September 25, 2007

Getting With the Program

Reeler Interview: Programming chief Pena on selectivity, second-guessing and his 20th NYFF

By S.T. VanAirsdale

As befits its notorious selectivity, the New York Film Festival has had only two chief programmers in its 45-year history: Richard Roud, who, with Amos Vogel, co-founded the festival in 1963; and Richard Peña, who replaced Roud not long after the critic's controversial dismissal in 1987. A native New Yorker with previous stints at the Harvard Film Archives and the Art Institute of Chicago, Peña brought a boundless knowledge of world cinema and an uncanny awareness of its trends to the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Within a few years, the heavy European emphasis that epitomized the festival during Roud's tenure diversified with selections from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East -- not to mention auteurist studio fare like Miller's Crossing and cozy relationships with indies and mini-majors whose fall releases shared the program with obscure international gems.

Peña's NYFF selection committee, which Roud loyalists quit and/or avoided en masse circa 1988, has long since acquired a coveted status among American critics; the latest group -- associate FSLC programmer Kent Jones, Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman and L.A. Weekly film editor Scott Foundas -- is this year responsible for the 20th festival line-up assembled on Peña's watch. The Reeler recently caught up with Peña to look back, look ahead and gauge the New York Film Festival at 45.

THE REELER: This is your 20th festival chairing the selection committee. Just a little longer and you'll have the hang of this thing.

RICHARD PEÑA: I'm hoping. (Laughs) Maybe eventually. When I came here I had some ideas of what I wanted to do with it, but I think the important thing was that I had the luxury -- because I had such strong support from the Film Society -- to really learn to understand the institution: Which things work, which things don't, how you can change things. Stuff like that. Over the 20 years, yeah, there have been changes made, but its essence -- I hope -- is very much the same. We've kept the number of films down; we've kept it both elite and democratic in the sense that we show very few films, but all the films are treated equally. It has changed, because obviously the world of cinema has changed. If people say, "Well, you brought in all kinds of Asian films" or whatever, yes, we did. But also, the world of cinema brought those in. That's something that's happening internationally, and as always I like to think the New York Film Festival is on that wave.

R: You're a New Yorker who attended the festival growing up. Was it ever a professional goal to be affiliated with it?

RP: The first festival I attended was in 1965; I was 12. I think at a certain point not long after that I thought, "Gee, working for this festival would really be something great." But in a way, the whole field was so much less organized than it is now. There was much less around in terms of programs and other film festivals -- all that kind of stuff. It didn't really seem to be a clear career path. Even film studies at universities were just getting going. I sort of had a circuitous route to get here, but eventually -- happily -- I did.

R: Obviously, the industry has evolved dramatically since then -- both in terms of distribution and festivals. From a programming perspective, what's gotten easier and harder since you took over?

RP: First of all, there are so many more films made today than were made even 20 years ago. My first year at the festival, I think there were 794 entries, and this year was over 2,000. There's just so much more out there. And also, digital media have allowed us to look at a far greater range of work from all over the world than we ever could have before. In some conceivable sense, you could imagine getting 30 film prints in from Iran to look at, but it would have been very costly and expensive. Now you can get a box with 30 videos from Iran or Taiwan or any of these places and make that part of your program.

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R: It's been said the festival isn't programmed as much as it is curated, which implies a more abstract, individual mission than institutional mandate. Do you agree?

RP: I think of "curated" more in the sense that it gives people the sense of having been very carefully selected. And it is. Basically, we have a lot of films to look at, and we have a very small number of slots. We know there's a point where we have to say, "No -- we can't just keep adding on one more film." That requires us to make choices. Because of that, hopefully the public really feels that this is a festival that is carefully selected. They might disagree violently with our selections, but they feel like somebody has selected these films -- that somebody has said, "This film and not that film." I think that's a good thing. I think our silent relationship with the public is really important that way. The public expects that we're an honest festival -- that no one can force their way into the New York Film Festival.

R: Everyone seems to have an opinion about the committee's selections: Too many Cannes titles; too much distributed stuff; why Rohmer and why not Rivette, and so on. On one hand it seems like healthy discussion; on the other, it's a lot of second guessing. Do you hear it, and does it get to you?

RP: I guess I've become a fairly public figure, so anytime I'm on a supermarket line of more than three people, someone turns around to argue with me about something that we've just shown -- or something we just haven't shown. I wish I could say that every festival is absolutely perfect and the best it could be. I probably think that right now, but maybe in a few weeks I'll think otherwise. I always tell people that it takes about eight years for me to go back and look at what we did and really get a sense about whether or not the festival did what it really should have.

R: The dismissal of your predecessor, Richard Roud, stirred a lot of resentment in the New York film community 20 years ago. Do you remember your own reaction?

RP: I was living in Chicago, working at the Art Institute of Chicago. I heard about it, but it's hard for me to comment; I wasn't here, I wasn't part of it. Basically, Richard Roud was someone I respected enormously, and Joanne Koch, who was the executive director of the Film Society at that time and who hired me, is somebody I respect enormously. Sometimes people whom you respect don't get along, and I think that's just a situation where two really great people just clashed. And eventually the clash resulted in Richard being dismissed. Not having been here, I don't think I can say much more than that.

R: Were you approached for the job? Had you lobbied for it at all?

