Programmer Jess Byers on pushing cinematic boundaries in the heart of the Pacific Northwest
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
NORTH BEND FILM FESTIVAL
NORTH BEND THEATRE
In the shadow of Mount Rainier and deep in the heart of 'Twin Peaks' country, the first-ever North Bend Film Festival opened with the West Coast Premiere of Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov's experimental social media-based dramatic thriller Profile. It concludes this Sunday night, August 26, with another West Coast Premiere, this time British filmmaker John McPhail's lauded Christmas-themed, high school set zombie-apocalypse musical Anna and the Apocalypse. In between will be a weekend of wild cinematic events featuring shorts and features from around the globe along with a groundbreaking virtual reality experience, an outdoor hike to Rattlesnake Ridge and a 'Damn Fine Coffee' Hour for festival goers to congregate and discuss everything they've watched (as well as all they still hope to see). Also, there will be the requisite 'Twin Peaks' Tour departing the North Bend Theatre bright and early at 10am Saturday morning, host David Israel leading participants on a wild ride that will include many of these iconic hotspots brought to life in David Lynch and Mark Frost's iconic television series.
A member of the Ridley Scott Creative Group working on virtual reality and production projects, Jess Byers is a Northwest native who also happens to moonlight as a film festival programmer who most recently helped make the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival a reality while also assisting to set the lineups for both the Hamptons International Film Festival and Nantucket Film Festival. He's one of three programmers who helped bring the North Bend Film Festival to life. More importantly, he's the one who decided doing so would be a terrific idea. I had the pleasure to speak briefly with Byers about this year's festival, an event he hopes will become an annual tradition. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters:Tell me a little bit about the impetus that got the North Bend Film Festival started this year. What was it that brought you all together to program this, work with the local community and make it a reality?
Jess Byers: So, we are a group, I guess a collective, of festival folks and production folks based all around the U.S. and Canada. A few of us launched a film festival in Brooklyn called the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, and that was obviously mainly based around horror films. [laughs]
About a couple years ago, or a year-and-a-half ago or so, we were all just kind of sitting around and we were like, we would love to do a destination film festival. Where could we do that? Where has the best infrastructure for one? Those were the initial questions.
I'm actually from the Pacific Northwest and I was like, 'Guys, there's this amazing town. Google it.' I mean, North Bend has this amazing art-deco theater that the community supports. I knew we had to start talking to the people in the town and see if [a festival] could become a reality. That's sort of how it started. It sort of snowballed into what it is now, which is just terrific.
Sara Michelle Fetters:It's really great to have this kind of fun, fast film festival right in the shadow of Mount Rainier and right where 'Twin Peaks' is filmed.
Jess Byers: Exactly! That is exactly what I was thinking, too.
Sara Michelle Fetters:Did you find that this ambiance made it easier to draw films, to draw filmmakers and studios to want to be a part of your fledgling festival?
Jess Byers: I definitely think that that history of such memorable shooting locations ended up being a big draw for people that don't necessarily know Washington and all the Pacific Northwest has to offer. It certainly didn't hurt. [laughs]
Not to sound too political, but we sort of went on a listening tour of a sort around North Bend to scope out what people thought of our idea. We went around town and talked to the folks. We got a mixture of 'We love 'Twin Peaks' and 'We hate 'Twin Peaks',' which we kind of anticipated. But people honestly seemed really excited about the idea of a festival. It wasn't a tough sell at all.
Putting together this program, it was never our intention to create a David Lynch festival. Instead, it was like, why did this place inspire someone to come and shoot something so memorable Here? That was the central question. That's what we want to tap into. We sort of built this program around what those inspirations were, what the sort of mysticism of the town already had with Mount Si, Snoqualmie Falls, all of that. We built a program around that, one that sort of reflects that mentality of the town.
But we also wanted to plug into the larger cinema community that the Northwest has to offer. Case in point, we've always partnered with local queer organizations, and LGBT organizations, and I'm a queer person, and I was lucky enough to be able to partner this year with Three Dollar Bill Cinema on one feature screening and on one VR short. That was important to me. So they're coming on board, and that's really awesome, to be able to get into Seattle a little bit, only 40 minutes away, and try to work with the larger cinema community.
Sara Michelle Fetters:That's fantastic. So great to hear.
When you were trying to figure out what to actually program for the festival, I think it's interesting that there's really only one overlap from the recent Seattle International Film Festival (the terrific My Name Is Myeisha), and the rest of these are all premieres of one sort or another, whether they be a Washington premiere or a Pacific Northwest premiere. And you've got some pretty big titles like the West Coast premiere of Sarah Plays a Werewolf.
What was the thought process as far as trying to piece together this schedule was concerned?
Jess Byers: Well, all of us have this interest in genre film in general. So, looking through other film festival programs, and whether they're your Sundances or Tribecas or Cannes, we were looking through those programs and looking for films that might not have been purchased right away and might not be the films that were in the dramatic competition section of those festivals. We were more concerned with looking at the films that were outside of that. What's coming from Sundance Next or some other sort of adjacent programs hoping to find films that we wanted to build an audience around.
Having that personal interest in those sorts of genre films, I think that that's how we were able to put together this program. Because we were reaching out to these films, and we were like, we're putting together a program where that's unlike any program in the country, and your film is perfect for it. It's fun because we get to work with a few programmers at other festivals behind the curtains that would have loved to program some of these films for their festivals but knew that they didn't have the audience for them. Because they were passing up these amazing titles we thought they would work perfectly for the audience that we're trying to cultivate. It's been fun.
