By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 15, 2021 at 9:56 AM

The on-screen action gets most of the attention during the Milwaukee Film Festival, but this afternoon, the fest will shine its spotlight beyond the big screen behind the scenes and upon the tense meetings that make the movies. 

Broadcasting at 11 a.m. on Saturday on Milwaukee Film's Facebook and YouTube pages, the organization will showcase several local filmmakers, each given ten minutes to pitch their dream movie projects to a jury of pros, hoping to land a strike and land $10,000 for their future films. It's like "Shark Tank" for cinema.

And who would be more suited to host a pitch contest than an actual professional pitcher? (Albeit of baseballs, rather than movies.) 

Enter John Axford, the virtual event's MC. The hard-throwing, award-winning relief pitcher's career may have pulled him away from the Brewers about eight years ago, but the avid cinephile's remained a member of the Milwaukee Film team in the almost-decade since, sponsoring movie selections, presenting this year's Cream City Cinema program, serving as an "Innovator"-level donor to the organization's annual fund and, of course, as a big-league movie buff, catching as many films as he can when the festival's at bat. Even currently stuck across the border in Canada – complete with a busy schedule of training for more baseball, providing baseball analysis for TV broadcasts and home-schooling kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic – Axford's found a way to keep the Milwaukee Film Festival and the Brew City cinema scene in his rotation, hosting the pitch contest and helping big-screen dreams come true for a filmmaker on the rise. 

Before the contest throws the first pitch, however, we caught up with Axford to chat about his still-tight bond with Milwaukee and the film festival, some of his fondest fest memories, why he's so connected with the pitch contest and – go figure – a little baseball banter too. 

OnMilwaukee: It’s been a while since you’ve been with the Brewers, but you still have this connection with Milwaukee Film. How and why has that continued to flourish?

John Axford: I think it initially started with the initial reach-out from Milwaukee Film back in 2011 and having myself and a few other guys be able to attend the opening night premiere. If I remember, we went to Discovery World where they had the opening night party. From there, just knowing my love of film, our connection just kind of maintained and stayed. Obviously my connection and friendship with Jonathan (Jackson, CEO of Milwaukee Film) has continued to grow over the years, which I’m proud to say that’s more than just a film connection. There’s actual quite a few people within that community that I would consider friends; Jonathan one of them. 

For me, it was just being there in 2011 and ’12 – and pretty much every year since other than the last couple of years. I don’t think there’s a year that’s gone by where I haven’t been in Milwaukee either to play or to go the Milwaukee Film Festival since 2009. COVID kind of put a halt and a stop to that, but I always loved and enjoyed being in Milwaukee and the film community has always been a deeper connection, getting to see where the talent is coming from, being to be able to see some of the talent that’s been there. People always have their roots there even when careers have changed or taken different directions and taken them elsewhere.

Milwaukee is still a root for a lot of people, and when you see a lot of people coming back and giving back and doing what they can in the film community, I think that’s inspiring. And just being able to be a part of that and see that over the years – that being almost ten years now – is really quite something else. 

For me, it’s a lot of those encompassing parts – seeing the local artists and what they’re able to bring forth and have their voices be heard and their stories be seen in the way they want and seeing how its blossomed over the years for a lot of those people. It gives you a lot of insight into what is still available and what’s still potentially there within the community.

Is that partly the reason why you’re so involved with the pitch contest?

Whether it’s a part of the Cream City Cinema judging panel or helping put together Sportsball when that was first starting, I’ve been able to do different things – which has always been great and Jonathan’s always been fantastic with trying to keep things open with me, allowing me to dip my toes in and feel some things out. 

Doing the pitch contest for the first time a couple of years ago, it was really intriguing for me because it actually brought me back to film school. That’s what I remember: writing your screenplay for your short films and going in front of the class and pitching it to the class, and the professor would team you up with somebody that maybe they thought was similar. 

Getting all of those elements together and processing it all in ten minutes to get your fully integrated story out there is quite the accomplishment. There’s a lot to think about. Where do you hook people? Where do you get them? Where do you find that interest so quickly in just ten minutes? I think it’s always the intriguing part for me, because I recall doing it myself in school – not to the extent of doing anything professionally in that regard, but I remember the anxiousness. As you can probably tell right now, when I’m talking about film or something that I’m excited about, my stories don’t really follow a linear path; I get excited about something and then I take off and go in a different direction and then come back. Structurally having to do that was a challenge for me, because my excitement will almost boil up and boil over, so a lot of this is almost a work of restraint for me to see how these people do it with their projects.

Have you been able to check out much at the film festival so far this year, and are there any things on your watch list?

I’m in Canada, so some of the things I’m not technically allowed to see; some of the things get blocked. But when I physically go, I just message Jonathan or somebody else within the festival and ask, “Hey, what would you suggest today?” And then I literally just bounce around all day, watching four or five films throughout the day. Right now it’s a little difficult as I’m doing home-schooling and still training and working this weekend as well. But I typically lean on Jonathan for the ones I need to watch.

Hard to find a better person to get your festival recommendations from.

