Jerry Rudes

Avignon Film Festival

This interview took place in Avignon, France, June 24 2002.

In June 1989 I had to change trains in Avignon to head on to Spain. As a train-spotting film historian, I could have visited a nearby station called La Ciotat to see contemporary trains arrive at a station (and did this later). But while killing a couple of hours between trains, I walked around the little town of Avignon, enjoying its pleasant civic mix of the bourgeois and the hippy. I had a vague notion of the city from knowing about the Avignon Arts Festival and from undergraduate lectures in medieval history that described Avignon as the “city of the divided papacy.” While strolling around I saw some signs announcing “Rencontres Cinématographiques Franco-Américaines,” something that turned out to be the sixth “Avignon French-American Film Workshop.” The 1989 line-up included Samuel Fuller who was presenting his most recent film, Street of No Return (1989), and who was also on screen in another film playing at the festival, Alexandre Rockwell’s Sons (1989).

I found the administration office, made arrangements to attend the festival, and in July was back in Avignon as an excited festival participant. Sam Fuller was the star turn and when it came time for him to hold court, adoring cineastes gathered in the sunny courtyard of a hotel in the hills ten minutes drive from the city centre. Chewing on a trademark cigar, Fuller explained that film stories should grab the viewer from the opening seconds. He gave a quick example, “Guy comes into a room, he’s covered in blood. It’s not his blood,” which set me wondering how the viewer would, at that point, know it “wasn’t his blood.” Having read a couple of books on Fuller, and seen many of his films and having shared a longish cab ride with him and his wife Christa only the day before — where he mentioned a plan he once had to come to Australia to film a script written by Casey Robinson — I summoned the courage to ask him about the differences between making films in America and in Europe. I thought it was a safe, solid little question, unlikely to be deflected by his trademark cigar-chewing sloganeering, especially after the brief conversational intimacies of the cab ride. The reply boomed back, “The camera knows no flag.”

That 1989 festival was a lovely experience. There was a quirky American independent film called Cheap Shots (Jerry Stoeffhaas and Jeff Ureles, 1989), inspired by Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon (1981). Actor Seymour Cassell and film scholar Ray Carney were present for a John Cassavetes retrospective and other American guests included a pre-Chicago Hope Christine Lahti, for her role in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) — she was very unhappy when the film turned up in a dubbed version — and her husband Thomas Schlamme (who would later direct many episodes of Friends, Ally McBeal and West Wing) brought Miss Firecracker (1988), starring Holly Hunter and Mary Steenburgen. Producer Sandra Schulberg was there; she had produced the highly regarded Northern Lights in 1978 and would go on to executive produce Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) and Walter Hill’s Undisputed (2002), as well as many other activities and projects. Texan indie filmmaker Eagle Pennell, best known for The Whole Shootin’ Match (1978) and Last Night at the Alamo (1983) was there with his adaptation of a play, Ice House (1989) — and this was only part of the American half of the film equation.

The festival was small scale, unpretentious and all the guests and festival attendees were able to mingle, drink, eat, and talk in a relaxed way. Serious cinephilia was leavened — and enhanced — by amiable locales and easy access to people and places.

Maria de Medeiros in Capitães de Abril

Over the years, Rudes has continued to run the festival along those same lines: as he says, it is a human scale festival that encourages exchanges, interchanges and friendships that endure beyond the week of the festival. Since 1989 he has introduced other elements to ensure that Avignon remains a dynamic event. In 1987, Louis Malle attended a retrospective of his work; at that time he was working on Au revoir les enfants. Roger Corman, Bob Rafelson, Gaspar Noé, Ben Gazzara, Jean-Claude Carrière, Claude Miller and many others have visited; film critics from Positif and Cahiers attend. In 1992, Tarantino came with Reservoir Dogs and struck up an immediate, carousing friendship with Alexandre Rockwell (who was back with In the Soup) and Portuguese actress-director Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne in Pulp Fiction who is told “Zed’s dead” by Bruce Willis, and who plays Anais Nin in Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June [1990], and directed Capitães de Abril [April Captains, 2000] in which Jerry Rudes has a small role).

The Avignon Film Festival now includes films from other European countries, and in 2002 Fabio Rosi’s excellent film, L’Ultima Lezione (The Final Lesson), prompted me to recall those 1970s Italian political films by Francesco Rosi (no relation) and others. The festival also includes mini-retrospectives of cinematographers’ work — in 2002 cinematographer Fred Murphy presented and took questions on three of his films, Murder in the First (1995), October Sky (1999) and The Mothman Prophecies (2001).

Silent films are also shown, accompanied by live musical performances. And an open-air evening screening in a piazza (or ‘terrace’ as they say) in central Avignon is a wonderful way to experience some of the great works of early cinema.

June 2003 is the 20th anniversary of this festival in Avignon, started by a Texan as a response to a challenge from Agnès Varda. Let’s hope it runs for another 20 years.

