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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 02:20 pm

Grace Smith’s birthday movie

Grace Smith

Grace Smith wanted to do something radically different for her 30th birthday: She decided to write, direct and star in her own feature film. She will screen the result--Hope's Happy Birthday--at this year's Route 66 Film Festival, where her do-it-yourself movie has been selected as the festival's Best Comedy Feature.

The protagonist, Hope, strikes out on her own to escape from her sheltered life in Springfield. Her destination is Venice, Italy, where she plans to scatter the ashes of her dead cat over the Grand Canal. Smith, of course, plays Hope, but the film is only partially autobiographical. Smith does, however, share her character 's likeable nature.

Smith had experience making television commercials, educational films, and industrial videos in Los Angeles. Her first foray into feature filmmaking was as co-screenwriter of a horror spoof called Teenage Catgirls in Heat, which was eventually picked up for distribution by Troma Films, best known for the low-budget hit The Toxic Avenger.

But Smith found Catgirls unsatisfying. So as her birthday approached she raised $30,000--a minuscule budget for a feature film--and gathered up a cast and crew where she was living then, in Austin, Texas. Austin doubled for Springfield, but the opening sequence and several inserts were shot here. The entire shoot lasted four hectic weeks in 1994. "It was really an exhilarating experience," she says, "the first and only time in my life where I felt like I was using every bit of my brain."

Hope's Happy Birthday has also been shown at the Austin and Hermosa Beach film festivals.

Smith returned to Springfield about a year ago, after four years in Austin and six in LA. She's currently a massage therapist at St. John's Hospital, and working on a new screenplay.


The Route 66 Film Festival

The true spirit of independent filmmaking returns to Springfield with the second annual Route 66 Film Festival, Saturday from 1 to 9:30 p.m. in the Rendezvous Room at the Springfield Hilton. Most of the entries were made in central Illinois and Chicago, but some works have come from as far away as California and Rhode Island.

This year's festival has been scaled down from last year's ambitious debut. Founder Randy Soland handed the reins over to Linda McElroy, a consultant at the Illinois State Board of Education. McElroy has taught high school English and drama, and she says her love of film dates back to her childhood, when her father would take her to the movies "as payment for weeding soybean fields." McElroy regularly attends the prestigious Telluride Film Festival, and her involvement in the now-defunct Lincoln Land Community College Reel to Real Film Club led her to volunteering on last year's festival. Other committee members are Carl Fisher, Pat Holstein, Judie Mier, Julianne Shoopman, Lynette Smith, Scott Smith, and Dawn Turner. Projection equipment is provided by Dean Williams.

Festival tickets will be available at the door. They cost $7 for adults, $5 for students under 17, and they're good for the entire event.


Schedule of Films

1 p.m. THE RAMONES AND I A devoted fan of the seminal punk rock band narrates this documentary, which includes concert footage. (7 minutes)

1:10 p.m. VAMOS This year's winner of Best Foreign Film comes from the faraway land of Litchfield. Yes, this odd Christmas comedy was a produced by a Spanish class at Litchfield High School. (19 minutes)

1:30 p.m. JOURNEY TO TIBET The winner of the Featured Short Video award, this work collects the sights and sounds of Tibet. (5 minutes)

1:40 p.m. THANK YOU FOR COMING: BURN IN HELL Winner of Best Documentary Short, this film goes behind-the-scenes at a state-of-the art haunted house that puts most others to shame. (26 minutes)

2:10 p.m. TOUGH ALL OVER Chosen Featured Comedy Short, this movie follows a middle-school nerd who suffers from a common type of teenage angst: unrequited love. (8 minutes)

2:30 p.m. 18 DAYS 16 HOURS In this Best Documentary Feature, an American yachtsman wins an essay contest and gets a spot as a crewmember in a Transatlantic race. (25 minutes)

3:05 p.m. ACNE Toxic waste infects teens with odd zits, in this Featured Comedy winner. (72 minutes)

4:45 p.m. PENOBSCOT BASKET MAKERS In this Best Diversity Documentary winner, a Native-American woman weaves tales from her life. (52 minutes)

5:40 p.m. TRACES A woman is saved from a life of prostitution by a man who introduces her to religion, in this Best Featured Drama. (70 minutes)

7 p.m. 759.55 MILES TO NOWHERE Locals complain about their bland existence during a filmmaker's road trip from one small California town to another. This winner of Best Featured Documentary contains strong language. (11 minutes)

7:15 p.m. HOPE'S HAPPY BIRTHDAY See story (90 minutes)

8:50 p.m. SKUNK APE?! A punk rock band awakens an apelike creature living in the woods, in this winner of Best Comedy Short, which contains strong language and violence. (30 minutes)

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