One day after announcing the Official Selection for the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux still had 25 movies left to watch. It was the same old story: The flashiest international cinephile gathering is always a rush to the finish line, as Cannes digs through the latest work from A-list auteurs and potential discoveries to assemble a lineup scrutinized around the world. “I really want to pay attention to anything sent in,” Fremaux said during a phone conversation as he rode to another screening. “We want to respect them by watching them all.”
The festival is expected to add more films in the days ahead, but the May gathering is already a lot to take in: New work from Terrence Malick, Jim Jarmusch, Xavier Dolan, and the Dardenne brothers are joined by Competition newcomers like Mati Diop and Céline Sciamma. Fremaux spoke to IndieWire about the range of issues facing the festival this year, from its push for greater inclusivity to Quentin Tarantino’s elusive “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” an ongoing impasse with Netflix, and the future of cinema itself.
Let’s start with the number of women in the lineup. There are four women directors in the Competition section and 13 total in the Official Selection, which is more than ever. How did that wind up happening? Was there a target?
No, because, as I said when we started to talk about that, especially at the Cannes film festival with Kering’s project “Women in Motion,” when we started to try to to think about position of women in the cinema industry, it was fate. In the time that Agnès Varda started, it was hard for women to be directors. More and more, it’s not easy, but it’s easier. We have more female directors in films schools, in universities, and in the industry. It’s logical that at a film festival like Cannes, we have had more women over time, because we have paid more attention. In terms of the selection process, Agnès Varda used to say, “I’m not a female director. I am a woman, and I’m a director.” She said to me, “Please, never pick up a film because it’s directed by a woman. Pick up a film because it’s a good film.”
I hope that we will have more and more women in the selection. It’s exactly my hope. We have 13 female directors in the whole Official Selection, but they are here because they deserve it, not because they are women. Of course, there’s a jury, and wherever it’s possible even by our own management, we pay special attention to the position of women.
Last year, the festival signed a pledge to increase gender equality in the programming by 2020, and part of the agreement was that the festival would gather data on the number of women filmmakers who were submitted to the festival. Are we going to see those numbers?
Yeah, we are of course focused on the selection process, but we are still working with the 5050×2020 group, and working out the numbers and the statistics. I think that maybe middle of next week or maybe later we will have some results here. There hasn’t been a miracle here. It’s a start. You know, we have to think about these kind of things.
In January, Cannes announced its entire programming team for the first time, and revealed that the committee had achieved gender parity for the first time. Given that the festival usually doesn’t reveal its programmers, what was the impetus for the decision here?
You know, I’ve been here now for quite a long time. I’ve been the general delegate since 2007, but I’ve been really free since the arrival of [Cannes president] Pierre Lescure [who replaced longtime Cannes president Gilles Jacob in 2014]. It’s quite recent that we can really, reopen and reinvent some part of the Cannes Film Festival. That’s why.
I think with the transparency of the team in Paris it’s really necessary to show who is doing what. When my friend Jessica Chastain was on the jury, she got me thinking about how we need to have 50/50 men and women inside the selection committee. Of course, you have the male sensibility, and the female sensibility, the same way that we need to have different sensibilities of race in the festival. On the selection committee, this was almost done. I just had to put one women more in the selection committee, which is what we did.
During the press conference, you addressed the absence of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film “The Truth,” and said it wasn’t ready. What are some other films you wanted to program but couldn’t?
I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t know why you, the press, have this obsession now with not talking about the movies we picked out, but about the movies we don’t have. You did that last year. We have a lot of new names in the Official Selection and the Competition. I think it’s better to talk about the selection rather than why this one or that one is not has not been selected. I don’t want to explain again about how last year, of course, the films that weren’t in Cannes were somewhere else. At the end of the year, did you write about the fact that we were right about our choices? No, but we were right.
But by the way, the Kore-eda film really wasn’t ready. And I have been honest about Quentin Tarantino — he’s almost ready, but not really, really, really, ready. I’m still waiting to be sure, but there is a small possibility we will have him there.
But come on. How many times has an unfinished movie played at Cannes? How finished does the Tarantino movie have to be to finalize a Cannes slot?
