oak trees on the croisette

©oaktreefilms.co.uk

When David Maddison and Graham Williams of Manchester-based Oak Tree Film Productions decided to give the 2004 Cannes Film Festival a try, there were more than a few lessons learned; not least that it isn't a film festival at all…  


1) Narrative

2) Glamour and the Stars

3) The Films (general)

4) The Films (geeky gossip)


1) NARRATIVE

We set off in good time and got to the check in desk about 50 mins before we were due to fly. Pushing it a bit tight, but not fatal. Our plan was perfect - 9.15 flight, arrive 12.30 local time. Transfer, check in, unpack, go to Cannes, get accreditation and ponce about a bit on La Croisette in the early evening sunshine.

"Ah, yes. We changed the timetable in January and this flight has already gone. Did you not get an email?" said a helpful man behind a desk. Resisting the temptation to say, "yes, but we decided to turn up late anyway", we went over to the ticket desk. They couldn't get us on their next flight, so they routed us on Air France flying via Paris Charles de Gaulle.

After a delightful two hour wait in the airport we boarded for Nice. At Nice, we saw Dennis Quaid whilst waiting for a bus. This was our first brush with "the stars". I say "brush"; he was 20 yards away and we did nothing. Anyway, we arrived too late to go to Cannes, we wound up having a very good pizza from a van by the side of the road. As Graham and I had a beer on the balcony outside our room in Nice we could see the thirty-odd arc lights that line La Croisette reaching up in the sky, just over the headland that separated us from our goal.

The next day was the first of our daily early starts. I've had holidays when I've been out till 4 and 5am getting drunk. I've also had holidays when I've had to get up at 7 to get a towel on a sun lounger, but I've never had one that combined the two. But the early mornings weren't to get the best spot on the beach. What we actually did do was either queue for tickets, or go to screenings. The Palais (think NEC-by-the-Sea) opened at 9.00, and you could get tickets for that day and the day after. Generally these tickets were for early morning showings. This is because there are levels of Cannes - the kings of the jungle are not the stars, they are the people with "buyer" in their entry in the Participants Directory. More of them and their role later...

There are in fact a number of Cannes festivals that all run simultaneously. There is the main competition (which bizarrely has both "in competition" and "out of competition" sections), then the Director's Fortnight, la prix de la jeunesse, the Cinephiles, also Un Certain Regard (as (I think) Joe Queenan said, only the French could consider "worth a look" to be a compliment). The other thing you have to bear in mind is that it is run by French bureaucracy. That being the case there is no definitive list of screenings for all competitions. You then have to add in the randomness factor produced by a few cinemas around Cannes showing films from any of the above festivals at any time they choose, without notice.

All in all, tickets are hard to come by. There were in fact only two showings of Farenheit 9/11 available to delegates. Although I did come across an enormous scrum to get in to one of the random cinemas which was apparently screening it. We tried to go to see a talk by Michael Moore, but it got cancelled. Then we were later told that the production company said the organisers could either have a talk or a screening, but not both (spread the love and spread the word, Mike....) and they chose a screening. We asked the American Pavilion if there were any more screenings. They said yes, but they are only open to Far East and Asian buyers, as they had the rest of the world sewn up. (Like I said, spread the love, Mike...)

What happens with the main films that are In Competition is that they get generally two showings during the whole festival. One of those is the 9.00 am press screening, and then there is a gala performance, with the red carpets and tux etc. There are two of these a day generally - one film screening at 7.30, and another at 10.30.

So, whilst the mornings were early starts, the nights were late as well. That's because so much of the business and networking goes on at the various parties that happen, plus in the bars that are open till 4.30 am. Cannes has an enormous sea front, and during the festival it gets taken over by maybe two dozen marquees, none of which are smaller than "massive". These are occupied by various nations film commissions, all promoting their wares, and hoping that producers will film in their country and therefore generate business. At night they are used to host various parties. This may sound glamorous, and if you are going to throw a party, then the Cannes seafront is pretty much the best place you can choose, but the sole purpose of these are to network and make contacts. There is free booze though, so you can't really complain. I got chatting to two producers from LA, and they had flown over hoping to meet other people from LA. So we went to the Sgrin Cymru/Screen Wales party, Screen England's party, a Kodak party (no, seriously - they are big players!), and a straight8 party (see www.straight8.com). It was however a beautifully "Cannes" moment, when Graham and I realised we had invites to three simultaneous parties, and were also due to go to a preview screening of a new Kevin Bacon film.

