Virgina Film Festival: Conversation with Jody Kielbasa, Director

Posted on November 2, 2011 by

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Cville Niche had the opportunity to sit down with Jody Kielbasa, Director of The Virginia Film Festival, about the upcoming 24th annual event. In his third year as director, Kielbasa shared with us his experience with and vision for the Festival.

Prior to founding and serving as the Director of the Sarasota Film Festival for ten years, Kielbasa has had an extensive history in the film industry. In addition to his professional background and his time with the Virginia Film Festival, we were able to talk a little about his local connection with Charlottesville, and even his favorite movie!

Jody Kielbasa

How have you seen the festival grow or change since 2009 when you started?

I think that by and large it’s a very different festival than the festival that I came to years ago. My first year, my first day in Charlottesville was May 29 and the festival that year was November 5. So I had approximately five months to pull the festival together, and I inherited a theme, which had been a tradition. For years there had been an over-arching theme with the Virginia Film Festival and the films were sort of chosen to fit that theme, but I don’t think that’s always the best way to program a festival. As a result of my first year theme of “funny business,” we had a very successful festival.  We had about 19,000 people attend, which was a record in terms of attendance. We also had Matthew Broderick in and Norman Jewison and Cherry Jones and we had a great lineup, but nonetheless, the film festival was encumbered by that theme, and after talking to a lot of people in the community and also on the grounds of the University, I decided to forego having an over-arching theme, and for a lot of reasons. If you choose that theme in January or February of the year, nine months later when you have a film festival the whole world can change. You can have a tsunami, you can have a financial meltdown, you can have war, you can have pestilence, I mean a lot of stuff can happen. The theme was also difficult because it was very tough, you couldn’t always program films that resonate within the community themselves, that deal with local issues, filmmakers, things that are important to people living here in the community and outside the region. As a result of that, we actually now without a theme are able to explore a much, much wider variety of themes, and we have a more vital and more vibrant festival. So last year we screened 126 films at the Virginia Film Festival in 3 ½ days, and we shattered the prior attendance record which we had set the year before with nearly 24,000 people attending. We also changed logos, we have a new logo that represents the state of Virginia and the Virginia Film Festival as the state film festival of Virginia, so that helped brand us in a new light. And the focus is now on contemporary films – the very best and latest in contemporary cinema, films that have gone through the festival circuit and we’re seeing here in Charlottesville for the first time.

We also understand that you were the executive director of the Sarasota Film Festival for many years.

Yeah, I was the founding executive director of that festival.  I built it, and grew it for ten years through 2008, I stepped down after the tenth anniversary, and it was one of the largest film festivals in the southeast of the country.

So how would you say that the Virginia Film Festival differs from the Sarasota Film Festival?

Well, I think in Sarasota and Charlottesville you have very different communities. Charlottesville is… just a different way of life here, and I appreciate and love living in Charlottesville quite frankly so much.  Obviously with the University here, but just in general, there’s just a huge appreciation, there’s a huge intellectual curiosity.  I think more than anything, people are interested in films and the ideas behind the films. Why did the filmmaker make those films, what are they passionate about? Sarasota’s a little bit of a different community, it’s a little bit more of…sort of like the palm beach of the west coast of Florida sometimes. I love Sarasota as well, but the focus there was on very, very large events and stars coming in – what stars are coming in. I think the films sometimes took a little bit of a back seat to that. Here I think Charlottesville appreciates having guest stars in, and they love having them in, but I think the focus is on the films and the filmmakers and the ideas behind those films.  It’s so refreshing, it’s a great thing.

What got you interested in the film industry in the first place?

Well I started out as a professional actor years ago, and this is many years ago— nearly 25 years ago, in Hollywood. I had some mild success, I worked on a soap opera for a short time, and I also waited a lot of tables. And then I decided to open up a live, professional theater, to act there myself. I pretty found out that I was running a small mom and pop business and that I was becoming a producer. I produced about a hundred plays in seven years, and loved it, absolutely loved doing that. A couple years later, I moved back in Florida where I became a producing artistic director of a professional theater in St. Petersburg, Florida when I was hired by the board of the Sarasota Film Festival to help them found that film festival. They hired me for my producing skills, and when you’re running a large film festival, besides being an artistic director, one of the things that you have to be able to do is to produce a very large event. And from my perspective actually, it was much more challenging than live theater, they’re more sort of moving targets in the film festival.  It’s difficult to control things. So it’s a fun challenge at the end of the day, that’s what I think of that.

Well the lineup for this year’s festival looks pretty exciting, can you talk a little bit about the choices for this festival?

