2022 Phoenix Film Festival Interview: Jason Carney

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Not to brag, but CODA opened The Phoenix Film Festival last year and now it’s a Best Picture nominee. How will PFF top itself in 2022? Festival executive director Jason Carney has the answers.

Q: Only six months ago, we were talking about CODA. Now Mesa native Troy Kotsur is in a prime position to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film could also win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. When the film played at PFF 2021, did you expect CODA to go so far?

JC: You know, I really love the film, and it’s a tough road for a film that opens in August to make a push for Oscars, particularly coming from Apple – who hasn’t been in the film business for that long. And so, for them to hit it out of the park. We really love the film. I’m not surprised that everybody else is loving the film, but I’m shocked and proud at just how great the film is doing on the awards circuit. And they deserve it. Having Troy at that screening at the festival last year was one of my favorite memories in recent years.

Q: CODA set the bar pretty high for opening night films. What can you tell me about this year’s opening film, Cha Cha Real Smooth?

JC: You know, we went back to the well because last year we had an Apple movie that won the Sundance Audience Award. So, we figured, hey, let’s do that again this year. And so, Cha Cha Real Smooth comes from Apple and it won the Audience Award at Sundance. We’re really excited about it. It’s kind of a little bit of coming of age with a young 20-year-old. It’s got a great cast, and a movie with a lot of heart again. I’m not saying that it’s the next CODA, but I think it’s still like, the kind of movie you want to open a film festival with… a film that’s going to make our audience happy. And then we’ll show them a few movies over the next eleven days that may make them a little sad. (Haha)

Q: Can what can you tell me about this year’s closing night film, Montana Story? It’s gotten a lot of positive word of mouth since premiering at TIFF.

JC: Yeah, it premiered at Toronto. It’s gorgeous and Haley Lu Richardson’s performance is really strong. And I think that she’s an actress who’s got a good feeling. She’s had some good roles, and she’s come along, and she’s always done – you know – they weren’t high-brow movies (a lot of them), but she was always good in them. And she’s in After Yang, which we’re showing, and then Montana Story. Also, Montana Story is gorgeous. The cinematography is just amazing and you can’t go wrong with the big sky country. And We’re going to show that movie in the Ciné Capri, and I’m sure you know how giant that screen is.

Q: You have some high-profile films lined up this year, including The Duke with Helen Mirren, The Phantom of the Open with Mark Rylance, After Yang with Colon Farrell, and The Unbreakable Weight of Massive Talent with an all-star cast. What do you think will be the most talked about film at the festival?

JC: I think it might be The Unbreakable Weight of Massive Talent. I think everything I’m hearing about this movie… people are really loving it. Enjoying the ride. And you know, it’s Nic Cage being Nic Cage as a caricature, and there’s a lot of jokes about that throughout the film.

We have a smaller film that I’ve put in one of our centerpiece spots. It’s a film called Scarborough, and it’s been winning some audience awards and other awards at festivals. It’s about these three kids who are coming from families with no money, and they’re all in different situations of being in poor families. And it’s the struggle that kids have, growing up in a system that’s set against it. It’s hard to break through and break that cycle. But kids, it shows their resiliency… It’s a really powerful movie, and dramatic, but also endearing because these kids’ performances are just amazing.

Q: Is there another under-the-radar film playing this year that you want to shine the spotlight on?

There’s this movie that I just picked up. It’s called Roise and Frank. It’s an Irish film. It’s in Gaelic. It’s about this woman whose husband had passed away and she connects with a dog. And her dog becomes her new friend, and she thinks that the dog is her husband who passed away reincarnated. And so, she has this loving connection with this dog. It’s a really nice film and audiences are really embracing it. I think that’s a sneaky one that people should check out.

Another one that I would recommend giving a look to is a movie called Sweetheart. It’s a coming-of-age, young teenager in UK just has it down, doesn’t want to talk to her parents and is grumpy. But on this family holiday, there’s this girl that’s a lifeguard, and they kind of connect. And it brings this young girl who’s real shy out of her shell, and she kind of realizes who she is. And how she deals with that with her family and falling in love with another young girl.

Q: Speaking of shells, one of the most unique-looking films playing is Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, which started as a stop-motion short starring Jenny Slate. Now it’s A24’s first family-friendly feature. Is it as wonderfully weird as it looks?

JC: You know, I have not seen it, which is great. I’ve seen the clips and I have the screener to watch. I just haven’t had a chance to watch it. Sometimes you go in blind. A24 says, “Hey we have this film for you,” you just say, “yes,” because they rarely go wrong. And if they go wrong, it’s still interesting as hell… The interesting thing about it is that we’re playing it Saturday night at 7:30. So, it’s not necessarily just for families. If you’ve seen the clips, you know they’re humorous even for adults. And so, I think it’s a crossover to all ages like a Pixar movie.

Q: Due to COVID, last year’s festival was pushed back to August. What there every talk of making August the permanent month to hold PFF, or was the plan always to go back to spring?

JC: The plan was always to go back to spring. Certainly, it’s a challenge to go from one festival to another. August to late-March, early April, that’s a really fast turnaround. We’re looking at like 7 months. And really, if you go back to 2020 when we did it in November, we’re basically going 3 film festivals in 17 months, which is exhausting, I’ll tell you. But we’re on track and I think it speaks to how remarkable our team is, from the programmers to the ticketing people, they’re in it to win it… August is WAY too hot to have a film festival. It worked, it was fine, I think we had a great festival, but man I do not want to walk around in 110 degrees weather.

Q: What can you tell me about this year’s community spotlight?

We’ve added a couple more categories. This is, I think, our fourth year with the spotlight category. And so, this year, we added competitive categories for the LGBTQIA+ group, and the Asian-American Pacific Islander feature and shorts. We really wanted to grow this program… Having all of these different spotlight shorts and feature films, getting the vision, seeing the vision, from African-American, Lantinx, Native-American, and all the other groups we have in that category, I really think kind of makes us better people. You know what I mean? It’s great to see films about those communities, but have them told through the eyes of those directors who are from communities, adds a little extra element to it. It helps see their perspective, even if they’re not making films about their community. We’re still seeing the world through their eyes, and I think that’s a big deal.

The 2022 Phoenix Film Festival takes place from March 31 to April 10. Click here for tickets and more details.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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