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Filmmakers get front-row seat in Kilgore

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Visiting filmmakers toured Kilgore on the last day of the first Reel East Texas Film Festival, collecting pictures, videos and ideas.

“This is very interesting to see how Kilgore is and began an oil town, even just to see the college here… It’s just fascinating, just the history of the place,” Mike Vezza, visiting filmmaker from New Jersey, said. “It’s brilliant. Absolutely love it.”

The tour began at the East Texas Oil Museum and continued throughout town with stops near the historic homes, the Kilgore Public Library, the roof of Citizens Bank and Synergy Park and Elder Lake.

“I love history, so this is really interesting,” Vezza continued. “It’s beautiful, too.”

As Cheryl Allison, producer of the RETFF-winning “Far From the Tree” short film, walked in Synergy Park near Elder Lake, she said, “You could shoot a film out here and not have to use any artificial light, unless you needed it for a nighttime shot. It’s gorgeous.”

One of the city’s goals when they received the film-friendly designation from the Texas Film Commission was to bring filmmakers to town, which would in turn have a positive economic impact on the community.

Over the course of the three-day festival last week, 400 sat through films in the Texan Theater -- including 46 out-of-towners representing 19 films. A 20th film was represented Saturday night when “Daughters of the Curved Moon” filmmaker Sophie Dia Pegrum visited with the audience via Skype in the Texan.

“They really helped put Kilgore on the map,” Kilgore Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Morris said about Reel East Texas Film Festival. “All of the filmmakers I’ve talked to have been so enthused by what we have to offer and one even stated we’re a perfect Hallmark channel community. I love that,” she said. “We’ve heard that a couple of times from other filmmakers who’ve come through.”

When Rodrigo Moreno and Mario Jimenez Diaz, filmmakers of “The Whole,” drove into town from Brownsville, they had no idea what to expect and wondered what kind of community they would find in Kilgore.

Even though this was the first year for Reel East Texas Film Festival, Moreno said, they did not miss a beat making sure they would be in Kilgore when their movie was screened.

“It’s amazing. We love the town,” he said. “We love the ambiance. We love the people here. For us, it’s very fortunate to be here.”

Having now spent some time in Kilgore and the community, Moreno said, he and Diaz have been eyeing Kilgore for an upcoming project.

“Every place has its uniqueness. This one I think is more welcoming, more cozy, more nostalgic, if I can use that word. Very cinematic also,” he said. “If people are looking for this type of location, it’s a good idea that you guys have a film festival here because a lot of the filmmakers will come and see the buildings and they’ll say, ‘OK, well that scene I can shoot it here in Kilgore,’ just like we were. We filmed our movie in Brownsville, so we were looking for kind of a fisherman’s town, something like that, something that has a little bit of structure there, so we find those places. But now that we’re filming another one in December and it calls for a little bit more nostalgic settings, we might think of Kilgore now, to come and shoot and bring all of our crews and all of our people here.”

Nostalgic is the word Moreno used to describe Kilgore, noting even the train passing behind the Texan Theater before, during and after the films added to that feel.

“When it passes you kind of feel nostalgic at that time of day when everything was quiet, everything was simpler, not too much noise,” he said.

The best thing about attending film festivals across the country is the people who get to see the film.

“The worst thing that can happen to a filmmaker is do a movie and nobody watches,” Moreno said. “Every time that we get accepted to a film festival, we’re always grateful because they’re going to see our movie.”

What makes this festival even better, he said, is the screening location in the Texan Theater.

“It’s a beautiful theater. Every time that we’re in a setting like this we feel very honored because if you just imagine the kind of movies that were shown there, and to be able to say I was screened at the same theater as ‘The Duke’ was shown or as Ingrid Birdman may have shown some of movies there,” Moreno said. “It’s always an honor. That’s why we like old theaters like that where we can have something in common with the greatest filmmakers in the world.”

Their experience in so many film festivals helps Moreno know when the community supports a project, such as RETFF. He doesn’t see that everywhere, but he felt it in Kilgore during the three-day festival.

“That’s important because sometimes you go to a place and they don’t even know that there’s a film festival going on,” he said. “This feels like they’ve really spread the word around. As a filmmaker you want to go to a place where people are in tune with the project. Sometimes you get there and like, ‘Oh OK, thank you for coming,’ or whatever and you don’t feel at home.”

