My Oxford Film Festival experience

The Oxford Film Festival is in its 11th year, and for all of those years, I’ve wanted to go. For whatever reason, the stars haven’t aligned until this year, and I was able to attend on Friday.

I’m writing a story about the festival’s runaway success for Monday’s Daily Journal, but there was so much I couldn’t fit in. Here’s some news and notes from my experiences on Friday.

The Movies

Friday was the only day of the festival that I could attend, so I tried to make the most of it. I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see, but I did what I could. Here are some of the best films I caught:

jdm6zct9ihsp2ph4wr8q“The Sidekick” – This short is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. “Supernatural” alum Rob Benedict wrote and stars in it as Max, a superhero sidekick who gets fired. Jason Ritter, Richard Speight Jr., Ron Livingston and Lizzy Caplan also star. (Benedict is a musician, too, and his wonderful music is included in the film.)

“Teddy Bears” – You know so many of the folks in this film: Ritter, “Community” actress Gillian Jacobs, Melanie Lynskey from “Two and a Half Men” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” and David Krumholtz, who’s starred in everything from “Serenity” to “Numb3rs” to “The Newsroom” to “End of the World.” Six friends spend a week in the desert, and one of them, Andrew (Krumholtz) is having trouble dealing with his mother’s death. To help him grieve, he says, he needs to have sex with the women in the group. It’s an inappropriate request and one that sets the rest of the group off, and it’s interesting to watch how their various friendships and relationships unfold during that week. It was funny, it was sad, but most of all it was uncomfortable – and yet I’ve probably thought more about this one than anything else I watched. The cast is so wonderfully talented. It’s definitely something to see.

“Killer Kudzu” – This is the festival’s Community Film Project, and it was so cute. Oxford’s trying to win the Pretty Little City award, but kudzu is taking over the town, killing off residents one by one. It had a great B-movie feel to it, and it was cool to see Oxford and Oxonians on the big screen. I spotted a co-writing credit by Tupelo’s own writer/actress/comedian/director Casey Dillard.

“A Quiet Strength” - A powerful short doc about a single mom in the Delta raising three teenage girls.

“West of Elvis” – A Vox Press short doc about Graceland Too. Owner Paul MacLeod was in attendance at the festival – it’s a little unreal to see him outside of his mansion.

“From Cotton Fields to Movie Premieres” – I’ve always heard about Ruleville costumer Luster Bayless, but this short doc told me everything I needed to know about him. It includes a fascinating look at his costume warehouse in Hollywood and how he’s dressed everyone from John Wayne to Tommy Lee Jones.

“Being Awesome” – Honestly, I walked in about halfway through this narrative feature, which was filmed in Memphis. The audience raved about it afterward, so I must’ve missed something great.

“TSA America: Level Orange” – “Supernatural” star Misha Collins’ short film is hilarious. I’ve seen some fans online refer to it as a web series, but as far as I know, the short is all there is. Either way, it’s wonderful and one of my favorite things I saw at the festival.

“Someone Marry Barry” – After nearly 10 hours of films, I was a little tired by the time I got to this feature (and hungry – I tried to see so much that I almost never had the chance to eat!). This comedy, about three friends trying to settle down their rowdy, rude friend, is pretty funny. I left before it was over (terrible of me, I know), but I’ll find a way to finish it soon.

The People

I mention in my story (spoiler alert) that there are long lines at the Oxford Film Festival. They’re long, but they move quickly once they’re formed. It doesn’t take long to shuffle all those folks into a theater.

That was a very cool thing about this festival – most of the theaters were pretty full if not totally full for each screening. The audiences paid attention to the films; I never heard a cell phone go off or saw an annoying bright little screen. The audience ages ranged from teens to seniors.

There were lots of incredibly talented filmmakers in attendance, but since I was there on Friday, I focused on Jason Ritter, Rob Benedict and Richard Speight Jr. I’m a big “Supernatural” fan, so I love Benedict and Speight, and Ritter, my gosh, he’s been in so much (and I think just about everyone grew up watching his daddy). I made sure I caught their films and attended their acting panel, and I interviewed them after their Q&A. I can’t stress enough how nice, humble and generous these guys were. They didn’t just say “hi” to fans – they all had long conversations with fans. They posed for endless photos.

Ritter attended the Oxford Film Festival last year with his indie film “Good Dick,” and Speight was in attendance with his short film “America 101.” They enjoyed it and told their friends about it: Speight suggested Benedict submit “The Sidekick,” and he told his “Supernatural” co-star Misha Collins to submit “TSA America.” (He mentioned Collins would’ve come to the festival but he’s currently directing an episode) Speight did double duty this year, too, and was a judge for the festival.

