Essential SF Q&A: Zoë Elton

By Pam Grady

Zoë Elton never meant to stay in the Bay Area, but a pit stop here during a cross-country trip across America led to her putting down roots. The Mill Valley Film Festival recently celebrated its 38th anniversary and Elton marked her 38th anniversary with it. A part-time job in the festival’s early days has bloomed into a full-time passion for MVFF’s now longtime Director of Programming.

We are thrilled to welcome Elton into our Essential SF circle. This ongoing compendium celebrates the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions, shining a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.

San Francisco Film Society: Where are you from originally?

Zoë Elton: Herford, England. It’s known for cows, hops and cider apples, so one kind of animal and two kinds of alcohol.

SFFS: What’s your background prior to coming to California?

ZE: Theater, actually. I went to drama school in London. I worked a little bit there and then I came to America in the late ‘70s, expecting to be here for a year and ended up staying. I thought I would hitchhike across America and go to Peru and then go back. That proved not to be the way to go.

SFFS: What happened to change your plans?

ZE: I would like to tell you that I fell in love or something like that, but it really wasn’t that. I think I just wasn’t ready to go back. I think maybe you could say I fell in love with California.

SFFS: When did you land in the Bay Area?

ZE: Labor Day weekend, 1976. It was horribly foggy and I had come on a humongous journey, had nowhere to stay, and I ended up staying at the YMCA hotel in the Tenderloin. I would’ve left the next day had it not been for an American friend of mine who’d been living here. She said, ‘No, no, no, don’t leave. My mom’s friend is having a party in Marin County, why don’t you come?’ I met a group of people, within 24 hours of landing in San Francisco, who are still in my life. It was from within that group of people that the connection got made for me to work with Mill Valley Film Festival.

SFFS: Was the film festival your first job in film?

ZE: The film festival was my first job in film, except when I was 12 and 13, I was a monitor at the Saturday morning movies in my hometown. When I was in high school, when I was like 17, 18, I used to organize—we had this group I used to organize. I would book films for that and I used to book speakers, kind of a lot of the things I actually do at Mill Valley now.

SFFS: Tell me about the early days at Mill Valley. What were you doing originally and how have you evolved along with the festival over the years?

ZE: In the early days, the seed of doing something with video was planted. I took that and ran with it, so for about the first 15 years, Mill Valley was actually the first film festival, I think, to have video in its programming. I was the video curator. We called it the Videofest. I was the Videofest director for the first 15 years of the festival. And I had parallel careers. I was doing that part-time, and at the same time I was writing and directing plays. I had residencies with West Coast Playwrights, Intersection in San Francisco, and a lot of other places. For about 15 years, I had parallel careers between being the director of Videofest and doing theater.

SFFS: What made you choose to concentrate on the film side?

ZE: There was a point in my life where a lot of changes happened. My parents died, friends died, the AIDS crisis hit. It was the same time we were looking for a director of programming, so I ended going for that, just wanting to sort of go full force into one thing rather than the many things I had been doing. For a while, which turned into a lot longer, obviously.

SFFS: What makes you stay? What has kept you here?

ZE: Really, a constant fascination with what makes creativity tick, and really being in a position to explore that and support other people in doing their work. Truthfully, there was also a shift for me when I realized that, although work is kind of crazy, there was that point where I realized that I couldn’t change anyone else, but I could change myself. That shifted things for me.

I think, also, working at the festival has offered me a place to explore a lot of different things. For instance, I initiated our Active Cinema program eight years ago, which looks at people’s work with a cause. This year, doing the women’s initiative Mind the Gap was really terrific, because it not only gave us a way of saying, ‘Hey, what can we actually do?’, but it also gave us a way to talk in a new and intriguing way. It’s a way, I think, we can apply to anything and anyone.

SFFS: This kind of relates to that, as well. What are some of your personal career highlights?

ZE: I think the Mind the Gap initiative is definitely a career highlight. Interviewing Helen Mirren, who interestingly went to the same drama school in London. Managing to get the very last seat in the theater in the Palais in Cannes when Jane Campion’s film The Piano premiered.

SFFS: For my last question, what makes San Francisco and the Bay Area essential to you?

ZE: I chose to be here and San Francisco chose me to be here. I think it’s like falling in love. You kind of recognize something in yourself in a place, as much as you might in another person. I feel like we’ve been kind of a good match. San Francisco, also, the innovative sensibility that’s here, the acceptance of San Francisco and the acceptance of diversity in San Francisco, the gutsy drive of San Francisco, and being away from the English class system, it allows us to be ourselves.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker and curator Craig Baldwin, longtime film distributor California Newsreel, Mill Valley Film Festival Director of Programming Zoë Elton, journalist Michael Fox and filmmakers Jenni Olson and Jennifer Phang—will be honored at this annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.