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Remind Me

An Interview with Gary Meyer of the Telluride Film Festival

In September 2009, The Telluride Film Festival (www.telluridefilmfestival.org) celebrates its 36th consecutive year of screening the best in contemporary and classic cinema from around the globe. Since 1998, TCM has aired a full day's programming in honor of the Festival, and this year Telluride Co-Director Gary Meyer visits Now Playing to shed light on the Festival's importance for all cinephiles.

Q: Beyond the idyllic setting of Telluride, Colorado, how do you explain the continual success of The Telluride Film Festival?

A: There are so many elements that the founders, Tom Luddy, Bill & Stella Pence and James Card, felt were essential from the start. There is a curatorial dedication to presenting the old and unknown with the new. Our audiences discover movies with filmmakers, writers and other cineastes in an atmosphere where it is easy to share their thoughts and reactions. We encourage that dialogue.. The intimacy of Telluride is conducive to this. We have well-known guests but we hope to minimize celebrity, commerciality and hype. Paparazzi are not part of the mix.

We place a priority on the passholders and our guests having the best possible time at the Festival. We listen and watch carefully to make sure nothing gets in the way of seeing the movies and meeting each other.

Some of the new movies become surprise successes like JUNO, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, THE BAND'S VISIT, and THE LIVES OF OTHERS in the past few years. And many others are discovered and find distribution because of our audiences' enthusiasm.

Many of the shorts filmmakers have been discovered and gone on to direct features. They like to return, hopefully with a new movie but sometimes just to check out the state-of-the 7th art.

Q: Classic film has always had a prominent place at Telluride. Why was the decision made to screen classics, and how has it impacted the character of the Festival?

A: We love movies from the entire history of cinema. Our audiences have made it clear from their support that they enjoy a schedule that places classic and new movies side-by-side to provide some historical perspective. So many movies have been lost but with the incredible dedication of many archives and projects like The Film Foundation, lost and damaged works are able to be projected for audiences to once again enjoy the pleasures they offer. And in recent years it often results in other venues showing these movies and DVD companies releasing them for even wider audience.

Having TCM be such an important part of Telluride is thrilling because you are truly a year around film festival.

Q: Are there any classic films that you've lobbied to include in the programming at Telluride, and why did you feel it was important to include those particular titles?

A: We come up with a long list of classic films. Sometimes a theme will emerge but mostly we are hoping to offer a selection few people have seen. We work so closely as a team on the programming that by the time of the festival, it doesn't really matter whose idea a show was.

We always feature at least two silent films with live musical accompaniment. Last year in a discussion with the Alloy Orchestra about movies they were interested in playing, I suggested Josef von Sternberg's often forgotten THE LAST COMMAND. It is a wonderful movie about Hollywood with a stellar performance by Emil Jannings and an untypical early William Powell. So we screened it and all agreed that we should show it. The audience gave it and Alloy a standing ovation. There was so much buzz that we scheduled a repeat performance that played to a packed house in a 500 seat theater.

Our three tributes offer another opportunity to show classic films. Last year it was difficult deciding which films to include in our Tribute to Jean Simmons. She has made so many great movies. Our reel of clips was over an hour and at that we had to eliminate some great scenes. We show some of their works in their entirety. Researching our Tribute to Swedish director Jan Troell we discovered that there are no prints of his films in the U.S. With the help of the Swedish Film Institute we are able to present uncut versions of masterworks like THE EMIGRANTS, THE NEW LAND and HERE'S YOUR LIFE (Read a blog on this film at the Movie Morlocks). British director Mike Leigh was one of hundreds who became immediate fans. This happens every year.

We wouldn't even think about cutting out classic films.

Q: What other features of the Festival have helped to make it such a unique experience for movie lovers?

A: We keep the program a secret until opening day. We only announce our Guest Director in advance. This year the filmmaker Alexander Payne (SIDEWAYS, ABOUT SCHMIDT, ELECTION) has chosen six fantastic rarely seen classic films that we are bringing in from international archives.

But come Labor Day weekend we'll reveal about 22 films to be seen for the first time in North America (or the world) plus several classic restorations, silent movies with live accompaniment and a selection of unique surprises. By limiting the total number of programs, the festival is highly curated. We don't expect everyone to love every film but the percentage getting enthusiastic approval is high because there is no filler. One of our hardest tasks is turning down terrific movies. Every time we are tempted to expand we remember what our passholders have told us about keeping things manageable. It is impossible to see all that if offered during the festival.

Our panel discussions and intimate conversations with filmmakers seem to empower people to engage in personal conversations later with actors, directors sand writers.

We are especially dedicated to our education programs. Each year we bring in 50 college and 15 high students to see a full schedule of movies and participate in special sessions with filmmakers. The comments about it being "life-changing" flow in every year. Many have gone on to be filmmakers, archivists ,film programmers and writers, even though more than half are not film majors.

Q: In your capacity as Co-Director, what do you most enjoy about the Festival?

A: I love how the town of Telluride is transformed into this magical SHOW. We have 600 people working behind the scenes to make this all happen and they are true wizards. My co-directors, Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger bring an amazing passion and knowledge to everything we do and that is reflected in the experience that brings people back year after year.

We all love eavesdropping on audiences coming out of a movie they loved, bumping into the filmmakers who have just emerged from their first triumphant screenings and having people tell us that one of their favorite parts of the Telluride Film Festival is standing on line and talking about the movies. It doesn't get better than that.

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