NEA Arts Magazine

Small but Mighty, Part 2

Jeffrey Middents and Justin Lerner on the Telluride Film Festival

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People standing in a line in front of old brick buildings with green awnings to get tickets to a movie.

Telluride Film Festival attendees line up to see one of the films featured in the 2011 festival. Photo by Lisa Law

Over Labor Day weekend 2011, the Telluride Film Festival hosted approximately 6,000 avid filmgoers, including the filmmakers whose work was screened and a tireless corp of volunteers who did everything from make popcorn to introduce films. We spoke with longtime festival volunteer Jeffrey Middents and filmmaker Justin Lerner to get their points of view on the "small but mighty" Colorado fest.

American University film professor Jeffrey Middents worked for Telluride Film Festival founder Bill Pence when Middents was an undergrad at Dartmouth. Middents attended his first festival in 1994, of which he reminisced, "I fell in love with Telluride completely, and to some extent the experience of going there ruined me for any other festival." Since 2000, Middents has attended the festival regularly. His current volunteer role is "ringmaster" at the festival’s Masons Theater, where he helps to introduce the films and thank sponsors, among other tasks.THE VOLUNTEER

The film festival is literally part of the town of Telluride...

[The festival] takes over the town; it’s within the fabric of the town itself. Telluride itself is so small they’ve got one theater and they have an opera house a half block away from each other. [Some of the festival theaters], including the one I work at, are something else during the rest of the year. The Galaxy Theater is still the elementary school auditorium that they transform every year into a state-of-the-art theater -- to the extent that Wim Wenders, when he was presenting Pima this year, actually said the movie had not sounded as good as it was in this converted gymnasium…. When [the town] redid the high school, the festival actually contributed a lot of money also to ensure that the auditorium they would build, the theater that they built in the school, would be…a state-of-the-art theater.

A family of sorts…

There are people that have been involved for so long with this festival that the volunteer core actually becomes a family of sorts. There is some transition that is happening now because there are people who have been working since the first festival and have stayed involved the whole time…. Those people are slowly turning over to new people, but oftentimes the new people aren’t brand new -- they’ve been there for only 20 years or something like that.

One of the draws for me to go back as a volunteer is indeed the theater I work at, which is the Masons Theater…. I randomly got placed in that theater and I never left. Now they’ve asked me to move to a higher profile theater twice, and I’ve resisted each time. Masons is the second oldest theater, and it hit its 25th anniversary this year. The only person who was there at the first year and is still there now is a 26-year-old who was there when she was one because she came with her parents.

"We’re all in it together."

If you are invited to the festival and if you have a film that goes to the festival, you have a pass that allows you immediate entrance at any time to your film and your film only. Every other film that you might want to go see, you have to stand in line with everyone else. So Tilda Swinton has to stand in line with the festival volunteer who isn’t on shift.

So all of us are standing in line together and what happens is that we all start gossiping with each other, and this is where the buzz gets created. What did you see? Was it good? What did you like about it? What have you heard? Should I go to this or to this? All of us are there for the movies; even the movie stars who are there promoting their film, but they’re also having a good time.

It could only happen at Telluride, Take Two…

There was one year where we were programmed with a three-hour, contemporary Taiwanese movie called Yi Yi…. There were maybe 60 people in the theater; we did not sell out that first show. But the 60 of us who saw the movie absolutely loved it. We were totally bowled over by it, and what happened was that basically every time we got in line somewhere else…we talked about the movie to whoever would listen to us. "Oh no, you have to see the movie Yi Yi if you get a chance. I know it’s three hours, I know it’s in Taiwanese. Go. You just need to go." My little theater ended up getting that…as the last programmed film in the festival, and it was actually a problem -- we were swarmed. We turned away over 250 people…and they were actually belligerent.

I don’t know if you know the story of Slumdog Millionaire, the production history, but that was held for two years. No one was going to watch that movie, and they were going to release it straight to DVD. And it’s actually a Telluride [festival] director who said, "If you’re going to dump this, let us program it just for the hell of it and see what happens." Everyone went crazy for Slumdog Millionaire at Telluride, and that was the beginning of the rush.

Man wearing brown scarf standing in front of microphone.

Director Justin Lerner answers questions at the world premiere of his short film The Replacement Child in the Student Prints section of the 2007 Telluride Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Justin Lerner

THE FILMMAKER

Justin Lerner -- whose credits include the newly released feature film Girlfriend -- earned his MFA in filmmaking at UCLA. As part of its outreach to emerging filmmakers, Telluride regularly invites the school’s award-winning directors to submit their work for festival consideration. Despite a mix-up in which his invitation literally was lost in the (virtual) mail, Lerner premiered his short film The Replacement Child at Telluride Film Festival in 2007.

On what makes the Telluride Festival, well, the Telluride Film Festival…

Telluride outshines [other film festivals] in a lot of different, unique ways: the length, the lack of press, the very isolated location, and the whole vibe and energy of the festival is one that’s just not [about] business deals and paparazzi -- because there is no paparazzi there -- or any sort of artifice and pretense. It’s just about the films…that’s all there is there. It’s just good films.

 "Telluride is an intimate and surreal experience."

[Telluride] was my first real experience at a festival, and nothing’s really been comparable since that. It was a great opportunity, one, to have the experience of traveling to a festival and meeting a lot of other filmmakers, and two, getting my film really noticed cause there’s not that many shorts at Telluride so they take particular notice of the ones that get in. I ended up meeting quite a few people at the festival [including] one woman in particular whom I ended up working with on my first feature.

I got to meet some of my filmmaking idols. I got to have drinks with people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Noah Baumbach, Laura Linney, Todd Haynes, Ed Lachman. I mean these people were just all accessible. It was a very low-key festival where no on really dresses up. It’s not a press-heavy festival full of elite parties. It’s people in their jeans and sweatshirts watching a lot of films.

I was also able to see some of the best films from all over the world that year, some from Cannes, some Venice [Film Festival] films, and some Toronto films, as well as some world premieres. Being a cinephile, when I wasn’t doing stuff to help promote my film, I was just in theaters watching other people’s movies and meeting the filmmakers that made them.

Sometimes standing in line’s not a bad thing…

Filmmakers and patrons and moviegoers alike -- everyone has to wait in line for films together. [One] of the most unique and unexpected parts of Telluride was standing in line waiting for films with some other directors of big movies as well as festivalgoers. There was no special treatment for anyone so I got to stand in line with people who had seen my film and talk with them, and I had access to people whose films I’d seen and I was able to talk with them. So that environment is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m waiting for a film, and Julian Schnabel was standing behind me and I got to talk to him about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, or Werner Herzog is in front of me in line to see the new Todd Haynes movie. A lot of amazing discussions and friendships emerged from those experiences, and it’s unlike any other festival in that way.

The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval…for film

Once you’ve got the stamp of approval from a festival like Telluride, people want to see [your] film. The Replacement Child played over 50 festivals after that over the next two years in 11 different countries. It won two student Emmy awards as well…and it won close to 15 awards at different festivals. I saw the world with it. It all started at Telluride. Telluride’s stamp of approval got me invited sight unseen to some festivals, but nothing really matched the experience I had at Telluride.