LAFF Retreats Out of L.A.

Festival heads to Northern California’s Skywalker Ranch for “restorative” pre-festival filmmakers retreat

It takes place 400 miles away from the site of the festival, and it’s hosted by a director who won’t be appearing in any official capacity at the fest – but the Los Angeles Film Festival’s annual Filmmakers Retreat is nonetheless a key part of the LAFF experience for a select few.

This year’s retreat begins on Wednesday, when a number of the directors whose films will screen at the festival gather at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, north of the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California. Accompanying them: the recently crowed queen of the Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow – who, in her only official LAFF capacity, will serve as the guest director of the retreat.

To most people, including festival-goers, the two-day event is a little-known sidelight to the festival, an event that takes place out of town and without press coverage, far away from the cameras and the red carpets and the theaters of L.A. Live where the festival kicks off on Thursday night and runs through June 27.

Skywalker RanchAnd that, says Film Independent’s executive director Dawn Hudson, is precisely the point.

Filmmakers, she says, often come to film festivals “with business on their minds: Am I going to get representation, am I going to get a distributor, are the critics going to like my film? There’s all that anxiety about showing your film – and in L.A., you’re in the belly of the beast, so that anxiety is even more heightened.

“So how do we shift that mindset, even for a little while, and give them a break? And so we thought, okay, we’ll take them away from L.A. for a couple of days.”

Hudson calls the retreat “the calm before the storm," a restorative experience designed to influence everything that comes afterwards.  “What happens is that the feeling permeates the entire festival experience," she says. "The filmmakers go to each other’s screenings, they develop friendships … ”

She laughs. “We’ve even had a couple of babies born out of the friendships formed there.”

Two of those babies belong to Mario de la Vega ("Robbing Peter") and Kelly Duane ("Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America"), two indie filmmakers who met at the retreat in 2004, were married six months later and now have two kids.

"I think you’re in a cocoon making a movie, and the retreat takes you out of your cocoon and puts you in a pretty fancy place with a lot of people like you," says de la Vega, who attended a retreat in Santa Barbara.  "It makes you feel pretty good about yourself."  

Documentary director Darius Marder, who attended the retreat when his first film, “Loot,” appeared at LAFF in 2008, says the experience was one of the most extraordinary he’s ever had at a festival.

“I had been working on my film relentlessly, which was a long, dark, lonesome journey,” he says. “I think a lot of other directors were doing the same thing – and then we come out to Los Angeles, and they immediately fly us up to this fantasyland.

“Not only is it extraordinarily beautiful and luxurious in a way that independent directors are not used to, but you find yourself with a group of other directors, where every conversation you have is about the creative element that we all have in common.”

The retreat has been taking place for nine of the 10 years in which Film Independent has been running the festival, though its location has changed over the years: it’s been at a spa in Ojai, a couple of hours north of Los Angeles; a resort in Torrey Pines, near San Diego; even a casino not far from L.A. one year.

“I will say, the allure of Skywalker Ranch, with George Lucas hosting our dinner, is pretty unforgettable,” says Hudson.

Even when money has been tight and budgets slashed, admits Hudson, “we look at that retreat number and say, ‘Nope, that’s gotta stay.’"  This year, MySpace and Skywalker have contributed to defray the costs of the event.  (In the closest thing to a business-related item on the agenda, Lucas usually presents a demo of Skywalker Sound’s services.)

Festival director Rebecca Yeldham says that the ordinarily publicity-shy Bigelow, who received an enormous amount of publicity during awards season as her film "The Hurt Locker" emerged as the big winner, initially demurred when asked if she’d like to take some kind of public role in this year’s LAFF. But when Yeldham offered the Filmmakers Retreat position, she says Bigelow immediately agreed to follow in the footsteps of past guest directors like Sydney Pollack and Alfonso Cuaron.

Marder says that most of the agenda is loose: “You have a lunch, sitting under the olive vines and eating great food, and then they say, ‘Okay, have fun,’” he says. “Besides a couple of events, it’s really about enjoying yourselves.

“And the profound effect is that you go back to the festival completely relaxed, and really connected to each other instead of competing.”

“It sets the tone for the festival, and has a very specific agenda,” says Hudson. “Everyone there feels rejuvenated and feels, oh yes, this is why I got into the business."