– NK

* * *

Noel King: You have been running this Avignon ‘film workshop’ for 19 years now, a Texan who has settled here in the south of France. Can you give me a sense of how your cinephilia was formed and how you wound up here?

Jerry Rudes: I loved films from a very early age. I went to Saturday matinees when I was a kid growing up in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1950s. In those days your mother would drop you off at the cinema with a boxed lunch and leave you there from 10am until 4pm – six hours! And they showed A movies, B movies, serials, Flash Gordon and that kind of stuff, and kids would throw popcorn at the screen. There was this real communal kind of feeling about going to the movies, and I loved all that. And then later, in College, I studied film.

NK: Where?

JR: I have a Bachelor’s degree in film from the University of Texas, Austin, and I did a Master’s in Film and Television at Northwestern University in Illinois, just outside Chicago. So I was very interested in film and found out more about it by studying it. But in the 1960s when I started to go to art cinemas and discovered foreign filmmakers like Fellini and Truffaut, I really got a different vision not only of filmmaking but also of life. And when I saw La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960), I couldn’t believe that people lived like that! They went out to parties, had intellectual conversations, talked all night and got drunk… So I said, ‘this is great, this is for me; I want to do stuff like this!’

Murs

After that early childhood love of films, on through the College awakening, I moved to Europe in the early 1970s and started in Spain, then Denmark, then Italy, working in International Schools, using teaching as my ticket to learning about Europe. After my first visit to Europe I knew I loved being here; I fell in love with the whole earthy European lifestyle and decided I wanted to stay. That said, I had no ambition to become a film director. I loved writing about movies and I thought I might write some screenplays. I had written a couple of novels and my aspirations were always to be a writer rather than a director. I began to see films in Paris movie houses, many of them quite literally flea-bitten. And I couldn’t believe the range of international films they were showing. Then through a complicated set of circumstances I was asked to be a film critic for a film magazine in London called Avant-Garde. And around the same time I decided to go back to the States, my first trip back, to California, to try to sell a book. And when I was out there, I thought, why not try to be a representative for this English magazine? And that’s when I started going to all these movies, and I got press credentials. And it was really cool to be in California, and it was at this time that I met Agnès Varda. She was living in California then, shooting a film, doing these kind of documentary films. She was very interested in Jim Morrison. The two films she made in California were both love stories: one was about the graffiti on the walls of Venice, California, Murs, (Mural, murals, 1980). And we met, and became friends. Then I came back to Paris and became more involved in going to film festivals. I went to the Cannes festival in 1982, I think, and I was very disappointed. I thought it treated its attendees rudely, people pushed you around, you didn’t get to talk to directors. And I was having lunch with Agnès, complaining about how cold, unfriendly, undemocratic Cannes was, and she said, ‘stop complaining and do something of your own.’

NK: That’s when she promised that if you created a different kind of film festival she would come to it to support your alternative cultural enterprise…

JR: Yes, and she did. I got money and support from the French ministry of Culture, run at that time by Jack Lang who was doing a lot of innovative things. And my festival was one of the things he approved, and we got a little grant, not much, but enough to get started.

NK: How much?

JR: I00, 000 francs, which was, at that time, about US$14-15,000. And that got us started. And I convinced some other local sponsors to help, and convinced the American University in Avignon, where I was working, to let me use their locale and resources. It was conceived of as a “film workshop”, an anti-film festival, something that would be more like a seminar programme. So we got it up that first year, against all expectations. It was called “The French-American Film Workshop” and people said to me, ‘you can’t call something here in France an English name.’ Now, 20 years later, “le workshop” is everywhere — every doctor and insurance agent goes to a ‘workshop.’ So we got it started. In France, especially here in the South, you do something and people say, ‘what’s that?’ Then it’s the second year, ‘he’s back again, doing that again’. Third year, ‘he’s still around, maybe we should pay attention.’ And after that third year, people started paying attention.

NK: The festival has changed in lots of little ways over the years, certainly since I was last here in 1989, the year of the John Cassavetes retrospective. You’ve broadened it to include other European films, and silent films accompanied by live musical performances, mini-retrospectives of cinematographers’ work; and for the last seven years or so you have run a New York version of the festival. How much has the festival changed over the years?

JR: What I would hope is that the spirit of the festival, and its original atmosphere, are still the same. We keep it small and intimate and we have wonderful filmmakers who are the creative force behind these films.

However, France has changed, the world has changed and sponsors are now more difficult to find, films are more difficult to get because money is tighter, there’s a bottom line and festivals are judged by what they can bring to the future financial outlook of a given film. I started this festival as a way for directors and creative people to get together and they love doing that, they love to come and see each other’s work, and talk together. The problem is that the people who really control the films are the middlemen …

NK: The distributors.

