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Comedy Fest and film: A perfect fit

Stewart Oksenhorn
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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“Heckler” is a reasonably attractive project. The documentary by Michael Addis, who directed the 2000 comedy “Poor White Trash,” features a slew of people in the spotlight, dissecting the phenomenon of heckling and placing it in the context of our hypercritical society. With comments from not only stand-up comedians, but also actors, filmmakers and even athletes, the cast has wide-ranging name recognition: Joe Rogan, Larry Flynt, Bill Maher, Mike Ditka and Jamie Kennedy, whose stand-up tour serves as the film’s spine.In the increasingly competitive world of the film festival, “Heckler” would no doubt be a hot property. Festivals are known to fight vigorously for even modest projects. A festival landing “Heckler” would have at least a small feather in its promotional, logo-emblazoned baseball cap. And if that festival could boast the film’s world premiere, so much more the prestige and attention.”Heckler” could have had its world premiere in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s Film Program. But Kevin Haasarud, who has directed the film component of the USCAF since its inception 12 years ago, opted to present the film as an hour-long work-in-progress, to be followed by a Q-and-A session with Addis and Kennedy. Haasarud laid off first dibs on “Heckler” so that the Tribeca Film Festival could feature the world premiere. At least part of the thinking is that the film would benefit from having two such high-profile events, rather than just one.”The single mandate,” said Haasarud, referring to the USCAF Film Program, “is, do what we can to support comedy and film.”Haasarud has a built-in luxury in his position. Film festivals from Berlin to Durango fight for high-visibility projects and names to advance their own prestige. World premieres are particularly valuable in earning an audience of industry insiders and attention from the press. But the USCAF Film Program is guaranteed an influential industry presence, thanks to the collection of agents, TV and studio executives and the like who gather to see the USCAF’s live component. Haasarud can thus put the interests of filmmakers and their projects above his own.

Haasarud adds that the USCAF Film Program is not especially known as a place where films are bought and sold. So if the USCAF Film Program is not among those battling for attention, and not a shopping mall like the festivals in Telluride, Park City and Toronto, what niche does it occupy?Haasarud says it is one that serves more as a meeting place than a marketplace. Deals have been made in Aspen: Sarah Silverman’s performance documentary “Jesus Is Magic” was purchased by its distributor following its world premiere screening in Aspen in 2005. That same year, a half-full theater watched “Lucky 13.” Among those in the audience was Michael Eisner, who arranged for the film’s distribution, under the new title, “Keeping Up with the Steins.”More notable than the purchases have been the creative meetings of the minds in Aspen. One of the success stories of the USCAF’s Film Program was the goofy hit “Napoleon Dynamite,” which had its second-ever screening here. But to Haasarud, just as interesting as the track record is what happened at the screening.”Jack Black was in the audience, loved the movie, and introduced himself to Jared Hess, the director,” said Haasarud. “And that relationship eventually brought forth ‘Nacho Libre,'” the 2006 film directed by Hess and starring Black.In an early year of the festival, Michael Binder screened his film, “The Sex Monster.” He also met Stu Smiley, the executive director of the USCAF, and executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The fruit of that relationship was “The Mind of the Married Man,” which showed on HBO for two seasons (HBO is the producer of the USCAF).”These are the examples where this festival really shines – people meeting and envisioning their futures together,” said Haasarud. “It’s not just about commerce, but meeting and making their futures manifest.”

