“The Count’s Daughter” Wins Best Acting @ 2013 IYSFF!


Hello NDNU community!

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Johnny Villar. I’m a theatre major in my senior year here at NDNU (as of today, as a matter of fact), and I’m thrilled to have been given the opportunity to write a blog entry about my latest and greatest short film, The Count’s Daughter, which I’m extremely  happy to say won the award for “Best Acting”  in the 2013 International Youth Silent Film Festival in Portland, Oregon, over the summer!

(The film can be seen on the home page of my website: www.johnnyvillar.com)

Now, as I’m sure you can tell, The Count’s Daughter is very much a tribute to the great silent comedies of the 1920′s, and is heavily influenced by the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and (in particular in this case) Harold Lloyd. I’ve always been a huge fan of silent cinema, and, when I first found out about the International Youth Silent Film Festival last year, I knew that it was something I simply couldn’t pass up!

As a matter of fact, before I explain just how I came to win “Best Acting” in this year’s IYSFF, I should probably explain that this isn’t the first filmmaking award I’ve won, nor is it the first award I’ve won for a silent film…

You see, before I transferred to NDNU last year, I was a student at College of San Mateo for two years, where I was lucky enough to win both the 2011 and 2012 CSM ‘What the Film’ (WTF) Festivals (the first of which just so happened to take place the year I started there)! In the 2011 festival, my short silent film The Bicycle (also a tribute to the great silent comedians) won in the “Parody” category (there being three different categories per year), and, in the 2012 festival, my short film The Raven, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s legendary poem of the same name, won in the “Adaptation” category, making me the only CSM student as yet to have won the student film festival two years in a row!

Now, around the same time as I was shooting The Raven in the spring of 2012 (and while I was simultaneously appearing in NDNU Theatre’s spring 2012 production of Our Town, my second production at NDNU, prior to being a student there), I came across a film festival while browsing online one day called the International Youth Silent Film Festival, which, as I read, took place in Portland, Oregon, and was, at that time, about to go into its third year. The challenge of the festival, as I read on, was for filmmakers age 20 and under to create a 3-minute silent film set to one of the festival’s six pre-recorded organ soundtracks, each one of which represents a different genre (Romance, Action, Horror, Slapstick, Mystery, Science Fiction).

Naturally, I was quite  intrigued, and, after selecting the ‘Mystery’ theme as my soundtrack, I began working on my first IYSFF entry, 2012′s The Box Vanishes, a sequel to my 2011 CSM award-winner The Bicycle, and which, like that previous film, was shot around my neighborhood in Foster City, but which was a bit more influenced by the “film noir” genre than its predecessor.

A few weeks after submitting it, I was thrilled to receive a notice in the mail one day telling me that The Box Vanishes had been selected as one of the Top 45 finalists in the 2012 IYSFF, meaning that it was going to be played at one of the three screening nights taking place at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon, in May of 2012! Of course, I was extremely excited about this, despite the  fact that I wasn’t going to be able to attend the screening night for my film, due to it being right in the middle of my final examinations week at CSM (and, as it eventually turned out, the film was not nominated for any of the 2012 awards).

Nevertheless, when 2013 rolled around, I knew that I had to give the IYSFF one more shot, since it was my last year before turning 21, and, therefore, my last chance to take advantage of such a wonderful opportunity as the International Youth Silent Film Festival provides to young filmmakers.

Thus, in the spring of 2013, I began work on my fourth short film, and one which I was determined to have my greatest success yet with: The Count’s Daughter.

Choosing the ‘Slapstick’ theme this time, I envisioned The Count’s Daughter as being largely an homage to the great silent comedian Harold Lloyd, but, at the same time, I wanted it to be a cinematic reflection of my own personality, which is a big part of the reason why I chose to go with the ‘Slapstick’ soundtrack, since its upbeat and energetic style mirrored how my own mood had been since I had begun NDNU.