RP: I didn't lobby for it. What happened was that I met Joanne a little while before that; already, the Walter Reade Theater was planned. She knew my work in Chicago, and she said, "We're starting this new theater, and when it's open, I think you'd be the right person to run it. Would you be interested?" I said I'd love to and mentioned in my own trepidacious way that I'd also be interested in working for the film festival sometime. She said they'd have to see about that -- it's another structure. Some months went by; my departure for New York hadn't really been decided. There were other things in my life; we were about to have a baby. But I knew that within a year, I would be moving back to New York, and I was really delighted. Working for the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- even better! And then the whole thing with Richard happened. At that point, in a way I seemed to be the logical candidate because I was already potentially part of the Film Society. Joanne said, "Well, now you've got to do this." And I did. I didn't lobby for it, as some people have claimed.

R: David Denby resigned his post on the selection committee after Roud was dismissed, telling The Times: "It's become a program determined by its administration, as opposed to by a freewheeling panel of individual critics." As the new guy, how did you react to that?

RP: I can remember when David said that, but the proof is in the pudding. Look at what we've done, and if that's your conclusion, I won't try and disabuse you of it. But if you look at our program and you think it's quite freewheeling and open to all kinds of different things, then that's that. To be honest, I think David's moved far from that position, so whatever he said at the time was said out of passion and a certain loyalty to Richard Roud.

R: Denby also mentioned that his replacement should seek a "guarantee of autonomy from the administration of the Film Society." Is that a guarantee you ever sought yourself?

RP: I didn't have to, because I knew Joanne Koch. Already, it seemed to me that it would have been crazy to bring someone in who'd been pushing Jacques Rivette, pushing Manoel de Oliveira, pushing Raul Ruiz -- people who were shown in Chicago long before they were shown here, frankly -- and then say, "Now you've got to just show..." I'm the wrong person for that. When Joanne brought me, I think she brought me with eyes wide open. What would be the worst thing that could happen? I'd try it, and it wouldn't work, and I'd quit. But the strongest guarantee for me was Joanne. I couldn't for a minute imagine she was hiring me to just be her rubber stamp. And she never did. We had some arguments over the years, and we had some major disagreements, but never did I feel anything but 100 percent support from her.

R: Festival politics have changed a lot, both in New York and around the country -- competition for premieres, vying with release dates and just other events here in town. How much does playing the game, so to speak, impact what you do?

RP: Very little. I'm a bit immune to pressure; there's not really a whole lot anybody can do to me. They can tell me, "We'll never let you have another one of our films," but you hurt us, you hurt yourselves. That's all I can say. Our choices can be free and clear. We don't have any strings attached; we don't allow any strings to be attached. That's it. Some people talk about distributed films versus non-distributed films, but I always feel like it's not really our place to get involved with that. We have to look at a work, and if it's a work we truly love and want to stand behind, it shouldn't matter whether it's by Clint Eastwood or Abderrahmane Sissako. If one has Warner Bros. behind it and the other has no distributor behind it, we'll work with both of them in whatever way we can to help the films reach the widest possible audience.

R: Of course, alliances are everything -- you're having a gala for New Line Cinema this year, and you've programmed nearly all of Pedro Almodóvar's new films since you joined the festival. Do you ever think about people perceiving these relationships as something institutionalized or maybe making the festival more predictable?

RP: No. With Pedro, we didn't ever show Kika, for example. High Heels was one of the opening films of the Walter Reade Theater. We didn't show Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I think sometimes when people say to me, "You always show the films by...", I always feel like saying, "Well, do you really know how many films they've made?" Because if you did, you'd know there are three films between the last one we showed and the one we're showing now. Also, it's true that when we find a director and he or she is having a very good period, we're happy to follow their work. But nobody gets a pass.

R: Where do you see the festival -- and yourself -- another 20 years from now, and how do you plan to guide it in that direction?

RP: I think I can guide it as well as I can now. I think that part of the reason I should probably leave in a few years is because it's time for someone else to guide it -- bring in new ideas, new directions. There are certain things I will never do because they're just not in my scope and my nature -- that's precisely why someone should come in and try new ideas. So many things are changing around cinema. How many movie theaters will we have in 10 years? Are they all going to start closing down at once like some people think? Is it all going to be digital, really? There are so many questions we all have about that, and the festival's clearly going to have to adjust. In a way we're very lucky in that I'm sure that in New York, there'll always be a place for going to the movies -- going to a cinema and watching something on-screen. Even if cinema becomes a kind of museum art, we have lots of museums. People will support that.

R: You have the Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar, and each summer you have the Scanners video festival. Do you foresee the New York Film Festival inviting online video or other interactive media into the fold?

RP: This is exactly why someone new should probably take over. I have zero interest in that; it doesn't appeal to me at all. It's probably just silly prejudice on my part, but when people say that such-and-such a festival does that, fine, you know? Different strokes. But I'm pretty old-fashioned. I really love the communal film experience, and that's what we do. So I'd say as long as I'm here, it would probably be something I'm resistant to, and I think we'll probably continue in this classical format for the foreseeable future. I think being in New York will give us the privilege of doing that.

Comments (2)

It's one of those idiocies of life on the web... and yet, the temptation to check these things out is hard to resist.

As best as I can tell, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down premiered in January in Spain and opened NY in the summer of the same year. So there was no way for it to be in the NYFF. Just sayin'...

And what a shame, really; it would been a perfect fit.

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