Bring it on home

The Blair Witch Project was a terrific but risky choice as the kick-off entry in the eighth annual Florida Film Festival that commenced last Friday night at Maitland's Enzian Theater. The homegrown breakout hit was obviously a favorite of the more clued-in members of the opening-night audience, who showed up with official "Project" pins affixed to their lapels and dress straps in support. But how would the rest of the patrons and sponsors feel after sitting through a terror ride that's only a "party movie" in the most twisted of minds?

Mike Monello, the film's co-producer, wondered too. As he watched the crowd filing in from his vantage point near the front door, Monello joked that he was looking forward to seeing how many walkouts his nerve-punishing handiwork would inspire. He was kidding, but I detected a certain level of anxiety beneath his outward nonchalance. Even after their successes at Sundance and Cannes, he and his Haxan Films compadres clearly valued Orlando's approbation as well.

Monello needn't have worried. The audience ate up every frame of "Blair Witch," gasping at the film's more intense moments and laughing uproariously at some of the lighter ones. When the film came to its knuckle-whitening conclusion, however, not one sound was heard from the shell-shocked viewers. Laughs and cheers are fine reactions to engender, but I reserve my highest admiration for those who can stun an entire room into silence.

That silence was broken by a hearty round of applause as the five Haxan boys arrived onstage for the subsequent Q&A. Greeted like conquering heroes, they took the occasion to thank the supporters, friends and family members who had helped their dream become a reality. Investors were asked to stand up, "parents included."

Seated at the table next to me was producer Gregg Hale's brother, who had apparently started his own celebrations much earlier in the day. "Gregg, where did you get that tie?" he bellowed, causing Hale to mumble something noncommittal and nervously scan the room for the next question. There's one in every family.

Pleasantries out of the way, the afterparty kicked into high gear outside. Eerie, multicolored lights refracted off the trees on the Enzian's front lawn, and faux Wiccan servers dispensed punch from miniature cauldrons. In the middle of it all were Monello and crew, accepting further congratulations. The mood was just right -- spooky but immensely fun -- and even the partiers I polled who admitted that "Blair Witch" wasn't their usual cup of hemlock were quick to lavish praise on its "take-chances" attitude. It was all a fitting tribute to the quintet that had brought Orlando filmmaking closer to the heavens of international recognition by taking us on a memorable trip into hell.

Distant cousins

The specter of Haxan hung over Saturday's proceedings as well, though sometimes in unexpected ways. The early-afternoon screening of "The First of May" -- another local production -- was preceded by remarks from writer Gary Rogers and director Paul Sirmons. Sirmons got the ball rolling by sarcastically declaring what an honor it was to "be part of the 'Blair Witch' Film Festival."

I was taken aback by his palpable bitterness, but Sirmons continued on the defensive, noting that "family films" such as his are traditionally shut out of festivals. He consoled himself in the knowledge that "The First of May" had earned strong critical notices almost every time it had been seen, the sole pan coming from a scribe who allegedly counted "It's a Wonderful Life" among the 10 worst movies ever made.

For the record: I have now sat through Sirmons' glorified HBO Family Picture twice in my life, and at neither time was I motivated to compare its feeble script and overblown acting with the oeuvre of the great Jimmy Stewart. OK, maybe "The Magic of Lassie."

Mine was a minority opinion in a packed house that included even more friends and associates of the producers than the Haxans had hosted the night before. They received the offering rapturously, thrilled to be watching a simple, saccharin-laced story of the relationship between a precocious young adoptee and the senior citizen he spirits away from a retirement home.

Sirmons capped the love-in by again taking the mike to bemoan his sorry position in the cinematic pecking order. "The First of May," he said, was having trouble securing distribution in a marketplace suited to more edgy fare. "Like 'Blair Witch,'" he added -- just in case we had missed the implication.

The quality of the day's films improved as its scope widened, including a fun program of shorts from across the country and the U.S. premiere of "Luminous Motion," a drama whose innovative use of lighting, focus and color had made it a nominee for the festival's Kodak Cinematography Award. I particularly enjoyed "The Dinner Game," a hilarious French comedy that did an admirable job of balancing cruel and tender humor.

Still, I couldn't help feeling that the weekend would be remembered for shining a light on the newfound bankability of Orlando productions --Sirmons' gripes notwithstanding. My theory was borne out by a side trip to the T.G.I. Fridays on east Colonial Drive, where I intended to review my notes while waiting for the midnight showing of the outrageous splatter-fest "The Item" at the nearby Colonial Promenade. Instead, I enjoyed an extended conversation with a waiter who was currently attempting to sell his own movie script -- one he was very interested in having me take a look at.

"I don't have any name talent," he warned, "I don't have any violence, and I don't have any press."

Casting's not my specialty, but I was pretty sure I knew some places he could go to find the other two.

The kids' table

Sunday's "Student Works" showcase at Enzian offered some clues to where the next crop of Haxans might be coming from. Shorts had been contributed by five area schools -- Full Sail Real World Education, the University of Central Florida, Valencia Community College, the Ringling School of Art and Design and Florida State University. The undergrad Scorceses showed up early, excitedly searching for their names in the festival's printed program.

Despite a certain naivete on the narrative front -- completely excusable from first-timers -- the caliber of most of the entries was pleasantly high. Some of the animated works were hindered by the same emphasis on form over content that seems to go hand-in-hand with the genre, but more than a few of the live-action works revealed their directors as faces to watch in the months ahead.

The finest was FSU's "Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the QuickCheck," the delicate Dixie love story that had so impressed me when it was shown during last November's Brouhaha Film & Video Showcase (also held at Enzian). While "The Blair Witch Project's" roots at UCF are great PR. for that school's film curriculum, I fully expect FSU to make a similar leap into the public consciousness any day now. Its product is just too consistent (and too good) to be ignored.

Afterward, the young auteurs congregated at downtown's Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar, high-fiving each other and gulping down free drinks and snacks. The crowd was elbow-to-elbow; for a brief but shining moment, it seemed as if everyone in town had a project in the can or in development.

Well, not everybody. Sitting at the bar was actor Rich Williams, who plays a confused CEO in the excellent festival short "The Meeting." Though he had seized upon the party as an opportunity to network, the amusingly straightforward Williams disavowed any ambitions to venture to the other side of the camera.

"I don't want to direct," the journeyman thespian told me. "I have no vision. I flunked geometry."

Come on, Rich. It's easy. You just have to weigh all the angles.

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