Oscar-worthy films debut at the sixth annual Middleburg Film Festival.
Photos by Nancy Milburn Kleck, Tony Powell, Joy Asico, Iryna Kruchko, Alfredo Flores and Ed Felker
“Overnight this has become one of the biggest film festivals in the world,” director Peter Farrelly marvelled as he introduced his film “Green Book” on the closing day of this year’s Middleburg Film Festival. Viggo Mortensen was mingling nearby with Hollywood insiders and local film buffs in the halls of the Salamander Resort & Spa in bucolic Middleburg,Va. (population 673).
It was like that all weekend.The intimacy of the events (fireside chats felt like living room conversations), ease of attendance (lines were short, events started on time and shuttle buses chauffeured guests to various screening venues in town) and access to star power cannot be overstated. Where else could you chat with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jason Reitman without the barriers of paparazzi and PR reps? And the films! Not a bad one in the bunch. From the Steve McQueen heist thriller “Widows” to the heartbreaking “Capernaum” from Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, screenings ran the gamut from indie nonfiction to blockbuster narratives. Among the 26 films featured in 2017, there were 33 Oscar nominations, and judging by the quality, this year may produce even more.
But just how did this sleepy Virginia town become a staple stop for contenders on their way to the Oscars?
We have Salamander Hotels CEO (and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” executive producer) Sheila Johnson and Middleburg Film Festival executive director and Emmy Award- winning filmmaker Susan Koch to thank. After working together on the documentaries “Kicking It” and “The Other City,” in 2013 Johnson had the vision to bring in Koch who, with her excellent taste in cinema, foresight for films that matter and strong Hollywood contacts, has created a year-after-year lineup of high-quality movies worthy of discussion and acclaim.
Screenings combined with events that engage the community (wine tastings and dinners, conversations and concerts, even a downtown art show) make the Middleburg Film Festival a sought-after event, not only for those in the film world but for hunt country and District residents as well. Every night, movie lovers gathered by a fire in the Salamander’s lobby over a spread of food and fine Scotch to digest each day’s films and forge new and lasting friendships.
Festivities kicked off with a “Welcome to Virginia” reception on the Garden Terrace of Salamander Resort, where sponsors and special guests gathered for speeches, congratulatory remarks and an overview of what was yet to come.
“I never know what films we’re going to get so we always have to hold our breath,” Sheila Johnson told the crowd before Susan Koch filled everyone in on the movies they’d be seeing throughout the weekend.
“Every year you move the bar, raise the bar, crush the bar,” Virginia Film Office Director Andy Edmunds said as Rep. Barbara Comstock (taking a night off from campaigning in a tough race) looked on with former Middleburg Mayor Betsy Davis.
Prior to the festival’s official opening, filmgoers had the opportunity to see “What They Had,” director/screenwriter Elizabeth Chomko’s heart-wrenching portrait of a family dealing with Alzheimer’s. It had also screened the previous evening at the National Archives, in an event co-hosted by the MPAA.
“The film was an intensely personal experience for my sister and me,” said attendee Kimberly Evans.“We lost my father unexpectedly earlier this year, and we are still processing our loss while navigating caring for my mom. Chomko perfectly captured the challenging dynamics at play when adult children and their parents begin to switch roles.”
The opening night film, “Roma,” has been receiving considerable Oscar buzz. It’s the most personal film yet from Academy Award- winning director Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”). Producer Gabriela Rodriguez and lead actress Yalitza Aparicio were in attendance. Aparicio had never acted before and was discovered in a casting call in a small Mexican village. She’s now on many Oscar watchers’ lists as a Best Actress contender.
A mariachi band greeted filmgoers as they made their way from the theater to the after-party, featuring a Hennessy tasting bar and s’mores roasted over outside fire pits.
Guests awakened early for a full day of screenings and special events scheduled at Salamander, The Hill School, Middleburg Community Center, National Sporting Library & Museum and Boxwood and Greenhill Wineries.
At mid-day, 50 women made their way to Salamander’s Equestrian Center Stables for a chic, private luncheon sponsored by Moet et Chandon and Morgan Stanley that celebrated women in film. Afterwards, we spotted legendary songwriter Diane Warren and Sheila Johnson petting and posing with Cupcake, Salamander’s resident miniature horse.
For Johnson (an accomplished violinist and former music teacher), the highlight of each year’s festival is its focus on the music of film. Composer and jazz pianist Kris Bowers, who brilliantly scored the closing film “Green Book,” performed and then discussed his craft in the intimate setting of the barrel room at Greenhill Winery. Bowers received a standing ovation for creating, on the spot, a five-minute score for a film scenario presented to him by moderator John Horn.
