Cannes Director Thierry Frémaux on Festival Lineup, Artistic Freedom and Saying "No"

Thierry Fremaux - H 2015

 Thierry Fremaux - H 2015

The festival director discussed this year's selection and what makes Cannes so unique.

After heading up a packed press conference Thursday morning to announce the lineup for the Cannes Film Festival’s 68th edition, director Thierry Frémaux was already back to work in his Paris office in the afternoon, answering emails and phone calls while granting The Hollywood Reporter a brief interview.

With several films still to be added to the Official Selection, including up to three in the competition, the job of programming the world’s most important movie festival is not quite finished.

Cannes received a record number of submissions this year, with 1,854 compared with more than 1,500 in 2014. “With the possibility of making films on smart phones, the result is that everyone wants to direct a movie now,” Frémaux said. “But that doesn’t mean that all of them are serious, even if we take our programming job very seriously.”

In past editions, Frémaux has been accused of stacking the competition with Croisette regulars like Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar. And while there are indeed some alumni in this year’s selection — including Palme d’Or winners Gus Van Sant and Nanni Moretti — there are also seven filmmakers competing for the first time. “There weren’t many renowned auteurs whose films were ready,” Frémaux explained. “But there were lots of up-and-coming directors who presented us with works of quality, so we opted to go with them this time for the competition.”

The American presence in Cannes is particularly strong this year, with 10 movies — either by U.S. filmmakers or else produced there — included in the lineup, and two films featured in competition: Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts, and Todd HaynesCarol, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. “They are two directors who have brought a lot to the festival in the past,” remarked Frémaux. “Both of their films are sophisticated in a classic way, but at the same they’re extremely modern.”

One U.S. film likely to be a buzz title is Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, which stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent crossing the Mexican border to fight the drug cartels. “It’s an action film, but it’s also the work of an auteur," said Frémaux. "Villeneuve uses genre to say powerful things about the rapport between America and Mexico, about the constant state of war the region finds itself in.”

With the terrorist attacks on satirical Paris weekly paper Charlie Hebdo still fresh on everyone’s mind, Frémaux is well aware of security questions that may arise for this year's festival edition, but did not wish to publicly comment on them. “All I can say is that Cannes has always had maximum security during the festival, and it will be the same case this year,” he said.

While local police will surely be on high alert, the media will likely be sniffing out the next Croisette controversy, such as the remarks made by Lars Von Trier that had him declared persona non grata by the festival back in 2011. Do Frémaux and his programming team draw a line when it comes to selecting films of an offensive or controversial nature?

“The line we draw is that of ourselves as citizens,” Frémaux answered. “So that means we would never choose films that are anti-semitic or racist – films that in any case would be banned under French law. But that doesn’t mean we don’t value artistic freedom, and when we choose to show something we are completely free in our decision.”

Even if Cannes is still the creme de la creme of festivals, it’s now competing in a busy world market where there are one or more fests taking place every week. Some of them — such as Toronto or Berlin — can program several hundred movies over the course of a week, and the film industry is absolutely glutted with product nowadays.

So how does Frémaux manage to distinguish his festival from the others? “Cannes is all about the selection, the distinction. Not everyone can get into the festival, which is why the desire for it is so strong,” he said, adding with a sigh: “It’s my job to refuse films over and over and over again. And believe me, saying ‘no’ all the time causes me a lot of pain.”