Archive for Shane Danielsen

The Edinburgh Dialogues #6: Lynda Myles

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2011 by dcairns

Jason Isaacs, Lynda Myles, Ben Miller, at Edinburgh in 2010, under Lynda’s plaque.

Lynda Myles ran Edinburgh International Film Festival in what some have called “the golden age of film programming,” (1973-1980). As Susan Sontag said, “For fifteen years there were new masterpieces every month.”

Lynda inherited a thriving Festival from Murray Grigor, who had turned it around from a moribund spell in the late sixties, with the help of Lynda and her then partner David Will. Grigor, a filmmaker himself, embraced the pair’s cinephile vision and encouraged the Festival to celebrate mavericks like Sam Fuller and Douglas Sirk, who had been largely overlooked by mainstream criticism. Lynda continued this wholeheartedly when she took over as Director, augmenting it with a new focus on theory and ideology.

During this cinematic revolution, Lynda’s critical acumen put Edinburgh at the forefront of the field, with retrospectives on Raoul Walsh, Max Ophuls and Jacques Tourneur, and helping discover both the New German cinema and the New Hollywood cinema. And Lynda co-authored with Michael Pye the first study of the post-Corman generation, film school generation, The Movie Brats, How the Film Generation took over Hollywood.

Since Edinburgh, Lynda has enjoyed a distinguished career as film producer, with DEFENCE OF THE REALM, THE COMMITMENTS and THE SNAPPER among her credits. Now she combines teaching at the National Film School with filmmaking: several new features are in development. No wonder a plaque in her honour is mounted outside Edinburgh’s Filmhouse.

I spoke to Lynda via futuristic Skype machinery and managed to get most of the conversation recorded… then we met up and discussed the interview, enabling me to add more information in parenthesis —

DC: What I’ve been starting with, uncontroversially, is asking all the directors to choose their favourite memories of doing the job…

LM: If it’s not going to complicate things too much, I think one thing to remember is I was actually there over thirteen years. Kind of missed the ’71 Festival, but there was a kind of continuum: Dave Will and I were asked to go and work with Murray [Grigor, previous director], so I was at the Festival for about four or five festivals as programme editor and then deputy editor [before becoming director].

DC: So, during Murray’s time as director, what was most memorable?

The first major, major moment for us was, it had been Dave’s idea to do the Sam Fuller retrospective. It’s very difficult to talk about such ancient history… I know when I talk to students, and I try to talk to them about a time when Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk etc were not household names, it’s hard. Post-Tarantino, everyone embraces Sam, but when Dave came up with the idea it was a very radical notion and it flew in the face of what the traditional British critical view of the cinema was, which was very much European art cinema. So the moment that Sam Fuller touched down at what we used to call Turnhouse [now Edinburgh Airport], and we met Sam – in a very kitsch way with a bagpiper – we got special permission to meet him with a piper on the tarmac – that was a major thing… we saw it as our intervention with Edinburgh.

http://vimeo.com/27511160
Sam Fuller on a return visit to Edinburgh in 1992.

We were attacked by all sorts of people. I remember a BBC producer meeting Sam and saying, sniffily, “He’s not an intellectual.” But it was our first gesture of oppositional film culture to which Dave and I were committed. We were about twenty at this point, Sam was the first Hollywood director we’d ever met, and you couldn’t have got someone more extraordinary, who threw himself into the Festival, checked out of his hotel, went to stay with Murray at Inverkeithing. So Sam was a major thing.

Probably the most important single person for me was Douglas Sirk. I was sort of in charge of setting up the Sirk event with Jon Halliday, and Jon Halliday and Laura Mulvey co-edited the book of essays on Douglas. And Douglas was one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever met. He’s remained an enormous influence in all sorts of ways. Roger Corman coming the first time, in 1970: again, when we also published a book.

[This was the period when Edinburgh really got into publishing a book with every retrospective and conference. The Sirk book is now extremely rare, as it was cheaply bound in a manner that caused it to self-destruct upon opening: if you have a copy (as Todd Haynes does), treasure it!]

These were all things that we loved, the directors, we loved their work, but also it had an agenda, which was our whole oppositional culture position.

DC: And it SUCCEEDED!

LM: I could go on and on…

DC: Do! And from your own years as director?

LM: John Huston attending with FAT CITY. And when Scorsese came. I had the privilege of having Robbie Coltraine as my driver that year, before Robbie really started acting, and Robbie had a habit of partying, and not turning up to get me out to the airport, including the morning Scorsese arrived, but moments like that, having Brian DePalma… There were all sorts of directors we loved… before talking to you today, I did look at most of the programmes  except my last year which was a bit of a haze because it was mostly about parties… But it’s interesting the recurring things: we showed David Cronenberg’s early avant-garde features, David came almost every year, we got involved with Jonathan Demme when he was still a writer with THE HOT BOX, and then we showed his first film as a director. I think we had a Jonathan Demme film almost every year. And there was a whole New York underground, Amos Poe, Yvonne Rainer, Warhol, lots of that, lots of avant-garde… George Romero… I mean, one of my favourite nights was when we used to view at Filmhouse, we used to view all summer, films that had been sent to the Festival, and I’ll always remember the night we started watching this film which turned out to be ERASERHEAD… which was an extraordinary moment.

[Many people have claimed they founded the Edinburgh Television Festival, but Lynda wants to stake her claim here: Gus MacDonald and Lynda Myles started the TV Festival, along with a committee including Clive Goodwin, Barrie Hanson and Brian Gibson. The Film Festival begat the Television Festival, partly because much of the best filmmaking in the seventies seemed to be happening on TV (Stephen Frears, John MacKenzie) but the work couldn’t be screened at the Film Festival for legal copyright/licensing reasons. The TV Festival found a way round that, and John McGrath delivered the first MacTaggart lecture, trashing the TV industry for the “endemic naturalism” that still plagues it today.]

So there’s endless stuff. But one of the things I wanted to say about my time there was, I think I was very lucky because I think the ‘70s is recognized as the Golden Age of Programming, so I was incredibly lucky because I hit New German Cinema. We’d actually shown some of Wim’s [Wenders] shorts, we’d shown some Fassbinder from about 1970, but I was very lucky because the time I took over as director coincided with New German Cinema kind of exploding and I think one year we showed about 24 German movies. And they all came, and we all stayed very involved with them.

[There was also greater co-operation amongst festivals, with Edinburgh active in helping set up a support network of independent Film Festivals, so they could help each other instead of fighting over films — a great idea which, sadly, didn’t last, but is perhaps due for revival in the modern age of thousands of competing festivals…]

So there were very clear loyalties at Edinburgh to a lot of these people. Very much the School of Corman, everyone to whom in a way Roger gave birth, Monte Hellman, Joe Viola, Jonathan, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Harrington. We liked the mavericks, what we didn’t like was the sort of films the liberal establishment liked at that point. So we were the first film festival to show a lot of horror, B-movies, a lot of rock and roll – we got involved with Don [D.A.] Pennebaker very early on, and obviously things like THE LAST WALTZ, etc. And Bill Forsyth, Bill Douglas…

One of my favourite memories is, I think the best Festival party we gave was the legendary party at the Commonwealth Pool, when it had just opened. Where we rashly put on the invitation, “DO NOT bring swimming costumes as you will not be allowed to enter the pool.” We had an explicit ban. And of course, at midnight, Chris Auty stripped off and jumped in, followed by about sixty people… I just remember it was a great party, I remember Nick Nolte was there, and his girlfriend of the time and his producer… we had good times.

And that’s why, in a way, I was especially happy when Mark [Cousins] was there, and Lizzie {Francke], because Mark had that sense of the playfulness and the transgressiveness, and that was kind of what we were doing, I mean most of the time it was fantastic, so most of it’s very happy memories.

Festival directors on parade: Mark Cousins, Lizzie Francke, Murray Grigor, Hannah McGill, Lynda Myles, Jim Hickey, and producer Ginnie Atkinson.

DC: So, balancing that, what were the frustrations of the job? I guess everyone has things that they wanted to do and couldn’t.

LM: Actually, very little. I got away with murder, basically [laughter]. I had a couple of things going for me – the ace up my sleeve was Colin Young. Colin, as you know, was Scots, who came back from being Dean at the film faculty at UCLA to start the National Film School. And Colin was my chair [chairman of the EIFF board] and he protected me. I find it quite upsetting, reading Matt Lloyd’s book [How the Movie Brats took over Edinburgh], which I think is terrific, to remember all those ghastly board meetings when Forsyth Hardy was trying to get me fired, because the old guard, the Griersonian documentary lot, absolutely hated what we were doing.  And there were endless battles, and Matt manfully ploughed through all the minutes of these meetings. They really tried to get me out after THE PARASITE MURDERS [AKA SHIVERS], which was Cronenberg, 1974. That was very frustrating. But Colin’s background was in ethnographic filmmaking, and I don’t think Colin was all that keen, certainly wasn’t in tune with my taste, or lack of it as many people thought, but he saw it as his role as chairman to protect me, which he did, to an extraordinary degree.

