I'm home now from the Telluride Film Festival, and we're heading into our massive Toronto coverage, but I wanted to give a quick wrap up of Telluride and those films heading from Telluride up north to the biggest market fest in North America. Telluride is a both a nice predictor of how those films playing both fests are likely to play at Toronto, and a restive break for the filmmakers and publicists before they have to hit the ground running at TIFF. The two fests are polar opposites: Telluride is a relaxing fest where the focus is all on the art of the film, Toronto is much more about the art of making money off those films. From a film journalist's perspective, Telluride is also where you have a chance to meet and chat with filmmakers in an environment that's not, as more than one filmmaker put it to me over Labor Day weekend, the big "dog and pony show" that is Toronto.
Labor Day, the last day of Telluride, is almost all TBAs, which makes it a nice weathervane for which films really played well at the fest. Those films that sold out screenings, that passholders weren't able to get into, will get TBA slots on Monday so everyone gets a shot at seeing them. Good thing too, because, as I've previously discussed, this year there seemed to be an awful lot of passholders who weren't able to get into films they wanted to see, and the poor folks who were just trying to buy tix had it even worse.
I mentioned the other day that the big buzz at Telluride was about Jason Reitman's film Juno, which sneak previewed at Telluride before heading to Toronto. The biggest indicator of Juno being a hit, aside from it being the film everyone was talking about in line, on the gondola, and in the coffee shop, was that it had not one, but two TBA slots on Monday. Sunday's TBA saw over 200 passholders turned away, so it's a good thing they added two more. The first Juno TBA Monday sold out again, and while I wasn't at the Galaxy for the final screening, I'd bet it was pretty packed as well. Good news also for Tamara Jenkins, whose film The Savages, starring Telluride fave Laura Linney (a tributee a couple years ago) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, sold out the 600-seater The Palm, with (so I hear) well over 200 passholders turned away. Both films will screen at Toronto, so check them out.
I caught up with Jason Reitman in front of the Courthouse on Monday morning, as he headed to do a "Conversation" with The Savages director Tamara Jenkins. I'll have interviews with both Reitman and Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody up later today (well, as soon as I can get them transcribed), but I wanted to write up a bit about the Conversation for you first. The Conversations are one of the best parts of Telluride: they stick two filmmakers side-by-side in the small Telluride Courthouse and, just as the name implies, they have an informal conversation about film, their respective movies, or whatever else happens to come up, and then they chat with whoever shows up as well. The environment is small and intimate and relaxed and it's just completely unlike anything you'd find at any other fest.
Jenkins mentioned with a grimace that after the Conversation, she had to head over to the big Labor Day picnic (a huge party for all passholders, where they serve up steak, chicken, potato salad, pasta salad, lemonade and ice cream sundaes in the Telluride park, a lovely little spot with a view of a gorgeous waterfall, surrounded by towering mountains) to participate in a panel called (ahem) "Is There a Good Woman Behind Every Film?". Jenkins noted that participating on panels about women in film always makes her feel like she's on a "special olympics" panel, that the attitude about women filmmakers seems to either be, "Oh, look, isn't that cute? She made a movie!" or "You GO, girl!" (I'll have more on the panel in a later post as well.)
The conversation turned to Jenkins' and Reitman's respective styles as directors and their experiences making their films. Jenkins discussed how some actors really get into a character "zone" during filming (Linney and Hoffman, who she worked with on The Savages, both have reps as very "serious" actors, and that she found that she had to be aware of not interrupting that space too much when she would give notes to her cast, saying, "You have to be very careful of how you go in there and give directions when they're in that space." Jenkins, who comes from a background acting in experimental theater (Reitman's comment: "Wow, just exposing yourself as an actor like that, it takes a lot of balls to do that!"), talked about how actors are like athletes, in that every scene, every take, is not just about that one scene, but is the culmination of everything they've ever done before. She compared it to elite diving -- when an elite diver gets up to make a dive, that dive doesn't stand alone, it's the result of all the years of practice that came before that one dive -- and so she tries to respect that and listen to her cast, and respect that they know what they're doing.
Reitman talked about his dad, director Ivan Reitman, who told him when he was filming his first feature, Thank You for Smoking, "Don't worry about anything but being honest and it will all be okay ... and don't eat shrimp on set, because you never know. So don't take that chance." Then he talked about how part of the challenge as a director is that you have some actors who always view their first couple takes as warm-ups or "throwaways," while some come in ready from the first take, and by the time it gets to the fourth of fifth take they don't know what to do anymore. Balancing the working styles of different actors, both directors agreed, can be a real challenge.
Conversation moved on to screenwriting and directing, and Reitman shared how his wife knows how different he is when he's writing (and therefore feeling insecure) and when he's directing (and therefore feeling in control). "When I'm writing, I'll be like, 'what do I want for dinner? I don't know, honey, whatever you want, we can go whereever you want, that's fine,' but when I'm directing I become very 'take charge' and then it's, 'Yes, she'll have the pasta, and I'll have that,' I'm always giving orders when I'm in that mode," Reitman laughed. Reitman also talked about the differences between the two crafts: "It's a terrible thing to say at a festival like this, but writing is a more creative profession than directing." Jenkins noted that "when you're writing, you're directing on the page," which led to a spirited discussion about screenwriting, and how beginning screenwriters tend to make the mistake of trying to get overly involved in camera directing.