Sara Michelle Fetters:Why Profile as the opening night film? What was it that attracted you to Timur Bekmambetov's film that made you think it would make a good opener?
Jess Byers: I don't want to speak totally on behalf of my fellow programmers, but I think all of us walking into this festival kind of sat around and were like, we want to program films that are pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. And that is a very broad spectrum, right? It could have to do with a certain type of coloring. It could have to do with a certain type of editing. It could mean just about anything. There aren't any boundaries.
With Profile, it obviously has this new way of showcasing a story. While other filmmakers are taking off with this type of format as well, which is great, I think what is especially enticing about this story justifies the techniques he utilizes to capture it is that the story he is telling is so authentically emotional. It's based in reality. This was really fascinating for us. I think that's why we felt like this would be a really great film to open with, because it's serious and I think people are going to walk out of the theater feeling like their eyes have been opened to a new type of filmmaking. A new type of filmmaking.
Sara Michelle Fetters:I gotta ask about how you managed to score Anna and the Apocalypse as your closing night film. I mean, that is such a buzzy title right now, and I can't tell you how many critics in our area are just going crazy wanting to go watch that one.
Jess Byers: Well, I'm not going to give too much away, but we are very close with the Fantastic Fest crowd, and also very close with people in the genre film industry. So we were very excited to get that one. That was one that was like, this is perfect. This is fun. It's lighter. It's a fun subject. I think that the audience is just going to love it.
Sara Michelle Fetters:It's only a few days, but there's still a lot to sift through for the average festivalgoer over these four days. For you, what are some of the under-the-radar programs or titles that you're really excited for people to get a chance to see?
Jess Byers: I actually work in virtual reality full-time in my day job, and I'm really excited about the virtual reality program we put together. The program is actually included for anyone who purchases a badge. And that's awesome.
I'm also really, really looking forward to Shirkers on Saturday night. I'm curious to see how audiences take to it. But it's just such a fascinating documentary study that's played some other film fests. It also has an online VOD debut in fall. But I think it's going to be a really cool one for people to see in a theater. I think they'll love it.
Sara Michelle Fetters:And I mean, again, you're in North Bend. It wouldn't be North Bend without this 'Twin Peaks' tour.
Jess Byers: We partnered with local tour runner David Israel who just knows his stuff. It's a perfect thing for us. Everyone wants to come out to North Bend and they want to see everything, especially everything 'Twin Peaks,' but we aren't from the area. I didn't grow up there. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but not in North Bend. So partnering with a preexisting tour was just the right thing to do. We wanted to reach out to a local organization and work with them, people who are used to doing this tour, who are very experienced with it, who live it day-to-day. And so this is something that I think is also going to be really cool for people to experience.
Sara Michelle Fetters:The Annabel Lee Immersive Experience, which I believe you were just talking about a little bit in regards to VR, that just sounds fascinating to me. And then, of course, you've also got that Rattlesnake Ridge wilderness hike.
Jess Byers: Pretty terrific, right?
So, Annabel Lee, that experience is very close to my heart. I programmed that one personally, and it is going to be done by a performer from Sleep No More. Annabel was in Sleep No More in New York for about eight years. If you're not familiar with it, that's the immersive show blueprint, or at least the foundation, for a lot of immersive shows that have been created since. So with her, Annabel Lee, it's a little complicated to explain, but basically, she's going to be meeting people in a virtual world called 'AltspaceVR.' It's this really cool platform where you can go in and meet other people and it's very 'Black Mirror;' very freaky but very cool.
Audience members will have the opportunity to actually go in and meet her, or her virtual avatar, in person. It's live theater and VR. After that they'll potentially have another experience, one that I'm not going to give too much away on. But it's going to be really cool. They're going to really love it.
Sara Michelle Fetters:And then the ridge hike?
Jess Byers: Well, as you know, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where Christmas, every day, you're getting up and you're going on a hike somewhere. Putting on your REI boots and whatnot. Working with North Bend, the town expressed to us that they really wanted to support our event. That they would love to have a member of the town be on the board. But what they're really trying to promote is outdoor recreation.
Now, that's a little bit of the opposite of being in a dark movie theater. [laughs] So what could we do to work something like that into the schedule? I think that having a hike was just a no-brainer. The Rattlesnake Ridge is a really fun hike. It's short, and I think that everyone's going to have a blast.
Sara Michelle Fetters:Is this a festival that you see continuing in the future? As you said, you program a number of cool film festivals around the country. But is this one that you can foresee maybe becoming an annual tradition in North Bend?
Jess Byers: Definitely. This one feels like my baby. We have to see how it goes, of course, but I think we're going to see this one explode. I'm not letting this festival go anywhere. I think it's going to evolve, for sure, but the bottom line is that the first year we wanted to present a program that pushes the limits of filmmaking, that pushes the limits of storytelling, and I think we've done that. This is something I can see evolving over time. So, yeah, I foresee this festival becoming an annual North Bend event.
Sara Michelle Fetters:You grew up in the Pacific Northwest. You know how much of a film-going community this region is. At the end of the day, what do you hope attendees take away from this experience? What do you want them to be talking about when this weekend concludes?
Jess Byers: I think that at the end of the day I really want people to feel like their creative juices are flowing. I think that every time someone makes a new film that pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, or pushes the boundaries of art, they need an audience to witness that, and they need an audience to participate as well. That's what this festival is all about. So I think that I really, really want people to walk away saying, 'I've never seen that before.' I want them to think that maybe what they saw was absolutely crazy. Maybe what they saw was nothing short of awesome. Most of all I want them to want to come back next year and bring back new people to experience all of this crazy awesomeness with them.
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