It’s a really great mix.  It’s a mix, quite honestly for better or for worse, I kind of stumbled upon last year.  It’s a great mix of really wonderful foreign films, kind of some large studio films that people are just excited about, that they’re going to be able to see before they’re released in December or January.  And there’s a lot of buzz about those films, like The Descendants and Albert Nobbs, and We Need to Talk about Kevin, and the Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method, and you know, those are generating a lot of excitement.  And really kind of newer independent films that people are less likely to have heard about, but are really true independent films.  For instance, Natural Selection that stars Rachel Harris, who’s coming in.  It won the SXSW audience favorite award.  That’s just a true independent film, and it’s a great film.  It’s that kind of a balance.  And … we’ve got some very strong documentaries too.  So I think that that, in and of itself, is just a really kind of great mix, it’s a wonderful formula for a film festival.  We are looking at some classic films, but there are eight classic films in the festival, and they all have a focus.  Five of them are part of the actual accepted classical films in the festival – Five of them are part of the Library of Congress’ Turner Classic Movies that celebrate the national film registry series. They are being done at the Paramount Theater and these are films that have been named the National Film Registry which was established by Congress in 1988 to celebrate 25 films each year that have been culturally or historically significant. One of the films we are screening is Badlands, and Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk met on that set . The other two classic films are kind of no-brainers. One of them is JFK, the 20th anniversary of JFK, and Oliver Stone is coming in to conduct a moderated discussion with Professor Larry Sabato, Center for Politics. And then we are partnering with the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression. And we are presenting the 15th anniversary of The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Larry Flynt is coming in for a moderated discussion on the rights of free expression, regal experts afterwards. That’s really created interest and I expect a lot of fireworks out of that one as well. But when we do look at classic films we’re trying to look at them through a contemporary lens and try to make it current. Why are we screening these films? Well, those are some of the reasons. We can bring in fascinating discussions or the actual people who starred in the film or have a discussion about things that are going on now.

What are your thoughts on the Digital Media Gallery’s outdoor projections? How did that come about?

I did that sort of on a song and a prayer my first year here. I wanted to engage the students and local community artists, and find a way to bridge between the University of Virginia artists and the community. We have some student interns and I said this is a great thing and I wish I had time to focus on it, so what I’m going to do is get you a downtown space and I want you to turn it into an art gallery and do an art installation of digital film. And they did. We had help with the AV Company that donated all the projectors and next thing I know I walked down to this incredible urban space on the downtown mall and it’s full of these incredible installations of digital films in a neat, interesting way. We did it again last year on the downtown mall, but this year there just weren’t any spaces that were working for me, so I said let’s take it outside. We are working with Kevin Everson’s class again, his students, and some other community artists. Screens have been hung between the trees on the downtown mall and we are using some buildings on the downtown mall. We are also projecting on the Arts Grounds of the University of Virginia. I’m really excited about it, we are actually launching this tomorrow evening, a week before the festival starts and then running it through every night through the festival. People can just wander out and experience the festival outdoors. I don’t even know how it’s going to come off; sometimes art is about taking risks. And this was a risk. We were very fortunate to have the AV Company help us out with the technical aspects because normally we would never be able to afford to do something like this. It would be hugely difficult to pull off. So, somebody’s going to turn on the switch tomorrow night and I’m going to be hopefully, happily, watching the films.

There are a number of venues that are going to be hosting the festival, is there a particular one you think lends itself well to the atmosphere of the festival or any particular film?

I think they all work very well. We are fortunate to be able to use the grounds of the University of Virginia, and actually one of them is new this year. Newcomb Hall, where we traditionally screen at, is under renovation. So we moved the screenings over to Nau Hall on South Lawn. We are trying to make sure people know that and understand it because it’s still a relatively new building at the university. But it’s got a great 265 seat theater – that should work very well. Then you know the Regal Vinegar Hill, which is a long-time staple in the community, and then the Paramount, which is such an incredibly gorgeous place to screen. To be able to screen Library of Congress films in the Paramount, which was a classic movie palace built in 1931, is just a pleasure. Part of what I’m trying to do is create a hub on the downtown mall between Vinegar Hill and Main Street Arena, which is our festival headquarters, the Paramount and Regal. Obviously, then, it extends over to the University, and it’s fun to see a lot of filmmakers and sponsors and panelists running around with badges on that are part of the festival, and people are aware. They are going oh wow, the festival is going on, that’s cool, and that’s definitely new. It’s trying to create that energy of a festival, because festival means “to celebrate,” and so we have a celebration of the arts and film and a conversation or dialogue around that film, and that art form.

