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The Lake Placid Film Forum: An Interview with TJ Brearton

By Lisa M. Boucher

TJ BreartonThis year marks the eleventh annual Lake Placid Film Forum (not counting the 2005 hiatus).

The Film Forum’s origins date back to 1999 when author Russell Banks hosted a screening of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (based on Banks’ novel) at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid. With an overwhelming enthusiastic response, Banks, former New York Daily News film critic Kathleen Carroll, and local artist Naj Wikoff, agreed that Lake Placid was the perfect location for a forum that would introduce audiences to films by industry professionals, while also allowing them to discuss in depth their personal experiences.

The first Lake Placid Film Forum was held in June 2000. Notable names who have participated in the past are Directors Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Norman Jewison, Albert Maysles, Jonathan Demme, Alan Rudolph, Guillermo del Toro, John Sayles and Milos Forman, special effects legend Ray Harryhausen and actors Parker Posey, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew Modine, Mary Beth Hurt, Melissa Leo, Campbell Scott, Cliff Robertson and Hal Holbrook.

We recently spoke with T.J. Brearton of the LPFF about its history and beginnings as an intimate film festival, nestled in the hills of the Adirondacks.

TFG: What films will be at the Forum this year?

TJB: Right now we have slated Rise, 110%, The Blood in this Town, Letters from the Big Man, and The Last Days of Disco. We also have submissions still coming in for our North Country Shorts program, and a few others we’re considering that are just above or to the left of our usual parameters. We’ll be confirming a few more over the next couple of weeks.

It’s always a challenge to get new, good features. There have been lots of documentaries in recent years. As one writer said, “fiction is dead.” I don’t necessarily agree, but as well all know, reality-based entertainment like documentaries, TV shows, and adapted films are aplenty. It just makes the original, fictional narrative a little harder to find.

TFG: Who are the celebrity guests scheduled for this year? The Forum has an impressive list of “guests past.”

TJB: Whit Stillman will be here. He’s somebody our artistic director, Kathleen Carroll, really wanted to have here. I remember I walked into the theater when I lived in New York City and sat down and watched The Last Days of Disco–which we’ll be showing here. I was just blown away. I was thinking, “People make movies like this?” It’s just this beautifully understated film. It’s like it exists in its own world. It’s a story, it’s a period, it’s a movie, but it also sort of has its own language. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just not accustomed to that sort of dry, acerbic way of communicating that’s a part of these character’s lives, but I think it’s that the film sort of goes that extra degree, which a good film needs to, without falling off the face of the earth. I was really happy when Kathleen told me that we would show it.

TFG: Can you share some history of interest that isn’t necessarily public knowledge?

TJB: I guess the stuff that’s not out there for the viewing public, are the personal memories. I haven’t been to a lot of other festivals, so I really can’t comment on what they do, and how much people take from having “sighted” a celebrity or gotten an autograph or something, but with the film forum it’s definitely very close, very intimate.

One year when I was a volunteer, I had to drive Guillermo Del Toro to the place he was staying. He’d just had this really big meal—he’d had dinner with Ray Harryhausen, this legendary guy who created the creatures in the original Clash of the Titans, and Guillermo was really full and just sort of happy and talking with his thick accent, about Lake Placid. Because it was so dark, we couldn’t find the little lakeside cabin he was staying in.

Just moments like that—chatting with Jonathan Demme, while standing at the back of the main theater at the Palace. Whispering a conversation, while people are watching his film—a documentary about Katrina. We probably shouldn’t have been talking during the movie, but hey, it’s Jonathan Demme. The guy made Silence of the Lambs. So, just things like that. Everyone ends up with stories like that, volunteers, staff, filmmakers, actors. That’s the point, I think.

TFG: Who have been past year’s special guests that aren’t listed on the web?

TJB: I’m not sure if John Sayles was listed when we just redid the website. But if there’s an independent filmmaker who should be dressed up like Rambo, it’s him. John Sayles is one of those guys who reminds you that the fight never ends. I think some people think that once you’ve made a successful movie, you’re just “in,” and can do whatever you want. That may be true of Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood. Maybe. But 99 percent of the filmmakers in the world are fighting everyday. No matter what, the financiers are always skeptical. And as they should be. It’s a business for them. So you need guys like Sayles who are going to navigate that with thick skin.

TFG: What is your role in all this?

TJB: I started out as a volunteer the very first year. Then the second year I was in charge of the volunteers. The third year, too. Then I switched to a kind of limbo between operations and programming. I sort of gave my position a name—operations program liaison or something ridiculous like that. Lisa McWilliams was the operations coordinator and Alan Hofmanis the director of programming. Alan came in the first year too and literally built the Film Forum. I mean, he literally built shelves in the office. Lisa was amazing, too. Lots of great, great people have been a part of this.

I disappeared for a year or two, and then had the good fortune of being called up by John Huttlinger, our Chairman, who asked if I wanted to interview to be the guy in the office. So I did, and I started in the office, and in the past three years we’ve had lots of people have to leave for this or that reason, and so I’ve taken on some more responsibilities. We came up with another name for me, which is Project Specialist. It’s just a fancy way of saying “the guy who will help with programming, do the technical stuff and take out the trash, too.”

TFG: Why did you get involved in the first place?

