An Interview With: Michael Lerman, Palm Springs’ New Artistic Director

January 30, 2017

“Do you know why Palm Springs became a destination?”

This question came from a friend after they reminisced happily about the city, located in the desert outside of Los Angeles. “Because during the studio era, stars had it written in their contracts that they had to be available to get to the lot, at any time, within two hours.”

Thanks to the gallivanting of legends like the Rat Pack, this “Two-Hour Rule” became part of Hollywood lore. But the glitz still shines: Clark Gable’s home was turned into a restaurant; you can take tours to see where Marilyn Monroe hid away from the press. More pertinently, with the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the proximity to one of the biggest cities in film has left a lasting impression on the festival.

Kiva Reardon, FIPRESCI juror at PSIFF 2017, talked to Michael Lerman, the new Artistic Director of PSIFF (and Programmer at TIFF), about selecting films for new audiences, industry influences and the geography of film festivals.

Kiva Reardon: You work at Palm Springs International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Philadelphia Film Festival and the Overlook Film Festival. How do you approach programming for each?

Michael Lerman: The job dictates it. For TIFF I do television, or last summer when I was the Acting Head of Programming [at TIFF] or working on Platform, you’re discovering things. You’re looking for things that, for lack of a better word, are worth giving a platform to, and bringing them into the world—often for the very first time. That’s very different then going to festivals and seeing what you like. [Palm Springs] has one of the most engaged audiences I’ve ever seen, in terms of reactions and questions. It’s really great to see people get up at 10:00am to see Boundaries and have a great Q&A with Chloé Robichaud—especially in a place that seems so far removed from a fictional island off Newfoundland and so divorced from Canadian politics. That’s what I’m going to be thinking about more going forward: the conversations that can get started there.

Palm Springs is interesting because of its timing: it’s one of the first of the calendar year but the last of the previous festival cycle. And it has become really important for the Foreign Language Oscar nominations. Can you speak to this?

The way I look at Palm Springs is that it’s a best of: it’s the first of the year and also the last. So we have the opportunity to look back at the year. And in some ways it’s every country saying: “Here’s our best film” as they put it forward for the Oscars. At the same time, the rest of the programming comes at it from the mentality of: “What if we lived in a world where there wasn’t just one French film to pick from?” This gives us the chance to look at the other great films that have come out. Which is nice because it ties into the award season and we have our own award gala, which is almost like a mini-Oscars, meaning we also get to talk about Moonlight, Hidden Figures, La La Land. The other cool thing about Palm Springs, which I haven’t had the chance to get into at other festivals, is Talking Pictures. This programme shows a movie that’s already opened but we supplement it with a [post-screening] conversation. There are places that say, “We can’t play Moonlight because it already came out.” But we don’t do that, so we can play films like Captain Fantastic, Aquarius, and Elle.

You do get amazing talent to come to the festival.

My predecessors did a lot of working in building the festival up and also proximity to Los Angeles helps. So, for example, if Isabelle Huppert is around for Oscar nominations it’s easy for her to come down. It’s a lot different when you have to fly her from France.

Do you think because of location the festival is more tied to the industry?

Yes, because it’s easy to get to. Haha. But the second piece is that if you look at every major film festival, almost all of them are built around people wanting to be in that place at that time of the year. I love Sundance, but it sometimes gets tiring to be trudging around in the snow all day. But, if you’re A-list talent, and you go to Sundance to do press and get to take a day to ski, that’s awesome. Being in Palm Springs in the winter, when it’s not 100 degrees and you can spend half the day in a hot tub and half the day in the cinema, makes sense. I don’t want to diminish the hard work that everyone does in putting together a great festival, and all those things marry together: programming, location, timing.

People don’t always talk about this aspect of festivals: geography.

And the other thing people don’t think about is how cities play into the identity of the festival. There’s a lot of talk about what Toronto is. I hear it all the time. And that’s partly because we’re such a big festival—and I love that we’re a big festival—but that means that a journalist will have a very different experience than an audience member or a programmer. But why we’ve grown, and I’ve only been there for four years, it’s that there’s a very hungry audience in the city for cinema.

Outside of programming you also make films. You co-wrote Man From Reno (2014), which you also produced, and have also acted as an editor (Daylight Savings) and director (Natural Causes). Do you think this influences your programming work?

I think it helps when I’m interacting with filmmakers. Because I’ve had that experience. I’ve had my films passed on and seen firsthand how I want to be treated as a filmmaker at a festival. I try to incorporate that. It also helps anyone, as a viewer, to have worked in film because it [helps you see how] easy it is to mess up. It is so easy to get one bad performance, one day of bad weather when it was the right day to shoot, one bad element and it can topple a project. I don’t think I have an enhanced level of empathy, but I see things and think: “Man, I wish they’d had money for ten more days of editing,” because I’ve been there. Working on sets gives everyone a bit more perspective. I was speaking about this with someone recently, because there aren’t a lot of people like Pier Paolo Pasolini anymore who do every element of the business. There’s something really amazing about being able to speak intelligently about the film ecosystem. I don’t know if I have that but the people that do, like James Schamus, can say things and it has deep meaning: they can say, from a critics’ perspective it will mean this, from a programmer’s perspective it will me this [and people will listen]. Another reality is that a lot of programming is writing: being able to market, promote and communicate intelligently about film. At the end of the day, though, I just like finding stuff that I like and showing it to other people.