PARIS — With a shorter festival and tighter schedule, Cannes Film Festival head Thierry Fremaux packed star power into the 18 films selected for this year’s official lineup. Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Search are just a few of the titles tipped for the Croisette.
There were a few surprise new names sprinkled among films that had been expected to appear, as well as a few surprising omissions, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s Birdman.
Fremaux talked to The Hollywood Reporter about selecting the troubled Grace of Monaco for opening night, how he’s not feeling the heat from Toronto and Telluride and why Cannes is still an Oscar springboard:
The Hollywood Reporter: This year there are only 18 films instead of 20 in competition. Was it a time or a quality issue?
Thierry Fremaux: It’s not decided that it is just 18. We may add one more, but we have one day less this year. And one day less means two less films. We have to be careful that we don’t have a dense program, because we know that sometimes the reaction to certain films which is not as good as we expected is partially because everyone is tired. We may add a film, but I’m not sure if it will be ready.
THR: You deflected criticism that some directors are regulars, but you also have some very young, new filmmakers. How do you strike that balance?
Fremaux: Cannes is a balance between famous directors, expected directors — I don’t like the word “usual suspects” because they made good films — and new directors, but I can’t introduce 18 new names every year. It’s a cross between people we admire, like Jean-Luc Godard because we are curious about what Godard has done, and it’s also a mission to put new names on the map. For us a new director is a risky proposal. If we take the new Mike Leigh film, it’s more Mike Leigh than us. When I introduce [Damian] Szifron or [Xavier] Dolon or [Alice] Rohrwacher, it’s really me that is behind them. My job is also to protect every film, to put it in the right category at the right time and in the right theater. For example, Grace of Monaco is the perfect opening-night film. It’s exactly what people expect in Cannes.
THR: You will be showing the director’s version of Grace of Monaco. How did you react to the previous controversy surrounding it?
Fremaux: I didn’t react. I’m not connected with that. It’s the usual process when you are finishing a film for the filmmaker to have a lot of discussion with the producers or the distributors. Harvey [Weinstein] is the American distributor and he wanted to give his opinion and he did. The film has changed a bit, but the final version has been made by the director. And those discussions happened long before I saw the movie.
THR: When you announced Grace of Monaco as the opening film, the speculation was that Weinstein was blindsided. Has that affected your relationship with him at all?
No, no, no. Harvey is a friend of mine and we are very close. He’s very faithful to Cannes and I’m always happy to have him. Being friends doesn’t mean that you have no disagreements. But it’s not a disagreement with me. He was surprised when I picked the movie because he was in disagreement with [director] Olivier Dahan, but the fact that we picked up the movie and that the movie has changed since then — we’ll see. Maybe Harvey will be right or wrong, or maybe I will be right or wrong in saying that I think the film is good. And the film is very good for opening night.
THR: Weinstein is faithful to the festival and will be there to support it?
Fremaux: Yes. He will be there, for sure.
THR: You also said that Jean-Luc Godard will be there.
Fremaux: He’s now an old man, so I don’t want to force him to come, but he has told me that he will be there. But either way, I am happy to have his film.
THR: What can we expect of the film? Does his style still make sense to a modern audience?
Fremaux: It’s a piece of poetry. It’s a very Godard style in terms of using images, clips, music, sound, contemporary shots and archive images and with his comments about this or that, and it’s in 3D. Jean-Luc Godard in 3D! We had James Cameron in 3D and now Jean-Luc Godard. When you go and see an exhibition of Mark Rothko, you know you are not going to see the same kind of painting as Auguste Renoir. When you go and watch Jean-Luc Godard, you know, of course, you are going to see a Jean-Luc Godard film.
THR: There are fewer American films than in years past. Was it a conscious decision to ‘spread the wealth’?
Fremaux: It was conscious to have Jane Campion as a female director after Steven Spielberg to make a change. Cinema is a world — it’s not only France or the U.S., and it’s totally a coincidence that we don’t have a lot of American films in competition or official selection this year. Maybe we’ll have a lot next year. But it’s good to have Turkish, Russian, Malian or an Italian film to be sure that the main language in Cannes won’t be French or English. It is good to have new faces and landscape, a new way to tell stories. It’s also what the Cannes journey is.
THR: Was selecting Campion a conscious decision to deflect criticism that there were no women in competition last year?
Fremaux: No, not at all. We’ve had Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Moreau and a lot of women present on the jury. It was a decision because Jane Campion is one of the greatest filmmakers in cinema.
THR: Are you concerned at all that films are shifting to Telluride or Toronto to be more visible before awards season?
Fremaux: I understand what you are saying, but you are talking about American films, and I disagree. Ask me why we aren’t presenting [Alejandro Gonzalez] Inarritu’s film. Inarritu was very sad. It’s not the first time. Let me tell you a story. Alexander Payne showed me The Descendants in January  and I thought it was great. I picked it up for Cannes and offered it for competition. But then the studio didn’t want it to go because it was too early for them and difficult to maintain an Academy Awards campaign, and so it changed. His next film, [203’s] Nebraska, was produced by another studio and the film was in Cannes in competition and won the best actor award for Bruce Dern. Then the film did an awards campaign in the fall and was an Academy nominee for Dern and Payne. It was a wonderful journey that started in Cannes. The Great Beauty was also in Cannes [in 2013] and won the best foreign film [Oscar]. Of the five best foreign film nominations, four were in Cannes. You can be presented in Cannes and stay alive until January, February, to go to the Academy. Not everyone understands that.
THR: So you are saying that Inarritu’s film is not in competition because the studio did not want it in Cannes?
Frremaux: I won’t say a word about that.
THR: With Pierre Lescure coming in as the new president next year, can we expect changes?
Fremaux: Pierre has not been elected to change anything. The president is an honorary function. We are going to work together, but I am the general manager. I have a lot of projects I want to do, and the fact that I will have a new president now will make a lot of it possible.