Down here at the end of the road, immersed in sunny days and salty air, we all like to believe that we’re living in Neverland (drunken pirates included). But when we need a brief escape from the place where everyone escapes to, many of us turn to film. What better way to take a break from reality than to dive into an endless number of infinitely diverse worlds? And although our beloved Tropic Cinema is a great venue to do just that, sometimes one venue isn’t quite enough. Which is why this weekend’s Key West Film Festival, running from Wednesday to Sunday, Nov. 20-24, is the solution to all of our fugitive fantasies.
The Key West Film Festival is the brainchild of Brooke Christian, who had been cooking up a plan to quit his job and move to a tropical island for a while, fueled by years of vacationing in Key West to visit his father, the late Wayne Kruer, a longtime resident and star local attorney. To justify his fugue, he developed a crazy, artsy plan — the kind of plan that has attracted dreamers and those fleeing the cold to Key West for decades: Christian decided to start a film festival in the Southernmost town.
This year, as a result of his optimism and doggedness, the Key West Film Festival will celebrate its eighth birthday, with a lineup of star-studded films, parties, panel discussions, awards ceremonies and celebrity appearances. The schedule is packed, beginning with a 5 p.m. opening night showing of Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster drama “The Irishman” at the Tropic Cinema on Wednesday, Nov. 20, which will be presented by K. Austin Collins of Vanity Fair and preceded by a discussion with Mr. Collins and Jen Yamato of the Los Angeles Times. An opening night reception at the Audubon House will follow the 3½-hour-long film. Over 30 scheduled feature-length films will screen throughout the long weekend, along with dozens of short films and cultural events spread across the festival’s five-day run from Nov. 20-24.
It seems impossible now, but eight years ago, Christian had no idea he would one day be lauded as the founder and chairman of such a successful event. He wasn’t even sure it was financially feasible. From one angle, the plan had legs: Key West was a relatively cultured tourist town, so why wouldn’t people travel to paradise to watch movies? On the other hand, Key West was already known as an extraordinarily expensive place to buy a con leche, never mind start a business, and the town’s schedule of special events was already oversaturated.
It was, strangely, the French embassy that convinced him to risk everything. While working as the V.P. of a global translation services company in Washington, Christian learned that nearby Richmond, Virginia was hosting a film festival — a French film festival, to be specific.
Why would a city almost 4,000 miles away from the land of baguettes, berets and Beaujolais host such a specific, esoteric event, one almost guaranteed to have a list of expenses larger than the size of Richmond’s erudite Francophile population? It turned out the French Embassy was providing a stipend, and Christian took this news as a kind of challenge: if Richmond could secure enough funding to make a French film festival financially viable, surely he could figure out a way to bring a film festival to South Florida’s creative hub.
Enter Michael Tuckman, programming director of the Key West Film Festival, who just happened to know a thing or two about film distribution and festival programming and was more than happy to spend a week watching movies in Key West (see our interview with Tuckman on Page A4 for more background on the man behind the magic). And what started out as a fairly small, locally-focused grassroots event has grown global in the years since.
“We spent the first three years getting our feet wet and figuring everything out, and then in 2015, the fourth year of the festival, we introduced the Critics’ Focus program, where we invite two of the nation’s top film critics to curate the opening and closing film events,” Tuckman explains. “All of a sudden we went from putting on what was a really good program to stepping it up a level to have a big national presence. Suddenly, the Key West Film Festival was on the radar of a lot of studios and critics. This year is our fifth year doing that and over the years it’s really become a festival where studios are seeking us out.”
And if this year’s Spotlight films are any indication, the Key West Film Festival has clearly made an impact on the festival distribution circuit. For example, “The Irishman” is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year, and festival attendees will be able to see in its full glory on the big screen before its Nov. 27 release date on Netflix — not that your flatscreen TV could ever do this mob-sized drama justice, according to Tuckman.
“When you talk about film like ‘The Irishman,’ it’s this epic Scorsese masterpiece and I just can’t fathom watching that on a television for your first time,” he says. “First of all, it’s 3 ½ hours long, which is a challenge for anyone to find time in their busy life to sit down and watch on a random Thursday night after dinner. You get sleepy! So the big screen is how you’ve got to see a movie like this.”
Though it may seem counterintuitive, streaming services getting into the filmmaking game has actually been a boon for the film festival industry. “Ideally, we want to show films before they’re available for screening to any film festival,” Tuckman says. “And streaming is a benefit because a film produced by a streaming service like Netflix is going to play some independent theaters, but it’s not going to play the Regal. By policy, commercial theaters are not going to play a film that is already available on Netflix.
“So for Key West audiences, this is the only chance you’re going to get to see ‘The Irishman’ on the big screen. It was the same thing with ‘Roma’ last year. I think Netflix has been smart about that as well. They realize that because many of the commercial chains aren’t going to play their movies, film festivals are a great way for them to be appreciated on the big screen before they can be enjoyed from the comfort of your living room.”
Audience members aren’t the only ones slated to score at this year’s festival: this year costume designer Arianne Phillips, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” and Madonna’s directorial debut “W.E.” and who has designed for productions as diverse as Broadway’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and cult favorite film “The Crow,” has been singled out for the fourth annual Golden Key for Excellence in Costume Design as part of the festival’s Costume Design Focus program — a perfect fit for Key West’s creative masquerade loving community, notes Tuckman.
“I don’t necessarily want to say it’s become a trend, but because there are literally thousands of festivals, it’s kind of become a trend to find a niche,” Tuckman says. “And there are awesome film festivals that focus on screenplays and screenwriters, one even highlights composers. For us, we knew the top-line stuff like acting didn’t need a festival. But there is something very specific to Key West about creativity and design and that’s why we chose costume design as the category to highlight each year. We are now in our fourth year honoring costume design and this year’s honoree, Annie Philips, has done amazing work, including on this year’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ We take ads out in Costume Design Quarterly magazine and each of the designers honored here have been nominated for an Oscar, with one win for Mark Bridges for ‘Phantom Thread.’”
