Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese Reflect on the Birth of the Tribeca Film Festival

10:30 AM PST 04/22/2011 by Jay A. Fernandez
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An oral history of how the 9/11 attacks spurred the creation of the event, now in its tenth year, from the people who made it happen.

Robert De Niro was in midtown New York and heading downtown when the second plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Jane Rosenthal, his producing partner, was even closer, a block and a half from the first tower, on West Street. She would have been at the foot of the tower, except her driver had, miraculously, slowed at a yellow light. Filmmaker Edward Burns, on his way to do an interview for Sidewalks of New York, had just stepped out of the subway at Chambers Street. Director Martin Scorsese was at his East Side 62nd Street home preparing to go to a Brigitte Lacombe photography exhibition. From her office at 42nd and Sixth Avenue, HBO Documentaries president Sheila Nevins looked out her window and saw the smoke and dust rising.

As one response to that searing moment, the Tribeca Film Festival was launched in 2002 to help downtown New York overcome the devastating impact of the terrorist attacks, which enveloped the neighborhoods surrounding the World Trade Center in fear and financial ruin. Since then, it has generated $600 million in economic activity and has become a permanent community-building event in the heart of the city. Run by Tribeca Enterprises, the festival is now a for-profit entity that just about breaks even, according to co-founder Rosenthal. Built from passion, a belief in the bridge-building nature of film and an outpouring of good will, the first festival, which ran May 8 to 12, was willed into being by Rosenthal, her philanthropist husband, Craig Hatkoff, De Niro and more than a thousand volunteers in just five months. THR spoke to several of those who helped organize, execute or participate in that first hectic love letter to downtown Manhattan.

FIGHTING BACK DESPAIR

Sheila Nevins It was a very sad time in New York. Nobody wanted to look out the window.

Tom Bernard It was very grim in those days, and nobody was going downtown. It was almost like a nuclear plant had melted down, and nobody wanted to go near there.

Jane Rosenthal Prior to announcing the festival, we had done a series of what we called Dinner Downtowns, which were basically groups of people getting together and inviting other friends and going into restaurants. Craig and I had started it with Bob, and Denis Leary came. It was basically inviting 10 friends and having 10 friends invite 10 friends. I was determined to bring more people back into the neighborhoods because it just didn't feel like New York without people on the street.

Robert De Niro We would go to restaurants in Chinatown, Little Italy, Lower Manhattan, below or sometimes above Canal Street, trying to get attention to the people who live there. We'd all go to dinner down there, get a few busloads of people.

Rosenthal The last one we did, which was right before Thanksgiving, we had reached out to the firefighters, and it was the first time that a number of families had gone out. They had not felt it was right to go out prior. That was pretty intense.

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De Niro It sort of was born out of that.

Martin Scorsese For a number of friends of mine and collaborators, the relationship with Bob is very special, so he's like a family member. He had a special relationship to that area of New York. He moved there in the early '80s. I moved there in '81. And so did Harvey Keitel. We lived in the same building. And so they were always associated with that part of Manhattan. They became the stalwarts. When the disaster occurred, what came out of that was a resolve on Bob's part to create something special to revitalize the area.

Rosenthal We had talked about doing a festival before, but there was no need. There are so many festivals. It then became very specifically about our community needing a new memory. They needed something to look forward to. That first year, emotionally it was: We all fell in love with New York through the movies; now New York needs the movies.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg The Tribeca Film Festival was born in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, by people who love our city and wanted to contribute to Lower Manhattan's comeback.

ASSEMBLING THE TROOPS

Scorsese I remember being at Harvey Keitel's wedding to Daphna Kastner. And I remember Bob taking me aside and saying that they were going to have a press conference in the morning [on Dec. 6, 2001], and he encouraged me to be there to be one of the founders of the festival with Jane and Craig. He asked me hesitantly because he knew that I didn't want to get up that early. He's a morning person; I'm a night person.

Rosenthal The core beginning was me and Craig and Bob and Trina Wyatt, who was the director of the festival that first year. I suddenly had a lot of friends who were in news who had some free time. It was former CNN vp programming Jennifer Maguire and on-air reporter Perri Peltz. They helped organize, and it just all started to come together. When we announced it, we did not have a sponsor. I really didn't know what we were doing.

Eamonn Bowles We had just started Magnolia, and I got a call from Tribeca wanting to talk about potentially programming and acquiring films for the festival. It was originally going to be getting a number of films to fill out the program. They were looking at having sort of a modest film festival then.

