by Risa Nye
Before you arrive in Telluride on Labor Day weekend for the Telluride Film Festival, the only thing you know for sure is that you’re in for an action-packed event. You’ll be staying in one of the prettiest places you’ll ever see, but you can’t wait to go sit in the dark for hours with a bunch of strangers who share your passion for movies.
The anticipation is almost palpable, and that breathless feeling you have is from the altitude as well as from excitement. The questions mount: What’s the buzz going to be? Which film star or director will I see having lunch at the next table, or walking casually down the sidewalk in T-shirt and jeans? Which movies will be screened, and how many can I squeeze into a day while still having time to process what I’ve seen? And then there is the question that all festival-goers have to address: When will I find time to eat and sleep?
Once the schedule and Film Watch magazine are up for grabs, the work begins: read as much as you can about what’s at the show this year, check the schedule, and come up with a Plan A. Then reconsider your choices, eavesdrop as others talk about their choices, and come up with a Plan B. Calculate the time it might take to get from the new 650-seat Werner Herzog Theatre to the Chuck Jones Cinema at the top of the mountain—a short, but initially terrifying gondola ride away. Think again, and make a tentative Plan C.
After you’ve done all that thinking, you can proceed to enjoy yourself and see some movies.
Here’s how the festival flashed by for me this year.
Right off the bat, I decided on my plan A, and stuck to it: Friday afternoon I went to the newest venue in town with the most amazing sound system anywhere (created by Berkeley’s Meyer Sound)—the Werner Herzog Theatre—for the Apocalypse Now tribute. It had been many, many years (possibly even 35) since I’d seen this film. You might even say that this was the first time I really saw it—in all its big screen glory, with the whap, whap, whap of the helicopters and the slow descent into hell on that boat. The music, the sweat, the madness, the smell of napalm in the morning—all so very vivid!
Following the film, we heard Francis Ford Coppola, producer Fred Roos, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and sound editor Walter Murch swap tales about the making of the movie. I love hearing the back stories, the “what might have been” anecdotes, and the lucky coincidences that happened along the way. What if the film had been made in Australia, as was originally planned? What if George Lucas had made it? And what happens when you don’t really have an ending in mind? You struggle, and then you have Marlon Brando point out, “You’ve painted yourself into a corner.” Finally, creative consultant Dennis Jakob came up with the only logical way to end it: “Kill him!” Problem solved. I’m sure many of Coppola’s stories are well-known after all these years, but it’s still fun to hear him talk about Brando using an earbud instead of memorizing his script.
Next on my schedule was Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game . I knew next to nothing about this film, other than what I read in the TFF material. But I confess to being drawn to it because of one thing in particular: Benedict Cumberbatch. I also heard some buzz on the street, and thought I’d try to get to a potential blockbuster early in the game. It’s a fascinating story about a crack team of British mathematicians and puzzle solvers who are charged with decoding Nazi Germany’s “unsolvable” encrypted code, known as Enigma. This one had me on the edge of my seat.
That first night, I didn’t stray from the Herzog. It was in-and-out, with popcorn and a hot dog, instead of joining the crowd on Colorado Avenue. I hated to miss the Opening Night Feed, but I stuck to my plan.
I wondered if recurring themes and subjects would emerge at this year’s festival: people on a mission, validation, success in the face of great obstacles, revenge, war … perhaps it was too soon to tell.
Onward to Foxcatcher . The thing most people talked about after this film, whether they were wrestling fans or not, was the complete transformation of Steve Carell into a whiny, increasingly obsessed, delusional character with a sickly complexion and mommy issues. The pace of the film was slow, with Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo portraying the taciturn Schultz brothers. I haven’t watched wrestling since I was a kid, when it was obviously phony. The sport doesn’t grab me, but the story of uber one-percenter John du Pont, his demons and delusions, was shocking. Tatum also transformed himself into the quintessential wrestler, with a muscle-bound walk that appeared painful and awkward. He didn’t look anything like that when he and director Bennet Miller walked into the New Sheridan the next morning for breakfast! It’s Telluride, and things like that happen; also, Laura Dern stopped by his table to say hello to the group before she participated in a panel discussion about Wild with Vendela Vida, Reese Witherspoon, author Cheryl Strayed and director Jean-Marc Vallée (outdoors, naturally).
