Some of the best films shown in the Valley come courtesy of Steve Weiss, whose No Festival Required film showings have brought cutting-edge and impactful independent movies to art galleries and theaters across the Valley since 2002. The 58-year-old Phoenix resident is a photographer who also worked professionally in the film world, and started NFR when he saw a need for high-quality film showings. Now, he’s the resident programmer at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts and is working on series at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
This week, you can catch two of his events. The first, Thursday, June 19, starts at 7:30 p.m. at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts and includes two films about American suburban living, Gimmie Green and Wagonmasters. Then, Sunday, June 22 at 1:30 p.m., he shows Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
Read on for where his passion for film comes from, and keep scrolling to hear him name five of his favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born and raised here. My parents came here in the late ‘40s when my father became the first full-time dentist at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. My parents were initially interested in Arizona and moved from New Jersey to come here.
I went to Camelback High School and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography from ASU. Other than living in Phoenix and attending ASU, I went to San Francisco Art Institute for a year and then returned there after I got out of ASU in 1978 for a total of three months. I’ve been back here ever since.
How did No Festival Required get started?
No Festival Required started with an idea in 2001. All the arts were starting to get established in Phoenix in the downtown area, and I started to get involved with (arts festival) Art Detour, which has now been around for 26 years. I felt everything was starting to fall into place, but the one thing that was missing was film. I had worked on short films in college and had gotten away from it, and when I started to come back to filming, I saw there wasn’t really a vehicle to show the films.
I ended up coming across a guy who had a microcinema on Grand Avenue, Jeff Cochran, called The Monkey Show. I thought his idea was really brilliant, to have a small theater and show short films, and that was the linchpin to make everything happen in the Phoenix arts community. We had performance, music and art on the walls, and here’s this little space for film.
I saw he was getting tired, though, which really bothered me, so I asked him what could make it work. He said, “Content. We need more content.” I said, “I’ll find it.” I had been working as a location scout and photographer for TV, commercials and producers, and I started searching for stuff. By the time I had a show together, he moved to where he’s been ever since, Taos, New Mexico. That’s when I decided, if he wasn’t going to do it, I’d do it as long as I could until he came back. He never came back.
What’s your typical week like now?
It’s a lot of typing – a ton of it is queries to filmmakers, seeking out good prices from distributors, and trying to keep a handle on the blind submissions coming in. I would say the least amount of what I do is actually watch movies.
I primarily work out of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts (SMoCA), where I’ve been contracted to program since 2011. I do screenings there 10 times a year. We’ve thought about getting outside of the space itself – maybe a dive-in movie, or a movie in the park.
Phoenix Center for the Arts is new for me. There was a film (Crescent Ballroom owner) Charlie Levy brought here, touching on issues relating to immigration. He contacted me about using my projector, and I came to do the show there, where I had previously taught photography when it was the Visual Arts Center.
I didn’t really know the inside of the building well, and the first time I saw it, I thought, “Wow, this is a large air-conditioned space, and all it really needs is a projector. I need to talk to these people.”
Around the same time, the nonprofit of Phoenix Center for the Arts was forming. I met Joseph Benesh, the director here, and met with him about doing some screenings here. Since they do a lot of children’s programming, I warned him a lot of my stuff is not family-friendly. Joseph stopped me and said, “I don’t believe in censorship of any sort.” From there, we’ve had a great relationship.
I try to do three screenings a month at various venues around the Valley.
What other projects are you involved in?
Rafael Navarro and I are working on an invitational art exhibit at The Lodge Arts Studio on Grand Avenue for July, an anti-heat exhibit with water as a general theme. I’ll be putting up some photography and working on a looping video installation.
(Local artist and comedian) Leslie Barton and I did a great project at (Scottsdale restaurant) AZ/88 with (interior designer) Janis Leonard. We finished it about a year ago. It’s a video installation in the unisex bathroom. Janis describes the concept of the space itself as the mirror ball at Studio 54. She came to me for the video imagery. The three working titles of the videos running, which are three different films on six different monitors, are Hygiene, Naughty and Dolls.
If you go in after 9:30 p.m. on the right night, they put all three of them in. The only one that is considered to be family-friendly is Hygiene, but it’s kind of on the edge. We specifically made all the videos long enough so that, unless you stayed in the bathroom for 10 minutes, you’d never see all of them completely.
What do you look for when you’re choosing films for a show or installation?
Quality comes from a really strong intent. It comes from a very specific vision a person has when they go out making their film. Honesty is a big chunk of what a great film could be. I’m looking for how it’s done, the intent of the person, and how it makes you feel afterwards. You recognize it almost immediately after you start watching it. If I’m going to show a film, I’m putting my reputation on the line that this is something important you need to see.
Why did you decide to show Stop Making Sense?
I think it’s the most blissful film ever made. It’s smart. It’s funny. I showed it at SMoCA about two years ago and saw the response I was thinking it would have, and all I could think was that I wanted to show it again, but somewhere bigger.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the concert film that was filmed over three days. There’s no interview, there’s no light used in the film except for white light. There are so many smart things to that film. It’s the only film I ever plan to screen that is as interactive as this film spontaneously is.
What’s in store for your SMoCA programming?
I’m really excited for what we have at SMoCA. We’re doing a suburban-themed series of films to complement their Surburbia photography exhibit by Bill Owens. I had studied his work in school and knew his theme strongly, and also being the kid who grew up in Phoenix, I understood even my 1958 suburbia.
We’ll show a series of films that are really very different from each other. The first series, Thursday, June 19, consists of two short films made by two different filmmakers who went to the same university and had made them as one of their Master’s projects. Gimmie Green is the history of lawns in America and our obsession with lawns. The other one is called Wagonmasters, and it’s the story of the station wagon in American culture. They’re both really fun films.
How would you describe the Arizona film community?
I’m always surprised when I find filmmakers who are not making horror films, violent content or psychological thrillers. Having been involved in the film community professionally as a location scout, I knew people who worked on films and didn’t necessarily consider it anything more than a job. There are art filmmakers coming out of schools like ASU and Scottsdale Community College, whose shows I’ve always been excited about attending. That’s usually the work I find the most interesting. The film professors here are also instrumental in a lot of the high-quality work that’s been done here.
Filmmaker Steve Gompf is one of the most high-quality, talented people working here in terms of experimental filmmaking. Valeria Fernandez and Dan DeVivo made a film called Two Americans, and I would say, for me, those two people are the most recent example of what potentially could happen here with filmmakers. They’re talented journalists to begin with, then they made a film that has the ability to change things with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the immigration movement. At the very least, it exposed a lot of things and showed his soft underbelly a little more. It’s a well-made film.
The unfortunate filmmakers, in my opinion, are the people trying to mimic Hollywood films. As a result, you don’t have strong acting or strong scripts. You have actors coming out of college theater training rather than actual screen training. It’s just the ease of tools and the thought people have that, because they don’t need to shoot film and pay for it, they can make their films longer on video. That’s one of the technical problems I think has helped to create bad films, and that’s not necessarily just in Arizona.
I tend to go to Tucson a lot for what they’re doing there, and the Tucson film program is an excellent program, too. I like to do Arizona filmmaker-only shows. It just takes me awhile to put together a good one.
What are your goals?
The Phoenix Center for the Arts has great legs for doing more screenings. I would like to continue to show good, thoughtful content and get more people to see what No Festival Required does. I want to continue to find good stuff and good places to show it and get the audience to respond to it.
I would also like to travel a little more with Phoenix as the base. I’ve hosted film programmers who come to the Valley, and it’d be great to travel films around the state and region a little more.