A journalist, publicist and producer try their best to withstand the Cannes Film Festival’s worst. Part Two. 4,883 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.
Who do you have to fuck to make sure you don’t win a Palme d’Or at Cannes? Can a studio publicist with a tit job and a smattering of French, along with her boss, a VP involuntarily channeling Golda Meir, manage to sabotage the chances of their own film? Is it possible for a former Academy Award winning producer, fallen on hard times, to find financing for the middle third of a movie after he’s already shot the beginning and end with money provided by a consortium of Canadian periodontists? Will a sympathy slowdown of taxi drivers, chambermaids and Perrier suppliers, in support of local sex workers striking for improved dental benefits, bring Cannes to its knees? All these questions Jack Kemper, bottom-feeding entertainment journalist, would answer in time.
But at the moment, wedged in an economy seat in an Air France jet, coming into the Nice/Cote d’Azur airport after a bumpy flight from Paris, his thoughts were concentrated on who would get the lead obit in the trades if the plane went down.
For Jack’s first trip to Cannes, he’d been a stringer for the International Herald Tribune which put him up in the Carlton. And all he had to do was file 500 words a day — which he phoned in, literally. This time his press credentials were from Moviefan.com, a startup operated by a couple of film geeks in Van Nuys. And he would be staying on the wrong side of the Voie Rapide on his own nickel in a 95-Euro a night room a 20-minute walk to the Croisette and full, no doubt, of middle-market hookers and distribution people from central Asia. What the fuck was he doing here anyway? The glamour of Cannes was long gone. It had degenerated into a bazaar, as tight-fisted and venal as a camel market in Beirut. The place was full of accountants and lawyers doing deals. The screenings, the stars, the red carpet had become the sideshow. The real action was the film market. It was all about back-end financing and capitalizing your production investment with a distribution deal. For every hundred people in town, 99 of them were looking for the one guy with the checkbook.
Kemper deplaned and headed for baggage claim where an American film publicist was speaking bad French on her phone. Kemper took a closer look at her. She had that demented, already exhausted, jet-lagged look just 20 minutes after arriving. But Kemper liked a bit of mileage on women. Ten years ago, all you had to do to get laid during Cannes was stand in one place long enough. These days, if you had a few hours free, you slept or read your email. Or, if worse came to worst, you saw a movie.
Kemper waited for her to click off and, with his best smile, said, “First time in Cannes?”
Erika Marks interpreted the flip remark as a comment on her French, which was quite functional thank you very much. The man was a hard read. His clothes were good, if a little worn. There was a patina of sarcasm in his look, softened by a sensitive mouth. He was picking up his own luggage, so he couldn’t be anybody important.
“I work for the studio,” she offered.
“So you’ve been here before. Then you know that we’re not going to get our luggage anytime soon.”
“It’s a slowdown, not a strike.”
“Jack Kemper.” He fished a card from his pocket and handed it to her.
“Erika Marks.” She didn’t waste a card on him.
“I thought maybe we could share a cab into town.”
“Thank you, but I have a car waiting outside.”
When she didn’t offer him a lift, Jack Kemper concluded she would not be forthcoming either for an exclusive story or for a sweaty night in his one-star hotel. Which didn’t necessarily make him less interested. Eventually she would have to sit down before those Jimmy Choo shoes did serious damage to her feet. And then you never know. There were moments after midnight, when the rosé afterglow kicked in and the soft pungent air wafted off the Mediterranean, you were liable to do foolish things. And those could remind her of him.
Hanna Lee Hedson was not happy with her room at the Carlton. And the first person to hear about it was publicist Erika Marks. Who didn’t even work directly for the actress but for the studio that had financed her movie. The third-floor beachfront room had been booked for Hanna an hour and a half after Crimea had been chosen to be shown in competition. “There’s a weird odor in my room,” Hanna said. “Sort of like mayonnaise. It’s coming from the bed.”
