Longtime TV executive Paul Gratton admitted he had a lot to learn in his first year as programming director of the 2012 Whistler Film Festival (WFF).
But with a long list of buzz-worthy premieres, appearances by some of Hollywood’s biggest names and the support of industry tastemakers Variety, it became clear early on that Whistler’s star-studded, five-day festival was in capable hands.
“It was a great learning experience and I’m glad they invited me back for a second year to take advantage of all I’ve learned,” said Gratton from his Toronto home. “Measurably, if I compare title by title and category by category, I’ve got a better program than I had last year, and I thought last year wasn’t too bad.”
Returning for its 13th edition next month, Gratton has once again compiled an eclectic lineup of flicks for the fest, striking a balance between regional, national and international cinematic offerings.
It’s that diversity that Gratton hopes will appeal to Whistler locals and Vancouver industry vets alike.
“Obviously we’re a local film festival first, we want the local people to come out and for it to be a great event,” he said, highlighting the closing picture, snowboarding documentary The Crash Reel as a movie that should draw Whistlerites. “At the same time I really can’t survive without a programming mix; industry stuff that’s going to motivate the people in Vancouver to make the two-hour drive here.”
The programmer said he realized “the importance of Whistler to the region’s production community” after a number of last year’s B.C. films earned financing after playing the festival. And so Gratton doubled up on the number of B.C.-based flicks in the schedule, including the world premiere of B.C. director’s Michelle Ouellet’s Afterparty, exploring the dynamic between a group of long-lost friends in their 30s who unite for a wedding. The picture is the first produced by Vancouver-based Sociable Films, a company devoted to making films collectively by using pooled resources and talent.
The spotlight will once again shine brightly on Canuck filmmakers, with nearly half of the festival’s entries coming from within our borders, said Gratton, with the works of three of the country’s most accomplished directors on display.
Critical darling Atom Egoyan’s latest feature, Devil’s Knot, which revolves around a true-life murder in an Arkansas town and stars Reese Witherspoon, will screen Dec. 7 and 8.
Dallas Buyers Club by Montreal director Jean-Marc Vallée has already earned early award season buzz for Matthew McConaughey, who lost 38 pounds for his portrayal of a promiscuous Texas man diagnosed with HIV, who takes the fight against the American medical system into his own hands. The Whistler premiere of the film screens Dec. 7.
Also featured will be Québecois director Denis Villeneuve’s first foray into Hollywood, the white-knuckle thriller Prisoners, in theatres now. Prisoners supporting actress and Academy Award winner Melissa Leo will take part in an intimate Q&A session at the Conference Centre Dec. 5 as the festival’s Luminary honouree.
“We’re trying to use the positioning of the festival to remind Oscar voters of some worthy stuff, and it was just such a strange year that three of our top filmmakers, all of whom have had films play in Whistler in the past, suddenly have big American movies with big budgets and big stars,” said Gratton.
The 10th annual Borsos Competition will highlight the best in Canadian film over the past year with six wildly divergent pictures; from Canuck TV icon Jason Priestley’s directorial debut, the poignant road movie, Cas & Dylan, to the beautiful Uvanga, a rare glimpse into Inuit life in Nunavut, to the highest-grossing French-language domestic film of the year, the historical epic Louis Cyr, The Strongest Man Alive.
“The (Borsos) films are all over the place, they have nothing to do with each other and I pity the jury trying to come up with the best picture out of that group,” said Gratton. “Only two of the six played the Toronto Film Festival, which is always a source of pride for me. I’m pleased we’re carving out a unique niche and we’re not a mini-version of TIFF.”
Other highlights of the program include the return of WFF’s Late Night and American Indies strands, as well as a stronger presence of Aboriginal feature films.
WFF returns to the now digital and 3D capable Village 8 Cinemas in 2013, great news for Gratton, who will screen the family film, Amazonia on Dec. 7, the first time a 3D production will appear at the event.
The festival’s main screening house, Rainbow Theatre, was approved for a $500,000 renovation this summer — a far cry from the $2.7 million initially requested by organizers. The upgrade, which will not begin until after the festival concludes, will see carpets replaced, new seating and updated audiovisual equipment. Gratton said his long-term goal is to have a permanent screening house established in the resort, following in the footsteps of other top festivals like TIFF and Cannes.
“Rome’s not built in a day, and it’s not where I want the festival to end up yet — I’d like us to be premiering major Oscar contenders from the major studios,” he added. “We’re not quite there yet, but I feel we’re really setting the groundwork for that.”
The Whistler Film Festival runs from Dec. 4 to 8 at five venues across the resort.
Visit www.whistlerfilmfestival.com for tickets and the full schedule.