Jenkins, who is married to screenwriter Jim Taylor (who, with writing partner Alexander Payne, won an Oscar for Sideways and was nominated for one for Election) talked a bit about Taylor and Payne's scripts and how tight and perfect they are (Reitman: "I think if I read their scripts, I'd just want to curl up into a fetal position and never write again"). An aspiring screenwriter in the crowd asked Reitman and Jenkins how much they fine-tune their scripts, especially the dialogue, before they send them out; Jenkins replied that she tortures herself making it just right and that her dialogue has to feel "really tight," and they both advised keeping paragraphs small and really fine-tuning before you put your baby out into the world. Reitman said the biggest problem he sees with scripts, even good ones, are that they only hit at about 80% and lack that other 20% that would make them really great. He told about how screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) spent years as a script reader, sloughing through other people's scripts, and that helped him gain an appreciation for what makes a screenplay really work.
Reitman asked Jenkins whether she's ever re-written a script around an actor, and she said that with The Savages she did a lot of rewriting to balance the characters of John and Wendy Savage more, and that she also did rewriting once she cast Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Reitman related how in Thank You for Smoking, he rewrote the scene where Nick Naylor goes on the talk show three times. It was originally written to be Larry King, and then when he couldn't do it Reitman rewrote it with Chris Matthews in mind, and then finally when they got Dennis Miller, he rewrote a third time.
Another question from the audience was about how involved they both were in securing financing for their films and getting them actually made. Answer: A lot. Jenkins related how she developed the script for The Savages for Focus, but ultimately they couldn't reach agreement on casting (Focus wanted Renee Zellweger for the role of Wendy Savage). This led to a whole interesting thing about how there are these lists of "points" for working actors that are used to determine casting -- numbers around how much a given actor will draw overseas are apparently particularly important, and then there are numbers around putting this actor with that actor in a film, and whether that makes the final number go up or down in given markets. Jenkins said she'd never want to know her "number," that it would stress her out too much; Reitman half-jokingly said that he'd want to know his all the time. "I'd be calling every day asking, 'what's my number?'" he said.
Both directors were very involved in getting their films made. Reitman worked for years to get Thank You for Smoking made, before lucking out and drawing the interest of the guy who'd just sold Paypal to eBay. The sale had made him a lot of money, and he was looking to finance a movie and Reitman's script fell into his lap. Now Reitman has a relationship with Fox Searchlight, and also produces through his prodco, Hard C. Jenkins was also very involved in getting The Savages made, but even with a great script and Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman attached, it wasn't an easy pitch: "See, it's about this brother and sister, and their father is dying! Yeah, oh, and there's dementia! That's sexy, right? And it's mostly set in a nursing home, too! Uh, there's a sexy nurse working there ...". I've seen The Savages, and reviewed it at Sundance, and I can see her point. I loved the film, but you've gotta market it based on Linney and Hoffman and the brother-sister relationship, not so much the unsexy nursing home angle.
Following the Conversation, I took in the "Women in Filmmaking" panel while eating some lunch with indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez (who is both really brilliant about film and very nice to boot), then polished off the fest with three back-to-back screenings. First up was People on Sunday, a marvelous restoration of a 1929 silent film shot in Berlin. The semi-documentary was a collaborative effort: directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmar off a script written by Billy Wilder and Kurt and Robert Siodmak, and shot and lit by Eugene Shufftam and Fred Zinnemann -- can you say "wow!"? The film influenced both the Italian Neorealists and the Nouvelle Vague, and while I've heard about it, I'd never seen it before. The film, recently restored by the Netherlands Film Museum, was accompanied by a live score performed by the amazing Mont Alto Orchestra. This was a rare treat, and I was so glad I caught it at Telluride.
After scoring a triple-shot espresso to keep going, I headed down to the La Pierre for a screening of Blind Mountain, written and directed by Li Yang. The film received standing ovations at Cannes, and buzz had been strong around Telluride, so I added it to my schedule at the last minute. I was glad I did -- the film, about a naive young college graduate lured by the promise of a job into the remote Chinese countryside, where she finds she has been illiegally sold into a marriage from which she cannot escape, is deeply moving and engaging. I wrapped up the fest with another film that was getting more positive buzz as the fest progressed, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, the story of Christoper McCandless, who, after graduating Emory College with honors, disappeared into a life as a roaming "leathertramp" (a tramp who travels on foot, as opposed to "rubbertramps," who have vehicles) and utlimately headed off to explore the remote Alaskan wilderness. Buzz on that film was more mixed earlier, then got stronger. Not sure how much of that had to do with Penn's presence in Telluride and his participation in a couple panels there -- did hearing Penn speak so eloquently about his film encourage people to view it differently? It will be interesting to see how it plays at Toronto, and how the reviews coming out of that fest look.
I'll have reviews up of both these films as soon as I can bang them out, as well as a reviews of Persepolis, Rails & Ties, Secret Sunshine, One Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Also yet to come are interviews with Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody on Juno, Allison Eastwood and Marcia Gay Harden on Rails & Ties, and Telluride fest director Tom Luddy on what makes Telluride great. Along with the Telluride wrap-up, we'll be bringing you heaps of coverage from Toronto, so stay tuned!