Top 10 Onstage Moments of the Savannah Film Festival

The 2016 SCAD Savannah Film Festival opening night celebration on Broughton Street in downtown Savannah.

For 20 years, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival has shined a beacon, drawing luminaries of international moviemaking, who share their brilliance with ambitious SCAD students of directing, acting, screenwriting, and production. Our ambition was audacious: to create a festival dedicated, not to distribution deals and high-level networking, but to education. The stars of the show are the students.

Every year, SCAD elevates a coterie of honorees, to show our students whom they would do well to emulate. These special guests teach our students how to live a life in film, and their acceptance remarks at Trustees Theater are rife in wisdom and emotion, from Woody Harrelson’s Texas charm to Mahershala Ali’s contagious exuberance. Here are 10 of my favorite onstage moments from the last 20 years (in no particular order).

1. A legend born of legends, Isabella Rossellini acknowledged her parents, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, and their profound influence on her work. “And though it is a great advantage to have had these masters to teach me, it was also incredibly intimidating, because you feel the responsibility to be as good as them. And you never feel you can be as good as them. But tonight, you have made me feel very good.” Her vulnerability struck a tender chord.

2. Bright young actor Miles Teller has been twice honored at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, first for Rabbit Hole (2010) and again for Bleed for This (2016). The university honors emergent stars like Miles, in part, because we want to show our students that great acclaim is not reserved only for industry veterans, but for any artist who can access and express their humanity. In 2010, blushing on stage, he said, “This is really my first film award. My first one. So it’s pretty great. It’s the start of something.” He then asked if his parents could have the poster we’d designed for him and placed under the marquee. So cute!

3. The sweet and effusive Diane Lane, of Unfaithful and The Perfect Storm, among her many other vulnerable, urgent performances, expressed a common refrain, for new guests to SCAD: She was blown away by the built environment and learning resources, which surpass every expectation for how a university should look. “I feel very special that I got to tour the college. I was so impressed,” she said, searching out students in the crowd. “In an alternate life, I would love to be a student here and have at every little thing that I’ve actually witnessed, which you have! What a wonderful program!”

4. Guileful Game of Thrones queen Natalie Dormer spoke about the many roles a female actor must play: “It was Ethel Barrymore who said, ‘For an actress to be a success, she needs to have the face of Venus, the brains of Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of Macaulay, the figure of Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros. You learn to have thick skin in this industry. Every now and then, you need a little encouragement. Thank you for encouraging me.” Her gratitude reminded us that movie stars are as human as us mere mortals.

5. Most actors are a little shorter in real life than you think they’ll be, but not the truly towering Liam Neeson. As tall as he is, his remarks revealed a genuine humility. “Of the sixty movies I’ve done, the people I love are the movie crews,” he said, which drew wild cheers. “The people who set up the cameras, tweak the lights, lay the cables, under all conditions. The people who build the sets, paint the sets. I’ve worked with some great actors, actresses and directors, but ultimately, it’s the crew that has always inspired me. And they still do.”

6. This theme of humility continued at the following year’s Savannah Film Festival when Aaron Eckhart told a story about veteran actor Morgan Freeman. “Every word out of Morgan’s mouth was perfect. It was smooth, honest. It sounded just like when you first read the script, how you want it to sound, take after take, flawless. I marveled at him. One day, we were walking back to our trailers and I said, ‘Morgan, how do you do it?’ Without missing a beat, he looked to me in the eye and said, ‘Thirty years. Thirty years.’” Aaron paused, looked at his award. “I’m only halfway there,” he said.

7. Nothing wins an audience over like humor, and John Goodman did not disappoint. Visiting SCAD made him think of his own college professors, he said, and just when we all expected him to become emotional, he instantly transformed into Walter Sobchak, his universally beloved unhinged character from The Big Lebowski, and delivered one of Walter’s more memorable (and unquotable!) lines, eliciting wild whoops from the audience.

8. Like John, Lily Tomlin brought the funny. She said how delighted she was to be visiting Savannah, known for its hospitality and mystery. “I had this image that the people meeting me at the airport would be wearing big white suits, you know, and white hats and string ties with mint juleps in their hands. And then we’d sit on a big veranda in wisteria and weeping willows would be hanging down and then as night would fall, the zombies would come out.” She then reminded us of Cher’s wildly feathered outfit worn to the Oscars (in 1986) and how she’d planned to wear it, as a gag, the following year, but had decided against it. She regretted not wearing it, she said, for it would have been a good story. “I feel like I failed you on a human level,” she remarked, to great laughter. “My tombstone would have said my name, but nothing else, no years. No, it would’ve just said, ‘Remember the night she wore Cher’s outfit to the Oscars?’.” We were dying.

9. In 2007, Michael Douglas melted our hearts when he dedicated his award to his children. His wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, sat in the audience that night at SCAD’s Trustees Theater, and he remarked on her extraordinary career. “My children are too young to remember all my big movies,” he said, to laughter. “They think mom is the only one who makes movies. According to them, all I make are pancakes.” Hearing him speak so personally about his family reminded our students how important it is to surround yourself with love.

10. Hands down, my favorite moment onstage at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival took place in 2013, when the wondrous Jeremy Irons delivered a touching homily to the power of art. Here it is, in its entirety.

Every year, we ask ourselves, “What will they say? How will these honorees exhort and encourage our students?” This year’s lineup promises grand moments. Will John Boyega be as funny and human as he was in The Force Awakens? Surely Holly Hunter will wax poetic on her Georgia childhood? Might Aaron Sorkin share a storytelling secret? Join us for the wonderment, from Oct. 28 to Nov. 4. The wonder will stay with you.

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Paula Wallace is president and founder of SCAD, named by Variety as one of the world’s “Stellar Film Schools” of 2017. SCAD students and graduates have contributed their talents to films that have won Oscars, Emmys, and more, and earlier this year, the SCAD-produced show “The Buzz” won a Student Emmy for Best Scripted Series. Wallace is also the founder of SCAD aTVfest and SCADFILM in Atlanta, providing career advancement opportunities for working professionals across animation, gaming, virtual reality, film, television, performing arts and video production.