Cannes Honcho Thierry Fremaux Is Hollywood’s Inside Man

Fremaux talks about his Tinseltown ties and this year’s festival lineup

Thierry Fremaux
Francois Berthier

When Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” raises the curtain on the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, it will serve, among other things, as an indication that the love affair between the festival and Hollywood is alive and well — much more than the last time Luhrmann opened Cannes, 12 years ago, with “Moulin Rouge.” Back then, relations between Cannes and Tinseltown had hit something of a low, with few studio films of the late ’90s making the trek to the Croisette (“Beyond Rangoon,” anyone?). When he joined Cannes in 2001, festival director Thierry Fremaux was immediately tasked by fest president Gilles Jacob with a peacemaking mission to the West Coast, and the decade since has been one of the richest for le cinema Americain on the Riviera — even if the biggest Cannes-launched Oscar winner of recent years was a French production: “The Artist.”

As opening night draws near, I asked Fremaux to reflect on Cannes’ American diplomacy and other changes he’s witnessed during his festival tenure.

“Moulin Rouge” has been characterized as a game-changer where Cannes’ relationship with Hollywood is concerned. How, from your perspective, have things evolved in the 12 years between your two Luhrmann opening nights?

“Moulin Rouge” was the first film I saw during my first selection process, and I both appreciated the film and thought it was perfect for opening night. (Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman) Jim Gianopulos knew that Cannes had problems with Hollywood, so we made a good connection. He asked me to build some kind of new regime in Cannes, which I’ve tried to do. Each time it’s been possible to do something in Cannes with the studios, we have. Especially with Fox, Warner Bros. and Paramount. When it’s not possible, there’s nothing we can do to change it. I still regret that Fox Searchlight hates to go to Cannes. This prevented us from having Alexander Payne’s film “The Descendants” in 2011. The champions of Cannes are Jeffrey Katzenberg, Harvey Weinstein, Jim Gianopulos, Brad Grey and Sue Kroll from Warner Bros.

How has the rapid advent of digital technology — both in production and exhibition — affected the festival?

Cannes must be a place for anything new in terms of cinema. We showed James Cameron’s 3D documentary about the “Titanic (Ghosts of the Abyss)” in 2003. In 2002, we had Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” and, in the same year, “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” — two polar extremes in terms of digital filmmaking. It was good to show in Cannes that digital can be used in both a small, auteur film and a big Hollywood film.

Two years ago, a lot of journalists said it was the year of bad parenting in Cannes, with several films in the official selection touching on child abuse or neglect. Last year death and bodily decay were everywhere, from “Amour” to “Paradise: Love” to “Rust and Bone.” When you step back to look at this year’s selection, do any similar themes stand out for you?

After “La grande bouffe” by Marco Ferreri in 1973, Cannes has been a place for scandal, and a lot of the directors this year — especially the French — are pushing the limits in terms of showing sex onscreen. In terms of theme, I think there is something about solitude and the search for identity; you see this in the films by Francois Ozon (“Young & Beautiful”) and Abdellatif Kechiche (“Blue Is the Warmest Color”). And there are also many stories about families, including the films of Jia Zhangke (“A Touch of Sin”) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Like Father, Like Son”). But for sure, you select each film one at a time and then, at the end, you see certain links.

In recent years, it seems that many more established filmmakers have been turning up in Un Certain Regard, which was once thought of as more of a discovery zone for new talent. This year, Claire Denis and Sofia Coppola, both veterans of the competition, are included. For those who may be puzzled by this, how do you contextualize Un Certain Regard?

It’s not totally true that it has changed that much. In the past, Andre Techine, Eric Rohmer and Wim Wenders all came to Un Certain Regard — before me. Un Certain Regard is for films that are not the films for competition. It doesn’t mean that the films aren’t good, but sometimes an author writes a 400-page novel and sometimes a 120-page novel. They are not the same, but both need to exist. It’s another way to be in Cannes in the official selection.

What are the greatest challenges Cannes faces in the coming years?

The history of Cannes is made by the films themselves. So the future of Cannes will be made by filmmakers, not by me. It’s the future of cinema we must concern ourselves with. Nothing is finished in terms of cinema.