Often overlooked at film festivals in favor of the more traditional categories of honoring directors, actors and scriptwriters, the Key West festival’s choice to focus on costume design signals an intuitive connection between the team behind the festival and the surrounding community it serves, summed up perfectly in the film festival’s mission statement to “showcase films that capture Key West’s essence: Creativity, Diversity, Sustainability, and Beauty.”
Although the festival has grown to include some serious cinematic heavy hitters, there is still a Florida focus to the event. Not only will the Film Festival highlight films made by professional Florida filmmakers, like Spotlight feature “Waves” (which is making its Florida festival debut), but student shorts from the Sunshine State will also get their turn on the big screen at the Tropic on Friday, Nov. 22, at 1:45 p.m. “A big part of the reason that the festival was started was to encourage filmmaking in the state of Florida,” Christian explains.
“Our Florida focus is even bigger than usual this year,” Tuckman says. “Sunday is always dedicated to Florida features, but we also have six different shorts programs with Florida films this year. There’s a marked difference this year in that so much of our main slate program has Florida influences in it. Our Saturday night marquee film, ‘Waves,’ takes place in Hollywood, Florida, and was directed by Trey Edward Shults, who is based in Orlando. He’ll be joining us for a Q&A session after the film with Jen Yamato of the Los Angeles Times and K. Austin Collins of Vanity Fair.”
Though there are Floridians aplenty amidst the lineup of award recipients, scholarship applicants, actors and filmmakers on this year’s festival schedule, Christian is adamant that the festival contains as many categories as possible, including foreign films, documentaries, LGBTQ cinema, films from this year’s Sundance festival and shorts. There are some heavy hitters — like the aforementioned Scorsese film, “The Irishman,” and screenings to honor the 20th anniversaries of both “Alien” (which will be followed by a Q&A with Golden Key Award Winner Tom Skerritt) and “Boys Don’t Cry” (which will be followed by a Q&A with Golden Key Award Director Kimberly Peirce) — and two opportunities to kibbitz with critics on Friday morning at 10:30 a.m. (bagels are included, naturally).
The Friday afternoon Critics Panel at Viva Saloon will provide festivalgoers with valuable insights on the best films of the year, early Oscar predictions and the general state of film criticism in our continually evolving media landscape, straight from the mouths of prominent film critics and filmmakers. There is also an opportunity to catch a free flick oceanside at Lagerheads Beach Bar — “Buena Vista Social Club,” which is also celebrating its 20th anniversary, will close out the festival at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 24.
For Tuckman, this year’s festival is one of the best yet. “We couldn’t be more excited about this year’s lineup,” he says. “From having the chance to share Scorsese’s masterpiece on the big screen in all of its grandeur to highlighting impactful, thoughtful, entertaining, comedic, dramatic and downright incredible films from countries far and wide to communities in our own backyard, the films of the Key West Film Festival 2019 represent our strongest lineup yet.”
But when asked to pick his highlights from this year’s list of films, Tuckman has too many to count. “We have our spotlight films, which are always hot tickets,” Tuckman says. “One of the big ones this year is ‘And Then We Danced.’ It’s an LGBT film technically from Sweden, but filmed in Georgia (the country). This young dancer from Tbilisi is part of the Georgian National Ballet and getting into the top-level is his only way out of poverty. As he’s doing that, a new classmate comes in and he realizes that he likes men. His sexuality is contrasted with the most masculine of cultures, which is even epitomized through the style of dance, and he has to question everything that he’s been raised on and every image of manhood. And the dancing is absolutely beautiful.
“But then there’s ‘Well Groomed,’ which is about the world of competitive dog grooming and there are so many hilarious scenes — one of the dogs has an entire scene from ‘Snow White’ in his fur. And then there’s ‘After Parkland.’ Both directors are coming down with a student named Victoria, who was a freshman during the Parkland shooting. It will be a really heavy afternoon, but really powerful for everyone attending.”
Most of all, the Key West Film Festival promises to be a memorable experience for the festival’s attendees. “Just like any other festival in Key West, you’ve got to find a way to stand out and be a really unique experience,” Tuckman says. “Over the last eight years, we’ve created a festival that encompasses so many films and genres. We have critics participate, so we’re not just playing big films but also providing context about what makes those films so important. The Key West Film Festival is beyond just a survey of films — it’s really an impactful experience.”
And lest you thought this weekend was only about the silver screen, not even a film festival can come to Key West without throwing a party or four. In addition to the Wednesday night opening reception at the Audubon House, the Key West Film Festival will also host a Friday night soiree at Key West Rum Distillery, a Saturday evening Awards Celebration & Ceremony at The Studios of Key West and a Saturday night After-Party at Mangoes on Duval Street. These events are for pass-holders only, however, so we recommend you get your golden ticket to the festivities ASAP.
Aside from the parties, the week’s events range in price — some are free, while most others hover between $12 and $15. All-week and weekend passes are available to those who’d like the freedom to attend as many events as possible, with three tiers to choose from: VIP Premium Pass holders enjoy unlimited screenings, are first in line to be seated and get guaranteed access to all events, parties and meet-and-greets with film talent and critics; All-Access Pass holders are next in line for seats for all VIP events and films after VIP Pass holders; and Auteur Pass holders enjoy unlimited screenings at the Tropic Cinema, except for those in the Carper theater after 5 p.m. Limited one-day and individual tickets will be available pending seat availability for all films and events.
For the full schedule of events, tickets, news about the festival and contact information, visit www.kwfilmfest.com. ¦