Stone, Sayles pix ride high at Telluride

The latest feature efforts of Oliver Stone, Werner Herzog, John Sayles, Paul Schrader, urban upstart Harmony Korine and a slew of other filmmakers will fill the secret sked for the Telluride Film Festival, which begins Friday, sources said.

The fest, which runs through Labor Day in the Colorado town, will offer some 27 programs of premiering features, retrospective pieces and tributes.

Despite the tight security that Telluride imposes on its film schedule, a few titles have leaked out through the grapevine.

Most prominent in terms of industry buzz may be the first public glimpse of Stone’s hard-bitten “U-Turn,” based on John Ridley’s novel “Stray Dogs.”

Pic, slated to open nationally Oct. 3 from Phoenix Pictures and TriStar, toplines Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix.

Hard to predict which, if any, of those stars will make the high-altitude Telluride trek. But be sure that the studio will be hoping for the only prize that Telluride ever awards — unbelievably positive industry buzz.

Another well-scanned debut will be “Gummo” from Fine Line Features. The pic, which will also be seen at the Venice Film Festival, is the directing bow of enfant terrible Korine. He penned the controversial “Kids,” Larry Clarke’s depressing depiction of New York teens.

And the indie king Sayles will be repped by “Men With Guns,” the low-budget Spanish-language action pic that he announced at Cannes in 1996. Set for release by Sony Classics in March, it stars Mandy Patinkin and Federico Luppi.

A few other films to expect:

A documentary from Werner Herzog.

“Washington Square,” the Buena Vista release directed by Agnieszka Holland from Henry James’ novel. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Chaplin star.

“Affliction,” written and helmed by “Taxi Driver” scripter Schrader. Largo Entertainment is producing and North American rights are available.

“The Sweet Hereafter,” directed by Atom Egoyan for Fine Line Features.

“Two Girls and a Guy,” written and helmed by “Bugsy” scripter James Toback for Fox Searchlight. Ed Pressman produced.

Unmade Beds,” an indie British pic. No other info available.

“Welcome to Sarajevo,” the cinema verite Woody Harrelson starrer from Miramax Films.

“Love and Death on Long Island,” helmed by Richard Kwietniowski. John Hurt and Jason Priestley star. CFP is releasing domestically.

“Sticky Fingers of Time,” from Gotham’s Good Machine.

Several other films will also bow at the fest, but they were suitably protected by the secrecy shroud of Telluride.

With the Sundance Film Festival turning glitzier than a disco mirror ball each year, its older, less-hyped cousin in Telluride, Colo., has evolved into the indie fest of choice for filmmakers and industry mavens.

As one studio exec lauds: “It’s smaller, more pleasant, better climate, better films and more fun.”

First Look

The fest usually provides the first glance at the hottest titles pushing the outside of the indie envelope.

Last year alone, “Sling Blade,” “Swingers” and the Oscar-grabbing “Kolya” were first spied in the Rockies. “Breaking the Waves” and “Beautiful Thing” also made their U.S. bows. And in earlier years, preems included “The Crying Game,” “The Piano,” “Secrets & Lies” and Abel Gance’s restored 1927 “Napoleon” in 1979.

This year, the usual CIA-like secrecy about releasing the film sked persists. Fest directors Bill Pence, his wife Stella Pence and Tom Luddy instructed every filmmaker and studio with a pic in the fest to keep it to themselves — under penalty of tongue lashing. And most of them have complied.

As Tom Bernard, co-chieftain of Sony Pictures Classics, maintains: “I have no idea what’s going to be there, and if I did, I couldn’t tell you.”

Bernard is only slightly disingenuous as Sony’s “Men With Guns” and the cross-dressing child fantasy “Ma Vie en rose” are said to have been enlisted, though Bernard would not confirm as much.

Bill Pence says they like to unleash the titles all at once on the first day so that it’s “an even playing field” for everyone — industry insider or plumber from Poughkeepsie — who wants to sked viewing times.

Pence explains that 27 programs will be produced. These will include some 15 new films, along with some retrospectives and tributes. The only element he will officially release is this year’s dedication to the late Jimmy Stewart. And he gets very defensive about the fest’s indie sheen.

“We set out a different mission,” he says. “For example, you don’t hear the word ‘independent’ used much. You do hear the expression ‘art’ a lot.”

The fest started in 1974 as a way for indie exhibitors to gather and celebrate their wares. The Pences, who owned a tiny theater chain in the Rockies, hooked up with James Card, film archivist of the George Eastman House in upstate New York.

“We knew all the key people that loved movies,” Bill Pence says. “Basically, it was a one-time party and a chance to meet the people who were renting these films worldwide.”

Moreau madness

In those days, the lineup was released early. But a problematic outpouring of press ensued the third year when Jeanne Moreau had to pull out for a medical emergency. Instead of pointing to the arrivals of Jack Nicholson and Werner Herzog, the media fixated on Moreau’s absence.

Echoing perfect Telluride-speak, Bill Pence says: “We thought: What a bummer.”

Now, the media still shows up in droves, but has to pay the same $450 ticket that the public shells out for a pass to the films.

The fest has managed to retain the genial, rustic, next-door-neighbor-borrow-a-cup-of-sugar sensibility. In the meantime, they’ve drawn every major filmmaker — directors, stars, producers — from Stewart to Shirley MacLaine to Thornton to Gance to Mary Pickford.

Unlike Sundance, the studios aren’t allowed to dwarf the proceedings with outrageously expensive and overcrowded parties.

Bill Pence cites the need for Telluride’s privacy and for the lack of hype.

“A celebrity can walk down the streets of Telluride — people like Jodie Foster and Clint Eastwood,” he says. “Nobody asks for autographs. It’s kind of an attitude that people understand.”

Pedaling for pix

Bernard raves about Telluride, because for one thing, it’s yet another festival where he’ll be able to ride his bicycle to appointments and screenings.

“It’s the ultimate opinion-maker film festival for the industry,” he adds. “If you’ve got a good movie and it screens at Telluride Film Festival, you’ve got a buzz that you can’t buy at any festival all over the world. The major critics who love movies go there to see movies. And some of them go there on their own nickel.”

Stephanie Allain, former exec VP of Columbia Pictures who now runs production for Henson Pictures, says the fest was largely responsible for indie helmer Robert Rodriguez’ sudden ascent in Hollywood. Telluride screened his low-budget debut “El Mariachi.”

“It’s relaxed and it’s casual,” Allain says. “You know what’s at Telluride? Film lovers. There are just normal people from around the country who love movies.”

Adds another studio chief: “It’s not about making deals and that sort of stuff. If that kind of stuff happens, it’s definitely secondary.”

Charge of elitism

Still, one industry agent chides Telluride’s secret exclusivity as unnecessary. “That’s an elitist thing,” says one agent who refused to attend this year. “Ultimately I have very little patience for it. The idea that there should be some cozy insider club is just bullshit.”

But even that percenter begrudgingly admits that the fest is a big boon for the industry, and has helped put independent film on the proverbial showbiz map.

“To bring any kind of attention to difficult films,” he says, “is commendable.”

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