Forsyth Hardy (right) with John Grierson at the first ever Edinburgh Film Festival.

[DC: I recall reading a ’50s film book by Forsyth Hardy in which he negatively reviewed REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, saying that Natalie Wood’s distress over her father’s withholding of physical affection was impossible to sympathize with or even believe in. A very Scottish view.]

LM: And the other thing, which I think I’ve never had the chance to stress anywhere is, I had the most unbelievable diaspora of support. I was incredibly lucky. Obviously with Murray, Dave and I working together, and then Jim joining in ’69, I think, and Jim is theoretically my deputy, but obviously we worked very closely together. But apart from that, I had Peter Wollen, and Laura Mulvey, and I think more and more in retrospect that Peter was probably the most brilliant mind of that generation. I mean, he was just phenomenal. And then people like Paul Willemen, Phil Hardy, the late Claire Johnston, Joe Medjuck in LA, Kay Armatage in Toronto, and in London, people like Simon Field, Dave Curtis… David Meeker at the BFI, without whom the retrospectives would have been impossible. Tony Rayns…

There was a phenomenal group of people, completely engaged with what we were doing, sharing the same agenda, so obviously although I was director for the last eight years, there was endless, endless, endless discussion about what we were showing, what we were doing. Maybe that was a phenomenon of the time, because in a way the political-aesthetic agenda was much clearer at that time.

One of the areas where I was blessed was I had an incredibly brilliant, committed staff, who were Ellen Galford and Isabel Hilton, Rebecca O’Brien, now Ken Loach’s producer, Simon Perry for two years, Penny Thomson, Jane Balfour, Ginnie Atkinson and Archie Tait… I had an amazing group of people. We ran the Festival with a staff of about twelve, nobody was permanent apart from me and an assistant.

And actually, when I looked at the programmes I could see… my programmes really tail off. I mean, talking about ’77, between Murray’s period and mine, when we were very clear what we were doing, but by ’78 it had got sort of hazier. Not that the festivals weren’t fun, but they didn’t have the clarity.

[After the interview, Lynda looked again at her collection of souvenir programmes, and asked to revise what she said above. Here’s why –filmmakers whose work screened in ’76: Hollis Frampton, Straub/Huillet, Yvonne Rainer. In ’78: Bill Douglas (MY WAY HOME), Monte Hellman, Gabor Body, Ulrike Ottinger, Jonathan Demme and a Max Ophuls retrospective. In ’79: King Hu, Chantal Akerman, Demme, Straub/Huillet, Les Blank, a Nick Ray tribute, plus ALIEN, SCUM, MANHATTAN,WISE BLOOD, THE TEMPEST (Jarman), MAD MAX, THAT SINKING FEELING (Forsyth), the new Philippines cinema, a celebration of the origins of the UK documentary movement, and a second conference on feminism in cinema. If that’s tailing off, we need more of it.]

DC: I guess as well the maverick stance had almost become mainstream by the late ‘70s.

LM: Yeah. What happened, partly, was that the NFT in London started taking our retrospectives, so they’d move onto London. There’s a tribute going on to the programming at the Scala. It’s fascinating, looking at all their posters. [Scala programmer and later film producer]  Stephen Woolley came to Edinburgh when he was very young, very bright, has very much the same taste… And by the late ‘70s, we’d kind of done what we wanted to do.

The other thing that’s quite weird, looking back over the ‘70s, is that there’s hardly any British cinema at all. Because that was when the pound had suddenly got very high against the dollar, and that was when the Americans pulled out. And I remember doing a programme for BBC2, on the Festival in 1979, because I had six British films: this was seen as amazing! We’d always shown some BFI Production Fund films, but ’79 we had an incredible midnight screening of ALIEN, and RADIO ON, which was very important…

The other thing I should mention as a highlight: we did the first major women’s film event in Europe, in ’72, which was a lot of fun, and BBC2 wanted to make a film about it, and very much in the spirit of the times, we said “No, give us the means, give us the cameras and the stock etc,” and we made a film, during the Festival. Which exists, somewhere.

DC: We should talk about how you became involved in it this year.

LM: I got involved because the Festival had interviewed people for the job of Artistic Director, and had failed to appoint anyone. So, in the vacuum, when it looked like nothing might happen, Mark came up with this ingenious plan of a festival which he described as being a cross between the Venice Biennale and Meltdown. And he got Tilda [Swinton] involved and they asked me to join them. And the final document, had it been possible to realise it, would have ended up in an absolutely extraordinary event.

We felt the Festival needed to be rethought, that it had got kind of a bit weary. Unfortunately, for reasons that are complex and difficult to describe, the blueprint wasn’t followed up. The blueprint would have needed certain people on the ground to deliver it. It was always clear that Tilda was going to be doing the Jarmusch film, Mark finishing his epic [The Story of Film TV series] and June is one of my busiest times in my life at the National Film School, so we were never going to be there. But for some reason, it wasn’t brought to life. So it remains this blissful, platonic ideal of an event which didn’t happen. Except tiny bits of it: I mean, it was lovely having Bela Tarr there.

DC: Matt Lloyd talked in the comments section about how, really, when you’re dealing with Mark Cousins ideas, maybe you need Mark Cousins to execute them. Was that an overall flaw in the plan? If you three couldn’t be on hand to make it happen, who on earth could be trusted to see this through?

LM: I think there might have been people who could, but it wasn’t the right combination.

DC: I think they’ve got a very good staff, but I think they were demoralized after having to reapply for their own jobs. And then I think James, coming in, didn’t really speak the same language, because his staff are cinephiles and he speaks the language of brands, and low-hanging fruit… the language is different. I don’t know if they saw him as a festival director. It wasn’t clear when I spoke to him: something I’d heard is that he was hired as producer and then became the director…

LM: My understanding was that he was hired to be the producer.

DC: And a good choice in many ways. But maybe not the right man as director for this particular event. So, is there anything you can say, or would like to say, about this year, or shall we move on?

LM: One thing that slightly cheers me up is that [laughs] history has shown that Edinburgh can rise from the ashes. When we got involved in ’68, the Festival had been absolutely appalling. One of the things we had to stop was, the films were selected by committee.

DC: Oh…

LM: When Murray had come in around ’67, he inherited this, there was a committee which watched the films every night. The Festival was attacked in the Scotsman… The thing about what happened, in a way, from ’69, was that it showed Edinburgh’s reinvented itself before. So I’m optimistic. I think in some ways, having a year that goes… awry, like this, in a way maybe it’s good.

I don’t know if I’ve even got the energy to talk about the dates. I think it’s an absolute no-brainer that the Festival should be back in August. I think the move to June was insane. Edinburgh, when it started, as you know, was the third film festival in the world. When you have 2,000 festivals out there, everything’s looking for specificity. The fact that Edinburgh is potentially part of the world’s largest arts festival seems to me a useful addition to making Edinburgh specific. Apart from the fact that no film students can go because everyone’s shooting in June. When we had the 60th anniversary and Brian DePalma came back, for the first time since I’d invited him in ’76 or whatever, Brian stayed quite a long time, going to three or four movies a day, and then going to stuff at night. I just think it’s crazy when you’ve got the fantastic Book Festival, you’ve got all the shows… it seems to me it’s a time when cinema’s more engaged, when you’ve got people like Steve McQueen [HUNGER] coming from visual arts, lots of dramatists going into cinema, I just do not understand.

And the argument about space, well my God, if Teviot [University building and 2011 delegate centre], that ghastly – and I know that place because I was an undergraduate – it felt like a student event. It just felt amateur. If that’s one of the glories of June, well, let me out.

DC: There must be other choices in June, you should theoretically have your pick…

LM: You might think so. The sad thing at the moment is, I dealt with about four directors of the Edinburgh Festival [the arts festival, as opposed to the Film Festival], and they weren’t all terribly user-friendly towards film, but the irony is that with Jonathan Mills there, you’ve probably got someone who would be very open to collaboration.

Oh what a gorgeous cat!

DC: Yes, this is Tasha.

LM: Oh WOW. Anyway, I’m sorry, I can get very boring, don’t get me started on August. I do think that there would be lots of possibilities for crossover.

The other thing is, the last time I went up in August, last year, I got a taxi at Waverley, and in two minutes in a taxi you get that unbelievable excitement. That Festival, I walked home on my own, at two in the morning, and it was fantastic. And I’m afraid you don’t get that in June. I love that sense of excitement.