During the panel, we learned that the government shutdown last fall coincided with the first day of shooting Wild , which meant that all the national parks were closed. So they had to go to an alternate plan, and begin shooting other scenes. Once the parks opened again, Reese Witherspoon (as Cheryl) had to put on that backpack and start walking. She shared with us her certainty that the director wouldn’t really make her carry a heavy backpack. She was sure she could get away with stuffing it full of plastic bags or something. But no—she had to carry a 60-pound pack, and, adding insult to injury: no makeup, either. At least, she said, they covered all the mirrors. Cheryl Strayed said she was offered only “dirt and blood” from the makeup artist when she asked for a touchup during filming.
The members of the panel ‘fessed up to shedding many tears while writing the book (in Strayed’s case), reading the book, and watching the movie. Dern—who plays Strayed’s mother, Bobbie—says she called her mother, actress Diane Ladd, to “apologize” after she saw Wild . “Nature began as the enemy, but ended up being a friend,” said one panelist. “Everything you say is written with a Sharpie on your child’s brain,” Witherspoon observed. Finally, the panel agreed that the film can best be described as “a quilt of memory.”
After the panel, it was up the mountain to see one of guest directors Kim Morgan’s and Guy Maddin’s selections at the Chuck Jones Cinema. A Man’s Castle (1933), starred Spencer Tracy and a luminous Loretta Young. Tracy is at his best: alternately combative, tender, funny and conflicted. But no time to linger—it was back into the fray for Rosewater , the much-talked-about debut film by Jon Stewart. I went into this one knowing nearly nothing about it, but was curious to learn what compelled Stewart to write and direct a film about an Iranian-born journalist who gets arrested, accused of being a spy for the CIA, and thrown into solitary confinement in Tehran. After the film, Stewart, the film’s star Gael García Bernal, and Maziar Bahari—whose memoir inspired the film—all took the stage for a brief discussion about the temperature of the theatre (hot), the state of New Jersey (an easy target for humor, inspiring both distaste and reverence in Iran apparently), and massage parlors.
In a classic Telluride moment, I traveled back down the mountain on the gondola with Régis Wargnier, the director of The Gate , a film about François Bizot, a French ethnologist studying in Cambodia who is also accused of being a spy for the CIA. Bizot got captured by the Khmer Rouge and was held captive for three months. I had no idea who this gentleman was, so I started out asking him the typical “What did you think about the film?” questions when he revealed the basis for his comments and made a few comparisons to his film. Then the whole car began talking about the distraction of subtitles in movies as opposed to the supertitles at the opera. Stuff like this happens on the gondola, it happens in line, and it happens everywhere you go, which is part of what folks love about Telluride.
After an unusually long gap in my schedule, it was time to attend the tribute to Hilary Swank and see The Homesman , directed by and also starring one of my favorite actors, Tommy Lee Jones. Ms. Swank discussed the “precision” of director Jones, and how the language of the script was not to be messed with. Every word of the script had to be spoken, or else the rhythm of the speech would be off. She was told by Jones that, in a particular scene, the line she speaks is “a statement, not a question.” I was listening for it, and quizzed my companions afterward. Spoiler alert! She also told the audience that her mother wonders if “she’ll ever live long enough” in a film to reach the end credits.
To sum up the day: listening to a behind-the-scenes discussion about Wild ; reliving the hardscrabble days of the Depression with Tracy and Young; spending weeks in solitary confinement with Bernal; and traveling across the prairie with a wagon full of women in distress. Standing in line (just as much a part of this festival as staring at screens), I met folks from Switzerland, New York, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas, and—with less than two degrees of separation—people who live five minutes away from me in Berkeley. I talked to several first-timers and a number of veterans, and waved or texted to people I know from festivals past. Themes so far? Redemption, validation, war, the struggle to survive, and—of course—love.
Movies at 8:30 in the morning? Yes, even before coffee. But once the lights go down, you forget what time it is and where you are and just look at the screen. The next day started with an early showing of Birdman . First, we heard from the director, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, who talked a bit about his motivation for making the film. After turning 50 last year, he began to wonder about his legacy, and whether he’d created one yet. There’s this voice inside your head every morning, a voice that tells you how wonderful you are. And then later in the day, that voice changes and suddenly you’re not so wonderful at all. He wanted to capture those mixed messages in the film. The story revolves around a former Hollywood action star (Michael Keaton) who is also looking for redemption and a means of creating something that matters. It’s a play within a play within a fantasy and the soundtrack is one long drum solo. There was a lot of buzz about this one.
