From the freeway-scale movie billboards on the side of the Carlton Hotel to the Palais security who really won’t let you in the theater if they find your fashion sense lacking, Cannes is designed to overwhelm. And while this event is a film lover’s mecca, it can also be remarkably unforgiving with audiences who are noted for their swiftness to whistle and hiss their displeasure.
And sometimes the magic works. Two American filmmakers have found nothing but love their first time on the Croisette: David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which screened in Critics’ Week, continued the critical winning streak it found after a Sundance bow and sale to IFC Films. And Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” closed a deal with Radius-TWC shortly after its Directors’ Fortnight world premiere.
We spoke to the production teams behind these Cannes Cinderella stories to ask about the practical elements that contributed to their happy endings. Here’s what they had to say.
Work on your pregame. “As soon as we heard we were in Fortnight, we got the gears in motion to begin pregame and preparation,” said “Blue Ruin” producer Anish Savjani. In this case, that meant finishing the film — they hadn’t locked picture when they received the Fortnight acceptance April 9 — as well as working with Memento Films Intl., which also represents competition title “The Past” and Critics’ Week selection “We Are What We Are.” “I really like them and trust them and that’s not always the case,” said Savjani. “They’re a partner that we could be pretty casual with.”
Keep your priorities straight. “This is one of those things I’ve heard about and dreamt about and never thought about for myself,” said Saulnier, who would have started negotiating with Radius’ Tom Quinn immediately after its press and industry morning screening — but director first insisted on joining his wife and infant son as they watched an audience respond to his film for the first time.
Work with people smarter than you are. Saulnier doesn’t have an agent — but in addition to Savjani, whose credits include “Drinking Buddies,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” he had Memento and the luxury of a prior relationship with Quinn, who bought his 2007 film “Murder Party” for Magnolia Films’ Magnet label
The “Saints” production team, Sailor Bear — Lowery, James Johnston and Toby Holbrooks — have fewer credits, but they also have the backing of WME’s Craig Kestel as well as international sales through The Weinstein Co. “We have a team that that prepared every step of the way,” said Johnston. “If there’s a problem coming up, we have four different solutions.”
Work with people you know. Sailor Bear began 13 years ago, when Lowery put out a crew call for his first short. Said Johnston, “I was the only one who kept showing up. Neither one of us knew what we were doing, so we did everything.” Toby Halbrooks met Lowery in 2007, when he was an assistant editor (and member of Polyphonic Spree). The trio made “St. Nick” in 2009 and the short “Pioneer.” “At no point did I know I was producing,” said Halbrooks, who now lives a mile from Lowery in east Dallas. “We just figured, ‘Let’s do this as a team.”
Work with people you don’t know. While “Blue Ruin” stars Saulnier’s best friend, he met producer Richard Peete only a couple of months before production began. “We had this moment, where we were shooting and we were in the trenches, surrounded by squibs and exploding heads, when we realized: “We met six weeks ago.”
Enjoy yourself. “We went to [the Hotel duCap] last night, the one that’s 30 minutes away,” said Holbrooks. “Me and [‘Saints’ producer] Jay Van Hoy were in the trunk of a car. I am not remotely kidding.”
“If I had gone a year ago, I would have shrunk in the corner,” Johnston said. “Now I don’t have to feel weird talking to people. They know who I am and why I am there. That doesn’t always happen.
“That’s the part I’m not taking for granted,” he said. “Finding people you can stand to be with at a festival late at night. Those are the people I want to work with during the day.”