The late night/early morning reached it pinnacle when Graham and I were kicked out of a bar because it was closing at 4.30 am. We realised our first train home was 5.10 am, so decided to kill some time by sitting in the foyer of a five star hotel pretending to hammer out a multi-million dollar deal. Having done this, and convincing absolutely nobody in the process, we then realised we had missed the train and that there was little point now in going home. Therefore we decided the only thing for it was to go down to the beach and kip there. So in my cream linen suit and using a briefcase for a pillow, we slept there. Again, rather "Cannes"... What woke us up was, well, rather bizarre. The French, I have concluded, take themselves and Cannes rather seriously. Cannes takes itself very, very seriously. So, to make sure it presents its best face at all times, Cannes gets washed every night. When I mean washed, I don't mean "empty the bins, and run round with a brush," I mean a wash. So what woke us was the spray from a street washer spilling over on to the beach. Apparently someone cleaned the beach by hand, carefully picking up individual pieces of litter around me (but rather considerately not waking me).

Other bizarre moments include seeing a chap dressed as Jesus nailed to the cross being driven down La Croisette on the back of a pick-up truck, publicising a film called Passion. I also saw Batman being driven along the front in a De Lorean. Holy Back to the Future! Another amusing Cannes thing is the French "non." The security people manage to say it in such away that is not actually rude or offensive, but you also know that it brooks no negotiating or debate. Curiously they are very anxious to check that your picture matches the one on your laminate, but their use of a metal detector to see if you are carrying a bomb is cursory at best. I saw a talk by Mark Gill who is the head of Warner Brothers Independent Cinema, and he said he was refused entry to a do. He got his card out to prove who he was, but apparently the line, "but I own a fucking studio!" cut no ice either. Bizarrely some of his staff were allowed in, and they said that it was only two-thirds full.

If the buyers are the kings of Cannes, then at the other end are the chancers trying to sell their film. We met some Americans on a bus, and they were doing exactly that. They had shot a film for $500,000 about a bunch of film school graduates who can't afford to shoot a film. To solve the problem they decide that they will hold up banks, film the raids, and when they have got the footage that they want, someone will call "cut", and they will give all the money back. The director's mum worked for a plastic surgeon who had provided the half a million (does anyone know somebody similar? You do? Did I ever tell you that you were my favourite friend?). They had made a 30 minute cut of their 90 minute film, and they had two screenings booked. We went to one of them. It was part of a short film showcase, so after two hours of generally good films, their's started. They had flown 6000 miles from LA. The director's mother had flown 6000 miles from LA to see her son's first film being screened at the world famous Cannes film festival. It was all going well, and then ten minutes in the film stopped, the sound ended and the lights went up. The lads were sitting in front of us and nearly went potty. Then from the back a French accent said "We have stopped this film as the room is needed to screen anozzer film for some buyers." There was no apology or a thank you or a please. Just the curt announcement. I told you the buyers are the kings of Cannes.

Generally, it was an absolutely exhausting and exhilarating week. It took me about four or five days to properly recover. I will be going again, but I'm not sure it's worth going to if you don't have accreditation. You are unlikely to get in to any films, and you won't be able to get in to the pavilions, the Palais, the Marché, or many (if any) parties. If you are in that neck of the woods and it is on, it's probably worth a day out, just to have a look at it.


GLAMOUR AND THE STARS

People have asked me if it was glamorous. I've tried to quantify it, but the easiest thing to say is that it is not at all glamorous. What cannot be emphasised enough is that Cannes is not a festival and it's not a glamour parade. It is, above all, a trade convention. It only really dawned on me on the third day that it is a trade convention as I thought "I've not done this before on a holiday", whilst sitting in the Palais being given a demonstration of FinalDraft 7.0. It's a great piece of software and I bought a copy. There was also a stand in the Palais where a company were showing off their full range of cinema seating - some of it looked really comfortable! It has at best a patina of glamour, and in many ways it's a good thing it does, otherwise it would, to be honest, rather dull unless you are mad about films.

The trade convention aspect of Cannes is actually catered for by the simultaneously-running "Marché de Cannes" which is, as you may have guessed, a film market. This however isn't buying and selling videos and dvds. It's buying and selling the rights to show and distribute films in cinemas, on video and dvd (both retail and rental), on television (cable and terrestrial) and any other methods (aeroplanes etc). Millions of dollars of business is done. It's quite weird to overhear deals going on as they happen everywhere. You can't help but follow people when you overhear someone say "well if we go with FineLine then we get 20%..."

