Mere seconds into our phone call less than 48 hours away from the start of the very first edition of the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival on May 27th, Shira Dubrovner asked whether the festival’s web site was easy to use. Appropriately in an area known for its mountains, she’s become accustomed to climbing them, largely putting together the five-day, 50-film movie marathon with the help of just one programmer (Slamdance stalwart Paul Sbrizzi), determined to get every detail right for what she hopes will be an annual tradition. When I say “yes,” she seems delighted, if no other reason than the fact that, as she’ll note later in our conversation, in starting a film festival from scratch, she heard the word “no” quite a bit.
“If you’re really passionate about it, it’s easy to roll that off your shoulders and keep going and find that ‘yes,’” says Dubrovner, who is hoping to parlay her success as the artistic director of the Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theater into getting audiences who enjoy the stage to be more adventurous with what they see on the big screen.
In doing so, she’s hoping to say “Yes” to exciting new voices in independent film long before those at more established festivals catch on. Clearly inspired by the rebellious tact taken by Slamdance – not only has Mammoth Lakes recruited one of its programmers in Sbrizzi, but along with him, several 2015 alums such as Steven Richter’s sibling rivalry drama “Birds of Neptune,” Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson’s fame-at-all-costs dramedy “Diamond Tongues,” Jiyoung Lee’s comedy “Female Pervert” (pictured above) and Brazilian filmmaker Ale Paschoalini’s minimalist tale of obsession “Asco” – the festival is announcing its innovative intentions with its opening night film, Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs biopic “The Man in the Machine” and following it up with the kinds of films that don’t typically make their way to Northern California.
Only two days removed from the end of ski season, Dubrovner is intent on giving the locals similar thrills in the theaters as they’d have on the slopes and shortly before the start of the festival, she spoke about taking advantage of her unique backdrop, the challenge and opportunity of starting something from scratch and why she’s already looking forward to next year.
How did starting a film festival in Mammoth Lakes come about?
I’ve always been a lover of the art form of storytelling, which led me into working into film and small professional theater. I lived in Mammoth Lakes during my early twenties, but moved back to L. A. and pursued a career as a stage director and worked in the art department on a lot of independent films. I was doing fine with my career, but I wasn’t feeling fulfilled and literally just one day, I woke up and said, “Move back to Mammoth and start a theater.”
I did that in 2007. When I moved back, I was even more inspired and I had in the back corner of my brain [the idea] that we really should do a film festival here. The people who are visitors would appreciate it and the people who live here are all industry professionals who love film, so I had to get my first venture off the ground to the point that it would be a well-oiled machine, but about a year or two ago, [I thought]”We’ve got to do my second passion, the community will love it.”
Because I’ve been out of the industry for awhile, I called a friend that I could reconnect with that could give me advice and guidance. That was Paul Sbrizzi. He’s been working in the film festival world for 15 years as a programmer – he works for Slamdance – he’s recognized and well-respected in the industry. A year ago, I brought him up here and showed him the landscape. He thought it was beautiful and agreed it would be a great place for a new film festival. We have the same sensibilities – we both want to support filmmakers and be true to them first and foremost – so it was a great marriage, and we started planning it a year ago.
I’ve actually heard you plan to take the filmmakers on a retreat to a nearby ghost town. In general, has the unique setting played a role in distinguishing this from other festivals?
That’s a nice little surprise we would like to give to our filmmakers. But the backdrop is just amazing. There’s lots of beautiful landscapes in America, but this is one of the most beautiful. We’re on the north end of the gateway to Yosemite. We’ve got Mono Lake, so we’re going to be taking [the filmmakers] to the ghost town of Bodie, which is one of the top five ghost towns in America, and I have a special person that is going to give the tour. We get to go into an area that is totally closed off to the public, and [the guide] has a lot of really great ghost stories, so not only the drive alone will be inspiring, but just being up there with all that history will hopefully kick start them into whatever their next project is or just get them leaving the festival ready to go on their careers and making more films.
You actually made a short film “Muriel” that played the festival circuit. Has that influenced what kind of experience you want to give to filmmakers?
I remember it was 21 or 22 years ago I went to Sundance and I was so inspired. There were a couple films I wanted to get into that were sold out and across the street, there were these other guys that were doing their own film festival and I thought that was an interesting. Their films didn’t get into Sundance and they said, “Forget about it. We’re just going to start our own festival.” That was Slamdance. So I remembered that and thought, “How cool that you don’t have to be a big corporation or be a big star.” Just two regular individuals can start a film festival and be successful and put themselves on the map. That always stuck with me and was part of the inspiration to do this festival.
We do want to support the filmmaker and that is why I have Paul Sbrizzi on board. We want to be a festival that discovers new talent and that you see them five years later, like Benh Zeitlin, whose film [“Glory at Sea”] played at Slamdance and then years later, he’s up for an Academy Award. Our goal is to be a festival that is recognized for finding that new talent.
How did you go about the programming?
That was all on Paul Sbrizzi’s shoulders. We did a call for submissions and things started happening really effortlessly and we got connected with people that really wanted to support us. Mitchell Amundsen, a professional cinematographer who owns a home here hooked me up with RED Digital Cinema, who is our title sponsor, and Panavision, who are both giving incredible prizes to the winning narrative and winning documentary feature, and we have GoPro giving cameras to the [winning] shorts.
We also have a really great mix of people on the jury who appreciate independent film [including] Andrew Lazar, Allison Amon, and Kristanna Loken. Even though Andrew Lazar is a huge producer [of such films as “American Sniper”], he loves independent film and is driven by the passion. He wouldn’t do a project if he’s not passionate about it, so we tried to gravitate towards people that really support that idea. That’s how I think things have just snowballed. Because of that, we’ve gotten a very high quality of independent film because of the people who are involved and the prizes that we have, and the respect that the people who are involved have. That has been really lucky on my side, to have partnered with the right people.
Is there anything specific you’re really excited about in terms of this year’s festival?
It’s funny because a week ago, Paul and I were talking about next year already. It’ll be really great to get just this one under our belt and see how it pans out. We’ll see what we need to fix and what we can capitalize on and to move forward into creating the successful festival that we are dreaming about.