Telluride Diary: High Hopes (and One Eyebrow-Raising Guest) Kick Off Awards Season

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne - Getty - H 2019
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On the Colorado festival's opening day, filmmakers and stars mingled with Academy voters and monied cineastes who bought $4,900 patron passes.

A hopeful grandfather with a familiar, freckled smile approaches Adam Driver with his grandson balanced on his hip. “He’s a big fan of a particular film series,” the grandfather explains, as Driver squints into the sun. The actor has just stepped off a plane from Venice, where his film, Marriage Story, premiered to rhapsodic reviews, and been deposited at a ranch nearly 11,000 feet up in the Colorado Rockies. Behind him, Antonio Banderas is basking in the sun on a gingham covered hay bale before the North American premiere of his film Pain & Glory, Ted Sarandos is chatting with Uncut Gems filmmaker Josh Safdie about connecting tonight after a screening and a bearded man in a cowboy hat is grating fresh horseradish for the crowd’s Bloody Marys.

The mountain chic gathering is the Telluride Film Festival’s opening day patron brunch, held before a film has yet to screen, where filmmakers and stars mingle with Academy voters and monied cineastes who buy $4,900 patron passes. It’s the beginning of awards season, and the last moment in that long march when anything still seems possible. Because this is Telluride, even the grandfather with the young Star Wars fan on his hip is a filmmaker: festival regular Ken Burns, whose new country music documentary series is also screening here.

If the buzz of having one of the fest’s hottest films and being the subject of one of its silver medallion tributes isn’t enough to make an actor lightheaded, there is also the altitude. “I don’t feel it yet,” Driver says. “I guess I’ll notice it when I pass out.”

Over Driver’s shoulder, The Aeronauts co-stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are fielding questions about their hot air ballooning film, which premieres Friday. Asked about its distributor Amazon’s recently announced, two-week release plan for the movie, a new experiment for the streaming company, Jones says, “The movie is a huge adventure, so it makes sense that its release might be, too. These characters we’re playing were both pioneers, after all.”

When a Big Little Lies fan approaches Laura Dern, on hand for Marriage Story, the actress introduces the fan to the man on her right, casting director and new Academy president David Rubin. “Well, here’s the man who cast that whole show,” Dern says.

Amid the glad-handing, business is getting done. British film producer John Battsek, here seeking distribution for his documentary, The Australian Dream, approaches lawyer-agent John Sloss to talk deal-making over by the bagels and lox.

Academy season regulars are all on hand, including one eyebrow raiser — Peggy Siegal, the New York event curator whose longtime association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein drew fresh scrutiny after Epstein’s arrest in July. “Very nice to see you,” Siegal says, quickly moving through the crowd.

There are newcomers to this world here, too. Looking out over the green, pine-covered mountains, Valerie Pachner, the Austrian actress in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, says it reminds her of the Italian Alps where Malick shot his World War II set epic. Hidden Life tells the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis, and Pachner sees parallels between the film’s era and the rise of the far right in Europe and the U.S. today. “It feels like spitting in [Jägerstätter’s children’s] faces if we’re going to do this all again,” she says.

Part of the charm — and headache — of Telluride is that everyone has really had to try to get here. The luckiest ones arrive by private plane on nail-biter landings into Telluride’s tiny airport. Others come via charter from Burbank into Montrose, on a flight where boxed meals from West Hollywood hotspot Craig’s are waiting on their seats. Yes, roughing it Telluride-style comes with mini frittatas and cornbread.

On Thursday night, some filmmakers gathered for a dinner in a private home above the town. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, here with his movie The Two Popes, quizzed documentarian Asif Kapadia about his film on Argentine sports hero Diego Maradona. In addition to his Telluride premiere, Meirelles had another screening of his film about Popes Benedict and Francis on his mind — one planned for Saturday at the Vatican. Randy Newman, who is featured on the Marriage Story score, chatted with James Mangold, here for the premiere of Ford v. Ferrari, an auto racing film set to be the secret patron’s screening, typically a spot of honor for a crowd-pleaser that kicks off the festival Friday afternoon.

After the Friday brunch winds down, festgoers head to Mangold’s premiere at the Werner Herzog Theater, where audio of race cars zooming is playing over the 650-seat venue's Dolby speakers. Mangold greets the crowd by sharing a story of the last time he came to Telluride in 2005, with his movie Walk the Line, when he collected "attaboys" from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Roger Ebert, two beloved festival fixtures who have since died. “This film is about friendship,” Mangold says. “And the friends we make when we make things.” The theater lights dim, and the race begins.