It's in the Marché Hall that you realise the true nature of Cannes. The Hall itself is probably the size of a couple of football pitches. It's divided up in to trade stands, just like any other trade convention. Each stall is occupied by some producer who is desperately trying to sell the rights to some film they have made. This is why the buyers are the true kings of Cannes - they are the people who actually have money and can actually get things done. It's also in this hall that you realise the true nature of the film industry. You suddenly realise that what keeps the film world going isn't a handful of box office-busting blockbusters. It's the thousands, literally thousands, of crap films that go straight to video that you will never see unless you are an insomniac and your TV is stuck on channel 5. It's these films that actually keep people in employment. The best example of this is the poster we saw for All the Queen's Men. This is a film with Matt LeBlanc from Friends as its lead. The poster was a simple one - two pictures of Matt LeBlanc. On the left, was a picture of him in combat fatigues, vest and bandanna, greased up and wielding an AK-47. On the right was a picture of him in drag, in twin set and pearls.

You don't believe me? Click on this. You just looked at that and just knew it would never be a hit.

There were countless stalls selling Chuck Norris/Cynthia Rothrock type films, plus chop-socky here there and everywhere. Bollywood was reasonably well represented. Horror films were everywhere - again, targeted at adolescent males who don't care how bad a film is. One of the standout stalls though was Lloyd Kaufman's Troma stand. Lloyd Kaufmann has made a career out of making schlock horror films. He was behind the Toxic Avenger. He has also done Killer Condom and Blood-Sucking Freaks. His new films include Tales from the Crapper, and the marvellous sounding Poultrygeist - the musical, featuring the Killer Coq. His was an amusing stall because they are rampant self-publicists, and the people working on his stand were basically fans of his doing it for free. (Now that's business genius!). Consequently they would walk round in a full size condom, or S & M wear, or as mummies etc.

So what is glamorous then? Well, you can't help but smile when you go up the red carpet in a tuxedo, flanked by police officers in their best uniforms, with the flashbulbs popping. Graham and his girlfriend were picked out by an overhead camera and projected on to a big screen. It's a bit of a palaver all to go and see a film, but when you stand back and look at it, you realise why they do it. Basically, everybody looks completely money. Oh, and they don't sell popcorn or drinks in the cinema - you are there to watch a film, not to eat or drink. I told you they take themselves seriously.

Anyway, yes you do get to see some stars, and here is the rundown:

Kevin Bacon. Saw him at a question and answer panel about his new film. It was 9.00 am and he came in looking like he'd not been able to find a vein this morning to inject. I've never seen anyone looking so spaced. However within 10 minutes he had warmed up entirely and was very pleasant, interesting, intelligent and amusing.

Kyra Sedgwick (aka Mrs Kevin Bacon). On the same panel as Kev. She didn't get to say much. She's painfully thin. When we saw the film ("The Woodsman" - see review below) I thought she must have had a boob double, but evidently not. She is still, however, Calista Flockhart-thin.

Benjamin Bratt. A cunt. No two ways about it. Was it because he was arrogant, showy, condescending? No, it was because he was actually warm, intelligent, witty, down to earth and impossibly handsome. Some people really do have it all. Like I said, a cunt.

Danny Glover. Very tall. An amusingly very white beard as well - odd given that the hair on his head is still very black.

John Leguizamo. Saw him walking along La Croisette. Very anonymous. No accreditation.

Julia Sawalha. I didn't see her, but one of our group did, and I haven't forgiven them for not passing my phone number on.

Kevin Kline. Again, I didn't see him, but a couple of our number went to a Q&A session with him. Again, apparently a lovely guy. The first question from the floor was "how do I get a script to you?" His answer was, "do you have it with you?" "Yes." "Then could I have it please? " And so someone got their script to Kevin Kline.

Charlize Theron. Not as fit as you'd hope. Little or no presence - given that she was sweeping in to a press conference with her Life and Death of Peter Sellers co-stars, you'd think you would notice her, but she had very little magnetism at all. Julie Delpy. Followed me up the red carpet. Quite pretty, but again, very thin.

Quentin Tarantino. I saw him from 75 yards and there were about 500 people in the way. As smug looking as you would expect from a guy with an ego the size of Alaska who's been made president of the jury.

