Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Deauville Report

I’m back from an overwhelming weekend on the coast of France, where Andrew Monument & I attended the European premiere of our documentary NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema. My head is still spinning – probably from a combination of the glamour of the festival and jetlag from the 24-hour trip home. I have only just begun to mentally process the experience.

Deauville is a beautiful seaside resort, and the festival is the work of true cinephiles. While many film festivals inundate audiences with a plethora of titles (I think of this as the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach), Jérôme Lasserre and the programmers of Deauville are highly selective. In its 35th year, Deauville offers an eclectic blend of star-studded events, red carpet premieres, tributes and revivals – including eight back-to-back nights of round-the-clock screenings.

The festival began on Friday night with a screening of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, introduced by actors Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. In a way, this offbeat romance film set the tone for the next several nights, which one of the guest filmmakers summed up thus: “We hope you cry.” Character dramas reigned supreme. For the first two days, however, documentaries were equally inescapable.

On Saturday morning, we attended a screening of THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, R.J. Cutler’s doc about Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. Already released in the States to huge success, this a very slick film worthy of its subject. It effectively humanizes larger-than-life characters, juxtaposing their aesthetic obsessions with the filmmakers’ own obsessively beautiful compositions. (Robert Richman received the award for Best Cinematography at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.)

After that, Andrew & I had to get ready for our own screening. First, we were led to the publicity offices… flanked by bodyguards, to protect us from autograph-seekers. (No kidding.) Then we were paraded into a room full of photographers, where we endured two or three minutes of endlessly flashing lights. (I don’t understand how anyone could possibly enjoy this – there are very few people in the world who really deserve this kind of attention.) Afterwards we sat down for a half-hour interview with the Deauville Festival TV crew. (I’m still not sure what I said. God, it was hot in that room.) We had a few drinks with our new friends from the press office, watched in awe as Meryl Streep passed by on the way to her interview session (we couldn’t actually see Meryl Streep because her entourage was so large, but Liza claims that she heard the actress’s voice), and then we briefly introduced the European premiere of our documentary onstage in the Casino Barrière.

One thing I learned this weekend: French audiences don’t make much noise while watching films. If I hadn’t already noticed this at earlier screenings, I think I would have abandoned the screening of NIGHTMARES before we reached the end credits. There were only a few sequences that got audible laughs out of the audience (thankfully, they were the sequences that were intended to be funny), but apparently that’s something of an accomplishment.

Afterwards, I stuck around for the next film: Dana Perry’s BOY INTERRUPTED - a deeply personal documentary about the filmmaker’s first son, who suffered bipolar disorder and ultimately committed suicide at the age of 15. It’s a haunting and harrowing film – so harrowing that the filmmaker can no longer sit through it. She has already run the full gamut of emotions, captured in the documentary. When we met Dana Perry, she told us that she doesn’t generally like it when filmmakers put themselves into their documentary. In this case, I don’t think she had a choice. BOY INTERRUPTED is as much about her – and the process of coming to terms with the loss of a child – as about her son’s suicide. Before the screening, she told the audience that the film may not “provide any answers,” but what it seems to have done for her is to make her son’s death a reality. BOY INTERRUPTED is a testament to the power of documentary filmmaking as a means of profoundly shaping the way we, as individuals, see the world. (Perhaps that’s why it was screened after NIGHTMARES – a testament to the ability of horror movies to express a filmmaker’s personal worldview.)

While watching the film, I thought of something director Tom McLoughlin – one of the interview subjects in NIGHTMARES – told me. McLoughlin screened his film THE UNSAID at the Deauville festival in 2001. THE UNSAID is an equally tough film to sit through because the emotions are so incredibly raw. Like BOY INTERRUPTED, it revolves around a parent trying to cope with their child’s suicide – and the film doesn’t ever flinch or pull away to spare the audience his pain. After the screening, McLoughlin told me, a journalist in the audience came up to him with tears streaming down the face. He’d lost a child several years ago and claimed that hadn’t really begun to cope with that loss until he watched THE UNSAID. For him, it was a life changing experience. I asked Dana if she has received any responses like that and she said, “All the time.” Because she has opened up to an audience of strangers, strangers feel compelled to share their own personal struggles with her. Often, she has to reiterate that she doesn’t have the answers… but she couldn’t help asking the questions the way she did. For documentarians, storytelling is simply part of living life – and the story doesn’t end when the credits roll.

On Saturday night, we ran into Meryl Streep again… sort of. We sat behind her at the red carpet screening of JULIE & JULIA. I’m no more in awe of Meryl Streep than the average moviegoer, but I must say that there was an electricity in the room when she entered. For me, star quality has less to do with fame or recognizability than with the profound mystery of innate talent. You can spot it a mile away. When it’s right in front of you, it’s difficult not to catch a proximity buzz. Within a matter of seconds – after delivering only a few words in French – Ms. Streep had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. She is as captivating offscreen as she is onscreen.

