Telluride is all about the films, but while celebrity sightings are low-key they are clearly what gives the festival some of its snap, crackle, pop, as do the personal often heartfelt introductions to films by directors and actors. Colin Firth was definitely the hero of the 37th Telluride Film Festival (and my 13th). His movie, “The King’s Speech,” a world premiere and unannounced sneak preview at the festival, flown to the mountains from London by director Tom Hooper just two days after its completion, was everyone’s top pick. Audiences at Telluride were blown away by the film, which also stars Geoffrey Rush. While in past years, many universal favorites have been the talk of the town, this year the word on the street about most of the movies was more diverse. But in theater lines, on the gondola, and in shops and eating places, I never heard anything but elaborate praise for “The King’s Speech.”
Firth, on hand for a tribute and a retrospective of his work, is Prince Albert, Duke of York, later renamed George VI (to avoid the Germanic Albert) when his brother David abdicates to marry Mrs. Simpson. This is the true story of how the king, Queen Elizabeth’s father, conquered a crippling stammer, which caused him much public embarrassment. Rush plays Lionel Logue, a speech therapist whose unorthodox methods (tongue exercises, his own brand of psychotherapy, insistence on a first-name relationship, and meetings at his office rather than at the palace) at first infuriate the young prince but eventually win him over.
Defying protocol, a genuine friendship develops between the two men, with the king and queen (Helena Bonham Carter) showing up at Logue’s home one evening, shocking Logue’s wife Myrtle (Jennifer Ehle), who had not an inkling about her husband’s renowned patient.
Watch for this one. Everyone at Telluride expects the movie and its stars to be honored at the Academy Awards.
Everything shown at this four- day international educational festival is very carefully selected by a board of professionals and, says Tom Luddy, a founder and director, “the problem this year was the abundance of wonderful choices.” Two dozen new feature films were presented by their creators, with many of the stars present, plus 25 new short films, 13 documentaries, and a variety of rediscovered and restored old masterpieces. In addition there are showings of the winning entries of film students who come to immerse themselves in film and meet with film makers and stars.
Although I managed to see 15 films from Friday afternoon to Monday evening, I missed two that I desperately wanted to see and several others that I would have attended were there more time. During the day the town of Telluride offers a free bus that loops its way around the town in 20-minute cycles. Telluride seems to be about the size of Princeton — and there isn’t a traffic light on the whole stretch.
Evidence of the informality of this event in southern Colorado is actress and Telluride regular Laura Linney picking Firth up at the airport and driving him into town. Linney was also on hand to introduce Firth at the award ceremony for the Telluride Medallion before the retrospective of his life work, with clips beginning in 1984. “I cheer you for your great performances as complex characters,” Linney said, “and for your past, present, and future work, which enthralls in self technique.” Linney is a regular at the festival since she married a local businessman whom she met several years ago when she was here for her own awards ceremony. The banter between her and Firth was like a mutual admiration society as they extolled each other’s work and character.
About the retrospective, Firth said, “it’s not easy for your life to flash in front of you — it’s like what happens when the plane is about to crash.
“I’ve been bombarded for years with facts about how wonderful this festival is,” Firth said. “Last time I was in Colorado, I was 12, with my family. Now I’m feeling giddy with appreciation and delight, surrounded by people I admire and my wonderful colleagues.”
A bit more formal than most at Telluride, Firth wore a slim, dark, double vented suit and a dark shirt.
When asked how he prepares for a role like King George VI, Firth said, “Ideally I’d live with the royal family for six months…but the royal family, why they exist, who knows?”
Making this movie was a bonding experience for Rush, Firth, and director Tom Poole, Firth said. He called Rush, his co-star and executive producer, “brilliant and mischievous and one of the finest actors on the planet” and talked about the writer, David Seidler, who was six years old with a stammer of his own when he decided that if the king could conquer a speech impediment, so could he.
Talking about his life, Firth said that he’s “really very lazy and would be happy just being horizontal and staring into space for four or five hours at a time — but instead I wind up working very hard.”
He said that people have misconceptions about movies. “People think you can keep shooting a film until it’s right — but there are restrictions of time and money.” The highly acclaimed “A Single Man,” his last film, was shot in 21 days with no rehearsals.
I heard later that Firth and Prince Charles have been communicating about the film and that it will be shown soon at the royal’s home in London. Charles has said that he knows little about his grandfather, King George VI.
Two other stars were honored with retrospectives of their work and Telluride Medallions, but I couldn’t fit in the tributes to Peter Weir and Claudia Cardinale.
It was a privilege to chat with Geoffrey Rush, eating soup from a container on a bench outside the Palm Theater before the premiere. He consented agreeably to “a short interview for a newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.”
