Sellout Crowd Cheers for “16 to Life”

Sellout crowd cheers for ‘16 to Life’ | GazetteOnline.com

IOWA CITY — Becky Smith couldn’t wait to hear the first laugh.

She didn’t have to wait long. That laugh came just minutes into her film, “16 to Life,” which made its Iowa premiere Saturday night at the Englert Theatre during the Landlocked Film Festival.

(By Jen Neumann/de Novo Alternative Marketing) “16 to Life” star Hallee Hirsh (right) chats with a fan during preshow “green carpet” festivities Saturday night outside the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. The film, shot mostly in McGregor in October 2007, had its Iowa premiere during the Landlocked Film Festival in Iowa City.

(By Jen Neumann/de Novo Alternative Marketing) “16 to Life” star Hallee Hirsh (right) chats with a fan during preshow “green carpet” festivities Saturday night outside the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. The film, shot mostly in McGregor in October 2007, had its Iowa premiere during the Landlocked Film Festival in Iowa City.

The laughs kept coming for the next 90 minutes or so, followed by cheers, applause and screeches in the lobby as fans clamored to have their pictures taken with the stars.

Okoboji native Smith, an Emmy-nominated director, documentary filmmaker and professor at UCLA, came back to Iowa in October 2007 to shoot her first feature film. She brought some Los Angeles-based cast and crew members with her, but used many more Iowans on-screen and behind the scenes to help realize her dream project.

And they came in droves to see their movie, shot mostly in McGregor, with additional footage in Marquette and Stone City.

“This is nerve-racking,” Smith said during the film’s “green carpet” festivities before the screening. “Even though we’ve had good reception before, this is more important. Here it’s my home turf.”

The warm reception she received during the filming and on Saturday night was reassuring.

“It’s nice to see a lot of the people I worked with on the film,” she said. “Some of the crew I haven’t seen in two years. It’s cool to say hello to everybody.”

Citing the cooperation she received from Iowans every step of the way, she said, “It’s obvious this is a community that wants to work in film.”

(By Jen Neumann/de Novo Alternative Marketing) Ian Paul, 5, of Oelwein, who shouted out "That's me!" when he saw himself onscreen in "16 to Life," gets a little help from dad Jesse as he autographs a program before Saturday's film premiere in Iowa City.

(By Jen Neumann/de Novo Alternative Marketing) Ian Paul, 5, of Oelwein, who shouted out “That’s me!” when he saw himself onscreen in “16 to Life,” gets a little help from dad Jesse as he autographs a program before Saturday’s film premiere in Iowa City.

“This is exciting,” executive producer Terry Trimpe of Lisbon said as the crowd continued to gather outside the theater on a perfect late summer evening. “It’s wonderful we had the opportunity to make this film in Iowa. It’s going to be great to see the audience reaction. People will get to see Iowa in all its splendor.

“The people of McGregor opened their arms to us as wide as they could,” he said. “That was an instrumental part of making this film.”

Star Hallee Hirsh of Los Angeles (“ER,” “You’ve Got Mail”), who has been singing the praises of McGregor, was loving her first visit to Iowa City, too.

“We’re having a big reunion with cast and crew,” she said between chats and photos with fans. “I love this city. I’m really jealous I’m not going to school here.”

The air of electricity moved indoors a little after 7 p.m., as the crowd soon filled all 725 seats in the theater. After a few introductions and welcomes, the lights dimmed at 7:40 p.m. and the screen popped to life with the Mississippi River bluffs in a blaze of autumn glory.

With crisp dialogue and Smith’s keen ear for teenage turmoil, the coming-of-age film moved through a day in the life of Kate (Hirsh) and her co-workers at the Float-on-Inn ice cream stand near the river’s edge. It’s a birthday full of anguish for Kate, who is horrified to be “sweet 16 and never been kissed.” Her dad gives her a stun gun. Her sister slaps her. Her mind keeps wandering to the China she’s reading about in “Duck Farm No. 13.” What would happen to her there? To the others in her inner circle?

For as much laughter as the film generates, it also has great moments of tension and tenderness. Smith credits the cast with bringing “more pathos, more poignancy” to her script.

“It was really cute,” audience member Kelli Andresen, 28, of Iowa City said after the screening. “It’s really cool to recognize McGregor. I grew up in northeast Iowa, near Bankston. If the tax incentives are as great as everyone says, it will be nice to see more movies filmed in the state.”

The film can chalk up another award as it begins making the indie film festival circuit. It took the audience favorite award at Method Fest in Los Angeles last spring, and won the narrative feature award in the Iowa City festival, voted on by Landlocked’s visiting Danish filmmakers.

If it garners enough industry attention and accolades, the nearly-million-dollar made-in-Iowa-movie may find a bigger life on the silver screen.

But wide distribution “is always tough for indie films,” Smith told the crowd after the screening. “That’s why it’s so gratifying to see you here.”

And to remember the night, she has the photos she snapped of the audience before the lights went down. That actually brought the first laughs.

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