The further Cannes Film Festival adventures of a film publicist, journalist and producer. See Part One and Part Two and Part Four. 3,024 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The Cannes Film Festival jury president, Matthieu Brioche, wasn’t used to getting turned down by women. And he certainly was not used to being left standing in a hotel hallway at two in the morning after an American publicist pushing a film in contention had given him her room number. That was not simply rejection — that was a disgrace. So when his phone rang and he heard the femme in question, Hollywood film publicist Erika Marks – slightly past her prime but enticing none the less, like a bottle of 1975 Chateau Margaux with a leaky cork — inviting him to breakfast, he told her that he had a screening to attend. Erika Marks was proving to be, if not devious, then clueless. He liked that piece of American slang. Though he thought the film with Alicia Silverstone was a turkey. He liked that word, too. He just wouldn’t eat one.
Erika Marks didn’t blame Matthieu Brioche for being pissed. She had given him every indication she was interested. And she hadn’t even been particularly subtle about it. But now that her express orders from her studio boss were to not sleep with the Frenchman, thank God she hadn’t made things worse by jury tampering. Instead, she was just guilty of cock teasing. A misdemeanor.
Outside her door, next to the complimentary copy of USA Today, someone had left that day’s Screen International. Grabbing it, she got back into bed with the trade paper, eager to read the expected hatchet job that film critic Harry Harrington had done on her studio’s picture Crimea. The piece turned out to be great press. It fostered a want-to-see in the reader, which was the name of the game. Her boss Larry Moulds back in Beverly Hills would go ballistic. God forbid, the review could even result in Crimea winning the Palme d’Or. Then they’d really be fucked since their marching orders within the last 24 hours were to kill the film’s Cannes chances.
Jack Kemper, frustrated stringer for a bottom-feeding film blog, set out from the disappointing Hôtel Charlemagne for the twenty-minute walk to the Croisette. He asked himself, for the hundredth time, what he was still doing in Cannes. Why stick around? He knew the reasons. The first was the worst: what would he do back in New York? Here, at least, the weather was good and the food was better. The second reason was the story he could run about an American film publicist tampering with the Cannes jury president. But Erika Marks had given Jack a hint of encouragement the other day at the Palais: a rain check for dinner and possibly more. Or at least he thought so. He wasn’t entirely sure what messages she was sending and suspected that she wasn’t sure, either. She was obviously harried and not running on all cylinders. Who wouldn’t be with that job? Babysitting a diva actress starring in a $180 million turkey at Cannes couldn’t be a lot of fun.
There were things about Erica Marks that he found enticing. He didn’t quite know why. Like her slightly out-of-focus stare — evidence of either passion or astigmatism. Her wit was a little jaded but, like his, the product of a disappointed amusement with life. And then there was her secret dinner with Matthieu Brioche at the out-of-the-way restaurant behind Notre Dame de L’Espérance. Was she worth another week in the Hôtel Charlemagne?
Maybe. Jack Kemper had a presentiment that something was going to happen in this town, and that he would want to be here when it did. Whatever that story turned out to be, Jack Kemper would hate himself forever if he were sitting in New York watching it on CNN.
Charlie Berns, a one-time Oscar-winning producer now down on his luck, came to Cannes looking for financing to shoot the last bit of his two-thirds of a war movie Over There. He got to the Théâtre Sexy on the rue Dar Es Salaam at six o’clock — an hour before the screening of his still uncompleted film previously underwritten by Canadian periodontists — to make sure the place was reasonably clean. By seven-twenty, Prince Freddie, the Nigerian email scammer with millions to invest in movies, still hadn’t shown. The place smelled of cigarette smoke, disinfectant, and semen. The purple lighting clashed with the red velvet seats and the faux gold leaf wall sconces.
At seven-forty, Prince Freddie and his entourage finally walked in the door. Charlie ushered them to their front row center seats and signaled for the projectionist to roll. The lights went down, and the first reel of Over There appeared on the screen. The temp score, canned symphonic music that his editor had stolen off the Avid, filled the room. Over opening credits, not yet Chyroned in, a montage of the Canadian prairies played, wind blowing through endless miles of barley, exotic birds flying overhead.
But Prince Freddie was focusing on the two young actors playing Austin and Geoffrey on the screen.
When the reel ended, the projectionist hit the lights and Charlie popped out of his seat to address his assembled claque.
“So, pretty fabulous stuff, huh? Wait till you see the end. It’ll knock you out. Every dollar’s on the screen," Charlie said, glancing at the movie’s periodontist investors who applauded. "The DP did a fabulous job, didn’t he?” He forged ahead. “Okay, here’s what’s missing…”
“Is Freddie giving me $3 million or not?” Charlie asked the Prince’s go-between after the screening.
“It depends. He has some concerns about the first and last part of the movie. Which means you have to do something about them.”
“They’re already shot.”
“So you reshoot.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t have the money to reshoot.”
“You don’t have the money to shoot, either. Be on the beach at three this afternoon to meet the boat that will take you to the yacht anchored off the Île Ste. Marguerite.”
“Am I getting notes from a fucking Nigerian email scammer?”
