Photograph: Visko Hatfield
“You know those times when you’re watching your children playing on the beach, and try to take a snapshot of it with your mind?” She recalls one of her favorite films, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel’s award-winning biographical account of a man paralyzed from the neck down who miraculously communicates through flickers of his left eyelid. “Here is a man who has lost movement in his entire body, yet is able to recount and re-envision his life in a series of deeply beautiful snapshots. In some ways, that is all life is. The film was made by a true artist.”
If you’re surprised that this winsome Greenwich blonde is spending the last fleeting moments of her vacation contemplating the existential contributions of foreign cinema, don’t be. The actress, mother of two, wife to husband Kipp deVeer, and GIFF powerhouse has been doing nothing but eating, sleeping and breathing the upcoming June 2015 Greenwich International Film Festival for the past year and a half, along with her two cofounders, Wendy Stapleton Reyes and Carina Crain. The women (who jokingly dub themselves “sister wives” given the extensive time they spend working together), met locally only a few years back, yet have quickly struck a synergy of talents.
“Being able to create something from inception to opening day is going to be an amazing feeling for us as a group,” says Wendy. “I don’t want to compare it to having a child, but in some respects it’s similar. We’ve nurtured this thing, we’ve thought about it from every angle and how it would have the most meaning to us and to the town. Bringing it to life is going to be incredible.”
It all began with a dinner party conversation sparked by Carina. The concept: create a film festival for the community of Greenwich and surrounding cities, particularly Manhattan, that is on par with Cannes and other high-profile festivals in terms of quality and visibility. The twist: cap the festival at four days (June 4th–7th)and twenty-five films—a handful of which will be shorts—in its incipient year to ensure excellence and facilitate true flow between financiers and directors for follow-up projects. “As an actor, I saw so many amazing projects never make it past the development phase, and it was so frustrating for directors who didn’t have enough resources,” says Colleen. “We want this festival to give opportunities to the types of directors who are often overlooked, the up-and-coming Wes Andersons of the world who just need the right channels opened for them.”
The fact that Greenwich is so unlike Hollywood, where every waiter and babysitter has tried their hand in ‘the industry,’ may be the key to the festival’s success. “Many of our friends had been investors in one-off films, and it became apparent that there was an interesting opportunity for an alternative method of investment,” explains Wendy. “We want to fill a void. The film community needs financing, and this seems to be the place where different heads of industry would be interested in becoming involved, especially when it’s sitting in their own backyard.”
The festival also aims to spark change by highlighting films with a global conscience and awarding one director with a Social Impact Award and $10,000 cash prize. At an honoree gala on Saturday night of the festival, GIFF will also present a male and female Changemaker in Film award to two globally-minded stars whose reach extends far beyond the big screen. Additionally, GIFF is partnering with UNICEF in a program that will lend video cameras to teens around the world to capture a single minute of footage through their own unique lens, with the winning entries airing during the festival.
The charitable undercurrent of the festival was a no-brainer for Wendy, who has served on UNICEF’s Next Generation board for the past six years, and last year became chair of the organization’s Greenwich chapter. “I’m hoping that through the programming of our film festival that we’ll be able to broaden people’s minds and show them things that are going on in the world, but at the same time entertain them,” she explains. “The two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. For one to thrive, you need the other.”
Wendy Stapleton Reyes is the Greenwich local of the group, with town roots tracing back to her great aunt, Dorothy Walker Bush, mother to the 41st President, George Herbert Walker Bush. After attending Greenwich Academy, Greenwich Country Day School and Taft, Reyes majored in international politics and policy at the University of Michigan and shortly thereafter found herself at campaign headquarters in Austin, Texas, working for strategic advisor Karl Rove on George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. “Karl was so driven and focused and taught me the value of a serious work ethic,” she remembers. “The man did not sleep…I think he had a cot in his office.” Wendy also credits Rove with teaching her how to handle disagreements and tense situations with finesse. “To see how people manage conflict at that level is a great learning experience.”
