On a Wintry Night in Lake Placid
Russell Banks is an American poet and novelist known for his portrayals of ordinary and often marginalized people as they struggle against the economic and social forces of society. He is also known for the time he has given to strengthen the talents of others as a professor of writing first at Emerson College in Boston and the University of New Hampshire at Durham, and then as the Howard G. B. Clark University Professor of Writing at Princeton University.
Less well known is the significant contribution Russell has given and continues to give to the Lake Placid Film Festival. His contributions began back on a snowy night in 1998 when he arranged for the national premiere of the Sweet Hereafter, a film written and directed by Atom Egoyan and based Russell's novel of the same name. The screening was packed, giving Russell along with Kathleen Carroll, John Huttlinger, Nelson Page, and Naj Wikoff, the idea and motivation to create the Lake Placid Film Forum (since renamed the Lake Placid Film Festival).
"The screening was on a wintry night, it had only been shown before at Cannes where it won the International Prize," said Russell. "We realized that there was an audience for it because The Palace was jammed. We were kind of surprised and pleased. It was sort of like a Judy Garland Mickey Rooney movie where we say, 'Hey, let's have a film festival!”
They all agreed on the importance of having a focus on writing and focusing on the needs of young filmmakers. "We didn't want to make it a celebratory march with ropes that separated the filmmakers from the audience and students of film," said Banks. "We wanted to keep it grounded and accessible. We wanted to have our filmmakers accessible on the streets, in the restaurants, and serving on workshops and panels, things like that."
About five or six years after the Film Forum was launched, they created the 24-hour competition Sleepless in Lake Placid that invited northeastern film schools to send teams of students to create and screen short films using local sites and people as actors. Banks would help develop the theme and criteria that the teams had to interpret and feature in their films, and often served on the panel that selected the winners.
Banks also opened the door to Esquire, which became a founding sponsor and brought with it many of the initial sponsors such as Chrysler and Ralph Loren Fragrances as well as several liquor distributors. "The Film Forum was fun and fortuitous, and I got to hang out with friends and make new friends as well," said Banks. "We had people like William Kennedy, John Irving, Richard Russo, John Sayles, Michael Ondaatje, and Paul Schrader.”
Why did Banks take this on, an initiative that he still supports and assists, though now not to such an active degree? Banks said that the year before the screening of The Sweet Hereafter, he had retired from teaching thinking he'd just go to his home in the Adirondacks and devote his time to writing, reading books, sitting by the fire, and leading a solitary literary life. He realized that there was a side of him that loves collaboration, which had been fulfilled by his work with students and colleagues, people who knew stuff he didn't know.
"People whose life experience was different than mine," said Banks. "I liked working with them on a common project. The Film Forum provided me the opportunity to do that here locally. It allowed me to work with Kathleen and the others to launch this project. Everybody had different areas of expertise. I think it deeply satisfied something I had lost; it met a need that I didn't know I had until after I retired from teaching."
Banks said he gained a great deal from the Film Forum, and especially from working with the writer-director Atom Egoyan and Paul Schrader. "Schrader is one of the most intelligent and articulate film critics; he's written several books; I just love looking at movies through his eyes,” said Banks. “I've learned so much from him, and I learned from him how a director thinks. You can look at a movie and not have a clue as to how many decisions were made just to make a simple scene that unfolds in front of your eyes nice and smoothly. There are so many complicated decisions that have to be made to get that scene on the screen. Atom and Schrader helped me see and experience that."
Russell Banks will be honored at a special tribute dinner held at the High Peaks Resort Friday October 25th. For tickets: https://lakeplacidfilmfestival.org/tribute-gala-russell-banks.
Co-Founder, Lake Placid Film Festival