Yeah, but you know how Quentin works, and how he is very close to his own work, how he respects the audience, how he respects the people he works with, and the film in general. It comes out at the end of July. Right now, he’s not going to have a film ready two months before it’s released. The film was wrapped only last year. It’s a really big race at this point. I know, I went there. I saw part of the film. I went to his place where he is finishing the film, and I know how he is really, really seeing that challenge to be finished on time. I know he does want to be at Cannes.
So this has nothing to do with the studio being resistant to screen at Cannes?
No, no. [Sony chairman] Tom Rothman is wonderful on that matter. We exchange emails almost every day, and they are all helping. I’m hoping that this whole story will end in Cannes.
Other outlets have reported plans to screen the movie on the anniversary of “Pulp Fiction” at the festival. Has that been discussed?
No, I don’t know about that idea. Of course, we’re making this year’s schedule now. But that could be a great thing, showing that the same day that “Pulp Fiction” won. I can easily offer him that gift.
You have two Chinese films in the main selection, “Wild Goose Lake,” and “Summer of Changsha.” Earlier this year, several films were pulled from the Berlin Film Festival for “technical reasons” that have been interpreted as censorship by the Chinese government. Any concerns about facing that sort of situation here?
No, I don’t. I guess what happened with Zhang Yimou’s “One Second” had something to do with the Chinese authorities, but we checked with them about the two films we picked to be sure that they have the authorization to be screened in Cannes, and they do. There is no problem.
On the subject of studios: You’re showing “Rocketman,” and during the press conference you singled out Paramount chair Jim Gianopulos for bringing studio films to the festival over the years. What value do you see for Hollywood studios in coming to the festival?
Well, I mentioned Jim Gianopulos because he is a friend of mine, and a friend of Cannes. I owe him a lot because when I first arrived, he brought “Moulin Rouge,” and it felt really connected to Cannes. But it’s same with Sony, Universal, Warner — of course it’s important to have these sort of American films in Cannes. Last year, we had only two American films in competition. Of course the press wanted to make a statement out that. This year, we have three American films in competition, with Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” as the opening film, and maybe it will be four if Quentin is ready. The story of Cannes has also been made by the Hollywood studio factory. I grew up with a lot of American cinema.
Of course, the lure of Oscar season has impacted the availability of some films as well.
The thing is, I don’t like to hear only about the Academy Awards, you know? I love the Oscars. We’ve been to the Oscars with our films, but the mission of Cannes, is world cinema. Now, the Oscar campaigns start in September with Toronto and Venice. I agree that it’s very important as a way for Venice to survive. It wasn’t like this 15 or 20 years ago. Now Venice has this strategy to be really connected with American cinema and Oscar campaigns. That’s OK with me, but in Cannes, we have a different agenda. We have another vision, which is world cinema, not only American cinema. But last year, Spike Lee in Cannes in May with “BlacKkKlansman,” arrived at the Academy Awards last February, and got his first Academy Award. So it’s possible to be in Cannes in May and at the Oscars in February.
Let’s talk about Netflix. So far, the rule requiring Cannes films in the Competition to receive theatrical releases in France has meant that Netflix is not coming to the festival. But this isn’t only a Netflix situation. Amazon is starting to experiment with digital-only releases, and there are more streaming platforms on the way from Disney, Apple, and Warner Bros. How do you see Cannes evolving to meet the possibility of even more films not receiving any theatrical distribution?
Well, you are talking about the American situation. Maybe the American situation is anticipating what could happen in Europe, but that’s not yet the case. We still have an independent cinema, and people are going to the theaters. But for sure there are films, especially those from the Sundance Film Festival, which are bought by the platform and go straight to the internet. Maybe the platforms are the revenge of Thomas Edison against the Lumière brothers. [laughs] The Lumières invented the movie theater at the same time that Edison invented the cinematograph. Maybe it’s the reunion of Lumière and Edison. I do think of it as a reunion — because I do think it’s possible to have a great vitality in theaters and on the platforms, but they’re two different worlds.
