Telluride Film Festival

The Telluride Film Festival distinguishes itself from other film events by virtue of its secrecy and congeniality. Nestled against the base of the 13,000-foot peaks of the Telluride Ski Mountain and surrounded by the green spruce trees of the Uncompahgre National Forest, the town of Telluride is a hidden gem, a 20-minute walk from end to end and only reachable by winding hilly roads that lead into a single Main Street.

The film program is concealed as well, not announced until the first afternoon of the festival; that means no pre-festival hype, no frenzied paparazzi, and no acquisition buzz. And judging from the faithful 2,000-plus attendees who shell out $500-$2,500 for ticket passes each year, that blind faith is strong in the Festival run annually by co-founders Tom Luddy and Bill Pence. Ten or 20-year veteran-attendees are the norm here, while first-timers are like freshmen looking for acceptance by the fraternities and sororities that make up Telluride’s secret society. But once you’re in, you’re in. And though Telluride might share the ski resort elite setting of a certain other festival of renown, it’s far more quiet, quaint and comfortable.

This year’s Guest Director, Peter Sellars, the famous Buddhist, opera and theater director, shaped the 1999 program with several older experimental works: Bill Viola’s haunting, layered The Passing (1991), African director David Achkar’s equally rich Allah Tantou of that same year, Harry Lachman’s 1934 campy Spanish-language Nothing More Than A Woman, and a three-film tribute to Asian Masters Kwon-Taek (The Taebeck Mountains), Hou Hsiao-hsien (Dust in the Wind) and Lino Brocka (Bona).

American independents were particularly well received in the main program. Alison Maclean’s smartly directed adaptation of Denis Johnson’s short-story collection, Jesus’ Son, drew gales of laughter and applause at its world premiere screening, while actress/director Adrienne Shelly’s quirky screwball comedy, I’ll Take You There, was also a crowd pleaser, although it has yet to be picked up. There was also a surprise screening of Woody Allen’s latest, Sweet and Lowdown, along with just about every other picture on the Sony Classics slate.

It’s no surprise that Sony screens so much at Telluride; co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker are ever present at the festival, as approachable as any of the other notable figures in the town. You can walk up to Telluride’s favorite son, Werner Herzog, and begin a chat about movies or just the weather. The famous director of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God was in town with his new documentary My Best Fiend, about his hectic relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, but he could also be seen introducing screenings, presenting David Lynch’s tribute, hosting a chat with Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, or eating potato salad at the Opening Night Feed on Main Street.

Telluride may be the most executive-filled festival with the least amount of actual business. "It’s not a feeding frenzy," says Tom Prassis, Vice President of Sales at Sony Classics. "That’s why we like to show our movies here each year."

For Adrienne Shelly, whose film was perhaps the only feature ripe for business in Telluride, acquisitions talk was kept to a murmur, but that didn’t stop Shelly from receiving deal offers from festival-goers. One pleased audience member told her he’d start up a new company and distribute the film himself, while another asked how she could go about helping fund her next project. "Is that a good sign, people offering me money on the street? I suppose," said Shelly, just one contented filmmaker among many.

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© 2005 Filmmaker Magazine