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The Cannes Film Festival of 2019 is in full swing, with the usual scandals, beautiful people, paparazzi, wannabees, con men, and hucksters filling the joints, the clubs and the bars, hotels and clubs all. It is sometimes vulgar and usually crass—but also a place of unexpected Magic. I know because I got to go there in 2014 with my first film and I got to be part of that Circus. Marcello Mastroianni, the great Italian actor, was the first familiar face I saw. His image loomed above the Palais along on the infamous Le Croisette and seemed to beam down with a special magnanimity towards me. “Hello, old friend,” I said.
The run-up to Cannes had been frenetic, starting with the miracle that I had actually produced and directed a film. Making the film had been terrifying and stomach churning, for as all filmmakers know, it’s easy to go over budget, especially in my case when the budget was zero. On a whim, when my script for “Here’s Looking at you, Kid,” a short spoof of Casablanca, had won a screenwriting award, and I realized it would never be made, so gosh darn it, I was going to do it myself!
With all the enthusiasm of Mickey Rooney telling Judy Garland “Hey! Let’s put on a Show!" I posted an ad on a filmmaking website saying I was in pre-production and immediately I was inundated with responses. After an arduous process, I had my Rick and I had my Ilsa and I had my Laszlo and I had my Renault—and so I began rehearsing, all the while fending off a bewildering array of questions like: Who is your Script Supervisor? Who is your DP? Who is your Art Director? With no budget and even less experience, these were difficult questions to answer. I was lucky enough to find a great cinematographer who even had a Black Magic Camera! And the rest, I decided, I would do myself.
When I received the notice that the film had been accepted to the Cannes Court Metrage—otherwise known as the Short Film Corner—I became a minor celebrity among my friends and colleagues, even doing a short radio interview—and just going quietly—and not so quietly—completely nuts!
My key concern was wardrobe. I just knew that there would be so many parties and openings that I would be invited to and of course, I would need clothes—and lots of them—so I began shopping—and didn’t seem to be able to stop. Somehow there always seemed to be another pair of shoes or pocketbook or glittering top to buy. My sister and I hit Rent the Runway so I would be sure to have a few outfits for all the premieres I would surely be going to and the Yacht parties I was positive I would be attending. When I saw the bill, $350, I felt faint but everyone kept telling me—especially the sales people—it was a good investment. Someone had told me I would need a warm coat so I spent the day I was going to leave trying to stuff all of my outfits into the special suitcase I had bought for the occasion.
On the Way to Oz
On the way to the airport, I told the Indian taxi driver who was driving me to Kennedy Airport that I was going to Cannes and of course, he asked me if I would take a look at his script. Sweating and struggling in the heat with my two tons of clothes and suitcase, I had barely made it out of the car when he held up a 500 page tome. “Please,” he shouted. “My mother said it’s very good!” On the plane, I was so enervated that maybe I had one cocktail too many so somewhere over the Atlantic, between New York City and Le Croisette, I fainted. When I came to, I was murmuring, “I’m going to the Cannes Film Festival.” The flight attendant was severely unimpressed.
When I walked into the Palais in one of my “outfits” to register for my screening, two nubile French girls were manning the desk. They looked at me with disdain. “Oui,” they said, with not even the slightest bit of affect. It was a monotone “oui” devoid of interest or excitement. It was an intensely Gallic oui, signifying undying boredom. Undaunted, but a bit shaken, I told them why I was there and they steered me towards the basement of the building. This was certainly not the welcome nor the theatrical venue I had imagined.
What I learned was that in Cannes, there is a caste system in place. Movie stars, of course, are on top, followed by directors, producers, and dealmakers. Almost as soon as I arrived in the seaside French resort, I realized I was occupying one of the lower rungs—the Gallic equivalent of chopped liver. From inside the Palais, the bunkerlike complex where the screenings were held came a distinct chilliness.
The Cannes Film Festival was created in 1939 by Louis Lumiere, one of the world's first directors. But it didn't really get into full swing until a year after the war ended, in 1946. Movie stars like Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, and Sophia Loren started coming in the 1950's—creating that sense of glamour that still endures. The intellectuals also started coming. In 1959, Cahiers du Cinema critic Francois Truffaut's first feature film, The 400 Blows, had its debut there. Fellow Cahiers critic Jean-Luc Godard traveled to the festival that year to ask Truffaut if he could use a story about a car thief they had both collaborated on. That would become Breathless, and though it didn't win any awards at Cannes in 1960, it would change movies forever.
