Cannes Q&A: Thierry Fremaux Unpacks the Art, Politics of Picking the Fest’s Official Selection (EXCLUSIVE)

Thierry Fremaux
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PARIS — Thierry Fremaux looks relieved. Four hours after the press conference in which he unveiled nearly the entire lineup for Cannes’ official selection, the festival’s artistic director is back in his office a couple blocks from the Eiffel Tower, fielding interviews from the same journalists who, in four weeks’ time, will be picking apart his team’s choices.

“I’m tweeting,” he explains, taking a moment to post a word of thanks to his selection committee — 17 die-hard cinephiles who helped him comb through a record-setting 1,869 submissions to choose the 49 features announced today. According to industry whispers, phone calls and text messages were being exchanged late into the night, including a last-minute no to producers of the planned closing-night film.

According to Fremaux, who sees his role as head of the world’s preeminent festival as a chance to give the best of international cinema a boost, it personally pains him to turn films down. Over the course of an alternately frank and evasive conversation, the ever-diplomatic Fremaux delved into the tough decisions, encouraging trends and anticipated controversies he sees reflected in this year’s lineup.

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You showed up at the press conference in fairly high spirits this morning — at least, you didn’t look like you’d pulled another all-nighter, like last year. 

It’s true, although we still finished at 2 in the morning. There are always tough choices, and films I adore that I would love to screen, but can’t. The last negotiations were painful, as always, because we spend more time saying no than yes, but I am happy to present the fruit of our labor. The press conference is the first public act of the 2016 edition. We will reunite in a month at the festival, but it’s good to get together now.

How complete is the lineup you announced today?

There are still perhaps two or three movies on the sidelines, not more. The selection is (effectively) complete. Last year, we did it in two passes — first with two-thirds, secondly with the last third. Here, it’s almost done. We will add a film to Un Certain Regard, and maybe one or two films to competition.

It’s nice to see some lesser-known filmmakers in this year’s competition. Some years it seems that only established directors make that cut.

People talk a lot about “the usual suspects” — and there are some. But who talks to me about (Alain) Guiraudie, Maren Ade, (Filho) Kleber Mendonca, about these people who are new? And what about Un Certain Regard? It’s ironic that people talk about known directors because they’re known, but we must talk about unknown directors who could be famous in the future.

Are important is it for you to show films that are original and experiment aesthetically or narratively? 

There’s something organic in a selection of 50 films that reflect the entirety of cinema: The young, the old, men, women, Westerners, Asians, Latinos, radical forms and classic ones. All of that constitutes a package in which you can find everything. I think it’s important that Cannes continues to be a platform where we show personal auteurs who have their own touch, who experiment and play with the form of cinema, but it’s also important to show that classic forms matter as well. The films by Bruno Dumont, Jeff Nichols, Park Chan-wook and Nicole Garcia, they are all period films told in a modern enough style. The way the style plays off of the story in those directors’ work is very exciting.

When you say “radical forms,” what can we expect from this year’s lineup? Last year, Gaspar Noe’s “Love” pushed the boundaries in terms of sex. What are the most radical films in this year’s lineup?

We won’t be bored. Although I like boring films sometimes, and there are some of those, too. Those are films for adults. Even the Spielberg movie, which is a family film, but the style… Spielberg is a major director. It’s as if a great novelist wrote a fairy tale for children. He’s true to his style.

What are your overall impressions of the American films that you screened for consideration this year?

Last year we had “Mad Max,” “Inside Out,” “Carol,” as well as “Son of Saul,” which won the Oscar in February. Their presence in Cannes proves that you can debut at the festival in May and still be kicking in February. That’s wonderful when the films are ready, and we’ll see with the films by Sean Penn, Jeff Nichols, Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch. They’re all auteur films perfect for Cannes, but we’re very happy to screen Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster,” which is a studio film.

We heard that “Snowden” was a film that the distributor didn’t want to unveil so early, which seems to be the debate with Cannes.

