Woods Hole Film Festival: James Mottern’s Master Class and More
Written by Donna Sorbello | Posted by: NewEnglandFilm.com
The Woods Hole Film Festival is charging forward into its 22nd year. Opening July 27th and going through August 3rd, the festival’s ambition only grows with age. Forging ahead with 33 narrative and documentary feature-length ﬁlms, and close to 70 narrative, documentary and animated ﬁlms overall, the festival will once again offer screenings and discussions with ﬁlmmakers, panel discussions, concerts and parties.
Another tradition at the festival is the chance to attend a master class or two with ﬁlmmakers-in-residence. In 2010, Woods Hole screened the first film of director James Mottern, Trucker, and this year they’ve asked him to return to share some of his ﬁlmmaking wisdom regarding breaking into the business and on his approach to working with actors. I caught up recently with ﬁlm director Mottern, as he was ﬁnishing up work on God Only Knows, shot recently in the North End of Boston.
In God Only Knows, one can catch a glimpse of what makes Mottern tick as a director. He describes his latest feature, starring Ben Barnes, Leighton Meester and Harvey Keitel, as a “genre” ﬁlm in that is about crime and the maﬁa. However, he has attempted to elevate our expectations of what has become a common enough area for ﬁlm. The setting is that of life in and around the mob and the crimes committed in that world, but the larger themes are universal ones: such as a search for authenticity and ﬁnding the truth. In the light of the on-going Whitey Bulger trials, Mottern may have struck it rich with his timing in showing the less-than-cool side of the world of crime. Mottern hopes the role of the mobster in present-day society in God Only Knows will vary sharply with our somewhat gloriﬁed images of the mob members in The Godfather.
Born in Providence, growing up for twelve years in the hills of Virginia and then returning to New England and U Mass Amherst, Mottern became aware of the shifts in the fabric of the North End. The Italian community that the tourists have come to see is now, in a sense, an outsider. The authenticity of the once primarily “Italian” North End is becoming somewhat diminished by gentriﬁcation and the inﬂux of upwardly mobile couples wanting to live in the charming, “authentic” North End while, perhaps inadvertently, changing the balance of the community with higher-price restaurants, bars and condos. This loss of the “authentic” and how we search for it, is what Mottern is trying to tap into.
This idea of authenticity plays a big role in his approach to directing and acting as well. Some of what his class on directing actors at the Woods Hole Film Festival will be focused on, is helping to unearth what is the genuine truth of a performance. When starting on a ﬁlm, “time is money,” but Mottern says the director must ﬁght for time with actors before the AD says, “roll.” He always takes moments before scenes to talk to actors about subtext: about “what isn’t there” on the printed page. He feels he is tuned into choosing actors who have a rich inner life, and then trusting them to know more about the character intuitively and through their emotions than he could explain with words. In fact, he feels too much talking can take away from what the actor might be feeling in his or her heart as the character. For Mottern, the script is the skeleton and the actor puts the ﬂesh and depth onto and into it. We shared our amazement at Brando, whom he describes as someone able to play two or three emotions at the same time. That’s what he likes to help bring out, or at least give the space to allow to happen within a performance in his ﬁlms. He says actors are dear to him and they are to be treasured so they are free to do their best work.
It makes me now rethink much of the pandering to “stars” one sees on sets, where others are running around fetching or holding pets and cloaks and special health drinks. And though these are small “perks” one observes on a set, they perhaps feeds that sense of respect in the actor’s ability so that he or she feels safe to reveal the character’s self, in its beauty or ugliness, when the moment arises. Wisely, Mottern says the director cannot carry the emotional life of each of his ﬁlm characters with him. The actors have to do that for themselves. He’s discovered that if one actor is truly grounded in the truth of the role and the reality of the world, others on set tend to pick up on that and match it. “Cast well” he says, “be open to what someone brings. Trust actors and they’ll surprise you.” He says they need to know you have their backs, and not just there to tell them where to go, where to stand. Mottern sounds like a director actors will be clamoring to work with.
Along with Mottern, there will be master classes with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Detropia, Jesus Camp). This year Woods Hole’s incredible range, which often has a focus on New England, includes Jay Craven’s Northern Borders, about quarreling grandparents and their grandson, and Married and Counting (Allan Piper), which focuses on a gay couple in their 25th year together. Zombie fans will rejoice for Birth Of The Living Dead, a documentary feature that shows how filmmaker George Romero gathered amateur actors to create Night Of The Living Dead. You can even catch Romero in a cameo role in Sam Robert’s A Fish Story. Cape Cod stories and ﬁlmmakers abound and include Isaak James’s By Way of Home and Joseph Laraja’s The Golden Scallop. But this is a small sampling of the ﬁlms, screenings, concerts, as well as well-known actors (Eddie McClintock of NBC’s Warehouse 13) and recently discovered ones, that can be seen on screen, and possibly wandering through the festival. It’s an event to behold, and one of the highlights will certainly be Mottern’s master class.
To sign up for James Mottern's directing workshop on Thursday, Aug 1 at 1pm, click here. To check out the whole Woods Hole Film Festival, running July 27 - Aug 3, check out their website.