Stephen R. Lawson, 73 of Williamstown
Founded Williamstown Film Festival
By: Charles Giuliano - Feb 15, 2023
Stephen R. Lawson, 73, a longtime resident of Williamstown died on February 7, 2023, of natural causes.
In varying capacities he was an associate of the Williamstown Theatre Festival for some five decades. For 13 years he curated the Williamstown Film Festival which was produced at Images Cinema and MASS MoCA.
Steve graduated from Williams College in 1971 with a BA in English, and from Yale University School of Drama in 1976 with an MFA in Drama. At Williams, he was an active participant in Cap & Bells, receiving the Gilbert Gabriel award, and began his long association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
As founder of the Williamstown Film Festival he brought independent films and documentaries to the Berkshires, along with established and emerging actors, writers, and directors.
He wrote for television, including St. Elsewhere and The Dick Cavett Show, nationally for publications as diverse as the New York Times, Travel and Leisure and Saturday Review.
We much anticipated the intimate annual film festival. It was always exciting to get up close and personal with the talent that he lured to town. Curating the festival was a full time activity with help from a handful of friends. Joe Finnegan headed the board and artist Stephen Hannock hand crafted the annual awards.
On March 6, 2011 he shared thoughts regarding the upcoming festival.
Charles Giuliano You showed two Oscar winners at WFF last fall. God of Love for Best Short Film by Luke Matheny and Melissa Leo appeared in a moving film with a 9/11 theme Space Between. The other night we enjoyed the final episode of a Masterpiece Theatre series Any Human Heart in which Kim Cattrall appeared. She was in your remarkable film Meet Monica Velour last year.
Steve Lawson Of course the year before she was here in Frozen River. Some years you’re in tune with the zeitgeist. God of Love I thought was just so funny when I first saw it. It was very appropriate for WFF and people got a kick out of it. You never know when something will be Oscar eligible and then go all the way to the award. Luke is only 26 and it was his thesis film for NYU. I know that he is planning to make a feature but I don’t know if it will be a feature version of God of Love. I don’t know if he has a whole new project but winning an Academy Award will get people interested in him, no question. He’s charming and has a great sense of humor. He has great looks. That line during the Oscars “I think I should have gotten a haircut” was terrific. But then we wouldn’t recognize you. You’re the white guy with the Afro. He just has that look and he shouldn’t loose it.
CG There is such a limited market and financial potential for short films.
SL Which is why festivals are so important. It’s where they get seen. During the second year that we were doing short films we had a rather bleak New York based film. I went out in the lobby and a woman was near tears. I thought we had screwed up the sound or something. I realized she was actually happy and I asked what the matter was. She said “Steve this is the first time I have seen my movie on a big screen.” Then I almost lost it as you can’t ask for better praise than that. You give someone the chance to get out of the editing room to see their work in a theatre with real people. There’s nothing like it. Luke winning an Oscar is going to open some doors for him. Look how many people watch the Oscars. Sometimes it’s like watching a train wreck. People are always interested in new talent particularly when people come off as charmingly as Luke did. When you win a big award like that people want to know you and your work and perhaps they will write you a check.
CG For the selection about how many short films did you see?
SL At least 400 or at least parts of all of them. That’s fairly typical. I’m sure it’s true for Kelly down at BIFF (Berkshire International Film Festival). In the festival last year we showed 27 short films.
CG Of the 27 films the audience voted to give God of Love the Reeve award. It says something for your eye in selecting the film and the sophistication of the audience to vote for the film that went on to win an Oscar.
SL The award is only five years old. People have taken it seriously from the word go. They watch and they vote and are sure to turn in the ballots. People come back and say I forgot to turn in the ballot. They feel that they have a hand in the process. The award is actually an art work created by Stephen Hannock. There’s a picture of Chris and Dana Reeve on one side, with a cancelled Williamstown Film Festival envelope on the front. Once we know who has won we insert who it goes to. It’s a very unusual prize. I don’t think many festivals give an original work of art that is created for the occasion. Because Brian Dennehy was up, as well as Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin, Stephen made one for each of them as well. I joke to the recipients that you may be poor but your name is on it so you can’t sell it.
CG The performance of Melissa Leo in The Space Between created a nice reference and preview for her work in The Fighter. She thrives on portraying very tough and complex women.
