Four local filmmakers share the work that went into their Sarasota Film Festival pieces.
An average of 101 minutes — that’s all it takes. All it takes to be completely transported to the glistening waterfalls of Wakanda, the rough-around-the-edges beauty of Harlem or the lush vastness of Portland’s Forest Park.
Films take us places. Often, those places are completely foreign to us, but this month locals will see their own backyard — and the names of several people who live right down the street — on the silver screen.
Sarasota Film Festival features several locally shot films this year, and it also features several pieces by filmmakers who have since started creating elsewhere, but haven’t lost their Sarasota roots.
We spoke to four such filmmakers to see what’s in store for this year’s festival, and how Sarasota has influenced them artistically.
Carlos Pagán isn’t from Sarasota, but in some ways, part of his heart always was.
He fell in love with the circus as a child of the ’50s after first seeing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden. He grew up and went into the entertainment industry, never forgetting his fascination with the spectacle that could never be re-created outside of a circus tent.
“To me, circus has always been magical,” he says. “I wanted to do a story from the inside out, from a performer’s perspective, someone who does this day in and day out, and get their perspective not only on performing but reflections on the whole arc of circus from the early years to now.”
Pagán, a native of the Bronx, was an executive producer of the PBS affiliate WPBT-2 in Miami for 12 years before moving to Sarasota with his wife, Wendy, in 2016. Shortly after moving, the two had lunch at Bob’s Train Car. While looking at the vintage circus photos lining the walls of the very train car that used to transport the Ringling Circus artists and their materials from city to city, Pagán’s mind was flooded with memories of the big top.
He got to talking with the restaurant’s owner, Bob Horne, who married into a circus family (his father-in-law was the chairman of the old Ringling Circus under John Ringling North). It was this conversation, coupled with a trip to a Circus Sarasota performance with other Sarasota newcomers, that inspired Pagán to create a documentary about the local circus legacy. The result was “All There Is — A Circus Story,” which is now a spotlight film at the Sarasota Film Festival.
When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced its closing date four months into filming, it became a story about how that legacy would continue in a world without “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
“Where does circus go from here?” he says of one of the biggest questions that arose. “I know a good human interest story when I see it. Especially one with color and elephants and tigers …”
Highly involved with the retired circus artist group Showfolks of Sarasota, Horne introduced Pagán to several of the city’s most iconic circus families, who became his sources. From Dolly Jacobs to the late Jackie Le Claire, he interviewed 20-some retired and working circus performers (about eight who became his principal sources) who were interested in telling their story.
Pagán also interviewed several dedicated fans at Showfolks’ World Circus Day event to get the audience perspective, as well as writer and Sarasota history expert Jeff Lahurd, who integrated circus into the infrastructure of his discussion of the city’s history.
What did he learn? That the circus isn’t going down without a fight.
“One of the things I admire most about performers is that they are extremely resilient,” he says. “‘The show must go on’ is not a banal expression, it really is in their thinking, and that’s one of the things I really enjoyed bringing out … why they do it and what the rewards are and how they face those challenges.”
“Lowland Kids” was not shot in Sarasota, nor is it a story about Sarasota told from afar. Instead, it’s a documentary short about the last two teenagers living in a different Gulf Coast community: Isle de Jean Charles, a sinking island off the coast of Louisiana.
Producer William Crouse, a graduate of The-Out-of-Door Academy, grew up on Siesta Key. He’s now based in Brooklyn, but the filmmaker says he was initially drawn to the story because of his upbringing.
“I was doing all this research (when) there were a few hurricanes that looked like they would make landfall on the Gulf Coast ... I think it’s an experience that you can’t understand unless you’ve lived through it, the threat of one ruining your home,” he says.
So, hearing that Howard and Juliette Brunet would be the last generation of kids to grow up on their native island hit a nerve.
Branded the first climate change refugees in America, the people of Isle de Jean Charles — particularly the Brunet family and the fact that they’ve yet to move — inspired Crouse.
“I found it was an interesting way to tell a story about climate change that wasn’t about science but rather people living through it,” he says. “I think it’s important for Americans to understand it is that close, it’s happening in our own country.”
The short debuted at South by Southwest film festival in Austin, but Crouse says he’s particularly excited to make his hometown debut with the work.
“As a middle schooler I was a (SFF) student panelist and never dreamed I would make a film that would make it,” he says. “This is a huge dream I’ve had for a long time.”