The three mentioned they really liked that the entire festival (save for the opening event and parties at The Lyric, and one house party) took place at the one theater, the Malco Oxford Commons.
Speight commended Oxford for having such a festival. He’s a Nashville native and said he never knew of small Southern towns having festivals like it.
They all three earn a living through their TV and film work, but their independent films are their pet projects. They submit those films to festivals all over the country. “We don’t go to all of (the festivals). You go to the ones that seem fun to go to,” Benedict said. Ritter said it was a refreshing change to talk about these projects, since they’re so emotionally involved.
“These are labors of love, and you love it, so it’s an opportunity to talk about it,” he said.
The “Supernatural” fandom is huge and passionate, and I asked Speight and Benedict if they get tired talking about “Supernatural” all the time when they’re there promoting their indie films. They actually love talking to their fans; Speight mentioned a fan in particular who drove down from Nashville to see “The Sidekick.”
“We’re always happy to talk to fans,” Benedict said. “I respect the crap out of them.”
Speight said he appreciated the fans who took the time to check out their indie work as well as their more well-known roles.

I took a lot of notes during their acting panel, because I thought their viewpoints were really cool. So here are a LOT of notes from their acting panel, including some specific talk on Speight’s turn on “Supernatural.”

  • Filmmakers make money on big-budget projects, but will often lose money making an indie film. “You’re actually getting poorer,” Speight said. “(Indie film) attracts a different level of person. You get a different caliber of performer, from grip… to actor.”
  • “It’s definitely one thing to work on something that has a lot of money and then work on something that has a lot of heart,” Ritter said about major movies versus indie film. “One of the beautiful things about it is that no one is there to make a lot of money. Everybody is there because they’re wanting to make something. They’re hungry to build their careers and build the work they’re passionate about. …There’s something special that happens when everyone is there trying to make it happen and trying to make it good. There’s just a different attitude, and it comes more of cohesive team.”
  • Speight said guest star work is “like you’re in somebody else’s house. You don’t know if you can take your shoes off. I’m always so quiet when I go into a guest spot. It’s like high school.”
  • Television shooting schedules are tight, Speight said, often because so many shows are basically filming a half of a feature-length film in a week’s time. “You’d be surprised at how little prep there is in TV,” he said. “TV has a quicker, harsher pacing. It’s an enormous amount (to film) for a TV show. It feels more like crunch time on a TV show.” Because of that tight shooting schedule, it’s a general rule that guest stars aren’t really allowed to ask to film a scene again to get it right. Sometimes, he said, a TV show regular can tell if he wants to shoot it again, and the regular will request another take, which the director will grant.
  • With films, you know the beginning, middle and end of a story – not so with TV. “You don’t know the story you’re telling,” Ritter said. It’s difficult to audition for new TV shows when you don’t know if you’ll be asked back for a show you’ve guest starred on. “I felt like I was in a relationship with someone who wouldn’t commit,” Ritter said.
  • TV has changed for actors over the decades, Speight said, because shows so easily kill off major characters all the time. “Look at ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and then go look at ‘Game of Thrones.’ TV has progressed.”
  • A fan asked if having a background in theatre helped TV actors. Theatre actors have time to study their character and create a complex performance, while TV actors are sometimes limited to small guest spots that require little depth. The actors said having that theatre background especially helped in the auditioning process. “You have to nail it more in the audition more than you do in the actual job,” Benedict said, and Speight agreed, saying an audition in front of casting director is live theatre. No matter the role, Benedict said, acting is fun and it’s what he enjoys. “It’s fulfilling or I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s fulfilling in a different way.” Ritter said he’s seen some TV actors literally learn their lines as they’re filming. “A lot of that is relying on instincts in the moment,” he said. In theatre school, Speight said, college students play a variety of roles, from seniors to children, but as working actors they know, based on their gender, age, race and accents, that they’ll often get cast in certain types of roles. “That’s the nature of the beast,” Speight said. Casting directors are now actually welcoming people being more like themselves, so quirks like Southern accents are becoming a plus. “I’m not gonna out-Bost the Bostonians,” Speight said. “I can’t make myself something I’m not. I make choices that help me, but doesn’t help the character, especially for a guest spot.”
  • A filmmaker asked if video auditions are becoming more popular and how to make big choices while auditioning to stand out.
    “It’s important to question all of your first instincts, because a lot of people will have those same first instincts,” Ritter said.
    Speight said he’s seen more and more video auditions becoming the norm, especially with many shows being based outside of Los Angeles; in fact, he filmed a video audition for Benedict on his phone.
  • A fan asked Speight about how he handled his big character switch on “Supernatural” (spoiler alert: he starts out as a bad guy, The Trickster, but is later revealed to be the arch angel Gabriel).
    “It’s a big turn, and so as an actor it’s a great thing, especially on a show like that. They do a really good job of giving you a blueprint on why that’s happening and what’s going on. Any TV show on air, it’s so hard to stay on the air, if it’s on the air they have good writers and good story craftspeople who give you great material to work with. …Beyond that, it’s a really fun actor turn, because ‘Supernatural’ is a perfect example of a show with no real peramaters. When I got the job, that’s not a show I’d auditioned for, so when I went into do the show I was kinda making up what that character would be on camera. I’d never done it in front of anybody, so you’re kinda just winging it and hoping they’d like what you do, because they’d never authorized your audition. Take 1 is your first go at it. …When they gave me that 180 turn, I was as surprised as everybody else. But it gave me this opportunity to go, now I can backward track what this guy was and create a different character. In the show I break from one character into the other, so that’s a great acting opportunity – that certainly doesn’t happen as a guest star. It’s a very rare opportunity to be able to work with something at that level of detail. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was great. You are surprised at those things, you’re as surprised as the audience is, but they gave such good clues as to why you’re doing it, you take those, absorb that and you make your own really strong choices that you think make sense in terms of their story and your character building and in my case I felt like it worked out. That show does that a lot to people.”
    “It’s great for guest stars, that show,” Benedict added.
    “Well, sure – you played God,” Speight said.
  • “Someone once described a film camera as the only machine to capture a human thought as it happens,” Ritter said. “You can see someone realize something. It’s a terrifying thing, because you feel that you’re not doing anything. So much work can happen internally.”
    Speight told the audience to go make movies. “If you want to know how to act on camera, go act on camera. Your phone is a camera. Theatre is a great place to start. Actors who don’t do theatre pay for it at the end of the day.” He said actors with theatre backgrounds do better in live auditions (because it’s in front of a live audience), but “get out there with your phone and make a movie, for crying out loud.”
  • Benedict said now is a great time for television. “I remember looking for a new ‘Six Feet Under,’ and now there are 10 ‘Six Feet Unders,'” he said. Actors who are typically known for their film work, like Jessica Lange, Kevin Spacey, etc., are now flocking to TV. “It’s a really exciting time for TV and indie film,” Ritter said.
  • And how do they feel about reality TV? Speight doesn’t watch it (“I’m not concerned about what any housewives in any city are doing.”). Benedict said he watches “Survivor” (although he was later corrected: that’s actually considered a game show), and Ritter says he goes for the more documentary-like reality programs like “Intervention.”
  • Speight hates it when directors give him line readings. If they want him to say a line a certain way, that’s puppetry, not acting, he said.
  • All three actors said they’d done nude scenes, to some degree, but it was something that required consideration.
    Benedict said he told a director he’d only show a certain part, but when he saw the movie, the director had used a body double to fill in the rest.
    Ritter said now he’ll see clips of the nude scenes online, with no context to the rest of the film, so it just comes off as nudity, not a part of an artistic film. “People get desensitized” to sex and nudity, he said. “There’s something to be said for mystery.”

