By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(May 2004) One of the
pleasures that comes from working in the arts is meeting
some exceptionally talented people. There’s a
spark that bursts through telling you that great things
are to come. And when they do come, having been there
to make the discovery is all the sweeter.
Every year, the Rhode Island International Film Festival
is blessed to not only see the work of some new “voices”
in film, but to actually present the work to larger
audiences; and in many cases, to meet the artists who
come to the festival to see their work screened. RIIFF
receives an enormous amount of entries; this year we
expect about 1300 entries from all over the world. We
also screen a major portion a of the entries; 200 films
will be presented in 2004. And significantly, programming
will be composed of about 95% of those entries; thus
allowing a showcase for student, regional and new artists.
While a “regional” festival, RIIFF has become
internationally recognized as a launching platform,
where the filmmaker can be the proverbial big fish in
a small pond.
Several years ago, I made the acquaintance of a remarkable
filmmaker who was then starting matriculation at NYU
in Film Studies. I found her work in a bag of films
as part of my nightly assignment of film reviews for
the Festival. Our policy requires that each film be
seen by three separate reviewers so that we have a balanced
perspective of the film/video submitted. It’s
a lot of work, candidly, but for a filmmaker who pays
a submission fee, it’s something they should expect
and demand. I had ten screeners that evening, the most
I could fairly handle, and I felt I had been given a
revelation. The work was by Eva Saks and she used the
language of film as I had not seen before. I watched
the piece twice that evening, emailed her that I was
amazed, and told her I wanted her in the Festival. Now
in all honesty, this is not usual. I called our Program
Director, Heather Bryant told her of my discovery, asked
her opinion, and I then broke our usual protocol with
her blessings. Call it a very rarely used Executive
Since that point, Eva has sent us works in progress
and kept me personally in the loop with her accomplishments.
She’s been to our Festival enough over the years
that we have put her to work on many occasions; including
being an Assistant Director with our Master Class on
Film Production: Take 1-2-3: Filmmaking with the Pros
in 2003, run by our Creative Director, John Quackenbush.
As a filmmaker/craftsperson, Eva is a chameleon. She
submerges herself in her work and it is always different;
always unique. She has played more Festivals that I
can recall, won numerous awards and is in constant demand.
She won a student Academy Award for a thought-provoking
piece called “Family Values.” Her work opened
RIIFF last year with Disney’s Academy nominated
animation “Destino” and Kenneth Branagh’s
She recently completed work for PBS’ “Sesame
Street.” I thought how she got to this place would
be inspirational and a good lesson for aspiring filmmakers
in our region.
GTM: Give us some background
on yourself. Tell us about the journey you've taken
to be a filmmaker.
EVA SAKS: I became an "old movie"
maven at about ten years old - I used to torture my
parents by setting my alarm clock for 3 am, to watch
Fred Astaire in TOP HAT. In college, I majored in Theater
Directing, then went on to become a Casting Director
for Theater, Film and Television. I moved out of Casting
into being an Agent, and woke up one day thinking, "Well,
if I'm really going into the Entertainment Business,
I might as well go for it." So I ended up going
to Yale Law School, with the intention of directing
and producing movies. I practiced Entertainment Law
briefly, then got back into directing Theater and casting
films, and decided I would apply to ONE film school:
NYU. They took me and I've never looked back! I've had
a great run, with the Student Academy Award and then
selling my two most recent shorts (CONFECTION and COLORFORMS)
to the Independent Film Channel, and now writing and
directing two programs for SESAME STREET.
GTM: You have a law degree
from Yale, why the switch to film?
EVA SAKS: As you can see by my chequered
history, directing and movies were in my blood long
before I went to Yale! Yale Law School was great, though.
I studied a lot of American History -- that's where
the great stories for movies are! Frankly, I think Yale
Law School taught me the single most important quality
for a film director: how to work for days on end without
GTM: How hard was it to make
that transition and has it been worth it for you?
EVA SAKS: It was an easy transition
since I never really left the Entertainment world -
even when I was a lawyer, I was doing Entertainment
law. And when I stopped practicing law and went back
to directing theater, it was actually kinda easy --
I just called some actors I knew from my casting days
and asked them to be in my first show.
GTM: What keeps you going?
You work long hours and are constantly on the go.
EVA SAKS: I'm really a project-specific
person: what keeps me going is the story I'm in the
middle of telling. For example, with the trilogy of
films I just completed (CONFECTION, COLORFORMS, and
DATE, which I just finished last week!), I wanted to
express my admiration for the bloody but unbowed spirit
of post-9/11 New York City and America.
