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Sonoma International Film Festival


The Sonoma International Film Festival is considerd one of the nation's top ten destination film festivals.  All seven screning venues are withinh walking distance of the historic Sonoma Plaza.  This is one of the most filmmaker-friendly festivals where accommdations are provided thoughout your festival expderience and industry networking leads to distribution.  Enjoy a remarkable five day, stimulating festival in the midst of Sonoma wine country.  We do celebrate the very best in film, food & wine!

Set amidst the unparalleled beauty of the Sonoma Valley wine country, the Annual Sonoma International Film Festival welcomes filmakers and film lovers in April every year to a sun-drenched, luxurious extended weekend, pairing great food, fine wine and more than 100 new independent films from around the world. Film presentations at a variety of venues including the historic Sebastiani Theater on the Sonoma Town Plaza will include: world cinema, feature length narratives, documentaries, shorts and a student film program.


Interview with Writer-Director Gardner “Grady” Hall for "Winter Ball" (2022) @ 25th Annual SIFF

Interview with Writer-Director Gardner “Grady” Hall for "Winter Ball" (2022) @ 25th Annual SIFF Interview with Writer-Director Gardner “Grady” Hall for "Winter Ball" (2022) @ 25th Annual SIFF Gardner “Grady” Hall

Writer-Director Gardner “Grady” Hall started his career in professional baseball as a first round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox and holds a place as a member of Northwestern University's Athletic Hall of Fame. In film, he worked with Morgan Creek Productions on development for the film franchise "Major League" into a television series, later bought by FOX. His first film, which he wrote and directed, was the short “Fencing Miss Morality”, with Harry Lennix and Marc Blucas. His debut feature film as writer and director, “Winter Ball” is currently touring the international film festival circuit. I recently met Grady at the Sonoma International Film Festival.

In an interview about his film that marries his love for baseball and the Dominican Republic, here is what he had to say:


What has been your biggest challenge and your biggest reward thus far in your career?

GRADY: The biggest challenge was getting “Winter Ball” (my first feature) made. The biggest reward, thus far, has been to get “Winter Ball” made. Entertaining as the answer is, it is true. It took at least 15 years to get it made with a number of close calls along the way, both good and bad. A lot of folks around me thought it was time for me to move on, but every time I would consider putting the project to rest, something would pop up and give me hope and motivation that it could happen. I think I had just the right combination of arrogance and ignorance...and not necessarily in that order.


You are a writer, producer and director. Do you believe it is necessary to have multiple talents to be a filmmaker these days?

GRADY: It definitely doesn't hurt, especially the writing, directing combination when it comes to a first time effort. I never really considered directing anyone else's material, and when push came to shove, I never wanted anyone else to direct “Winter Ball”. Now that it is done, I think those two "talents" really work well together when it comes to executing a creative vision, if you have the ability to clearly communicate that vision. The sports background also helped when it came to establishing a good work environment on want to function as a team, and keep talent at the top of their game through easy and tough times. As the director you have to have answers to all of the questions, and as the writer, you, in theory, have already answered all of those questions while making the material appear out of thin air. The questioning on set was an aspect of directing I really enjoyed. Having people come to me with their own interpretation of the material and be open enough to consider different angles, angles that could make the overall project better. I haven't really addressed the producer role only because it doesn't flow gracefully together like the other two talents do. And yes, I was a producer on this project, mainly out of necessity. It wasn't going to get done if I didn't see it through, simple as that. The producer part has been the least favorite of the three for me, but a great learning experience for future projects...and hopefully they'll have a producing partner attached!


Before getting into film, you worked in professional baseball. Can you speak about that?

GRADY: I was lucky enough to play professional baseball and despite getting paid for it, it certainly didn't feel like work, even though the time and travel was taxing at times. That said, my tagline for that time of my life is that it was a great way to spend my 20's...traveling the country, and the world to some extent, playing baseball. It definitely broadened my appreciation and understanding of people and places, and helped inform how I have developed a voice writing-wise. It took me to places I would have never visited had it not been for baseball. And people everywhere were very welcoming and happy to let you in and give you a local perspective because you played baseball. So beyond the baseball part, it was a gypsy life with hosts welcoming you wherever you went. It is where I started writing, and got hooked on photography...both of which eventually pointed me to film.


You worked in production at Morgan Creek Productions. How did you move from baseball into film?

GRADY: It was not as seamless as that sounds. After baseball, I went through a few different "lives" before I found film. I first went back to school and got my Masters in Management at Northwestern (where I went undergrad...and graduated in baseball) through the Kellogg School. After that I ended up in San Francisco and spent some quality time in the Internet bubble. I then headed up to the mountains near Tahoe and started writing in earnest. I was then coaxed off the mountain and moved to LA, being told I was not able to "mail it in" and needed to be in town if I was serious about getting into the film business. The baseball connection to film though was the story that became Winter Ball. It received positive feedback on a script level and gave me the confidence to keep writing.  