Here’s a list of the winners of the 2014 Oxford Film Festival:
Narrative Feature: “Teddy Bears”
Special Jury Prize for Best Performance in a Narrative Feature: Barry Nash
Special Jury Prize for Best Emerging Director: Juli Jackson
Documentary Feature: “Bending Steel”
Narrative Short: “Safety”
Documentary Shorts: “Herd in Iceland”
Animation: “Snowdysseus”
Experimental: “Virtuous Virtuell”
Mississippi Music Video: “Poor Lost Souls,” by Jimbo Mathus
Mississippi Narrative Short: “Evergreen”
Mississippi Documentary Short: “Landscapes of the Heart: The Elizabeth Spencer Story”
Additional awards were given to Jason Ritter for Achievement in Film, Susan McPhail for the Hat Trick award for three films in the festival and Barry Nash of Bob Birdnow for the Lisa Blount Memorial Acting Award.
For more information on the festival, visit the Scene Now blog at scenenow.djournal.com.

The Oxford Film Festival is one of many film festivals in Mississippi. Here are the others:
Magnolia Film Festival, Starkville, Feb. 20-22
Natchez Literary & Cinema Celebration, Feb. 20-23
It’s All About You Film Festival, Tougaloo, Feb. 23-March 1
Crossroads Film Festival, Jackson, April 3-6
Delta International Film & Video Festival, Cleveland, April 9-11
Tupelo Film Festival, April 17-19
Sun & Sand Film & Music Festival, Mississippi Gulf Coast, November
Clarksdale Film Festival, January
Jewish Cinema Mississippi, Jackson, January

Daily Journal photographer Lauren Wood took a ton of great photos at the festival on Friday, so I’ll post those once I get them!