GTM: So what do you to relax in your downtime
(and do you have any downtime)?
EVA SAKS: Okay, you've caught me. No,
GTM: Where do you find the inspiration for the
work you've undertaken?
EVA SAKS: Everywhere, lately in kids
a lot. And I like reading a lot of local newspapers.
GTM: How important has the
film festival circuit been for the development of your
EVA SAKS: I think it's been invaluable,
because you get to see how your work plays with different
audiences, in different cultures. It helps me make choices
that make my movies more legible and universal. (I'm
going to Italy next week, to a film festival that's
hosting me and screening CONFECTION...I'm very curious
to see how an Italian audience reacts!) My own goal
isn't to make "art" films; I like to make
films that you can watch while eating popcorn. I guess
it's the influence of all those great old movies I used
to wake up to watch in the middle of the night! I'm
a populist director - my idea of a great movie is CASABLANCA
or ET -- something that moves people of all ages.
GTM: Tell us about some of
the experiences you've had attending festivals.
EVA SAKS: At Sundance, where my film
FAMILY VALUES plays, I got sick of going to parties
and "networking", so I jumped on the shuttle
bus to go back to my hotel. And on the bus, I met the
producer of my film COLORFORMS!
GTM: You won a student academy
award: what did that mean to you and has it helped in
your career path?
EVA SAKS: The Student Academy Award
really does change your life. Doors open; you just have
to generate the work to walk through them. That's why
I'm now finishing up a feature script - to send something
to the agents and producers I met through the Student
GTM: You just finished work
for SESAME STREET. How did that come about?
EVA SAKS: ... They commissioned me
to write and direct to "Letters of the Day",
with characters I created. I had almost complete creative
freedom -- it was fantastic. The shows start airing
this month. (In addition, I kept the "festival
rights" to my SESAME STREET pieces. They're already
in four festivals!)
GTM: What is your ultimate
goal as a filmmaker?
EVA SAKS: I'd like to finish making
all the movies I've got outlined in my computer. Even
though that would require that I live to be 100. But
my Uncle Harry lived to be 104, so it could happen!
Also, as a personal goal, I'd like to continue to work
in different genres - narrative, documentary, drama,
comedy, action. I don't like getting typecast!
GTM: Has it been tough for
you as a woman making an impact what has been traditionally
a male dominated industry? Or does the glass ceiling
no longer exist? (or now has cracks).
EVA SAKS: I don't know. I seem to be doing
okay. You can get FAMILY VALUES through NetFlix, and
CONFECTION and COLORFORMS through Film Movement. Just
Google the companies.
GTM: Many students come in
with video backgrounds to film schools today. What was
the approach at NYU? What did you learn from that process
and is their one format you prefer over another--and
EVA SAKS: At NYU, you do NOT start
with video. You start with film. I love film - I even
chose to shoot my SESAME STREET pieces on film. And
CONFECTION, COLORFORMS and DATE are all 35 mm film.
So I'm going the opposite direction! I started with
film and I will advance to video...
GTM: It seems no matter what
the topic of the film you undertake, you get typecast--for
the moment -- as having an agenda. Example: FAMILY VALUES
had you pegged as a lesbian. With CONFECTION, you're
now a family film director. Why do think this has been
and how have you reacted to these stereotypes.
EVA SAKS: These stereotypes make me
laugh. When FAMILY VALUES came out, everyone thought
I was gay. When CONFECTION came out, everyone assumed
I had children. Inasmuch as I'm a straight girl with
no kids, I can only laugh and throw up my hands. (In
fact, I met my boyfriend through making FAMILY VALES
-- he's an NYPD lieutenant -- and so I always like to
say, "I met my boyfriend through my lesbian documentary.")
Actually, it saddens me that people assume that you
can only empathize with people who are just like you!
Are most people only interested in people just like
them? I don't think so....By the way, my short documentary
A PIZZA MAN is about a pizza maker from El Salvador,
and it was in the NY Latino Film Festival, so I went
through a period when everyone thought I was Latina...Telemundo
kept calling me for an interview. And my new film DATE
features an African-American heroine, so it's clear
what's next for me. Call me an American!
GTM: Speaking of values, whom do you credit
for giving you such a firm foundation and grounding
as an artist and human being?
EVA SAKS: My parents. They are the
best. My dad used to be a Civil Rights lawyer; now he's
a judge. My mom teaches in the inner city. They really
believe in me, and in democracy.
