This week we have Chuck Boller, Executive Director of the Hawaii International Film Festival. Chuck is a great guy who works tirelessly overseeing a staff that bring films from all over the world to Hawaii. HIFF is my home Festival, so I am real excited this week.

Paul Booth: What are your main duties as Executive Director of HIFF? Did you work for any other festivals before running HIFF?

Chuck Boller: As Executive Director, my job is to run the Film Festival and represent HIFF in the broadest sense. I am the administrative head of HIFF and oversee all business aspects. I represent HIFF before governmental bodies, community organizations, business groups, film organizations and events (e.g., the Golden Globes), and film festivals locally and internationally. I do all hiring and oversee HIFF’s year-round staff (7 people) and seasonal staff (20 additional people). I am the chief fundraiser for HIFF and constantly solicit sponsorships, memberships, and other financial support. I also monitor HIFF’s compliance with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

I never worked for any other festivals before HIFF. There really weren’t any known ones in the US. FYI, Sundance was just beginning when I joined HIFF and there were very few film festivals in existence throughout the world (mainly just Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. HIFF is actually one of the oldest international film festivals in the world.

PB: As a film lover, what has been your favorite opening night film at HIFF?

CB: It’s usually so difficult to single out a favorite film, but in terms of Opening Night films, it’s a bit easier. In 2010, HIFF opened its 30th annual Festival with Under the Hawthorn Tree, by renowned Chinese Director Zhang Yimou.

Zhang first visited HIFF in 1984, as a young cinematographer for Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, where he was presented with HIFF’s “Award for Cinematography,” the first award Zhang had ever received. He returned to HIFF in 1992 as the recipient of HIFF’s top accolade, the “Vision in Film Award,” and returned again in 2005 to celebrate HIFF’s 25th Anniversary and to receive our “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Zhang’s participation in HIFF’s 30th Anniversary was extra special as Under the Hawthorn Tree was having its International Premiere (the first time a film has screened outside of its country of origin) here. Zhang had carried the film print with him to be certain HIFF received it in time for its Opening Night screening. HIFF and I are honored that Zhang has developed such a special bond with HIFF and Hawaii, and I am personally honored to count him as one of my great friends in China.

PB: Have you worked in any other aspects of film? What drew you to running a film festival?

CB: I am an Entertainment Attorney by training and practiced Entertainment Law in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. for almost 20 years before joining HIFF. I was also a Lobbyist in Washington D.C. with the legendary Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America.

When I was practicing law, the only well-known film festivals were Cannes and Venice. Sundance had just been founded and was not considered to be important until Hollywood essentially remade Sundance into the renowned festival that it is today. While I had many filmmakers as clients, entering their films in film festivals had never been considered to be important.

I had written, produced, directed, and appeared on-air with public television programs, and had written, produced, and edited documentary films before coming to Hawaii.

When I discovered HIFF, then in its 9th year, the dynamic mix of films, filmmakers, industry professionals, educators, government people, and audience members blew me away. The opportunities for filmmakers and films were phenomenal.

When HIFF’s Executive Director position opened up in 2000, HIFF’s Board of Directors asked me to run for the position and I successfully did so.

PB: What is your personal mission along side HIFF’s mission or what you use as your inspiration for HIFF?

CB: I cannot understand discrimination based on ethnicity – or based on anything else for that matter. I have always loved exploring other cultures and meeting people who are “different” than I am. One of the very best ways to learn about other cultures is through cinema. While watching an international film, you are immersed in that culture. You are among their people, sharing their experiences.

As an international film festival, HIFF presents and promotes films and filmmakers which are a window into other cultures and nations. HIFF’s mission statement is “To promote understanding and cultural exchange between the peoples of the world through cinema.”

I’m also particularly committed to helping empower indigenous, ethnic, and native filmmakers. With the arrival of digital equipment, people who could not technically make their own films are now able to do so and to tell their own stories. Filmmakers in underdeveloped countries, as well as ethnic minorities in more developed countries, can now make their own films and not just be backlots or backdrops for Hollywood productions. HIFF can screen these films and help to get them before the public. HIFF has always been a pipeline into the US and the ”western world” and filmmakers can benefit from our contacts and exposure. HIFF has always presented seminars and workshops for filmmakers, many of these geared for indigenous and other underrepresented filmmakers. HIFF’s two-year-old Creative Lab expands and intensifies HIFF’s offerings.

PB: What was it like to have Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon play HIFF? Was it a Hawaii or U.S. Premiere?

CB: I was going to pick CTHD as my favorite Opening Night film; however, it was actually my favorite HIFF film of all time because it opened the 2000 HIFF, my first year as HIFF’s Executive Director.

CTHD was a Hawaii premiere. It would have been the US Premiere; however, James Schamus, the film’s Producer and Director Ang Lee’s longtime collaborator, wanted CTHD to premiere in his hometown at the New York Film Festival.