Andy Garcia. Saw him getting in to his car outside his hotel. When this happens, madness ensues. You get a mighty scrum of up to 1000 people. Still, he looked like you would expect Andy Garcia to look like - cool, understated.

People kept seeing some bloke who used to be in Eastenders - an Asian guy. I don't know who he was, but credit must be given to him because we saw him every day and he seemed to be really working the Palais, Marché, Croisette and Pavilions. I guess he must be trying to get a film made and had a lot of meetings.

We could have gone to see a Q&A with Billy Bob Thornton, but went to see the premiere of the Coen Brothers' The Ladykillers instead.

Mark Ordesky. Not famous in himself, but is the head of FineLine pictures, and is the person who okayed Peter Jackson doing The Lord of the Rings. He's interviewed in the additional bits on the DVD. He's manic and camp.


THE FILMS (GENERAL)

I've told you about the palaver to get tickets. Overall it's hard to actually get the time to see films, plus as I've said, no one really publishes a common timetable of showings. The best advice I got was to go see films that are unlikely to get distributed in the UK.

These are the films I saw:

The Ladykillers. Good fun, and well worth seeing. It's had some poor word of mouth, but I don't quite see why. It's more mainstream than most Coen Brothers films (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) although I've not seen Intolerable Cruelty. There are the usual manic characterisations. One of my favourites is the choirmaster. He's worth the price of admission alone. It is set in the modern day, and only takes the very bare bones of the original, and then goes off on a frolic of it's own. I'd give it 3.5 out of 5. Tom Hanks is funny, with the weirdest accent ever. The supporting cast are very good. The actress who plays the old woman won the acting prize, and I can see why, although I still think there is still that whiff of parody (rather than character) about her which I think pervades a lot of the Coens' writing. I just don't think they write parts that are that challenging to act, because invariably the person is simply a walking gag, rather than a fully formed character (see The Dude, Jesus (John Turturro's character in The Big Lebowski), Marge in Fargo etc).

Tropical Malady (aka Sud Pralad). A Thai film. This is the one we went to see in black tie. It starts really interestingly - some soldiers are posing with a dead body in the Thai outback. The direction is very sparse and observational. It's not at all intrusive. Then it becomes one of those interminable art-house films where nothing happens. It's possibly harsh to judge such an Eastern film from a Western perspective, but then again, I'm a huge fan of "Beat" Takeshi Kitano and on the face of it you could say the same about large sections of his films. Clearly it is from the same tradition where space, time and silence are as important as action, but it was nowhere near as beautiful as Kitano's photography can be. It's a tale of two friends. There are oblique suggestions of homosexuality between them. One hour in to the film the screen goes black, and silent. This lasts 30 seconds. Apparently in the press screening there were howls of outrage as they thought the projectionist had cocked up. But no, it comes back and it's as if it is a new film, where a leopard is possessed by the spirit of a human, and one of the men from the first half has to go in to the jungle to kill the leopard and liberate the spirit. It also probably features a world first in that a baboon's screeches are interpreted and given subtitles. None of the "story" in the first half is resolved by anything in the second half. Indeed some reviews said it just seemed like two separate films.

Something you should know about me is that I've never walked out of a film, although Waiting to Exhale, Final Fantasy and Punch Drunk Love pushed me close. There is therefore a certain irony that the first film I walk out of is a European premiere at Cannes, wearing a tux and tripping back down the red carpet. This film got universally bad reviews, averaging out at 1.8 out of 5, yet somehow managed to get a jury prize. That means it will get some distribution, although if you do see it, you too will be as amazed as I was at how it got the award. Actually I didn't walk out because the film was bad. I left because we were going to try and get in to a party a porn studio was throwing on a yacht. Hey, we had girls with us - it was all legit and above board. Unfortunately getting in would have required a lot of standing round, so we just went to a bar instead.

The Woodsman. This is Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Benjamin Bratt's film. It's the tale of a paedophile's reintroduction to society on release from jail. It's not exactly sympathetic, but it's told from the paedophile's point of view. It's a very good film. Kevin Bacon is very good in it - in fact there isn't a weak performance in it (Benjamin Bratt is also a good actor - are you beginning to feel the hate as well?). It's directed by a first time director. It did very well in Sundance. It got some distribution deals in Cannes, so should be out next year sometime. They are apparently thinking of releasing in on Christmas Eve in the US. Good luck.... I would thoroughly recommend you go and see it - easily a 4 out of 5.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. This is also a good film. It's told very quirkily, with fractured narrative, part animation, monologues to camera, lead actor playing multiple roles etc. It was written by two English guys. There original idea was to get Geoffrey Rush (who plays Sellers) dressed as his characters, and have them comment on his life. This was deemed unfilmable due to rights issues, but they have struck a very clever compromise. It is by no means a hagiography either - at times it is quite brutal about him. Rush bears a remarkable resemblance to Sellers, and is excellent, portraying him as a vain, flawed, but brilliant man. Now that's proper characterisation. Another 4 out of 5 and a strong recommendation to go and see it. I thought it had a chance of winning, because it contained many of the elements of other films that were apparently playing well with the jury. It was also screening on the last day, which apparently helps.


