by James Killough
Tomorrow is the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, the Olympic Games of film, as I like to call it, except the participants in the real Olympics don’t drink and drug nearly as much as they do at Cannes — well, not with fun drugs, at least. I have it on good authority that Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is absolutely brilliant and the one to beat. Based on a Lionel Shriver book that was so harrowing I couldn’t finish it, Kevin features a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and is about a teen who massacres a bunch of students and teachers at his high school, as seen through the eyes of his mother.
The mother is played by Tilda Swinton, whom I met for the first time a few years ago at the sixtieth anniversary of the festival. I can’t imagine better casting for that role. The person who gave me the sneak review about Kevin said he felt like taking a shower afterwards, always a good sign that a grisly film has hit its mark. I loved both of Ramsay’s earlier films, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. A former photographer, Ramsay has a way with composition and silence that is worthy of a Roger Ebert adjective like “electrifying.”
Like most indie film producers, I go to Cannes every now and then with projects that we have in the works to talk to sales agents and financing people. What most people don’t realize is that the meat of the festival is the business that is done there, at the Cannes Market; the film screening part is just the gravy. I’ve spent a whole ten days there without going to a single film in the main festival. It’s just such a madhouse that I would rather wait until the films come out in theaters. Not to mention that it’s unpleasant to have to sit through films when you’re wasted.
Cannes is hell for the modern misanthrope. Despite how I might come off on these pages, I am not now, nor have I ever been a large party animal, and you’d better be a large party tiger if you want to survive all two weeks of the festival. There is a certain very unpleasant burn-out effect that takes place by the second Thursday of the festival, when you have handled seven or eight hangovers in a row. You find yourself on the terrace of a penthouse suite that Miramax is using as a sales office, looking out over the glistening Mediterranean, the flecks of yachts on its surface, the quiet Palais des Festivals, which will erupt in screaming crowds in a few hours with the first evening premiere of a film in competition, and you think, If I just put one leg over the edge here and do a wee bunny hop… There’s nothing quite like the Cannes Second Thursday to give you the existential willies.
So. The night I first met Tilda Swinton.
Like I’ve said, it’s rare for me to go anywhere near the insane film premiere element of the festival, but in 2007 my creative partner Rain Li had a film in competition, Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which she had shot with her mentor, the legendary (in our world) Christopher Doyle. Chris is legendary not just because he is a genius among directors of photography, but because he’s such a rock-and-roll hard-drinker that he is commonly referred to as “the Keith Richards of cinematographers.” And that’s about as far as I can piss in the soup with the Doyle description; this particular soup pot simmers on a stove too close to home for comfort.
At the 2007 Cannes festival, I was tagging along on the fringes of the van Sant crowd, doing a few meetings a couple of times a day, but nothing like the frenetic, back-to-back meetings most other producers roll throughout the market. Mine are quite targeted; if I have a couple of meetings the whole festival that get results, it’s been worth it. And I find that at the end of the day, both the serial meeters and the more selective ones like me achieve the same thing, which isn’t much any more given the economy and the state of our business.
The Swiss jewelry company Chopard had offered to do Rain’s hair and makeup for the premiere of Paranoid Park in exchange for her wearing their bling on the red carpet. The process of selecting their jewelry was almost as strenuous as finding the right gown for her to wear in London the week before; I still had blisters on my feet from stomping around to every store in town with her trying to find something suitable. The problem was that Chopard’s jewelry is for the Arab matron bobbing on a yacht drinking Crystal Champagne and playing bridge with Omar Sharif, not for a bitchin’ twenty-four-year-old Chinese chick who habitually wore high-heeled thigh-high leather boots and micro hot pants. In the end, Rain selected a set of pink diamond earrings with a matching necklace, with a couple of backups if she changed her mind.
Whether you are an Arab matron or a bitchin’ Chinese chick, when you are borrowing close to a quarter of a million dollars in jewelry, it is customary to have a bodyguard bring you the jewels and escort you to the event, hovering discreetly in the background. Rain being Rain, meaning scatterbrained in the most delightfully annoying way, she wasn’t sure where exactly the pre-premiere party that MK2, the company that produced and distributed Paranoid Park, was holding for the film, but she was sure it was somewhere on the Croisette near the Palais, across from which were the Chopard headquarters in the Hotel Majestic.
Now, back in London the week before, when I was giving five minutes of thought to what I was going to wear, I was like, bugger it, I’ll just rent a tux in Cannes. But Chris Doyle said, “You can’t wear black tie! So uncool.” And he was right, of course. Rain bought me a beautiful Prada dress shirt, which I decided to wear with a heavy wool black Yohji Yamamoto suit I had. It being May, I thought I might still be able to get away with wearing it without melting. But that was May in London. May on the French Riviera can be quite another matter, and in 2007 it was.
