South of France by Southwest

In keeping a journal during my five days in Cannes, where my first feature, 'Room,' premiered internationally, it occurred to me that it's the creative energy in Austin that carried me this far

The <i>Los Angeles Times</i>' Mary McNamara (l) interviews Kyle Henry and Cyndi Williams in Cannes.<br>Photo courtesy of Kyle Henry
The Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara (l) interviews Kyle Henry and Cyndi Williams in Cannes.
Photo courtesy of Kyle Henry

May 10

7:45am – Austin: My partner, and Austin theatre director/actor, Carlos Treviño and I are at the airport prepared for 15 hours of travel to France. I've done more shopping in the past few weeks than in the previous 10 years, including an all-day hunt for a tuxedo (thanks, Mr. and Mrs. Treviño!). Anyone who knows me will probably laugh at this point, since my usual uniform is Austin-regulation shorts and T-shirt. My first feature film, Room, is having its international premiere at the Directors' Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival. We have two publicists (American and French), an international sales rep (Celluloid Dreams), our producers from the 7th Floor, round-trip air tickets and two apartments on the beach lined up to house our posse. After all the months of preparation, I still don't believe this is happening. All I can think right now is "Please, God, don't let me get sick." At Room's premiere at Sundance, I held out until our last screening, then promptly got the worst cold of my life and spent four days drugged out on Robitussin in a hotel room, missing all the other screenings I'd scored tickets to. My ears have been ringing for days, and I'm hoping it's the cold front that came through and not an ear infection. Again, gods of cinema, please keep the microbes at bay!

11am – Houston: My sister Lynn takes me to the doctor during our transfer to Bush International. A B-12 shot and jumbo antibiotics should take care of the infection. Bon voyage!

May 11

2pm – Nice: We've arrived via Paris. I'm drugged out on Tylenol PM, got a few hours of sleep, but it still doesn't prepare me for the ride to Cannes from Nice (stunning!). Our whole posse is stuffed into a Mercedes station wagon, including lead actress Cyndi Williams, her husband David Jones, their friend Cathy, and Carlos. None of us speak French well, although Carlos and I are hoping our 10 Berlitz tape lessons will get us through. We quickly realize almost everyone speaks English, and my French accent is terrible, anyway, mostly eliciting blank stares instead of a response. We race down to the Palais du Festival for registration, but everything is closed, then stuff ourselves at an incredible Italian restaurant. I have nothing against Austin grub, but this is the first of many "best meals of my life" in Cannes.

May 12

At the Directors' Fortnight office, we're greeted by a friendly staff that immediately offers us strong coffee. From there, it's off to a meeting at Celluloid Dreams' suite overlooking the harbor. Gordon Spragg, our dapper liaison, guides us through the busy itinerary leading to the premiere on Sunday. I review their publicity material, which is sharp and stylish, and realize for the first time that we've made a "real" film that people are willing to hustle worldwide for cash. Celluloid is representing some of the top films at Cannes, including Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know and new international premieres by François Ozon, the Dardenne brothers, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. What great company!

The opening-night film for the Fortnight, Be With Me, by Eric Khoo, doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of being distributed in the USA. Its atmospheric and detached gaze is all the rage in Europe, but nowhere to be seen (outside of Gus Van Sant) here in the States. It's not my cup of tea either, but I'm moved by the tearful standing ovation it receives. Also, I'm touched immediately by the real sense of handpicked care that Fortnight Artistic Director Olivier Pere has put into choosing each of the films in selection. The Fortnight was born out of the rage of 1968, and that challenging spirit lives on in its curatorial independence. I run into Lodge Kerrigan, who is showing his film Keane at Cannes, at the afterparty, and he tells me to calm down and enjoy the experience. After all, everyone else is having a good time! In the harbor, a computer-controlled display of spotlights shines off the bow of a ship, illuminating the night sky. We are in the land of high spectacle that makes Sundance look intimate in comparison.

May 13

Up early to check out the trade show. This is where the world entertainment industry's money is on display, and I remember that Cannes is above all a market for product. Booth after booth on three different levels with distributors, foreign sales companies, and cinema societies all vying for attention. It is overwhelming and more than a little nauseating for someone like myself. I am motivated by the liberating potential for cinematic communication, but am pretty much convinced that impulse fuels less than 1% of industry product. Oh well, I'll fight for every inch of that percentage and will do my best to help kick it up to maybe 1.1% for others in my time. Thank God I came here when I was 34. Even five years earlier this place would make me a nervous wreck.

Walked up the red carpet with Cyndi and Carlos for the premiere of Van Sant's Last Days. Inside, watched the celebs scale the stairs on a JumboTron screen. Asia Argento, Italian horror meister Dario's daughter and one of the film's stars, doesn't give a rat's ass, taunting and playing with the photographers. She's one of the few stars that ever go over to sign autographs for the throngs pushing against the police line. It's far more involving and human than anything in Van Sant's film, but I'll leave reviews for the critics.

May 14

OK, am I dreaming? No. Roger Ebert is taking my picture in the green room before the IFP-sponsored American Independents press conference. I remember watching him and Gene Siskel debate Lynch's Blue Velvet when I was 16 (I agreed with Siskel, not Ebert). He's a very sweet man, taking time to talk with each of us before we face the crowd (you can read his thoughts on Room here). Athina Rachel Tsangari, former Austinite filmmaker and the founder of Cinematexas (the new Cinematexas), has come out per my invitation, and I realize again how many of us that festival has nurtured. Miranda July's The Amateurist was one of the fest's discoveries, and she appeared several years in a row performing her one-woman shows. It truly is a petri dish for cinematic invention, Austin. Support your hidden gems!

We go out and the conference begins. I can't remember a thing afterward, but apparently I didn't embarrass myself, playing my part as rabble-rouser lamenting the lack of political content in American narrative cinema. Let's not leave it to documentarians and Europeans to diagnose our situation.

May 15

The big day. We are off to an early photo shoot. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times follows Cyndi and me around to write a neophyte-in-Cannes article. We are shuttled by two handlers, the lovely Pascal from Celluloid and James from mPRm. Pascal reminds us never to run anywhere after I say I'm going to "run" to the restroom. "There's no need, Kyle. Everyone will wait for you today." All the Camera d'Or nominees (the award given to first-time directors) lunch at an incredible terrace overlooking the bay from the Palais, and we make it back for another photo shoot before being whisked off to the lobby of the screening room. Everyone is there from our team, looking incredibly sharp, even the 7th Floor guys, who I see in suits for the first time ever. The festival provides champagne for a toast, and I choke back tears that we have made it so far. None of this would have been possible without living in Austin, without local actors like Cyndi Williams, without our incredible crew. I bow my head to C-Hundred's Jim McKay, the Austin Film Society, Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grants, and Rick Linklater; to the 7th Floor producers and our investors for giving us the cash, but I realize it is the sum creative energy of Austin that has carried us along. The spotlight goes up, we walk onstage before a packed audience of about 1,300 people, and it becomes abundantly clear that I'm one lucky bastard.

This week, we return to the grind of our work and debt, but I'll always remember that we hit it big with nothing but dreams and the combined will to tell our version of the truth. Thanks, Austin! We had a great time in France, but it's good to be home. end story

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Kyle Henry, Room, Cyndi Williams, Carlos Trevino, Cannes Film Festival, the 7th Floor, Celluloid Dreams

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