“We’re going to make this all up as we go. The good news is that I’m proud to be a part of this wonderful event,” said jury president Steven Spielberg in Cannes. Introduced by the hosts of a festival-produced TV program that is broadcast throughout the Palais des Festivals as the “world’s most famous film director,” Spielberg along with fellow jurors (and fellow Oscar-winners) Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz and Ang Lee as well as Cristian Mungiu (Romania), Daniel Auteuil (France), Vidya Balan (India) and Lynne Ramsay (Scotland) skirted the usual questions about how they will go about selecting this year’s Palme d’Or winner. Last year’s big winner, Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour,’ went on to win the Best Foreign-language Oscar earlier this year in addition to receiving four nominations including Best Picture and Best Director.
“An Oscar is a very different thing,” said two-time Best Director Academy Award-winner Ang Lee, who beat out Spielberg for the Oscar this year. “Cannes is artistically driven and should I say, ‘high brow.’ The Oscars is a competition [judged by] 6,000 members and is a bit of a popularity contest…This festival is more auteur-driven, but of course any competition has some prejudice whether it’s done by 6,000 or just a few.” Lee, who also admitted to feeling weary to be called a “judge,” said that he worshiped Spielberg, and the jury president promptly returned the favor by saying he “worshiped ‘Life of Pi.'”
The Cannes competition jury press conference, which is the only time the public officially hears from its members (swanky private parties and dinners aside) before the final Sunday of the festival when its jury president announces their selections, is always held the first day of the festival. Attending press conference journalists work on the assumption that none of the jury members have seen the films in competition, so any direct questions about their chances are treated with an official mute, but one way around that is to ask questions about philosophical leanings or whether they are able to overcome any prejudices, i.e., ‘are they friends or are familiar with the director.’
One of the most memorable moments Wednesday came from a Dutch journalist who asked Spielberg directly if he was aware of compatriot Alex van Warmerdam whose entry, Borgman, is the first Dutch film to join the competition in decades. The question was lobbed as a bit of a curve ball because the implication was that perhaps the jury isn’t able to fairly judge filmmakers with whom they are not familiar with. “No,” said Spielberg. “We’ll become familiar with the [filmmaker] if the film causes us to be made aware of the filmmaker.”
Often questions only loosely relate to the task of judging the competition, which typically solicits a diplomatic response. Nicole Kidman was asked if her husband, Keith Urban, who recently served as a judge on “American Idol,” had given her any pointers to being a judge. “He hasn’t given me any advice, but he’ll be coming here when he finishes,” said Kidman. “It’s strange that we’re back to back in doing this. We both love what we do and are huge fans of what we do so that’s something perhaps that encouraged me, and I wanted to be a part of this group. I’ve known Steven for a long time, but I haven’t been able to spend two full weeks with him.” Kidman also said that Cannes had been “very, very good” to her career-wise. Interestingly, nobody asked about her starring role in the up-coming ‘Grace of Monaco,’ which had been the subject of wide speculation as a Cannes shoo-in, but the Weinstein Co.’s planned December release, mostly set in the nearby Principality of Monaco, apparently wasn’t finished in time.
Directly tackling the task of finding a winner, Spielberg, Kidman, Lee and Mungiu emphasized their hope to find a film that will stand the “test of time.” Mungiu, who won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” gave perhaps the most specific answer in how he will judge this year’s crop of 20 Palme d’Or hopefuls. “I’m waiting for a film that can re-invent things and shows us a new way of seeing a film…I’m looking for a certain kind of honesty and courage from a filmmaker. The first step in filmmaking is how to do like others. But the next step is to be courageous and expand beyond that. I’m looking forward to seeing films that lead us on a different path.”
Some festival attendees dubbed this year’s jury among the most esteemed ever, given the amount of awards, accolades and box office each has received in their home countries and around the world. They are not far off the mark. Like most Cannes juries, however, this year’s represents a fairly wide spectrum of world cinema. Asked how he will motivate the group to move in unison, Spielberg gave what the moderator at today’s conversation called “a diplomatic answer”: “Even though we don’t speak the same language, the common language we have is cinema and that’s what is going to bond us.”