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.

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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