On a late fall afternoon in 1994, Jonathan Burkhart was walking up Main Street on Nantucket with his friend Jonathan Larson, a talented screenwriter who had just put the finishing touches on what would become one of the most celebrated productions in Broadway history, RENT. The two writers had been in a heated discussion all day about the poor state of American cinema. “The industry had been consumed by sex, drugs and car crashes. There was no good screenwriting out there.” While in the throes of conversation on Main Street, Larson and Burkhart bumped into Ben Stiller, a longtime Nantucket friend and fellow screenwriter equally frustrated with the state of Hollywood. Their discussion would serve as the seeds of the Nantucket Film Festival, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this week.
Before the festival, we caught up with Jonathan Burkhart for his thoughts on this year’s festivities.
N MAGAZINE: How did your sister Jill become involved in co-founding the festival with you?
BURKHART: In ’95, Jonathan Larson and I were doing this together. I think my sister thought I was a nut job, but she said, “Yeah let’s do this.” So it was me, my sister and Jonathan, but then Jonathan died in January from an aortic aneurysm, just as his show RENT exploded and became this Broadway sensation. From there forward, it was just Jill and I. We formed a small staff and raised money. Tom Scott, back then of Nantucket Nectars, was incredibly generous. He wrote a $20,000 check on a whim and said, “Here, lets make this happen.”
N MAGAZINE: At what point did you know this was going to be successful?
BURKHART: This whim of an idea just snowballed. We opened [the first festival] on a Wednesday night. And I remember waking up Thursday morning feeling exhausted from launching the night before, and my sister and I were walking into town. The first screening was at 10 A.M., and we got to the Gaslight Theater at about 8:45, and there was a line around the block for the first screening. They were there 75 minutes before the film. That was probably the greatest moment I’ve had. I’ll never forget Jill and I coming around the corner and seeing the line, and they were cheering and clapping, yelling, “Hey, you’re here! You’re here!” It was a beautiful, beautiful experience.
N MAGAZINE: How did Ben Stiller become involved?
BURKHART: My relationship with Ben goes back years and years before the festival. My sister, my brother and I essentially grew up in Nantucket. My mom and dad started coming back in the 50s, and moved here fulltime in 1970. I became friends with Jane Alexander’s son, and Jane and Ed were best friends with Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. As kids in the summertime, we all used to hangout. We were always with the Stillers, and as the years ticked on, we just knew each other from the summer.
N MAGAZINE: What do you see for the future of the Nantucket Film Festival?
BURKHART: In 1997 and ’98, they wrote an article in the Cape Cod Times and The Boston Globe asking me, “Where is this film festival going to go.” I remember now what I said and I’d still say it today: What we’re doing is what we want to do. I have no desire to take this show on the road. We’re not going to do the Nantucket Film Festival in Illinois or Tennessee or Utah. It’s natural to keep it a Nantucket-based thing. Each June is all I want to keep doing. The only thing beyond that is that we have this screenplay competition, which has gone well.
N MAGAZINE: Can you tell us more about the competition?
BURKHART: We have an amazing relationship with John Johnson and the Screenwriters Colony, which has become this center for continued education and nurturing writers. That’s what I really want to grow. We started that in ’97 or ’98 and its just gone gangbusters since then. That’s the one thing I want to focus on is growing the Screenwriters Colony and its educational program to other months in the offseason.
N MAGAZINE: Why is it important that the Nantucket Film Festival is a screenwriters festival?
BURKHART: Back then, 20 some odd years ago, I had an awareness that a lot of the movies being released were built at a marketing department, crunching numbers, saying we could put more butts in seats if we add more ass-kicking and car chasing and things that blow up. Now mind you that’s nothing new; it’s not like Jonathan Burkhart came in with this awareness when I was in my twenties. I’ve known that now for decades, but I had the awareness and thought, if more time and energy was put into writing and the writers, we could have a better product to engage an audience. We need to focus on the writer. The writer should be at the forefront. The writer should be the person who presents our movies, which is the way it is today, you know, the writer is the king.