That’s a classic discussion. There are two debates: First, there’s the strategic question, and secondly, a financial one. For a film that wants to compete for Oscars, is Cannes a little too early? Perhaps, although for “Mad Max,” “Carol” and “Inside Out,” that wasn’t the case. “Son of Saul” or “Carol,” without Cannes [wouldn’t have had the same life]. And “Mad Max” earned lots of money with general audiences, but thanks to Cannes, it won a critical reputation as well. And now George [Miller] is president of the jury. The awards campaigns start in December, so it’s sometimes hard financially to start spending in May. But there are some lovers of Cannes. Alexander Payne for instance is in love with Cannes.

What about Oliver Stone?

His film is wonderful, and he would have liked to show it. But it was a question of strategy, and I respect it. We’re here to help movies.

We’ve seen that Edouard Waintrop has been revamping Directors’ Fortnight. How is your relationship with Directors’ Fortnight these days?

For me and for others, Cannes is the official selection, Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight. Sometimes there are films that we turn down which will go to Directors’ Fortnight, and that’s very good. It’s all Cannes. Even Venice, we get along very well with Alberto Barbera. (Berlin head) Dieter Kosslick also does a wonderful job, as do Busan, Telluride. Never have we seen such a great relationship between Cannes, Berlin and Venice. We see each others, we’re friends, we give each others intel. I’m happy when Berlin and Venice thrive.

Cannes remains in a privileged situation.

Not for American cinema.

Yes, in that case Venice and Toronto/Telluride are better positioned.

But that’s not always the case. For instance, Alejandro Inarritu and Quentin Tarantino’s films came out later. Still, if you look at the top foreign films nominated for Oscars, many of them are from Cannes. France is unique in the sense that pretty much every film comes out in theaters. The Institute Lumiere just bought three theaters with 10 screens, and it’s working tremendously. People just love going to see movies.

Many festivals are expanding into programming TV. Would you consider including a TV selection at Cannes?

We’ve showed TV before: Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos.” But we’ll always favor films. When Steven Soderbergh and Olivier Assayas, who are auteurs, work on TV formats, we’re obviously interested but beyond that we’re not going to create a dedicated TV section.

What do you think about the emergence of players such as Amazon in America?

Amazon bought five films playing in official selection, and that’s great. If Amazon can become a new financing force for independent cinema, that’s good news. But it remains important to release films theatrically. Amazon does it, Netflix does it a bit, as with “Beasts of No Nation.” Netflix needs to take out its logo from movies though because people might think, “Oh it’s a Netflix movie, I can just see it at home.” In the U.S., there are still some wonderful distributors, like Michael Barker at Sony Pictures Classics, Charles Cohen and IFC who are releasing independent films in the United States.

Which countries have the most exciting local film industries these days?

There’s Korea, Mexico, Romania, Israel, Lebanon and Argentina. Also Brazil; it’s great that we have that film (Kleber Mendonca Filho’s “Aquarius”) in competition.

I don’t know if you’ve seen that there is already a polemic over the lack of diversity in the official selection. On Twitter, people are using the #CannesSoWhite hashtag.

They don’t know. They haven’t seen the films.

But among the filmmakers, I’ve read that more than 85% are white males. 

Once again… I’m not going to answer that. We have 20% (women filmmakers). In world cinema, only 7% are women according to a study conducted by UNESCO — and we have 20%.

But in terms of color, there is very little diversity. 

That’s the new trend! The color. And after that what will it be? The height, the hair? Jeff Nichols made a movie about an interracial marriage. I don’t care if Jeff Nichols is white or black.

How many people help you scout for films? How are you organized?

I have my share of work, which is also about seeing lousy films. And there are a lot of them. Off of the 1,800 films, not all of them are great. We have three selection committees: a foreign committee, a French one and third one for other films. I’m still receiving notes on movies. There are films we haven’t seen. We keep watching.

But you won’t add them at this stage, will you? 

Unless someone tells me, “A masterpiece!”