Erika shouldn’t have given out her cell number. It was like babysitting a teenager. Though the studio had Hanna Lee Hedson listed as 36, the actress was pushing 40, if not 45. On a good day. Erika’s feet were killing her. The Jimmy Choos were at least half a size too small. By the time Erika checked into her own closet-sized non-beachfront room at the Carlton, her feet had swollen so badly she could barely get the Jimmies off. She limped into the bathroom with her iPhone, sat down on the closed toilet lid and soaked her feet in the bidet. There were 31 emails — 23 of them from journalists, forwarded through the studio publicity office, wanting face time with Hanna. There was also an email from the actress’s personal assistant who had pushed back her arrival another 24 hours, and one from her boss telling her to call him at the office ASAP.
She dialed the studio and got Larry Moulds on his 8:30 am latte buzz. “So what’s going on?” he asked her.
“There was some smell in her room she didn’t like. I dealt with it. Listen, Larry, I’m not her personal assistant. I shouldn’t have to deal with this shit.”
“Somebody has to, bubbie…”
If there was one thing Erika hated more than French people speaking English to her, it was non-Jews dropping Yiddish. It was the lingua franca of the entertainment business, appropriated by starlets from the Midwest and Mexican mail room messengers.
“You’re setting up press for her?”
“As soon as I get off the phone with you.”
“Erika, you can’t afford to come home empty-handed. We need a Palme D’Or. The picture went eighteen-five over. They’re very unhappy about that.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“It will be if you come home with bubkes.”
“Thanks for the extra pressure.”
After Erika hung up, she called Hanna to arrange times for interviews but her room phone was on Do Not Disturb. The actress would be up half the night and nodding off during her press conference tomorrow. Right beside her publicist, who could barely walk. They’d be a great pair — the lame leading the unconscious. Erika sat in her jet-lag daze replaying the phone conversation she’d just had with Larry. Why was he channeling Golda Meir?
Jack Kemper’s 95-Euro room at the Hotel Charlemagne featured yellow and white striped wallpaper, a purple chintz bedspread, and a brass wall crucifix on which Jesus surfed like a beach boy. It was not the hotel you wanted to wake up in with a hangover. He would have to watch the pastis. The room phone resembled a prop from a 1950s movie, and the TV was a 13-inch Grundig. The groan of the spongy bedsprings told Jack he would be hearing from his back after a nap.
In the closet-sized bathroom Jack splashed water on his face and avoided looking too closely in the mirror. Between the jet lag and the pallid lighting, he looked five years older, maybe 10. Grabbing his jacket and his sunglasses, he left the room. As long as he kept moving, he told himself, he would be all right. He sought the scene at the Gàre Maritime, the cavernous former ferry port beside the Palais des Festivals which resembled a cattle call for a movie about the Cannes Film Festival.
It was in this building that invitees obtained the all-important ID badge that allowed access to the various festival venues. Without it, they were just civilians, relegated to standing outside the rope security barrier beside the red carpet with camera phones. In the post-9/11 world of mega-security, everybody had to show up personally to obtain a badge. The days when personal assistants could queue up were gone. So now getting your ID was the first big photo op of the festival, and the area outside the entrance to the Centre d’Accreditation was crowded with photographers.
Inside the building Jack Kemper was greeted by a profusion of people standing in long lines that snaked back and forth and across. There were signs in English and French indicating which one you were supposed to stand in. Kemper waited in the press accreditation line, which was longer and slower moving. The name of the game here was getting the right badge. The Dom Pérignon of badges was the coveted white badge, which provided access to everything, everywhere, without waiting in line, and was bestowed on the festival jury and the trade reporters. Most of the other journalists wound up with the pink badge with the yellow dot in the middle, a badge that got them into press conferences and a few of the less glamorous cocktail parties.
Erika Marks had taken the Ambien out of her toiletries bag, then opted instead for a half-bottle of 40-Euro muscadet from the minibar. The studio would flag it — but fuck them, she deserved it. The day had been endless, nine time zones with a cranky diva in her charge. She was jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, and limping from the Jimmies, and have to function in front of a bunch of predatory journalists. It was mid-lunchtime in L.A so she was safe from phone calls for the moment. She got into a hot bathtub with her glass of wine and unwind. The muscadet and the water began to dissolve the tension, and she felt herself starting to fade. All she had to do now was towel off and fall into bed. But the Carlton, unfortunately, had provided an extension phone within reach of the bath. She let it ring until her professional conscience got the better of her.
