A narrative director, experimental artist and writer with over two dozen short films, documentaries, and commercials under his belt, Mark Cira is a Toronto-based storyteller and an active part of the Cannes Lion-winning collective The Young Astronauts. His latest experimental film, Armie, premiered at the London Experimental Film Festival in 2019. He’s currently finishing a book on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Find out more at his official website.
It’s true what they say: “Never meet your heroes.” Or in this case, never wait in an eight-hour line in the South of France to meet your hero. But that’s what I did when I decided to go to the Cannes Film Festival this past May. I had never been before, but when I heard my favorite living filmmaker would be premiering his first film at the festival in over 30 years, I felt I had to go.
That filmmaker is Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has always been my North Star: proof that you don’t have to come from money or connections to pursue your dream. Perhaps more importantly, he has also lent his voice to so many underrepresented directors from around the world, opening my eyes to all the things that cinema could be. This would be my own personal pilgrimage, like the two protagonists’ epic voyage to find their mentor in Scorsese’s vastly underrated Silence. Except hopefully with a more positive outcome.
Before leaving, I picked the brains of some of my friends who had attended Cannes in the past to figure out the ins and outs of what (not) to do.
“Planning on going to any red carpet evening premieres?” one friend asked.
Why, of course. “Killers of the Flower Moon.” I was planning on rubbing elbows with Mr. Scorsese himself as we ascended the ruby staircase of the Grand Palais.
“OK, then you better pack a tuxedo. With black shoes.”
Mere days before departure, my dad gave me his 40-year-old tuxedo jacket, bowtie, and shoes – dust and all. The pants didn’t fit, so I ran to a thrift shop to complete the look, making sure the pants matched the suit. A more difficult task than it seems — apparently, black isn’t just black. But voila, as the French say, I had the outfit and I was ready. Already I felt closer to the pantheon of cinema.
Boarding the connecting flight at Newark Airport, I recognized Francesca Scorsese in line. I took this as a sign from a higher power that I was on the right path: that the stars were aligning toward my admission to that fateful premiere. I shall see you at the Palais, I thought to myself.
At dinner on my first night in Cannes, I told my friend Marko about my plan to see Killers. “You should get in line early,” he said eagerly. “Like, crazy early. It’s Scorsese.”
You see, I didn’t have a ticket to the premiere. If you don’t have tickets to a screening at Cannes, you have the option to wait in what is essentially a rush line. If you’re lucky enough, a producer who double-booked himself or a sales agent who got food poisoning from the foie gras the night before will return their ticket. Those seats go to the patient few who waited in line. It’s always a gamble: you could be 100th in line and they let in the first 99.
“I got a ticket,” a mutual friend, Sardé, mentioned, so casually that it turned my Pinot sour.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Yeah, my coordinator pulled it.”
I offered her cash on the spot. No deal.
“But you’re not even a Scorsese fan!”
“I am too! Just not a freakishly big fan like you. I’ll tell you how it is.”
“Fine, I’ll go early and line up. 2 p.m.,” I conceded.
The table erupted in laughter.
“2 p.m.? Are you kidding? You’ve got to make a day of it,” Sardé insisted. Easy for her to say; she had a ticket. But she was right. If I wanted my feet to touch the red carpet, I’d have to devote myself. Sure, I’d miss a few other screenings. But I could get a fresh baguette, stake out my spot and be with the first audience to see the latest from the maestro.
I was staying in La Bocca, which was about a 40-minute walk from the Palais. To save the expense of Ubers and cabs to and from the center of town, I had rented a bike. After dinner, as I whisked along the boardwalk that overlooked the Bay of Cannes, the cool scent of the Mediterranean Sea filled my lungs. Away from the noise, the ride felt like a meditative hush to help me sleep that night – or maybe like the calm before the storm.
The next day, I woke up at 6 a.m. I packed some pastries from my Airbnb host’s breakfast, a cigar (hey, it was going to be a long day), and — crap, it’s raining.
In fact, it rained for the majority of my time in Cannes. To add insult to injury, every time I mentioned the weather to seasoned festivalgoers, I was met with variations on the same response: “Of all my 15 years going to Cannes, I’ve never seen it rain so much!” As if the declaration was a personal jab at my debut trip.
I biked into town one-handed, the other holding up my umbrella to protect my suit from the rain. I’d heard that Cannes security had a reputation for turning down gentlemen in soggy Canadian tuxedos from the 1970s.
It was quiet in the center of town, which I took as a good sign. When I arrived at the Palais, though, I paused. There were already about 30 or 40 people in line.
As I dismounted my bike and locked up, I could hear a Fwap with every step I took. Fwap, fwap, fwap. Looking down, I realized the outer sole of my dad’s 1980s-era tuxedo shoes had come unstitched and were flopping against the wet concrete every time I lifted my foot off the ground.
By the time I got to the line, the outer soles were hanging on by a thread, and I could feel the rain seeping through my $10 Uniqlo dress socks. I had to cut my losses. I tore off the soles and placed them on a nearby curb. A few minutes later, a Cannes custodian casually swept them into his dustpan as if they were hair clippings at a salon.
I couldn’t help but smile. I may have been in a city I had never been to before, at the break of dawn, in a pair of 40-year-old shoes that now resembled black ballet slippers, but I was in line to see the world premiere of the new Scorsese. This was it.
Just then, two guys entered the line behind me. I was nervous: if they were French, I’d be stuck feigning bad French I had learned in elementary school to fill the silence. That or I’d be left with my own thoughts for the next eight hours: perhaps a more terrifying alternative.
