New York Tributes Late Telluride Networker and Impresario Tom Luddy

The film community celebrated Telluride co-founder Tom Luddy, who died in February, with fond memories and colorful tales of how he brought the far reaches of world culture together.
The late Tom Luddy, who died in February 2023, at the Telluride Film Festival
Tom Luddy at the Telluride Film Festival

Tom Luddy wasn’t famous exactly. But he had a huge impact on film culture via UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive in the ’60s and the Telluride Film Festival in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and up to his death in February at age 79. And while he was based in the Bay Area, a theater full of Luddy-philes from both coasts turned up for his tribute at New York’s packed Paris Theater on April 15. They represented the cross-cultural network that Luddy created over decades of introducing people, sharing his favorite film gems, and luring folks to Telluride by inviting their films or bringing them in as guest directors (like Stephen Sondheim or Salman Rushdie) or tributees (like Athol Fugard or Michael Powell). Once they came, they usually came back.

Five of the stalwarts in the Luddy family, who have supported the festival on the Telluride board of directors and in other ways, gave moving tributes to the late “impresario,” as tribute host Annette Insdorf called him; documentarian Ken Burns, theater and opera director Peter Sellars, Criterion CEO Peter Becker, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, and the late Agnes Varda’s daughter, producer Rosalie Varda (“Faces, Places”). One of the earliest festival regulars, Werner Herzog, sent a video tribute, along with Alexander Payne, Mark Cousins, and A.G. Iñárritu. On video, Francis Ford Coppola thanked Luddy for introducing him to Herzog, Dušan Makavejev, and more. He was not alone.

“Tom’s just beautiful way to live life is [with] somebody he admires,” said Sellars. “He would find that person, he would meet that person, and would introduce the 10 other people who needed to know that person. Culture, it’s not some of us, it’s all of us. And Tom, by opening the Telluride Film Festival from day one to musicians, visual artists, people who wrote literature, people who made paintings, and just say, ‘No, no, we’re all working together. And this world needs all of us to complete it.'”

Linda Lichter and Errol Morris at the Tom Luddy tribute.Anne Thompson

“Tom enabled and encouraged and pushed exchanges between people,” said Barker, “resulting in at least meaningful acquaintances and more friendships over time that often created great works to happen and meaningful careers to develop… We shared the notion that in some mysterious way, movies and literature shape our lives, make sense of the world, provide a moral compass, answering questions small and large, and also give us pleasure.”

Barker credited Luddy with saving many films from oblivion, including SPC’s eventual Oscar winner “The Lives of Others,” which was turned down by other major festivals. “Tom Luddy and Julie [Huntsinger] and [the late festival co-founder] Bill [Pence], they’re saviours of filmmakers that would not otherwise be seen. And we need that more and more.”

“Tom was a great networker, but he did seem to know everyone everywhere,” said Burns. “He read every book and seemed to be delighted in making improbable connections, seeing something in someone’s work that spoke directly to another filmmaker, or writer, or critic, or chef, or musician, or dancer, or poet… He was fair, demanding, serious, funny, erudite, open, shy, certain, revelatory, generous, inscrutable, and omnivorously curious. He was a curatorial genius with a memory of every frame of every film he had ever seen. He understood, as Bill [Pence] did too, that cinematic genius was found in many places.”

Somehow, Luddy orchestrated the introduction of Sellars and Woody Allen to filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard so that he could direct them in his 1987 film “King Lear.” Payne recounted photo evidence of Luddy hiking with Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrei Tarkovsky, hanging with Ousmane Sembène and Angela Davis at his old pal Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and golfing with Akira Kurosawa.  This was Luddy’s idea of a good time.

Peter Sellars at the Tom Luddy Tribute.Anne Thompson

As far as the Telluride Film Festival goes, clearly the Telluride family will support Huntsinger as she continues to run the festival. She’s a tad more competitive about nabbing world premieres and Oscar contenders than Luddy was and may not feel the same depth of commitment to screening the rarities of classic cinema, but she’s surrounded by many who will push to carry on Luddy’s legacy, which was to program films along with “live music,” he said in one clip, “and to celebrate the art and history of film with that kind of formula that would be rooted in tributes and retrospectives but surrounding that there would be new films.”

David Byrne at the Tom Luddy tribute.Anne Thompson

Luddy was also a showman, working overtime to make an event out of Abel Gance’s restored “Napoleon,” which eventually opened at Radio City Music Hall in 1981 with a full live orchestra conducted by Carmine Coppola. One year, he kept Martin Scorsese hidden at the festival until he could surprise tributee Michael Powell, who was gobsmacked. Back in his Pacific Film Archive days, before he was a producer, Luddy somehow found a film crew for Agnes Varda, Rosalie recounted, after he brought the French filmmaker over to meet a fellow Greek who turned out to be a colorful long lost uncle.

Others on hand at the tribute included filmmakers Julian Schnabel, Paul Schrader, Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, and Jeff Lipsky, actress Molly Ringwald, musician David Byrne, attorney Linda Lichter, agent Bart Walker, film executives Jonathan Sehring, Lisa Taback, Eugene Hernandez, Richard Peña, Nicolette Aizenberg, Scott Foundas, Bob, Jeanne, and Sean Berney, Ira Deutchman, Larry Kardish, and Dan Cogan, cinematographer Ed Lachman, producers Michael Fitzgerald, Linda Reisman, Anne Cary, Christine Vachon, and Ted Hope, and writers Joan Juliet Buck, Carrie Rickey, Phillip Lopate, and Richard Brody. At the after-party, Byrne said he met Luddy when they tried to make a movie together featuring Latin music that never got off the ground. They remained friends.

Former IFC Center exhibitor John Vanco, who is now programming the Paris and other Netflix theaters with a mix of first-run bookings and special events, retrospectives, and revivals, collaborated with outgoing programmer David Schwartz and Huntsinger to program the week-long Luddy tribute at the Paris Theater. (Coming next are new films from the Venice Film Festival.) Morris did a Q&A for “Gates of Heaven,” and Schrader discussed making “Mishima,” one of the films Luddy produced (along with “Barfly” and “Dead Men Don’t Dance”). Next up for Schrader: in July he plans to start filming “Oh, Canada,” an adaptation of a 2021 Russell Banks novel about a dying documentary filmmaker (his “American Gigolo” star Richard Gere).

The primary takeaway from the event: we should all absorb Luddy’s ethos by watching more movies in theaters, absorbing all forms of culture far and wide, telling artists how much we admire them, introducing ourselves to new people, and spreading our cinephile enthusiasm for films old and new. None of us will ever be as erudite about global films and filmmaking as Luddy was, but we can still emulate him and carry on his legacy. As Becker put it, “Let’s just keep building Tom’s web.”

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