“Erika, I can’t get the TV to work,” complained Hanna.
Eventually Erika hung up and dropped the Ambien.
Erika had enjoyed four hours of tortured Ambien sleep before her 7:30 wake-up call. The first interview was at 10, and Hanna had to be up, dressed, and beautiful by then. Not to mention relatively coherent. Erika threw on some clothes and headed for Hanna’s room. The actress opened the door, looking like a blousy housewife from Tarzana instead of a $20-million-a-picture movie star with a film in competition in Cannes.
“I’m not going. I feel like shit. I didn’t sleep at all. And I have a cold sore.”
Erika had to stop herself from suggesting that Hanna take two aspirins and jump off the balcony. Erika had been doing this job too long to allow herself to be derailed by a pain-in-the-ass actress. If they could get through hair and makeup while Erika fed her the talking points, they just might make it.
Jack Kemper had been wrong. You didn’t need to have a pastis hangover to contemplate suicide waking up in his room. Algerian burgundy would do. He had slept badly. If he had slept at all. He had crashed and burned around nine — noon on his L.A. body clock — after eating gelatinous lamb couscous in an Algerian restaurant down the street from the hotel. He dropped into a stuporous sleep, soon shattered by the whine of an out-of-tune vacuum cleaner in the hallway.
He got out of the underwear he’d slept in, put on a new pair, a fresh shirt, corduroy trousers, Bally loafers, and went downstairs. Sitting in the corner of the tiny breakfast room was a guy reading the trades. Two sips of the 98-octane coffee cleared out the cobwebs sufficiently to allow Jack to place the man – a American film producer whose out-of-left-field movie had a surprise Best Picture Oscar some years ago. Kemper could recall watching him on TV, looking like a deer in the klieg lights as he accepted the award in an ill-fitting rented tux with a sagging cummerbund. Mumbling some barely audible comments. Abandoning the podium long before the get-off-the-stage-already music. What the fuck was he doing at this fleabag? You’d think a Best Picture Oscar would get you a better room.
Or at least your luggage. The middle-aged man had indeed won an Academy Award as the producer of a talky and beautifully shot historical epic about the life of the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. The film had snuck in as a dark horse when the two favorites split the Oscar vote. Since then, things had not gone smoothly for Charlie Berns. To say the least. After a number of development deals fell apart, he drifted into genteel unemployment before he managed to get a group of periodontists from Winnipeg with tax-sheltering needs to invest a couple of million dollars in a film. That pic was, at the moment, inside two film canisters caught up in the baggage handlers’ job action at the Nice/Côte d’Azur Airport. The print with temp dub and score of footage he had shot eight months ago in Canada, entitled Over There, was about three young Canadians who come of age during World War I. Charlie had shot the beginning and end of the movie. Missing was the middle part — the life in the trenches.
Charlie had hoped to have enough money to shoot the critical warfare scenes in northern Ontario, cheating northern France. But he had run out of funds when his female star came down with chronic fatigue syndrome and was unable to work more than two hours a day. Charlie had gotten the periodontists to pony up enough additional money to take care of the temp dub and score, and to send him to Cannes economy class with a room at a cut-rate hotel. He was to rent a booth at the film market and a theater on the rue d’Antibes for screenings.
Charlie had tried explaining to the baggage commissar that his film wasn’t being brought into France for commercial exploitation but was to be shown at the film market. Then the bureaucrat asked to see his accreditation letter to the marché du film, which, as it happened, was packed in the $49 Auto Club special sitting behind the glass partition beside his film canisters.
The commissar shrugged, then shook his finger at Charlie. “Your luggage has been impounded. I am desolated.”
“You have imported film into the France without a visa d’importation.”
“I told you, the paperwork’s in my valise.”