I also knew from the very beginning of my figuring out what the concept of  the film would be that I wanted one of my fellow NDNU theatre majors to appear in it, and I soon realized that there could be no better choice for the title role of the count’s daughter (Catherine Darkov) than the beautiful and exceptionally talented Margaret Gorrell, whose unique, classy acting style (which recalls movie actresses of the 1920′s and 30′s) made her the perfect choice for the part, which, after offering to her, she accepted!

I had appeared with Margaret previously in four NDNU Theatre productions, two prior to my attending NDNU (2011′s A Christmas Carol and Our Town) and two as a full-fledged NDNU theatre major (Hay Fever and 2012′s A Christmas Carol). When we began shooting The Count’s Daughter in April of 2013, Margaret and I were both in the midst of rehearsals for the theatre department’s spring production of Twelfth Night, and would often shoot right after rehearsals in the afternoon. The film was shot entirely on the beautiful NDNU campus, and prominently features Ralston Hall (which, interestingly, I also used two years ago as the setting for my short story The Door Beside the Stairs, which won 1st place in the “Fiction” category of the Foster City International Writers Contest in 2011) as the setting of Count’s Darkov’s home. I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty of the NDNU campus, and wanted to really show off some of my favorite parts of it in this film.

My decision to play two characters  is a personal nod of mine to some of my favorite movies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in which the same actor plays multiple roles, a device I’ve always loved! The two characters I played in the film, furthermore, are both tributes to two my favorite actors of the 1920′s: Billy being a tribute to Harold Lloyd, and Count Darkov being a tribute to Erich von Stroheim.

I was editing The Count’s Daughter right up to the deadline (as I often do with almost everything), at one point even bringing my laptop computer into the men’s dressing room during rehearsals and performances for Twelfth Night, editing pieces of the film before going onstage.

Nevertheless, I still managed to get it in on time, and, just a few weeks later (in fact, the first day of my summer break), I looked on the official IYSFF Facebook page to discover, to my utter joy, that The Count’s Daughter had made it into the Top 45 for the 2013 International Youth Silent Film Festival, and that the film would be screened on May 23rd at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon (exactly one year to the day after The Box Vanishes was screened), making it my second year in a row of getting in to the Top 45 for this festival! Needless to say, I was extremely thrilled!

Throughout the rest of that wonderful month of May, several more strokes of good fortune came my way, such as when I learned that I had been nominated once again to compete in the Irene Ryan Acting Competition, for my performance as Feste the Fool in Twelfth Night, in the 2014 American College Theater Festival (another ‘second-time-in-a-row’ score for me, as I had also been nominated in the 2013 ACTF for my performance as Simon Bliss in Hay Fever). I also found out that I had received a special Meritorious Achievement Recognition by ACTF for the original pop-rock renditions of Shakespearean songs that I wrote and performed as part of Twelfth Night! These achievements, in addition to my having won NDNU’s first-ever “Argo Idol” singing competition during the previous spring semester, led me to believe that 2013 was shaping up to be my most artistically successful year as yet!

Though, sadly, I was once again unable to attend the screening night for my film, my nerves for the rest of that evening and the following morning were such that I was practically there in spirit, as I painfully looked repeated times at both the IYSFF website and official Facebook page, trying to find out which of the 45 films had been announced as the winners. You see, at the end each screening night, during which 15 of the films are screened per night, the films from that night that had been decided as winners by the celebrity judges are announced.

By the next morning, however, I still hadn’t received any notice about whether or not The Count’s Daughter had been named as one of the winners, and, thus, thinking I had once again not made it, I made a melancholy trip to the NDNU chapel later that afternoon, where I often go to contemplate and reflect in such moments of confusion, in order to ask God for His guidance through what I thought was going to be a very difficult time. I wondered why He had not answered my prayer, especially when I had put so much effort and hope into a film that I believed was surely my best yet (Oh, if I’d only known what was about to happen…)

Then, as I was still in this state of sadness, I walked from the chapel down the path over to the NDNU Library, sat down at a desk in the corner, and opened my laptop to Facebook. And there, in the top left corner, was the sign that there was a message in my inbox. I clicked on it…

It was no illusion; I, who just minutes before had been in the depths of sadness and thinking my film had failed, HAD ACTUALLY WON ONE OF THE 2013 INTERNATIONAL YOUTH SILENT FILM FESTIVAL AWARDS FOR MY FILM THE COUNT’S DAUGHTER!