“A fucking Nigerian email scammer with $3 million.”
Back in Beverly Hills, Larry Moulds nearly choked on his pickled herring when he read Harry Harrington’s prediction in Screen International that Crimea, the film that he was tasked with burying at Cannes, was a favorite for the Palme D’Or. He stared at the phone like it was a time bomb. His studio chief Vivian Rakmunis would call him and go apeshit as soon as she read the item. Larry reached into his desk drawer and fished out the Xanax that he kept under the Tums, the Maalox, and the emergency condoms.
Larry dropped the second Xanax right after the phone rang and he learned that Vivian wanted to see him. Without looking at him, she motioned for Larry to take a seat. “Did you read the trades this morning, Larry? It’s all over the web. How could you have let this happen? The takeaway is that our picture is the favorite at the fucking Cannes Film Festival. Get on a plane,” she demanded.
“Vivian, I can’t go to Cannes now. We’re two weeks out from Memorial Day weekend. We’re going onto 3,700 screens.”
“Larry, if you don’t fix this, we’re going to die on 3,700 screens. Just get your ass on a plane. Tonight. There’s a red-eye out of LAX to Paris at nine-fifty.”
“Vivian, the first and business seats on the nonstop are all overbooked.”
Larry called Erika Marks in a her room at the Carlton Hotel. “Listen, Vivian’s ordered me to take the red-eye tonight.”
“You’re coming here?”
“Tomorrow. The problem is, there are no fucking rooms. I checked with the Carlton and the Majestic. It’s bad enough they’re sending me coach, can you believe that? You ever try sleeping with your knees in your mouth? So I need your room.””
Oh, Jesus. No. Just when Erika thought things couldn’t get any worse. “My room?”
“You’re at the Carlton. You can go to the Holiday Inn in Nice. Make a reservation someplace nice for dinner tomorrow night. I’ll need a good meal. You can brief me. And make sure there’s a car at the airport and Diet Cokes in the minibar. And plenty of towels. These French hotels skimp on the towels.”
Erika walked to the American Pavilion, hoping that someone there could recommend a hotel that was closer than Nice. She logged on to the computer and was absently scanning the news when a voice behind her asked, “What’s new?”
Erika looked up and saw Jack Kemper. “You don’t happen to know of any available hotel rooms, do you?”
“You get thrown out of the Carlton?”
“Bumped out. My boss is coming over, and he’s taking my room.”
“You know, there may be a vacancy in my hotel. It’s in Cannes but on the wrong side of the Voie Rapide. And you don’t want to look too carefully at the carpet. But it’s only ninety-five euros a night. There’re no minibars, the TV is miniscule, the walls are paper thin, and they serve stale croissants for breakfast.”
In the car Erika had arranged, Larry recounted to her his meeting with Vivian. Le Coquillage made Erika Marks and Larry Moulds wait for their table. They had to stand out on the street amid the cigarette smokers and watch people who had shown up after them get seated. “This is precisely why nobody likes the French,” Larry commented. When they were finally seated, at a table in the back near the kitchen, Larry’s mood went from bad to worse: the 89-euro price of the bouillabaisse didn’t do anything to improve it. “The last thing we need is more red ink written against this picture?”
“So how do we kill Crimea? This is kind of new for me,” Erika asked him.
“We need to think outside the box here, Erika.”
They strategized, then went to bed at their separate hotels.
After her first night at the Hôtel Charlemagne, Erika dressed, did some makeup damage control, and went down to the breakfast room. Sitting alone, reading the International New York Times, was Jack Kemper.
“Morning,” he said, pushing out the seat next to him. “When’s the Red Carpet screening of Crimea?”
Jack sat there with his jaded puppy-dog look, and Erika couldn’t help smiling. He smiled back. His cheeks dimpled with amusement. The man had trainwreck written all over him. She had always been a sucker for damaged guys, the kind who wore their wounds with ironic detachment. The last thing she needed right now was a complicated relationship.
Producer Charlie Berns got to the beach behind the Majestic fifteen minutes early, carrying an attaché case containing Lionel’s faxed rewrite of the Battle of Yprès. The dinghy was late picking him up, and a buff African in a form-fitting sailor suit was at the tiller. Charlie had the foresight to remove his shoes before wading through the surf and climbing aboard. By the time Charlie reached the rope ladder to board the yacht, his stomach was churning. He was handed an alleged Mai Tai by the head steward and asked to wait on deck until the Prince was ready to receive him. As he stood at the rail, bobbing gently on the swell, Charlie looked back past the smaller yachts toward Cannes, shimmering in the distance.
Seventies disco floated across the water, competing with Freddie Babatunde’s African highlife music. Women smeared with suntan oil were sunbathing topless on the deck. Eventually, Charlie was led down to the lower deck and along the hatchway to the office, where Prince Freddie was found wearing full Yoruba ceremonial attire and a necklace made up of what looked like human bones. The Prince snapped his fingers, and a young African in satin shorts snatched Charlie’s drink and went to the bar to refill it.
“I don’t like your film.”
Charlie waited for the smile, but it didn’t come. Instead, Freddie picked his teeth with a gold toothpick.
