Ebertfest emcee Chaz Ebert said she and her husband, Roger, wanted to start out the first day of his 14th annual film festival with a lot of laughs.
"We decided not to make you cry the first day," she said.
They succeeded with the first three movies:
— "Joe Versus the Volcano," a 1990 fantasy-comedy directed and written by John Patrick Shanley, the playwright who would go on to write "Doubt," the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award winner for best play.
"Joe" stars a young, svelte Tom Hanks — before he became Tom Hanks, one festival-goer commented — and Meg Ryan, displaying some of the best acting of her career as three different characters.
— The 13-minute video, "The Truth about Beauty and Blogs," starring the upcoming actress, writer and producer Kelechi Ezie, who is at the festival, which ends Sunday.
— "Phunny Business: A Black Comedy," a lighthearted yet serious look at the birth and demise of All Jokes Aside, a black-owned and -operated comedy club in Chicago where many, if not most, of the major African-American standup comics got their start.
Appearing Wednesday night as guest with "Joe Versus the Volcano" was the distinguished cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, director of photography. He has directed at least 31 movies; his career is "amazingly eclectic," Associated Press movie critic Christy Lemire said on the Virginia Theatre stage after "Joe" was screened.
The British-born Goldblatt, who lives in Los Angeles, refused to "tell tales" on his industry colleagues. He did say that the favorite movie he worked on was "The Help," released last year.
"It was such a collaboration, a wonderful experience between the director Tate Taylor and myself," Goldblatt said. "He was a first-time director, and the subject matter was dear to my heart."
The movie, based on a novel of the same title by Kathryn Stockett, tells of an aspiring female author in the Deep South during the ‘60s civil rights movement who decides to write a book from the African-American maids’ point of view on the white families for whom they work.
He said the crew for "The Help" felt, while making the movie, that it would be something special. They shot the 150-page script over 58 days in temperatures reaching 110 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit.
"No one died," Goldblatt quipped.
The cast, he said, did scenes in two takes.
"It was really something," he said of the movie once it was released. "It began to build and then we showed it in Chicago and people went crazy."
Goldblatt also mentioned "Angels in America," directed by Mike Nichols for a 2003 HBO miniseries.
"I probably can’t beat that in terms of subject matter and direction," he said.
Playwright Tony Kushner adapted his original text for "Angels." Set in 1985, the made-for-TV movie tells the story of two couples whose relationships disintegrate in the context of Reagan era politics, the AIDS epidemic and a changing social and political climate.
Emma Thompson famously played an angel in that production. To show her in flight, Goldblatt joked that he used "smoke." He also said Thompson sat on a bicycle seat during the flight scenes; , she said after the filming that she did not have sex for six months, Goldblatt said..
About "Joe Versus the Volcano," the cinematographer said the most difficult aspect of making it was shooting the ocean scenes with Hanks and Ryan. They used, on an old Columbia lot, a full-scale yacht and two huge water tanks that covered an area four times the size of the main floor of the Virginia Theatre, he said.
Goldblatt said he and others working on "Joe" felt they had something special too, though the fantasy-drama turned out to be overlooked by movie-goers, Ebert has said.
"It made its costs but it wasn’t wildly popular," Goldblatt said. Asked why, he replied, "Beats me."
Goldblatt did tell one tale about the making of "Joe." He said Shanley was once being interviewed about the movie when a publicist told him he couldn’t answer a certain question. Shanley replied he was an American and could reply to the query. He fired the publicist on the spot.
Goldblatt said it’s not difficult to shoot in different cinematic styles, as he has done over his long career, which started with him as a "solitary" newspaper photographer when he was in his late teens. He enjoys the collaborative aspect of filmmaking, mentioning it more than once during the onstage discussion with Lemire and Brazilian film critic Pablo Villaca.
"What’s difficult is to bring unity to it, to work with the director," Goldblatt said of shooting a movie.
The print of "Joe Versus the Volcano" that was shown Wednesday evening at Ebertfest was a digital cinematic master from the original 35mm print, Goldblatt said. He praised the projection by James Bond, saying "what you see is far better than how we made it."