Explaining the appeal of the Maui Film Festival is as easy as selling a double scoop chocolate ice cream cone to a child.
It’s all about that first night at the Celestial Cinema: the audience sits outside on a warm night, surrounded by hundreds of filmgoers, taking part in a cinematic Woodstock. Although the event is on a golf course at the Grand Wailea, the setting feels more akin to a rolling green hill in Vermont, as patrons in beach chairs and mats sit together
Everywhere you sit is an ideal spot, as the screen is gigantic, and speakers placed throughout the greens make the event audible for everyone. Areas are comfortable and clearly established, with easily accessible exit pathways. After an introduction from a boisterous, tireless speaker (more about him later), the lights go down and the cool glow from night sky is awe-inspiring, all-encompassing and humbling. As the screen comes to life and the film unfolds, the audience gets to partake in a one-of-a-kind (if not the ONLY of its kind) experience in shared movie going. You’ll laugh and cry, along with hundreds of others sitting alongside you. It’s an immersive, moving experience. And that’s just the opening night.
As the festival proceeds through a truly eventful and packed five days, attendees have the option of seeing more films at the Celestial Cinema or visiting the Castle Theater (a venue that manages to somehow be relaxed, emit a cool vibe and offer a grand setting), located within the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.
Elsewhere, there are the Taste events, where foodies and socialites get to connect and talk story over elegantly presented and downright delectable cuisine.
One venue, the Toes-in-the-Sand Cinema, offers a series of Hawai‘i short- and long-form films and is free to everyone. In addition to the films themselves, there are also filmmaker panels that take place from morning to afternoon, Saturday at the Wailea Beach Resort.
Then there’s the 2018 Film Festival honorees, Amber Heard and Nick Robinson. Heard plays the love interest in this fall’s Aquaman (opposite Jason Mamoa). While Aquaman will likely be a blockbuster, Heard has already proven herself a striking, risk-taking and consistently gifted performer. Heard’s performances in the genre cult classics All The Boys Love Mandy Lane and John Carpenter’s woefully underrated The Ward are riveting. So is her excellent turn in The Rum Diary, which, let it be said, is the best film ever made based on a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
Robinson is, likewise, about to become a household name. His big brother role in Jurassic World put him on the map. However, his performance in the title role of this year’s Love, Simon, in which he starred in the first mainstream romantic comedy focusing on a gay teen romance, was acclaimed and a true breakthrough. Both Heard and Robinson are worthy and accomplished honorees, about to embark on promising new chapters of their careers.
I spoke with Barry Rivers, the MFF’s ever-busy and infectiously enthusiastic founder, about this year’s festival. In addition to introducing the films, choosing the selections and somehow performing the herculean feat of putting together this enormous and ever-popular attraction, Rivers remains a true lover of cinema and the way it brings audiences together. Our discussion covered the festival’s origins, his advice to filmmakers hoping to score a spot at a future MFF and his reason for programming uplifting films for this luminous affair.
Barry Wurst: When did the idea first brew to create this extraordinary event?
Barry Rivers: The Wailea incarnation of the Maui Film Festival started on a whim to bring Perry Henzel, the writer-director of The Harder They Come, to Maui and commemorate the 25th anniversary of the film. We showed the film on all islands, including at the MACC and the Hawai‘i Theater on Oahu, shared many glasses of wine (so to speak), became fast friends and had a blast doing it. It was the first seed in the genesis that became a decade-plus run of the CandleLight Cafe and Cinema at the MACC. It eventually spawned our annual holiday season FirstLight: Academy Screenings on Maui and, eventually, each June’s Maui Film Festival at Wailea, and what I like to call “Maui’s Movie Palace,” the Castle Theater at the MACC.
BW: What are your memories of the first Maui Film Festival ?
BR: Without cock-a-doodle-doo-ing: that we had created something really special out of the gate. The Celestial Cinema, Toes-in-the-Sand Cinema, Seaside Cinema, celestially inspired venues, passes and award tributes descriptions – the first of them to Tim Burton, who agreed to accept it so late that he was hip enough to be handed a non-existent award, which I “passed” to him in honor of his endless reservoir of creativity and imagination. Also high on the list is how Maui overall and the Wailea Resort, and the MACC, in particular, widely embrace the event and supported the ‘ohana of foot soldiers and volunteers who made it, and continue to make it, all possible.
BW: When did you first know that your festival was not only well received but could become an annual experience?
BR: I knew it before we did the first one, because the intention was to make it great. Once we started the first one in 2000, its fate was sealed.
BW: Of the countless movie stars who have graced the MFF, what have been some of your favorite moments?
