Shh! The Never-Told Secret Rules and Rituals of a Cannes Jury

Cannes Jury Illustration - H 2016
Illustration by Michael Hirshon

Kirsten Dunst, producer Jeremy Thomas and more offer a peek into a world where nine virtual strangers live in a bubble of film, food and friendship — until voting starts.

There are few clubs more exclusive, or more secretive, than the Cannes Film Festival jury. The nine members who pick the Palme d'Or every year swear never to reveal the reasons behind their decrees, and their methodology remains as shrouded from public scrutiny as that of a papal enclave.

Like members of any secret society, jurors don't even know they're being considered until they are "tapped" for the honor. The call typically comes out of the blue — sometimes well in advance ("I kind of knew for a while, but I had to keep my mouth shut," says 2016 juror Kirsten Dunst) but often just a couple of months before the festival — from president Thierry Fremaux.

Once in Cannes, jurors are shut off from the gossip and speculation that engulfs the rest of the festival. "You are spending four to five hours a day watching movies, plus the events protocol, the official dinners and jury deliberations, where it's all cigarettes, coffee and conversation," says Oscar-winning producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor) of his experience on the 1987 jury with the likes of Norman Mailer, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and jury president Yves Montand.

The jury president is in charge of organizing the group, deciding when they meet and cracking the whip if needed. Steven Spielberg, say sources, was a tough taskmaster when he ran the proceedings in 2013, keeping members to a tight schedule of regular meetings and deliberations every two to three days. Novelist Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) recalls French actress Isabelle Adjani as a similarly disciplined president of the 1997 jury. "We discussed the films we had seen each day, and it was very intense," he says.

That isn't always the case. Henry Miller, invited to be on the 1960 jury under fellow writer Georges Simenon, spent most of the festival golfing. Francis Ford Coppola also took a more laissez-faire approach as jury president in 1996, insisting that no one discuss the films until the last day for deliberations. "So we had wonderful meals, told each other stories about our lives, watched great films, then realized we had wildly different tastes when it came to making a decision," recalls Canadian helmer Atom Egoyan.

Some jury members dispute the festival's claim of neutrality. "When we were deliberating, the festival president came in and said, 'I think it would be good if the Filipino film won a prize,' and that was that," recalls one. By most accounts, however, such incidents are rare. If anything, the Cannes jury often confounds the festival by picking films that draw jeers on awards night (like those that greeted Clint Eastwood's 1994 jury, which picked Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction for the Palme d'Or over the critics' favorite: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red). "I've been on juries where the festival interferes directly, saying, 'This film can't win. This film has to get an award.' But none of that happened in Cannes," says Bosnian director and 2003 juror Danis Tanovic.

Democratic voting means the jury president often doesn't prevail. Egoyan lobbied for David Cronenberg's controversial Crash in 1996 over Coppola's objections. When the movie took the Grand Jury prize, Coppola went out of his way to indicate that Crash's award wasn't a unanimous decision. Recalls Egoyan, "I thought that was an odd thing to do." Dunst, for one, is ready for the debate. "I like my strong opinion," she says, "so I'm excited to hash it out."

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.