Sarasota Film Festival concludes with awards and red-carpet ceremony


Steve Guttenberg - CAMERON MEIER
  • Cameron Meier
  • Steve Guttenberg
The 20th annual Sarasota Film Festival ended over the weekend with an awards presentation and red-carpet ceremony at the Sarasota Opera House, which featured appearances by Penelope Ann Miller, Steve Guttenberg, Virginia Madsen and Rory Kennedy. The last three also participated in Q&A sessions at the Florida Studio Theatre.

Following the awards, the audience watched Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow, a documentary directed and narrated by Kennedy, the daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy. (If you missed the Discovery Channel/Science Channel film at the festival, it will be available on television and online.)

Guttenberg and Madsen received lifetime-achievement awards. While both expressed their gratitude, Guttenberg surprised the audience by requesting that the festival hold his award until he proves himself more worthy by garnering an Oscar nomination. The star of Cocoon, Short Circuit and Three Men and a Baby, Guttenberg was a 1980s pop-culture icon, but I spoke to him about a television movie that, along with Diner and Police Academy, put him on the cinematic map: The Day After.

“It was done so well,” Guttenberg told me. “This was a movie about nuclear war and what happened if the bomb dropped. They had like 500 to 1,000 extras almost every day [in Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas], all in full makeup. … Seeing it every day [on set] was an awesome effect, and I started having nightmares every night. … It really had a great effect on everybody ‘cause [of] the makeup. When you look at yourself, there was a part where I was affected by all the radiation. My skin was starting to peel off, and my hair was gone. And it was a terrible, terrible experience thinking about what would happen.

“The direction was brilliant: Nicholas Meyer,” Guttenberg continued. “And I got to work with the great Jason Robards. I was would sit in his room and talk to him. He was THE actor for [Eugene] O’Neill. I was so lucky to sit with him. And John Lithgow. I sat with John Lithgow, night after night. I just loved the experience. Just loved it.”

But it was business advice from Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn on the set of Ron Howard’s Cocoon that Guttenberg said stuck with him just as much as Robards’ creative inspiration. “Save your money,” Tandy and Cronyn told him.

Virginia Madsen - CAMERON MEIER
  • Cameron Meier
  • Virginia Madsen
Madsen’s career has been even more eclectic than Guttenberg’s and has included roles in David Lynch’s Dune, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, David O. Russell’s Joy, Robert Altman’s Prairie Home Companion and Alexander Payne’s Sideways, the latter bringing her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

“Every director is very different in the way that they work,” Madsen told me. “David [O. Russell] has a different style from Francis Ford Coppola, and it’s very exciting to be able to go with that, ‘cause I don’t like just being left to my own devices ‘cause, man, I’ll milk it you give me a chance. I’d rather have a strong director. I prefer really working hand in hand because if they are a very good director, then you know what they want. And they’ve gotta figure out how to get it out of you.”

Still, Madsen said it was usually the screenplay that sold her on a part.

“It’s usually the script first,” she stressed. “I work with a lot of first-directors ‘cause most of the movies I make are very small, independent films. So I have to look at their material and then be in conversation with them to see how they visualize the film. And since most of the time I’m more experienced, I sort of want to be able to help them to make this come to reality.”

At the awards ceremony, I Am Not a Witch, directed by Rungano Nyoni, won the jury award for best narrative feature while Minding the Gap, helmed by Bing Liu, took home the jury prize for best documentary feature. Among shorts, Lunch Time, directed by Alireza Ghasemi, won best narrative; The Burden, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, took home the prize for animation; and the documentary award went to Sand Men, directed by Tal Amiran.

Among the jury’s special awards, Milford Graves: Full Mantis, directed by Jake Meginsky and Neil Young, won the Independent Visions prize; The Rider, directed by Chloé Zhao, took home the Terry Porter Visionary Award; Helena Howard, of Madeline’s Madeline, won an award for breakthrough performance; Notes on an Appearance was recognized for its visionary storytelling; and The Sentence was lauded for its social commentary. Rudy Valdez, director of the latter film, told me his documentary was a decade-long labor of love. 

Sarasota Opera House - CAMERON MEIER
  • Cameron Meier
  • Sarasota Opera House
The Sentence is about a woman [Valdez’s sister] who received a 15-year federal prison sentence for a first-time, non-violent offense, and she received the sentence six years after the crime,” Valdez explained. “During those six years, she rebuilt her life through the encouragement of her family and her friends. She got her life back together, she married a wonderful man, she had two children and was pregnant with her third when the federal government came, tried her, convicted her and sent her away.”

Valdez’s debut, The Sentence is a powerful argument against mandatory minimum sentencing. If you missed it at the fest, it can be seen on HBO soon.

And for all aspiring filmmakers, Valdez offered advice: “Stop calling yourself an aspiring filmmaker. There’s no excuse. Make a film.”

For more festival information, visit

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