Edgy, risky: That’s independent filmmaking

Malibu’s Bruce Dern talks about the beauty of independent filmmaking, which is the power of The Method Fest, now in its 12th year.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When Lee Strasberg co-founded the Group Theatre in New York City in 1931, he introduced a new approach to creating a stage role that had been championed by Russian theater impresario Constantin Stanislavski, which focused on the psychological and emotional makeup of a character. The technique became known as “the Method” and some of America’s greatest actors became fervent acolytes.

One of those disciples was Academy Award-nominated Bruce Dern, a Malibu resident and veteran actor who helped redefine what it means to be a leading man. This week, Dern will pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award at The Method Fest’s 12th annual film festival, which billed as a festival devoted to the “celebration of performance and discovery in independent film.”

“I hated college [University of Pennsylvania],” Dern said of his introduction to acting. “But in my sophomore year, I got interested in theater. By 1958, I had three goals: to go to New York, to join the Actors Studio [Strasberg’s innovative acting school] and to work with Elia Kazan.”

Dern hit all three targets. His first Broadway role was a production originating with the Actors Studio, “The Shadow of a Gunman.” Two weeks before opening, Strasberg was brought in to finish directing the play that also starred his daughter, Susan Strasberg. A year later, Dern made his film debut in “Wild River,” by Elia Kazan, a director noted for his work with Method actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift.

The Method Fest honors “method” acting in all its intense glory with its lineup of emotionally nuanced, story-driven independent films, many of them world premieres and starring a slate of Malibu actors, such as Pierce Brosnan, John Savage and Brian Geraghty (memorable in “The Hurt Locker”), who are respected as much for their craft as their star-worthiness.

Festival Executive Director Don Franken said that the initial premise of a film festival celebrating the Method acting technique came from a desire to underscore what is the most important and memorable about independent films: “Great acting and strong stories based on truth and realism.”

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any car races, explosions and other elements that deem a movie “high concept.” It just means that the performances featured in the festival are those of emotional honesty and quirky humanity that keep filmgoers thinking about the characters long after the lights come up.

“We always end up premiering movies that are known for breakout performances and generally exceptional acting,” Franken said. “Usually, the films are smaller, independent movies that end up garnering Academy Award nominations for the stars.”

The Method Fest in the past has honored actors in little-seen films before their ultimate Academy nods such as Melissa Leo’s 2008 performance in “Frozen River” and Richard Jenkin’s turn as an emotionally frozen widower in 2007’s “The Visitor.”

Dern appears in “The Lightkeepers” with Blythe Danner and Richard Dreyfuss in a role he insists is “just a cameo,” but which he agreed to do because writer/director Daniel Adams is a respected friend.

“All the actors of my generation-Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman-we all worked at the Actors Studio,” Dern said. “Those films from the ‘60s and ‘70s [like “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider” and “The Panic in Needle Park”] changed the way movies were watched, and created unconventional leading men. People were suddenly seeing, and cheering for, characters on the edge.”

On the edge could certainly describe Dern’s character in his Oscar-nominated performance in “Coming Home,” about a broken Vietnam War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His multilayered, not-always likeable characterizations in other films of the era, like “The King Of Marvin Gardens” and “Silent Running,” epitomized the actor-driven power of independent filmmaking.

“Studios are not willing to risk small dollars to make a small profit,” Dern said. “Indie films will do that and we really need to get back to that kind of filmmaking.”

Festival director Franken disputes some critics’ complaints that Hollywood is “out of touch” with the high concept films people purportedly want to see, by consistently allocating its highest awards to smaller films, like this year’s Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker.” He believes that newer markets, like those for video on-demand, will replace DVDs and “equalize” the movie-going experience for films like “Precious” and “An Education” (both recognized for multiple film awards this year).

Dern believes there is a respected tradition of independent filmmakers that sets a high bar for today’s movie iconoclasts.

“David Lynch defines the term ‘independent filmmaker,’” Dern said of the director who has made notoriously difficult movies like “Blue Velvet” and “Mulholland Drive.” “Look at ‘Inland Empire’ [a surreal 2006 psychological thriller that starred Dern’s daughter, Laura Dern]. This is the same director that created ‘Elephant Man’ [the critically-acclaimed 1980 film about a severely deformed man in 19th century London]. You can’t dismiss a David Lynch movie. He’s a man for all seasons.”

The weeklong Method Fest will screen at venues in Calabasas and Agoura Hills and also offers a music program of sonic envelope-pushers at local watering holes like Sagebrush Cantina and Moz Buddha Bar.

“These are the kind of films that take a risk and go out on the edge,” Dern said. “Independent filmmakers make the movies that studio people don’t want to do.”

The Method Fest takes place March 25-31. Tickets and more information, including the screening lineup, can be found online at www.methodfest.com

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