Post-screening crowds at Cannes or Sundance often encounter publicists on cell phones, a symbol of self-importance in the movie industry. By contrast, audiences spilling out of a theater at the Lake Placid Film Festival last weekend were besieged by youngsters selling Girl Scout cookies. That's not to say the fest lacked Hollywood glitz. Martin Scorsese was the guest of honor, after all. But for five days, the little Adirondack town manages to combine the excitement of cinema with a charming, down-home ambiance.
So, the three twentysomething guys behind Senses of Place -- the first feature made by Marlboro College students -- found the best of both worlds at Lake Placid: a classy extravaganza in an unpretentious hamlet. Their low-budget drama, about an idealistic gubernatorial candidate coping with personal grief, was a hardscrabble effort that some faculty members saw as a disruption of the school's academic life.
"It was just a war," recalls Patrick McMahill, the director.
Richard Platzman, one of three executive producers, echoes the battlefield analogy: "You don't know what you can do till the gun's to your head."
Apart from the campus conflict, continuity became a challenge as Vermont's fickle autumn weather turned the terrain from green to brown to white. After a considerable snowfall, the all-student crew formed a shovel brigade to lessen the wintry look in a saga that begins with flower gardens in full bloom. They would typically work for 18-hour stretches, stopping at 6 a.m. and showing up for classes that began at 8.
"It's a serious blessing that we made a film this way and that it premiered at Lake Placid," suggests screenwriter-editor-producer Matthew Temple, the father of three young children who was in his senior year during the 2002 shoot.
He graduated from Marlboro in 2003 along with McMahill. Platzman, merely a 19-year-old freshman when Senses was being made, has since dropped out to pursue a career in the medium. Jay Craven, a Peacham filmmaker who teaches part-time at Marlboro, was another executive producer.
The team cast a few professional actors -- including Rusty DeWees as the politician's estranged brother -- and a number of newcomers. One of the lead roles, that of an adolescent girl who is the candidate's stepdaughter, went to Kate Fellows of Brattle-boro.
"She walked a mile and a half to the audition without even telling her parents," McMahill says. "Then, a week before we started shooting, Kate broke her arm." Fellows feared she would be fired, but her injury was simply allowed to become another aspect of the character.
McMahill and Temple resisted the temptation to use a video camera, an easier and cheaper option than celluloid. A successful Marlboro alum was the principal investor on a budget they describe as "significantly under $100,000." Other funding came from grants and donations.
"We're as grassroots as grassroots gets," McMahill says.
Such guerrilla filmmaking is familiar to Norwich resident Nora Jacobson, whose Nothing Like Dreaming was also invited to Lake Placid. Ditto for Ice and Only a Farmer, two shorts by Art Bell of Burlington.
In fact, Vermonters were abundant at the festival. Rick Winston and Andrea Serotta, owners of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, could be seen chatting with Nat Winthrop, a documentarian who recently explored stock-car racing in Rookies at the Road. Two other people obsessed with the medium, John Douglas of Charlotte and Bobbie Lanahan of Burlington, checked out the proceedings. Burlington College was well represented with film studies department head Barry Snyder, teacher Kris Woofter and four students: Justin Bennett, Jesse Christensen, Corin Totin and Erin Paul.
"My focus is on having them almost pretend to be journalists here," Woofter explained. "Film festivals are geared to the commercial aspect but also remain showcases for art. Journalists wander around trying to give it all their full attention."
For Totin, however, the event also became a test of his First Amendment rights. He was tossed out of several venues for wearing a black T-shirt with red letters on the front that spell out "Fuck Bush."
At a Saturday public session with Scorsese, the 20-year-old whippersnapper was told to cover up as he approached the microphone to ask a question about movie censorship. His presidential critique was off-limits because cameras were capturing the discussion for eventual broadcast on the Independent Film Channel. Irony, anyone? Many of the legendary director's classics, such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas, make ample use of that particular expletive in conveying gritty realism.