At Telluride for the first time, Rush said he was enjoying being with other film makers and seeing everyone else’s movies. At other festivals, he said, he’s kept busy with meetings and interviews and never gets a chance to enjoy other people’s work. He expressed joy at the lack of paparazzi and autograph hounds and said that Telluride audiences are really different. “They laugh and they applaud. They really care about film, not just about making deals for movies.”
The approachability of celebrities is one of the things that makes this festival such a joy. Last year when I thanked Ken Burns for an interview when he was sitting next to me at a showing, I called him “Mr. Burns.” “Next time, it’s Ken,” he insisted. Burns, a regular who owns a home in Telluride, was there with “The Tenth Inning,” a four-hour addition to his 1994 series on baseball (the most watched series in PBS history). More than a highlight of the sports reel, the new work puts baseball into a greater social context, exploring our failed heroes, the steroid revelations, and the new international era of the sport.
The director of “Of Gods and Men,” Xavier Beauvois, was planning to introduce his film but was commandeered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a private showing in France. This story of a brotherhood of French monks serving in the mountains of Northern Africa and their encounters with a band of terrorists is expected to evoke some possible negative publicity for its political aspects when it opens soon in France. Julie Huntsinger, a director of the festival, told us at a press briefing that she tried to call Sarkozy to request a few days’ delay but had to speak with an aide and was not successful.
I knew that Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” his first film since “Slumdog Millionaire,” would be grim, as it tells the story of Aron Ralston’s entrapment by a huge boulder when hiking alone in a Utah canyon. But I was really surprised to see Ralston on the scene with his wife and baby and participating in several panels. One of my volunteer drivers said she works for a furniture rental company and had delivered a crib to the family.
While Ralston videotaped his entire ordeal, he’d never shown the film to anyone, not even close friends or family. But when he and actor James Franco, who plays him in the movie, first met in a Los Angeles hotel, Ralston showed him the video. “This film he made when trapped and facing death was so moving,” Franco said. Of Boyle’s movie, Ralston said, “it is so powerful; it shows the duality of truth and reality, conveying every emotion, even a fictionalized self interview and the euphoria of the salvation.” Franco’s next project is playing poet Alan Ginsburg in “Howl.”
Boyle insisted that he’s really a city person and that he wants to do a comedy next. “We borrowed Aron Ralston’s story,” he said, “and we locked James (Franco) in a canyon to film it.” Boyle said he’d read Ralston’s book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” and was moved by the extraordinary human courage and the passion and celebration that followed the ordeal. “We’re all capable of pulling ourselves through things,” he said.
Ralston has gone on to a new career in writing and public speaking. At Telluride he appeared on a panel in the park one afternoon, with film makers discussing nature as a force in film. Werner Herzog, Danny Boyle, and Peter Weir also participated. When the moderator, Annette Insdorf, head of Columbia University’s film program, mentioned that it was Herzog’s birthday, almost spontaneously, 200 people who were sitting on the lawn listening to the discussion burst into singing “Happy Birthday” to Werner. Another true Telluride moment.
Obsessed with film, director Charles Ferguson (“Inside Job”) has come to Telluride every year since 1996. As an academic political scientist, he used to cut class to attend the San Francisco film festival. He said that as he saw the world of film changing, he felt that nothing beat the debacle of Americans in Iraq and was inspired to make his first film, “No End in Sight,” which was nominated for an Oscar. In “Inside Job” he tells the story about another debacle, the world financial collapse.
Another world premiere took audiences to Kenya. “The First Grader” is the story of an 84-year-old Mau Mau veteran who is desperate to learn to read. Filmed in the remote Kenyan bush, Maruge fought and suffered for his country’s independence and now wants the education that his new government has promised to all. He has to fight the system to be admitted to school with the children but he finds an ally in the head teacher as together they face fierce opposition from parents and officials. With vitality and humor, the film explores the remarkable connection that develops between Maruge and the children as they learn from each other. Newspapers around the world picked up the story and Maruge is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to enroll in school and was invited to address the UN.
Director Justin Chadwick said that only friends and family had seen the film before its Telluride world premiere. After reading a story in the LA Times about Maruge, he quickly assembled a group of nine, including only two professional actors, to go to this village in the bush, which was two hours from any town. “The children walk five to ten miles to school,’” Chadwick said. “There’s no water, no electricity. We were miles from everywhere. The local people had never seen cameras, TV, or movies, and this was the world we entered.” Maruge said he wanted to learn to read so he could read the bible because “I don’t trust those preachers.” When Maruge wants to petition the commissioner of education in Nairobi, he pays the bus driver with a goat — his only currency.