DC: This is great because you’re the first Festival director I’ve spoken to who’s come out strongly for August.

LM: Here endeth the first lesson. Hardwired. I went to the Festival when I was about 17, not the Film Festival, it was the theatre, music. I absolutely love it, I think it’s unbeatable, it’s crazy not to be part of it.

DC: What else would you say for the Festival’s future?

LM: [small voice] I would move back to August – which also gives them more time. Which they’re going to need. I would make it shorter, I think two weeks is too long. I would make it ten days.

DC: I think it is ten days.

LM: Is it ten days? It feels very long.

[It’s twelve days. I think Shane Danielsen cut it to ten in the early 2000s, but it’s spread again]

LM: Ten days would be fine. I think they’ve got to get someone who really has a grasp of international cinema, someone who can talk to directors, someone who can talk to distributors, and sales agents. Again, I was very lucky, when I was there I basically dealt with directors, to some extent with distributors in London, but it was basically pre- sales agent days, and I mostly just asked directors for their movies after I’d seen them.

I think whoever’s coming in should be someone that the distributors trust, that they feel knows the business. It’s quite a hard brief because the Edinburgh Festival I love was about ideas, it’s more about ideas than anything else. But to keep the ship going, it’s got to engage with the public. What I’d hate is for it to become a local event. Local festivals are fine but there are lots of them in Britain, and Edinburgh for many years was the festival that set the agenda for everyone else. If it shrinks into being just a local event, maybe that’s OK at one level, but I think it’s a terrible waste. Because the other thing that’s very clear over what’s happened this year is, I must have had hundreds of conversations since November, and what is interesting is how people care about it. Contrary to what certain people around the Festival think, there’s a huge amount of concern about the Festival and what’s going to happen with it from people who worked there, people who have movies there, people who’ve been there.

I could conjure up a brilliant advisory committee with ten people I’ve spoken to here who would immediately become part of that to help get it back on its feet. But I think you’ve got to get someone who can talk both to directors and to the industry. It’s got to be someone with some sort of vision because it also ought to be different from London. I think Sandra [Hebron] did a brilliant job with London, but it’s a different kind of Festival. And I think Edinburgh has to be about ideas, about innovation. But it has to be the leader of the pack in terms of what’s happening in cinema.

Read more about Lynda’s revolutionary role in film critical history: How the Movie Brats Took Over Edinburgh: The Impact of Cinephilia on the Edinburgh International Film Festival, 1968-1980

Read Lynda and Michael Pye’s book: The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took over Hollywood

See a Lynda film: The Commitments [1991] [DVD]

From the 1978 programme:

“The following publications will be available at The Filmhouse:

Douglas Sirk                                                     £0.90p

Frank Tashlin                                                   £1.10

Jacques Tourneur                                          £1.00

Perspectives on British Avant-Garde    £1.50

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The Edinburgh Dialogues #5: Shane Danielsen

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2011 by dcairns

A few of my more sharp-eyed readers may notice that this is not, in fact, Shane Danielsen. Claudia Cardinale in Valerio Zurlini’s GIRL WITH A SUITCASE. Shane suggested, wrongly I feel, that this would make a more attractive start to the article than a portrait of him.

 

THIS PIECE IS COPYRIGHT BY THE AUTHORS.

Shane Danielsen was Artistic Director of Edinburgh International Film Festival from 2002-6, having first attended in 2000 as curator of the Max Ophuls retrospective. During his time, Edinburgh saw some memorable events and screenings, and retrospectives particularly to my taste: Mitchell Leisen and Henri-Georges Clouzot, as well as Valerio Zurlini whom I hadn’t even heard of. He conducted memorable onstage interviews with Liv Ullman, Steven Soderbergh, Charlize Theron and George Romero. And the new films at Edinburgh were a choice bunch.

Shane arrived with a reputation for passion and even violence, but the only incident I heard of in that line was the delivery of a strongly-phrased three-word sentence  to former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo, which struck me as entirely appropriate in the circumstances.

The following conversation was conducted by email, and Shane is his usual out-spoken self. I don’t always agree with Shane but I always find him entertaining, even as I wince on behalf of those who become his targets (including, below, film bloggers and those who read them).

John Huston said this, of Edinburgh — in 1972.

DC: I’m starting off by asking people about their favourite memories of the Festival.

SD: Okay, here’s the thing: I’m not that interested in talking about my time there – mostly, because I don’t think it’s especially helpful to where we are now. Nostalgia for some perceived golden age – be it Jim Hickey’s time, or Murray Grigor’s, or Lizzie’s – is honestly the last thing Edinburgh needs at present, given the state the festival is in and the severity of the choices confronting it.

But there’s also another reason, which is why I said I was hesitant, initially, to do this interview. And that’s that Edinburgh is – as my friend Derek Elley often noted – a festival haunted to an unusual degree by the ghosts of directors past. All rattling their chains and moaning to anyone who’ll listen that, were they still in charge, they would have done it all sooooo differently . . . It’s tedious, and redundant – and also kind of dishonest, because it fails to acknowledge that time has passed since then, the film industry has changed (quite profoundly, in fact), and as a result, so has the place that festivals like EIFF occupy within it.

So when I left Edinburgh, I vowed that I wouldn’t speak of my time there publicly again. I wouldn’t comment on subsequent festivals; I wouldn’t turn up and hang around like some grandee – which always struck me, frankly, as the height of bad taste. Hannah deserved rather better, I thought, than yet another Banquo at her feast. Her first year, I didn’t even look at the programme. I was in Berlin, reading and writing and, I suppose, just enjoying being in a city that excited me again.

Hannah McGill.

DC: I’ll just say, in defense of everyone who’s talked to me so far, they were all very anxious NOT to be seen as sniping from the sidelines or harking back to a bygone age.

SD: They might not choose to here, in this forum and at this time, but that’s not to say it isn’t a recurring, and regrettable, tendency. I remember all too well, when I took the (to-my-mind eminently justifiable) decision not to programme Richard Jobson’s “A Woman In Winter,” the carping from certain ex-directors – never to my face, of course – about how I was letting down the side and not supporting Scottish filmmaking . . . Which of course brings into play all kind of issues about nationalism and funding and special pleading, too complicated and tedious to get into here.

I endured this, mostly, with polite forbearance. When, really, what I wanted to say was, Mind your own business. You had your time; you made your choices. Now kindly do me the courtesy of fucking off and letting me make mine. I didn’t agree with all of Hannah’s decisions – how could I? we’re different people, with different tastes – but I did think that a lot of what she did constituted an ingenious solution to certain problems, as well as a necessary response to certain external pressures – which we can, and should, discuss later. But whether I happened to agree or not didn’t actually matter. Because it wasn’t my show anymore, it was hers, and I should – and did – accord her the respect of not throwing in my unasked two cents’ worth.

[DC: I haven’t seen A WOMAN IN WINTER. I have seen Jobson’s previous film, THE PURIFIERS, an unofficial remake of THE WARRIORS. Starring martial artists. Shot in Milton Keynes. So I can imagine the decision not to screen his movie in an International Film Festival being justified, despite it’s being Scottish product: there does have to be a quality threshold. But as I say, I haven’t seen the film in question.]

But I mention this mostly, I suppose, because Edinburgh has always been prey to an especially virulent strain of nostalgia – part of which, admittedly, it brings upon itself, with its endless looking-back: “The oldest continually running film festival in the world,” “John Huston said he gave a damn …” blah blah blah. I remember trying in vain to move the debate on from this – now, I think, the festival has no choice. Because in the radically accelerated environment of the digital world we inhabit – a world in which artistic scarcity is a thing of the past, and not only historical context but the very notion of programming are increasingly imperiled (since works from all times and places are almost instantly accessible, to be consumed on-demand and in ways that exclude traditional cinema or festival environments) – that kind of anecdotal history means less and less.

I’d also argue that 2011 marks such a rupture in the history of the festival, that the chain of continuity has been broken anyway. And so, après le deluge, it’s probably time to speak out.

DC: A big topic of discussion has been the date change from August to June.

I don’t want to go on about dates except to note two things:

Firstly, let’s acknowledge, shall we, that there is no ideal time of the year to hold a film festival. None. There might have been in 1963, or even 1993. But today? No. Not with four thousand bloody festivals out there.

Secondly, and more importantly, how come no one is placing some of the blame for the ‘disaster’ that was the shift to June – if indeed it was such a disaster – where it belongs? Which is not with Hannah, or Ginnie, but with the UK Film Council, and specifically Pete Buckingham. Who basically strong-armed EIFF into accepting a date-change (from August to June) and becoming a particular thing (a “festival of discovery” a la Sundance, leaving the “festival of spangles and riches” for London). Otherwise, no cash from the UKFC, thank you very much.

