“Rock and roll, Santa Barbara!” yelled Fisher Stevens, director of Mission Blue, the 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s opening-night film.
With that, it was on.
The film, which explores the huge issue of humans’ effect on our oceans via the story of one tiny woman, 78-year-old badass undersea explorer Sylvia Earle, was the perfect selection for kick-off: beautiful, relevant, steeped in what felt like genuine hope, and absolutely channeling the “wonder and exploration” of late S.B. filmmaker Mike deGruy, whose spirit SBIFF executive director Roger Durling invoked during his welcome. Post-flick, the crowd slinked to Paseo Nuevo for the city’s buzziest block party. My crew and I wandered, schmoozed, snagging a drink here, a snack there, while I dutifully checked out the peeps clustered along the alleys of the paseo, until I was plucked from the scrum by publicist extraordinaire Carol Marshall, who promptly delivered me to the VIP area. There, Stevens warned me Earle was a pistol; she proved him right when I asked if she dives much anymore. “Why do people ask that? It’s like asking ‘Do you walk anymore?’”
I rejoined my cadre, confessed my faux pas, and left excited for what lay ahead, still sappy with Mission Blue–inspired love for our beautiful planet and all the creatures that live here.
That lasted until the next morning, when a rattlesnake bit my dog in the face.
Texting Senior Editor Matt Kettmann from the veterinary ER, where one — then two — doses of antivenin (send money!) were administered to my stunned and swollen pooch, I learned I wasn’t the only one dealing with unexpected drama: Kettmann replied that, while delivering a stash of our Meet the Makers programs that morning, he realized his hat was missing — a green pageboy that belonged to his dad, who passed away not long ago. (If you see it, please contact the office! There could be a solid bottle of wine in it for ya.)
Come evening, the dog was stable, and David O. Russell was in the house, so I soldiered on, returning to the Arlington for a conversation between Durling and the American Hustle director. “Conversation” isn’t entirely accurate, though: Russell amicably rambled from one subject to the next, frequently stopping to ask, “What was the question again?” Durling rolled with it, allowing the quirkiness that’s become a calling card of Russell’s films to shine forth from the man himself. The two developed a rhythm: There was singing (notably “I Started a Joke,” the Bee Gees’ tune made famous in The Fighter), drinking, wardrobe deconstruction (Russell favors J.Crew suits and Warby Parker specs). There was the occasional protest from Durling: “Wait, let me interview you!” and the only possible reply from Russell: “It’s happening! Don’t overthink it!” There was Russell, reminiscing about working as a waiter at a party at Jackie O’s, approaching Martin Scorsese and saying, “I want to do what you do!” (Marty replied: “I’ll have a vodka.”) The joking didn’t preclude some reflection, however: Russell spoke of struggles in his own life, saying, “What seemed like the worst thing can be the best thing.”
Melissa Leo presented the award, and from there it was on to the pop-up Hennessey lounge in the Arlington’s courtyard, where VIPs were treated to some seriously top-shelf booze. Durling and Russell mugged while sidecars and Sazeracs flowed; snifters were distributed as we prepared for a toast. I took a sniff. (A new initiate to the world of cognac, I’d describe the nose as … ice cream? With vanilla and caramel?) We said our cheers, downed the liquid gold, and said good-bye. I had a dog to snuggle.
Saturday, I opted to mix things up, and peeped the happy hour happenings at the UGG lounge behind the Lobero, where filmmakers and other assorted VIPs washed down the films they’d taken in during the day before heading out again. Programming Director Michael Albright saw me in and was quickly nabbed by some ambitious filmgoers who’d ingested a lot of heavy and wanted an antidote. Armed, Albright recommended the French film Paulette. “It’s a marijuana film,” he said; then, with a sly smile: “It’s showing at 4:20 tomorrow.”
Turning back to me, he added: “It’s the little victories.”
Speaking of … At that evening’s tribute, Cate Blanchett, accosted by an overzealous photog during her interview with Pete Hammond, totally called him out. (It’s becoming a bit of a thing with her: On the red carpet at the SAGs, a cameraman panning the length of her body was busted when she knelt down and said, “Do you do that to the guys?” and was subsequently crowned feminist hero by the lady blogosphere.) Another fierce female talent, Rooney Mara, was on hand to present Blanchett her award, which was met with a standing ovation.
Later, I made my way home, an epic start to another festival behind me, a full week ahead, a day of R&R in between. A little antivenin, and I’d be ready for more.