TJB: I got involved because a friend called me and told me about it. I was living and working in New York City, and I decided to come up and volunteer in the summer of 2000. After it was over, I had met a girl and blah, blah, blah. I’ve come and gone from the area a little, but I really have been here since.

TFG: What have been some of the best experiences with the festival?

TJB: Again, just those little personal memories. I understand that people want to see big names like Scorsese and Spielberg and all those guys. They’re great to have and we’ve had them—Milos Forman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and its thrilling because of the energy and buzz that comes with them. But I’m a little bit shy, I guess, and I like one-on-one experiences, where I can get comfortable. I’m never going to be in a crowd jumping and waving my DVD to get it autographed. I’d rather sit with someone after all the farrago is over with and just talk about ideas. So, when that has happened, those are my favorites.

Like picking up Albert Maysles from the Lake Clear Airport, he was just so cool, so unpretentious, and he noticed everything around him. He knew it wasn’t my car we were driving, because somehow I told him I was from New York and the car had Vermont plates. Just always observing.

One thing we’ve been meaning to do for a while now is have past guests and attendees write in and share their favorite moments. I think that would be great, to compile a sort of Film Forum collective memoir. I’ll add it to my to do list.

TFG: How does this year’s festival differ from previous years?

TJB: We’ve had what you might call robust years and modest years. Each year is really its own thing, but there is a consistency, which is the feel, the spirit of independence and learning. We’re always advocating for education about the medium and involving students and inviting people of all ages to come and have the chance to take something away with them. This year is no different.

What makes it special is that we have a chance to really celebrate some things people in this region have real feeling for, which is the winter sports, and the triumph of people involved with winter sports. Rise is about figure skating, which is major here. As is ski-jumping (we have ski jumps right in our backyard) and the documentary 110% is about the US Women’s Ski Team trying to get into the Vancouver Olympics. Well, they got into Sochi for 2014, so we’re going to do something special with that.

We’re going to have Asbury Shorts here, which is a fantastic contingent of world-renowned short films. Plus we’re seeing about some regionally-made films. There are more of those all the time, and will continue to be. Technology has created the democratization of filmmaking.

TFG: What have been some challenges over the years?

TJB: They say that 90 percent of restaurants fail within the first five years. I’m not sure what the statistic is with festivals, but if you can stick it past five years, you’ve got something. One year we decided to hold submissions and be competitive. That’s really what a “festival” is. There was even talk of calling ourselves “international.” You can’t help it—you get something going and there’s an instinct there to grow it, and to see how big it can get. But it’s always a gamble, because if you’re putting out big content, you’ve got to make sure the people are in the seats.

So you spend lots of money on advertising. You can easily overspend, because you want to cover yourself and make sure everyone knows about it. That was the challenge then, I think, was marketing the event, but remaining sustainable and fiscally responsible. Now it’s sort of the other end, but the monster is still the same: getting the word to people. We don’t have the budget for advertising, so we rely on people like The Free George to help us get the word out. It’s challenging, and can be frustrating, when the shopkeeper down the street doesn’t know about the event.

We’ve gone through changes, and it’s tough to keep people with you when you make those modifications. Of course the recession has made it difficult, but we have some wonderful people who pitch in and help out, that’s what’s kept us going when times have been tough.

TFG: How has the Film Forum benefited the village of Lake Placid specifically and the area overall?

TJB: It’s a sports community, an outdoor rec community, and there is an arts scene, but that’s theatre and fine art—there’s not much of a film scene here other than the Film Forum. I mean, I’m not taking away from anyone who’s doing something with film series–the Lake Placid Center For the Arts brings in great films, and I know Gail Brill and the Adirondack Green Circle show films about environmental issues. But to have a hip scene, you know, with some cool independent films and the people who made them, that’s a great niche to fill. And to get kids excited about it, and to help give them direction in a time when anyone with HD video in their smart phone can technically be a filmmaker, that’s interesting. Storytelling is something that’s been around since the cavemen, so that writer who said fiction is dead was probably just trying to sell something.

TFG: Where do you see the festival in 10 years?

TJB: I think we’ll be right here, but I think there’s going to be more and more regional films happening. There’s this whole evolution happening right now. When you have giants absorb more and more and become mega giants, then you have these new little guys crop up. It’s like the big giant trees that blot out all the sunlight, this new form of fauna forms on the jungle floor. Things become microcosmic. The big things get bigger, too big; inaccessible. But everybody sees the big things and emulates them.

“American Idol,” Twilight, Harry Potter, these things become so huge. And if you look at the movies out right now, I think there are three sequels, two prequels, a movie about a toy, a movie about a TV show, a movie about a TV show toy—something like that. It’s bad. And people will go and the studios will say, “See? We were right.” But I think people are actually very smart about movies, and discerning. They just need to be given half a chance.

I think people crave really good stories and things done independently, because who’s to say what speaks “universally,” Universal Studios or some [indie] filmmaker going through the rigors, struggling and fighting for their dream? I think you’ll get the better product from the latter, every time. So we’ll be here championing those people and supporting and educating.

For more information on the upcoming LPFF, which runs June 16-19, 2011, visit Also, stay up to date on all that’s happening with the film forum via the Lake Placid Film Forum Blog on The Free George.

–Lisa M. Boucher is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.


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