It was the most joyously surreal moment of my life, as I sat there in the NDNU Library reading this message over and over again, I realized that God had answered my prayer after all! I realized then how silly I had been to have been so saddened over what I thought was a missed opportunity, when I should have known all along (having seen His miracles worked time and time again throughout my life) to always trust in Him! If ever there was a moment where Jesus was standing right alongside me smiling over me, it was on that day at that moment in the NDNU Library!

Of course, the first thing I did, as Ned Thanhouser (who, by the way, is one of the organizers and founders of the IYSFF, who also updates of the official IYSFF facebook page) told me to do, was email Jon “JP” Palanuk, who is the main founder of the International Youth Silent Film Festival, and who, upon replying, congratulated me and gave me all the details about the awards ceremony, which he told me would be taking place on June 6th, 2013 (the day after my 21st birthday), at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon! Furthermore, he told me that, as an award finalist, I was confirmed to have won one of the eight award presented by the IYSFF (1st Place: $1000, 2nd Place: $500, 3rd Place: $250, Best Acting, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Story), which would be revealed to me at the awards ceremony!

Naturally, I was beyond thrilled, and though I hadn’t been previously able to attend the screening nights for either this or last year’s festival, I would not have missed the 2013 IYSFF awards ceremony for anything in the world, needless to say, especially now having been told that I would definitely be presented with an award!

Thus, on June 6th, after a very pleasant 21st birthday with my family, my dad and I flew from SFO to Portland, arriving  just two hours before the awards ceremony was supposed to begin (due to our flight being delayed by an hour-and-a-half). I’ll never forget how excited I was the whole way there, though! Here I was, having just turned 21, and off to accept an award in another state for a short film that I shot at my school (what a way to kick-off my “adult years”)! I began to reflect on just how fortunate I was, and thought back to a time when I was 19, when I used to be afraid that, if I hadn’t accomplished anything artistically successful outside of California by the time I was 21, I would be disappointed in myself. But here, just one day late, I had done exactly that, and couldn’t be more thrilled!

We arrived in Portland at about 5:00, and to make a long and stressful story short, after much more waiting and panicking on my part (due to both our shuttle and our cab being late), we finally pulled up in front of the Hollywood Theatre in Downtown Portland…at 6:55! The awards ceremony as supposed to start at 7, so we had just made it! (Boy, was I stressed.)

Fortunately, however everything from then on out that evening went smoothly! The Count’s Daughter was screened (along with all the other winning films in this year’s IYSFF, and with live organ accompaniment), and received a terrific response, the house being packed with people! As I watched it, with the live organ accompaniment of the “Slapstick” soundtrack being played by the composer of all the IYSFF film scores, Nathan Avakian, I thanked God for the incredible good fortune I had, and thanked him for guiding me every step of the way to get me to this point. Sitting there in the Hollywood Theatre watching The Count’s Daughter up on that great big beautiful screen was one of the great thrills of my life!

When the film had finished playing, it being the last finalist shown that evening, the announcer asked all of the winners to crowd up on the stage! At last, it was time to find out what I had won! I looked over to where my dad was sitting, and then looked out to all the faces in the audience staring back up at me and my fellow filmmakers! I couldn’t believe this was all really happening!

The first award given out was the Audience Award, and then JP said the second award would be “Best Acting”, which, as he explained to the audience, was presented by Portland Center Stage, which I later discovered is the city’s leading professional theatre company.

And then, just as he was about to announce who the winner was, a sudden memory flashed into my mind: I remembered, on the last day Margaret and I were shooting The Count’s Daughter, filming the scene in the grotto, I remarked to her that I was trying to win the “Best Acting” award this year at the IYSFF.

