Arguably the most scrutinized festival director of his time, Thierry Frémaux began working for the Cannes film festival in 2001 before taking on the role of festival director in 2014 when Gilles Jacob stood down. During that period he has had to attempt to rewire Cannes in the wake of radical changes in how we watch and talk about movies. He also faces continuous criticism for the ongoing lack of gender equality in the movies that are programmed.
We met Frémaux at the Marrakech film festival recently and found him in an affable mood, happy to discuss how his job has changed in those tumultuous years and also about his directorship of the Lumière institute and their annual festival of restored films in Lyon.
How did the idea behind the Lumière festival come about?
Well, Lyon is the native town of cinematograph Lumière. We celebrated the centennial in 1995 at the Lumière institute, where I started as a volunteer. Betrand Tavernier said, “We have to do something here.” I was young, I was a student. I said, “May I help you?” and he said, “Yeah, we are alone so come.”
I grew up there and even when Gilles Jacob called me for Cannes I said, “No, I want to stay there because I have a lot to do.” And one day like ten years ago I said, “We need a big event to have people back in the birthplace of Lumière.” After one century of film festivals everywhere we had to get a new idea, so the idea was to make a classic film festival because I think that to be safe, to be in good health with contemporary cinema you have to have a look to the past, you have to know the past. With my old friend Martin Scorsese, we have the same mood about that. Marty got the award there three years ago.
I think Lumière invented the cinema three times: he invented the technique, he invented the art of cinema and he invented the theaters, and the idea of being together. And right now that idea is still very cherished and in a way totally forgotten in some generations and some cultures because of the Internet. I still believe in theaters. I also believe in the Internet. So that new world is very complicated and I think very exciting.
So much has changed in that regard since you started working in Cannes. Do you find your job has become more difficult?
The job in Cannes is much more difficult now than 30 years ago. When I arrived, it was in 2001, and Gilles Jacob thought me, for three years, that job. At this time it was easy. It was easy to make choices. For example, in the ‘90s a director was reinventing film noir in Hong Kong…
No, John Woo! Wong Kar-wai was easy, he was an auteur. John Woo was a genre director. He was a film noir director inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville. And he totally reinvented it. But it was not of use for John Woo to be in competition. But remember Bullet in the Head and all these films, they are masterpieces. Now if you miss somebody like John Woo [bangs table] it’s a big fault. So you have to have your eyes everywhere. And now, each time a young filmmaker does a 10-minute good film you have three satellites on him and spies on him and in that way the job is much more difficult.
And when I arrived in Cannes, when I was on the other side and as a movie buff I thought that genre film was too out of Cannes. That’s why when we took Pan’s Labyrinth from Guillermo Del Toro it was a big shock for people because that kind of film was not really invited in Cannes or wherever. The same with animation, the same with documentary. And now it’s even more complicated because it’s so easy to make a film with that [holds up iPhone]. Now you have to say: here is what cinema is and not. And now it’s also much more complicated because of the existence of the platforms. And now even a TV show or a series, it is the language of cinema. Is it cinema or not? It’s a very interesting question.
Do you see yourself making more films?
I wanted to be a director when I was a young movie buff. But my life drove me somewhere else. I can’t have that job while watching 1,800 films a year and people say: what do you think of mine? I’m lucky enough to have 60 movies every year and among them 20 in competition which, in a way, I feel I own them. I’m with them.
How many people actually make that selection?
We have eight people, plus Christian, my assistant, so we are ten. Sometimes, of course I show some films to some other people but we have eight people in the selection committee, four men and four women and we signed the 50/50 for 2020. So it’s important, not only to have more and more female directors but to have equality inside the selection committee because the culture, the feelings is not the same with a man or with a woman.
You mentioned the 20 films you take in being yours in some way. For the ones that go on to be successful elsewhere, do you feel you’ve lost them in some way?
You never know because when I turn down a movie, even a movie I like, it’s never because “I like/I don’t like.” Because with my job the only question is: is it good for a film or not to be in Cannes? Because sometime you can have a wonderful film which is not at all right for the kind of audience and the press that we have in Cannes. So of course sometimes I turn down some films and my friend Alberto Barbera [rubs hands greedily] is very happy to have it and sometimes the film does very well in Venice, but it doesn’t mean that it would have done as well in Cannes. Nobody knows.
If you take for example now, and especially with this year’s selection, which we were very criticized for at first. They said, “Where are the usual suspects?” When we have the usual suspects they say, “Too much usual suspects!” And this year it was, “Where is Xavier Dolan? Where is Mike Leigh? Where is…” you know? And what we did was to make half the competition with new names. And it’s also our duty to put new names on the map. So we have been criticized but after the festival, after it was over, the press said it was great. And at the end of the year, mainly the films of Cannes are the best films of the year. So we don’t make so many mistakes. We make some mistakes, but don’t ask me what were the mistakes!