Jeff Ross founded the San Francisco Independent Film Festival 14 years ago as a way to give his friend Rand Alexander a place in town to show his movie Caged. What started as a four-day event now lasts two weeks. It has more than 80 films, including horror movies, documentaries, love stories, comedies, and shorts. It opens tonight (Thursday, Feb. 9) at the Roxie Theater. After the movies, you can hang out with filmmakers, maybe at the roller disco party, or dressed as your favorite Big Lebowski character. The festival opens with Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Ferrara and Shanyn Leigh (who stars with Willem Defoe) plan to attend.
Ross took a break from planning to talk to us about showing a non-cheesy romantic comedy, how putting together a festival is like curating an art show, and the importance of shared experience.
San Francisco has a lot of film festivals. What's unique about this one?
At the time I started it there were lots of American independents that didn't have a place to play, and that's still true although the art house theaters now play more self-distributed films. All the festivals in town have their unique curatorial vision. When I describe film festivals to people in other cities who haven't heard of them, I try to explain it as, "It's like curating a group art show with movies instead of artists," and that's what we try and do at the festival -- get a bunch of different movies that have the same vibe and put them together in a two week show.
Why was it successful that first year?
I think San Franciscans are open minded, curious folk. I don't think I could do the same event in another city. The first year that I did it I booked the Roxie and the Victoria for the weekend. I paid for everything with my credit card, and it cost me about $20,000. In the end 3,000 people came out to see movies that no one had ever heard of. There were no name-directors or stars in any of them. I was just shocked. Ever since then it's grown -- last year was about 11,000 people.
Speaking of big names, you have Abel Ferrara (King Of New York, Bad Lieutenant) coming out for his movie, 4:44 Last Day on Earth.
The guy is old school, sort of a do-what-I want-because-I want-to filmmaker. If you look at his movies throughout the years, they're sort of all over the place, but it's not like he's ever done a romantic comedy or something. They're all really cool, with a certain kind of feel to them, and I think it's great when a filmmaker can stick to that art. He likes to work with a lot of the same collaborators. On his Wikipedia page, there's a chart that goes through a dozen actors he's worked with the most and which films of his last dozen films they've been in. We're psyched to have him here. We've had a similar level of directors at our festival, like Gus Van Sant one year, and it's great we can highlight these guys and get them into a program with a bunch of first-time filmmakers, mixed in with someone like Abel Ferrara. It comes back to this idea of curating a show, a little bit from over here and a little bit from over there to put together this group show.
You have a bunch of movies by local filmmakers. Any that stand out?
One of my favorites is Juko's Time Machine, which was shot in the North Bay. Local production, local filmmakers, and it's just a really cute little romantic comedy, but not in a cloying, insult-your-intelligence way that so many of the Hollywood ones are. The local shorts program is always really good. Probably at every festival, you'll see some of the best films in the shorts program because people are experimenting or taking chances.
What about all the parties you have?
My little tag line is keep the festival festive. All these parties started because the filmmakers would come from out of town and we'd have to find something for them to do, so I started trying to come up with afterparties, and they ended up having a life of their own. One of my favorites is the Big Lebowski party, which we've been doing for nine years. Then it wasn't really that big of a cult hit. The first year 100 people came out, and I think last year, 500 people came, dressed in costumes, drinking White Russians, and just having a blast. Then we also started this roller disco party thing probably about 10 years ago. It has nothing to do with movies, but it would be a fun afterparty, and that's always really popular. The Spinal Tap, I admit I'd been trying to figure out an excuse to do that one for a while. I met these guys in a band, Live Evil, and they're also actors. The lead singer wrote all these songs when he was a teenager and forgot about them, and now they brought them out and performed them, and so they're all sort of silly, what you would write when you're 15, so they're perfect for this Spinal Tap concept. They're going to perform as Spinal Tap, in character on opening night. Then the sing-along night was an anti-Valentine's Day kind of thing with love songs gone bad, like "You Give Love a Bad Name." The music videos play on the screen with the lyrics running underneath them, so people come and sing and jump around, and it's pretty fantastic.
What do you enjoy the most about doing this?
I am not a gigantic film buff. People think I'm going to know everything film related. I never studied film. I haven't made any movies. I love movies, but I think what I love about them is the shared experience of sitting in a movie theater with people. That's what I like -- introducing people to things and giving them an excuse to leave their house and come out for a shared experience.
SF Indiefest runs Feb. 9-23 at various San Francisco locations. Admission varies.