Bowers left with a quote that summed up a weekend of thoughtful, socially conscious films: “Artists are supposed to hold the mirror up to society and I’m drawn to films that do that.”
The cozy Salamander Library was the site of an early morning conversation between “Boy Erased” director, screenwriter and actor Joel Edgerton and John Horn, host of KPCC’s “The Frame.” The illuminating story of a Baptist preacher’s son’s experience in a conversion therapy program was one of most powerful and well-executed films of the weekend.
The memoir’s author, Garrard Conley, was also present for the previous evening’s post- screening Q&A and we overheard Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the former first lady of Virginia, say that “Boy Erased” was her favorite of the 11 films she saw that weekend.
In the afternoon, Warren accepted the 2018 Impact Award for using “the power of her songwriting to raise awareness about critical social issues and connect with people worldwide for her music.”
Talented up-and-comer Marisa Corvo took the stage with a band to belt a selection of her idol’s songs including “How Do I Live,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and “Til It Happens to You,” a song written for “The Hunting Ground” about campus rape and recorded by Lady Gaga that has become an anthem for the #MeToo movement. For the finale, Warren and Johnson joined the band on stage to sing and dance to “If I Could Turn Back Time,” bringing the audience to its feet.
“I was thinking about my dad believing in me,” Warren said when asked for the inspiration behind her Celine Dion hit, “Because You Loved Me.”
Two private dinners celebrated farm-to-table produce, fine wines of Virginia and Moet champagne. At Wind Fields Farm, patrons, filmmakers, special guests and diplomats indulged in industry talk and a multi-course meal prepared by Masseria’s Michelin-star chef Nicholas Stefanelli. We spotted MPAA’s Francesca Craig, directors Jason Reitman and Peter Hedges, screenwriters Jay Carson and Matt Bai, Amazon Studios’ head of marketing and distribution Bob Berney, National Geographic’s Gary Knell, Sony Classics co- founder Tom Bernard, the festival’s honorary co-chairs Tina and Gary Mather, Cliff and Debbie White, Italian Ambassador Armando Varricchio and wife Micaela, German Ambassador Emily Haber and husband Hans and former Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Turki Al-Faisal, among many others.
Another top chef, Chiko’s Scott Drewno, directed the menu at Greenhill Winery & Vineyards, where sponsors joined David Greenhill and his fiance Rebekah Pizana for wine and appetizers on the terrace, followed by a three-course meal inside the spectacular winery.
After a screening of Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” (a drama that follows the last days of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign) and Q&A, the night continued with cocktails, funk music and a Belvedere Ice Bar at the Salamander’s disco-decorated after-party.
Sunday began with a candid conversation in the library between longtime New York Times film and literary critic Janet Maslin and Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Juno”), who spoke about “The Front Runner,” his career trajectory, filmmaking philosophies and his passion for film festivals.
“It was film festivals where I found my identity,” he said, noting that they “serve as the most democratic entry to any art form” that he could think of. Reitman shared the love by kindly chatting with fans and accommodating their selfie requests after the event.
A tribute to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal followed a screening of “The Kindergarten Teacher,” a film that she starred in and produced that may be her best performance yet, although as she put it, “I’ve been feeling like acting is a really strange job lately,” as she moves more into producing and directing.
A panel on changing the world through film highlighted what film can do to shine a spotlight on social issues and inspire change.
Scott Budnick, producer of “The Hangover” movies, said it was at the first Middleburg Film Festival where he had a breakthrough. He had left the film world to focus on juvenile justice reform, but when Ted Leonsis told him that filmmaking was the best tool he had to change the world, Budnick took the advice and recently launched Good Films. The company’s first feature, an adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling book “Just Mercy,” is slated for release in 2020.
The closing film “Green Book,” a comedy-drama and true story about the unlikely friendship between pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) and Bronx bouncer- turned-driver Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen) in the early 1960s is a certain Oscar contender.
“We were very aware of the white savior and black savior tropes in American film and we didn’t want that,” Farrelly said. “Both characters grow.”And both actors got to show off their comedic chops in ways that hadn’t been showcased before—who knew Viggo Mortensen was so funny?
“Green Book” received the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film, while John Chester’s “Biggest Little Farm” got the documentary award. Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday, who facilitated a few of the post-film discussions, closed the book on “Green Book” by saying, “Every year I look for the movie to say, ‘go see it,’ and this is it.”
This featured appeared in the November 2018 issue of Washington Life Magazine.