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

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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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Dylan Kidd In the circumstance Roger Dodger was made, it felt really important to have a New York premiere. We shot the movie right after 9/11, that previous fall. We ended up being one of the first productions that was back in New York City. People were ready to get back to work -- the actors were all really excited. Eight months after 9/11, there was still the sense of being in a traumatized place. We saw the festival coming from a few months away, but there was a question of whether our film would be ready. We were mixing right up until it started. I think we applied to Cannes, but all of us were glad it ended up getting its premiere at Tribeca.

De Niro We had contact with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's office and Gov. George Pataki. Everybody was supportive.

Rosenthal By the time we actually did this, we switched from Giuliani to Mayor Bloomberg, so with Bloomberg's office, it was Patti Harris who was deputy mayor and Katherine Oliver [who became commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting]. In the first year, it was just to get permits. Everybody was really helpful.

OPENING DAY

Bloomberg I will never forget standing on the steps of City Hall alongside Bob, Jane and Craig as well as Nelson Mandela and former President Clinton to kick off the first festival.

Rosenthal To find ourselves on the steps of City Hall with the mayor and the governor and Nelson Mandela, President Clinton and Francis Coppola and Barry Levinson and Hugh Grant and Whoopi Goldberg -- it was just one of these moments where all these different worlds collide. The major moment was really when Nelson Mandela got up and said it's OK to stop mourning and go into recovery mode. That was a very emotional time. That will always stand out in my mind.


Tribeca Film Festival co-founders Craig Hatkoff (left), Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro at the opening news conference for the 2010 edition.

Scorsese I was trying to wrangle the ending of Gangs of New York. I was able to get two more days of shooting here in New York from Harvey Weinstein. While we were shooting that second day into night, rushing to get all these shots, that's when the festival was opening. But at the same time, Rebecca Miller, Daniel Day-Lewis' wife, was about to give birth. All this was going on in those two or three hours. I was not able to be at the opening ceremony, but I made it to the dinner. Daniel made it to the hospital.

Bowles One of the biggest, shocking things was going there the opening day at the Regal theater. A great success for us would have been that all the films got to the projection booths and that it just functionally ran -- that was my hope against hope. And then to go that first day and just see these huge crowds of people excitedly going up and down the escalators and going into the theaters, everybody who was working there was just looking at each other going, "Oh my God!" It was the one scenario you really hadn't anticipated.

Rosenthal It was Ben Stiller, Danny DeVito and Drew Barrymore who agreed to do ad spots for us. It was Liam Neeson, who walked around with me and Gov. Pataki and gave out free tickets to Attack of the Clones. It was George Lucas, who when Bob called him and said, "Can we screen Star Wars for free to the community?" he said yes. It was Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who agreed to do a party for the festival. Everybody really came and supported it.

THE FIRST FESTIVAL

Nevins It was really touching because it was an attempt to revivify the city through a festival of independent films. It was a very emotional time for people in New York City, so it was a very emotional festival. I remember being very involved and seeing everything I could possibly see. I was a judge in the first year on the documentary jury.

Kidd We had a really good screening. It was at the Regal -- it was a packed house. I remember I was waiting in line for coffee, and there was some woman who lived in the neighborhood saying, "It's great to have people coming to our neighborhood to do something other than stare at a hole in the ground."

Bowles We had a strong contingent that was invited from both the fire and police departments. They were very much included in a lot of the festivities.

De Niro There was a big police presence. There was security, nothing overt.

Rosenthal We had to make sure and meet with a lot of security people all the time. We live in New York -- we always have to take precautions. The studios made us crazy with the magnetometers for potential cameras. They made us crazier than the police did.

Nevins We were having some of our preliminary judging in De Niro's office, and the window overlooked the Trade Center site. We were debating the merit of a particular film, and I remember Michael Moore said in a sort of priestly manner, "We should really remember what this festival is trying to do." Michael made us go to the window, and at the time I thought this was very moving and corny simultaneously. We could see this big hole in the ground and remember why there was this Tribeca Film Festival and what the spirit was of our judging. It wasn't supposed to be objectively excellent in some way, it was supposed to be about the spirit of what happened to these poor souls and how to rejuvenate the sorrow. The festival was for the little man.

Kidd It was the first time in Lower Manhattan since the attacks that there was a sense of joy and going about and having fun.

Bernard Tribeca came out of nowhere and created this very festive event of movies that brought people downtown. It was almost like a movie street fair. I think it really is one of the things that kind of turned around the perception of New York being a place that was not a place to be.

De Niro I was surprised by the family festival. It was a nice day, and it was amazing. I brought my younger kids.

Burns I remember hanging out with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly the night I met David Bowie. Not too many events where those two guys are on the same guest list. The great thing about the festival is it is so eclectic. When you go to Sundance, you're getting a certain type of film and filmmakers. You come here and it's a much wider range -- you get politicians, business guys, people in publishing, novelists, actors, filmmakers, artists, cops. It's what makes New York so great.

Kidd We got the main prize, and it really set us on our way. It's such a New York movie, and the award was a big part of the reason we got bought and the movie went on to get distributed. That was the night when my career sort of started. They had commissioned a local sculptor or artist to do these really beautiful trophies that were like art pieces. Kevin Spacey announced that we won, and I went up, and I couldn't shut up. My award was fragile, so I remember thinking, "OK, I'll put it back here and get it later." And then an hour later we were at some bar, and I was like, "Wait a minute, I left the award." I never found it. To this day, I don't know where that is.

TEN YEARS ON

Rosenthal Our program is more finely tuned than it was its first few years, and as we go into Festival 10, Year 9, people have started to plan for Tribeca.

Nevins Downtown has become revitalized. Some of the most expensive property in New York is down there. I think that miracle has occurred. The miracle of the healing, I'm not sure.

Burns I live two buildings away from where the street fair takes place, and it is such a massive event now. Everyone who lives in New York, and even outside of New York, is aware of this festival, and I think they're excited when the circus comes to town.

Scorsese The Tribeca festival is now part of the city. And it's also part of the international festival scene. There are many great directors -- from China, from Southeast Asia -- who are all choosing the Tribeca festival to show their films. What's really exciting about the festival is the diversity and the amount of people it draws, the younger people and people all over the world.

De Niro The city's always been supportive. The festival's been changing a bit, shifting. What I'm happiest about is that it's lasted all these years, and obviously we were fulfilling some need in New York. It's the 10th anniversary, and I hope it stays a New York City tradition for many years to come. An American tradition.           

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