While I was getting dressed for the pre-premiere party in my hotel room, I felt a trickle of sweat down my back. Fuck. When Yohji goes heavy wool, it’s, like, saint-doing-penance heavy wool. If I moved very slowly throughout the evening, took baby steps down the widest, longest red carpet in the world, nobody would notice that I was melting faster than a popsicle in a Cheyenne sweat lodge.
All major distribution and sales companies grab the penthouse suites of apartment buildings that line the Croisette, and French art-house distributor MK2 was no exception. The elevators in these buildings unfortunately fit about four people and move very slowly. When everyone is in heels and eveningwear, it can make mobilizing an entire party from there to the Palais quite the military maneuver.
Up on the terrace of the MK2 party, I was having the opposite of an existential crisis. First I met Gus van Sant, then sort of conversation-jumped my way across to my intended target: the glorious Tilda Swinton, every artsy ghey’s favorite fantasy fag hag. She had been Derek Jarman’s hag, but he had been dead for years. Long live the queen, know what I mean? It was my turn to be her pet homo.
I launched into the perfect conversation-starter once we had been introduced: Tilda had spent a bit of time in my family’s country house upstate New York when she there was on location for a film a few years earlier. It’s an unusual part of the world, so we were just delving into the history of the Hudson Valley when Rain pulled my arm.
“Darling, my diamonds.”
“What about them?”
“I need them.”
“Where are they?”
“The bodyguard has them. I don’t speak French and he’s calling on my cell phone, and I can’t explain how to get here. He’s waiting for you at the Majestic.”
“Me? Why me?” Well, it was pretty obvious why me: a) she’s wearing an evening gown and high-heeled sling-backs; b) I’m her bitch; and c) …
“You’ve got to hurry. We have to go down to the cars in a few minutes.”
You could already hear the roar from the crowds at the Palais five blocks away as guests were arriving for the premiere. Breaking my magical moment with my fag-hag-in-waiting, I turned on my Costume National heels and hightailed it off the terrace. I couldn’t wait for the elevator, so I tumbled down nine flights of stairs and ran like Forrest Gump after a box of chocolates up the Croisette in my heavy wool suit, pushing people out of my way, which even when you’re six-foot-three and bouncer-ish isn’t easy through the throngs surrounding the Olympic stadium of film.
I found the bodyguard just outside the Majestic Hotel. When I saw him, my gaydar went BOING! What a hunk. What a homo. But, of course: this was the perfect job for the French gym bunny: you got to do steroids for a reason, wear black tie like Tom Ford and sashay up the widest of red carpets in the world every night trailing your favorite divas. Regrettably, there was no time for me to take him around the back of the Majestic and show him who his new daddy was. “Allez! Cours!” I said, grabbing his arm. “Run!”
As the French steroid queen and I were booking down the Croisette like two thieves in a Hitchcock thriller, past bumper-to-bumper black cars that were spilling celebs and guests onto the widest of red carpets in the world, tossing gawkers out of our way, a quarter of a million dollars of pink Chopard diamonds tucked under his arm, I panted in French, “This is definitely a Cannes moment. Really bizarre.”
“Oui, monsieur,” he laughed. “Vraiment bizarre.”
We got to the MK2 building and skidded across the lobby, slipping and sliding on the marble floors. As I came around the corner, I almost collided with Tilda. “Oh!” she said, in that little way she says Oh, with a completely impassive face, like in Orlando when she wakes up one morning and finds she’s transformed from a man into a woman, and it’s totally normal, and she’ll have soft-boiled eggs for breakfast, thanks so much.
“We… just …” I was completely out of breath. “Rain’s… diamonds… anyway…”
“I see,” she said. Tilda, of course, was wearing no jewelry. But with green eyes and hair like that, why fuck it up with baubles?
The bodyguard outfitted Rain in the alley behind the building, we all piled into waiting black cars, and I walked the widest, loooongest red carpet in the world in my beautiful new Prada shirt and saint-making Yohji suit soaked to the neck in sweat. Later that night at the after party, I met one of the stars of a few van Sant films, including Paranoid Park, Scott Green, and his girlfriend, the stripper Viva La Vegas. They were such great fun that I invited them for a wacky lunch the next day in St. Tropez with one of my investors, Prince von Schlosstein*.
But that’s another story.
(* not his real name or title, so put the Google away.)