Are you renewing those committees? 

Yes, we renew them. We’ve included many women. For me, it’s as if we jump-started things. I picked up my functions following Gilles Jacob and in a similar way, we’re evolving many aspects of the festival.

Last year, you made it a point to include certain films, like the Charlie Hebdo documentary, that reflected current events. Since then, additional terror attacks have left Europe even more on edge. Does this year’s lineup also touch on political/social issues? 

Jeff Nichols’ film (“Loving”) speaks about being black in America. It’s still a relevant theme today. We use history to talk about today’s world. Nicole Garcia’s film is a love story between a French woman and a Spanish man in the 1950s. Immigration built France: Italian, Spanish, Polish immigration — and today we’re seeing other types of immigration. So there are timeless issues. Other films are more direct in their engagement. Mohamed Diab’s film (“Clash”), for instance: In an hour and 30 minutes, we understand the entire situation. Ken Loach’s movies are all very engaged, but his latest (“I, Daniel Blake”) is heart-wrenching. It will actually make you cry. That said, we don’t take films just because they’re engaged.

It’s an incredible year for Romanian cinema. We’ve heard there are three or four other great Romanian films out there as well. If that’s true, is there a limit to the number you can include? 

We already have two in competition (Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” and Cristi Puiu’s “Sierra-Nevada”), plus another in Un Certain Regard (“Dogs”). After that we have to be careful. But I hope that Directors’ Fortnight will take Romanian films as well, because there are some beautiful ones. Iranian films, too.

What about Asghar Farhadi’s film? 

I’m hoping we will be able to see it. We haven’t seen it yet. But we’re not a geographical festival. If a film isn’t good, it’s no. Same goes for films by women, men, blacks, Koreans, etc. — we try to show the best program.

To achieve that balance you must be very proactive rather than just relying on submissions, right? 

Of course. I want to do my job normally. I’m the general delegate of  the biggest film festival in the world but I’m not here twiddling my thumbs in Paris all year around. I travel a lot. Marty (Scorsese) spent two weeks in Lyon and showed me (“Silence”). My job is also to be close to filmmakers. I don’t want people to consider that Cannes is an elite kingdom. I want to do my job and seek out movies.

The German film in competition, Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” is a good example. Where did you find it?

We work a lot with sales agents. This one was presented to us by Michael Weber from the Match Factory. We’re happy to have it.

Which movies do you consider as your greatest catches of the year? 

There are many, but I can’t tell you specific titles. When we’re interested we talk with the filmmakers. Ken Loach, I knew he was shooting a film so we send text messages, make phone calls to check in. But then we have to see the actual film. A lot of people are quick to point who is missing from the selection. But most often, we just decided that it wasn’t good enough — and we’re rarely wrong. Every year, if you look at the Cesars and the Oscars, there are a lot of movies from Cannes. Sometimes we miss things. Just last year, I gave movies to Directors’ Fortnight (such as Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days”), but now we’ll hang on to them. A movie can be a problem in Cannes and wonderful somewhere else. Cannes is just more selective. Last year, Gus Van Sant and Valerie Donzelli… But Gus Van Sant, if we had slotted it a week later it would have been better. It was a fairly classic film.

Critics can be incredibly harsh in Cannes.

I’m from the school of generosity. I don’t need to exist while hating. I want to exist while loving. I’m not naive but I don’t see what’s the problem in loving classic and modern cinema.

So what movie do you anticipate will be the talk of Cannes this year? 

I don’t know. I’m not the ones making the scandals.

You recently received a very good offer at a big French company which you ended up declining. Do you see yourself staying many more years at the festival?  

When the news came out that I might leave Cannes, I received a flurry of wonderful messages — from Jeffrey Katzenberg, Harvey Weinstein and many people in France. I told myself that after all I was useful here. The question remains: Where can I better serve international cinema? So I said yes to Cannes. And we’ll have a beautiful Cannes edition this year!

(Thomas Alden contributed to this report.)