“It is such really good fun. The jury is really interesting. They are so knowledgeable. I am learning a lot, ” Cannes Film Festival main competition jury president George Miller told me when I caught up with him at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association party at Nikki Beach to benefit the refugee charity fund, Film Aid. Miller was all smiles in his tux, having just come from the evening’s competition screening. He said it was hard to believe that he was here just a year ago, when Mad Max: Fury Road made such an out of competition splash in Cannes and went on to win six Academy Awards. Miller said the jury is obliged to go to some of the glamorous red carpet evening screenings but can see them at all times of the day. “We are trying to see the movies as a jury all together, but for the females they have to really dress up,” he laughed. As for the experience of seeing all these different movies in such a short period of time, he compared it to what journalists like me do. “It’s a little bit like you. You go see movies and then think about how you are going to express your opinion, and very quickly, because for me it would take quite awhile, so we’ve got to do a little bit of what you do. There’s a lot of pressure in that,” he said handing a compliment to critics. “Working on a jury, you’ve got to be able to talk about it, feel about it, almost immediately.” They all have agreed to meet frequently to talk about what they have seen but not every day. He asked me if it’s true that the press screenings are “more vocal.” Sometimes, George. Just ask Gus Van Sant, whose Sea of Trees got unfairly booed last year. Miller said it is also a real kick being on the jury and mentioned Donald Sutherland, who stole the jury press conference on Wednesday with some very funny stories. “He’s like that all the time, and he is very passionate about cinema,” he said. Miller can’t talk about the movies they are seeing but did offer that he is very impressed how Cannes has, at least so far, put together such a varied lineup of movies, each one very different from the others. That keeps it interesting.
The party scene, of which the HFPA bash was just one, seemed to be really hopping as it normally is on this first Friday of the fest, and they all start early. Deadline threw its very well-attended second annual bash at 3 PM today at Nikki Beach, followed by one right next door at Baoli Beach for Focus Features. At all three parties I hit, I ran into Daniel Dubiecki and Lara Alameddine, producers of Money Monster, which premiered here last night to a — clocked — eight-minute standing ovation. This is all part of the Cannes scene, though many regulars are commenting that the crowds seem to be down numbers-wise from the usual crunch. I noticed this too as I have had no problem navigating the sidewalks in front of the Palais even at key screening times when it is usually impossible to penetrate. Perhaps it was all the publicity about the increased security and prep for possible terrorist incidents. It probably has kept some away, but spirits are very high here, and I haven’t noticed an inordinate amount of security beyond the norm in Cannes, which is always pretty diligent.
The HFPA bash drew a number of notables coming out for the Film Aid cause including 20th Century Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos, who jumped on stage to introduce HFPA President Lorenzo Soria. Gianopulos told me he thinks the HFPA doesn’t get enough credit for all the philanthropy they do each year in making hefty donations to everything from Film Aid to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, which restores numerous film classics with HFPA money including, according to Soria, one of this year’s Cannes Classics selections, Ugetsu Monogatari. They showed a reel of the various organizations to which they have contributed as well as one detailing the efforts of Film Aid to save refugees. Unfortunately the lighting, highlight reel and mikes went on the fritz twice, but Soria and Gianopulos got through it with charm. When the equipment finally started to work again on the third try, Soria introduced Film Aid champion and Golden Globe-winning producer Caroline Baron (Mozart in the Jungle). “Now you guys all have a taste of what it is to be in a refugee camp without power,” she quipped. “It’s the French,” the Italian Soria drolly responded. She made a passionate plea to the well-heeled crowd to donate some money to the cause, and it all turned into a makeshift auction (except there was nothing to auction except good will), which Soria managed to keep going to the tune of $250,000 in just a few minutes. The HFPA donated $100,000 and it was matched immediately by Participant’s Jeff Skoll. Gianopulos, David Linde, Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley and others also chipped in. It’s where Cannes can make a difference.The Focus Features party