“Slipaway,” this year’s film festival circuit favorite about an elderly widow whose life changes when she takes in a homeless young musician, has won 22 awards and been nominated for 23 additional awards. At dozens of film festivals in the U.S. and abroad, it’s won everything from best film, best director and best actress to best musical score and original song. It’s also a real audience pleaser, with a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
To say that the making of this independent film was a passion project is an understatement. Julia Butler, who executive produced, wrote and directed the film with partner Daniel Mentz, spent her life savings, had surgery for breast cancer and battled seasickness while getting the film made.
As if that weren’t enough, much of the filming took place on a large vintage ocean-going sailboat. An El Niño was forecast, which luckily never materialized, but the boat did break down at sea at one point and had to be towed back to shore with the entire film crew aboard.
“It was pure passion and insanity,” Butler recalled in an interview with The Malibu Times. “We had a million dollar investor who pulled out just two days before pre-production was scheduled to start. We already had a crew and a team lined up, and I didn’t want to betray all those people, so I just liquidated everything I owned.”
It had taken Butler and Mentz nearly six months to find just the right lead actor and actress with the right chemistry.
“Over two hundred elderly actresses were tested. Once we had the right actress, we had to find the right actor, and he had to be able to play the piano,” Butler said.
The film’s story was inspired by a real-life event.
“We had an old keyboard in the garage, and I asked Daniel to put it on Craigslist,” Butler recalled. “He sold it to an elderly woman and he felt a calling to deliver it to her, because he’d found a new friend in this lady. She had all kinds of Hollywood stories, and I thought it was amazing and inspiring that someone in her 80s wanted to learn to create music.”
“Slipaway” marks Butler’s film debut as a co-director, co-screenwriter and executive producer, but she wore even more hats. The film’s theme song, “On the Music Goes,” was written by the filmmaker and her brother as teenagers, and then scored by composer Tao Liu.
Julia Butler was born in Moscow, the daughter of a renowned concert pianist and professor who spoke nine languages. Growing up, she was a champion figure skater and actress, and herself learned to speak five languages. At age 22, with a master’s degree, she moved to Italy for 10 years, became a singer/songwriter and ended up in LA with a recording contract. She later tried her hand at various entrepreneurial endeavors, and wrote a novel, “The Last Encore,” which became a bestseller on Amazon.
Daniel Mentz grew up in a small German town, where he borrowed his mother’s video camera to make short films of his friends. He continued to write, direct and act in student films during his university years.
“That developed into a passion that I wanted to pursue in the U.S.,” he said. “I came here as an actor in 2010, but now I’m more interested in directing.” He had acting roles in “Children of Sorrow” and the film short “Exit.”
When asked what it was like to work so closely together on a project, Butler said, “We have an amazing synergy—we don’t judge or put down each other’s ideas. We have creative differences, but generally Daniel is more into the details, whereas I have the overall vision.”
The couple is thankful for producer Tigran Mutafyan and his company Glasscore Entertainment. “He was instrumental to this project and mentored us throughout,” Butler said.
“Slipaway” will screen at the Malibu Film Society on Saturday, Jan. 13, at 7:30 p.m. Following the screening, there will be an audience Q&A with Julia Butler and Daniel Mentz, as well as Elaine Partnow, the lead actress. The Malibu Screening Room @ MJCS is located at 24855 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu. For reservations and tickets, go to the Malibu Film Society website. Day-of-show tickets can be purchased at the door.