Most years the fourth day of the Telluride Film Fest is the last one but this year they’ve added an extra day to the beginning. I wish I would have remembered that when I started at the pace I used to get through a regular fest. To not burn out by tomorrow I took a bit leisurely pace today, seeing fewer movies. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t other aspects unique to Telluride’s offerings that I couldn’t take advantage of and give you a better glimpse of what it’s like to attend here.
Filmmaking Seminar in the park
Today’s report from Telluride will take a different tack. To give you a sense of some of the unique aspects of this jewel of a film festival has to offer I’ll give a play-by-play of watching one of the most appreciated regular free offerings at the fest, the daily noon Seminars in the park.
These consist of a panel discussion of various guest filmmakers moderated by a Telluride regular (and this year’s festival’s Special Medallion recipient,) Annette Insdorf. Insdorf has been a regular fixture at the festival for years. She brings her extensive film knowledge to the task, being an accomplished film author, professor at Columbia and interviewer. For these Seminars, she gathers groups of the invited filmmakers and has a panel discussion based on a central theme.
Today’s seminar’s theme was “The domestic frame: How are new movies exploring family ties?” On the panel to share their perspectives on the topic were: Kenneth Branagh and Jamie Dornan (BELFAST), Mike Mills (C’MON C’MON), Ashgar Farhadi (A HERO), Maggie Gyllenhaal (THE LOST DAUGHTER), and Max Lowe (TORN).
Unlike the stuffy, seminars in university classrooms, these discussions are held in a park, central to the town and accessible to all. You just bring a lawn chair or find a seat on the ground and get to listen to the filmmakers tell you how they worked through their processes getting their films made, lessons learned, and surprises they uncovered.
What follows is just a snippet of the kinds of words of wisdom that were shared from these panelists on this particular day.
Annette Insdorf first asked Kenneth Branagh how much of his film was biographical. Branagh replied, “It was framed through memory, in this case, a nine-year-old fascinated by movies, especially Westerns. How you deal with change as a young person. It’s an emotional truth, not necessarily an objective truth.”
She asked Jamie Dornan what he felt as an actor with Branagh’s heavy use of close-ups and long takes. “Ken and Haris Zambarloukos, the DP, had strong opinions about how it was being shot...I love being directed as an actor, that puts you at ease.”
Mike Mills revealed his technique of releasing his script into the hands of the actors and allowing improvisation, “I’m always giving people the keys to my car and asking them to drive off. The end result improves the work.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal was asked about the process she used to adapt the novel. “Adapting this novel into a screenplay I used a similar process to what I as an actor does to find the character being played. I used that same muscle.” She took it step by step from the book to the screenplay. Then she lost the book and got notes from knowledgeable film people around her (her mother Naomi Achs, a screenwriter, and husband Peter Sarsgaard, an actor who also appears in the film, among others) about film structure. A new draft of the script with that advice in mind, “was when it took off.”
Ashgar Farhadi recounted through a translator his, “writing comes from his heart, meaning subconscious. Not like a chess player. He has a bank, a subconscious bank. The only thing he can use. The bank needs a password. Go in, come out taking things from your childhood. All filmmakers do this.”
Max Lowe shared his extremely personal perspective of making his documentary about a family member’s tragic tale. “It’s too hard to sit down and talk to family about things like this. Taking the story, turning it into a film was an incredible experience.”
And the conversation went on to other fascinating topics and sharing of insight. I stood under a tree in a park and got a lesson in filmmaking from distinguished “guest lecturers”. It was a one-of-a-kind, wonderful experience.
I later did see a couple of movies, and so, as I have been doing, here is the expanding on my TweeViews of them.
THE STORY OF LOOKING
All doubt that I might have had that Mark Cousins is a wonderful visual documentarian were assuaged when I looked across the aisle to see the consummate visual artist Laurie Anderson sitting down to watch the film with me. (To be honest, I never had any doubt.) The absolute best person to tell the story of looking is the director who has made his entire career out of exemplary examples of doing just that.
Cousins is marvelous at telling quirky, visual comparative narratives. This time his subject matter started from a deeply personal place, (impending eye surgery,) but quickly evolves into a dazzling rush of imagery mish-mash made coherent by Cousins’ immense repository of referential materials to illustrate his points.
He always seems to effortlessly flow with the most arcane yet perfectly on point cinematic examples. But this doc revealed that he isn’t always knowledgeable about everything. He refers to his correspondence with a person who made him think about his ideas of color. When this color-blind fan asked a question of his references to color it led him on a wonderful exploration of color and he uses this lack of his questioning this element into a fascinating section of his exploration of looking.
He completes the journey through his telling the story of looking with unblinking frankness. And yes, you do get to look at the actual surgery he’s had on his eyes. But hearing Cousins narrate the procedure it feels like him, as he always does, making personal that which is universally understood by all.
This documentary is one of his finest, and that’s out of a large collection of stellar previous works. I am so glad that things are looking bright for Cousins’ future. I’m so looking forward to what he sees next.
THE CARD COUNTER
In a conversation I was lucky to participate in with Paul Schrader he revealed that someone had pointed out to him an element of his filmmaking that he admits must be true but had never occurred to him as a conscious theme. I’ll call this theme the “white knight with the black heart.” Starting with Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER which Schrader wrote, we see a man with a troubled past but with the desire to help someone else in distress. In his films sometimes the hero succeeds, sometimes tragically, sometimes he fails. But always he is driving (often literally) down the road to make the attempt.
This film follows that thematic course but is one of Schrader’s most polished products to date. The characters all have interesting background turmoil driving their current beings. With perfect toned performances from Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, and Tiffany Haddish with villainous support from Willem Dafoe, the deck was stacked for a great film. Schrader’s choices in locations and the use of them, the sometimes stark and glitzy at other times dark and strange set design proves his mastery. His screenwriting skills are still top notch. For example, his giving the audiences the technical information on the way the gambling games are played felt natural coming from the mouth of the character he had created. The framing of every shot felt right for the mood. When Schrader is dealing the cards you can bet high and know you’ll win.
And you’ll be able to judge for yourself when THE CARD COUNTER is released on September 10th. As for me, I’m still on track to see a few more movies before the festival ends, so, more later.