When a community is welcoming and helpful, Moreno said, that is when filmmakers want to invest in the community.

“Let’s say you want to go somewhere else, and they give you a bunch of hassle there that you cannot shoot here or nobody helps you around… They don’t care for you, but when the town is welcoming, when the people are helpful and everything, that’s when you want to bring your crew and spend a little bit of money on the place. We’re seriously thinking of bringing some of the scenes over on the next one.”

Moreno and Diaz are not the only filmmakers looking at Kilgore for upcoming projects.

Allison, based in Dallas, also checked out filming locations while here, seeing the different locations on the tour.

“We have a feature film – a script – that is now in development that David has written, I am hoping to produce, and I talked to [festival director Chip Hale] about it a little bit, and he said, ‘Whatever you need, come to Kilgore. We will help you.’ That’s an incredible feeling for somebody to say that,” she said. “As a producer, for someone to say, ‘We’ll help you. We’ll do whatever we can to help whatever you need.’ That’s priceless.”

She felt the same kindness “The Whole” filmmakers experienced, also.

“The Southern hospitality here is almost overwhelming. It’s just really wonderful,” she said. “We had brunch today at one of the local stores, and of course we had to buy things in there, including these earrings I just bought. Everybody, this staff for this film festival, the volunteers, you can’t walk in without somebody smiling at you and asking ‘Do you need something? I’m here to help you.’ That’s sometimes not always the case at film festivals. You can get kind of lost in the crowd or they don’t open it up like this.”

David Kear, writer of “Far From the Tree,” liked the participation the film festival had from the broader community, including city leaders such as Mayor Ronnie Spradlin and City Manager Josh Selleck.

“This town is very much encouraging filmmakers to come here and film, which is great for economic development of the town. It is smart economics for the city to encourage filmmakers and other artists to come do their work here,” he said. “You create an environment, and the artists are able to contribute and bring in resources to benefit the town. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, and not every town is open to that.”

Sometimes, community members or city leaders can make filmmakers feel they're an imposition or a burden in a city or town when they film, Allison said. The helpfulness everyone has shown here, though, proves the community and leadership want to support filmmakers bringing their projects to town.

The work put in by film festival organizers did not go unnoticed either.

“It’s remarkable to me that this is its first year,” Kear said. “It doesn’t feel like a first-year festival. It feels much more mature. I’m so pleased for them… It’s really successful for a first year.”

The details of the festival added to the experience for filmmakers, including the Reel Lounge in the Old U.S. Post Office – the Kilgore History and Art Center – and the events of brunches and the guided tour with Spradlin, Kilgore Tourism Manager Ryan Polk and Kilgore News Herald publisher Bill Woodall.

“The quality of films is really high standards, and that’s not always the case,” she said. “The screening venue is really great… That’s amazing that they have thought it through and they’ve also given us this wonderful filmmaker lounge so filmmakers can get together and network because we also make connections and we form more friends and our community of filmmakers by coming and meeting each other, supporting each other’s films. It’s all good.”

Tyler Barnes, representing the RETFF award-winning film “The Trip: Mountains and Manhood,” said he would have thought the festival had been going on for 10 years when he walked in.

“I think as filmmakers we feel appreciated and welcomed, and there’s a specialty to it,” he said.

RETFF marked the last festival for “The Trip” on the 2017 circuit, and executive producer Caleb Voth rated it as the best he and Barnes have attended.

“The second we walked in, we were like, this is a place that cares about filmmakers, that cares about films… We were almost not going to come just for timing, and I’m so happy we did because just the city, it’s been extraordinary.”

The duo for “The Trip” also announced during the film’s talkback session following the screening that the film had been picked up for distribution by the Outdoor Channel with a TV series to follow in 2018.

Thursday night’s screenings were only interrupted once to allow filmmakers and community members to take in the annual Derrick Lighting ceremony downtown.

“We don’t have anything like this; I’m from up north, Jersey. I think it’s awesome,” Vezza said. “We light Christmas trees up there, we don’t light derricks. I thought that was very cool.”

Kear applauded the organizers on a successful festival and noted the maturity level is well beyond a first-year festival.

“This is the kind of festival that I want to go tell other filmmakers about and say you should definitely check out Kilgore,” Kear said.

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