Dennis Villeneuve, the director of “Incendies,” told the audience that the story was inspired by a true story of a woman who lived in the south of Lebanon, tried to kill a Christian leader, and spent 10 years in prison being tortured and raped. The scenes of the prison camps were authentic, he said. “I saw the play by Wajdi Mouawad,” he said, “and was very moved. My challenge was to translate the poetry of words into images.”
Filmed in Jordan, they hired as extras Iraqi refugees living there who needed work. “These people had lived through many similar situations,” he said. A woman sitting behind me at the showing said she’d seen the play in St. Louis with its English title, “Scorched.” I learned later that it had been presented closer to home at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Waiting to go into another film, I saw Villeneuve and was able to congratulate him on this remarkable movie. “Incendies” was completed just 48 hours before arriving in Telluride.
Lee Chang-dong introduced his film “Poetry” in Korean with translator at hand. “Audiences here are so encouraging,” he said. “My inspiration for ‘Poetry’ came when I was here three years ago with ‘Secret Sunshine’ and kept riding the gondola to the top of the mountain taking in the beautiful color. “The film is about the beauty we see and the beauty within,” he said.
In the genre of historical drama, Bertrand Tavernier’s “The Princess of Montpensier” features a forbidden love story in the 16th century background of the savagery of the bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants. It’s beautifully filmed, authentic, and is like a tour through a French museum and an array of historic castles.
Schlomo Eldar (“Precious Life”) was an Israeli war correspondent back and forth to Gaza, always looking for a good story. He became emotionally moved by the plight of an Arab baby, born without an immune system, and used his connections to get the baby into an Israeli hospital. But the situation became more than a story to Eldar as he spread the news on Israeli media in order to raise money for the expensive treatment the baby needed. As he became more deeply involved, Eldar, whose warmth and concern came through when he introduced the film, decided to make “Precious Life,” his first film.
I rode the gondola down with the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Jan-Christopher Horak, who was being honored for work in rescuing and restoring old films in total disrepair. There were featured performances of the 1927 “Chicago,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille and recently discovered in DeMille’s vaults and a program of “Treasures from UCLA,” including the triumphant restoration of “The Red Shoes.” The conversation on the gondola was about “Chico and Rita,” the film we’d all just seen and enjoyed.
Lesley Manville, who plays Mary, a loose cannon in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year,” was walking around town in jeans with a little cotton tunic, no makeup and her blonde hair pulled back. There’s little old-style glamour at Telluride.
Waiting to get in to “Never Let Me Go” starring Carey Mulligan (“An Education”), I was chatting with a distinguished looking older gentleman who told me he’d been coming to Telluride for all 37 years and that he was once on a panel with Gloria Swanson!
I spotted Linney again in striped tee and no makeup at “The Black Swan.” This was the second showing of the Natalie Portman film, which had debuted at the Venice Film Festival.
As for the great technology at the festival, director Tom Luddy told the press briefing that “you’ll never get the great sound in projection in your neighborhood theater that we have this year.” For the first time, digital was used in all venues, with Dolby’s Digital Cinema server used throughout. According to Luddy, Dolby, along with other sophisticated technologies, has moved TFF forward into a completely state-of-the-art festival.
On another technology note, I have to mention the security team who, during premieres, roam the theaters wearing night vision goggles, not watching the screen, but watching the audience to assure that no one is trying to film or tape. The penalty would be dire, filmgoers are warned.
Luddy told us that corporate contributions to the festival were down by 50 percent this year but that individual sponsors came through by increasing their participation. He added that this is the “most labor intensive festival, with 600 staff and volunteers. “We build the state-of-the-art theaters anew each year from the high school gymnasium, the Mason’s club, and other buildings in town,” Luddy said.
Telluride is minus photographers, autograph seekers, and deal makers. It is for lovers of film, many of whom travel great distances by van, plane, train, and car to get there. On Tuesday, September 7, I left my hotel at 10 a.m. and arrived home in Plainsboro 13 hours later.
If you go: You can’t plan too early for next Labor Day weekend and the 38th annual Telluride Film Festival (www.telluridefilmfestival.org). The main festival pass costs nearly $800 and various other price levels are available, but overall attendance is limited to about 1,100. There is even a waiting list to become one of the 500-plus volunteers who staff the event (and provide free rides to visitors).
The most efficient travel plan is to fly from New Jersey to Denver and then to Montrose, CO. A van (priced at around $100 each way) takes you the final 67 miles to Telluride. Condos and hotel rooms — from high luxury to a lower end of around $200 a night — are available through several area travel agents.
Some may want to arrive a day or two early to get used to the altitude of 8,750 feet, which can cause headaches or shortness of breath.