They approached me. “Are you in line for Killers?” Yes. Thank you, God.
The gentlemen were Jared Milrad and Liam Sigman. Jared is the co-founder of Movikarma and host of the podcast Rewriting Hollywood. Liam is a filmmaker from Seattle working on a doc series with Jared about undocumented missing and murdered Indigenous women in the U.S.
After the first 30 minutes of chatting, it felt like kismet. Of course, everyone you meet at Cannes is going to love film in one way or another, but this bond was about something more particular. We shared a vested interest in the importance of good storytelling that unearths buried Indigenous histories. We discussed our reverence for Scorsese and his choice to adapt a book that investigated a series of murders of Osage Native Americans in the 1920s. For myself as a filmmaker, it was the courageous stroke of a maverick. It felt particularly important to Jared, who expressed that his country, the United States, was only now beginning to confront its long and painful history of oppression of Indigenous peoples.
My shoes were so soggy by this point that I was routinely taking my feet out to let them breathe in the slightly-less-damp air. Liam even offered to go to his Airbnb and grab a fresh pair of dry socks for me.
A couple hours in, we made friends with the group in front of us, a trio of film students who’d met at the festival but happened to go to the same school. We stood in a circle, talking about our favorite films and what we’d do if only half of us made it into the screening. I promised I would give them a full play-by-play.
As the rain continued, the line got longer. As a Toronto native, I was used to the Toronto International Film Festival, which hires volunteers to keep the lines in order. Cannes, though, isn’t for the plebs or the public – it’s for the industry. There was no staff monitoring public lines, so by 2 p.m., things were a little disorganized. The dozens of fans in front of the Palais had turned into hundreds and I could see the social cohesion start to morph into anarchy. People started flooding the front of the line. What was once a single-file queue was turning into a congealed mass of black tie-clad bodies.
By 3:30 p.m., things were getting heated. A courageous woman from Los Angeles – sporting a DIY letterman jacket that read “Don’t Fuck with Martin Scorsese” – decided to take justice in her own hands, interrogating line-cutters one by one. When a temperamental French man in his mid-50s shoved Jared, we even had to get the police involved – to no avail.
As the day turned into evening, celebrity guests started trickling onto the red carpet. Watching the livestream on my phone, the only luxury I envied was the space. We were now shoulder to shoulder as the musk of damp desperation permeated the line. A cloud of umbrellas hung over us.
Suddenly, one of the people who had been in line since early morning cheered. He had refreshed the online box office on his phone and managed to snag a single ticket. I’d like to say I was happy for him – he was an ally in the line, after all. But my heart was freezing, along with my feet. I hope he’s stuck behind someone tall.
I turned to Jared. “Do you think we’re going to get in?”
“We’re close. But it’s nearly 6:00 p.m., and they still haven’t let anyone from the line in. Even Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny had let in a few dozen by this time,” he said.
Half an hour to screen time and I was channeling Travis Bickle. Someday a real rain will come, I thought, as the piercing scarlet from the red carpet transmission on the giant screens above seared my corneas. A DJ was playing a mixture of classic rock and EDM. Someone started singing along, belting out “Johnny B. Goode” at full force. Someone get me out of this line.
Finally, security opened the barricade and let three people in. Immediately, the line got rowdy, people shouting and pushing from behind.
“I’m not gonna die for this film,” Liam sanely reminded us. We found ourselves forming a human wall to prevent us from getting trampled, interlocking our arms like we were performing a military operation.
With my arms still locked, I thumbed a text message to Sardé, who was already inside. She sent me a photo from inside the Grand Palais. It was an underexposed blob of backs of heads in gowns and tuxedos. There were no empty seats in sight. I relayed the news to Jared and Liam.
“That’s a bummer,” said Jared. “But hey, did you ever think that maybe this entire time we were waiting to get in, we weren’t actually waiting? We were just meant to meet each other? That this was the destination.”
We shared a smile. In that moment, I reflected on how since landing in Cannes, I had always been on the move, hustling to get to a screening, a dinner or a party. If not that, then the opposite: I was sitting motionless, watching a screen. Here, though, I had been forced to remain present. For hours.
During that time, despite the uncertainty of getting into the premiere, I had discovered a spark of human connection I had been longing for since landing in France. And I don’t mean networking or “talking shop.” There had been plenty of that. I’m talking about not knowing someone one minute and them offering you their own socks the next.
My entire time at Cannes, I had been reminded of the stringent hierarchy that defines high art – the colors of badges, the type of clothes you wear and the parties you attend. But here, in the rain, we were all equal. We had exchanged stories, held umbrellas for each other, found newspapers for each other to sit on.
These were little things, but they are the same kinds of details I’ve come to love in Scorsese’s films after multiple viewings. Despite his plots covering huge subjects, from the birth of cinema to an Irish immigrant seeking justice in 19th century America, he never loses touch of the little things, like Paulie cutting garlic with a razor in Goodfellas, or the historically accurate sound of a 1970s Ford LTD engine in The Irishman. It’s in those moments that you realize it’s the small things that make up the bigger picture.
I closed my umbrella. The cool rain felt good in the warmth of the crowd. Scorsese, DeNiro, Schoonmaker and DiCaprio took to the top of the grand staircase for the official photocall. Flashes of bulbs and screams echoed in the distance. As the crew entered the Palais, the delicate melody of the Moonlight Sonata started playing. I lit my cigar.
All images courtesy Mark Cira unless otherwise stated.