King of Cannes: Madness, Mayhem, and the Movies

King of Cannes: Madness, Mayhem, and the Movies

by Stephen Walker

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780141001470
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/01/2001
Edition description: REISSUE
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.72(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author


Stephen Walker has directed twenty-three films, including Prisoners of Time, starring John Hurt, and has written articles for the Evening Standard, the Guardian, and the Sunday Times Magazine. An Oxford graduate, Walker received a master's degree in the history of science from Harvard. He lives in London, where he worked for the BBC for ten years. His documentary on Cannes, Waiting for Harvey, was broadcast by the BBC to strong reviews.

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Prologue


My grandfather used to tell a joke which went like this. Mr. Plotnik, the circumcisor, bumps into Monty Fleischman in the street. Monty Fleischman is carrying a tiny baby in his arms. Mr Plotnik looks at the baby for a long, long time, he appraises the baby, and then he says, 'Monty Monty Monty, that's one beautiful baby boy you got there'. And Monty says, 'First, it's a girl not a boy, second let go of my finger.'

My story is a bit like that. Eighteen months ago I began work on a documentary film whose object was to follow four young, untried, untested, ambitious, impoverished and occasionally unhinged film-makers in their quest for fame and glory at the Cannes Film Festival. Like Mr. Plotnik, I spent a long time looking for one thing and finding another. A long time looking for fantasies and finding reality. A long time looking for foreskins and finding fingers.

For all of these people the Cannes Film Festival was the great and overriding goal. To succeed at Cannes was to succeed like nowhere else. This was the jackpot, the lottery of lotteries. This was where half of Hollywood, and most of the world's media, gathered for two weeks every May. This was where Quentin Tarantino, the King of Low-Budget Underbelly Movie-Makers, had won the film world's most coveted movie prize, the Palme d'Or—and the world fell at his feet. This was the place whose mix of hype, decadence, sleaze, glamour, madness, power and sheer, unadulterated glory created an irresistible allure, and the promise of rewards to come. In the end, this was the Shrine. That, at least, was the fantasy. The reality was even more fantastic.

For as long as I can remember I had always wanted to go to the Cannes Film Festival. Each May, I gobbled up newspaper reports, gossip columns, film reviews, Barry Norman. I, too, swallowed the Myth of Cannes. I wanted to go to the parties. I wanted to watch the movies. I wanted to see the stars. I wanted to climb the red-carpeted steps, all twenty-two of them, arm in arm with a gorgeous actress, caught in the glare of a hundred arc lights, a thousand cameras. This remained an unlikely ambition since (a) I wasn't a movie star, (b) I wasn't a famous director, and (c) I wasn't a hotshot producer. On the other hand, if I couldn't take a film there, I could make a film there. All I had to do was persuade some gullible soul to stump up the necessary cash—preferably lots of it—and I was away. Simple as that.

At this point, the BBC came to the rescue. For the last ten years, I'd been working there, first as a researcher, then as a documentary director. I'd recently made a film about a Jewish wedding. It was a success. Then I made one about toys. It was a disaster. This put me in an interesting position on the cash-raising front. I was, in effect, a walking oxymoron. A success/failure. Neither a sure bet nor a certain catastrophe. My strategy was clear: to find an unusual angle, to pitch it with panache, and—my joker in the pack—to appeal to the vanity of cash-rich executive producers. Conversations would go like this:

Int. Office. Day.: Executive Producer wearing Armani suit and no tie sits at desk drinking decaffeinated coffee out of a Wedgwood china cup. I sit opposite wearing jeans and ancient T-shirt drinking tap water out of a plastic beaker.

Executive Producer: So. You've got five minutes. Make that four. No three. And it better be more interesting than that goddamn awful crap thing you did about toys. Shoot.

Me: It's about . . . Cannes.

Me: No, no. Cannes. The film festival. (Pause) In the South of France? (Pause) Near Nice?

Executive Producer: I'm not a damn moron, you know, I know where Cannes is. It's near Nice.

