Top Ten Nantucket Film Festival Moments

June 21st, 2010

From its very inception, premiering “Mister Rogers & Me” at the Nantucket Film Festival was our goal. The idea for the film was born there on the western edge of the island, and so it only seemed fitting for the finished film to debut there. Fortunately, festival organizers felt the same.

What we couldn’t have known, though, was that NFF was an ideal fit for more reason than just geography. Like “Mister Rogers & Me,” the festival is an intimate, substantive, labor of love. It screens just a few films, but all of them are major, and there is no shortage of Hollywood star power. Moreover, the relationships we were able to form with folks like festival co-founder Jill Burkhart, Artistic Director Mystelle Brabee, fellow filmmakers, writers and movie lovers were deep, simple, and so appreciated. The conversations were substantive, sustained and significant. And from Ben Stiller’s All-Star Comedy Roundtable to Barry Levinson’s Screenwriter Tribute, the festival was loaded with entertainment, insight, and opportunity. Frankly, I have a hunch NFF has blown the curve for all of our future festival!

Either way, it was an amazing weekend, one filled with numerous highlights. Here are my top ten.

#10: The Arrival. Like the island it serves, the Nantucket Airport is something special: tiny, intimate, beautiful, and comfortable. I’ve always loved walking the tarmac; there’s a vaguely romantic, “Casablanca”-like quality to it. The runway is flanked by green, and stretches to the sea. And the sky never fails to impress. Stepping off the jet way this time, though, was extra special. For at least five years, we’ve come and gone thinking about and working on “Mister Rogers & Me.” On Thursday, I walked with an extra-dash of well-tempered swagger; we had truly and finally arrived

#9: Nantucket Hospitality. From the moment I popped my head into the festival office to my last-minute, early-morning dash to my plane, NFF founders Jill and Jonathan, directors Colin and Mystelle, and staff Daniela, Leane, Monica, Beth were warm and engaged. Festival volunteers were quick with a smile and easy with an answer, while moviegoers were enthused, interested and intelligent. More than once, staff, volunteers and locals alike rushed us through lines, snagged us great seats, and gushed with enthusiasm for “Mister Rogers & Me.” Example: Third-generation bicycle shop legend Harvey Young asked Saturday night’s NFF host, “What is the festival going to do next to champion this great film?” He was just one of the hundreds of “helpers” we met who are helping spread Mister Rogers “deep and simple” message.

#8: Hilarity Ensues. With guests Andy Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Zack Galifinakis and the always-hilarious, handsome and articulate host Brian Williams at the helm of the Saturday’s Comedy Roundtable, you knew it was going to be good. That the NFF staff graciously ushered Chris and I to the second row directly behind Barry Levinson and next to Christine Taylor (aka Mrs. Ben Stiller) only heightened the hilarity. It was amazing to watch all five comedians (well, four plus Brian who has a heck of a second career in comedy if he wants it) work off each other, and sidesplitting from Brian’s open to Zack and Brian’s impromptu “Between Two Ferns.”

#7: The Sell-Out. I’d been on island less than an hour when I stopped through festival headquarters to pick up a few tickets. Our posters were hung alongside major docs like “Waiting For Superman,” “Bill Cunningham,” and “Countdown To Zero.” The young woman behind the desk had no idea who I was when she asked, “For Friday or Saturday?” “Friday,” I replied. “Good,” she said. “Because Saturday is sold out.” Cut to: My brain exploding.