Although she grew up in a world of public figures and foreign policy (her father served as ambassador to both France and the Czech Republic), Wendy couldn’t see herself leading the political lifestyle permanently. Before landing back on the East Coast, she spent nearly a decade in Los Angeles, where she met Diego Reyes, the man who was to become her husband and father to their three girls, and earned her master’s degree in professional writing at USC. “We had Wednesday night forums where Oscar-nominated screenwriters came in to talk to us about the process of getting their films made,” she remembers. “More often than not, their Oscar-winner would be the first film they wrote, but their third or fourth movie made.” In other words, they had to pull off a few big-budget studio flicks before anyone would take notice of their smaller passion projects—the ones that would ultimately nab golden statuettes. “It created an interest in me surrounding the business of filmmaking, along with a healthy dose of how hard it was for even the best films to get all the pieces together,” says Wendy. “The script, the director, the cast…to get it financed was a one in a thousand shot.” Despite these daunting numbers, Wendy, who heads up branding, sponsorship and fundraising for GIFF, is optimistic. “Over the past year and a half, the amount of supporters that have come on board with us have shown that the demand for the visual arts exceeds the supply.”
With a promising level of investor interest, what’s left is ensuring that the films selected for the festival be innovative and inspiring at the highest level. Leave that challenge to Colleen deVeer, who coordinates programming for GIFF along with marquee director and renowned film critic Elvis Mitchell. No stranger to the spotlight, Colleen connects with everyone from the person next door to high-profile celebs with a visceral, we’re-forming-a-bond-here kind of intimacy, and can deftly leap between deadpan comedy and serious introspection not unlike her doppelganger, actress Laura Linney. Chalk it up to theatrical genes. Her father, a former musician, along with her artist mother and slew of creative siblings, fostered a lifelong love of performing. In her hometown of Lake Forest, Illinois, Colleen joined her local community theater at age five and later traveled the world stepping and spinning in an Irish dancing troupe (yes, like Riverdance…Michael Flatley’s troupe was their competitor). “It all terrified me, but there was a moment before I’d go onstage that was almost euphoric, when the butterflies would come and the adrenaline would kick in,” she says. “Performing became my passion.”
After her undergrad years honing her thespian skills in the amphitheater of Boston College, she enrolled at The Actor’s Studio in Manhattan for her MFA in acting. It was there that the actress studied alongside classmates like Bradley Cooper and kept elaborate journals of the characters she’d portray. “I think the psychology of acting appealed to me most, to get inside a character’s head and walk through their world.” For Colleen, that showed in every ounce of her being. “I used to get critiqued by instructors for flushing onstage from nerves and hot overhead lights, but my wonderful mentor, Barbara Poitier, told me very matter-of-factly that I needed to embrace it,” she says. “Flushing was proof that I was I was alive onstage and truly connected to my character.”
It was during this time that Colleen had the enviable task of attending Inside the Actors Studio tapings, hosted by James Lipton, on alternating Monday nights. Her all-time favorite guest was Donald Sutherland, who stars in another of her favorite films, Ordinary People, which was filmed in her hometown. “Donald is so intense and so knowledgeable,” she says. “He brought books with him and read us passages that influenced him as an actor. It was inspiring.” Her eyes were further opened while later working for the Wooster Group, an avant-garde theater collective founded by actors such as Willem Dafoe. Says Colleen, “Working there gave me a taste for the unconventional, a way to approach scripts through a different lens.” That kind of out-of-the-box experience is just what she wants to bring to the festival. Much of that will depend on the submissions that cross the team’s desks and inboxes through programs like Without a Box, which the team is relying on to pull in high-quality, off-the-radar filmmaking talent worldwide. “Technology is playing a big role in how we can expand our reach and harness great content internationally,” she explains. “The key is to make sure that the right voices get heard on the right platform.”