And then, when it isn’t an unqualified success, he’s screaming at Hannah for “not getting it right” (er, getting what right, Pete? you mean that vague, half-assed plan you were told from the outset wouldn’t work?), while cheerfully disavowing any hint of responsibility to everyone else who asked. Now, of course, he’s walked away from the burnt carcass of the Film Council and slid across to the BFI, sound as a pound. You couldn’t make it up.

I have a reputation for being somewhat . . . outspoken, I know. But can you be surprised, when this kind of shit goes on, and nobody calls anyone out on it? I can only conclude it’s a British thing, where you’d prefer to grumble about things, to chafe under the yoke, rather than actually stand up for yourself. But I’m afraid I’m not like that. I’ve got more pride; my father raised me better than that. And if no one else is going to say it (and clearly they’re not), then I will: the UK Film Council fucked the Edinburgh Film Festival.

DC: The strangest thing about this year’s festival was the decision not to appoint a director, then to use consultants, then to have a director after all, but not an “artistic director.” By the end, I think James was being called artistic director, but he was executing bits of a programme of ideas put together by other hands, plus a few ideas of his own.

So, what does the title artistic director mean to you, and what do you see as the consequences of stepping away from that approach and putting power in the hands of a CEO? Or, to be blunt and very specific, should Gavin Miller be in the position he’s in? Should James Mullighan have been placed in the position/s he was in?

SD: Well, James was definitely placed in a position. No doubt about that.

It’s funny: I made a point of meeting him in February, when he came to Berlin for the Film Festival. It was a brief visit, a quick in-and-out; I had to work to pin him down. A more suspicious soul might have sensed a certain reluctance on his part – though he was friendly enough when we did talk. (And, for the record, I thought he acquitted himself well in your interview.)

By now the awful, faux-naif conceptualism of Mark Cousins’ plan was starting to filter out. The underpants. The anthem. The statues. A ‘pay what you think the film is worth’ day – an idea so stupendously idiotic that I found it hard to believe that it issued from someone who’d actually run the festival before, much less knew anything about how the film industry works.

DC: Why?

SD: Well, imagine emailing or telephoning a sales agent, the people who, in most cases, give you the films you show – say, Wild Bunch, the most haughty and disdainful of the European titans – and, when they ask for a screening fee, or a minimum guarantee, explaining that the actual market value of their product – which they’re licencing to you, more for your benefit than their own – will be determined by the audience. A Scottish audience.

(Of course, this is all pure conjecture, since Wild Bunch wouldn’t take a call from Edinburgh any more, such was the reputation of the festival after the protracted, bungled search for a new AD – an instance of mismanagement that had not gone unnoticed within the international industry. Nor would most of the other major sales companies. The festival was perceived to be dying, or dead. As one sales agent remarked to me, in March, ‘One less we have to worry about.’)

Mr. Cousins, I’m glad to say, was paid precisely what his ideas were worth – which is to say, nothing. Indeed, he made a point of saying so himself, in his Teflon-like slide away from actual work (beyond that airy ‘sending of a few emails’) or accountability. A slide which I’d predicted to Mr Mullighan during our conversation in the early evening of February 16, in the lobby bar of the Hyatt Hotel, Potsdamer Platz.

I suggested to Mullighan then that he’d been hired as a quisling, as a fall-guy for what promised to be a potentially reputation-tarnishing disaster, and that my only advice to him would be to get a good lawyer to go over his contract, as he would almost certainly be out of a job the minute this year’s edition was over. And so, four months later, it proved. That he now claims to have only ever been hired for one year surprises me, when I recall our discussion, but perhaps he was simply being discreet.

Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins.

[DC: Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the actual All That Heaven Allows blueprint: Mark Cousins didn’t feel able to supply a copy for publication. But the press, and PopBitch, did carry the story about the Festival Underpants, and it was apparently presented to the staff at EIFF.]

Should Gavin Miller remain in his position? No. And I don’t feel especially bad about saying so, since I said as much to his face, when I met him – again, by careful contrivance – at Cannes. (My wife was amused to note that, when I walked up and introduced myself, his proffered hand began to tremble slightly; I felt for a moment like Lord Voldemort.) We had what might be called a full and frank exchange of views, in the course of which I suggested, politely, that he resign. Not altogether surprisingly, he disagreed.

The CEO doesn’t have to be a cinephile (though the AD definitely does, and it’s to Mullighan’s discredit, I think, that he’s not). In fact, it’s better that they’re not a film nerd; they’re about realising, in a practical sense, the vision of the AD, and reining in their wilder excesses. The two jobs are very different, and require very different and even opposite skill-sets. But it should, at the very least, be someone who knows about the film industry: how it operates, where it’s at, and how Edinburgh might work within it. Same goes for the Board: to have a Board comprised of people who know next to nothing about either the festival or the industry – as was the case in 2010-11 – is a recipe for disaster. But the failure here is an institutional one, of extraordinary proportions, and it goes from the Board right down through management to the staff. Who are good, hard-working people, trying to do the best job they can despite the idiocy of those above them. (In this respect, at least, it probably hasn’t changed all too much from my time there.)

And while we’re apportioning blame, the last thing I’ll say about Cousins’ ‘Ziggy Stardust moment’ for EIFF is this: Mark always enjoys telling us how much he loves film. That his is a purer, better, nobler love than any of ours’. It’s a very canny strategy, this fey innocence, since it has the effect of making even the mildest criticism appear to be motivated by black-hearted cynicism. (Obviously you don’t love cinema enough! You’re disconnected from your sense of wonder/child within/spirit-totem!)

But for someone who’s constantly banging on about the magic of movies, he certainly doesn’t seem to care much about screening them with any integrity. He talked this year about wanting to get away from using ‘traditional venues’ (cinemas are so square, daddy-o!) – but screening a DVD on a sheet in an attic is not, I think, the most creditable way to watch a movie. It devalues the work, and it disfavours the audience. One of his mooted ideas – that a film would begin at one venue and then stop, halfway through, and you’d have to walk to another venue to see the rest of it (ah, but along the way, you’d talk about Cinema!) – says all that needs be said, I think, about his fondness for gimmicks, and his blithe disregard for the level of care a filmmaker should reasonably expect from a festival that has invited his work.

I mention this because he’s managed, with characteristic adroitness, to escape most of the blame that should, I think, be laid as much at his feet as at Gavin Miller’s. Had he not been so shifty when trying to exculpate himself from the mess he’d helped create – first spitting his dummy in the dirt when the staff rejected his plans as bullshit, then ducking out as soon as it looked like the festival would be a flop, I wouldn’t lay into him like this. But he did, and I am. I CALL SHENANIGANS!

As for the AD, I was asked recently what that job requires. This is what I wrote: ‘The obvious things required are also the obvious things that were noticeably lacking here. Someone with a broad and detailed knowledge of international cinema, both historically and in the present, and strong curatorial and presentation skills. Someone who understands the business – specifically, the complex network of inter-relationships between UK and international producers, sales agents, distributors and festivals, and where EIFF can and should exist in relation to each of these. Someone with ideas that are credible, and not bullshit. Someone who can inspire both a severely demoralised staff and a signally disinterested pool of funders, both public and corporate, to work toward the rehabilitation of what has become, in less than twelve months, a badly devalued brand.’

The CEO of the CMI: Gavin Miller.

DC: The abortive search for an artistic director last year was a strange sight, certainly as viewed from the outside, and there was widespread doubt about whether the Festival was even going to go ahead. How could it have been so hard to find someone suitable? Do you know anything about how all that went down?

SD: I had a number of people I know – and also one or two I didn’t – contact me to ask whether I thought they should apply for the job. I looked at the advertisement and told them I thought it would be a bad idea. For one thing, there was no actual mention of programming, and everyone who spoke to me was more or less the same kind of person: an enthusiast, rather than a careerist, someone in love with the idea of just selecting beautiful movies and splendid retrospectives. Which is a lot of what the AD job is, but by no means all of it, alas.

But then, what had I expected? People I know kept forwarding me newspaper stories about Gavin Miller (for most of the past twelve months, all I had to do to keep appraised of doings at Edinburgh was look at my In Box), and I noticed, in the course of this reading, that he barely used the word ‘film’, much less ‘cinema’ in his interviews. But boy oh boy, was he down with generating multiple revenue opportunities via a diverse array of digital content and cross-platform branding!

This is the new breed: the marketers have stormed the citadel. But this, too, was to be expected, since festivals are no longer allowed to be the things they once were: small, local events of curatorial integrity, put on by passionate enthusiasts. And this clash of expectations is something I’m going to return to in a moment.