was, like Deadline and HFPA, packed to the gills and served as a kind of coming-out affair for new Focus Chairman Peter Kujawski, who recently replaced Peter Schlessel after serving as managing director of UPIP. Having started as an assistant to previous longtime Focus chief James Schamus, he is a veteran of the company and wasted no time in making his move at the Berlin Film Festival, where after just two days on the job he led a successful $9 million bid, based on footage, for the Jeff Nichols drama Loving, which makes its World Premiere here in competition on Monday. This one is a big Oscar hopeful for Focus this year. Kujawski — everyone calls him Kujo — told me he remembered his first time in Cannes for the company was 14 years ago, when Roman Polanski’s The Pianist took the Palme d’Or. He said it was a very exciting time for him. Friday night he welcomed the crowd and indicated Focus was returning to the kinds of films that made their name in the first place including the upcoming Tom Ford-directed Nocturnal Animals, which Focus picked up for a hefty $20 million pre-buy in Cannes. He showed a reel that included brief snippets of its Laika-produced animated entry Kubu and the Two Strings along with A Monster Calls and Loving, the latter a 1950s- and ’60s-set true story about an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who were sentenced to prison in 1958 just for getting married, an ordeal the spanned 12 years. Edgerton had high praise for the performance of Negga when I caught up with him. “She’s amazing. She will be nominated for sure. I cannot imagine a world where it doesn’t happen. She’s so f*cking great this girl. Like great. I had one of the best working experiences I ever had on a film, with her, with Jeff, the subject, and the challenge I had to kind of play a character who hardly says anything, ” he said of the project that he was making all during Oscar season, when he had to come back to L.A. to push for Black Mass. Even at that point Edgerton was highly enthusiastic, telling me then about the prospects for this film. Monday’s premiere promises to be one of the highlights of Cannes. And it is not even Edgerton’s first collaboration with Nichols this year as he also co-stars in Midnight Special. “This is a cut above Midnight Special even because it is such a remarkable true story and the audience is going to feel very connected to it.” To be continued Monday after its Cannes debut.
Also at the Focus party was actor Daniel Bruhl, in Cannes with his fiancee (four months pregnant too) and taking meetings on future projects for his production company. He told me he was happy to play the villain in the currently highflying Captain America: Civil War and had nothing but high praise for working with the directors Anthony and Joe Russo. “I don’t know how they do it. If I tried to work with my brother it wouldn’t last 24 hours,” he laughed. He is looking forward next to spending time on the Paramount lot, where he will be shooting J.J. Abrams’ next sci-fi thriller God Particle. He says the script is cool.
Finally, there have been a lot of movies so far too, in addition to the parties (imagine that), and the reception at tonight’s first press screening of Germany’s competition entry Toni Erdmann was like a party, audibly through the roof, unusual for the more staid Cannes critics crowd. Here, to answer Miller’s previous question, this crowd was vocal. A prolonged scene involving a naked office birthday party got the kind of laughs you don’t hear much anymore. The movie comes from Maren Ade, one of the three female directors in the game here this year, and though well known in her home country, this movie undoubtedly will put her on the map in a much bigger way. It is an off-the-wall father-daughter story like none other and could establish her as one of the most promising comedy directors in a long time. She has a distinct and welcome style. The film is too long, though, at 2 hours and 42 minutes and could use trims (about 15 minutes, I would say) in its first half. But that second act is a doozy. Stars Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek both deserve to be in a line for a prize here, as does Ade. In fact, Huller’s impromptu rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” in the film stopped the show and drew huge applause just for the audacity of it. When was the last time that happened at a press screening? In the lobby after the movie, one journalist simply asked of this film, “Where did that come from?” It has its official red carpet premiere at 3 PM Saturday, not primetime in Cannes, but I would say Miller’s jury is in for a treat with this one. With the right editing , this could be a prime Foreign Language Oscar contender for Germany. Along with 80-year-old Cannes lion Ken Loach’s enormously moving I, Daniel Blake, with a great performance by Dave Johns, Toni Erdmann is best-in-show at this very early point.