CANNES 99: American Directors at Cannes - Working Outside the Realm of the Expected
by Anthony Kaufman
This year's American Directors at Cannes press conference, presented by the Independent Feature Project and sponsored by the Independent Film Channel, brought out a balanced line-up of debuting filmmakers and accomplished veteran directors. Newcomers included Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez ("The Blair Witch Project"), Canadian Jeremy Podeswa ("The Five Senses"), Eric Mendelsohn ("Judy Berlin") and Alex Winter ("Fever") while the more established filmmakers sat interspersed between them: Ron Howard (here with "Ed TV") Spike Lee ("Summer of Sam") and John Sayles ("Limbo"). The heartiest topics went to discussions about the MPAA and debates about digital video and projection, while touching upon a number of other plights of the business.
Moderated by festival fixture Roger Ebert, the critic opened the panel by asking the new directors about the indie trend of action-oriented film or those with a so-called "edge." "Everybody says write what you know," commented Mendelsohn. "I don't know if I could have written the other thing [action films] -- I don't even know any policemen, I've never even held a gun." Podeswa added about "Five Senses," his second feature about five interconnected stories, which screened in the Directors Fortnight Tuesday to considerable buzz, "My film didn't fit into any recognizable genre at all," he said. "I was actually influenced by John Sayles films and a number of other films, multi-layered, multi-narrative - but I think there's an emotional quality of the film that people really respond to. It was developed at the Sundance screenwriter's lab and I feared that nobody would get it." Regarding problems of getting distribution for such alternative-narrative films, Mendelsohn said, "It's not like anyone's pretending that that [commercial nature] isn't what they're looking for. They say 'Here is why your film is hard. Your main character isn't 22-years-old.' And there's no bones about it."
In a conversation about the troubles of independent financing, Winter (whose blond haired visage is unmistakably the face of Bill from the "Bill and Ted's" movies) is far more serious that his screen persona. "There's a troublesome spot for filmmakers now a days. Those filmmakers that pioneered the territory, for instance you guys," he said, referring to Spike and Sayles, "created something out of your own heads, your own hearts and met great resistance and had so much success that it became a genre onto itself. He continued, "Now here comes another bracket that you have to fight against, that has institutionalized itself, and it takes the rebels to keep doing it the way they were doing it. It was very important for us to construct the financing so independently, so protectively, so that we were in a sense, untouchable. And it's risky," he concluded. "But I think it's worth the risk and I hope what will happen is that it will forge a movement different from the movements we've seen in the last few years and push things in a difference direction."
Ebert also asked questions about conventional endings, in reference to the powerfully original conclusions to "Blair Witch," "Limbo" and Spike's "Do the Right Thing." Sayles, the most vocal and verbose panelist on the panel, responded, "A more challenging movie or interesting movie -- even if you didn't expect the ending - makes you ask the questions: 'How come it ended that way?' 'Was I prepared for that?' or 'Why wasn't I prepared for that?' - the best thrillers you're surprised by the ending, but then when you think back, you think, i should have known." Lee mentioned that "Do the Right Thing" was initially set up at Paramount where "they just wanted Mookie and Sal to just hug together and sing 'We Are the World.'" Fortunately, Universal stepped in and offered Lee $6 million to do whatever he wanted.
When Ebert opened the floor for the directors to ask questions of each other, a silence covered the seven cineastes. Breaking the silence, Sanchez asked Myrick, "Did you pick up the laundry at the house?" His partner replied in the affirmative, resulting in much laughter from the audience. Lee finally asked Howard about when he found about the "Truman Show" in relation to his own similar-themed "Ed TV." While Howard recounted the same problem with "Splash" and a film called "Mermaid," Sayles chimed in with his annoyance with "Personal Best" coming out during the same time as his lesbian themed-film "Lianna." And Ebert joked about how this year, there were "all the movies about who's going to the senior prom, except for the movies about whose going to get killed at the senior prom."
The issue of the lack of women directors also came up (Sayles said it was as much a result of the Cannes festival selection committee as the industry) and the type of education taking place in film schools. Sayles, a filmmaking autodidactic, responded: "I think there's a lot of talented technicians coming out of film schools. But film schools usually aren't good about teaching working with actors and knowing or caring about human behavior. He added, "I'd rather see a more primitively made film where the person has something to tell me about human behavior than something that's very slick. Technique comes later."
A discussion about the MPAA rating system brought out animated comments from the veteran directors. Sporting an orange baseball cap and orange New York Knicks T-shirt, Lee spoke at length: "The MPAA has two different standards, one for violence, one for sex - the MPAA's problem with 'Summer of Sam' had nothing to do with the violence, it had to do with the sex. And they never tell you it's the sex. We had to take some frames out, here and there, but it is still the film I wanted to make. I just think it's hypocritical of Jack Valenti to keep saying they view sex and violence the same way. I like 'Saving Private Ryan' very much, especially the first hour, but if that's not an NC-17 film than I don't know what is. With people walking around picking up their arms, that's 'R'? - Steven Spielberg can do anything he wants."
Ebert said he'd been campaigning for an 'A' for Adult rating that would fall between R and NC-17, "adult but not hardcore." While Sayles explained, "You don't have to [go to the MPAA]. A couple times, we've actually just run our films and didn't rate them, because they were small enough. The danger, mentioned Sayles and Ebert, is newspapers (like the LA Times) won't run ads for films that are not rated "which is the only reason you ask for the rating," Sayles commented, calling the submission to the MPAA system a "form of self-censorship."
Even though it was several tents away from the MITIC technology center, the IFP panel could not avoid the debate around digital video. Brought up in regard to "Ed TV," Ebert told Howard, "your film is kind of a film about video, about the intrusiveness of light, portable cameras into every day life." Howard responded, "I wanted an earthy sort of honest quality and I can think of 5 or 6 instances where a moment or joke looked false to me in retrospect on film, but when you looked at the video version, you bought it - why did you buy it? Because it looked like news stuff...there's a kind of authenticity, it's another phrase in the vocabulary of filmmaking that we wound up using more and more." Howard also admitted, "I wish that technology would have been around when i was trying to do this," remembering his early days when he tried to shoot a movie on weekends while acting in 'Happy Days.'
Spike was more skeptical: "They're talking about digital projection? I don't know, I got to see it. There's going to be no more film, press a button and movies projected in theaters all across the country, all across the world, and it looks like film? I'm not buying it. I don't even cut on AVID, I cut on a flatbed, a Steenbeck." However, Spike did confess, "The good thing about the technology is that it has enabled people to make films and study films." The now 42-year-old filmmaker continued, "The best thing is the demystification of film has happened. If you have a good idea, and you're committed, you can get a film made today; there's no excuses. Hi-8 tape, how much does that cost?" "But the technology still can not replace the story."
Sayles, citing Marshall McLuhan, described film as a hot medium and TV as a cold medium, feeling there's a different quality to video. "For me, it's an emotional quality," he said. "I still have never seen anything that was shot on video that has the emotional content for me that film does." He continued, "What you hope is, if we're going to have to look at, it will be as good and it won't just be an economic decision by the movie industry." Ebert seemed to be the most worried about digital projection, mentioning studies about the different brain states brought about in human beings, saying the alpha state of film instills a sort of reverie where the beta state of video causes hypnosis. Winter agreed, in reference to the dark and cave-like vision evoked by his film -- a look that could not have been recreated in a digital theater. "It doesn't create the same feeling that you get by the flickering of the light as it hits the projector."
[Check out Anthony Kaufman's report on the panel, Shooting For the Digital Age.]