Playing the ‘Cannes Game’ on film

Helmer remembers '78 fest

Originally ran March 27, 1997
NEW YORK – In 1978 I made a feature film about events surrounding a film festival at Cannes originally titled “Cannes Game,” based on the common mispronunciation of the name of the city by Americans. It was released by Paramount in 1979 under the title “An Almost Perfect Affair.” It starred Monica Vitti and Keith Carradine and, despite some decent reviews, it sank like a rock.

However, history, it has been said, is not what happened but what you can remember. And what I remember of the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 is as wonderful, crazy and endearing as the film I remember making.

It began as a germ of an idea from the late Bill Lancaster that was triggered in my brain by a story George Lucas had told me about bringing “THX-1138” to the festival several years earlier. Since George’s first film had been a flop in the U.S., the Cannes marketplace was a chance to give it a second breath. My film story, on which I collaborated with Don Peterson, Steve Tesich and finally Walter Bernstein, took Keith Carradine to the Cannes Marketplace with the Goldberg cans containing the only print of his very earnest first film: “Shoot Me Before I Kill Again.” Actually that was not the title of Carradine’s film until a blaxploitation producer played by Dick Anthony Williams retitled it for him on the spot and surprised him with full-blown one-sheets.

Filming the documentary shots of “Cannes Game” began before the script was done. I had a fine French crew prowling the Croisette for a week, carefully shooting the good, the bad and the ugly so that they could be interacting with the film’s main fictional characters when principal photography began several months later.

And what a shoot it was! Our “real life” — as opposed to “reel life” Cannes denizens included Peter Guber with Rona Barrett, Monte Hellman with Sergio Leone and Roger Ebert with Edy Williams. Now Miss Williams was a soft porn queen who’d been married to Russ Meyer. She could be regularly counted on to drop her top at the first appearance of a photographer. By the end of the ’70s she was a little rough around the edges, but French newspapers still flashed her in at least two column widths.

Farrah Fawcett was a big event of Cannes 1978 — she was at the height of her “Charlie’s Angels” popularity and had just completed “Somebody Killed Her Husband,” her first film for Mel Simon. Fawcett provided the requisite glamour and star appeal that is an essential element of the “Cannes experience.” Mr. Simon was also a defining event for that year’s festival. A supermarket zillionaire from Indianapolis, he controlled most of the billboard space in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel. Farrah’s movie was there — full of color — but so were half a dozen films that hadn’t been made — and never would be! This was a great stroke of luck for my documentary crew. No chance that our background posters would ever get out of date.

Since I was seeing the festival for the first time, my biggest surprise was the avalanche of movie posters for movies I’d never heard of — and probably never would. The real business of Cannes is not awards, or even the screening of finished pictures for broader distribution deals. The business of Cannes is done with smoke and mirrors. It’s about securing the bucks, francs and Deutsche marks for films you hope to make by convincing everybody that you’re closer to making it than you really are. On that basis Mohammed Ali was there shaking hands, and trying to help the producer of a film that sadly never got made. Do not confuse the marketplace at Cannes with other film marketplaces. This is the place where the two characters of Mel Brook’s “The Producers” might indeed have sold off more than 100% of ownership in a film.

When we, the makers of “Cannes Game,” started putting up the fictitious posters for “Shoot Me Before I Kill Again,” several would-be-investors popped up to try to invest.

One inquiry came from a man in a blue suit who had a signboard full of designer sunglasses around his neck. I dismissed him as a flake, until my French production manager tugged on my arm to say that the signboard salesman was actually a rich Cote d’Azur property owner who just liked to sell sunglasses every year during the festival.

Since we were only filming second unit during the actual festival, we hastily made deals with all the owners of this fanciful signage so that it could be stored. Then, in September, after all the summer campers had gone, all would be reposted at the Carlton and the festival would appear reborn. Mel Simon’s make-believe movies — his Westerns, his gangster films and his romantic tearjerkers — would live again, at least as background posters in our movie.

Over the next few years, one or another of these would-be epics actually got made. I often felt a tinge of disappointment. Each had left the make-believe world of “Shoot Me Before I Kill Again” to become just another real movie, destined to sink with the same rock-like surety as “An Almost Perfect Affair.”

I hope the Cannes Film Festival will always be a home for the marketplace of these make-believe non-starters. That’s what the Cannes game, con game that it can be, is really all about.