And sure enough…


The award I had wanted so much to win, and the one which I had told Margaret I was hoping to win, was now mine!

I shook hands with JP, who gave me a hearty congratulations, and then handed me both my beautiful plaque and another envelope with my name on it. He then turned to the audience and explained how I had flown all the way up from the Bay Area to make it to the awards ceremony, to which the whole audience responded with great cheers and applause! I was a truly emotional moment for me!

The ceremony then proceeded with the awards for Best Story, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and then the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners, all of which I thought were very well-deserved! I, of course, was still so absorbed with my own “Best Acting” win that I was hardly even aware of what was going on around me!

While the other awards were being announced, I took a look inside the envelope JP had given me, which contained a letter from the Artistic & Education staff of Portland Center Stage, who had granted me the “Best Acting” award! They gave me some very nice compliments about The Count’s Daughter: “You excelled at capturing the unique acting style of silent film, while always keeping the focus, and a critical eye, on telling a good story. We were also impressed with your comedic skills and the distinction given to portraying multiple characters. Well done!”

In addition to this, for my prize, they gave me two complimentary tickets to upcoming productions at both the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the American Conservatory Theater! This portion of the prize, in particular, was very meaningful to me, since I originally had been worried that, if I won anything, the prize would be for something based in Oregon, which, obviously, would have been hard for me to use. But, thankfully, Portland Center Stage was nice enough to work out a prize for me with these two great Bay Area theatre companies, which I am extremely grateful for!

Afterwards, we went out to dinner with the rest of the IYSFF organizers. This part of the trip made it particularly special, especially since I was the was the only filmmaker to have been invited (probably because me and my dad had come such a long way to make it to the awards ceremony)!

Winning the Portland Center Stage award for “Best Acting” at the 2013 International Youth Silent Film Festival is perhaps my greatest achievement to date. It is the first acting award I’ve ever won, and the first award I’ve ever won outside of California. Even more than this, it meant a great deal to me that the award was granted by Portland’s leading theatre company, since Margaret Gorrell and I both, after all, come from the NDNU Theatre.

Though my dad and I spent only less than 24 hours in Portland, the combination of both my winning “Best Acting” and the awards ceremony and dinner with the organizers of the IYSFF made it one of the most memorable trips of my life! Furthermore, I’m glad that it was The Count’s Daughter that made it all happen, as I really believe it is the best thing I’ve ever done in any area of art!

To put it simply, it was the best 21st birthday present I could’ve ever dreamed of.

It’s also quite fitting that I’m writing a blog about this now, since The Count’s Daughter is going to be screened two times this very weekend at the annual NDNU Theatre Festival, which runs for its final weekend this Thursday (August 29th), Friday (August 30th), and Saturday (August 31st), at the NDNU Theatre! The film is going to be shown on Friday night, in addition to being screened Saturday afternoon at a special children’s matinee, where I’m also going to be appearing as The Jester (continuing my ever-growing streak of playing eccentric characters) in a short children’s play called A Foolish Fairytale.

In addition to this, also as part of the festival, my directorial debut in the theatre will be playing on Thursday and Saturday night: a live radio drama called Pavane, adapted from the brilliant 1940′s horror-fantasy series Quiet, Please, my favorite old-time radio show!

Though, sadly, I will not be present at the festival myself this weekend (aside from appearing in A Foolish Fairytale), due to it being the opening weekend for The Half Moon Bay Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet, which I’m appearing in as part of my summer internship requirement for my theatre major, I hope you’ll be able to come down for one of the evening performances of this weekend’s NDNU Theatre Festival, where you can see some of my latest work! Also, if you get a chance, come see Hamlet, opening this weekend at Cameron’s Inn in Half Moon Bay, in which I’ll be appearing as Guildenstern and Osric!

(You can see the full festival schedule for this weekend here: http://www.ndnu.edu/the-arts/theatre/calendar.aspx)

Aside from that, thanks so much for reading this blog entry of mine, and, if I may say so, though today is only the first day of the fall semester, I can already feel that this is going to be an incredible year! Just wait…


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