GTM: Who has inspired you in your life?
EVA SAKS: My parents - see above! In
the film world, I really admire Frank Capra, the child
of Italian immigrants who grew up to make some of the
greatest and most inclusive movies ever made -- IT'S
A WONDERFUL LIFE, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, MR. SMITH
GOES TO WASHINGTON, MEET JOHN DOE. I go back to Capra's
autobiography all the time - it's called THE NAME ABOVE
THE TITLE and I really recommend it! I also really admire
Frances Marion - she was a top writer-director in the
days of silent movies. (She once famously said, "All
my life I've been looking for a man I can look up to
without lying down.")
In the bigger picture, I was inspired by my 5th Grade
American History teacher, Earl Clemens. He was very
odd and funny-looking, a bit like a giraffe, but no
kid EVER made fun of Earl Clemens. Because he was just
SO smart and committed to perfection. He was a lovable
drill sergeant. He was so rigorous and passionate about
this country that he just won us all over. He also had
a great phrase he would always use, and that I still
use. He told us on the first day of class, "If
you don't study every day, and study harder than you've
ever studied in your life, you will fail this course.
That's not a promise and it's not a threat...IT'S A
I LOVE that quote. It may come in handy for you, too.
"It's not a promise and it's not a threat, it's
GTM: You've been all over the
country; what is your assessment of New England as a
EVA SAKS: New England is a great film
location - it's got every kind of landscape and natural
beauty, as well as all kinds of great urban/industrial
locations, too. You've also got an outstanding sound
stage up where you are. And you KNOW I've been wanting
to shoot on that Providence ice skating rink for years!
I love Providence generally: it's got so many different
looks, and I love Federal Hill.
GTM: Tell us
two things: the best experience you've had at a festival
and the worst (I know, loaded question, feel free
to change the names to protect the guilty).
EVA SAKS: The best experience I've
had at a festival was at Clermont-Ferrand, in France,
which is known an "the Cannes of Short Films."
I could only stay for four days, but the festival gave
me "hospitality coupons" for ten days. Now,
the key part is that these coupons could be used for
fine wines at every restaurant in the city...So every
night I would use my extra coupons to buy great bottles
of wine for tables of happy filmmaker friends! We had
quite the party. And the whole city of Clermont supports
the festival - everybody goes. Plus the festival was
completely international - I was given lodging in a
hotel where my neighbors were French, Egyptian, German,
Moroccan, Indian, Thai. It was gloriously fun and I'm
still in touch with a lot of the filmmakers.
It's a different universe when you are in a country
where there is government support for culture, that's
Another great experience, I must say, was your Opening
Night party last year [at the Rhode Island International
Film Festival]. The state house, which I had never seen,
was absolutely ravishingly beautiful - it made me want
to start filming a movie there immediately! Providence
is quite a photogenic place. That state house in the
moonlight was unforgettable.
The worst experience was a festival which changed the
times of my films, after I'd had all the posters and
postcards made. Just awful. They refused to replace
them or help in any way. It cost me a fortune and everyone
went at the wrong time. Yikes!
GTM: What would you tell an
aspiring film student or communications major about
preparation for this field: illusions, delusions and
EVA SAKS: Just get out there and start
making films. Really. Buy (or borrow) the cheapest camcorder
and get a home editing program - you can put it on your
desktop. (In fact, I've edited all my films on my desktop.
Cost almost nothing.) Incidentally, I shot most of FAMILY
VALUES -- which won the Student Academy Award and screened
at Sundance, Telluride, etc. -- by myself, because I
didn't know any DPs! And I knew absolutely NOTHING about
shooting movies. I just bought a cheapo consumer video
camera, and got on a train to Philly (where my subjects
were) the next day, and started shooting. I didn't even
know how to turn the camera on and off when I started
the project. It was pretty hilarious. In fact, I'd never
owned a camera. I was just so excited about the story
of FAMILY VALUES that nothing could stop me. By the
way, NYU discouraged me from doing the project, and
refused to let me use an NYU video camera - so I ignored
them and did it myself. As a friend of mine once told
me: "No one makes you a director. That's what MAKES
you a director."
GTM: Finally, any comments
you'd like to make.
EVA SAKS: Break a leg!
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film
Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director.
He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College
and speech communications and documentary film at Roger
Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer
of commercials and industrials for numerous business
clients in the region and will be presenting his current
research paper “Teaching and the Blogosphere”
at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education
in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in August.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org