The Short Film Corner at Cannes is an offshoot of the Official Shorts Competition. While it doesn’t offer any prizes, it gives you a chance to show your film and meet people who might be able to help. As an invitee to the Short Film Corner, you are offered 15 minutes and a small screening room. Arbitrarily, I chose to show my film on a Friday at 12:45 and took the biggest room—about 12 people. I worried about how I would fill the space, since I knew nobody. The nubile young woman booking the room wasn’t very helpful. “You just invite people,” she said, “and hope they show up.” She said it in French. It sounded more ominous that way.
I had imagined a thousand champagne bottles popping nightly—and movie stars and other glamorous types having sweaty sex on the beach, while I frolicked on yacht parties and premieres, but the truth was—while all those things were happening around me, I was living in a parallel universe. In other words—I was getting shut out of everything. And I wasn’t the only one. Desperate souls lined the street outside the Palais, holding signs with the words “Mommy, Invite Please! (referring to wunderkid Xavier Dolan’s film, which was at Cannes that year) or “Clouds of Sils Maria!! Pease I am desperate for an invitation!” (referring to Oliver Assayas’s entry starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. This scene would be repeated every night for every premiere.
They would stand there outside the premiere, all dressed up in their tuxedos and evening dresses, with their sad signs begging for invitations. Very few, if any, seemed to get them. They were the lowest caste at Cannes, the Uninvited. And unfortunately, I was getting shut out of every red-carpet event. Getting tickets to these premieres is like a lottery, and unless you know someone important, it’s almost impossible. The people with the most coveted badges, which that year were white, got first pick. I had a blue badge. Whenever I went to sign up, the computer would tell me to come back at some obscure time in the evening. And when I did, it was all over. Back in my hotel room, my Rent the Runway outfits looked at me with sad and accusing eyes.
Still, it was magical. Sometimes I felt like Dorothy Gale of Kansas who had been blown into Oz.—At other times, like Alice in Wonderland in a place where everything revolved around movies. And of course, Cannes did.
It may sound strange, but the Cannes Film Festival can be an arduous experience. Physical needs are discounted. You shouldn’t have to eat or sleep—just a quick gulp of water or maybe a puff of a Gaulois. Then you’re set for the next film. A war-weariness sets in. Still, you don’t dare pull back and rest, because there’s always the next film that could change your life. And that year, I saw some beauties. There was Michel Hazanavicius’s The Search, Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridges of Sarajevo and the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, with Marion Cotillard were all standouts.
A Near Disaster
On the morning of my screening, I hadn’t asked for a wakeup call. Still jet-lagged, I overslept and then lay there in my hotel room, fantasizing about what I should wear when I showed up for my movie. But I had misjudged the time. It was already noon and I knew there would be no second chances. I grabbed the first clothes I saw and ran almost a mile to the Palais. Disheveled, sweating, wearing little makeup, and caffeine deprived, I arrived for my premiere. So much for the fancy dresses. Yet there were actually people there to see the film! Some even applauded and laughed in all the right places. Some even compared it to the comedies of Mel Brooks. Magic!
That night I wanted to celebrate, though all the parties were invitation only. I heard about a party at a villa up in the hills—but that seemed unimaginably far. I heard the Mexicans were having a party over at their pavilion. I wandered over and heard “Oles!” yet the doors remained firmly closed. I considered going to the Gotha nightclub, but I couldn’t face the velvet rope. In the end I went to Cinema on the Beach where they were showing Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino, Uma Thurman, and John Travolta were in town for the film’s 20th anniversary. I stood there smoking Gauloises and trying to look cool. Later, I put on my super high heels and some false eyelashes and hung out at the bar at Fo.
The only celebrity who really seemed to “see” me was the Marcello Mastroianni, whose compassionate and sultry gaze from high up above the Croisette seemed to follow me—and everyone else everywhere, like a movie star Buddha who looked at Everything and Saw it Was Good.
And it was…