Haasarud said that the setting is crucial to that process. “You couldn’t have that in a large urban center,” he said. “You need to feel like you’re going to camp, to this warm place where people let their hair down and the conversation isn’t focused on who you know and what you’re trying to sell. You’d be hard-pressed to replicate that dynamic anywhere else.”Aspen being Aspen, there are tales that do involve money. At a screening last year of “Shut Up and Sing” (not the documentary of the Dixie Chicks, but a comedy about the reunion of a college a cappella group), filmmaker Bruce Leddy announced that he still needed some finishing funds.”Someone turned to his wife and said, ‘Honey, I’m going to buy you a movie.’ And ended up giving Leddy about $800,000,” said Haasarud. “Only in Aspen.”Finding a way into filmKevin Haasarud could accurately be described as “mellow” – and not only in relation to the industry standard in Hollywood. In the 10 years I’ve known him, not once has he slipped into the mode – self-important, bullying – commonly associated with the entertainment business. It’s no surprise that he followed a fairly atypical track to the film industry.A native of Altadena, Calif., just outside of Pasadena, Haasarud studied psychology and religion at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. His degree is in Truth and Relativism – “an especially amusing degree to have when going to job fairs,” he said. Nagged by thoughts of needing more practical training, he enrolled at Los Angeles’ Whittier Law School.”Within 12 weeks, I realized a lawyer I was not to become,” said Haasarud, 41. “I had the distinction of being the first to drop out of my class.”He dropped way out. Haasarud bought a one-way ticket to Norway, his ancestral homeland, and worked for a year as a ranch hand in the remote middle of the country. With little in the way of entertainment, he took to contemplating his future, and made a list of the things he liked most: music, photography, letter-writing and drawing. Film seemed like a way to tie them together, and he headed back to “the place I vowed never to return to.”



In Los Angeles, Haasarud heard of a production-assistant position available with Roger Corman, “the King of the B movies.” He showed up for an interview, and through a case of mistaken identity, got the job. Haasarud spent a year and a half with Corman, working mostly on “The Rain Killer,” a typical piece of schlock. The atmosphere was interesting – the cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, who would go on to earn a pair of Oscars, for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” – but the pay was negligible. Haasarud left for a position in the original programming department at HBO.After working on comedy specials like Def Comedy Jam and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” Haasarud had a hand in developing the idea of an HBO-sponsored comedy festival, to take place in Aspen. His end was on the film side. “But it was enough just to get the festival up-and-running,” he said. So for the first few years of the USCAF, the film component was largely limited to screening work by people who were being honored at the festival, like Rob Reiner. Haasarud saw a crying need for new, independent comedies.”After a few years, it became apparent that there were a lot of filmmakers doing the festival circuit, but had trouble getting into the A-list festivals – because they were comedies,” he said. “They were seen as audience-pleasers, and not so serious. But you had audiences out in the world who love comedies. Comedies do great at the box office.”Haasarud could also see how the USCAF could help independent filmmakers. In 1996, the festival had screened an offbeat little film, “Spirit of Christmas,” by two Colorado kids, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Shortly afterward, “South Park” exploded into the public consciousness. Before the USCAF had a proper film component, it also screened an early version of the documentary “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” which went on to earn an Oscar nomination; and “The Big One,” followed by a Q-and-A with its creator, Michael Moore. In 1997, Haasarud launched the USCAF Film Program; among the early screenings was “Cannibal! the Musical,” the first full-length project by Parker and Stone.”It was clear there were a lot of filmmakers who could benefit by being here – with the audiences, and the industry execs who were looking for new talent, new writers,” said Haasarud. “And by bringing them into the loop, they could see the live stand-up. It was a perfect melding of creative talent.”The Film Program has had its share of hits (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “Garden State” and “Super Size Me,” all in the same year; “Kung Fu Hustle,” “The Aristocrats”) and premieres (last year’s “Behind the Smile,” featured Damon and Marlon Wayans). And the program has expanded; this year includes 30 features (five of them world premieres, including “Death at a Funeral,” by Frank Oz), plus special programs. But Haasarud says the program has hit capacity. This year’s record size is due to the unusual number of comedies submitted for consideration for the foreign-language film Oscar, and the Film Program’s policy of accepting any film that is a country’s official Academy Award entry. This year, Haasarud instituted an online component, Funny Picture Show, a competition for short film. Haasarud is also toying with the idea of a traveling festival, or a distributor label.

“Pick four or five movies that will fall through the cracks, but are great films, audience-pleasers that could use some money for a theatrical release and help these filmmakers,” he said. “Because the hardest part of this job is trying to get all these films attention.”Also on screenThe USCAF Film Program schedule for Saturday, March 3, includes the work-in-progress “Heckler”; “Ira & Abby”; “Eagle vs. Shark”; and a special presentation of “Rocket Science.”The schedule for Sunday, March 4, includes “Schnitzel Paradise,” “Lights in the Dusk,” and screenings of the festival award-winners in a variety of categories.For a full schedule, go to http://www.hbocomedyfestival.com.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com