The distributor of the film did not want HIFF to screen it, as the population in Hawaii is so small that the State was not considered to be an important film market. Additionally, with Hawaii’s large Asian and Asia-oriented population, the distributor assumed that CTHD would do very well in Hawaii without any advance publicity from screenings at HIFF.
I got around the distributor by contacting Ang Lee, who I knew from his previous film screenings here. Lee loaned HIFF his personal print. The distributor quickly reversed its thinking about the nonimportance of Hawaii as a film market when all 800 seats to CTHD sold out in 20 minutes!

PB: Could you tell us about the creative lab that HIFF recently started?

CB: Co-founded by HIFF and the State of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), the Creative Lab at HIFF’s mission is to generate high quality immersive programs in which creative entrepreneurs
In the fields of film, television, new media, music, fashion, and technology can participate. A goal is to accelerate their careers and projects in a collaborative, supportive environment and coached by some of the best creative minds in the world. In so doing, HIFF helps create a community of creative entrepreneurs whose projects become worth further investment by both State and private sources, and firmly placing the State of Hawaii as a creative nexus of the Pacific Rim.

Lofty goals indeed; however, I am very proud to say that this second year of the Creative Lab was immensely successful and our hope is that future years will be even better. For example, with our 2013 Screenwriting Accelerator, 38 scripts were submitted to HIFF, 12 were chosen for a week’s worth of training at HIFF, and 3 finalists were selected at the end. The three finalists are in Los Angeles now training and observing for one month with writers at CBS. They will then be mentored for the next year by members of the Writers Guild and other successful writers in the industry.

PB: What have been some of your favorite special guests at HIFF (Tarantino, Kevin Smith, etc.)? Could you tell us about an exciting moment with one of those guests?

CB: There have been so many favorite guests of mine. Roger and Chaz Ebert, of course. Tarantino was pretty amazing. Talk about energy, brilliance, and enthusiasm. Director Ang Lee; Maggie Cheung, the gifted actress from China; and actress/director Joan Chen are favorites.

One of my great guests was actor Samuel L. Jackson. Often, celebrities travel with large entourages. Not Samuel; just his wife and publicist. No limousines or special treatment for Samuel. LaTanya, his wife of over 30 years; Dana Forsberg, HIFF’s Development Director; and I spent a bit of time with Samuel. He had us all together for dinner several times at Roy’s Hawaii Kai, his favorite Hawaii restaurant. We basically relaxed and talked about film and life. His favorite film of all time was OLDBOY (the original Korean version) for which HIFF had had the US Premiere. I was delighted to gift Samuel with a signed OLDBOY T-shirt in his favorite color, black.

PB: How long was HIFF’s relationship with Mr. Roger Ebert? Could you share an Ebert Story with us?

CB: The renowned film critic and dear friend to HIFF first came to HIFF in 1983 for the 3rd annual HIFF. His last visit was in 2010, when he and his extraordinary wife Chaz were presented with HIFF’s highest accolade, the “Vision in Film Award.”

Roger was a tremendous personality who fell in love with HIFF and Hawaii. He got hooked on mac salad when a Hawaiian Auntie shared it with him as they stood in HIFF’s ticket lines. He proudly wore his Aloha shirts as he drove around Oahu’s back roads and eagerly visited the Neighbor Islands. He even wrote a cookbook filled with recipes he created using a rice cooker during his visits to HIFF.

About ten years ago, Roger, Director Quentin Tarantino, and Hawaii’s own Miss Universe Brook Lee traveled with me to Hilo to reopen the long closed Palace Theatre. As the four of us approached the very large crowd outside the theatre, Roger hesitated a bit. The crowd parted and began to let us through. We were almost into the theatre when the crowd closed around one of us, preventing us from moving forward. The crowd was swarming Brook Lee and ignoring Roger and Quentin, who both burst out laughing and asked Brook for her autograph themselves. Quentin wanted to go for dinner after the film but one of the Palace volunteers said, “No need. We have guava cake and fruit punch in the lobby.” Roger said, “That sounds like a great diner to me” and joined the crowd in the lobby. The four of us were staying at the historic Shipman House and I will always remember us sitting on the lanai as Roger and Quentin discussed film (wish I’d had a tape recorder!) and Brook Lee played the grand piano.

PB: Here is an open moment for you as HIFF’s Executive Director to give a message or words to the readers.

CB: HIFF is 34 years old this year and, I firmly believe, gets better every year. My goal, shared by the HIFF Board of Directors and Staff, is to not grow the size of the Festival, but the depth and quality. Our films have always been among the finest in the world and always include the latest work from Hawaii-based filmmakers. Our Creative Lab offers HIFF the opportunity to help train, educate, and work with new generations of filmmakers.

The world of filmmaking has changed dramatically in the last several years. There are countless opportunities for filmmakers now that had never existed previously. For example, the ultimate goal for a filmmaker used to be commercial theatrical release. That is no longer the case. Every thing from YouTube, to Netflix, to airline sales, to online and other formats offer unlimited possibilities for filmmakers.

I encourage anyone and everyone who has the desire to go ahead and create a film; act, direct, or produce; compose and perform music; and invent and utilize new media technologies. It’s an exciting world out there and I encourage everyone to explore its possibilities

Interview by Paul Booth, Lead Entertainment Writer