JR: Yes, they’re the ones who have the last say, they’re the salesmen. And if the festival is something that contributes to their sales process then they’ll say ok, and if it doesn’t they’ll say no. So there’s still a lot of films that I’d like to get but because we are a very small festival, and want to stay small, we can’t offer — and don’t want to offer — the things that the larger festivals offer. We don’t have the same power as Cannes and I don’t want to have that kind of power. And we still get wonderful films. We have prize-winning films here, films from Cannes, films from other major festivals. We get major directors and we get a lot of young directors who are just starting out – and we like this mix. So in that sense we’re still the same festival we were when we started out, we’re still a discovery festival. We’ve added this ‘rediscovery’ aspect where we’re showing silent films with music, doing retrospectives of people whose work we admire and honour, like Louis Malle some years ago. Now we’re starting this new section based on the work of directors of photography. But basically we’re involved in showing young directors’ films —’young’ in a career sense — from France, elsewhere in Europe, and America, and getting them together to talk about their work with interested audiences.

NK: What are the costs of running the festival these days? Have they escalated over the years?

JR: The costs have gone up and the money has become scarcer and scarcer. So the question is, how do you keep doing a festival with the same amount of money, or less money, that continues to progress and grow and become better? So my problem is to find ways of cutting corners. What does it cost now? It usually costs the same, and that’s the problem. Our budget has been about US$100,000 each year for the last 19 years. So on those figures we’ve spent almost $2 million on this festival, and that sounds like a lot. But if you take out of each year’s $100,000 the hotels we have to rent, the fees we have to pay for screening rooms, car rental, printing costs, all the basic things we have to pay for, there’s very little money left over. So everything else has to be done by what the French call “le troc,” bargaining, flea-market trading. Sponsors throw in tickets and gifts and we take them. There’s a continual process all year long of convincing sponsors of whatever size to get involved with us. And when they do get involved they are charmed and they like the atmosphere. But again we can’t compare with the major festivals with their huge budgets that allow them to provide yachts and planes. All our volunteers work for free.

NK: But as you’ve always made clear, the whole point of your festival is not to replicate that sort of situation of a star-studded, hierarchical festival.

JR: Right, where there’s a whole sect of very famous people, stars who come in for one part of one day to give a lot of interviews, and then another, far removed, level of little people. Our festival has a much more democratic approach to things. Everybody sits together on a terrace, like we are today, having breakfast together, talking, young directors and very accomplished directors, first-time producers and major producers, and everybody sits together and somehow gets along with one another. And — this is the most important point – the relationships that are created here are durable. Friendships are created through this festival and they continue to be created. And that is really the main legacy of this event: the various exchanges and relationships that are established. People meet, get to know one another, come to trust one another, and then go work together. And a lot of people tell me how they are still friends many years after having met for the first time at the Avignon film festival. And that’s really nice to hear.

click to buy 'A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking' at Amazon.comNK: Together with Christa Fuller you have contributed to the production of Sam Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (New York: Knopf 2002). What was your input there?

JR: I was very honoured to be asked to co-edit the book with Sam’s wife, Christa, and we worked on it a long time. Sam actually wrote it himself and then when he was very sick we took what he had written and went through it and I researched it some more and brought all the details into focus, and made it into a clearer book. I added footnotes and 180 pictures. It comes out this fall, with an introduction by Martin Scorsese.

NK: I’ve already told you how besotted I was with Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Normally she would be at this festival because she comes each year, but you were saying that she couldn’t make it this year because she is working on a new film.

JR: Agnès has been a close friend for 20 years. She comes down here a lot, and has a house in a village near Avignon, and often stays with me. We see each other often. We talked on the phone yesterday and she apologised for not being able to come down. She’s very busy right now because she’s been asked to do a follow-up to The Gleaners and I, a little director’s cut. And this has become a separate film in and of itself. She’s got a theatrical release date coming up in September and I’m looking forward to seeing it very much. I’m sure it will be something very Agnès, very individualistic, very different, and very independent. [The 60-minute film is The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002) and is available on the same DVD as The Gleaners and I.]

NK: Next year is your 20th festival. Have you got something special planned?

JR: We’ve already started planning next year’s festival because you do not take a 20th anniversary lightly. We’ve got all kinds of ideas in mind. We want to do something that is in the same line of what we’ve been doing but which will also include some substantial commemorative things. Because you don’t always last 20 years with this kind of cultural event that is so difficult to get up every year. So we’re proud of that longevity, and we want to do something a little more flashy for the 20th anniversary — but without stepping out of the line of what we usually do.

We’re kicking off the 2003 festival at the Avignon Opera House with a screening/performance of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise with a new score. And we are having evening screenings of highlight films from the past 19 festivals. We’ll have these outside on the square, under the stars, in front of the Pope’s Palace.

About The Author

Noel King teaches film at Macquarie University.