PORT TOWNSEND — The actor broke his neck while riding a horse on a volcano in Iceland. No, really, it’s a true story — the kind Stephen Tobolowsky tells straight from his soul.
After that accident 11 years ago, he began writing down his stories for his children as a legacy. Nowadays Tobolowsky is not only a movie and television guy known for roles in “Groundhog Day” and “One Day at a Time.” He’s also joined the legion who practice the art of story-sharing.
Alongside scores of fellow filmmakers, he’s reveling in that art — and its connecting powers — this weekend during the 20th annual Port Townsend Film Festival.
A great story, Tobolowsky declares in his movie, “The Primary Instinct,” happens when you travel to an astonishing new place, physical or spiritual.
“You are changed by that journey,” he said, “and the important thing is the listener has to be changed, too.”
“Instinct,” one of more than 100 festival films, lights the screen at the American Legion Hall, Water and Monroe streets, at 6:30 tonight.
Part of “A Special Evening with Stephen Tobolowsky,” it’s among a slate of events with films and people from just about everywhere.
There are movies about Kenya, Australia, Mexico, Alaska and Ethiopia; about a veterinarian, two policemen, combat veterans, teenage refugees and Compton, Calif., cowboys, and that’s a mere cross-section.
At the festival hospitality suite inside the Northwind Arts Center, 701 Water St., Thursday morning, pass holders were pouring in, volunteers were handing out the 50-page program books and concierges were discussing the many choices.
“I love movies and I love the people I’ve met,” said volunteer Catherine Marzyck of Port Townsend, summing up the festival experience.
Film lovers paid from $40 to $1,500 for their passes, and “we have more patrons than ever before,” added Pam Gould, a volunteer concierge and the sister of festival Executive Director Janette Force.
Yet you don’t need a pass to see a film. Rush tickets are sold at all of the venues — $15, cash only — 10 minutes before show time. To improve your chances of getting in, join the line outside the theater up to 40 minutes before the film starts. Details about this and all of the movies are at www.ptfilmfest.com.
“If you just want to go to a movie,” advised Force, “go to the American Legion,” the newly remodeled venue with 250 seats and 12 shows and events today through Sunday.
And here, it’s not just about images on the screen. Like festivals from Sundance and Telluride to Toronto and Tribeca, the next three days are loaded up with chances to hear the behind-the-scenes stories from directors, producers, writers and actors. Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m., filmmakers will gather for panel discussions and storytelling — which are free to the public.
A festival centerpiece: Cheryl Strayed, celebrated author of “Wild,” “Torch” and “Tiny Beautiful Things,” will give an on-stage interview after the screening of a movie that inspired her.
“My Brilliant Career,” Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 drama about a young Australian writer, is the formative film, open to pass holders and rush-ticket seekers at 6:30 Saturday evening at the American Legion.
Another kind of set piece is 9-foot-tall Blazer, the yellow-wood dog coming downtown this morning.
Starting at 9 a.m., Sunrise Coffee’s Bill Curtsinger and his crew will have a police escort from the cafe on Sims Way to the outdoor screen on Taylor Street.
Blazer is the dog who graces the festival poster and the label of Sunrise Coffee’s Starstruck blend, served at the hospitality center. Now deceased, he was a beloved companion of Curtsinger and his wife Sue.
Blazer’s large likeness will travel in a red wagon, so “it’s kind of like walking the dog,” Curtsinger said.
Force, for her part, expressed her gratitude to longtime sponsors such as Sunrise. She also reflected on the festival’s evolution, emphasizing that along with the pricey passes, there are also many free seats.
“When I first began, there was some community feeling that this was a party for rich people,” she said. “That has never been the case. We want to make it accessible to all people,” by not only setting aside the 70-seat Peter Simpson Free Cinema for 13 screenings but also ensuring the venues have wheelchair-friendly entry.
Then Force, with her signature enthusiasm, highlighted the movies for the giant outdoor screen set up on Taylor Street. Disney’s “Moana” from 2016 is tonight’s feature; “Groundhog Day” shows Saturday and “An American Tail” is the finale Sunday.
“Steven Spielberg had the original idea” for this story of a Russian mouse escaping persecution, Force said, adding that 1986’s “An American Tail” is about immigration, family and hope.
“There are many, many stories like this, stories we need to continue to tell, of hardship, compassion, courage,” she said.
“That’s what film can help us do.”