First Person: Thirty-Five Millimeter Party People

Posted on Jan 26 by SEASONS Magazine

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Britt Jewett, photo by Mercedes Lowe


Britt Jewett and the Making of SBIFF Opening Night   

Story by D.J. Palladino

Some people go to film festivals for the movies. Others like to experience the whole package—director interviews, celebrity tributes and the fabulous late-night galas. That’s certainly the aspect of Santa Barbara International Film Festival that architect Britt Jewett knows best. When not plying his trade building and renovating homes and public buildings, Jewett has found steady work behind–the–scenes in arranging the fest’s annual bash. “If I were going to answer what we do in the most unpretentious way, I’d say we create an after-party environment,” says Jewett, musing in his downtown Studio 7 Meridian Studios office. “Among ourselves, though, we say we are putting up an installation.”

Film-festers experience this fierce duality of frolic room meets art space attending the very popular opening night bash that fills the byways of Paseo Nuevo. “A lot of what we do is purely experimental,” admits Jewett, who has gotten the party started for the last nine years partnering with Ted Bowman of Bowman Construction. “Sometimes, we just document a particular kind of curve, to see where it gets us as a design,” he says, pointing to different models strewn around his two-story, funky yet elegant office.

The “we” of whom Jewett speaks includes his students from Costa Mesa’s Orange Coast Community College, who devote themselves to staging the conceptual event as a class project. “What happens is that every year, Roger [Durling, festival executive director] tells us what film he wants to base the party on,” Jewett explains. For the rest of the year, the class manufactures the design and then installs it two days before the opening night. The ideas are sometimes plain, like a maze for The Shining, sometimes inspired, like giant chairs for Fellini’s 8 ½. They can also get wacky and conceptual, such as the year they tried to spatially represent the jump cuts Jean Luc Godard used in Breathless.

“I come up with a film and he takes over,” says Durling. “The first years, we wouldn’t even tell people what the film was that would inspire the opening night installations. My favorite has to be his Fellini.  My heart skipped a beat when I walked through it.”

Jewett considers himself a film fan, although not a nerd. “Like every other kid, I loved The Wizard of Oz until the monkeys flew,” he laughs. Designing in space, however, is built obsessively into his DNA. His father designed roller coasters and took him out to look at the parks. “It really informed how I look at things, at patterns and designs. It was a huge gift.”

Jewett, who now lives in a home designed by Santa Barbara artist Carl Oscar Borg, grew up in Sandusky, Ohio. He initially studied to be an Optometrist at Ohio State, until he bowed to the designer within. A visit to the Rose Bowl made him lust for California, then a visit to Santa Barbara drew him away from his Orange County practice. Jewett worked for the late Santa Barbara architect Barry Berkus, gaining international experience. He also helped remodel the County Courthouse Hall of Records, which gave him an opportunity to understand the challenges and rewards of working creatively inside traditional structures. “I have no brand,” says Jewett. “I’m more about bringing proportion and scale to the ideas that fit the personality of my client.”

Jewett likes to credit the students who see the annual film festival gala from design idea through fabrication and implementation. 

Like The Wizard of Oz, Jewett seems happy to be the man in the corner nobody pays attention to, even after the magic begins. He loves the job and isn’t in it for recognition. “It begins as an exploration of some idea maze, then we try pushing it into something that will create an emotional response. We push the boundaries, but at the same time we know that a lot of the people are there for fun and the free booze.” 

 The 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival opening night celebration is January 27. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit sbiff.org. For more information about Britt Jewett, visit s7arc.com.

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine, Winter 2014/15.

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