Not to Mention a Sparkling New Venue, Aimed at Reducing Lines
By Seth Cagin
TELLURIDE - A few days before the start of the 40th Telluride Film Festival, founding co-director Tom Luddy was understandably feeling a little nostalgic.
In its first year, the festival was attended by 250 people. This year, he observed, there are three times that many staff.
“How improbable was it that Bill and Stella Pence, after moving to the area, would discover the Sheridan Opera House and decide to host a film festival there?” Luddy said. “There was no other film festival in the world in such an unlikely place, totally remote and with no infrastructure. But it turned out to be the best place to hold a film festival, and we’ve proved it by sustaining it for 40 years.”
It would certainly be easier to hold a festival in a location with easy and affordable access and plenty of existing venues and hotel accommodations, not to mention a sizable local population from which to draw an audience. Instead, the TFF has been creating and building and disassembling temporary theaters, coaxing an audience to travel the long distance for three days of deep immersion in movies, and establishing an unassailable reputation as one of the best places in the world to premiere not just an arthouse movie, but a movie without obvious commercial appeal that could break out.
For its 40th anniversary the festival this year is a day longer, four days instead of the usual three, largely, co-director Julie Huntsinger said this week, to honor the three founders, Luddy, and the Pences, who will be attending the festival for the first time since retiring seven years ago. Characteristically, the Pences planned their retirement carefully and quietly to ensure that the festival would continue to thrive without them, and part of that planning was the choice to stay away for a number of years to allow their replacements, Huntsinger and Gary Meyer, time to establish their own leadership. Even this year, the Pences will refrain from taking any formal role the program, although it is a safe bet they will be greeted by old friends everywhere they go.
In addition to honoring the three founders with an extra day and special events at this year’s festival, the TFF is presenting a number of anniversary gifts to its audience and to the Town of Telluride. Last night, the festival presented a free concert by Punch Brothers in Town Park, an event tied to one of its three tributes this year. The tribute is not just to the Coen brothers, whose new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, will have its U.S. premiere, but, in a typical Telluride twist on how to do a tribute in a less-than-obvious way, to the Coens’ musical collaboration with songwriter and producer T. Bone Burnett.
The other two tributes are to Robert Redford – who, to judge from reviews out of Cannes, gives the performance of his career in All Is Lost, in which he is the only cast member, and barely speaks – and to Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, whose political thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn was shot without permission and in secrecy in defiance of a 20-year ban from filmmaking and travel outside of Iran.
On the infrastructure front, these programs (and many others, of course) will be showing in a sparkling new venue, named in honor of one of the festival’s earliest tributees and most frequent guests, Werner Herzog. The Werner Herzog Theater is a demonstration of the TFF’s magic, that now transforms an ice rink in Telluride Town Park into a state-of-the-art cinema, with 650 seats, making it as large as the Palm.
Creating the $1.8 million venue (with $1 million from the Town of Telluride, $75,000 from San Miguel County, and the rest from the festival) was an enormous undertaking, financially and logistically, for the purpose of addressing one of the festival’s recent challenges, which ironically has been the fervor of its audience, Huntsinger said. The festival directors have noticed that in recent years passholders attend more movies per day than they used to, perhaps four or five instead of three, which has led to longer lines at venues and perhaps an unfortunate degree of anxiety for passholders who worry they might be shut out of screenings or miss programs they especially want to see. Adding the huge new venue – and its 650 seats – without increasing the number of passholders, is “intended to restore a sense of calm,” Huntsinger explained. “Hopefully this will lead to shorter lines and enhanced flow.”
More calm, perhaps, but the festival will still present passholders with tough choices. On Friday evening, for example, you might go to “Story Night at Brigadoon,” where festival guests will tell stories, in the spirit of The Moth, especially written for the event. The storytellers include Joyce Maynard, Buck Henry, Jason Reitman, Gregory Nava, Tamara Jenkins, Michael Fitzgerald, and, most intriguingly, Teller of Penn and Teller. Will Teller speak?
But if you want to find out, you will miss Francis Ford Coppola presenting the Chilean film Locations: Searching for Rusty James, in Elks Park, followed by a screening of Coppola’s own Rumblefish. There are many twists behind this event: First, Coppola, who received a tribute at the very first Telluride Film Festival, is here to support his granddaughter, 27-year-old Gia Coppola, for the premiere of her first feature, Palo Alto, an adaptation of stories by James Franco (who will also be here). Locations is about the popularity of Rumblefish in Chile and Argentina, and to revive Rumblefish here, in Telluride, may just be in keeping with another TFF specialty, which is to say the belated recognition of a film that was not fully appreciated in its time (except, of course in Chile and Argentina). Yes, there is a lot for a cineaste to chew on: the backstory as rich, perhaps, as the films themselves.
If searching out the lost or forgotten masterpiece is your passion, six previous TFF guest directors have each created one program this year. These “all-star” guest directors specialize in defying expectations, and all six of these programs are free and open to the public.
While Coppola was one of the TFFs first three tributees, Werner Herzog was a tributee at the second TFF, and this year Herzog receives not only a theater in his name, but will be represented by two hour long documentaries on the program, in what is becoming his “Death Row” series, following last year’s Into the Abyss. That tip comes from Luddy.
Working your way through the rich program, tips from the two other directors: From Huntzinger, a recommendation to catch Under the Skin at 11:45 at night, when it receives its first screening, because, Huntzinger says, “there is something about the film” – which defies description, she later explained – “that will make it especially powerful then.” It’s from director Jonathan Glazer, who directed Sexy Beast, and is science fiction and must be seen on the big screen. Hmmmm. And from Meyer: “All of the documentaries,” from The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden to Tim’s Vermeer to The Unknown Known, because “filmmakers keep coming up with new ways to tell stories, and you’ve never seen anything like them.”
All this and some of the best might not yet have even been announced. Last year, recall, Argo, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, was a previously unannounced sneak preview.