SL I tried to have her come last year but particularly after Frozen River she is always in demand. I talked with Trevor, the guy we had on the screen in Skype from Indianapolis. A long distance Q&A. That was a first and it worked. I know that Space Between has found a distributor so it has been picked up. It will be out at some point. What’s courageous about her is that she’s not afraid to be unattractive or occasionally dislikeable. Look at her character in The Fighter. She’s terrifying especially as the matriarch of the family from hell.
CG When interviewing women I have gotten in trouble for asking questions about their age and physical appearance. Those are questions one would not hesitate to ask a man. It has to do with the craft and how one takes those attributes as a part of what an actor or actresses projects into a role.
In the 1954 film The High and the Mighty there was a scene when the glamorous actress Jan Sterling took off her makeup to reveal her true self. It was a riveting moment in the film which shocked audiences. In that era it was unique to have a woman drop the mask. During WFF we were similarly surprised by scenes of a paunchy, middle aged, out of shape Kim Cattrall in Meet Monica Velour. It was consistent with the character and one had an enormous respect for Cattrall to allow herself to be so vulnerable before the camera. Since her role in the TV series Sex in the City her stature as an actress has grown enormously. She has made appearances on PBS in Masterpiece Theatre. Today, she is one of the most interesting actors of her generation which was underscored by her WFF appearance last year.
SL The reason she didn’t attend the festival was that she was in Liverpool appearing in Antony and Cleopatra. So many people only know her from Sex in the City which is ridiculous because that is just one single side of her. Kim is a many-faceted actress. In Monica Velour she gained weight for the part. She saw it as a challenge. It’s a cliché but when actresses get to a certain age there aren’t as many parts for them. You must be daring, bold and willing to expose yourself in whatever way. If you come across a well written part it doesn’t matter if it’s not sympathetic, ugly, dislikeable or whatever. If it’s well written it’s a good part. You can make it very powerful on the screen. Meryl has done it as have Kim and Melissa.
CG For a small bucolic festival in rural Western Massachusetts it seems that WFF has had an impact and legacy far beyond its scale.
SL It’s not just about scale it’s about what happens within that scale. There are large enterprises. There are film festivals that make a fetish of volume. But it’s about quality and more is not necessarily better. It is obviously gratifying to me personally that some of the films and artists we have presented are earning Oscars and professional recognition. It has happened before and we have shown films that were nominated but didn’t win. Like West Bank Story. It won in 2006 and we showed it in 2005. It’s a parody of West Side Story set on the Gaza Strip. It won for live action short film the same category as God of Love. It’s very funny. A Palestinian cashier falls in love with an Israeli security guard and they burst into song at the slightest opportunity. She is worried about her family and he says let me come to your balcony tonight and sing an overly long dramatic song.
CG You regularly attend the Sundance Festival. Have you found anything you plan to present at the next WFF?
SL Nothing yet. The problem is you have to wait and see what films will be picked up for distribution. There are several in consideration but they can’t commit to a festival until they know when they are going to be released. There have been several titles I wanted in recent years but they opened before us. So we couldn’t do them which is a shame. We also attend Tribeca Film Festival which is a good source. It’s in May. In addition to festivals we also get a lot of films submitted to us. Last year we had about eight or ten from Sundance, maybe twelve from Tribeca, and the rest were all submissions. So of the 35 films we showed it was a pretty even split.
I start watching submissions at the end of this month. There are several from Sundance I have my eye on and we’ll have to see how that pans out. I’ll see what’s up in Tribeca. By August I start to pin down the selections.
CG How much do you get to see in a festival like Sundance?
SL At Sundance I saw 27 films in five days. That’s about fifteen to twenty percent of what is shown. That’s a good chunk but you physically can’t see everything. I have what is known as an express pass for the second half of the festival. What it means is that you have this expensive pass around your neck and you don’t have to buy tickets. You can walk in and see anything. Which is great. If you really hate something you can walk out. I’m not press so I don’t get anything free. One of the major expenses of my job is to go every year to other festivals. I make out a schedule which I then revise about ten or twelve times before I go. Then I revise it when I’m there.
The reason why I go to the second half of Sundance is because on Saturday, the second to last day, they announce all the award winners. The only films shown on Sunday, the last day, are the award winners. Invariably some of them I’ve missed on the previous days. I get a chance to catch up. That’s when I saw Precious and Frozen River. For about a week Precious was going to be the opener for WFF. That was 2009 but the producers couldn’t guarantee that anyone from the film could be here so I had to drop it. It was a painful decision but part of the point of the festival is that somebody is here otherwise you are just seeing a movie. You want the back story, the budget, the anecdotes. That’s what makes an interesting festival. This will be our 13th October 21 to 30.