HAY-ON-WYE, WALES — Books are all very well, but the organizers of Blighty’s premier literary festival seem to believe the best way to up the glitz factor is to throw some movies into the mix.
The Hay-on-Wye festival, in a sleepy market town on the border of England and Wales, this year launched a full film section that included master classes from Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Stephen Frears and Working Title duo Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, as well as pre-premiere public screenings of “The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse” and “Sin City.”
The strong debut film lineup demonstrates the high esteem in which Hay is now regarded. It wasn’t always thus: When Arthur Miller was invited to the second edition in 1989, he joked, “What’s Hay-on-Wye, some kind of sandwich?”
Hay’s rise to prominence is due partly to the verve of enterprising artistic director Peter Florence, who took up the role after his father died. Florence had been itching to move the fest into film for some time, chiefly because he finds filmmakers often are better at discussing their work than writers, “as their work is intrinsically more collaborative.”
Florence’s film foray, made possible by increased sponsorship from Channel 4, also is motivated by audience feedback. With 360 events at Hay 2005 — there were just 15 back in 1988 — there is a need to give auds a break from sitting through endless book chats. “Cinema events appeal to Hay visitors who are fascinated primarily by the processes. Talks punctuated with movie clips prove very popular,” says Florence.
Florence does not need to be reminded of the danger of incurring the wrath of Hay’s sophisticated audience, whose average age is 41 — which is apparently young for a literary fest. His decision to lure Bill Clinton to Hay in 2001 with a hefty $235,000 check, despite the convention that speakers customarily receive no more than a crate of champagne as thanks, was frowned upon by traditionalist regulars.
The appeal of Hay to U.K. film biz industryites is manifold.
More and more filmmakers flock to Hay to mingle with luminaries from outside their usual circle. Although the small hamlet of Hay — population just 1,300 — does get overcrowded, there is none of the paparazzi-fueled mayhem of Cannes, and bizzers appreciate the picturesque setting and relaxed atmosphere. Hay’s green room, an upmarket tent where speakers chew the fat before and after their gigs, is famous for generating some unlikely pairings: Gillian Anderson opening wine for Margaret Atwood, Bob Geldof and Norman Mailer talking boxing.
Documeister and Hay trustee Nick Broomfield, who alongside fest chair and fellow docmaker Revel Guest are instrumental in attracting film talent to Hay, enjoys the constant “exchange of ideas” and comes to “reaffirm his belief in why I starting making documentaries in the first place.” But don’t expect him to shoot a doc about Hay. After witnessing the damage “The House” did to the Royal Opera House’s reputation, Florence isn’t likely to endorse a docu.
It’s not only the industry’s creatives who make the May trip to Hay. Another trustee is vet agent Ed Victor, who was in town to recount the tortuous journey from book to film made by Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which he reps.
Although Victor concurs with the late Adams’ opinion that getting a pic made in Hollywood can be “like trying to cook a steak by having a bunch of people come in and breath on it,” he applauded Disney’s boldness of greenlighting the project with first-time directors and d.p.
Praise for the studios was a rarity at Hay 2005. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) railed at Hollywood’s accepted principles of screenwriting — “character arcs and bollocks of that kind” — which he sees as “the enemy of creativity.”
Hay Hollywood-bashers even found an unlikely ally in Goldie Hawn, who jetted in to promote her autobiog “A Lotus Grows in the Mud,” which miraculously appeared in the window of most of Hay’s 38 bookshops overnight. Hawn spoke of being “traumatized by success” and said the film industry “can be just as horrible as Enron,” before recounting merrier stories of go-go dancing on a table at a truckstop in New Jersey and her fond memories of hosting Peter Sellers’ birthday party and being chatted up by Elvis Presley.
Whether the film world will continue to embrace Hay remains to be seen. What is sure is that the days when the fest was mistaken for a sandwich are long gone.