The New York State Writers Institute launches its first Albany Film Festival this weekend. WAMC’s Jesse King spoke with Institute Director Paul Grondahl.
Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the first edition of the event will split its schedule between in-person screenings and online workshops, interviews, and panels with industry professionals. Grondahl says the main draw — a free, juried screening of shorts by Capital Region filmmakers — will take over the Malta Drive In on April 29 starting at 8 p.m.
"And then we're doing two feature films: 'Cadillac Records' starring Beyonce, and directed by Darnell Martin, one of the outstanding filmmakers who is receiving one of our Ironweed Awards for exemplary achivement in film," says Grondahl. "And then we're showing a late, late, late show called 'The Honeymoon Killers.' It's a 1970 black-and-white film noir cult classic. It was written and directed by a UAlbany — he's passed away now — but at the time a UAlbany music professor, Leonard Kastle. It stars Tony Lo Bianco and an interesting cast. [It's] a true story, a murder spree in the 1940s called 'The Lonely Heart[s] Killers,' where this scam artist would entrap women by putting classified ads in newspapers. And it's a really interesting film that holds up really well. It's been named one of the top classic noir films by many critics, and we're looking forward to showing that.
"The other big event that's outdoors, live, and something that's never been seen in this region is called 'projection mapping,' and that starts on Friday night, April 30. Again, at dark, which will be about 8:30 [p.m.]. And then we're going to show it for four consecutive nights. This is a public, immersive, 3D, multimedia light show and narrative that celebrates the history of writing and film in this region. It's gonna turn the entire facade of our office, [UAlbany's] Science Library — 195 feet long, 45 feet high — into a screen. And we can safely do that by having up to 200 people in 30-minute increments."
Let's talk about the Ironweed Award. What is it, and who are this year's recipients?
It's sort of a lifetime achievement award. We gave the first one when we did a special event at The Egg two years ago, to Francis Ford Coppola. And we named it the Ironweed Award, obviously, after our founder, William Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Albany novel about homeless people, called 'Ironweed.'
This year's award winners include James Ivory, who's part of the great Merchant Ivory team that did films that people would know: 'A Room with a View,' 'Howard's End,' 'The Remains of the Day.' He also just won his first Oscar as a screenplay adaption for 'Call Me By Your Name' in 2017. We've got Kasi Lemmons, she's the writer and director of 'Harriet,' about Harriet Tubman. Darnell Martin, as I mentioned, did the Beyonce film about Etta James, 'Cadillac Records,' and many other films. We also have Rosie Perez, who is going to be coming to the film festival. She's in conversation with her husband, Eric Haze, who's an artist. They do a lot of work creatively together. And then our final recipient is Sam Pollard, who did many of Spike Lee's films. He's a writer/director, and he does his own documentaries as well.
You mentioned the second of two in-person events at the festival, the 'projection mapping' at UAlbany's Science Library, focuses on the history of film in the Capital Region. What is that history?
The driving factor for this was Chet Opalka, who's a philanthropist who's been very generous to many arts organizations and cultural organizations, ours included. And he's always talking about, as a region, we kind of look down on ourselves or somehow have an inferiority complex. So this was something, like, let's talk about what's great about this region. And we think one of the great things is the literary legacy. So [the projection mapping] talks about everyone from [Herman] Melville, to Toni Morrison, to William Kennedy, to the great writers that worked and lived in this region. And then it talks about all these films here, including our founder, William Kennedy's 'Ironweed,' which was shot here with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. But also all the other films, like 'Salt.' Angelina Jolie was jumping from a moving tractor trailer on the overpasses of I-787. 'The Other Guys,' they filmed a helicopter crash on [Albany's] Pearl Street.
This region really has a great arts, filmmaking, and literary history. And it's something we somehow take for granted, or somehow even put ourselves down. We're trying to remember that we have achieved great things here, and even greater things to come.
The Albany Film Festival runs from April 24 – May 3. All events are free to the public, and you can find more information on the festival's website. Paul Grondahl is the director of the New York State Writer’s Institute at the University at Albany.