As you go through the festival, the challenges become more difficult: all the pieces have to fit together, time and distance and fatigue need to be taken into account, and then there’s the food issue. But one must carry on. Time is running out, and you realize you can’t see everything, so off you go.
Next up was director Chuck Workman’s The Magician , which chronicled the ups and downs of Orson Welles’ career—fascinating, but not entirely new information. Still, I learned things about his early days that I hadn’t known. My favorite quote from the movie, regarding his back-and-forth contract negotiations with RKO: “I didn’t want the money, I wanted the authority.”
A short break, and then Seymour: An Introduction at the Backlot, which only seats 50: a hot ticket.
This was the surprise of the festival for me. I was curious: why did Ethan Hawke choose to make this film biography, described as “loving and perceptive”? Within moments, Seymour Bernstein won me over with his gentle nature, his passion for music, and the answers he provides to actor and filmmaker Hawke, who is searching for meaning in his life and considering his legacy. My favorite line: “The essence of who we are resides in our talent.” A complete delight. Afterward, I chatted for a moment with Cheryl Strayed, who was sitting in the front row.
Choosing to stay put for the next film, I remained at the Backlot for Night Will Fall . I argued with myself about seeing this one because I knew the subject matter—documenting the Nazi atrocities at Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps—would be tough to sit through. It was. Very tough. The images contained in the film are gruesome and unrelenting. And in another classic Telluride moment, I left the dark screening room that had just revealed the graphic evidence of man’s capacity for evil—and stepped out to see a beautiful sunset: the mountains aglow with a golden light on my right, and to my left a sky full of clouds streaked with delicate blues and pinks. A moment of grace.
Looking to lighten things up a bit, I planned to see Wild Tales next. My companions and people in line around town said it was pretty funny, and I was ready for something funny after the last movie. Worst wedding ever, I was told. The film is composed of six tales of revenge that ranged from amusing to disturbing. Director and writer Damián Szifrón admittedly tapped into some fantasies of revenge that I expect many of us have had, but would never go as far as his characters do to “get even.” Left with some of those wild images, I called it a night.
To begin my final half-day: another early morning at the Chuck. The tribute to Volker Schlöndorff, followed by a screening of his film, Diplomacy , proved to be one of my favorite events. After seeing a collection of clips from his earlier films, Schlöndorff joked that he should have quit after the first one! Hardly. When the interviewer complimented him for “being in great shape,” Schlöndorff mentioned that he started running marathons at 60, and has finished fifteen. He enjoys running, he says, because you know where the finish line is—a more certain outcome than in filmmaking.
In the film, we meet the German general who is ordered to destroy Paris as the Allied forces approach. Even though we know what happened, how the general ultimately makes his decision—and what the Swedish ambassador does to persuade him— kept me spellbound throughout. Two men in a room, with the famous landmarks of Paris just outside, time ticking away … tension builds to a final resolution that affords the general a place in history. His grasp of the inevitable surrender and his love for his family all come into play when he makes the choice to spare the City of Lights.
One last film, Martin Scorsese’s and David Tedeschi’s The 50 Year Argument , concluded my festival. This look back at 50 years of the New York Review of Books had some amusing moments, including a feisty encounter between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer in footage from the old Dick Cavett show. The magazine represents old school, star-studded journalism at its best—still providing a space for thoughtful writers to address the urgent issues of the day. I learned they have a blog now, too.
And that was it. Thirteen films in three-and-a-half days. When the festival ends, and you come out into the light, it all seems to have gone by much too quickly.
Even with the time spent waiting in lines, the constant shuffling of priorities, the films I missed, and the essential carbs that got me through the days—the festival leaves me feeling content, revived and inspired. Good show, Telluride.
Telluride banner photo by Pamela Gentile. Festival photos by Vivien Killilea, courtesy of Getty Images, with additional photos by Leonard Maltin.
To download the TFF 41 program guide: http://www.telluridefilmfestival.org/show/program_guide
The 96 page Film Watch magazine can be read here: http://www.thewatchmedia.com/film/
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.