Filmmakers Josh Safdie and Reinaldo Marcus Green Talk Cannes Film Festival Stories

Two New York City-based directors, both half of a fraternal filmmaking team, share their stories of attending the prestigious French festival.

Josh Safdie
Cannes was always this place our dad spoke of, this French oasis where great cinema was celebrated. He was born in Italy, raised in France and lived on film, so naturally Cannes was something of an Elysium for him, a place of immortality. When I called him to tell him that my first film was going to close the Directors’ Fortnight in 2008 and that Benny’s short film was going to open it, he genuinely thought I was pulling his chain. Here’s a man who bestowed upon us his undying love for movies, and his two boys (at the time 24 and 22) were opening and closing the Fortnight at Cannes. He came, he cried, he crashed on the couch, he believed!

When we returned to the Directors’ Fortnight in 2009 with Daddy Longlegs (or, as it was called at the time, Go Get Some Rosemary)… well, he was still ecstatic but it was almost old news. Can you believe that? The irony is that the film we made, inspired by his antics, was the film at Cannes he couldn’t attend (he had some new job that he couldn’t take time off of, or something like that).

The head of the Directors’ Fortnight, Olivier Père, who we later dubbed “Our Père,” gave us this ineffable dream, one that became an unflinching reality with all the work and responsibility that comes with premiering at such an elite festival. Life in the moment is never all that memory cracks it up to be. In the moment, it’s the stress of selling a film, of doing international press (we grew up in an ESL home, so it’s easy for me to speak broken English), of meeting Vincent Gallo and seeing him later and reminding him to come to your premiere and him telling you, “Not only am I coming, but I’m bringing two dates!” And then later, after your premiere, when you’re crying and sweating, seeing your collaborators in the spotlight, hugging Ronnie [Bronstein, the film’s lead] and turning to the audience and seeing Gallo clapping eagerly.

It’s only now that Benny and I recognize the feat of having had a film in the festival two years in a row. Only now do I remember the overpriced food on the Croisette, or the Croisette itself. I remember now the “authenticity of first film” contract for the Camera d’Or in 2008, and hearing stories of Jim Jarmusch, who won for Stranger Than Paradise, only for that later to become controversial because it was in fact not his first film (who really cares?). I remember now the seriousness of signing that contract in a tuxedo prior to walking the red carpet to a film I now don’t remember.

Every once in a while, Benny or I wash our hands in a bathroom and the soap triggers a faint smell of Palais Stéphanie and I remember being carried down the aisle to our Daddy Longlegs premiere on Benny’s shoulders.


Reinaldo Marcus Green
I think most filmmakers who get into Cannes would say they are lucky to be there. That’s certainly how I felt. But I felt particularly lucky because before my short film Stone Cars was officially selected, it was first officially rejected.

I was patiently awaiting the news from Cannes, trying not to think about it, focusing on my next project Stop, which I shot one month before Cannes 2014, and which wound up premiering at Sundance earlier this year. I opened my email one day to an official rejection letter — but it wasn’t the ordinary rejection that we’re all familiar with: “Dear Sir/Madam, we received an overwhelming number of submissions this year and we regret to inform you…” No, not that kind. This was a private rejection, a thoughtful, detailed one. It commented on my directing abilities and how much my film was appreciated and that it was considered up until the very final round, but that they just couldn’t find space for it that year. It was the best rejection letter ever, a personal rejection from Cannes.

Sad but true, I was trying to figure out ways to use that information, so I responded to the email, thanking the programming team for their time and consideration of my film, and asking if they could recommend any festivals where they thought my film would be a good fit. There was no response to my email; it fell on deaf ears, or so I thought. Afterwards, I thought maybe I shouldn’t have sent the silly follow-up email and that maybe I had ruined any chance of screening at Cannes in the future.

The very next day, the day before the official Cannes lineup was to be announced, I was sitting in Think Coffee near NYU. I checked my phone and saw I had received the following email from the Artistic Director:

As you already know, Stone Cars was in the short list of the possible candidates for our program but was ultimately not selected. Due to a last minute withdrawal, we now have room for one more film. So, I would like to ask you a further question: In the event that your film would be selected, could you provide us with a DCP before Friday, April 25? Thank you in advance for your prompt reply (we need the information this evening since our program is about to be released).

At first, I thought someone was playing a sick joke. But I think I responded to that email faster than any other email in my life — with one word: ABSOLUTELY! Exactly 33 minutes later, I received my Official Selection letter to Festival de Cannes, Cinéfondation 2014.

My wife (who also produced the film) was eight months pregnant at the time, so we had another major hiccup. My son was due to be born in New York City on June 1, which was a couple of days after Cannes was to conclude, but too close for comfort. Our doctor said my wife was “too pregnant” to travel, which meant she had to stay behind. We initially thought, why not have a baby in France? They have universal healthcare, we’re all set! Then we debated whether or not I could attend at all, because how could I miss the birth of my son? So I made a game plan: I booked a direct flight, which during Cannes season costs three times what it does at any other time of year. I thought that if my wife were to call me in an emergency, regardless of where I was in Cannes, I could hop in a cab, go 100 mph to the Nice airport, get on the first direct flight out, and still make it in time. My logic was that typical first-time mothers are in labor for six to 12 hours, so I had a good chance of making it back. I planned for the worst and hoped for the best.

When I got to Cannes, I went directly to the Cinéfondation offices. I was greeted by other smiling faces, mostly filmmakers and their teams, sipping wine and enjoying hors d’oeuvres on the patio overlooking the Croisette. When I arrived there, the Artistic Director, Dimitra Karya, immediately pulled me into her office, closed the door behind her, and told me the story of how I really got into Cannes.

She candidly told me how she loved my movie very much but that she had preferred another film to mine. The filmmaker whose film she had preferred had also been selected for the Cannes Court Métrage, the other shorts competition section at Cannes, and had decided to play there instead, which freed up one slot. (That filmmaker wound up winning the Grand Prize that year, so I’d say he made the right decision.) I gave her a hug, said, “Merci beaucoup,” and the rest is history.

The things I remember: Watching Stone Cars on the big screen at Cannes was incredible; very few experiences in life could top that (except the birth of my son). The sound was remarkable, the screen was one the largest I had ever seen. I remember the longest/shortest walk on the red carpet, together with my brother Rashaad, in tuxes. I’ll never forget that. The parties with all-you-can-drink, top-shelf menus. Dining with the jurors, including Abbas Kiarostami. Speaking on a panel at the American Pavilion. Trying real caviar for the first time. The other filmmakers, who were amazing and many of whom I’m still in touch with today. Most of all, I remember nearly having a heart attack every time I got a text message from my wife, thinking I was going to have to haul it to the airport any second. I was a nervous wreck, and it had nothing to do with my film screening to hundreds of people.

My son Rio was born one week after I got home from Cannes. I told my wife, “I knew he would wait for me.”