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Amid Festival Reindeer Games, Telluride Keeps On Keeping On

Executive director Julie Huntsinger speaks to protecting the 'purity' of the fest.

Robert Redford often admits that the Sundance Film Festival has been “a victim of its own success,” referring to press inundation at the event over the years. For Telluride, it was the festival’s steady rise as a launching pad for awards season power players that attracted increasing media numbers (ahem). But that kind of attention is admittedly antithetical to the goals of the annual cinephile retreat.

So I put the question to Telluride executive director Julie Huntsinger bluntly when we spoke earlier this week about the 2015 lineup. Would she and co-founder Tom Luddy have preferred folks like me stay away?

“No,” she exclaims. “I think the discussions that sometimes happen about the awards derby, I kind of wish those weren’t going on. But they’re happening anyway and who are we to say one thing or another about it? This little secret on the mountain has been doing exactly what it does for a very long time, and different people will react to us differently over time, but we’re going to keep doing the same thing.”

The awards fuss sort of began in 2005 with “Brokeback Mountain,” a Venice carry-over, and “Capote,” a “sneak preview” ahead of its official world premiere in Toronto — both eventual best picture nominees. More and more, the “secret on the mountain” got out. A new crop of emerging filmmakers caught the Telluride bug — Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jason Reitman, Steve McQueen — and as their projects attracted top talent, the equation just played itself out. “The movies changed,” Huntsinger says with a touch of Norma Desmond.

What you’re left with is a festival that has played host to five-straight best picture winners, three of them world premieres.

But that “world premiere” verbiage has long been sacrificed so that films officially bowing at the Venice or Toronto fests could maintain such luster there while landing as “sneaks” for the dedicated Telluride crowds (who come on faith as programmers keep the line-up secret until they arrive). That practice ultimately tested the patience of other festivals as press coverage of the modest-by-comparison Telluride event intensified. Toronto even instituted a policy last year preventing Telluride films from screening there opening weekend, only to relax the stipulation this year by merely keeping its top venues off limits to those who come out to play early.

Toronto has always been a massive event with some 200 films screening, a significant sales component — completely different, of course. Nevertheless, with a history of movies like “Life is Beautiful,” “American Beauty,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Precious” winning the coveted People’s Choice Award there, and the festival often serving as a well-covered Oscar season starting gun, programmers have understandably sought to maintain some awards footing — so much so that a juried award will be a part of the festivities for the first time ever this year.

For their part, Telluride has quietly let this all play out around them. “We’re going to keep doing what we do” has seemingly been a mantra for Huntsinger and company. This year, however, they are presenting two of Venice’s Competition titles before their world premieres on the Lido: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa” and Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog.” This comes two years after Venice director Alberto Barbera (a former Telluride Guest Director) cried foul on similar usurping in 2013.

But Huntsinger says everyone is on the same page here.

“We know Alberto so well and talked with him a few times over this year [about programming],” she says. “We’re showing what we always would have shown independent of any other things going on. You can’t lay a claim and exclude people, so we work together. There are a few things that are going to Venice first and then coming to us and there are a few things that are leaving Telluride and going to Venice.”

One thing that stuck out to me on this year’s program was a tribute to actress Rooney Mara. Still very early in her career, though with a touted performance in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” that already won acting honors at the Cannes Film Festival, she seemed a departure from the “career achievement” type (particularly with co-star Cate Blanchett earning her own raves).

“It’s so cool how ‘Carol’ is a shared film — we could have just as easily done a tribute to Cate,” Huntsinger says. “But something really wonderful appealed to us about Rooney’s youth. Looking at her in [‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’], whatever you think of that film, watching her become Lisbeth was really astounding. She has that thing, too, where she will probably look different in every movie she’s in. That transformation is rare…We feel confident she has a great career ahead of her.”

But again, all of these laurels and the inter-festival drama, it plays as background noise to the heart of Telluride. This a film obsessive excursion, a weekend of worship in temples of cinema (both permanent and pop-up). To that end, the peripheral programming centered on restoration services and rare treats — if you can make time for them in the commotion — is where the fest continues to excel: Tributes to film editor Walter Murch, “French Buster Keaton” Pierre Étaix and the Coen brothers with T Bone Burnett; restorations of Richard Lester’s “Help!,” Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”; Guest programming including John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds,” Leo McCarey’s “Make Way for Tomorrow” and Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” — it’s a treasure trove for the devoted.

With that in mind, Serge Bromberg — founder of distributor and restoration laboratory Lobster Films, whose colorful detailing of a painstaking “Trip to the Moon” rescue job stands out as a personal favorite Telluride memory — is back with a program revealing his latest works from the lab. He’ll again be hosting the “Retour de Flamme” section, including newly restored works from Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. “People are just going to flip,” Huntsinger says.

Additionally, Lobster Films will present a restoration of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1924 avant-garde effort “L’Inhumaine.”

Elsewhere, a recent discovery of filmmaker Abel Gance’s paper archive, along with 400 boxes of previously unseen film, meant another version of his towering 1927 epic “Napoleon” was on the table. Filmmaker Georges Mourer has overseen a six-and-a-half-hour Cinémathèque Française restoration, still to be completed, and he’ll be on hand with a presentation on the history of the film’s many versions and restorations. (Telluride’s outdoor cinema is named after Gance, who was on hand for what the fest considers its “defining moment” in 1979: a first-ever complete presentation of the canonical work of silent cinema, which had only been shown in truncated versions since its original release.)

And of course, things kick off with a restored version of Fritz Lang’s 275-minute saga “Die Nibelungen,” courtesy of the F.W. Murnau Foundation. Indeed, as much as Telluride is about the art of filmmaking, it is equally dedicated to the art of preservation and the form’s archaeological accoutrements.

“Reflecting great art back to an appreciative audience and highlighting those among us who have created backbreaking pieces of art, only good can come of that,” Huntsinger says. “There’s a purity of Telluride that I feel committed to supporting forever.”

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