Bender nabs Cannes nod

Poised to collect Prix Chopard de Producteur

HOLLYWOOD — The first thing you notice when entering Lawrence Bender’s L.A. office on Beverly Boulevard is the pride of place given to three film posters. Of course, there’s the one-sheet of Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction,” and his first pic with the helmer, “Reservoir Dogs” — and then there’s Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh.”

What do these three films have in common? They’ve all traveled to that venerable French festival on the Cote d’Azur: Cannes.

Their placement is symbolic of Bender’s reverence for the fest — and, now, also of the event’s appreciation of Bender’s work. On May 13, he’ll be the first American to receive the Cannes Prix Chopard de Producteur. (Bender was actually awarded the honor in 2000 but will collect the gold statuette this year.)

“(Fest topper) Gilles (Jacob) called me and said, ‘We want to give you this award for your work as a creative producer,'” says Bender, who, over the years, has managed to juggle an ambitious indie slate and recently has taken on a few studio-level projects, such as the Jodie Foster-starrer “Anna and the King” and this year’s Brad Pitt-Julia Roberts pic “The Mexican.”

“Going back there and being honored for the movies I make makes me feel great. It’s not often that I think about the films I’ve made because I’m always thinking about the struggle to get my next films made.”

The Cannes-Bender love affair started in 1992, when Bender flew out to show “Reservoir Dogs” in a midnight sidebar slot. At the time, Los Angeles was overrun with riots and the contrast between the two coastal cities was drastic.

“I was leaving L.A. amid the flames and going from that extreme to the decadence of Cannes — the Croisette, the movies, the yachts,” he recalls.

Two years later, Bender returned with a double-header: “Fresh,” in a sidebar, and “Pulp Fiction,” in Competition.

“I remember the first week with ‘Fresh’ I was put up in a little hotel behind the Croisette, and the next week (when “Pulp Fiction” was playing) they moved me to the Carlton Hotel,” he says.

Bender was soon bathing in full-blown Cannes glory. That year, he and Tarantino emerged from the hallowed Palais with the fest’s top prize.

“To be acknowledged by the French critics and the press and ultimately winning the Palme d’Or, that was it for Quentin and I,” says Bender. “We never thought the Academy Award was the best thing.”

It’s exactly that slightly non-Hollywood attitude that has marked Bender’s career and made him the perfect fit for the Cannes producer accolade.

“I like to make movies that are left of center and still have a commercial appeal,” says Bender, who’s partial to working with directors and writers who display raw talent and go with their gut vs. making films that follow a marketing formula.

He’s also moved into other areas of production, such as musicvideos and commercials, through his company A Band Apart (yes, that’s a nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s film) and TV projects such as MTV’s “Anatomy of a Hate Crime,” which Bender exec produced.

Up next for the producer is the U.S. release of “Knockaround Guys,” with John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper, via New Line. And, at some point soon, he’ll mount Tarantino’s next project, “Kill Bill.”

Meanwhile, he’s about to roll on “Stark Raving Mad,” a lower-budget pic from writer-directors Drew Daywalt and David Schneider, from which he’ll take a few days leave to pick up his trophy in Cannes.