“Which, as I have already explained, has been impounded, as you are in violation of the law requiring a visa d’importation to bring film into the France.”
Charlie took two 10-Euro notes out of his wallet. The baggage commissar looked down at them as if they were a couple of turds. Fresh sweat was gathering under Charlie’s armpits as the stale sweat coagulated. “You know something?" he exclaimed. "There’s a reason you have 12 percent unemployment and your economy’s in the shitter. You only work 30 hours a week, and most of that time you’re torturing geese.”
The chef de bagages turned his back and walked out of the office, locking the glass door to the storage room behind him.
Charlie issued a parting volley: “And you got your ass kicked by Rommel!”
Next, Charlie was sent to the Espace Riviera, behind the Palais, which was where the film market unrolled itself and where Charlie found himself in the basement. The person at the information counter there was sympathetic and unhelpful. “Perhaps you might find the American consulate helpful.” Charlie’s cab ulled up in front of the consular agency only to see a FERMÉ sign on the door. Charlie shook his head and asked to be driven back to Cannes. The day had been one long nightmare. He would wake up tomorrow, pretend that yesterday had never happened, and start all over again. He slept in his clothes. And looked it the next morning at breakfast.
“You won an Oscar, didn’t you?” Kemper approached him. “Mind if I join you? Jack Kemper.”
“Dizzy And Will, right?”
Charlie nodded, surprised if not pleased that somebody actually remembered.
“The life of Benjamin Disraeli, filmed on location in…Bulgaria?”
“I heard the studio didn’t even know where you were filming for a while. They sent a woman to shut you down, but you hired her as AP and got the whole thing in the can before they could stop you. That true?”
“More or less.”
“So you’ve got a film here?”
Charlie nodded, still trying to get a read on Jack. After a moment’s reflection, he told him the whole story. Down to having his film canisters impounded by the chef de bagages at the Nice/Côte d’Azur airport.
“Figures,” Jack Kemper said. “This country is run by bureaucrats, some guy sitting behind a desk with seven rubber stamps and a cork up his ass. What you’ve got to do is fight fire with fire. You find a notaire and tell him you want a, fiche, a certificate of…I don’t know…reclamation of baggage.”
“Is there really such a thing?”
“It doesn’t make a difference. If the notaire puts enough serious-sounding language in it and a few official-looking stamps on it, it’ll do the trick.”
“Jesus, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m in the bullshit business.”
Jack Kemper smiled. Charlie Berns had read him.
Charlie Berns bargained the notaire down to 750 Euros. Thirty minutes later Charlie walked out with a very colorful document and took a cab to the airport. The chef de bagages was, predictably, out to lunch when he got there. The assistant chef de bagages examined the document carefully, nodded, asked Charlie for his baggage stubs, then went back into the storage room, foraged around, and came back empty-handed. He turned on his computer and ran the baggage-tag numbers, then smiled.
“There is no worry, monsieur. Your bags have been expedited to your hotel.”
“To my hotel?”
“Bonne continuation, monsieur.”
Erika Marks managed to get Hanna Lee Hedson to the roundtable interview on the second floor of the Palais des Festivals just ten minutes late and looking at least more attractive. Roundtables were particularly grueling exercises. The star or the director sat at a table surrounded by reporters shooting questions non-stop. It was a journalistic gangbang, and you needed both wit and charm to get through it.
What the media wasn’t supposed to know was that Hanna and the film’s mercurial Dutch auteur director had stopped speaking to each other after the second day on location in Turkey. After that they communicated exclusively through the first AD. Erika sat down beside Hanna, who flashed her $20 million smile while stifling a yawn and said, “Bonjour.” The first curveball was from the France Soir reporter, who asked if there was any truth to the rumors that she and the director didn’t get along.
Erika quickly grabbed the reins. “First of all, those rumors have been greatly exaggerated. They worked well together. Sure, they had a couple of difficult moments. There are always some artistic issues between creative people on a film set, but what’s important is the end result, which, as you will see at the screening, is superb.”