Plus, there was the financial situation, with the Film Council money (and the Film Council itself) winding down, the shift to a BFI that’s long disadvantaged EIFF in favour of London, a new Tory government determined to slash and burn, and the vastly diminished sponsorship opportunities of a post-recession economy. I’m not saying for one moment that a new approach to delivering the festival wasn’t needed; without question, it was. But there were ways to do that – and just as importantly, to sell it – without having to go the Dreamy Outsiders, ‘pay with a current bun and sit on a cloud’ route. Ways that might have retained some fundamental goodwill and belief in the event from outside stakeholders, instead of disbelief and derision.

Anyway, I heard about most of who applied, and who they spoke to. So thoroughly fucked-up was the process that one candidate – the head programmer for a reasonably high-profile US festival – didn’t even score an interview. Now, I’m not much of a fan of the guy personally, nor am I terribly convinced by his sterling good taste. But you’d think he’d be someone you’d at least want to talk to. . .

DC: Obviously a lot of very vocal people in Scotland, including myself, have a kind of proprietary feeling about the EIFF which might make things hard for anybody wanting to impose changes. But nobody wants it to be a purely local event, and it’d probably die if that’s what it became, so those voices and audiences aren’t all that counts. The big question, I suppose, has to be “Who and what is the EIFF for?” or even “Who/what is any 21st century film festival for?” Who does it have to satisfy and what does it have to do to achieve that? 

SD: A friend there sent me a link, a few weeks ago, to aBBC radio report on the festival, and while I agreed with most of the complaints the (Scottish) journalist raised about this year’s event, her bleating about how ‘Edinburgh should be more like Cannes’ just betrayed, to me, a stunning, provincial ignorance about what this festival is, what Cannes is, and where each sits in the broader scheme of things.

This endless carping: Why isn’t Edinburgh more like Cannes? Well, there’s a very easy answer to this question: Cannes has an annual budget of over 20m Euros. EIFF, by comparison, runs on the spare change found at the back of the sofa. Considerably more money might mean a slightly more Cannes-like experience, provided that one’s index for this happens to be a ‘red-carpet’ (i.e., stars and premieres) style event. Slightly, but not completely. You’ll never get the same level of world premieres as Cannes. You’ll occasionally get A-list stars – but not all the time.

But Cannes is also on the Côte d’Azur– a highly desirable destination. It has, in addition to its festival, the largest film market in the world. It happens at precisely the right time of year to begin positioning films for sale and distribution and awards. So everyone wants to premiere there, and everything else is considered second- (or third-, or fourth-) best.

It’s also, for better or worse, the defining brand – the words ‘film festival’ are synonymous with Cannes; it’s the only one that everybody knows – and its prize is the only one that means a damn out in the wider world. (Who, apart from a few trainspotters, remembers what won the last two years’ Golden Bears? Or Venice Lions?) Even well-funded contenders like Venice and Berlin, can’t match the value it brings to a film . . . so to try to emulate it in a small city in Scotland, on a budget of £13.75, strikes me as kind of idiotic.

I actually had a test, whenever a journalist complained of EIFF not being enough like Cannes. I’d ask them if they’d ever been to Cannes themselves. And I wasn’t exactly surprised to find that, almost without exception, the answer was no. Supposedly informed professionals, their image of Cannes was essentially no different to any reader of Hello: a non-stop parade of red carpet events, with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney sashaying, while a million flashbulbs pop. Never mind that this spectacle occupies perhaps two or possibly three nights out of the festival’s eleven. The rest of the time, that same red carpet is occupied by precisely the kind of filmmakers in which EIFF specialises: Alexsandr Sukurov, Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-hsien . . .

But the press are especially guilty, in this respect, I think. You have people like Andrew Pulver, in the Guardian, complaining last year that Edinburgh had ‘sold out’, somehow, by having films like ‘Toy Story 3’ – which is apparently not what a supposed ‘festival of discovery’ is all about – and then complaining this year that ‘the big films are missing.’ Well, which is it?

You have arts journalists at the Scottish papers mostly sitting on their hands for the first six months of this year, either unable or unwilling to do the kind of basic investigative journalism that might detail what’s happening within what’s become a noticeably strife-torn organisation – a story that, it seems to me, might be of some passing interest to their readers. Other than to trot out their usual piece about how it’s ‘not the same as it was,’ and why, oh why can’t it be better? Meaning, presumably, ‘more like Cannes’.

But by parroting these two things – glassy-eyed nostalgia and a vague, itchy sense that they should say something – they never actually focus on the bigger issues (in particular, the experience the festival offers people who actually buy tickets and attend it – only Siobhan Synnot’s piece in the Scotsman did that this year), and never take a broader perspective, and site the festival in the international world of other film festivals or the international film industry, and consider what external pressures may be upon it, and how well – or not – it’s reacting to those. The level of discourse is so low, it’s staggering. One guy was happy to run something – provided I wrote it myself and basically did his job for him. (And presumably, insulate him from actual blame as well as undue exertion.) I said, er, no.

This is what I mean about the clash of expectations. Everyone has a different and competing idea of what EIFF should be, and the one thing those visions share is that none of them are congruent with social or economic reality. And the people out there now, in the wake of this year’s disaster, saying, oh, it should go back to showing art movies, and being a bastion of academic excellence, a la the 1960s . . . Well, guess what? It’s no longer the 1960s. The audience has changed (and diminished) and so has the culture. And except for a couple of hundred logorrheic nerds on the internet, blogging endlessly to each other, that kind of film culture is largely extinct. And most importantly of all, no one will fund that kind of festival any more. I’m sorry about that, but it’s true.

Steven Soderbergh took time out from OCEAN’S 13 to talk to Shane (right).

DC: When you ran the event, it was a cinephile feast that also had areas of much wider appeal. Are you saying that such a festival is no longer possible? Have we moved that far on/back, that quickly?

SD: Well, that’s nice of you to say. If that’s true – and I’m sure some would disagree – it’s only because, while I hesitate to use the word cinephile, I do love movies. And all types of movies, old and new, from the very commercial to the very, very slow, hermetic and austere. (For the record, test things I’ve seen so far this year: Ruiz’s “Mysteries of Lisbon”, Köhler’s “Sleeping Sickness”, Naranjo’s “Miss Bala”, and Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”) I think that Catholicism of taste is important for an Artistic Director, lest the festival become too much one thing.

(Actually, this does remind me of one funny story from my time there, at a dinner with an actress, who had clearly screwed her co-star during the shoot, and was flirting outrageously with him across the table – much to the irritation of his wife, who was sitting beside him. Eventually the starlet turned a bored eye in my direction, and asked what was good at the festival, anyway? What she should see? I named one or two films screening the following day, but then said, you know, it depends on what kind of movies you like. I mean, I’m sure you’ve got pretty Catholic tastes . . . ‘Oh, no,’ she replied firmly. ‘I don’t like anything about religion.’ A beat of embarrassed silence ensued, during which the actor’s wife was staring right at me, with one eyebrow raised, as if to say, ‘A slut AND an idiot. Nice.’)

The one thing it should be, though, is a reflection of the artistic director’s tastes. Because to me, that’s the job; that’s why I was paid what I used to laughingly refer to as the big bucks. And part of it is simply covering your own ass: no one, in a dismal year, would say, gee, Shane Danielsen’s programmers really let him down … Ultimately, the buck does, and should, stop with you. To be the director of something – be it a festival or a film – means putting your own stamp upon it: this is after all one of the tenets of auteurism. Unless, of course, that film or festival is part of an industrialized process, the work of many hands. Which, unfortunately, may be where Edinburgh is at right now.

This is not uncommon. You know at Toronto the programmers often don’t even write their own catalogue copy? A lot of them have interns or other staffers do it for them, and then put their by-lines to it. And they’re not alone: apparently quite a few festivals do this, now. Because they’re too large, too anonymous, and being run by bureaucrats, or by committee. And also because Film Festival Director or Film Festival Programmer was, for some years, seen as a thing to do, a way to enjoy a certain kind of lifestyle and build a career. Now, of course, the result of all this enthusiasm has become apparent: a sub-prime-mortgage-like bubble of too many festivals fighting over too little product, followed by an inevitable meltdown, timed to the 2008-9 recession. Which brings us to where we are now: a period of correction in the market, where there will undoubtedly be casualties. And EIFF may yet be among them.

Having no EIFF catalogue this year was sad, yes. Obviously that publication was something that was quite close to my heart. But better not to do something at all, I think, then to do it badly.

