Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Frémaux is a busy guy. One minute he’s greeting celebrities on the red carpet; the next he’s introducing a first-time filmmaker in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. However, since taking over the position from current festival president Gilles Jacob in 1999, the most important part of Frémaux’s job has been maintaining a tight handle on Cannes’ reputation for showing some of the most talked-about films of the year — while also managing to make a few tweaks.
On Saturday, the penultimate day of the festival, Frémaux stepped out of a meeting and sat down with indieWIRE in his Palais office to discuss all things Cannes.
In your view, how has this year differed from previous ones?
I think that maybe this year looks like the intentions I had when I arrived. Little by little, we did a lot to open the doors and windows of the selection to all different kinds of cinema. I think, whatever people like or don’t like about the films, that it’s about having drawn something like Takashi Miike’s samurai film [“Hara Kiri”] or Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” or even the Radu Mihaileanu film [“The Source”] — action films and mainstream films, new images. You know what a good selection is? An edition of good films. I think what we want to give is what’s living in cinema today, what’s full of life and energy, and I think that’s what this year was.
When you say that you “opened the doors and windows of the selection,” what exactly do you mean?
When I arrived, the selection was maybe… in Cannes, and also everywhere else, you had a certain kind of cinema that looked like it was made for festivals, for specialists. That’s what Cannes and Venice used to be. There was a difference between when you saw in festivals and theaters. As a movie buff, I’m still running the Lumière Bros. museum in Lyon, but I also like Sam Peckinpah and Samuel Fuller. I don’t consider any difference between those cinemas. So this year, and when we put documentaries and animation films in the selection a few years ago, it was a way of saying, “Hey, what is cinema today?” I think that this year, the 50 films in the official selection give a good idea of how cinema is still alive and still strong.
When “The Artist” was moved from out of competition to a competition slot, some people thought you were waiting for another film to be ready for competition and then shifted “The Artist” over when the other film wasn’t ready.
No, that rumor is a strategy from the media. We had three French films in competition and I had this fourth one, but we don’t want to have too many French films so I had to pull it in right away. We knew that the film was good.
The organization of the festival was different this year in that a lot of movies with big buzz premiered during the later days of the festival. Usually, the more popular movies show up during the first half.
This is the programming [approach], which is very difficult, because — for example, with “Drive,” it screened at the end of the festival. Why? Because the film was not ready earlier. Sometimes, it’s really because we have to pay attention to everything. But we have 20 good movies in competition. Years ago, it was better to be at the end of the festival, and the Palme d’Or was often given to films shown at the end. [At another time], people used to want to be at the beginning of the festival, but Cannes is 12 days and each day is very important.
One of the big environmental changes to the festival has to do with technology. A film screens in the morning and you can check Twitter or Facebook for reactions a few hours later. Do you think this is a positive development?
Yes and no. I think that it’s good to have Cannes totally inside what the world is today, with the way communication is. That’s very important, but I also don’t like to have short reactions about any films: “I like it, I don’t like it. It’s good, it’s bad.” Of course, it’s hard to make a deep analysis of a film on Twitter. At Cannes, we always have to fight against the idea that life is going so fast and so quick here. I hope that everybody is really happy with Cannes this year, but we have weeks and months to think about the festival, and for the movies to live on and have good fortune.
It seems like each year comes with a scandal. There’s no doubt this time that it belonged to Lars von Trier and his ill-conceived Nazi jokes. What are your feelings about how that turned out?
I think that “Melancholia” is a great film, maybe his best. Everything was going very well. Lars von Trier was in very good shape. He was happy. The press conference was very enjoyable for me. Then, suddenly, he made that provocation. It shows you how things can turn down very quickly. Anyway, Lars von Trier has been very stupid, an idiot, but he’s not anti-Semitic. However, on these matters, it’s hard to say something and go back. So the board of the festival had to do something, and this is what they decided. Of course, I would like the filmmakers to think about the fact that Cannes has a big ego, and reflects a lot of things, so they have to be careful. But [filmmakers] are not political men. They don’t have the habit of making a speech that’s perfect, like a politician’s. They’re artists — extravagant, provocative. Among them, the most provocative of all is named Lars von Trier. More than anything, it’s sad because in a way he killed his own movie.
Does his “persona non grata” status mean he will never come back to the festival?
(Pause.) Let’s talk about this year.
Do you think these events will hurt the movie beyond Cannes?
No, absolutely not.
Another director who made headlines this year was Terrence Malick, but for a different reason. He had this mysterious, phantom presence at the festival.
He was here.
But he avoided the cameras and the press conference. He didn’t do any interviews. Since Cannes likes to parade around its filmmakers, did that bother you at all?
He’s like the J.D. Salinger of cinema. He’s a friend of mine and we talk very frequently. He was there and came at the end of the screening. And that’s it. We all know him.
But you never tried to get him to come out of the shadows?
No, no. He has a phobia. I respect that. He’s very conflicted about that situation. It’s not a provocation or an attitude.
The film-festival model has changed a lot in recent years. Some festivals have launched into the distribution game, while others are screenings films online. Is Cannes interested in any of these trends?
We are going to think about those things, but I think Cannes is the consequence and the reason why things change. Sometimes, we reflect big change, and sometimes we make big change. I’m not sure we have to do a lot because the world is changing. Cannes does change every year, because of the artists, the auteurs, the filmmakers. But Cannes didn’t change because the computer was invented. What we support is having a film in a screening room, so imagine if there were no more screening rooms all over the world. There would still be Cannes. People need to be together to watch a film. What we work for is really to keep that safe.
Does Cannes have to compete with other large festivals, like Toronto or Venice?
Cannes doesn’t compete with anybody. Cannes is Cannes.
What about Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week?
Well, they are parallel sections. We are friends with Critics’ Week, which is why they have good films, because we talk about our programs together. But Fortnight is completely independent.
When Cannes ends, do you go back and read a lot of the coverage to see how it went?
I have all these papers here [gestures to a table covered with French-language magazines], but I don’t like to read anything about Cannes, because some of it is wrong. I talk every day with thousands of people, so I feel like I know what happened. I go myself and check for applause at screenings, so I know what was or wasn’t good.
There are rumors that Cannes President Gilles Jacob may retire soon. Would you want to take his job?
Well, it’s different. I’m the director and he’s president. I’d like to keep managing the festival, the selection, the organization, all that.
Will anything change about the festival next year?
I’m not finished with this year! Let me check about next year. (laughs) Yeah, every year there’s something different at Cannes. That’s why Cannes is Cannes. When I arrived, nobody could really pay attention. It was difficult to replace Gilles Jacob. Everybody said it was impossible, but not only did I replace him, we were able to make Cannes much better ever year. We worked to make it, more than ever, the place to be, the best festival in the world.