I’ve always trusted him. I don’t think there’s ever been one I didn’t enjoy. There’s maybe a couple that we’ve both gone to where we were like, “Alright, let’s just give this one a go,” and then walk out like, “Wow, that was definitely a movie.” (laughs) But most of the time, it’s all great.

Do you have any particular fond or just generally memorable moments from the festival in the past?

I was there for “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Shining.” “The Shining” was great – despite my own little skit that I did at the beginning, dressing up like Danny and riding an adult-sized tricycle on stage while having my barber and a friend of hers dress up as the Grady twins. That was fun, but just enjoying a movie like that – or “Dr. Strangelove” or “Blue Velvet” or something a little campier – the reaction of crowds when you get a full auditorium like that, I love it. When the cinema is full and people are hooting and hollering and yelling, and everybody’s seen the movie a bunch of times and they know what to expect, I think those moments are always great. 

The Talking Heads documentary is always a fun one as well, to watch as people get up in their seats and start dancing around like they’re actually at the concert and yelling back at the screen. It’s really fun. But there’s been some fabulous films that I’ve seen for the first time there. “The Tribe” was one where you walk out of the theater, and you’re blown away.

Another one that I’ve had an obsession with ever since was a documentary I saw about Hilma af Klint, “Beyond the Visible.” I had no idea who Hilma af Klint was, and then I watched this documentary and I was like, “What the hell! Why didn’t I know this?!” And I’ve literally been obsessed ever since. Anytime people bring up art and abstract painters, I’m like, “Oh, but do you know Hilma af Klint?” like I’m an expert all of a sudden. (laughs) But there’s always those special moments that pop up.

I’ve got to ask you about baseball while I have you. There’s a lot of talk right now about offense and analytics and how there’s not as many runs being scored and the approach to scoring runs has changed so much. As a fan of baseball and a pitcher, how do you feel about where the game is right now in that regard?

It’s been an interesting change over the last ten-plus years. I first came up in the league in 2009, and I was praised for being one of the hardest throwers when I was called up, throwing 94-96 – but now it seems like any reliever that comes out of the bullpen is throwing 96 to 100. It’s pretty wild.

I think the state of the game is something that baseball’s created itself. We are rewarding guys and paying attention to guys throwing 100 and guys hitting home runs – and now ownership and the front office is paying to those guys and that’s where the money’s going, so that’s where the game’s gonna go. Guys know they’ll get paid for hitting home runs, so they’ll try to hit home runs. Guys know they’ll have a shot to pitch in the big league if they can throw hard and prove that they can strike some guys out, so they’re gonna throw as hard as they can. For some guys, it’s gonna be great, and it’s gonna work out. For others, physically, their bodies are going to take a toll because they’re not prepared to do that, to handle throwing in 60-70 games a year that hard, year in and year out. That’s when turnover happens; now you see guys pitching for a couple of years, and if they can’t cut it anymore, OK, see you later and we’ll get somebody else to fill your shoes for a couple of years. 

It’s kind of a difficult spot. Theo Epstein (former Chicago Cubs president of operations) even said himself that it’s become a problem that they’ve created themselves and something they have to figure out how to overcome or get out of it. You have the best players like Mike Trout, who gets on base all the time and hits home runs and is the best player in the league for ten years – but if you can be a guy who hits .220 and hits maybe 30 home runs and strike out a bunch, they’ll take it. We’ve created our own monster here. We’ve focused so hard on the longball and the strikeout and guys throwing as hard as they can that that is we’ve pushed the player to do.

You hate to sound like one of those talking heads, but is it good for the game for every game to be a pitcher’s duel and for the only hits in a game to be home run? There’s supposed to be moving runners on bases and all these tools to score runs, and it seems like that toolbox no longer’s being utilized anymore. Strikeouts and home runs are inherently interesting, but if everything’s candy, nothing’s candy.

Right – and I’m not sure how it’ll change. I’m not sure what the answer is. I think pitchers will always have the slight advantage, but especially with analytics coming through, allowing you to study so intently on your pitches and how you’re throwing and how to make the ball move and the analytics are telling you how to pitch to people. The game’s always been in the pitcher’s hands. In baseball, if you fail seven out of ten times, you’re a great hitter. It’s a game that’s built on failure for hitters, but now it’s even bigger because hitters are told this is what you need to do instead of taking pitches, getting on base, stealing second, bunting a guy over, hit-and-runs, having a three-four-five in your lineup in which two of those three guys might hit 30 home runs. Now it’s an entire lineup of guys trying to hit 30 homers. 

You’re hosting the pitch contest – so give your best pitch for why people should watch this weekend.

(Laughs) I think we’re going to get some really good pitches, some really well-organized ideas of films here. I think it’s going to be really interesting and entertaining to see – especially with it being digital and people are going to be able to time themselves up to the certainties of what they need to do. And with seven projects, you’re going to get seven different films that are described to you and brought to you with passion and energy, from people who’ve been working on this and putting everything they have behind getting this done and getting this made and getting people to see that this film should be the one. When you get that – the passion and the time constraints too – you’re going to get everything that these people have, laid out there for you to understand. And who doesn’t love a good CliffsNotes of a film?

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.