DC: I agree entirely that the Scottish press has two default stories, “too commercial” and “lacking glamour” and it trots them out alternately more or less at random. But isn’t there some way the Festival could GIVE them another, better story, something worth writing about? Journalists, being lazy, might welcome a story that comes pre-packaged.

SD: Oh, indeed. (Sorry, have been watching ‘The Wire’ again, and am very taken with Omar’s speech patterns.) But my question is this: why do we have to do their work for them? Why can’t they bring some kind of informed, analytical perspective to the very thing they’re supposed to cover? I mean, if your beat is the Scottish arts scene, it’s not too hard, is it, to keep abreast of developments? To know the players and follow the narrative? It’s not like you’re covering Wall Street, or trying to find out if Iran are developing a nuclear weapons programme.

Omar.

I didn’t realise, until a friend pointed it out to me about an hour ago, that the Herald subsequently ran your Mullighan piece. (Did he know that was going to happen? And did he consent to it being used, there? Because I certainly wouldn’t.) This, to me, is the Scottish press in a nutshell: aggregators of other people’s content. You did the hard work, and they scooped it up. Presumably, in the spare minutes between updating their Twitter feeds.

[DC: The journalist in question tweeted to let me know he was writing the piece and was nice enough to ask how I wanted to be described. But he didn’t actually ask permission, I guess because once something is labeled “news” it belongs to everybody. James Mullighan expressed surprise that the Herald didn’t call him directly: it’s not like he’s been in hiding.]

James Mullighan.

DC: Some might accuse you of score-settling here. Can you offer a positive suggestion for carving out a future for smaller film festivals generally?

SD: Well, that’s the unfortunate consequence of my compulsion to speak truth to power – ironically, the very quality which defines a good journalist. But Hannah, I know, is just as sad and furious as I am. She’s just a more tactful and politic person. As she said to me just this morning, she has to live in Edinburgh. I don’t.

But score-settling … I don’t know about that. I haven’t said anything here that I haven’t said already to the people themselves. I haven’t spoken to Mark in a few years, perhaps because he’s always clinging on so tightly to his Famous Friend. It’s hard to get his attention. But given the spirit of the last discussion we did have, at Edinburgh’s Closing Night Party in 2005, I don’t think he’s under any illusions as to my feelings about him. Had he been in Cannes this year, I certainly would have gone up and given him some feedback – if only in terms of how to write a press release that doesn’t make your balls ache. Though my wife said she was relieved he wasn’t, as she didn’t much fancy bailing me out of a French jail.

But I did make a point of speaking to James Mullighan, just as I made a point of meeting Gavin Miller. And I did so because I wanted to get my own sense of each of them, rather than go on gossip and hearsay. And I expressed my concerns to each of them, as an ‘interested stakeholder’, honestly and forthrightly – but above all politely; voices were never raised above a polite murmur.

I also chose to hold my tongue about Edinburgh for a number of years, as I said at the beginning of this talk, feeling it wasn’t my place to comment. But given this year’s debacle, I thought it might be time to use this project of yours for what could be most pertinent: an interrogation of where EIFF is at, and how it came to get there, rather than yet another chance to bask in the rosy glow of nostalgia, and remember when so-and-so came, and so-and-so said, and so on, and so on . . .

I’m not in Scotland; I’m out in the world. And I cannot overstate to you the degree of dismay and disappointment in the international film community right now. For agents, Edinburgh is something to be avoided, lest it tarnish their clients’ reputation (and believe me when I say that my sources, in this regard, are excellent ones). For many sales agents, as I said, it’s simply ceased to matter; they’ve struck it off their lists of significant festivals to deal with. The river flows fast, in the world of film festivals: you stop swimming for a moment, and you drown.

For distributors, it’s a non-event, without either the money, the press profile or the reputation to make the necessary difference to their films. It’s broken – and worse still, it’s broke. And what we’re seeing now is the result, not only of a catastrophic series of appointments since Hannah’s departure, but of a long-term narrative of financial mismanagement and administrative neglect. In which I am as every bit guilty as anyone else. I should have done more, or been smarter, or stronger. I definitely should have been a better manager. But I also could see the ossification of the organisation from within, and its dysfunction – and also, how the tide was turning in the broader world. I’m very glad I got out when I did, at the last possible moment that doing it could have been remotely considered fun.

Claudia Cardinale resolutely failing to look like Shane Danielsen.

DC: Whatever the cause of the Festival’s problems, the solution has to involve enlisting and empowering an Artistic Director who can improve the event’s standing by their very reputation, and then funding the thing to a reasonable level so it can do what its more informed critics demand: not compete with Cannes, but stand on its own as a worthy event presenting exciting modern cinema and retrospectives and events and stimulating thought, for the pleasure of Edinburgh residents and visitors alike. That’s the minimum. If Gavin Miller and his Centre for the Moving Image can’t do that, what are they paid so handsomely for? 
Here is the link to the CMI’s website. Does this suggest a vibrant organisation working to promote cinema?  A “powerhouse of ideas and activity”? I don’t see the evidence of it here. I think this organisation needs to change from secrecy to opennessm admit its mistakes and move on. The process of choosing the next Artistic Director is underway. I hope they make a good choice.

The Edinburgh Dialogues #3: Jim Hickey

Posted in FILM, Interactive, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by dcairns

Jim Hickey (left) entertains a tee-total guest (note the cans of 7-Up) at Filmhouse in the ’80s.

Jim Hickey is a hero to me. As director of both Edinburgh Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Film Festival, he presided over both institutions at the time I was discovering world cinema. Apart from BBC2 and then Channel 4, there was really no other way for me to see films from outside of the US and UK mainstream.

As you’ll read below, the EIFF took pride in mixing up all kinds of movies, almost as if it were unnecessary to make distinctions between lowbrow and highbrow, narrative and experimental, documentary and fiction. As if in some way it was all cinema. I think that had a deep effect on me, and I sometimes wish it had eradicated my tendency to put things in boxes altogether. But it certainly helped.

Jim was also very kind to me when I worked in the Cinema Shop in Filmhouse, and on one memorable occasion ushered me and my friend Robert into the presence of Martin Scorsese, who was visiting with THE COLOR OF MONEY (as I recall, Robbie Coltraine was also in the room, somehow). This tongue-tied teen couldn’t manage any coherent response at the time, but — THANKS, JIM!

Since stepping down from his positions at Filmhouse and the Fest, Jim has thrown himself into filmmaking, producing acclaimed short THE HUNGER ARTIST and co-producing FROZEN with Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth.

I spoke to Jim Hickey over coffee and tea at Café Truva, to get his thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the Festival, past, present and (with a little reluctance on Jim’s part) future. But even if you have no particular interest in the event, I suspect you may find the conversation of interest as a window into the film culture generally…

Previous installments can be found here and here.

The souvenir booklet from the Fest’s screening of Gance’s restored NAPOLEON.

DC: The first one, that I’m asking everybody, because even though it’s a banal question it will yield nice results, is: Your fondest memories of running the EIFF?

JH: The happiest moments are often to do with films that have gone on from Edinburgh to do really well later, or films that are now looked at as classic films of that period, or great films. And sometimes they’re just buried in the programme, they’re not huge films that are trumpeted like gala films.

I suppose I ought to go back to when I came in, it was a kind of austerity year as well: it was cut back to about nine days, nine or ten. And people were a bit shocked, “Oh, it’s got to be a two-week festival!” It used to be a three week festival. When I started in the box office in ’69 it was three weeks. And the final week was often a whole lot of films from somewhere like The Other Cinema, or Andi Engel’s Polit Kino, a lot of interesting political or third world films that weren’t in the main programme but were showcasing what we had. And then gradually the three weeks stretched and included everything, and those films weren’t in a single package.

So, when I came in it was almost the worst time to be doing a film festival. Cinema attendances in the late seventies were at their lowest. And so no one was going to cinema much, and video was coming in, and so in ’81 when I started it was a job of trying to get people into cinemas. You decide that “We want you to come here and see films in the best way possible, and with as big an audience as possible, rather than sit at home renting them on video or whatever.” And so the idea of big films – or big screenings – is one of the things I wanted to do. As you mentioned before, the NAPOLEON thing was one of those, to actually do something that caught a lot of attention, and also make people amazed with what kind of experience they could have, not with a brand new film, but with something they’d perhaps never heard of, or never heard of a film in that form.

And we weren’t the first to do that, and we were lucky it had already been done, it had started off in London, and Edinburgh was lucky to be able to do it. It took up a lot of time and effort, and we lost a couple of thousand pounds on it, I think. It cost about £28,000 to do that with a full orchestra. But that was an example of it, and we followed that up a few years later with GREED, done similarly.

