When it comes to film festivals, Calabasas is far off the beaten path for the Sundance crowd. But there's method to the madness of film lovers who beat a path to Calabasas in the first week of April.
The seventh annual Method Fest claims to be the nation's only festival that specifically celebrates actors and their performances. This year's lineup includes significant works with Jewish themes. There are films about the Holocaust, contemporary Jewish families and Israeli-Palestinian issues among the 25 feature films and 47 short films. The festival also features panel discussions, workshops and special events.
In a region where film festivals proliferate on just about every street corner, the Method Fest has a distinct name that conjures up images of intense thespians engaged in bizarre rituals. In fact, the acting techniques pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theater director, essentially taught performers to draw from their own experiences and emotional memory to create characters grounded in psychological realism. Known as "The Method," Stanislavski's teachings have been re-interpreted by most of the major acting schools, including those founded by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner.
"Acting has finally become a craft and an art," acting teacher Lorrie Hull said, "thanks to modern psychological discoveries and the dedicated men and women who have explored, taught, directed and used acting techniques that lead to truthful, believable behavior."
Hull has written extensively about Method acting and will be conducting a workshop on the Meisner Technique at The Method Fest.
"Actors no longer need to depend on the fickle muse of inspiration," she said.
The event's main attraction is the cinema itself. Though not a Jewish film festival, a number of offerings have compelling Jewish-related themes.
"The Tollbooth," written and directed by Debra Kirschner, explores a recent art school graduate's relationship with her traditional Jewish parents and two sisters. As Sarabeth Cohen struggles as an artist in New York City, one of her sisters announces she's a lesbian and the other has married a man who can't seem to earn a living. Originally conceived as a modern-day "Fiddler on the Roof," the film evolved into a hybrid autobiography.
"It definitely became a slice of life based on many of my own experiences," Kirschner said. "I also really wanted to explore what it means for progressive, feminist women to have a Jewish identity."
Another film, "Aryan Couple," written and directed by John Daly, tells the tale of a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family that signs over its fortune to Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler in exchange for safe passage to Palestine. Based on a true story, the film centers on a crucial dinner party and lacks the dreary lighting and graphic details of suffering that's generally associated with Holocaust flicks. Instead, there's a focus on individual relationships, beautiful scenery and a depiction of Himmler as a relative gentleman in comparison to the infamous Adolf Eichmann and his Nazi cronies.
"I didn't want this to be a typical Holocaust film," Daly said. "I wanted to set the film in the spring and have beauty all around as a backdrop to the Nazi horrors."
Daly's film stars Martin Landau, but the majority of the actors are not household names. "It's great that this is a festival that celebrates fresh faces, faces that you don't see in every film," he says.
The festival has been put together by executive director Don Franken, who, seven years ago, partnered with a couple of independent filmmakers to celebrate "what we feel are the core ingredients of film: great acting and strong stories. We felt that so many films were going the way of special effects [with] actors simply strolling through their performances," Franken said.
Franken remains a passionate advocate for "those great independent films that never get out into the marketplace. The purpose of this festival is to give those films exposure," he said.
That's the hope of Matthew Klein, who co-wrote and stars in "Breaking the Fifth," which makes its premiere at the festival. Klein's film tells the story of an eccentric playwright trying to resurrect his career.
"You never know who's going to see your film and where it's going to go next," Klein said.
"A lot of the larger film festivals are now allowing themselves to be manipulated by the studios," he added. "What I like about The Method Fest is that it's embracing the bare bones art of filmmaking and giving talented people who don't have the big agents a chance for exposure."
As for the future, co-founder Franken hopes that The Method Fest will eventually be considered a "destination festival, like Sundance, where people camp out for a week. We feel we have the right theme," he said. "Because what do people remember most about a film? Sensational acting."
The Method Fest runs from April 1-8 at select theaters in Calabasas. Tickets can be purchased in advance at (800) 965-4827 or at www.ticketweb.com Screening times and other information about the festival can be found at www.methodfest.com.