#6: Late-Night Storytelling. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read NFF’s invitation to be one of just nine filmmakers, actors and islanders to perform a story (sans notes or script, natch) at the festival’s annual, Moth-like storytelling series. What an honor, particularly at a festival designed to honor storytelling! The theme was “Dirty Laundry.” I immediately knew mine (see “Travelling The Too Much Information Highway”), and when it dawned on me how to end it, I was thrilled. Still, I was terrified; the Sconset Casino holds hundreds of festivalgoers, many of whom are great storytellers themselves. What’s more, it was hosted by hilarious-author Jonathan Ames, and kicked off with a few words from Ben Stiller. Sarah Silverman and Zack Galifinakis were in the row behind me. I suffered anxiously through seven largely scatological-themed stories (including five brilliant minutes from Ms. Silverman) before finally hearing my name. Before I knew it, there I was telling a roomful of strangers that included Brian Williams, Chris Matthews, and “Little Miss Sunshine” screenwriter Jonathan Arndt how the shame of reading an ex-girlfriend’s New York Times tell-all essay helped change my life. I kind think I killed it not because I was funny or raunchy, but because I was vulnerable and honest. Afterwards, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews shook my hand and said, “Nice story!”

#5: The Brotherhood. Chris and I ran a quick 10k on Friday afternoon to shake off pre-show jitters. A few hundred yards into Madaket Road, I burst out, “Dude! We did it!” From our “Morning Coffee With…” conversation to our Plum TV interview to our brief sashay down the red carpet, we shared numerous pinch-me moments. The most poignant brotherly moment for me by far was his response to one audience member’s inquiry, “What one thing did you learn about your brother while making this film?” “That he never gives up,” Christofer said. “He always believed, and always persisted.”

#4: Local journalist and Man About Town Gene Mahon has been championing “Mister Rogers & Me” since discovering it himself during last fall’s Kickstarter campaign. As an NFF Advisor, he flagged the film for festival directors when it otherwise may have slipped through the cracks. Gene’s daily newsletter is a must-read for anyone wishing to stay in the know about Nantucket on or off island. His Friday afternoon edition began, “If you can only see one film in this year’s Festival [see] ‘Mister Rogers & Me.'” I was flabbergasted, thrilled, and honored. As Mister Rogers always said, “Look for the helpers.” Sometimes, thankfully, they’re looking for you too.

#3: Visiting Mister Rogers’ Crooked House. It’s been nearly nine years since I first stood on Mister Rogers’ back porch and stared out across the dune grass to Madaket Bay. On Saturday afternoon, Fred’s son, John, welcomed us back with open arms. His grandson, Ian, gave us the grand tour just as Mister Rogers had so many years prior. It was beyond words.

#2: The Premiere. Similarly beyond words were the few minutes Friday night when the lights dimmed, the Wagner Bros logo flickered onto the big screen, and our cinematic journey unspooled for an audience the first time. I smiled through tears as, beneath a beautiful, 16×9 photograph of Mister Rogers, my voice over boomed throughout the auditorium, “Spread the message, Benjamin. Spread the message.”

#1: During the Q&A after our premiere, John Rogers said, simply, “My dad would be proud.”

It was, as you can gather, an amazing, moving, meaningful weekend. Leaving felt like the end of summer camp and the day after the New York City Marathon rolled into one. I felt sad, sure. As always, though, my flight path led us out over Madaket. Looking down on The Crooked House and across that entire, magical island way out there at sea, I imagined Mister Rogers giggling his way through a sentence as he sometimes did, saying, “You did it!” Which is a pretty difficult moment to top, ever.

9 thoughts on “Top Ten Nantucket Film Festival Moments”

  1. Brian says:

    wow – that’s incredible. I wish I had been able to make it to nantucket – I’m glad it was so successful, you deserve it.

  2. Stephanie says:

    What a beautiful, well-deserved moment.

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  • Benjamin Wagner first met “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” creator and star, Fred Rogers, at Rogers’ summer home on Nantucket, Massachusetts. His mother rented the cottage next door, so Mister Rogers really was his neighbor. On the afternoon of their first meeting, “America’s Favorite Neighbor” asked the young journalist about his job as an MTV News producer.  Wagner felt exposed and a tiny-bit embarrassed, a PBS mind in a jump-cut, sound-bit MTV world. Mister Rogers said warml ...
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