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After 25 years as program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and head of the selection committee of its annual New York Film Festival, Richard Pena, 58, is stepping down, having left his mark on the country’s preeminent festival, which kicks off its 50th edition Sept. 28. (He’ll continue to be involved at the Film Society, designing a new educational initiative while teaching at Columbia University.) First, though, he reflects on how the fest has changed and recalls some of the moments he’ll never forget in a chat with THR chief film critic Todd McCarthy, a member of the festival’s selection committee.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Why do you think founders Amos Vogel and Richard Roud originally designed the New York Film Festival as a smaller event, showing only 20 to 25 films, in contrast to other, bigger film festivals in San Francisco and Chicago?
Richard Pena: In one of the early letters in the New York Film Festival program, they spoke about a “festival of festivals,” one that was going to draw some of the best of all the other festivals. Roud was a man who had strong passions and taste in films, but kind of a narrow gauge. He was interested in those films that for him represented what he thought were the real edge of film art at that time.
THR: When Roud left and you took over, what changes did you make?
Pena: I was living in Chicago and programming at the Art Institute. Already by then, Toronto was really coming on strong, introducing so many really exciting and important films from Asia. My feeling as a great devotee of the New York Film Festival was that it had begun to lose out a little bit. There were very fine filmmakers back then that, for whatever reason, the festival just wasn’t looking at or wasn’t really interested in. So certainly, I hoped to be able to address that by just trying to beat the bushes a little bit more and to get some of that work in. The other thing that I announced at the time, and which also came into fruition, was that I really wanted to see how we could bring the avant-garde back into the festival.
THR: Under Roud, a typical festival had mainly French and Italian films and the occasional Eastern European or South American or Scandinavian film. But when you arrived, all these other national cinemas, from parts of the world that had not been heard from, first Asia and then Iran, started washing up on international shores, and you welcomed them.
Pena: I’m pleased to hear you say that, but in all fairness, I had it a lot easier than Richard, simply because his departure and my arrival coincided with the video digital boom. Suddenly, in 1988, I could receive a box of films from Iran on VHS. So I actually had a much broader slate to choose from than Richard ever did. I do think some of it was my own taste, but a lot of it was just the circumstances of accessibility.
THR: There are famous moments in any event. During the Roud years, there are things that people never forgot, like the world premiere of Last Tango in Paris and the night Charlie Chaplin came. During your tenure, what have been the moments that are just as unforgettable for you?
Pena: My first full year on the job, and I had really nothing to do with it, we gave Bette Davis our gala tribute. Avery Fisher Hall was packed to the gills. People were hanging off the balconies. After all the tributes and clips, this frail, 85-year-old lady makes her way across the stage, goes right to the lectern, looks at everybody, leans over to the microphone and says, “What a dump!” The place just went bananas. I also remember we showed a wonderful Tunisian film called The Silences of the Palace in 1994 by a woman named Moufida Tlatli. When it was over, she got this huge standing ovation. There were a lot of women in the audience, and they started ululating in that North African way, and that was an incredible moment.
THR: Any other reactions to films that surprised you with their intensity?
Pena: I can remember when we showed Abel Ferrara’s King of New York in 1990. It was an unusual film — about a drug lord — for the New York Film Festival audience, who weren’t used to that genre of filmmaking and were on the verge of being hostile. And then Abel came out and it became a sort of shouting match. But most of them, I’m happy to say, were happy moments. I can remember when we showed Roger & Me, Michael Moore was holed up in our green room at the time, and literally there was a line of people outside — distributors, people from studios — and they would go in one by one and make their pitch. The film had become the hottest thing. Just a month and a half before, he was completely broke and just didn’t really know what the next step was.
THR: Now that you’re moving on, how do you think the festival is positioned?
Pena: I think the emergence of Tribeca and a lot of the other festivals that have grown up in New York has put us into sharper relief. When you look at Tribeca, when you look at the New York Film Festival, you see that there’s a great difference. We do one thing and they do something else. Tribeca shows a lot of unknown work, and there’s the excitement of discovery. I like to think the New York Film Festival is really Broadway. I mean, this is where you go to see the stuff that counts. We are kind of an elitist festival, but we really try to show what we think is the best. That becomes a great challenge for us. But I still think the New York Film Festival is seen in the eyes of many people, and in the eyes of critics as well, as having a certain primacy, a certain kind of place.
THE IMPACT OF PENA: Scorsese, Weintein and more pay tribute to his legacy.
Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman, The Weinstein Co.: “Richard played a larger role than he will ever know for me, our films and independent cinema as a whole. He opened the 1994 New York Film Festival with Pulp Fiction. This spoke volumes to the industry in a bigger way than we even knew and showed me and others that indies were not only accepted but wholeheartedly embraced by the big boys. That really was a high point for us at Miramax.”
Simon Curtis, producer: “I was thrilled that My Week With Marilyn had its world premiere at last year’s NYFF, and Richard’s support of the film meant the world to me. There is such a strong sense of being part of a community at the festivals and a highlight for me was meeting Alexander Payne, a director I hugely admire.”
Lee Daniels, director: “It’s around the corner from where I live. I’d been around the world with Precious, and I was most nervous about it being there because New Yorkers are highbrow, highbrow, highbrow. The New York Film Festival puts Cannes to shame. They’re very sophisticated, auteur-driven. I remember having to go to the bathroom and wanting to throw up before my screening of Precious. I felt that if I had a positive reception there, it was going to be smooth sailing from then on.”
Marcus Hu, co-president, Strand Releasing: “Going to the NYFF with Gregg Araki’s Totally F***ed Up in 1993 was an amazing experience. Richard took Gregg and me and the cast to the green room and introduced us. It was probably the lowest-budget film to screen at the festival, and we were given the royal treatment. Richard was always an amazing presence when he presented one of our films, whether it was Gregg Araki, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Terence Davies, you always felt the elegance of his presence.”
Martin Scorsese, director: “Film culture in the West has gradually expanded over the years, like the shutter of a camera opening one stop at a time. Richard opened our eyes to so much that was new in cinema — films and filmmakers and places that the majority of us just didn’t associate with cinema. He was like an astronomer who discovered multiple galaxies beyond the known universe.”
Annette Insdorf, author and professor: “If Richard has been such an inspiring NYFF leader, it’s partly because he is a scholar, knowledgeable about cinemas around the world. He’s also a great colleague at Columbia University. My most vivid memory is one of the sidebars he created, a retrospective of the films of Polish director Wojciech Has in 1997. In addition to Has’ dazzling The Saragossa Manuscript, Richard enabled us to see his other masterpieces of the 1950s and ’60s, including The Noose. I might end up writing my next book on Has’ work.
David Ansen, artistic director, Los Angeles Film Festival: “I have so many happy memories, particularly during Richard’s regime when I served on the selection committee for eight wonderful years. You could run into the most remarkable and unlikely collection of people in the green room at Alice Tully. On one gloriously surreal evening there were Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, Peter Greenaway and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, among others. Attempting to strike up a conversation with the tall, imperious Greenaway, I told him how much I liked The Belly of the Architect. He scanned me up and down. ‘Well, I can see why,’ he said. ‘You have quite an extraordinary belly yourself.’ OK, maybe that’s not my fondest memory, but I’ve laughed about it for decades.”
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