I thought that those Playhouse screenings – again, we were lucky to have the Playhouse, which had the equipment and was able to show films, still, although it was moving away from it completely – and so all the big films we did, like ET, BLADE RUNNER, BACK TO THE FUTURE, PARSIFAL, ANGEL HEART, all of those were to grab as many people’s attention as possible. But also to try and be a bit courageous, and put on something that most people thought might not reach a big audience. Like MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR LAWRENCE or BETTY BLUE: starting the festival with a foreign language film was really weird in those days.

There are lots of other things I’m really proud to have shown. Things like WITHNAIL AND I. At the time I saw it in London, the distributors didn’t know quite what to do with it. And I thought, “Well it’s kind of quirky and it would suit Edinburgh. Maybe it would go down well there. Let’s see what happens.” And it was an absolutely fantastic response in Edinburgh.

DC: I saw it there and then waited, waited for it to actually come out, and it barely did, but it took over a year before they let it sneak out. But yeah, that was amazing.

JH: I think the things I’m most proud of doing, or have the best memories of — don’t use the word “proud” [laughs] — are things like the retrospectives which were incredibly hard work, even then, because a lot of the time it was a case of chasing prints down. Because people forget, that’s all we had then, was prints. And the reason we couldn’t do some directors was it was really hard to get prints. So it was great that we had people like David Meeker at the BFI, in the archive, who was this amazing fount of knowledge about where everything is and where the rights holders were, and places like the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, the Cinematheque Francais in Paris, the Japan Foundation, Mrs Kawakita in Japan… you would go to them and be able to get things that completed a retrospective, or at least made it viable. And that was really tough to do, in Lynda’s day it was a big problem, and still a big problem in my day.

But Lynda, and Murray also, because Sam Fuller Year was Murray’s, they did fantastic work then, getting all those Raoul Walsh films, it was just incredible seeing that could be done. So nowadays, look at today’s festival directors, their job is so much easier. With digital projection you can get anything you want virtually, within reason. And we’re lucky with people like Park Circus who do all that good work putting stuff back into distribution again. So that job has become a lot easier. Then, it was tough to do retrospectives. I suppose the shift away from auteur cinema, which in the 60s and 70s was the big thing for retrospectives, to trying to do cinemas from different territories… so my Japanese event, which I did in… 86, was it? You’ll have to check. The Oshima retrospective was probably the last big retrospective I attempted. And we would do mini-retrospectives, things like Charles Crichton or Bernard Vorhaus, things we would do in collaboration with the BFI, of films that had rarely been seen or had just disappeared.

DC: I didn’t actually know you did Vorhaus… I’ve only recently discovered him.

JH: It was in ’86.

DC: I missed so many of the retrospectives because I was not mature enough to be seeking that stuff out.

JH: Of course, well, you were young! What age were you in 86?

DC: Uh, well, uh, 19. No excuse.

JH: Well… Vorhaus was an example, at the National Film Archive, we were interested in one of his films they’d found. The story was nobody knew much about him, or if he was still alive, and one of their people, they just looked in the phone book and there was a Mr Vorhaus, and yes, it was him.

DC: Fantastic. So, did he come?

JH: He came, yeah!

DC: Wow.

JH: Yeah, it was amazing. So I’m really pleased about doing those sort of things, even if there was a select number of people who wanted to see them. But I’m sure other festivals taking up those retrospectives would do them elsewhere was great as well. Suzuki, we did in my final year, and Suzuki films you can get on DVD now, and nobody had seen anything of them, really, before we did stuff at Edinburgh. Well, you may have got the odd one at the NFT, you know, but eventually it all changed.

I was looking at a couple or programmes over the weekend, and I was astounded at some of the titles we had. I couldn’t believe some of the films we had, or the number of really good directors’ films we had. Gus Van Sant’s MALA NOCHE, for example, was at Edinburgh. That was one I saw in Berlin, it was in the Forum at Berlin, and it went down really great at a late night screening. I was with Tony Rayns at the time. Tony was someone else who was great for Edinburgh, and did a lot of the work on the Japanese thing we did – he had so many more contacts than I could ever have got. And Tony was really enthusiastic about MALA NOCHE, he said “We’ve got to have this.” I said, “Yeah, it’s great for Edinburgh: a perfect Edinburgh film.” People like Gregg Araki, who now gets films out there – there’s a quarter page ad in The Guardian for his recent film – and you think, “Wow, that’s Wee Gregg who used to come over in those days.”

For me, it’s hard to pick because I was working there all through Lynda’s years, not doing all the work that she did, but supporting her, and we had viewings of films at night, because that’s what you had to do to select them. And the films that she had, I remember big screenings like ALIEN – screened at The Odeon at midnight, at Ridley Scott’s request, and he was there. And I have never seen an audience as scared as the one we had at that. And a lot of smaller films, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which people forget was at Edinburgh… it may have been at Cannes before that… and obviously Lynda would find stuff at Cannes in her days, but Edinburgh was one of the first stopping places after Cannes in that summer.

I suppose we had a rock and roll mentality as well, we filled the Festival as much as possible with music films, THE LAST WALTZ, KEEP ON ROCKIN’, THE STONES IN HYDE PARK, the Charlie Watts film CHARLIE IS MY DARLING. Some disappeared but have come back eventually, twenty, thirty years later. I really enjoyed those. All the Andy Warhol films we showed. John Lennon/Yoko Ono shorts, we showed. We opened the Festival one year – we had two, one was called ERECTION and was mostly about a building going up, and the other was… well, essentially the film was a balloon going up into the sky, and it took off, and you saw this landscape, and then it went into white, and for two or three minutes the film was completely white, until it burst out of the clouds into the sunlight, and that was the end of the film. And that was our opening film! It was the support on with the opening film, which was pretty courageous, I suppose.

But you know, Edinburgh ought to do things like that, because we always were a sort of maverick event – that was the term Murray [Grigor] used to use. From those late ‘sixties we decided it would be a maverick festival that didn’t do what the big ones do – simply because it can’t, it doesn’t have the money, it’s not a market because we can’t attract people in that way, and Edinburgh has to find its own level, and so that’s what it did.

DC: What I realised looking back is that my own sensibility – to the extent that my blog has any guiding philosophy it’s to jumble together arthouse and exploitation and whatever I happen to watch, and regard it as all essentially the same.

JH: We came to believe that if we put it in the programme, people would come. Because they trusted us as curators or whatever you like to call it, or presenters, of those films, and for the opportunity to see the filmmakers, because we always believed right from the start that the filmmakers should be at Edinburgh if we could afford it. We very rarely refused anybody if we could get the money together.

But there were some: we wanted to do Budd Boetticher, because we were showing his bullfight film [either ARRUZA or MY KINGDOM FOR…] and I think we were talking about a retrospective maybe, but he wanted to come from Mexico, and we would have to pay his whole flight, first class, and we ended up saying “No” eventually because we couldn’t do it. There was just so little money. You’ll see in some of the older programmes you may have, the grant from the City Council used to be £1.50 or something. And it was listed at the beginning of the programme, if you look at them from the ‘60s, you’ll see those amounts we used to get, and it was just silly. But we were grateful for it! That may have been big money in those days.

So that’s memories…

DC: And personalities?

JH:  Tremendously, the Germans, Wenders and Herzog coming, obviously Scorsese and DePalma, they were here the same year, and that was amazing. Jean-Jacques Beineix, I enjoyed his visit…

DC: I saw the guest book once, which he had signed “the frog”.

JH: [Laughter] Yes. They were all in that guest book. The problem is, quite often they were just here for two or three days, we didn’t have a lot of time with them because Edinburgh couldn’t pay for a lot of accommodation. So quite often you’d get to see them at dinner, then have to rush away to introduce a film before the dinner ended… To me it was fantastic when all these people came, I just enjoyed filmmakers coming. Jim Jarmusch was always a big hit, because he came a few times. People like Amos Poe, the New York filmmakers.

DC: What was the worst aspect of the job?

JH: I think in my time, not having enough money to do more publicity… when I look at what the festival can do in that last decade or so, the amount of posters they get up, banners and advertisements, you just feel they’re able to put the word out much better than we ever could. And that’s without even thinking about the internet and what you can do there. We were lucky to get a fax machine round about 1986! Everything was done in letters. We would write to directors, “Dear Mr Walsh, we are doing a retrospective of all your films and would be delighted if you were able to come.” And he would send a nice letter back saying he was unable to come. But nowadays that would be so much easier.

And your network of contacts – that thing we used to believe, that there was a film community. People you met at festivals who would advise you about films, you’d go to screenings together, talk about them afterwards, that was one of the real pleasures of the job. I don’t think there were really that many things that weren’t pleasant about it. It was hard work but it was doing the thing you loved doing.