BR: Clint Eastwood insisting on carrying his chair and blankets up the slope to the Celestial Cinema is my go-to answer. There are many others but they are personal and special, and memories I’ll treasure forever.
BW: The MFF offers the different Taste events, the essential Celestial Cinema, the events at the MAAC and the free Sand Cinema screenings. If it’s my first MFF, what’s the ideal order to taking it in? What do you recommend?
BR: If you don’t experience a night of festivities at the Celestial Cinema, where hula, big screen A-list tributes or live musical performances add sizzle to everyone’s enjoyment of each night’s double feature, I feel safe to say that you truly don’t yet know the Maui Film Festival. So, all that, and experiencing at least one of the Festival’s amazing Taste celebrations – the Taste of Summer Opening Reception, Taste of Chocolate at the Four Seasons or the crown jewel of all of them, Taste of Wailea. All the rest, including the Toes-in-the-Sand Cinema on Wailea Beach, Saturday filmmaker panels at the Wailea Beach Resort and premieres at the MACC, also all help shine the mango, so the speak!
BW: Over the years, there have been a number of MFF film screenings (like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Hustle and Flow and Love & Mercy) that festival goers mark as milestone film experiences. What are some of your proudest MFF acquisitions that you’ve shared with Maui film lovers.
BR: There are many of them but to give three examples:
The night Whale Rider was screening at Celestial Cinema and, in unison, the entire crowd of 2,500 let out a simultaneous gasp as a full – and I mean hugely, cosmically, un-Earthly full – moon rose from behind, and floated higher and higher above the center of the venue’s 50-foot screen. The night we had a huge crowd for a sneak preview of Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau and another legend of contemporary Hawai‘i, cultural hero and Hokule‘a navigator Nainoa Thompson, shared Eddie’s last moments (Nainoa was the last person to see him alive). You could hear a pin drop in a crowd of nearly 3,000. Also, on any of the nights when comedies have generated what feels like a million belly laughs in 90 minutes, as the laughter keep coming in huge waves throughout the film.
BW: The MFF has generously showcased local filmmakers and social issues relevant to Maui audiences. What recommendation do you give to local artists who want to see their work at the MFF?
BR: In three words – OK, make that four – at least for this festival: Don’t make derivative crap. Choose or create a story worthy of the times we live in, find a unique way to tell it and don’t stop until you think (and those around you believe) that it’s good enough to screen at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Telluride or Maui. Do that, and your film will have a life long after yours is over.
BW: In addition to word of mouth, how would you like MFF attendees to spread awareness of this wonderful event?
BR: Via all the usual suspects – Instagram, Facebook and, ideally, signing up to receive Maui Film Festival emails and sharing them with friends and family.
Visiting MauiFilmFestival.com is an even better way to stay up to date of all festival details, including any changes in the program that, from time to time, are necessary.
BW: You’ve stated that you select films for the MFF that are typically uplifting and hopeful. How did this come about?
BR: I’ve had incredibly strong feelings about how much people see – literally see – aside from what they hear has a huge impact on how they, and collectively how all those individual “theys,” create the culture we experience as life on Earth.
A hundred years ago – OK, OK, maybe just 45 or so years ago – I earned a doctorate for what was basically a World Fair-like, multi-screen, multi-image, multi-lingual, visual-aural, waterfall of wholly natural world content – including everything from electronic microscopy, to non-digital, in-camera time-lapse, magic hour, extreme close-up, on-land and underwater cinematography, and even early NASA footage from space, accompanied by natural sound and indigenous chant – to paint a genuine (that is, a non-digitally-tweaked) experience of the Earth. So, if you can extrapolate that predisposition to choosing to start and pilot a film festival many years later, whose intention in every moment is to be passionately created, intelligently designed and endlessly inspiring, while also have a bedrock commitment to presenting films noteworthy for their presentation of compassionate vision and transformative storytelling – The Maui Film Festival annual film program is what you get if you are truly not just talking the talk, but walking the walk of your core beliefs.
BW: Have there been any exceptions to this practice?
BR: Only during each year’s FirstLight: Academy Screenings on Maui event, when we do show films that the studio system and mini-major distributors and top independent distributors push for awards consideration. Why? Because we don’t live in a bubble and neither should anyone else. The times are a-changin’ and everyone needs to know what’s happening, so that they can chime in protest, vote and place their thumb on both the scale of justice and the world their children and grandchildren will build their lives on.
For more info on the Maui Film Festival, including event locations and times, visit mauifilmfestival.com.
Photos courtesy of Maui Film Festival. Cover design by Darris Hurst.