Then a Middle Eastern-looking man identified himself as Mahmoud Al Haziz, representing Al Jazeera. “I would like to hear this response directly from Miss Hedson. Are you aware that the Crimean War marginalized the Muslim world by allying Turkey with the western powers of England and France and thereby legitimized the Christian incursion into the Holy Land?”
Hanna Lee Hedson stared at the reporter vacuously for a moment, looking for some traction. “Florence Nightingale just helped people during the war. She wasn’t political,” Hanna responded
“I’m afraid that you did not do your homework, Miss Hedson. Florence Nightingale did not allow the Imams to visit the Turkish wounded to pray for them and to recite the Koran. Nor did she permit the prayer to Mecca in her sick ward.”
“Well, I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”
“Did you also not know that you filmed on Fridays in Turkey, in violation of Islamic law?”
“Sorry, but I just work when they tell me to work.…”
Color started rising in Hanna’s face. Erika recognized the symptoms of a meltdown. Erika moved in before Hanna went much further. “Sir, we’re not here to discuss politics. We’re here to celebrate film. So how about some film questions? You over there, in the back, ma’am?”
They were out of the woods. At least for the moment. Unless, of course, Hanna started talking about the mayonnaise odor in her room. Erika stole a glance at her watch. Another fifteen minutes of softballs and they were out of there.
Sitting nearby, at another roundtable, Jack Kemper overheard the goings-on with Hanna Lee Hedson and the studio publicist who had blown him off at the airport. He hadn’t been able to get onto that roundtable, not with his credentials. Afterward, Jack managed to catch up with the publicist and her charge.
“Nicely done,” he said to Erika.
She managed a pro-forma smile.
“Listen, if you let me have a sit-down with Hanna, I promise not to even mention the Crimean War.”
“You represent who, exactly?”
“Never heard of them.”
“Really? They’re getting more hits than Salon,” Kemper went on, freely improvising. “Listen, Erika, you think the people you work for wouldn’t be thrilled to goose the demo a little? They’d make you a vice president, send you to Cannes in the front of the plane. Listen, why don’t we all have dinner tonight? My website will pick up the tab. We’ll eat the best food you ever tasted, and we can do background on your movie.”
“Sorry, we have dinner with Paris Match this evening,” Erika interjected.
“Marc-Alain Grognon?” Jack raised an eyebrow. “He’ll take you to Le Moulin de Mougins for a steak tartare.”
Hanna turned to Erika and said, “I am not eating an uncooked steak.”
“I’m sure we can find a vegetarian dish at Le Moulin –”
Jack said, directly to Hanna, “What if I pick you up at the Carlton at, say, eight o’clock?”
“Hanna, we can’t blow off Paris Match.”
“Just reschedule it, Erika. How hard can that be?”
And the publicist flashed him a look — the look a publicist gives a reporter when he manages to get beneath the radar on her watch. Jack smiled. He was pleased with himself. Now all he had to do was find a vegan restaurant in Cannes.
Larry Moulds got through to Erika Marks on her cell as she was trying to wolf down a quiche at Le Snack Bar in the basement of the Palais. “Listen, tateleh, I’ve got to go down the hall and report to Vivian. And I’d like to have something positive to tell her. What about the Paris Match cover?”
“I’ve had to reschedule the dinner with Grognon.”
“What? We want that issue on the newsstands by July.”
“Hanna wants to go to a vegetarian restaurant tonight with some website guy she met at the roundtable.”
“Something called Moviefan.com. I never heard of them. The reporter tried to hit on me at the airport.”
“So, you give him a toss?”
“Larry, I don’t sleep with reporters.”
“It couldn’t hurt. You can’t take one for the team?”
“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.”
“So long, bubaleh. Sei gezint.”
He had to tell his boss Vivian Rakmunis something good about Crimea. Even with the ad budget bloated, they still weren’t getting a lot of action. Ellen had blown them off. So did Kimmel. They booked Fallon, but in the third segment, after Jason Alexander. Hanna spent her three minutes talking about vegetarian menus.
