When director Brett Haley first came to the Sarasota Film Festival five years ago, he was immediately concerned. His directorial debut, The New Year, had sold just 10 tickets, so he started hustling on the streets, begging folks to see a micro-budget shot with no recognizable actors in Pensacola, Florida. He would leave after three days—he had a paying job shooting a Levi’s commercial that took priority—so he wasn’t in town to year that his work more than paid off. The New Year won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. “That was crazy,” he recalls. “And then that movie got a lot more traction because it won here.”
Haley was back in Sarasota this week, this time with better billing from the start. I’ll See You In My Dreams, the director’s second feature, served as the Closing Night Film for this year’s Sarasota Film Festival, bolstered by a marquis performance from Blythe Danner and solid supporting work from an all-star cast. This film wasn’t screening in a 300-seat theater, but at the 1,000-seat Sarasota Opera House, the biggest venue at the festival’s disposal this year, and organizers billed the screening as one the “public-facing” films to reach beyond the festival cinephiles and into a broader community of mainstream film attendees.
Interestingly, Haley said the film very nearly was filmed in Southwest Florida. “Originally this movie took place in Florida,” he tells SRQ. “It was moved to L.A. frankly to get the actors cheaper. But it was originally in a very Naples- or Sarasota-y setting, with big highways and retirement communities with gates and a golf course in the middle.”
Any Floridian who sees the film will see many of those elements remained in the final script. Danner’s character now lives outside a retirement village, and one of the movie’s key subplots revolves around a very California-ish pool service, but a circle of retired friends—played by Danner, Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place—could as easily be sitting in any subdivision clubhouse in the Sunshine State, and the story of Sam Elliott’s character, a man who has retired to a golf course community despite having no interest in golf, seems almost quintessentially Sarasotan.
To no one’s surprise, then, I’ll See You In My Dreams played particularly well to a Sarasota crowd. Despite being a young director, Florida boy Haley innately understands the true story of modern retirees. This cast of actors in their 60s and 70s have sex, get high and sing karaoke at the local bars. And while that may make the plot sound shocking, Haley’s strength as a director may be making these activities seem perfectly predictable, almost mundane. “My film is not edgy,” he boasts, “but I do think it’s a little bit brave.”
Danner’s Carol is a woman still grieving over the loss of a husband decades ago who finally realizes she can still enjoy life and seek out love. And even though embarking on romance at an older age brings its own sets of challenges, Haley notes it doesn’t mean anyone has to slow down. “Young people think old people are stagnant grandmas in walkers and wheelchairs not doing anything,” Haley says. “That’s simply not true in the society we live in now.” In a world where a healthy retiree can easily live past 100, the film seems to say, you can’t give up on living life too early.
Haley has a few more festivals to hit in coming weeks, but then things kick into high gear when the film gets a national theatrical release on May 15.