When KT Curran first heard about the school shooting in Parkland, she knew she had to do something.
Curran is a director, writer and editor who’s been working with young people in Sarasota to create art for the past 20-some years. She’s head of Source Productions, a national film company created by Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida to give acting opportunities to young professional performers interested in educating others about the day’s most important — and difficult — topics.
Cue her latest film, “Surviving Lunch,” a fictional tale that explores the all-too-real subjects of bullying and school violence. Shot locally in several Sarasota County high schools, the film follows Gabriella, a Latina girl from New York who moves to Florida after her father is killed in front of her in a school shooting. Trying to lay low, Gabriella starts noticing a boy at her new school who’s being bullied so badly, she can’t help but intervene.
Curran says the idea for the film came about long before Parkland, after finishing her film “The First Timers Club” when she was asking local students what topic they would like to see a film about. She put the project aside, however, right before the auditioning process because she thought she’d taken on too much.
“I thought ‘this is too big’ six months in — ‘I don’t think I can do what needs to be done,’” she says. “(Then) I had a friend who was substitute teaching there (Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School) that day — it was so close and so frightening and I was up all night and I said ‘I have to make this movie.’”
Curran thinks the movie is especially important following the two recent suicides by students in Parkland, and she hopes it will help people understand that each time there is a school shooting, the anxiety level of American young people, which is already on the rise, rises even more.
Although it’s an emotionally charged subject, Curran says she and her cast and crew (the latter of which featured 15-some Ringling College of Art and Design students and graduates) used their emotional connection to the topic to fuel their passion and make the film the best it could be.
“For me it was about accepting the fact that I had tremendous grief about the reality of what we were making the film about,” Curran says. “But knowing that we were doing our part ... I was proud to give so many people in our community the chance to work together to create something positive for change.”
And work together they did. Between local restaurants donating trays upon trays of food to feed the cast and crew to Venice-based CineMoves donating a telescopic crane for an aerial shot, Curran says several community members were eager to help the project in any way possible.
Curran remains optimistic that her film can impact viewers on all points of the political spectrum.
“Regardless of your thoughts on gun control, we all want our kids to be safe and we all want them to have the mental health care they need if they’re being bullied at school.”
Film festivals can get heavy. If you need some comic relief, local director Bob Bouland’s short “Barely Inspired” — filmed entirely in Sarasota, mainly in an office rented out in The HuB — might be just what you need.
Bouland and co-director John Wiber met in an improv class at Florida Studio Theatre. Neither of them had ever made a film, but they had a deep appreciation for each other’s work and decided they wanted to give screenwriting a shot.
After meeting once a week for almost a year at the Starbucks on First Street, the pair had written a short fictional film about a dysfunctional advertising agency with an owner down on his luck. His crazy ideas have brought the company to near bankruptcy, and as the title implies, he’s seriously lacking inspiration for new concepts.
Next, they had to teach themselves how to make a film. Bouland says he read several filmmaking books and went to meetings with local filmmakers. They also tapped into their FST improv community for help, combining traditional stage actors with improv performers in an unusual mix of people used to and unfamiliar with scripts.
Improviser-turned-actor (and cast member) Tony Stanol says the experience didn’t feel like working with first-time filmmakers.
“I was surprised to see how professional the set was,” he says. “They had all the scenes blocked, they were there at 5 a.m. before a shoot, etc.”
Bouland says his goal for the final product is simple: to make the audience laugh.
Other local films at SFF 2019:
- "Six Degrees of Sarasota" at 5:45 p.m. April 10 at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, 801 N. Tamiami Trail, and 10:45 a.m. April 13 at Auditorium 6 of the Regal Hollywood Stadium 11, 1993 Main St. (both during the Florida Showcase 2 Short Film Block)
- "Trafficking Solution" at 11 a.m. April 6 at Auditorium 5 of the Regal Hollywood Stadium 11, 1993 Main St. and 3:30 p.m. April 10 at Auditorium 6 of the Regal Hollywood Stadium 11, 1993 Main St.
- "The C3 Project" at 3:30 p.m. April 8 at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, 801 N. Tamiami Trail, and at 8 p.m. April 12 at Auditorium 3 of the Regal Hollywood Stadium 11, 1993 Main St. (during the Florida Showcase 1 Short Film Block)