Telluride Buzz: Feinberg and Keegan on Rocky Mountain Highs (and Lows)

WAVES, PARASITE and MARRIAGE STORY - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
Courtesy of Films

As they made their way home from the Rocky Mountains, Scott Feinberg and Rebecca Keegan huddled in cafes, gondolas and shuttle vans and on the Montrose-to-Burbank charter flight to chat about what they saw at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, and what to expect from the busy fall movie season ahead.

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KEEGAN We are sitting in the Butcher & the Baker, Telluride’s unofficial commissary, listening to a couple complain about getting shut out of the Monday morning screening of Parasite, where more than 600 pass-holders were turned away. The couple aren’t happy, but Neon, Parasite’s North American distributor, sure is, as the Bong Joon Ho film emerged, along with Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, as the hottest ticket of the festival. Parasite first wowed critics at Cannes, collecting the Palme d’Or, and now Bong’s topical, crowd-pleasing parable about class is marching westward toward the Academy. As a Korean language film, Parasite will be up against the anti-subtitle barrier with theater and Academy audiences, a fact Bong readily acknowledged when I chatted with him at the festival. But Neon will look to duplicate what Netflix accomplished last year with Roma in appealing to Academy voters not just in the international film category but also picture, director, original screenplay, actor and more. If these avid Telluride audiences are any indication, they’re well on their way.

FEINBERG Parasite is indeed terrific — my favorite film in this year’s formidable Telluride lineup, even if I didn’t actually see it here! The film that I did see for the first time here that stands out the most to me — personally, and in terms of its potential with the Academy — is Marriage Story, Baumbach’s portrait of divorce that is already being described as “Kramer vs. Kramer for the 21st century.” Netflix, which is pinning its Oscar hopes for this season on Marriage Story and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (which will open the New York Film Festival on Sept. 27), believes that Marriage Story can follow in Kramer’s footsteps — 40 years ago, that film won picture, director, screenplay and two acting Oscars — thanks not only to Baumbach’s moving script and mature direction, but also great performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as the couple at the center of the film and Alan Alda and Laura Dern as the lawyers who represent them. The streamer may be right. Partly inspired by Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film is strong enough to be one of very few titles invited to play at all four of this year’s major fall film fests — on the heels of Venice and Telluride, it now heads to Toronto and New York.

KEEGAN In many ways, Telluride 2019 has been a celebration of two Adams, Adam Driver and, perhaps more surprisingly given Telluride’s erudite reputation and his penchant for fart jokes, Adam Sandler. Driver was the subject of one of Telluride’s silver medallion tributes, for his work in Marriage Story and in Scott Z. Burns’s cerebral procedural about the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, The Report, which Amazon will release in November. In the heat of Oscar season, Driver will be out promoting another little sleeper, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. When I moderated one of Driver’s Telluride tributes and asked him the key to understanding the franchise’s emo heartthrob villain Kylo Ren, he answered that the character “lacks guidance...needs a massage...or a Valium.” Honestly, as I sit here on the last day of a tiring festival, that description just kind of makes me feel seen.

FEINBERG I feel you. Thanks to Telluride’s high altitude, long walks between venues and four- or five-movie days, I’ve been falling asleep while standing up — though never while sitting down in a movie!

KEEGAN One movie you definitely couldn’t sleep through was Josh and Benny Safdie’s frenetic heist film, Uncut Gems, in which Sandler delivers what some critics are calling the best performance of his career as an impulsive diamond district hustler. The movie was the most adrenally charged experience I had at the festival, and this is in a year when I encountered an actual bear dumpster diving on Davis Street while walking to a late-night screening. Sandler seemed to be having the most fun of just about anyone at Telluride this year, even playing a game of pickup basketball in the town park. Now, whether Academy audiences are willing to go on the Safdies’ nerve-jangling ride with him, I don’t know.

FEINBERG I never dreamed I would see Sandler in these fair parts, but it’s been fun. Driver, meanwhile, is having a hell of a year,  and not just because he had two movies and a tribute at this year’s fest — they come on the heels of his first Oscar nom, for BlacKkKlansman, and his first Tony nom, for Burn This, and, thanks to a number of incredible moments in Marriage Story, like his ten-minute blowup with Johansson and his heartbreaking rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive,’ I really think he could wind up holding a little gold man at the Dolby. That being said, there is nobody whose Oscar prospects I am more bullish about right now than Renee Zellweger, who gives an awe-inspiring performance as Judy Garland, in the last year of her life, in Rupert Goold’s Judy, which Roadside Attractions premiered here with Zellweger in tow. Zellweger was once "America’s sweetheart," but it has been 16 years since her last Oscar nom, and not unlike Garland as she aged out of ingenue roles (she died at 47), the 50-year-old has been cruelly mocked and written off by many in recent years. But if there is one thing that Hollywood likes more than knocking someone down, it is a comeback narrative, and Zellweger, having given what I consider to be a career-best turn in Judy, certainly has one.