Me: OK. So. It's . . . four guys. Directors. First-timers. They're crazy. Impoverished. Obsessed. Ruthless. They'll sell their own grandmothers to get their movie made.

Executive Producer: (picking his teeth) So?

Me: So . . . they go to Cannes. To the film festival. The biggest film festival in the world.

Executive Producer: (examining his nails) So?

Me: So . . . they go to . . . sell their movies. To make a splash. To hit the jackpot. To win the lottery of lotteries. It's . . . it's got everything. Tragedy. Comedy. Tragicomedy. Pathos. Disaster. Triumph Over the Odds. Sex. It's David and Goliath. It's . . . THE FULL MONTY meets TRAINSPOTTING. It's TITANIC meets . . .

Executive Producer: (he interrupts) I hated that movie.

Executive Producer: All of them.

Me: (time to play the joker) OK. I reckon I can get you invites for the Sharon Stone party, Bruce Willis's yacht party, Claudia Schiffer's Hotel Bedroom Pyjama party, Robert Redford's . . .

Executive Producer: When do we start?


*****


I suppose it was my mum who first got me interested in documentaries. I was brought up in a house of locked doors. The downstairs loo was always locked. The airing cupboard was always locked. The door to the living-room was always locked. If my mother was in the kitchen, she'd lock the door to her bedroom. Like Fort Knox, getting into my house meant negotiating a plethora of locks, bolts, hinges and alarms. To date, I'm not sure why my mother did this, although it may have been connected to her profound suspicion of cleaners. She was always convinced they were out to nick everything in the house (down to the toilet rolls). Her definition of a cleaner was basically a kleptomaniac who occasionally helped with the washing-up. At any rate, the result was that I became extremely interested in locked doors. I wanted to know what lay behind them. I wanted to know what secrets they contained. This left me with two options in life: either (a) to become a professional burglar, or (b) to become a documentary film-maker. I chose (b). With hindsight, I'm not sure there's much difference.

The great thing about documentary film-making is that it is a licence to spy. It's the definitive nosy-parker profession. When I joined the BBC ten years ago, I instantly found myself at home among a whole load of other nosy parkers, all of whom were actually getting paid for it. My very first job was to work on a series about the human body. By a curious coincidence, I got the nose. After several weeks' research, I found a woman who was able to play Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' on the piano with her nose, a man who was in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest nose in Great Britain (it was six and a half inches long) and a man with the loudest snore in the world (like a car backfiring, only louder.)* It was my first experience of documentary film-making. It was, in fact, paradise.

Ten years and 22 films later, paradise was looking a little ragged. Too many late nights in edit suites or on location, too many blazing rows, panic attacks, sweating fits, crushing headaches, rushed deadlines, horrible nightmares, broken weekends, disastrous screenings, insane schedules, cardiac scares. It was time to move on. Time to rejuvenate the system. Time to inject a few billion volts of pure, adrenaline-pumping, movie-making energy into the job. And that's when, like manna from heaven, this film came along.

Here, at last, was an opportunity to rediscover the roots of film-making. To dig deep into the obsessions, the dreams, the ambitions, the madness which lurk in every film-maker, especially the sort of low-budget, low-rent, low-living film-makers I was going to meet. These were the sort of people who mortgaged their homes (if they had homes), ran up credit card debts of thousands of pounds, sold everything they'd ever owned, begged money off all their friends, in some cases virtually stopped eating, in order to fund their movies. They lived, breathed, slept, dreamt movies. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else was as important. Their role model was Roberto Rodriguez, a director crazy, or determined, or desperate enough to volunteer as a guinea pig in a series of medical experiments in order to raise $7000 for his first movie. The result, in his case, was EL MARIACHI and international stardom. Among the people I met the feeling was, if he can do it, why not me?

The Davids are the heroes of my story. The real Kings of Cannes. (April 1999)

*This is really true. Noise pollution officers sat up all night outside his house recording decibel levels.

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