Can you tell us about the inspiration for this story?

GRADY: Of course...during my baseball career I spent a winter in the Dominican Republic playing winter ball. The leagues down there (as well as in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico) had moved their "big leagues" to the winter so their stars could return home after playing in the States to play in front of their home country fans. The teams in Major League Baseball then used that opportunity to send prospects (typically American) from their farm systems to these leagues to get more experience, more innings, more work, more "seasoning" during the off season. My time in the Dominican had a big impact on me. The people were some of the nicest I'd met and very welcoming. They were also very intense baseball fans...and everyone on the island knew who you were. You did well, they loved you. You have a bad game and you probably won't get served in the restaurant for a while. It was great. The culture had a big impact on me as well, and while there I kept a journal to remember the highlights of my time. I found this journal a number of years later and it inspired me to write about the island, its people, and its culture. That was the beginning of the film project.


You said this film took you 15 years to make. Can you tell us about that process and why it took so long?

GRADY: The project had a few different lives during that time. I had been ushered into one of the bigger agencies in the business and was convinced the movie would get made with some of the best support in the business. We had many of the critical pieces in place, but then people, well one person (the agent) stopped returning my phone calls. Frustrated, I headed back to the mountains and started writing other scripts, putting “Winter Ball” in a drawer and forgetting about it...for a while. As I said earlier, every so often, someone would ask about or set up a meeting for me and provide just enough rope for me to hang to hope that it still could get made. I'm sure it also didn't help that I wanted to direct it. I was asked a couple of times to not attach myself to the project as director and sell it just to get something started in the business and build from there. But again, arrogance and ignorance joined forces to keep me plodding along as the "writer/director." Eventually, I was introduced to a great contact in the Dominican Republic and things really started to fall into place. The next thing I knew, I was on the island, sitting in meetings for casting and locations, steeped in pre-production, then making a movie! Oh, the agent that stopped calling me? I eventually found my way back into his office, ignoring his assistant who did their best to stop me. When I came into his office, he acted like I was going to kick his ass...I didn't. I did ask why the hell he "dry-docked" me when so many key pieces were in place. He said it was because the movie wasn't big enough in his opinion. It was a good lesson for me regarding the business side of the film industry...and a key takeaway was to not to give up despite what people "in the business" think. I love the William Goldman line..."nobody knows anything."


What are the stories that move you most? What films and people have been your biggest source of inspiration? 

GRADY: Favorite films...which is one of my favorite questions...Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Being There, City of God, Cinema Paradiso, Dances with Wolves, and Princess Bride. I'm sure all of these have had an influence on me as I have watched all of them a ton of times. With the different scripts I've written, the influence comes from different sources...some of them are people, some of them are places (like “Winter Ball” which is a little of both people and place). On the people front, I seem to find inspiration all around me. I think everyone has a unique story to tell, and when I run into a story that surprises me, I often find myself with a notebook soon after.


You attended SIFF recently. Can you tell us about that experience?

I had a great time at the SIFF! It was incredibly filmmaker friendly in contrast to some other festivals I had been a part of. The staff was friendly and ready to help with pretty much every aspect of being in Sonoma and presenting your film. The other thing that was front and center was the strong sense of community that came shining through. The area really put on a great show for the filmmakers, and made least me...feel right at home. Sonoma is a special area to begin with, but to add great people and great venues on top of it really made it stand apart as a special festival. I did have one experience that I thought was pretty exceptional. While walking the square and crossing the street, a driver vented some road rage out the window, seemingly upset with all of us invading his town for the festival...I guessed. Well, later in the week, at one of the parties, a guy approached me and said he was the one that yelled at me and he was really sorry for doing so. It was the end of the day and his kids were being kids and his fuse was kinda short. I thought it was such an amazing gesture for him to actually find me, approach me and then apologize for his outburst. I give him huge marks for doing that...great great guy and I'm sure emblematic of the local population. Not many guys would have done that...anywhere. Very cool.


What has been the response to your film so far?

GRADY: The screenings at the festival were great. We had such an engaged Q&A session after both screenings and folks really seemed to enjoy the film, its story and how we presented it visually. It was really nice to come into a festival where I didn't know a lot of local folks and have the movie received the way it was.


What will you be working on next?

GRADY: I have another script that we have already started getting out there. It has been getting some good response and has gotten in front of some great talent, so fingers crossed we will hopefully be up and running on the second film soon, improving on my 15-year "time to market" with “Winter Ball”.


Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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