KEEGAN It’s been a brutal year at the box office for almost any movie that doesn’t feature men in capes or CGI animals. The Telluride title that seems best positioned to reclaim movie theaters for grownups is James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari, which zoomed into pole position after a warmly received Patron’s Preview screening on Friday. With meticulously crafted racing scenes and meaty roles for Christian Bale and Matt Damon as race-car driver Kenny Miles and auto designer Carroll Shelby, the Fox drama feels like a needed jolt in the arm for the studio Disney acquired earlier this year, and for a category of movie that has grown alarmingly scarce. This is an issue undoubtedly on the Academy’s mind as well, as the organization fights every year to plan an Oscar telecast that feels relevant for TV audiences. After a scuttled plan to create a popular Oscar last year, the Academy was rescued, in a way, by the nominations for widely seen films like Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born. This year, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Joker (which just premiered in Venice) and The Lion King all look like films that might lure viewers to the big show. If it becomes a word-of-mouth hit, Ford v. Ferrari could, too.

FEINBERG Tom Harper's The Aeronauts, which reunites Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones five years after The Theory of Everything and premiered here, potentially could have been that movie — it’s a family-friend adventure thriller — but Amazon only intends to release it in theaters for two weeks, and not on IMAX screens, where it belongs, so that seems unlikely.

KEEGAN Some of the films here had a quieter presence, like Ed Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn (which heads next to TIFF), Terrence Malick’s Hidden Life (which had already bowed at Cannes) and Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. Did anything pop for you that wasn’t already on your radar heading into the long weekend?

FEINBERG I think we’re all hearing the same positive chatter about two films in particular: City of God helmer Fernando MeirellesThe Two Popes, another Netflix title, which features standout work by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins and was the fest favorite of a number of people I’ve talked to (including, I learned on the gondola last night, my pal Katherine Tulich, the sole member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who is here); and Trey Edward Shults’s Waves, which is one of A24’s three films at the fest that launched Moonlight for them three years ago.

KEEGAN Telluride isn’t known as a market festival, but one of the most talked about titles here is for sale, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, a drama about a new assistant (Julia Garner) working the desk of a domineering, Harvey Weinstein-esque film executive. The executive himself never actually appears in the film because, as Green told a Q&A audience, “Bad men have had enough screen time.” I grabbed coffee with Green this morning, and she told me more about her decision to frame a story around Garner’s character. “It was never about him,” Green said. “I was always wanting to tell a story from the perspective of the youngest woman in the office and what it's like to be her.” It’s a rarely seen viewpoint in film, and one that has intrigued potential distributors.

FEINBERG I’ve talked to several former employees of Miramax and The Weinstein Co. who went to see the film here, and they said Green clearly did her homework, as she includes tiny details that only Harvey insiders would know.

KEEGAN There are also several hot documentaries available for acquisition, including the sports movie The Australian Dream and the Mideast peace process film The Human Factor.

FEINBERG My hunch is that The Human Factor will wind up at Netflix — Dror Moreh, who interviewed the heads of Israel’s intelligence service in his 2012 Oscar-nominated doc The Gatekeepers, now masterfully explains the Arab-Israeli conflict through interviews with the American negotiators who have tried but failed to broker a lasting peace in the region. That is just one of many outstanding docs at this year’s fest. Asif Kapadia, who won an Oscar for 2015’s Amy, hauntingly profiles another tragic figure in Diego Maradona. Lauren Greenfield, best known for her film about out-of-touch rich people, The Queen of Versailles, has found another such person in Imelda Marcos, who welcomes Greenfield’s cameras into her twisted world. And Netflix has a very good doc feature in Ed PerkinsTell Me Who I Am, about twin brothers with a dark past; doc short in Zack Canepari and Drea Cooper’s Fire in Paradise, about the deadliest wildfire in California history; and docuseries in An Inconvenient Truth Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim’s Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, a three-part look at the life, work and philanthropy of the Microsoft founder. I sat down on Saturday with Guggenheim and then Bill Gates himself to record segments for this week’s episode of THR’s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast.

KEEGAN Looking ahead, two of the most highly anticipated titles that we have not yet seen are Scorsese's The Irishman and Greta Gerwig's Little Women. Both filmmakers were here in Telluride, not to unveil their films but to celebrate others. Gerwig was on hand to support Baumbach, her romantic partner, and Scorsese to participate in a tribute to his friend Agnes Varda, who died in March, but not before visiting the set of The Irishman, which Scorsese says she helped to inspire. Scorsese also surprised Driver, who starred in Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, by presenting Driver with his Telluride medallion at the tribute that preceded the first screening of Marriage Story, calling Driver "one of the finest if not the finest of his generation."

FEINBERG Praise doesn't come much higher than that! Well, the Toronto International Film Festival is the next stop on the awards circuit. I’m back in L.A. for just one day before heading north of the border for that gathering, which is about as different from Telluride as can be — although most of the films that were here will also be there...along with about 300 others!