A Look at First Time Fest 2016
By Jason Okanlawon
Edited by Carl Cottingham
In an age when the phrase “gender equality” has, for the most part, been connected with situations where women are either under-recognized or mistreated based on their gender, it’s deeply refreshing to witness events such as the First Time Film Festival. As hard as the fight for equality has been for actresses to have the same recognition, roles, and pay as their male counterparts, the fight for women to be taken seriously as directors, producers and the like has been equally hard if not more so. It is no secret that the world of Hollywood was a “man’s world” for decades, with the women merely playing the roles assigned to them. We know the imagery: that of dutiful wives to their movie-making husbands, the beautiful screen love interests, or the damsels in distress of action spectacles.
This is why the Saturday panel of the First Time Film festival was more than just a celebration of the magnificent strides that women have taken in the industry in the past decade. It was a triumphant ode to female empowerment and the freedom and creativity that it has led to. Here, women were lauded for their achievements both on camera and behind it. For the first screening of the day, we are treated to an old gem of a movie by then first-time film director Stacy Cochran, whose film My New Gun was a tour de force of comedic twists and turns. The movie which had debuted in 1992 was still as funny now as it was then. Starring Diane Lane, James Le Gros and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his first ever movie role, each frame of My New Gun was intimate, immersive, and vividly brought to life by acclaimed cinematographer Ed Lachman.
Based on a story written by Stacy Cochran herself, its plot points were as equally simple and comical as the title. Gerald Bender and Debbie Bender are the married couple at the heart of this overt satire about gender roles and female empowerment. Played by Stephen Collins and Diane Lane respectively, the first frames of the movie introduce us to Lane’s character as the mousy and timid housewife with Collins playing the all-American macho, slightly misogynistic husband. All hell breaks loose however when Gerald buys Debbie a gun for her safety, so he says. Into their lives comes their next door neighbor, Skippy, who further helps to upend things in the Bender home and cause strain between husband and wife. Yet, from start to finish, the gun remained front and center, almost taking on a life of its own and becoming a character in and of itself. The twists and turns here were genuine, as well as the laughs which all culminated in a finale that seemed both inevitable and unthinkable. It was a superbly well-made piece of filmmaking and still holds up after all these years as a movie of pure, unadulterated entertainment.
After the film, Stacy Cochran explained the process of making the movie back in 1991. Young and fresh out of film school, the odds had seemed stacked against her when she had been trying to realize her first movie based on a story and script written by her. She explained how each aspect of the movie’s production had come together against seemingly insurmountable odds. Ms. Cochran later mentioned to me and a few others that she is currently working on directing another film which would be set in New York with actors Richard Linklater and Lily Rabe already signed on to be in it. Hopefully, she will get it made and give us another opportunity to see her brilliant filmmaking at play.
The next screening of the day was a surprising hit from first time director Sasha Gordon. The movie is titled It Had To Be You, borrowing its name from the classic song by Tony Bennet. This romantic comedy served as a breath of fresh air in a genre so saturated with subpar offerings wherein it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. Based on a script by Sasha Gordon and Levi Abrino, the movie was able to shift between a light and breezy tone to moments of somber expression so seamlessly that not a single aspect felt forced or out of place.
It Had to Be You features rising stars Cristin Milioti and Dan Soder as the central couple who take us on a whirlwind romance of laughs, heartbreak and awkwardness. Milioti plays Sonia, a neurotic jingles writer who dreams of making it big in the city. Her life is seemingly perfect until her easygoing boyfriend, Chris, played to affable perfection by Soder, asks for her hand in marriage. The proposal however turns into an ultimatum which leads Sonia on a journey of self-discovery. The movie works very well as a rather self-aware medium of social commentary dealing with issues such as gender roles and romance in general. It was hilarious, it was poignant and, above all, heartfelt. It Had To Be You is a masterful piece of filmmaking by Sasha Gordon, who showed how adept she could be at creating grounded, yet relatable characters with dialogue that was never overly dramatic or comical when it did not need to be. I personally look forward to seeing what else she brings along in the future.
After the screening, she answered questions concerning the thought process behind the writing and making of the film. It is worthy of note that she did admit that, although the story of the movie seems like it revolves around this one song which pretty much made up the heart of the movie, that was not really the case when the script was written. It all depended on if they would have been granted the rights to the song for the movie. Luckily for the audience, the filmmakers were able to get the rights and the rest was, as they say, history.
In conclusion, First Time Fest was a day about celebrating creativity and rewarding hard work, dedication and vision. It’s always nice to see the works proven masters like Spielberg, Nolan and Eastwood, but they would never have reached the heights they’d reached today if they hadn’t started from small beginnings and had their work appreciated in the formative early days. It was an absolute thrill to meet directors who are starting out on their path to greatness and seeing them excel in their first offerings to the movie industry. The old adage could not have been more true on this day; great things really do start from small beginnings.