SANTA BARBARA: Writers talk writing, Cruz walks the red carpet

Posted by · 11:38 am · January 25th, 2009

Penelope Cruz talks to festival director Roger Durling at the Santa Barbara International Film FestivalYesterday was another busy event day for the Santa Barbara fest.  It was a shame the Director’s Panel was canceled, but participant Andrew Stanton switched gears to join Robert Knott (Appaloosa”), Tom McCarthy (The Visitor”) and Dustin Lance Black (Milk”) for an Anne Thompson-moderated discussion on their work at the keyboard this year.

It was a good discussion, though I couldn’t help a double take at Black’s prepubescent appearance as he waltzed casually on stage.  I mean it as a compliment.  I was also intrigued by his noting one of the things that really interested him when working on the spec “Milk” script was the famed politician’s not-so-heroic side.  “Sometimes he’d be in the bath house when he should have been home with his boyfriend,” Black said.  I say intrigued because one of the key criticisms of the film has been its overly haloed depiction of the man, a criticism that, frankly, hasn’t been properly defended by even the film’s legion of supporters (and I count myself in their ranks).

Stanton, meanwhile, was perhaps the most thought-provoking member of the panel, finding a nice place amid Black’s low-key veneer, McCarthy’s wit and Knoll’s hilarious interjections.  And thankfully, Jeffrey Wells martyred himself by asking why Stanton continued to be “oblique” when addressing the overweight “teletubbies” of “WALL-E.”  This has been a bone of contention for me on the film for some time, not so much because I feel it undermines the film, but because I believed it to be an easy opportunity for mean-spirited “fat” jokes, so to speak.

Though Stanton continued to offer the same publicity line on the matter (research on loss of bone density in zero gravity, etc.), I found myself sold when actually hearing him address it (finally) in a serious setting.  In fact, he revealed that there was a time that he considered altering the script specifically to avoid these inevitable criticisms and/or interpretations, but he stuck to his original vision in the end.  And for the record, Wells wasn’t so much criticizing the depiction as he was Stanton’s apparent refusal to own any sort of social critique (which he still isn’t willing to do).  But good on Stanton for weathering the harsh query (the first question out of the gate when it was opened up to the audience).

McCarthy, who has been working with Stanton and Pixar recently on the upcoming release “Up,” confessed to a brand of secrecy when it comes to his work.  He said he is quite guarded with the material and internalizes it while he’s working on it.  But the panel’s most heartfelt moment probably came when Knott told McCarthy how poignant he felt it was when Walter Vale says in “The Visitor” that he “doesn’t do anything,” as if to say to an American public “what do you do that is of any consequence?”  It was one of a few applause lines of the night from Knott, who humorously confessed to heavy drinking being one of his writerly secrets.

An audience member posed an interesting question about titles to the panel.  Stanton mentioned Steve Jobs preferred the working title for “WALL-E,” which was “Trash Planet” for 10 years, but Stanton held his ground.  “What does Steve Jobs know about marketing anyway,” McCarthy quipped.  Black, meanwhile, said he always wanted his Harvey Milk biopic to be called “Milk,” because legendary political figures in American history reach a certain echelon when they are referred to by their last name: Lincoln, Jefferson, etc.  He wanted to bring Milk into that fold with the simplistic but striking title.

Later in the evening, Penelope Cruz was in town to accept the Outstanding Performer of the Year award.  Josh Brolin was on hand as presenter (he drove himself up from Los Angeles) following a lengthy Q&A with festival director Roger Durling.  The discussion spent a considerable amount of time on the actress’s recent performances in “Volver,” “Elegy” and, of course, Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Cruz was in and out of the after party at festival president Jeff Barbakow’s home in Montecito, but she did say she’s very excited by the nominations she’s received for her role in Allen’s film.  She’s very much looking forward to tonight’s SAG Awards ceremony because she wasn’t able to attend when she was nominated in 2006 for “Volver.”

Cruz also said she hopes to share some screen time with actress Patricia Clarkson in the near future (both are in “Elegy” and “Vicky Cristina” but never in the same scene), while she and Sir Ben Kingsley are looking at some options for another on-screen pairing.  The actress was clearly enchanted by Kingsley’s performance in “Elegy,” perhaps one of his best to date (however off-the-mark the film might have been).

No tributes tonight, but they start up again on Tuesday with the Cinema Vanguard Award, presented to Kristin Scott Thomas.  Today — movies.

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