A Little History

When an event is too good to let fade out, sometimes a hiatus or revamp is just the thing needed to revitalize it. Returning after a multi-year break, the Flagler Film Festival was no less exciting in 2023 as it was the very first year in 2014.

I’ve covered the Flagler Film Festival every year since inception and it never fails to put a tingle in my toes thinking about what may show up on the big screen.

Conceived by Kathie and James Barry alongside Orion Christy in 2013, it was the coolest thing to hit Flagler in … forever. Kathie and James’ connection to real life filmmakers stemmed from their talented son Kevin Barry whose early work included ‘Serena and The Ratts’. It was awesome. My kid still has the movie poster.

Following the Barry’s story and connecting each year as it grew closer to the festival, it was so exciting to hear about where the entries were coming from and what kind of submissions they were because it seemed to shape the whole vibe.

Some years it seemed like Hollywood was dropping in with entries like ‘Animals’ featuring David Dastmalchain from Dune and The Dark Knight fame, while ‘Lawman’ included Lance Reddick from the John Wick trilogy, and ‘Miami Love Affair’ brought Burt Reynolds to the Flagler silver screen. Production credits read big names like Phillip Seymour Hoffman of The Hunger Games series, and even ‘Kevin Can Wait’ comedian Chris Roach made an appearance with a music video.

Other years it was local with cool entries from the Orlando film crowd reigning supreme – Scott Mena, Dale Metz, and TL Westgate were kings of the castle.

From all of this has spawned movies I can never forget.  From the beautiful documentary ‘Coastal Dune Lakes’, to the international psychological thriller ‘You Go To My Head’, these masterpieces have stuck with me as favorites.

When Kathie and James had to take a break a few years ago, I kept a spark of hope the festival would return. Putting on a film festival as volunteers is a lot of work and with family things to take care of, a break was just what they needed. Meanwhile, author turned filmmaker Tim Baker and film and television pro, executive producer Stephanie Mazzeo teamed up as Blinddogg Productions. Reaching out to Kathie and James, it was the perfect fit to help resurrect this treasured festival.

Fast forward to this past weekend, and it was awesome.

The creativity. The movies. The filmmakers, cast, directors, producers, writers, all who could be there, filtered in and out throughout the weekend, listening to the audience’s reaction, participating in Q&A sessions and seeing their work actually screened at a film festival, some for the first time.

That’s the beauty of a film festival.

While there were about 80 entries, half were selected to be shown. And from those 40 something films, was a mix of pros and amateurs. A really good film festival doesn’t just screen a film based on a well-known name. It’s selected on the quality of the work, the story, the cinematography. It levels the playing field and inspires people in the industry to level up and dream big.

The Big Winner

Sure film noir ‘D.O.A.’ won a handful of the festival’s awards and is sweeping the Florida film festival circuit. (Flagler Film Festival 2023 Best: Overall Festival, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Best in Florida, received by Emma Keating, producer, editor D.O.A.)

Kurt St. Thomas is good at what he does and he has years of practice. Stacking the cast with a roster of seasoned actors like John Byner, Annie Gaybis and John Doe, combined with the musical skills of Seattle-based, Korean composer Jaimee Park, the team understood St. Thomas’s vision, and delivered.

“That’s what I told her I want it to be like Hitchcock, I want it to be like Bernard Herman, I want it to be classic. Can you do this? She’s like, yeah. I gave her one scene. Two days later she just sent it back, and I was like, I don’t even understand how you did this. She’s just like incredible. I think she’s a prodigy,” shared St. Thomas of the film’s soundtrack.

(Note: Cool kids of a certain generation, Matt Pinfield, from MTV’s 120 Minutes, has a pretty hefty role in the movie.)

Flagler Film Festival co-producers Tim Baker and Stephanie Mazzeo with D.O.A. director Kurt St. Thomas. @FlaglerNewsWeekly

But one of the most interesting parts of it all was the genuine enthusiasm St. Thomas had when talking about the film during the audience Q&A. If you didn’t know, you would think it was his very first film entry judging by his humble excitement.

And then there’s John Byner. Watching him work is as bad ass as it comes. Smooth and ruthless, his character is all you could hope for from a talent like his. Sitting discreetly in the back of the room, screening D.O.A. with wife and co-star Annie Gaybis, and grandson Stephen Klinker, the couple was open and generous about their performances.

“It’s wonderful to be part of the film and we’ve met some wonderful people doing it,” said Byner, who credits having time to prepare.

Actress Annie Gaybis, Actor John Byner @FlaglerNewsWeekly

“It’s wonderful to have that time to go in and study it, to think about it, how you want t deliver that line. The thing that really pleased me the most is that after I got through with the thing in the steam room, John Doe, Bigelow, the star of the show came up to me and said ‘it’s so great to work with a pro’, I thought that was wonderful to hear,” he said.

“John Doe said, ‘I was so happy you just talked to me in that room, you didn’t yell at me’ and I said, ‘I figured the character and thought about how I’d do it, he’s got the world at his feet, why should I yell at anybody?’, so I just talked to him,” said Byner with a chuckle.

Gaybis found her inspiration in an actress she had long admired.

“I watched the original and I didn’t get much of a characterization from Mrs. Phillips, just that she was lovely,” said Gaybis.

