LFF Interview: Artistic Director Sandra Hebron

Sandra Hebron is the Artistic Director of The London Film Festival.  She’s been in the position for nine years and so has seen some of the best films of the last decade come and go. 2011 will be her last year though as she’s moving on to other things.

I spoke to her to discuss her role over the last nine years, the growth of the festival and its role in world cinema as well as some of the films in this year’s programme.  Throughout, she’s chatty, bright and has an obvious love for what she does – a genuine pleasure. The LFF won’t be the same without her iconic black boots.

Hi Sandra where are you right now?

I’m at BFI Southbank looking at the river which looks sunny and beautiful.  I have to find a way of getting out there!

I was in NFT2 for most of yesterday and didn’t realise that it was quite a nice day outside.

It’s like sensory deprivation in there isn’t it?  What did you see in yesterday?

I saw Take Shelter which I really liked although I’m still thinking about the ending and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

Oh, I haven’t seen that last one actually because Michael (Hayden) programmed it.

Michael Shannon watches the skies in Take Shelter

How many films do you see a year?

Well I never really count but if I work it out on the basis of how many I see at festivals and how many I see when I’m here, it works out around about the 500 mark.  And that includes obviously films for the festival but also films I see just for myself when I buy a ticket and go to the cinema.

You buy tickets to go to the cinema, really? 

<laughs>  I do!

What was the last film you bought a ticket to see?

Umm…God…well because we’ve been finishing the programme I haven’t been doing anything social but I will remember during the course of the conversation.  I was something not all that long ago.  Oh!  I guess it was Bridesmaids.

That’s a good choice, a film that gets better the more people you see it with.

Oh yes definitely.  We had a little office outing to it when we finishing up the programme.

It’s a nice easier watch that a few of the films on the programme.

Yes, I don’t think it’s devoid of ideas but it is pretty pleasurable.

What were the particular challenges of putting the programme together this year?

I don’t think that was anything radically different from previous years.   It did feel like that we were racing towards the deadline and that people were rushing to finish their films or at least having things to show us.  So it felt that we had a very concentrated burst of activity and there were moments when we afraid that we weren’t going to meet or deadline.  It’s weird isn’t it?  I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a complete piece of cake but in a sense, one of the things that’s happened with the festival over the years is that people know the festival, they understand it, they understand the kind of profile that the festival gives.  So it’s not like it feels like a special struggle or challenge.

The BFI London Film Festival - 12-27 October 2011

Do you perhaps feel that it might have got easier over the years? 

It feels like it has.  Just because that people know what the festival is about and I think they know probably my taste and they know what we’re likely to take or not take.  And I think that’s something that comes with being here for a long time.  Of course I need to demonstrate to people why putting their films in the festival would be a good thing but it doesn’t take quite a long time now.  Whenever we take films from people one year, it’s easier to approach them the following year.  You build up good relationships and I think that definitely helps.

I do think that’s also to do with the fact that the festival has a certain visibility now.

What makes a good festival film?

<Thinks> I don’t think there’s any such thing.  I think we’ve all got ideas of what makes a good film and that’s the question that I’m interested in.  I think the idea of a festival film can be used in sort of a disparaging way as if somehow that’s all that those films are.  And when it comes to films for the LFF, I think to myself “Is this a film for the LFF?” not “Is it a festival film?”  All festivals are different anyway and I think if a film is a good film, why wouldn’t it be a festival film?

I guess the only thing that I would say is that there are films that come with such marketing portioned… I’m slightly contradicting myself because I’m saying that I don’t think there’s such thing as a festival film.  But I think there are films that are not festival films.  So you know, we probably wouldn’t show a big blockbuster film because that film wouldn’t need the festival. There’d be nothing we could do in platforming or programming that film and to be honest, I would rather use the slots in the festival for films that will get some kind of benefit from it.

Saying that, the big surprise that I felt when I saw the LFF trailer was the inclusion of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.

Have you seen it?

No I haven’t, but Emmerich’s name is so associated with these big blockbuster films (Independence Day, 2012)

Absolutely but he’s made a film that’s a really personal project which is about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays so you can imagine that there aren’t going to be a lot of explosions or trademark Emmerich stuff in there.   Believe me, there are no explosions!  That’s the one thing that there isn’t.  We talked so much about whether to include the film or not but it’s a filmmaker trying to do something that isn’t their usual stock in trade if you like.  I think there’s something very interesting about Emmerich – that director who is known for a certain type of cinema, taking what is essentially a British story and recreating it.  Roland Emmerich’s version of Elizabethan England is actually quite an interesting thing to look at.

Roland Emmerich's version of Elizabethan England in Anonymous

I’m actually really looking forward to it but I did have that “really?” reaction.

I would say that it’s definitely, in the way you were talking about Bridesmaids, at one end of the continuum and something like Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea another film that I love having in the festival is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  But then, that’s what the LFF should be.  I don’t think it’s just because I’ve got very eclectic taste, although I have.  I think that’s what the festival should be.  I think that’s it’s a cliché, we say it a lot but when we say it, we mean it – it’s about celebrating cinema in all its forms.

There seem to be more festivals than you can shake a stick at these days.

There are over 600 in the world and that’s ones that are over a week’s duration.

So what is about London that makes it special?

London is interesting because its history was always as a public festival.  It started as a festival for the public. It was a way for people in London to see films that actually at the time when the festival started had all screened in Venice, Cannes and Berlin.  That’s what the first festival was – it was 16 films, each of which had come from one of those other festivals.  And I think we’re still very mindful of being a public festival and about being about audiences, so although we have industry delegates and we have press and media delegates, the audience is still out primary focus along with filmmakers who have made the work as well.