THE FILMS (GEEKY GOSSIP)

One of the things that makes the festival quite exciting is the "trade dailies". Basically, Hollywood Reporter, Variety and Screen International produce daily editions especially for Cannes. They start off at about 60 pages each, and dwindle as the festival goes on. The content is generally 90% adverts, and 10% gossip and reports of business that has been done. The following is culled from these papers.

Right, let's get Fahrenheit 9/11 out of the way, as everyone is asking about it. Firstly, have no fear; you will get to see it. It would have got UK distribution even if it hadn't won the Palme d'Or. What that has done has made it a certainty to get distributed in America [this has since been confirmed - Ed]. Interestingly, as a film it got mixed review in the trades. Generally the reviews were either 2 or 4 out of 5, giving it an average of 2.8, and putting it in second place behind Look at Me (Comme une Image), which got much more consistent reviews. The reviews of 9/11 generally either said it was a devastating piece of journalism, or rather simplistic. We shall have to see.

I went to see a talk with Mark Gill (Warner Bros Independent), Mark Ordesky (FineLine/NewLine) and Bob Berney of Newmarket films (Passion of the Christ, Donnie Darko, Monster). However Bob never turned up. He sent a message that "he was in a meeting". The two Marks made jokes about this, but you could also tell that they were shitting themselves that Berney had pulled a fast one on them and was negotiating a deal on 9/11. It made you realise just how "pork barrel" the business can be. They were worried that Bob Berney had realised that the two of them would be tied up for two hours, so wouldn't be able to seal a deal, and he could therefore exploit this. As it turns out there was no deal, but you could tell the Marks had a fear.

Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 also created a stir, but for different reasons. It was rumoured to be invited to last year's festival, so everyone was surprised when one year on he said that it wasn't finished, even as the festival started. One day we read in the dailies that the last reel was being flown from Bangkok to Paris, to arrive at 5am the next day to be subtitled. It was then going to be flown to Cannes to arrive for a 3 pm showing. The 8.30 am press screening was cancelled. They hoped to do a 2.30pm showing, but couldn't do that because the print hadn't arrived. What actually happened is that 2046 gazumped the prestigious 7.30 timeslot from another film. What caused some surprise was the fact that suddenly, given that there was supposed to be only one complete print of the film, the producers magicked a second one out of nowhere and ran a simultaneous press screening at 7.30. Some pointed to the fact that it is not at all uncommon for films to be shown in an unfinished version (even in competition) so Wong Kar-Wai could have kept his original slot and simply announced it as a work in progress. No-one would have batted an eyelid, and another filmmaker would have got the big publicity. Some suggested that in fact what he had very cleverly done is manipulated a situation whereby he got the big 7.30 premiere screening on the final Thursday (just two days before the awards are handed out) and avoided the risk of any bad word of mouth circulating because there had been no earlier press screening. As it was, apparently it got quite good reviews, but still, it all seemed a bit underhand if that was what he wanted to achieve.

With regards to the other films, well Motorcycle Diaries was warmly received, and is due to open the Edinburgh Film Festival in August. I've already mentioned that Look at Me was the favourite for the Palme d'Or in Screen International. The Edukators is a new German film featuring one of the actors from the fabulous Goodbye Lenin (interestingly the third most successful European (including UK) film last year - behind Johnny English and Love Actually - there is hope then, after all...) However this film got fairly poor reviews. Bad Santa apparently is very funny. Z Channel - A Magnificent Obsession is also apparently a very good documentary about a guy who programmed an independent film channel in the San Francisco area. Tarnation is also a documentary a man has made about his own life, spanning 20 years. It did very well in Sundance. Dear Frankie is a British film with Emily Mortimer playing the mum of a deaf child. It got some very good reviews indeed - warm, uplifting stuff I understand.