Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Matthias Vriens-McGrath
On the twentieth anniversary of the Nantucket Film Festival, life-long island summer resident Ben Stiller gives N Magazine an exclusive interview about his life on Nantucket, his love for the film festival, and how he’s kept people laughing after all these years.
N MAGAZINE: Can you tell us about your history on the island and how it relates to you getting involved with the Nantucket Film Festival?
BEN STILLER: Nantucket played a significant role in my adolescence, since my parents have owned a house there since I was a kid. In fact, I would say my parents are responsible for me being a part of the festival, since they are the most powerful show business couple on the Island — after Chris and Kathleen Matthews. Also I went through all of my awkward teen experiences there — and the great ones, too. So I knew a lot of the people who formed the festival.
In 1995, when the festival first started, they asked if I’d be interested in joining the Board of Directors, and I said yes immediately. Right after I made sure it was okay with my mom and dad. It was the first time anyone asked me to be on a board of anything. I am still figuring out what that means exactly.
Our whole family has always been a part of the festival in many ways. My sister, Amy, has done readings and Late Night Storytelling there and we all have participated in lots of different ways. It feels very organic.
N MAGAZINE: You are one of the only original board members of the Film Festival, why have you remained so committed to the festival for all these years?
BEN STILLER: Two reasons. They have some very damaging photos of me making out with my third cousin behind the chicken Box back in 1980. Long story. And as a writer-director myself, I deeply believe in the mission of supporting up-and-coming screenwriters.
It’s also been exciting for me to see the festival develop over the years, and I continue to meet great people, and see some excellent films. In 1995, my film The Cable Guy opened NFF, and during the festival, I met a young writer-director named John Hamburg, who was attending NFF with a short named Tick. John and I have become great collaborators since then, working on movies like Meet the Parents, and Zoolander. If a festival is able to foster those sorts of relationships, that’s some- thing I want to be involved in.
N MAGAZINE: Everyone knows you as an actor, but can you talk about your work as a writer and a director and how it relates to your passion for the Nantucket Film Festival?
BEN STILLER: Great films all begin with a great script. I know that’s a tired expression, but it’s true. Seeing new artists emerge from the festival is always inspiring. I have so many lasting relationships that have come out of this festival, both creatively and personally. It is a vibrant, creative space and it is about new talent and emerging filmmakers. Hard not to get inspired by that.
N MAGAZINE: Can you talk about how your parents have been committed to Nantucket and the festival over the years?
BEN STILLER: My parents have been involved with the festival for as long as I have. They have both had several films that screened at the festival, including The Daytrippers in 1996 and A Fish in a Bathtub in 1998. They’ve both participated in numerous Staged Read- ings, including one that I directed called Spectacle: Part One of the Mark Rosen Chronicle.
For several years, my mom was the host of Late Night Storytelling, which is one of NFF’s most popular programs. And my dad loves collecting all the free T-shirts, which my mom and I love returning the next day to the wonderful and understanding festival workers who were actually selling them.
N MAGAZINE: One of your biggest influences on the festival is the Comedy Roundtable. Why do you think there needs to be greater attention paid to comedy writers and the craft of screen writing in general?
BEN STILLER: I saw the festival as an opportunity to gather a bunch of great comedians, who could come to the island and talk about not just performing, but also writing their material, their processes, and their inspirations. I love how this has become a way for folks to put a face to all the craft that goes into their work. Also it is always a different experience depending on who is there. But what is great is that people get a sense of the type of commitment that goes into doing any sort of writing, especially comedy, where the idea is you shouldn’t ever be thinking about that.
N MAGAZINE: How were those early Film Festivals different than what we have today? What makes the Nantucket Film Festival unique?
BEN STILLER: In the early days, it was run on good will and a few circus tickets. Now, it’s evolved into a substantial machine run on good will and still some circus tickets. We have a real thing here now, and the history of the festival speaks for itself. It has become a part of the culture of Nantucket Island, and a part of the economy too. It has been really cool to see it grow.
As I mentioned, I feel strongly about the fact that the festival exists to celebrate writing and storytelling. We’ve been fortunate enough to show some really incredible films over the years as well. I saw Richard Linklater’s Boyhood for the first time at last year’s Closing Night screening, and was really blown away.
N MAGAZINE: There’s been a couple movies shot on Nantucket in recent years. Would you ever shoot a movie here, and if so, do any movie ideas come to mind that the island would lend itself to?
BEN STILLER: Something about the Sunken Ship and the legendary “old salt” who runs it, Phil Osley. Actually I am the old salt who used to work there in my teens. And the stories I have about Phil would definitely make for a great movie. Probably not family fare, but a great coming of age story for sure, with exciting scuba diving scenes.
N MAGAZINE: What’s your favorite Nantucket memory?
BEN STILLER: Probably one of the first times I fell for a girl when I was about fifteen. And she actually liked me and was a little older. It was a pretty amazing summer. I think she was like seventeen. That’s another movie. Actually I think they already made it. One Crazy Summer, with John Cusack as me, or who I wanted to be.
N MAGAZINE: What’s your favorite beach?
BEN STILLER: I’ve loved Children’s since I was a kid, and love taking my kids there. And it has always been good for Jerry Stiller sightings in the colder months, doing his Polar Bear thing. And then there’s Cisco, and Madaket, and Surfside and Nobadeer, and if you have the four-wheel permit, Great Point. All so beautiful.
N MAGAZINE: You can spend your vacations anywhere in the world. What is it about Nantucket that brings you back year after year?
BEN STILLER: The cheap real estate. Actually, I think it is just the place itself is so special, and small, and unique. I think anyone who comes again and again comes for that feeling. Anytime of year is different and beautiful in its own way. I love it and have so many great memories.