I think it’s different if you come to a public film festival than if you go to Cannes of Venice or anywhere like that.  And it’s not entirely unique to London but I think the range of work that we screen is broad.  But I think we’re also curatorially quite strict about what we screen and what we don’t.  Our programme is quite large as you know – 200 odd features and 100 plus shorts – but that’s only one in 12 of all the films we see.   We watch a huge volume of work to get to the programme that we have.  I think that idea of the festival being a festival that filmmakers have worked very hard to get into makes the programme or I hope makes the programme strong.

But I can have my views about it, it’s up to other people to judge whether that’s true or not.

It must feel like a very personal job.   I always imagine it’s like making a mix-tape for someone and hoping that they like it.

It’s absolutely like that, that’s a really great analogy.  The thing I always say is that in relation to individual films, you read a book and you love it and you pass it on to your friends and you say, “you really must read that” but I think you mix-tape analogy is a good one because it’s about how those things all work together.  And what if the track that’s your favourite is one that they’re just going “What on earth has she programmed that one for?”

There are quite a few actors who have got two films in the festival this year.  Quite notably, Mr Clooney is back this year and he had, wasn’t it three last year?

No, that was the year before (Fantastic Mr Fox, Up In The Air, The Men Who Stare At Goats).  Last year, he just had The American.

Oh yes, that’s right, but in any case, he’s a regular fixture.  What do you think it is about George that’s appealing?

I think he’s a very good actor.  I think if you look at the two films he’s in this year, The Descendants – the Alexander Payne film and his own film The Ides Of March which he’s also directing.  In The Ides Of March, it’s a fine performance but he’s playing a US Senator so it doesn’t look like it was a massive challenge but in The Descendants he’s playing a father which I think he’s only done once before; he’s not very good at being a father.  He’s a sort of cuckolded husband which you wouldn’t expect from him and he gets to wear some truly terrible Hawaiian shirts!  It’s a very refreshing role and I think obviously working with Alexander Payne who writes and directs those very flawed men really well and Clooney is one of those.

George Clooney's horrible Hawaiian shirt in The Descendants

Clooney’s got two films in the festival, Michael Fassbender has two.  The other person who’s got three films in the festival is an actor who I’m particularly keen on is John C. Reilly.  He’s in We Need To Talk About Kevin, Carnage – the Roman Polanski –  and he’s also in a film called Terri by a director called Azazel Jacobs who had a film called Mama’s Man which we screened at the Festival a couple of years ago.

John C. Reilly I think is an impeccable actor but in Terri he plays this rather well meaning but inept teacher who’s basically trying to counsel a misfit teenager and he’s just terrific in that.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in something that isn’t good.

I can think of films he’s in that I didn’t like that much but I can’t think of anything he’s bad in.

There was that film a few months ago, I don’t know if you saw it about an insurance convention – Cedar Rapids?  Yeah, that was terrible and even he struggled but he was as good as he could possibly be in the circumstances.

Michael Fassbender is also doing great guns this year in two films.

And again two incredibly different performances – very buttoned up as Jung (in A Dangerous Method) and the complete antithesis of that in Shame.

I can’t wait for Shame.

Shame’s an extraordinary piece of work.  Someone asked me the other day what I thought would be the talking points of the festival and I think if Shame is not one those, then something really wrong has happened.  <laughs>

Michael Fassbender's Shame - sure to be a talking point.

Something I did want to ask about – Rachel Weisz is not only in two films but in the opening and closing films (360 and The Deep Blue Sea respectively).  Was that a deliberate choice?

I know, I promise she didn’t give me an envelope of used £20 notes or anything!  I had in my head for quite a long time that I wanted to close the festival with The Deep Blue Sea and you know I think the film is very strong, Terence (Davies) is someone whose films have meant a lot to me over the years.  I was exercising a bit of personal licence too.  It’s the last night of my last festival.

And we saw Fernando’s (Mereilles) film and really wanted that for opening.

He’s opened before hasn’t he?

Yes, with The Constant Gardener although this film is very different.  The two things that gave me pause were the fact that Fernando had already opened the festival a few years ago but also that Rachel was potentially in both opening and closing.  But she’s tremendous in both them.  360 is much more of an ensemble piece anyway but the clip we used for the trailer has much more of a focus on Anthony Hopkins and rightly so as it’s his best performance in years, I would say.

In The Deep Blue Sea, it’s just Rachel, Tom Hiddlestone and Simon Russell Beale.  And the story is Rachel’s story and she’s central to it.


Rachel Weisz reflects in closing film The Deep Blue Sea

This is your last year as Artistic Director.  Was the process and emotional one for you?

It will be.  It’s not that it hasn’t been but I haven’t had a chance to stop and take stock yet.  There hasn’t been a time for reflection and truthfully I don’t think there will be till after the festival.  I think closing night will certainly be emotional.  I think there will be certain times throughout the festival when I’m introducing people’s films where I know it’s the last time when I’m doing something like that with them and I’ll be sorry.  The other thing about London as a festival which is lovely is audiences come up and talk to me and usually that’s because they’ve enjoyed something.

That must be very rewarding.

It is but I expect that I’ll find that really hard because I think we will all be quite emotional.

How do you feel about next year’s festival being in someone else’s hands?

I’m sort of excited about it because I’ll still be living in London so it means that I can come and watch films here and also having been here such a long time, I have put a lot of energy and ideas into the festival.  But if I stayed I’m not sure if I would have many more.  I think now I’ve reached a point where I’m interested to see what someone else does with it.

It won’t be the same without your boots Sandra!

Aw, thank you very much but I’m sure Claire who’s coming – I’ve seen some of her shoes, so don’t worry!