DC: Mark [Cousins] said that it was the way the whole year was structured for him was his least favourite thing.

JH: But with Mark, that’s because he’s doing so many other things, I think. He’s making films, he’s writing, he’s got all these deadlines. And he’s young enough to be able to do that. I suppose I was young enough to be able to do Filmhouse and the Festival at the same time. I couldn’t do it now, it’d just be impossible.

Apart from just that lack of funds… more funds would have brought over more filmmakers as well. We always regretted, “Well, we can’t even ask that guy ‘cause he’s from South America and it would just be ridiculous,” and so in the end they couldn’t come. Had we had more money that would have been my ambition: have all the filmmakers, give them three days accommodation, that’s common these days, it’s what they get pretty much.

DC: So, moving forward to the future… what do you think about the change of date?

JH: From talking to lots of people during the Festival, and of course reading everything online, I would say the move to August is becoming inevitable. I can’t see the industry… I mean, I read Hannah’s comments about the reasons for the move, and I was behind the move too, I was always behind going to June. I thought, with that kind of money they’d been given to re-establish it in a different way, that was the best time there would ever be. It’s like saying, at least have a go, for the three years. I thought they could win over the city, and become the only show in town: that’s what we had to be. If you could do that, then it would really work.

And whatever point in the year Edinburgh is, of the few that are available to it, the June month or the August/September months, you’re going to hit these big things like Venice, and Toronto, the Documentary Festival in Sheffield now hits you in June, that’s another problem… I just think if they stay in June it’ll seem as if they’re not listening. Almost a universal cry seems to be “Get it back to August. Give us the Festival we like, the way it has been, successfully.” Because now, in a way, June has been tainted with lack of success.

DC: Is that rational? The first year they moved to June was apparently very successful.

JH: And I thought it worked. I was pleased because I thought “They can now build on this.”

There were certain people I’m friends with in the festival world and they said “Oh no, it’s a bad idea and I’d never countenance a move to June,” but usually they were people from down south, because they love coming up here at that time of year. Now, I know all the disadvantages, travel, and hotels and everything are more expensive, if you can get them at all…

DC: Venues…

JH: Venues could be tough. But, you know, they had an open goal this year to put it in any venue they wanted, really, and look what happened. So this year they have to decide on the venues right up front, let people know which cinemas they’re using – and that may involve going back to Cineworld, I don’t know. It depends on the emphasis the director wants to give it, in terms of how much he or she is going to try to appeal to the public.

A lot of people still think it’s in August. A taxi driver I had a week ago said, “Oh, has the Festival been on yet?” And another one, when it had started, said “Oh, I thought it was in August, did it just move.” So the message didn’t permeate through, that it was in June. So with all the difficulties of going back to August, it makes it a lot more easy for people to understand, and it shows they’ve been listening to what people have said this year.

DC: And it gives an extra couple of months…

JH: It gives whoever gets the job two more months to get it on the road. And I think they need to give a very clear signal as to what Edinburgh’s about. Because that’s got lost, in the mud of misinformation and bad reports and gossip and all the rest.  They need to be able to say next year, “This is Edinburgh, and if you don’t know about Edinburgh, this is what it is, what it’s always stood for, but it’s moving on and it’s doing all sorts of other things that it never used to do in the good or the bad old days…” 

And if that involves a retrospective, which I personally think it should do – and I don’t mean necessarily an auteur retrospective – but a packaging-together of an event around something that the director believes people would really enjoy. …In Shane’s days, Shane [Danielsen] told you, “These films are going to be really enjoyable.” He loved them, that communicated itself, and we need a bit more of that now. The guy knows his films, he can tell you that ten minutes in, this actress is wearing a certain frock, and that’s worth looking out for. It gets people interested and it’s funny and it’s the way people talk about films.

DC: I like auteur retrospectives because there’s no question about why this group of films are together. 

JH: It turns out they’re the things people can latch onto as well, if it’s an individual, people get a grasp of what you’re trying to do more easily. So yes, I would definitely favour a retrospective.

I’d be interested in seeing a retrospective of some cinematographers, because that’s something where it’s evident – what you’re looking at is what they’ve done. Having those people talking… some of the best things I’ve seen in recent years have been the talks with Roger Deakins talking to Seamus McGarvey, Chris Doyle… Those events are fantastic, to listen to experts, people who are pre-eminent, talking about what they do.

Chris Doyle, Seamus McGarvey, Rain Li & Roger Deakins in Edinburgh.

DC: I think the first year I saw a lot of that was possibly during Penny Thompson’s tenure, and it was continued by Mark Cousins. [Penny called them Masterclasses, Mark called them Scene by Scenes, a title and format he later used for his TV interview show.] 

JH: That’s right. Edinburgh would do those as much as possible, and now it should do it, because it can do it. Put money into that. And I know it’s hard to get people because they’re always committed, they’re doing festivals or they’re in the middle of shooting, but you’ve really got to push to get those.

DC: An advantage is that so many British cinematographers have amazing longevity…  Douglas Slocombe’s still alive! I don’t know if he’s fit to travel…

JH: Again, some of those things could be done via video link-up. They stay at home and we do it from there.

DC: The Mark Cousins David Lynch interview was great. And hilarious.

JH: We want more of that!

There’s no point in saying “Documentary’s important,” that’s kind of self-evident these days. Documentary’s a huge part of world cinema now. It depends on how you’re going to serve it up. What context you put it in and which group of films you pursue. And you have to look at what other people are doing and see how you could be different. Look at what Sheffield’s doing, and there’s no point in taking them on. You have to try and do something that is Edinburgh’s way of looking at it. And that’s going to be quite hard: finding documentaries where people aren’t thinking “Oh, they’ll be on TV,” or “That was at Sheffield, I read the reviews so I’m not going to see it.” You know, that’s pretty tough, because it’s another British festival who’s doing it alongside you.

And also I think your web presence… you’ve got to decide what’s important for you to get up there, and find ways so people who aren’t at Edinburgh can enjoy it. Do more live things. I mean they obviously did their Kings of Leon event, which went to lots of cinemas simultaneously, didn’t it? But that kind of thing. Have somebody on stage that everybody sees is happening at Edinburgh. And that, again, is easier to do now. If they could sort that out, they’d feel they were reaching an audience they’d missed, because they think it’s elitist, or inertia, or whatever it is.

And make it more accessible in terms of the pricing. There was a lot of criticism of the pricing this year.

DC: There was an announcement, I think, that the prices would be lower, and the prices were higher.

JH: Yes. Nine quid was outrageous.

DC: And discount deals make money, they don’t cost money. People buy more tickets than they would otherwise, and spend their day at the Festival buying food and drink in the venues…

JH: Discount deals are essential, you have to do that. That’s what people expect. I talked to several friends who come regularly and who I know spend over a hundred pounds on tickets, and they said “This year, I’m not doing it. That gets me into ten.” And so you think, well, they’ve lost those people. They probably won’t even come to ten now, because they’re disgusted at having to do this. So it’s bad PR. For people who are experts in marketing, they made some pretty bad errors this year, and that can’t happen again, they’ve really got to sort that out. Because people have to feel it’s for them, the minute they feel they’ve been priced out, your festival just becomes something for the arty crowd.

DC: And the people who get in free.

JH: Yeah, that’s right, the delegates and… freeloaders, as they used to be called in my day. [laughter] Who get into everything. But it’s sometimes better to have those people in the cinema than none at all. The answer is easy, to that one, isn’t it?

What we want is a Festival that does something that isn’t what Filmhouse does year-round. Because Filmhouse now does an amazing amount of mini-festivals, throughout the year: the African Festival, the Middle East Festival, French, Italian, all of those, fantastic! I’m amazed how many films they have in those slots. Obviously digital makes it easier to do that now. So Edinburgh can’t, at festival time, do that, but it has to do something that’s somehow beyond the reach of Filmhouse, either financially or in terms of the people it could bring. Because it would really wreck the Filmhouse budget to bring several filmmakers from long distances for a particular event. So they could really build on that sense of a Festival you wouldn’t see during the year, something different.

DC: It has to be. There was the man on the bus who said he struggled to see what would be different about seeing a film at the Film Festival as opposed to seeing one normally. Well, we have to answer that question. They talk about the “Edinburgh brand”, but it has to include the answer to that. Why come to a festival?

JH: Uh huh. And I think it’s events, as well. Events are necessary, and we should put a ban on the words “red carpet”. We should just not talk about it. We should talk about great films, great events, that are memorable for people. And a programme that has real nuggets in it that people will always look back on. Looking back through some of Edinburgh’s programmes, I’m just stunned, looking at the quality of some of the films we had. 

And it’s about memories too.