HIFF, Here’s to 25 More, by Debbie Tuma

Over the past 25 years covering the Hamptons International Film Festival for newspapers, TV, and radio, it has been a wild ride of different theater venues, celebrity interviews, after-parties, and films that often went on to win Academy Awards.

Sir Patrick Stewart, of Shakespeare and “Star Trek” fame, said it best at one of the festival’s “A Conversation With . . .” programs on Saturday when he emphasized the importance of the arts. Whether it’s painting, writing, music, or dancing, he said, the arts give a community its soul and inspiration.

This is certainly true of East Hampton and Southampton Towns, which turn into “Hollywood East” each fall. Who would think, I asked myself, watching Stewart speak at the East Hampton Middle School, that this used to be my little high school, and it now hosts movie stars?

Of the scores of events I cover each year throughout the Hamptons, this festival has always been my favorite, for the major actors I get to meet and for the educational value of the top-quality independent films. Before this festival, I never realized how different an independent film was from a mass-produced one, with filmmakers for the most part creating films they really care about, rather than just to make millions. 

It’s been an amazing journey to see this festival grow from small parties and brunches at Nick and Toni’s restaurant in the early 1990s to bigger gatherings at the Wolffer Estate Vineyard, at the home of Stuart Match Suna, a founding HIFF board member and chairman emeritus, and at other venues. It was fun to wait among throngs of press to interview and photograph guests at the opening night parties at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, East Hampton Point, and the former Lily Pond nightclub.

I remember the excitement of watching “The King’s Speech” at its 2010 premiere at the Southampton movie theater, and of going to the after-party at a nearby restaurant with its producer, Harvey Weinstein, its director, Tom Hooper, and writer, David Seidler. Seidler told me how he got the idea for the movie, about the king of England’s stuttering problem, because of his own struggle with stuttering as a child growing up in that country. I was even more excited as I saw the film go on to win an Oscar for best picture, as did the festival movies “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Moonlight.”

Besides getting an inside view of the best upcoming films, the festival has given me entree to interviewing the stars. I talked to Richard Dreyfus, Roy Scheider, and Steven Spielberg about the making of “Jaws” and the controversy with Capt. Frank Mundus, who claimed that Peter Benchley, the author of the book and one of the screenwriters, did not credit him for teaching him how to fish for sharks on his Montauk charter boat, Cricket II. The late Roy Scheider said later that of all the various roles he’d played, “I guess I’ll always be remembered for ‘Jaws.’ ”

But it’s not always easy to get these movie stars to talk, let alone open up. Following a “Conversation With . . .” in 1996 with Angelica Huston at Guild Hall, where she also talked about working with her famous father, the director John Huston, she refused all interviews with the press and hurried out the back door. At the time I was working for WVVH-Hamptons Television, and my cameraman, David Nadal, and I ran to the back parking lot and caught her climbing into her limousine. 

“Can we just have one interview for the local TV station?” we pleaded. To our surprise, she came over, just for a second, she said, but we ended up getting a 10-minute interview for our show before she darted off. Once we got her talking about her first film as a director, “Bastard Out of Carolina,” she couldn’t stop.

Following Richard Gere’s “A Conversation With . . .” in 2012, I saw him at an after-party and asked him for an interview. Of all the stars, he turned me down in the best possible way, putting his arm around me warmly and saying he was sorry, he just didn’t want an interview. I was so happy to be hugged by Richard Gere, nothing else seemed to matter, and I never forgot it. 

Then there was an enjoyable evening sitting on the porch of the Maidstone Arms, laughing with another of my favorite actors, Paul Giamatti, who was in town for the opening of “Barney’s Version.” He was funny, easygoing, and gave me plenty of time as he discussed the film. I had to tell him how much I enjoyed one of his most popular movies, “Sideways,” and how much I admired his various roles.

And last year I finally met someone I’d always wanted to meet, the globe-trotting Anthony Bourdain, outside the East Hampton movie theater after the screening of “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent,” about the famous chef, which he produced. When asked if he lived in the Hamptons, Bourdain said he often visits here and loves to shop at the farm stands, and that he usually lets his daughter decide what’s for dinner.

Over 25 years, the times were not always funny or magical. On the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2005, tragedy just missed the festival. While watching a film by Polly Draper in a packed Guild Hall, there was a loud explosion, and I ran out of the theater to see that a small twin-engine plane had crashed across the street on Mill Hill Lane. Smoke and fire were coming from it as emergency crews rushed to save the pilot, who died. He was the only one inside the Cessna, which just missed the Maidstone Arms and some houses on the street. Inside the theater with Draper were the actors Kevin Bacon, his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, and Miranda Richardson. 

But there was no shortage of happy times, through all the film festivals, hanging with the press at the Maidstone Arms, the Huntting Inn, and John Papas Cafe between screenings. Now celebrating his own 25th year in business, John Papas told me he opened in June of 1992, three months before the festival. “Being so close to the movie theater, I always enjoyed having the movie crowd come here and chat about the films,” he said. “We also served many of the stars, so it’s been a lot of fun over the years.”

Kudos to Alec Baldwin, a HIFF co-chairman, Stuart Match Suna, Anne Chaisson, the executive director, and David Nugent, the artistic director, and their whole crew for all their hard work in helping to reach this big silver anniversary. 

David Nugent made a good point while introducing Rob Reiner at Sunday’s “A Conversation With . . .” in East Hampton: “Movies change your life,” he said. “I was 13 when I saw Reiner’s film ‘Stand by Me’ for the first time, and it had a big effect on me.” He said it made him want to see and study more films, which eventually led to his passion for the industry. 

I look forward to seeing more great films and stars over the next 25 years at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Debbie Tuma is a freelance writer and a host at WLNG Radio. She lives in Riverhead and can be reached at dtumafish@yahoo.com.