“It is too long. It is boring. It has no sex in it.”
“Can we cut to the chase, Prince? If you’re not interested in financing the completion of Over There, why am I here?”
“Who said I was not interested in financing your film? I said, ‘I did not like your film,’ not that I wouldn’t finance it. I am prepared,” Freddie said, “to finance not merely the World War One battle here in France, but a reshooting of the beginning and end.”
“The whole film?”
“No. You will change only the scene in the barn which will now be between Geoffrey and Austin. It will be like The Broken Mountain.”
Charlie didn’t correct the movie title because he was trying to conceal his dismay, as it became excruciatingly clear just what he would have to do to get The African Queen’s $3 million and finish the movie. The Prince rose, the audience over.
Back on dry land, Charlie turned to the go-between.
“He’s got to be kidding.”
“Assuming I even agree to do what he wants, and even figure out how to make it work, how do I get it past my other investors?”
“How much are the dentists in for?”
“So if Freddie’s in for three, the dentists become minority investors.”
“They’re not going to be thrilled about having financed a gay movie. They’re from Winnipeg.”
“They don’t have to be thrilled, Charlie. Their money’s already in. Freddie’s going to give you half a mil to reshoot the Canadian stuff first. Then, if he likes it, he gives you the rest of the $3 mil to do the trench stuff.”
“And if he doesn’t like it?”
Charlie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He had done a lot of weird deals in his career, but turning Jules And Jim into Brokeback Mountain? That was crazy. But was it any crazier than anything else in this business?
The go-between got up and walked over to a closet, took a large shopping bag from it, brought it over, and put it in front of Charlie. “The Prince doesn’t like banks. Count it.”
Inside the bag were stacks of 500-euro notes in rubber bands.
“So I guess we have a deal, then.”
Jack Kemper still hadn’t decided what to do with the Erika Marks-Matthieu Brioche story. Walking away from a potentially hot scandal was not an easy thing to do for a reporter who had made his living sniffing them out. An exposé of this magnitude, if it panned out, could not only recharge his batteries, but also resurrect his career. Of course, he was above blackmailing a woman he was interested in sexually, if not romantically. Wasn’t he? Erika had enough problems without losing her job because of a jury-tampering scandal at Cannes. They’d throw her to the wolves so fast she wouldn’t even have time to get out of her Jimmy Choos. On the other hand, that morning’s Cannes calendar advertised a panel featuring Matthieu Brioche. Jack could show up and get an interview.
So at two that afternoon Jack Kemper found himself with a group of hardcore cinema nuts listening to Brioche speak, ex cathedra, about the effect of recent political developments on international cinema. After the interminable lecture, there was an interminable Q&A. Jack moved up to the front row, and as soon as they had unwired the Frenchman, he pounced.
“Mister Brioche, can I ask you a couple of questions?”
“I’m afraid you must talk to the festival to schedule an interview.”
“Let me buy you a coffee at the snack bar. Ten minutes.”
Brioche hesitated, but Jack ordered them two coffees. He took out an empty notepad and turned to a fresh page.
“So, tell me, what’s it like to be president of the jury?”
“Oh, it’s quite an honor, I suppose. But also a responsibility. You must see all these films and make a careful evaluation of them. You must be objective, of course. You cannot be influenced by national allegiance or personal relationships.”
“So how do you enforce that? What happens if one of the members of the jury gets caught being influenced by, say, a studio with a picture in competition?”
“That would never occur. Mr. Kemper, this festival has been in existence since 1947, when it supplanted the Festival de Venise as the leading festival celebrating the cinema in the world. I can assure you that it is entirely, how you do say, above the board.”
But Brioche’s eyes became evasive. Jack read the tell and zeroed in.
“What I mean is if, say, a publicist and a jury member were seen together socially, would that, ipso facto, be, how do you say, mal vu?”
“I’m afraid I have another appointment. I really must go now.”
“Tell me, are you an acquaintance of the American publicist here to promote Crimea? I believe Erika Marks is her name.”
“Je suis désolé. Monsieur.” And with that, Brioche took off toward the escalator. Where there’s désolé, there’s fire. Now Jack knew there was a story in the Erika Marks/Matthieu Brioche dinner. Nailing the unctuous Frenchman would give him pleasure. Unfortunately, the collateral damage would involve the harried publicist.
Jack Kemper was deep into his first hour of sleep when he was roused by loud knocking on his door. He tried burying his head under his pillow, but it did no good. Whoever was at his fucking door at this hour meant business. Staggering out of bed in his underwear, he called, “Qui est-ce?”
“Open the door, Jack.”
His heart did a pirouette. So did his dick. He opened the door to reveal Erika Marks looking better than he had even imagined.
“Bastard. I can’t believe you fucking did that. If you’re going to go fishing for a story, make sure it’s true first.”
Fuck. Brioche had blown the whistle on him. He should’ve known.
“Jack, if I ever had any intention of sleeping with you — and, believe me, I did, there’s no way it’s going to happen now.”
With that she turned around, pivoting hard on her Jimmies, and stalked down the hall to her room.
This story first posted here in 2016.