David Kwok, Tribeca director of programming There were really only two sections to the festival that year -- competition for both docs and narratives -- and there were shorts, which I did as well. Eamonn took care of everything outside of that, and then Jane and company took care of the Star Wars kind of movies, all the big galas.

Bowles Jane had some connections. But I was mostly doing world cinema and those sorts of programs, the quality films that you'd find at a good film festival.

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Edward Burns I've lived in Tribeca since 2000. Jane gave me a buzz and asked if I would get involved. Living down here, you needed to show your ID to get south of Canal Street after 9/11, so you can imagine the pedestrian traffic was minimal, and the restaurants and shops and the bars were all really hurting.

Kwok I would sit in these meetings, and Gangs of New York was brought up and Star Wars. It was a little bit of a difference from what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a smaller thing.

Bowles The scale grew exponentially in a very short time. Frankly, I was slightly terrified. I don't think there's ever been a major festival that has started up that way in such a quick amount of time and arrived kind of fully formed.

De Niro The intricacies, the nuts and bolts, none of us knew really. I'm amazed that it was done. Everybody was doing what they would or could. In my case, that was making phone calls to people with movies and trying to get them to be the opening-night film, stuff like that.

Rosenthal We were putting on a show. How hard could it be? It was like deciding you were going to make a movie, and at the same time that you had your release date, you also had to start writing your script, financing, casting it, building sets, set decorating -- you had to do everything at once. Meanwhile, I had two films in postproduction: Showtime with Eddie Murphy and Bob, and About a Boy.

Bernard Jane had her movie crew running the festival.

Bowles About a month in, they got a lot of support from American Express. There was a tremendous amount of good will, and the scope of the project just got larger and larger week by week.

Rosenthal That first year, American Express came in to sponsor us because their employees were moving back into their building near Ground Zero that first week when we were planning on doing the festival. So they viewed it as a great opportunity to do something positive for their employees.

Bernard We thought it was a great idea. It was a different kind of event -- it was a populist event.

Burns Jane talked to me about the idea behind the festival in that she wanted this to be a much more inclusive type of film festival. The New York Film Festival you could say is sort of elitist, and this is sort of, "Hey, we're going to show family films, we're going to show blockbusters, and we'll also be showing the indies and the foreign films," but the idea was, "Let's get folks down here spending their money." They had the great drive-in series on the Pier along the Hudson River, they had the street fair -- different kinds of ways to get people down here.

Scorsese I saw it as a good opportunity to provide a venue for young people -- writers, actors, directors, painters -- groups of people that would gravitate to the Tribeca area and view films or be part of events or panel discussions and generate creative dialogue. It would be primarily international because the moving image is everywhere in different ways now.

Bowles New York didn't have this kind of film festival before. New York is an incredibly great film bazaar on a daily basis, but having an organized festival that encompassed anything from the high-art films to the big Hollywood films and the guilty pleasures along the way was a great thing. Obviously, the public responded.

Rosenthal That first year, it didn't feel like a struggle, because no wasn't an option. We didn't sleep. Any time people got into arguments, it didn't feel right. You'd just say, "Look left," and you'd look downtown, and you'd say, "OK, got to get back to work."

EVEN BIGGER NAMES JOIN

Rosenthal Bob and I had done a fundraiser for Nelson Mandela the first time he came to New York after being imprisoned on Robben Island. And he had given a speech then, which was about how the one thing he and his jailers had in common was they both would look forward to movie night. On movie night, everybody was one, because they would all laugh at the same things or cry at the same things. It was the great equalizer.

De Niro We knew each other. We had a dinner at the Tribeca Grill for him. I called him.

Rosenthal Here we were, this broken city at the time, and we needed someone who could de-politicize anything and rise above it, and Mandela certainly symbolized all those things.

De Niro I was trying to get Gangs of New York to open, but it was too difficult because it was already submitted to Cannes. But they gave us excerpts.

Rosenthal Bono was working with Marty Scorsese, and he did the end-title song for Gangs of New York. He couldn't come, but he ended up recording himself singing the song. No one had heard the song yet. We ended up playing that the first year at our open-air concert.

Scorsese We all made speeches announcing the formation of this festival. At which point, I pointed out that it's a perfect time to get dialogue going, to get films from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, here in New York, here in America, so people could start learning about each other. I said, "This is the time to talk."

Rosenthal We were announcing what we were doing for the festival, and Marty got up and said, "And we'll have restored and rediscovered films!" And I remember him looking at me, and I'm like, "OK, sounds good." "And we'll have panel discussions!" And I was like, "Mmm, great, we'll do that too." We tried it all.

CONTINUED AFTER THE BREAK

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