Cannes 2012: Thierry Fremaux on Increased Star Power and the Festival's Mission (Q&A)

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The French film festival topper talks to THR about this year’s selection following Thursday morning's press conference in Paris.

American films are back, declared Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux at the press conference to announce the storied event's official lineup for 2012. As the titles of this year's competition were revealed, it became clear that Fremaux wasn't kidding: Hollywood will be well represented on the red carpet with such star-studded films as Walter SallesOn the Road, Lee DanielsThe Paperboy, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, Jeff NicholsMud and Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly, not to mention an out-of-competition screening of DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. Fremaux took time out after announcing the titles to talk with The Hollywood Reporter about the increased star power this year, why Cannes has become a strong Oscar predictor and how he won't be sleeping much during the coming weeks.

The Hollywood Reporter: There are no first-time directors in competition this year. What do you have to say about that?

Thierry Fremaux: I never talk only about the competition. The selection is an ensemble; you have to consider the whole package. When you have a year like this one with several major auteurs, of course there may not be as many first-time directors. We have to keep in mind the festival’s mission.

THR: And what is the festival’s mission exactly?

Fremaux: Our mission is to show cinema that is contemporary and also able to cross borders. Remember that Cannes isn’t a French festival -- it’s for everyone. It’s a sort of movie house where filmmakers from all over the world -- old or young, auteur or more audience-friendly -- can feel wanted and at home.

THR: At first glance, the films appear rather heavy this year. Are there any that will make us smile?

Fremaux: It’s not the Alpe d’Huez Comedy Festival. The films from Hong Sang Soo [In Another Country], Ken Loach [The Angels' Share], Andrew Dominik [Killing Them Softly] and Alain Resnais [You Haven't Seen Anything Yet], for example, are a bit more joyous. Films aren’t just happy or sad; they don’t fit specific criteria.

THR: How do you feel the modernization of the festival? Is it progressing with the Thierry Fremaux stamp? Do you feel like it’s yours yet?

Fremaux: The festival is a collective heritage. I am lucky to be representing it now, but it’s also in the name of everyone. I’m the product of my generation. I’ve studied cinema. And cinema today isn’t the same as it was years ago. The festival has evolved at the same time as the cinema. Cannes is like the cinema in a way -- it’s an event that brings together the entire world. It’s still just as important as it was before.

THR: What are you most looking forward to this year?

Fremaux: I hope that people in the film industry will be happy, that commercial exchanges will happen, but also intellectual exchanges. I hope people will argue and that there is conflict; I want people to talk about cinema. Cannes is a party, but it’s also a voyage into the world of film and into the world today. There are films from Egypt and Morocco, for example, that reflect those cultures today and also concern all of us. I’m proud of this.

THR: What was your biggest disappointment this year?

Fremaux: No disappointments at all. There was no question that Terrence Malick would be there; the Internet creates rumors. What’s a shame is to have to choose between so many great films.

THR: Was the choice especially difficult this year?

Fremaux: It’s always difficult.

THR: There will be an especially large number of major stars in Cannes this year. Are you afraid that the big celebrity presence will steal the spotlight from the real stars of Cannes -- namely the films and the directors?

Fremaux: In Cannes, the big films protect the small. The celebrities protect the unknowns. When people see Lee Daniels’ movie [The Paperboy], for example, they’ll talk about Nicole Kidman as an actress, not as a star.

THR: Have you seen an increase in the level of competition amongst the U.S. filmmakers to make it to the Riviera in the past few years?

Fremaux: There are five U.S. films in competition this year, if you consider Australian directors Andrew Dominik and John Hillcoat. These last years, we’ve seen a double-sided U.S. cinema. There is independent cinema, like that in Sundance — free, young, made with small budgets and inventive. There is also the big studio films. The filmmakers this year represent that return of American cinema to the big screen.

THR: So you would call them audience-friendly auteur films?

Fremaux: Yes, at the Festival de Cannes, we feel that auteur cinema isn’t just reserved for a certain elite.

THR: Last year’s Cannes selection ended up making a lot of noise both in France with many of this year’s best picture Oscar nominees coming from the official selection. And then there was The Artist’s colossal success abroad. Do you anticipate “finding” the next awards-season success stories this year?

TF: I hope so. Last year was a surprise, but, for the record, few people told me how great the selection was during the festival; they all said it after. I don’t know what this year will bring.

THR: It’s the festival’s 65th year. Are there birthday festivities planned?

TF: Yes, we’ll be celebrating. There will be more announcements coming up next week. We’ll also pay homage to Brazilian cinema this year.

THR: Will there be more films added to the competition?

TF: No, I think the competition is closed.

THR: What about the jury?

TF: We’ll let the press analyze the selection, and we’ll announce the jury next week.

THR: Do you plan to get in any sleep between now and May 16?

TF: Not much. I’ll relax a bit, of course, but we still have a lot of work to do.