On Sunday, I caught two more documentaries: WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE and WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE. These films preceded a second screening of NIGHTMARES IN RED, WHITE AND BLUE and, viewed as a whole, the trio of documentaries focused a light on the way that the 1960s and the Vietnam War generation redefined American culture. (It is presumably no accident that Ang Lee’s new film, TAKING WOODSTOCK, also screened twice during the day.)

WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE uses newly uncovered footage of The Doors to document Jim Morrison’s rise to fame, fall from grace, and final curtain call. I’ve been a huge fan of The Doors (particularly the final albums, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman) for years. Morrison’s pseudo-mythic poetry was my first guide to understanding the counterculture of my parents’ generation, and a gateway into Greco-Roman mythology, modern German philosophy, French poetry, and Aldous Huxley. WHEN YOU’RE STRANGE didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, nor did it do anything to de-mythologize The Lizard King. That’s okay with me. It’s obvious that the filmmaker is genuinely enchanted with his subject, and he allows the music to shine through.

The filmmakers of WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE are equally enchanted with their subject, and for good reason. The documentary, about the infamous Civil Rights lawyer William Kunstler, is made by Kunstler’s daughters Sarah and Emily. Emily narrates the film, explaining that they began the project with the goal of summing up their feelings about their father – who was often admirable for his passion and his dedication to a cause, but sometimes contemptible for the causes he chose (defending rapists and cop-killers, for example). As one of the interviewees says, William Kunstler was a man that people had to either love or hate. His daughters have apparently gone back and forth over the years, and so their film is a complex and heartfelt portrayal of a flesh-and-blood human being too often characterized as a hero or a monster. The documentary aims not to judge, but to understand… and that’s exactly what Kunstler did as a lawyer. No doubt he would have been proud of the film.

On Sunday night, we attended the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s new film ME & ORSON WELLES. Linklater has made some of my favorite films about disaffected youth (SLACKER, DAZED & CONFUSED, BEFORE SUNRISE) and this time he tackles Hollywood’s greatest enfant terrible. Christian McKay turns in a star-making performance as Citizen Welles, cultivating genius in stark contrast to the earthbound creatures around him. I was initially intimidated to speak to McKay, but he turned out to be one of the most affable people I’ve ever met. (That said, I should note that – at least toward the end of a late night conversation, after a few drinks, in an unfamiliar time zone – he resembled Welles in his more contemplative moments.) McKay explained that he channeled Welles by studying and memorizing as many details as possible about his subject. By the end of the production, he could have told Welles things that Welles didn’t know about himself!

Monday morning signaled a shift from documentaries to feature films. We went to the world premiere of a film starring our friend Octavio Gómez Berriós. HARRISON MONTGOMERY, directed by Daniel Dávila, is an intimate picture that fits into the genre of magical realism. It’s anchored by strong performances from Martin Landau, as a seemingly eccentric old man who claims to be a multi-millionaire, and Berriós as the luckless young man who lives next to him in a dingy urban apartment building. I enjoyed it, but I have to say that my favorite film of the festival was Monday night’s world premiere. LIKE DANDELION DUST, directed by Jon Gunn and starring Mira Sorvino, is another film about parents facing the loss of a child… After reading the synopsis, I was tempted to dismiss it as a tearjerker. That’s what it is, of course, but it’s a first-rate tearjerker with excellent characterizations and pitch-perfect performances. By the time the credits rolled, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film turns out to be this year’s IN THE BEDROOM.

After all this, it was hard to leave Deauville. The festival was just getting warmed up as we headed for the airport in Paris on Tuesday morning. But I am extremely grateful to have been part of the event. I couldn’t imagine a better setting for a premiere, and I’m honored that NIGHTMARES was a part of it. Now the question is: What are we going to do for an encore?

Below is a schedule of the films screened at Deauville:

For photos and ongoing coverage of the red carpet screenings, check out the following blog:


  1. Allison9/10/2009

    What a beautifully written blog -- and so quick! Adored your tribute to La Streep.

    Way to go, Joe. I am enjoying your journey.

  2. Congratulations on your whirlwind Nightmares tour! Sounds like you're having a lot of fun.

  3. Loved this entry. I've seen a few of the films you saw but your descriptions about the others got me excited about "When You're Strange", "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe", and "Me & Orson Welles."

    Congrats on Nightmares. Can't wait to see it. (Larry talks it up all the time.)

  4. Looks like fun! Wish I could have gone.