Larry’s intercom buzzed. Vivian wanted to see him. She had moved up the ladder by developing a Sundance hit, then a couple of nine-figure tent-poles before the studio’s board of directors, desperate to move the stock, swept the entire management team out the door and put her at the top. In Vivian’s 10 months running the place, she had managed to alienate just about everyone with high-pressure performance tactics. She handed out actual report cards, with grades from A to F, on a monthly basis. And now he was going to have to do a dog-and-pony show in her office, and he didn’t have any good numbers to trot out. All he had was a growing stack of expense vouchers and the trade ads they had taken out trying to open this picture.
Well, if Golda could bullshit John Foster Dulles about Suez, Larry ought to be able to vamp for 15 minutes to a studio head about the ad-pub campaign for the expensive clunker she had greenlighted. He’d tell her it’s getting harder and harder to manage the press at Cannes. They’ve got all these third-world media outlets and weird websites there, and you can’t just do a couple of roundtables and expect to get on the six o’clock news. Before he left the office he checked the stock ticker. The stock was down one and five-eighths, and it wasn’t even noon yet in New York. Oy a klug…
Vivian gave him a reality check. “Larry, there is nothing as important to this studio as opening Crimea. That picture crashes and burns, we may all be out of here by Labor Day. Understand?”
“I got it,” he said.
“I don’t want to have to give you a D on your next report card.”
“You know what comes after D, don’t you, Larry?”
When Charlie Berns showed back up the Hotel Charlemagne and asked for his film cans, he found out they weren’t there. “They have been here,” the absinthe-eyed desk clerk elaborated. “They did arrive here. At ten hours this morning. But I had to refuse acceptation because they required my signature of responsibility to receive the delivery.”
“And you did not want to sign it?” Charlie was speaking very slowly, exaggerating his enunciation.
“It is beyond my competence. If, par exemple, something would happen to your luggages, I would be adjudged responsible and in an irregular situation vis à vis the authorities. N’est-ce pas?”
The man shrugged superbly. If shrugging were an Olympic sport, the desk clerk would have gotten a ten. There was no point in pursuing the argument. Charlie glared at the man, but to no avail.
That night, in room 332 of the Hôtel Charlemagne, Charlie Berns finally unpacked his film cans and safely stashed them in what passed for a closet. He brushed his teeth for the first time since leaving L.A. He was both exhausted and wired, riding the fumes of the manic energy he had expended in doing battle with the French. He promised himself that the first thing he was going to do when he got out of this fucking country was never come back.
Jack Kemper googled “vegetarian restaurants in Cannes” and found a restaurant called the Montagard featuring seafood and vegetarian dishes such as rice-flour ravioli stuffed with puréed artichokes. The restaurant was located about 500 yards from the Carlton. It would be easier to get there on foot, but stars at Hanna Lee Hedson’s level walked only when they were paid to. The publicist, it turned out, was better dressed than the actress. Erika Marks was in garnet-studded jeans, a cashmere sweater, and a short well-cut leather jacket that Kemper clocked at $1,500 easy. The restaurant turned out to be pricier than Kemper had counted on, but he was in too deep now to backpedal. Hanna’s per diem could have handled it, and then some, but there was no way she was going to go near a check in this town. At Cannes the only thing A-list stars used their 1,000-Euro per diem for was drugs.
Erika Marks attacked her moules marinières expertly. She listened attentively as Kemper got Hanna to tell some on-the-set anecdotes, hoping for an indiscretion he could build a story around. It was clear to Kemper that Erika Marks wasn’t going to let anything titillating get through. It was like trying to fuck a girl with her chaperone present. So, since he wasn’t going to get a story, he decided he might as well kick back and enjoy his sole meunière and, while he was at it, score some points with the publicist, who was looking better and better to him as the evening wore on.
Maybe it was his imagination, but the publicist appeared to be, if not encouraging him, at least no longer hostile to him. Long ago Kemper had learned never to do anything too serious while jet-legged. Now he decided what the fuck. So he surrendered to the food and wine and turned the charm on for Erika Marks. By the time the tarte tatin avec crème anglaise arrived, he thought he might be in love. Or at least in heat.
This story first posted here in 2015.