York native. “It brought me home. I guess because of that I was blissfully unaware of the whole filmmaking process — marketing, festivals — I wasn’t concerned about what normal filmmakers would worry over. It’s about going on this quest to find something perfect.”
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is strangely poignant, and ironic, as Reynolds amasses a group of experts and takes to the road, sampling hundreds of wings, sometimes hitting 12 stops a day. The result is, needless to say, messy. And a far cry from the festival’s other foodie film. Diner en Blanc, directed by Jennifer Ash Rudick, chronicles one night in Paris on the 25th anniversary of the city’s first secret dinner party that now amasses some 15,000 attendees, all dressed in white, all waiting to find out where to park their tables for the world’s largest clandestine dinner party.
“A French friend told me about the dinner over 15 years ago, this was before flash mobs were a popular idea, and it was hard to imagine. She said there were thousands of people dining on the Pont des Arts,” Rudick recalls. “It really inspired me that so many people collaborate for the fun of it and I wanted to meet the man who took this on every year simply for the fun of it. I hoped other people would want to meet him, too.”
Despite the film’s elegant homage to serendipity and to the city of chic, Rudick faced some challenges, not least of which was unveiling the mastermind behind the dinner, Francois Pasquier.
“Francois had never spoken to the press and it took nine months to convince him to speak to me,” she says. “I tracked him down through Parisian friends who attend the dinner but they were very protective of him for fear of ruining the dinner and for fear of being taken off the guest list. When he did finally agree to meet, I went to Paris and he sent his neighbor and co-organizer to lunch instead.”
Those reluctant beginnings melted into a gorgeous film, and as Lawson notes, perhaps the most “sweeping” among a roster of sparse humor and indie cool. But “there’s something for everyone to see,” says Lawson, who is particularly endeared to this year’s selection of shorts films. Actor Treat Williams, who lives in nearby Manchester, VT, stars in one of the shorts; Halftime, a 10-minute monologue directed by Joe Cacaci in which Williams is a basketball coach attempting to give a rousing halftime speech to his floundering team. Of course, the monologue turns into a tangential rage against his wife’s infidelity.
“It’s hilarious,” Williams laughs. “You can see where the coach really starts to lose it. The monologue is complete. That’s the beauty of the short. It’s a template for filmmaking as an art form. It’s the tapas of movie-going.”
The short film genre was what launched director Luke Matheny into the upper Hollywood circle. His Oscar-winning film God of Love was a WFF favorite before the “big time.” Now Matheny, in his role as a screenwriter, has produced a full-length feature about a group of students who go on the search for a supposedly extinct duck. A Birder’s Guide to Everything, which premiered at Tribeca, is “an accessible story.”
“It’s a coming of age story. It resonates and it entertains and has surprising heart,” Matheny says. “We left the specific birding details to the experts, and dealt with the emotion and the story.”
Matheny had an emotional moment himself while filming.
“Ben Kingsley is in the film, and he was reading the monologue that I wrote. It was surreal. I texted my mom right away.”
There is one unlikely star that closes the festival. This one lives in Stockbridge, MA and has the wisdom of age and experience that even veteran actors covet. Cherry Cottage was built in 1782 and has seen tumultuous times. It is also an ideal star to tell the tumultuous story of America according to director David Simonds.
“It’s the story of a house, really,” Simonds says. “We filmed the documentary parallel to the renovations of the house. We dug up information and literally left no stone unturned.”
What he and producer Hans Morris (who owns Cherry Cottage) found was a voluminous cache of stories about philosophers, artists, businessmen, psychiatrists, downfall, ruin, and resurrection.
“It’s all about the people,” Simonds says. “You have to get to the fabric of the house to find out about the people.”
Williamstown Film Festival
October 30 - November 3