“So I watched the rest of the film, read the script, the original with Edmond O’Brien and then read the script and thought about it a lot. And then I thought about the film John Cassavedes had done and I thought about his wife Gena Rowlands who I had always admired and the way she did her characters, these strong women, beautiful but strong women, and that’s what I tried to project.”

Shorts and feature films of all genres dominated the weekend.

Friday night took audiences on an odyssey through Washington-based writer Chris Taylor’s ‘Martingale’. The 2023 Best Mystery winner opened the floodgates for audiences to the moral dilemma of revenge and the reality of destruction a parent faces after the loss of a child to overdose.

Writer and director Oswmer Louis also kept audiences in suspense with ‘Keep Digging’ modeled after a true-to-life story.

“My film is essentially about two neighbors and a car accident that causes a dispute between them. One of the neighbors’ son dies in the accident. It’s really a short film about grief and the dad doesn’t want to take any action or revenge but his family pushes him to take revenge. In the end he does have to make a decision,” said Louis.

Blindogg Productions executive producer Stephanie Mazzeo and filmmaker Scott Mena. @FlaglerNewsWeekly

“For me the inspiration was actually a story up in New York about John Gotti, the mobster. His son actually was killed in a dirt bike accident with one of his neighbors. I kind of took that and ran with it, what if there was actual internal conflict,” he said, picking up the win for 2023 Best Dark Drama.

Screening the rock n’ roll documentary ‘Gridlocked: On Tour with The Briggs’, filmmaker Kevin Barry captured a raw look at self-examination and the definition of success through the eyes of lead singer Joey LaRocca, spanning nearly 10 years of footage.

“They’re very professional and all get along well so I pushed the story more toward Joey’s inner struggle with the creativity of being a musician and trying to figure out his path in life,” said Barry.

“Joey’s an interesting character because he did have a successful run with this band, much more successful than 99.9 percent of other bands can expect to have. They toured all over the world and played shows with some of the biggest acts in the industry, on the punk scene. But he’s an artist with an artist’s spirit of always wanting more, to make more of himself and the results he can put out in the world, and I think that was the most fascinating thing I got out of the interviews with him. I identified with that. When do you ever get to say that what you’ve done is enough?”

Filmmaker Michael Robert Kessler and Kristin Kessler. @FlaglerNewsWeekly

Dark humor was injected into the night on Sunday with the internal/external cupcake thriller ‘Panic. Attack’, and the I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-saw suspension of reality western flick ‘New West’ closed the block after Florida filmmaker Michael Robert Kessler treated audiences to an eye popping portrayal of a cheese and cookie filled psychotic break in ‘It’s Sunny Outside’.

“Inspiration … just family,” said Kessler, drawing laughs during the Q&A.

“Just being around people you love. You’re around family, around friends and people just f*****g annoy you, and repeat themselves. Especially repeating themselves and you hear the same stories over and over. Just a play on that, to exaggerate,” he said.

Kessler’s portrayal was good enough to nab him the 2023 Best Dark Comedy award.

From the Heart

Whether it’s 2015’s ‘My Father’s Vietnam’ (screened in 2016), or the 2017 Red Bull sponsored ‘Blood Road’ (screened in 2018), the festival traditionally has a documentary that connects deeply with the heart. This year, ‘Captain Scott B and the Great Adventure’ captured the story of Betsy Bertram’s journey to come to terms with the passing of her larger-than-life father.

Producer, Editor Emma Keating (right) accepts the award for 2023 Best Overall for D.O.A. at the Flagler Film Festival from Blindogg Productions organizers Stephanie Mazzeo, Tim Baker and Todd Williamson. @FlaglerNewsWeekly
The team from Panic. Attack. enjoy a red carpet moment. @FlaglerNewsWeekly
‘Keep Digging’ producer Brittany Tod and Bethany Bertram, ‘Captain Scott B and the Great Adventure’. @FlaglerNewsWeekly

Traveling from North Carolina to attend the film festival, Bertram hopes her story will help others heal as they process their own experiences with grief.

“I would love for it to be a healing experience for people who watch it and for it be an inspiration to recon with whatever griefs they have experienced in their lives,” she said.

Actress Annie Gaybis chats with filmmaker Kevin James Barry. @FlaglerNewsWeekly

Familiar faces returned to either submit a film or attend screenings. It was good to see Kathie and James Barry at the festival, catching up after what only seemed like a short time, but has really been four years.

“I am beyond happy that the festival was a success and the new team has done an admirable job bringing the festival back after our absence,” she said.

“I can’t say how much it means to me to continue to help filmmakers get their work seen by an audience and get the recognition that their talents so richly deserve. As a founder of the festival almost 10 years ago, it means so much to me that it is up and running again, and we had such terrific films to screen for our wonderful audience.”

Co-organizer Stephanie Mazzeo says next year’s festival is definitely a go, and they’ll be checking the calendar to find the best fit for the Flagler Film Festival.

“We’re planning for next year already,” she said.

See the 2023 Winner’s List Here

2023 Flagler Film Festival Interviews/Recaps:

Day One -Tim Baker, Nancy Crouch, Martingale Writer/Producer Chris Taylor

Day Two – D.O.A. Director Kurt St. Thomas

Day Three – Winners 

2023 Flagler Film Festival winners pause for a red carpet moment. @FlaglerNewsWeekly