Spring can't arrive any sooner after this interminable winter. Thankfully enough, one of the surest signs of spring is approaching sooner than expected. The tenth annual Wisconsin Film Festival set to begin in little more than five weeks, and with it arrives a wealth of movies, some of which are tied directly to Madison.
There are two specific sets of films in the fest that are devoted exclusively to films made in the state, namely the Wisconsin's Own and the Wisconsin Student Shorts series, all of which are selected by a jury. These aren't the only films with connections to the state that get screened here each spring, though, as director Meg Hamel also tracks down others that can claim some attachment to the Badger State, and schedules them as part of the general programming.
She has been busy over the last few weeks finishing the final line-up of films for the 2008 edition, confirming some that have unexpectedly become available and trying to fit them in the schedule as best as possible. Many are already a go, though, including more than a few that were birthed locally.
Here are a few of the Madison-made or -connected films that will be screening at the film fest this spring.
We'll start off with the appropriately-titled Madison, the coming home to the old college town story that was shot around the city last winter. Written and directed by Brent Notbohm, the film stars American Players Theatre actor and novelist James DeVita as a journalist returning from Iraq to reconnect with friends old and new in Madison.
Meg Hamel points to the movie's connections to the region's live theater community. "I think what makes Madison the film significant for our festival here has so much to do with the investment of acting talent from APT," she says. "It's not only the fact that Jim DeVita is in it, but also the film's making effective use of the people in our community who are so talented." The film built interest while shooting around town in 2007, as detailed here on The Daily Page, and released a trailer last summer.
"We're certainly excited for the opportunity, especially because this is going to be our world premiere,' says Madison producer Nick Langholff. "It's wonderful to be screening where we shot the film, and kicking off our festival run here in Wisconsin. Our actors are going to be able to be there, as well as a lot of other people involved with the film. Brent, Jimmy, and I are extremely excited."
Langholff notes that they completed their final sound mix a couple of weekends ago, wrapping up all post-production on Madison before handing off the final product to the festival. After screening in Wisconsin this April, the film will be heading next to the Syracuse International Film Festival in early May. It's official release date will follow on August 1.
Loose Cannons: Campus Security, written and directed by Andy Schlachtenhaufen, was likewise shot around Madison last year. A follow-up to a six minute short titled Loose Cannons screened at Wis-Kino back in the fall of '03, this feature length comedy takes absurd aim at the goings-on around a familiar university.
"It has a really playful sense of humor, and there are some great action sequences" says Hamel about Loose Cannons. "It's a great example of effective comic filmmaking on a shoestring budget. What's fun about a film like this is that there are some great jokes and gags in it. I am really looking forward to showing it at the festival with a live audience that will soak up its loopy humor."
This humor, and some of the kung fu fighting, are on full display in a trailer for the film.
Madison is also the home and inspiration for Mad City Chickens, a feature-length documentary created by Tashai Lovington and Robert Lughai of Tarazod Films. Nearly four years ago, the city altered its zoning ordinances to allow residents to raise a small number of chickens on their property, part of a growing Gallus-keeping movement in urban areas around the country.
Starring a mad scientist and his giant chicken that clucks its way around the isthmus, the documentary profiles the Mad City Chickens group here in Madison, takes a tour of the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Ohio, and interviews Mother Earth News Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long, Backyard Poultry editor Elaine Belanger, bird flu expert Dr. Michael Greger, and many others. Other fowl featured in the film include a "California musical hen" and a "Texas life-saving flock," along with other birds hatched and not.
Tarazod is currently wrapping up the film, having wrapped shooting on Saturday, February 9, with the final elements of post-production being completed this week. "It's thrilling and a bit frightening to be this close to our completion deadline," note Lovington and Lughai. "The documentary has come a long, long way from its early inception, but there's still some key edits to get through before the end of this next weekend." For now, there's the latest trailer for the film.
Numerous still images can be viewed in a Flickr set for the documentary, and more trailers can be viewed here. "From the nation's leading chicken experts to urban newbies," declare the filmmakers, "we capture the heart of the backyard chicken movement."
Standing massively astride both Madison and Milwaukee is Song Sung Blue, a documentary by Greg Kohs about the husband-and-wife duo from the Brew City known as Lightning & Thunder. The winner of both an Audience Award and a Grand Jury Award at Slamdance 2008, the film tells the heartbreaking story of Mike and Claire Sardinia, who performed as Neil Diamond and Patsy Cline in their tribute act.
"When I was reading a listing of what was playing at Slamdance this year, I saw a one line description for a film describing Lightning & Thunder, who I've seen perform many, many times at Café Montmartre here in Madison," explains Hamel about discovering the documentary. "It took a few moments for it to sink in, and then I contacted the filmmaker, who really enjoyed the fact not only that I was calling from Wisconsin, but also that I had seen the act before. We both knew then that this was destined to play here."
Lightning & Thunder have been regular visitors to Madison in recent years, including shows at Montmartre for Halloween and New Year's parties. "Fans might remember Mike up on the bar at the Momo, dropping his trousers during one show to show his star-striped boxer shorts," says Hamel, or his performance at a Madison Mallards game in 2006. The documentary was profiled by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel film critic Duane Dudek back in January, who later announced its screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
Song Sung Blue is ultimately a tragic love story about both singers, and as Hamel notes, "an astonishingly local film."
Indestructible is a documentary by and about Ben Byer, who tells the story of his diagnosis of and battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the neurodegenerative disease that famously struck down baseball great Lou Gehrig and acquired his name. "What begins as a series of video diaries," begins the official description of Byer's initial work on the film , "grows into an epic journey spanning three years and six countries as he scours the globe looking for answers -- and a cure."
The Madison connection here is that Byer's parents both live in the city. His father is an ALS advocate in the city, while is mother is on the board of the Waisman Center at UW-Madison, where the film was shown in late January and profiled in the State Journal. If you missed that screening, there will be another chance to see it at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
A seven-minute trailer for the documentary goes into greater detail.
"This is an amazing story of a guy at a midpoint in his life who was diagnosed with a disease considered incurable," says Hamel, who notes that Byer will be in attendance at the screening to talk about his work. "You get this glimpse of this family's struggle with ALS, and it's a reminder that this could happen to any of us. This is a story of somebody who could easily be part of our day-to-day lives here in Wisconsin."
These are only a few of the numerous films with local connections that will be screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival, which runs Thursday, April 3 through Sunday, April 6. Many more, including Wisconsin's Own and Wisconsin Student Shorts selections and others featured in the general programming, will be announced next Thursday when the full schedule for the fest is released.