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Middleburg Film Fest creators had no doubt they’d pull it off

Salamander CEO Sheila Johnson, left, and Susan Koch, right, a filmmaker and the executive director of the Middleburg Film Festival, held press roundtables Friday morning at Salamander Resort. Times-Mirror Photo/Beverly Denny
It was a picturesque scene Friday morning: the Middleburg Film Fest producers were sitting side-by-side in front of a roasting fireplace in the library of Salamander Resort. The two women, Sheila Johnson and Susan Koch, were flashing prideful smiles. Their baby was underway.

The inaugural film festival had launched a little more than 12 hours earlier with an exclusive viewing of Alexander Payne's “Nebraska” at the resort.

For Johnson, the CEO of Salamander, this was her second extravagance introduced to the cozy Loudoun County town of Middleburg in a few-month span. In August, the much-heralded Salamander opened after years of delays and setbacks.

Johnson never wavered, of course. Salamander was going to happen, and it was going to happen in Middleburg.

The same can be said for the film festival.

During a casual conversation with reporters Friday morning, the women were asked whether they had any doubt they could pull off the four-day fête.

“You can't get anything done when you have doubt,” Koch, executive director of the Middleburg Film Fest, said.

“That's right,” Johnson chimed in. “We knew this was going to work. And it was important to get [Salamander] up and open. [Salamander] has really been, sort of, the core of the film fest.”

Indeed, the biggest obstacle, it seems, in getting the festival rolling was putting the finishing touches on Salamander. After that happened, the celebration – which includes more than two dozen films and discussion panels with industry veterans – fell into place.

One of the most essential components of the fest is keeping all the venues within walking distance, something the organizers were able, more or less, to achieve this year, the Salamander owner says. Playing host to viewings and other events are Salamander, the National Sporting Library and Museum, the Hill School, the Middleburg Community Center and Boxwood Winery.

The idea for a film festival, Johnson said, started simmering in her mind three years ago. The actor Robert Redford, a friend of Johnson's, strongly nudged her to establish the event.

“He's the one that said, 'You know, you really 'ought to put on a film festival. It's such a wonderful community … it's perfect,'” Johnson recalls of Redford.

Now, that vision has come to fruition, and Johnson and Koch are thrilled to see their beloved Middleburg playing host to out-of-towers and Hollywood bigwigs. While watching new films and discussing cinema is the primary component of the weekend, it's also about unveiling Middleburg to the uninitiated.

“See a movie, walk through town, see another movie, have a glass of wine, talk to people,” Koch said.

And “shop,” Johnson added.

And with that, the two ladies were rushed off to an event honoring Bruce Dern, a veteran actor and one of the stars of “Nebraska” in town for the weekend.

Middleburg Film Fest shows and gatherings run through Sunday afternoon. A complete schedule of events can be found through MiddleburgFilmFest.org.

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