If you change the word “platform” to “television,” it’s the same conversation we’ve been having for years. There have been films on television. Cannes is about world cinema. I watch television and I watch cinema. The only thing is that we have to pay attention to the youth. I teach my kids to go to theaters. You know, I am one of the biggest Bruce Springsteen collectors in the world. I love the bootlegs. I have everything about him. But there is nothing comparable to going to a Bruce Springsteen concert.
It’s the 40th anniversary of “Apocalypse Now.” Don’t you think that there is nothing comparable to watching “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen? But there are also a lot of good films we can see on the platforms. I am a Netflix subscriber. I watch a lot of things beyond the selection process. They produce a lot of wonderful things. With showrunners and writers on TV, it’s very interesting how it stimulates the world of cinema.
The Netflix situation at Cannes started two years ago with the backlash to your decision to include “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” in the Competition section. Looking back on all that, how might you have handled it differently?
When I picked up these two Netflix films, I was sure that they would agree to release the films in France. So they said no and I completely respect that. They have a business model and they are really focused on that. It’s two different worlds. Any films can be put in the Official Selection beyond Competition even if it doesn’t have a theatrical release. But for Competition, we need the film to have a theatrical release. It’s the condition. This year, it’s easy, because Netflix doesn’t have any films for Competition ready on time for us, so there’s no discussion. I checked and we have a lot of people who agree with our position, a lot of filmmakers. It will be very interesting to talk with Bong Joon-ho, who has a film in competition this year [“Parasite”] produced in the traditional way. [Neon is releasing the film in the U.S.]
Xavier Dolan is coming back to Competition this year with “Mattias & Maxime.” After critics slammed his last Cannes entry, “It’s Only the End of the World,” he said he was less likely to come back to the festival. What changed?
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Xavier Dolan is not afraid at all. He told me that he wanted to be in Cannes. With his last film [“The Death and Life of John F. Donovan”], it was not ready for Cannes, and the film changed a lot. I saw the film very early last year, and then he changed a lot of things. So now he is back with another film, but you are not able to write that he’s a usual suspect at Cannes.
The bigger question here is the degree of risk that filmmakers face at Cannes. How do you deal with the fear of discerning critics who might rip a movie to shreds?
I don’t know if that’s ever coming from the filmmakers themselves. It’s the producers. The filmmakers all want to come to Cannes. They know that there is nothing better than than to have the film in the Palais, with that demanding audience. Of course, I make some mistakes sometimes, but that is quite rare. All the filmmakers in the world want to come to Cannes. But sometimes when the film is very expensive or when the release is too far, they don’t want to take the risk, but that’s only big American films. But Spike Lee took the risk. Jim Jarmusch takes the risk.
This is sort of inside baseball, but your strategy with Cannes press screenings keeps evolving. Last year, Competition films screened for press in the morning after the gala. This year, you’re bringing back some advance press screenings but selecting the accredited journalists who attend. What mandated that change?
This is the second step after last year, when we had a lot of people at screenings who were not critics, so the embargo was impossible. We used to allow journalists to have friends with them, and now we’re saying no — it’s only professionals of press, critics, journalists, who will be allowed into the press screenings. We’re still organizing it. In Toronto, the press screening takes place the day after the gala screening. In Cannes, it’s at the same time, which is better for you. I travel a lot in the world and I meet a lot of journalists. We’ve really started to talk with people.
You mentioned Varda earlier. Now, Jean-Luc Godard is one of the few living connections to the French New Wave, and a whole period of cinema raised its stature in France. You run a film museum, the Lumière Institute, in Lyon. As that era recedes from view, what do you think are the prospects for future of cinema and Cannes as a whole?
We are people of cinema, so we believe in it. It would be the same thing as asking the head of MOMA if he thinks it has a future because you have a lot of artists working on video or whatever. You could ask if there was a future for LACMA in Los Angeles or the Louvre in Paris. With the main festivals, especially Cannes, yeah, the future looks wonderful. We are seeing more countries in the world that there are people dreaming of being directors. Last year, we created a new [accreditation] for young people in Cannes, and we had 2,000 young people around the age of 20 who came down, all from the world of cinema — they wanted to be directors, producers, exhibitors, journalists. So I think the future is really open, warm, and full of promising things.