Do you think that there’s one film that’s kind of a “can’t-miss” film or is there one that stands out to you personally

If you’re into independent film, if you want to see a truly “independent” film, you’ve gotta go see Natural Selection.  Great film, great performance by Rachel Harris, the kind of nasty girlfriend in The Hangover but also people know her from Comedy Central and a lot of the mockumentaries that have come out in the past.  Yeah, but wonderfully talented comedic actress, I think that that’s a film to point people to, but you know I don’t like to play favorites in the festival because I have a hundred and I think fifteen films in the festival this year, and I love them all, that’s why we program them. I want people to go out and you know, I love to have tough choices for people to make during the festival as they run from venue to venue going “oh gosh, I’m going to miss this film and this panel discussion, but I’d love to see this one over here” and that’s kind of something.  I’m seeing that happen a lot in the last two years, they come up and they go “I couldn’t go see this one because I was over there seeing that one,” and I said “well, I’m so glad you enjoyed that one experience.”

With that being said, what’s a word of advice you would give to a first-time filmgoer so that they would get the most of what is offered and so they’re not overwhelmed with all the choices?

You know, and I appreciate that, we work really hard to create a program.  If you go through the program and our ads, we have carved out sort of parts of the program you can wrap your brain around.  Documentary, certain spotlight screening . If you want to see a high profile film with stars or discussion, like Larry Flynn or Oliver Stone, it would make sense. I really tell people to go see some of the things that you’re attracted to, but every once in a while, go see a film that you don’t know that much about, because that sense of discovery is so incredible.  I mean, the foreign lineup alone that we have is remarkable and you know, you’re going to wander into a film that you really don’t know that much about and suddenly, you’re just going to be transported into an entirely different world, and that’s pretty cool.

As a former actor, producer and now the executive director of the film festival, do you have an all-time favorite movie?

You know it changes every time, somebody always asks me this – I get asked “what are your top five or your top ten or what are your favorites?” And it changes all the time, but you know, quite honestly I always by default say The Wizard of Oz, because it’s probably just one of my all-time favorite movies.  I tend to look at a film, and I try and say OK what was the filmmaker trying to do and how successful were they?  And I think that film was so remarkably successful on every level: of the filmmaker’s music, the art direction is remarkable, the twister still scares the heck out of people, kids are still scared by Margaret Hamilton and the witch, and it’s a beautiful story about home. I mean, it’s very successful, and they were dealing with a series of books that they had to compress into this one very, very successful film that has spanned 71 years now, and people still love it, it’s still a classic. So I’m going to hang my hat on The Wizard of Oz, and it’s seems like ”oh that’s not a very artistic choice for the director of a film festival”, but that’s ok, I’m comfortable with it.

What do you enjoy doing in Charlottesville, what do you really like about Charlottesville?

Oh wow, there are so many things I really love about Charlottesville.  I like being outdoors with my family, I’ve got three young children.  Two weeks ago we went up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove along there and then went up to Humpback with the kids for a little bit and saw the fall colors.  I love going down to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, I just think that that place is amazing down there, I mean I absolutely love it.  I sort of love the fascinating mix of people that are Charlottesvillians here.  You just walk on the downtown mall and it’s fascinating to look at the people and listen to the people and the different types, and how well, I think, overall this community interacts with one another, which is great.  And overall, and of course there’s always exceptions, how accepting everybody seems of one another, which is great.  So I think those are probably the things that I like more than anything.  And yes, I love seeing the mountains of course, that’s a given.  I came from Florida, there wasn’t a change of seasons.  I love the change of seasons here.

What are your aspirations for the Virginia Film Festival in coming years?

Well, next year is going to be our 25th anniversary.  It will be my fourth year, but it will be the 25th Anniversary of the Virginia Film Festival. I think that that’s a great opportunity to celebrate many traditions the festival’s had over the years and connect some of the new visions that I have brought to the table, and continue to grow, and build upon the success we’ve enjoyed in the last couple of years. So I’m excited about the 25th Anniversary, it’ll be a landmark year for us in the programs that we put together, people coming in to celebrate that 25th Anniversary, and that’s going to help us for fundraising, and other opportunities as well.  And in general, the fun that I always have, for the coming year is just continuing to improve the program and bring in some more and even some stronger guest artists for the films every year, maybe continuing to improve upon the nice slate of foreign films we have.  But do some really great community building here, reach out to local organizations to involve them even more closely to the film festival.  So I think that’s what I’m most proud of is the outreach that we’ve done over the last two film festivals.  Programming films that work with social service organizations or cultural organizations here in the Charlottesville area, involving them directly, that’s been a nice thing.

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