In some ways, Carina Crain, the tech whiz of the group, is an anomaly. Blessed with Christy Turlington’s bone-structure, a megawatt smile and runway-worthy physique, the Anglo-Brazilian beauty was a self-professed “shy kid” and would rather stay behind the scenes of the operation. In fact, when the women were serendipitously asked to be extras in the movie version of the HBO hit series Entourage during a GIFF meeting with director Doug Ellin in Los Angeles, Carina exited stage left. Says Wendy, “When the cameras started rolling, we looked around and said, ‘Where’s Carina?’ She had walked into the shot on Rodeo Drive and then took off five blocks in the other direction!”
But make no mistake: Carina packs gigabytes of entrepreneurial power. “Carina is a visionary,” says Colleen. “She will provide the blueprint for what the festival will evolve into. Will it be like TED? Will it be tech-focused? She has her own mind and is truly authentic.” The ever-humble Carina will tell you it all happened by circumstance. “I realized very early on that I was a visual learner and had a photographic memory for images,” she says. “I had a learning disability—film has a very special place for me because it has always held my attention in a way that reading could not.”
Raised in Brazil and England until the age of seven, the first film she remembers was a screening of Woody Allen’s Bananas in a Brazilian cinema with her stepfather. “I remember the ticket taker at the counter asked him how old I was, since it was an R-rated movie, and he said “old enough!” Even though I was young, I got the film’s humor. I had lost my biological father at a young age, and I think my stepdad, who didn’t really know how to reach me, somehow did through our common love of film.”
It would be years before that love of film made its way into her daily life. After undergraduate studies at Syracuse for mass communications (“I can’t fathom why I majored in that when I have a crippling stage fright,” she laughs), Carina found herself in the graduate program at FIT, where she put her cutting-edge style and visual skills to use. She worked as a bridal gown designer for the now-shuttered Lara Hélène Bridal Atelier off Madison Avenue and later developed an eveningwear line for Neiman Marcus. While fashion design and film may seem worlds apart, both require a true editor’s eye and laser-sharp attention to detail. The mother of three jokes that one of her warnings to husband Christopher Crain was that he would have an MIA wife—lost to three screens simultaneously while watching countless clips, managing social media for GIFF, and overseeing the branding and content for the website. How did he handle it? Like a champ, quips Carina, saying, “He’s already telling me I need to start thinking about year two!”
A Festival Village
Looks like he’s right on the money, because with growing interest and resources, GIFF is bound to keep evolving—just like the three business partners’ friendships. “We’re creating a festival village, and the town is ideally built for one, with the train station so close to the Bowtie Cinemas and the Delamar,” says Wendy. Capitalizing on its prime real estate, GIFF will be renting out the former for screenings and using the latter as a VIP home base for the festival’s talent and biggest supporters, as well as filmmaker panels, workshops and discussions. More screenings will take place in the Cole Auditorium at Greenwich Library, the Bruce Museum, Arch Street and Roger Sherman Baldwin Park. There will be shuttle transportation and stores on Greenwich Avenue will be involved. “I think the town is getting excited about next June,” says Wendy. “We expect at least half of our audience will come from outside of the Greenwich area, so they’ll be newly exposed to the restaurants and boutiques between screenings, which will bring more business to the Avenue.”
While the road to its debut has not been without hurdles, the GIFF team’s mission is to do the festival small, do it right, and set the stage for longevity. “We want this festival to be great for the town and encourage the film industry to come and build and actually stay,” says Carina. “To think there could be this little oasis that offers well done and highly curated material with a narrative flowing through it is exciting.” Given how underfunded the arts are, there is also the hope that people in the greater Connecticut area will actively get involved and line up in droves to buy tickets. In the eyes of these three trailblazers, it’s a win-win scenario. “Film can help people learn and develop a greater sense of themselves, it can make them hopeful, and it can expose them to something they may not have previously been able to see or relate to,” says Colleen. “It can make change. It can be incredibly powerful.”
There’s also the gift of geography. Says Wendy, “We’ve been to a number of festivals this year, and it’s easier to get from midtown Manhattan to watch a film in Greenwich and back than it is to drive two miles at Sundance.”
Watch out, Robert Redford.