Actor and director Jason Priestley has been named the first-ever ambassador for the Whistler Film Festival (WFF).
Vancouver-born Priestley, who shot to fame as heartthrob Brandon Walsh in Beverley Hills, 90210 in the 1990s, works and lives in Los Angeles.
His debut as a director, Cas & Dylan, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Tatiana Maslany, opened the 2013 WFF last December and won the Audience Award. Priestley was also presented with the festival's Trailblazer Award last year.
His new WFF role will be honoured at the festival's annual summer benefit, Celebrate WFF, in Vancouver on Thursday, Aug. 14. It is the WFF's traditional 16-week countdown for the five-day festival, now in its 14th year.
"I've never done anything like (the ambassador role) before. I'm hoping to help raise the profile of the WFF as a world-class festival," Priestly wrote in response to emailed questions.
"I did grow up skiing in Whistler! Whistler will always be a very special place to me. I tell all my friends to go there. Winter and summer. It's truly awesome."
WFF has established considerable partnerships with the American film industry in recent years, with the involvement of the movie industry magazine Variety, and participation of Hollywood actors Melissa Leo and Rashida Jones, among others.
Asked how crucial an ambassador role like this would be in order to build the profile of a relatively small boutique film festival, Priestley said:
"Relationships are incredibly important in Hollywood. And the film festival landscape has become so crowded these days that you need to make sure that you are unique. With its focus on Canadian cinema, the Whistler Film Festival stands out."
Priestley said being honoured by WFF last year helped Cas & Dylan's profile. As well, Maslany took home the Borsos Acting Award from WFF.
Cas & Dylan tells the story of the road trip taken by a dying doctor (Drefuss), who can't shake the young, free-spirited woman (Maslany), who tags along for the ride from Winnipeg to the west coast. It's a comic tale of opposites.
"The support we received from the Whistler Film Festival last year, winning the Audience Choice Award and, of course, Tatiana winning the Borsos Acting Award, was incredibly important for us. It really helped launch the film and carried us all the way through our theatrical release," Priestley wrote.
Cas & Dylan went on to other festivals, including the Glasgow Film Festival, after Whistler.
Priestley said: "The film has been very well received everywhere we've shown it. And we are just finalizing our deal to release the film here in the U.S."
He added that he needed his previous experiences as an actor and director to make Cas & Dylan, his first feature.
"Well, let's just say, I'm glad I have as much experience as I do, on both sides of the camera. Because I needed all of it," he wrote. "There were many challenges we faced making this movie. I'm very thankful I had such a good team and such great actors to work with!"
Was it important to have his first feature directing experience be a Canadian film, as opposed to an American one?
"The filmmaking process is the filmmaking process wherever you go. So in that regard, it makes no difference," he said. "But for me, to come back to Canada to shoot my first film was really special. And to be able to take advantage of the topography, and the landscapes, it was a dream come true."
He added that along with preparing for the American release of Cas & Dylan, he is directing television and hopes to shoot his next feature in 2015.
Along with Priestley, WFF is honouring three other film-industry talents on the night: Arthur Evrensel, entertainment lawyer and founding partner of MEP Business Council, director Lynne Stopkewich, and Bill Thumm, director of the Nat and Flora Bosa Centre for Film and Animation at Capilano University.
Shauna Hardy Mishaw, executive director of WFF, said the annual event is held in spirit of being supportive of creative independence.
"The money raised benefits our programs for Canadian artists, our labs (past WFF labs include workshops for short films, First Nations filmmakers, and feature films) and our industry initiatives," she said. "We honour people in the industry who have significance with the Whistler Film Festival or have been part of our circle."
She was very pleased that Priestley benefited from showing his film at WFF.
"The festival was really able to heighten (Cas & Dylan), which was passed over for the Toronto Film Festival, and it went on to be quite successful... It got a lot of energy coming out of Whistler," Hardy Mishaw said.
"Jason is a very versatile talent. Not only in front of the camera, which he is best known for, but also behind the camera. As our inaugural ambassador, he will be really representing us within and beyond our borders."
Hardy Mishaw described the new ambassador role as special for the festival. It is something the festival had been planning for years.
"He was a perfect candidate for us, he's from B.C., he's a filmmaker who really understands the industry," she said. "He will really help champion the Whistler Film Festival... he had a great experience here and we had a great experience with him."
Hardy Mishaw said they hoped the ambassador role would be an ongoing connection between Priestley and the festival.
"And our other three honourees are very significant people within the industry, in terms of the services they provide," she said. "Arthur sits on the board of Lionsgate (Films) and Bill built the $36-million film centre at Capilano University. Lynn is a talented writer and director who has done very well. She's a mentor."
Tickets for the event, which takes place at the Blue Water Café in Vancouver, are $150 per person and available at www.whistlerfilmfestival.com or by calling 604-938-3203.
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