Telluride Film Festival: no cigar-chewing moguls allowed

Cannes it ain’t: the purist Colorado festival is the kind of place where you might spill Salman Rushdie’s cocktail, startle Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, or get your film praised by the screenwriter of ‘The Graduate’

'Your movie made me so angry I was punching the walls." The screenwriter of The Graduate, Buck Henry, stares at me through his trademark jam-jar spectacles with an intensity that makes me feel quite worried until I realise it's a compliment.

We're on the verandah at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences party in Telluride, Colorado, and over Henry's right shoulder I can see Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender watching with some concern as the conversation gets heated.

“I was bouncing off the walls,” Henry continues.

The reason I'm talking to him in the Colorado mountains is that my film Natan, co-directed with David Cairns, has been selected to screen at the Telluride Film Festival, an event described by the late Roger Ebert as "Cannes if it died and went to heaven".


You won't find cigar-smoking moguls cutting deals here. In fact, Harvey Weinstein's great white hope, Salinger, gets short shrift when it's parachuted in as a late addition.

Telluride is all about movies, and, paradoxically, its purist approach has made it a bellwether for the Best Picture Oscar. Argo, The Artist and The King's Speech were all premiered here, and Fassbender and Pitt, from next year's frontrunner, 12 Years a Slave, are here at the party to fire the first shots in the battle.

Natan was made very quickly on a tiny budget provided by the Irish Arts Council. It is screening alongside this elevated company because the Telluride programmer, Tom Luddy, took a fancy to it.

It tells the true story of Bernard Natan, a Romanian Jew who went to Paris at the start of the 20th century, and his rise from writing title cards for silent movies to becoming the most powerful man in French cinema.

His far-reaching decision to invest heavily in the untested technology of sound laid the foundations for an industry that was financially viable and distinctively French.

Despite this and many other achievements, by the mid-1930s Natan’s career was over, his life would soon be violently ended and his contribution to French cinema all but obliterated from public memory.

French collaboration with the Nazis, the wild world of early porn and the power of the press to destroy reputations all play a part in Natan’s tragic story. Audiences tend to leave seething with indignation – a perfect fit, it seems, for the cinephile crowd that ascends into the Colorado mountains each Labour Day weekend.

One extraordinary wrinkle of Telluride is the fact that nobody knows what films are going to be screened until opening day. Film-makers are sworn to secrecy: we were told that if word got out, the festival would cancel the screening.

David and I managed to keep it quiet for five months. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will realise what a task that was.

As we board the flight taking us from LAX to Telluride airport, we find the programme awaiting us. Only then do we realise we will screen alongside premieres from the Coen brothers, Steve McQueen and Jonathan Glazer. Reading the great David Thomson's programme notes on Natan, we discover that the film has inspired him to start work on a novel based around our main character. This surprise is the first of many.

Queuing with Cousins
While standing beside Mark Cousins (who has two films screening this year) at the baggage reclaim, I check my Twitter. The news is out. We both begin frantically updating our social media to announce our presence here. I notice that Bruce Dern is also nearby. He looks very relaxed; he probably isn't on Twitter or Facebook.

Most film festivals, contrary to popular belief, are not glamorous. Ask anyone who has been to Cannes – the crowds, the queues, the fights over passes, the strict control over access to stars. Telluride is different.

A senior editor from one of the world’s biggest film publications puts it to me like this: “Toronto, with 300-plus films, isn’t really curated. It’s like Walmart: stack ’em up, sell ’em quick. Sundance suffers from that too, because it’s a market. Telluride gets the respect and the big films because it’s curated, they only show 30-40 films and every one is world-class.”

So when the stars come to Telluride they tend to hang out and generally make themseves available, which is how I come to be queuing up for the elevator to the Academy’s party right behind Brad Pitt. This festival is full of moments like that.

A constellation of stars
Look: Francis Ford Coppola and Godfrey Reggio (Koyannisqatsi) are having a chat, and Robert Redford is nodding wisely beside them. Hey, there's T-Bone Burnett and his wife Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) surrounded by musicians. The Coens are everywhere, quiet and unapproachable. You're trying to have a late-night beer, in walks Don DeLillo. Step back to make way for him and you've spilled Salman Rushdie's cocktail and earned yourself an owlish glare.

My favourite Telluride moment, however, is when I'm introduced to the great documentarian Errol Morris. Werner Herzog's wife is advising him to put on some sunscreen. Morris, a bear of a man, squishes out a huge dollop and smears it all over his face. "I'm going for the clown look." Then Herzog appears and admonishes him. "You haff to rub it in properly, Errol, or it vill not vork."

It all becomes more than a little surreal. David Cairns and I, tottering around in the thin air from screening to screening (there are four screenings of Natan, all but one followed by a Q&A), find ourselves becoming increasingly blasé: why walk half a mile to the Herzog premiere and Q&A when we can go to see DeLillo narrate his own personal edit of the Zapruder footage, and the latter event, crucially, is closer?

Events you'd cut throats to get into normally (the Coens talking about the music in their films) have to be missed because of schedule clashes. Our film is scheduled against their Inside Llewyn Davis three times. It's like a conspiracy.

However, we do get to see Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (the best space story since Alien, and a game-changer); Alexander Payne's Nebraska, which should get Bruce Dern an Oscar next year; and less-feted films that will hopefully go on to great things.

Even my departure from the festival is unusual. The aircraft that is due to take me to LA for the premiere of another of my films, Very Extremely Dangerous, crashes on its inbound flight, so the runway is closed. Miraculously I still manage to make LA in time, but with a bad case of altitude sickness, a desire to get back to Telluride next year, and an offer on Natan from a prominent US TV station. Not bad, all round.

Paul Duane's trip to Telluride was assisted by Culture Ireland. His first film, Barbaric Genius, has just been released on DVD and iTunes. Very Extremely Dangerous is in theatres now