Movie Memories – Gráinne Humphreys on 20 years of DIFF

Since the Dublin International Film Festival arrived in its current form at the start of the 20th century, Gráinne Humphreys has seen it all. That includes superstars, rising stars, snow storms, pandemics and thousands and thousands of films. Film In Dublin spoke to the long-time Director of the Dublin International Film Festival to chat about her movie memories, festival highlights and her hopes for the future in the Irish industry.

Film In Dublin: This year is the 20th anniversary of the Dublin International Film Festival, and you’ve been involved as Director of the festival for 14 years. What are your memories of the festival before you became Director, and how it was you came to become involved with the festival behind the scenes? 

Well, I volunteered for the Dublin Film Festival in the late 80s and it was a really formative experience because I genuinely discovered filmmakers that I fell in love with and am still in love with. I also discovered a community of cinephiles and who vaunted cultural cinema and were always first or second or third in the queue for anything new or exciting, and either the Lighthouse, for instance on Middle Abbey Street at the time or at the IFI. 

So from my point of view, when the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival was set up in 2003, it was a scenario where I thought great, they’re bringing back this institution that was so important to me and to the film students that I was studying alongside, that was really exciting.  I remember them showing Dead Bodies and In This World. Javier Bardem came, Claire Denis came, it really was about bringing world renowned filmmakers to Dublin and for them to answer questions at the front of the cinema. 

When Michael Dwyer, the founder of both versions of the festival wanted to step down, I thought, God this would be a crazy job to go for. But actually, it would be fun. I’d been working in the IFI for about 12 years at that stage. The festival was sponsored at that time by Jameson and by the Arts Council and had about 60-70 films collected by Michael at Cannes or Toronto, that was what was programmed, he showed new work from Europe and the rest of the world. There were a couple of new Irish films every year, not too many in 2003, but by the time I started working on the festival in 2008, the ‘Irish Renaissance’ had started, and you had films with Colin Farrell, Cillian Murphy, films by Paddy Breathnach, Lenny Abrahamson…you had the start of what we have now, which is this incredibly globally recognised Irish talent. 

Michael Dwyer

Looking back, you see how the festival has run parallel to that, and things at the festival have grown out of that; our industry programme, our shorts programme has expanded, our Reel Art doc strand which we’ve done with the Arts Council since 2013, these have grown organically. The industry has grown in Ireland and the Festival has grown alongside it.  

FID: The Festival’s local growth has always been supported by the international films and stars that you’ve been able to bring in, who have been some of your favourite guests that have come over to Ireland for DIFF? 

GH: To be honest, it does feel like pinch me and ‘ll wake up, because a lot of the people were the people that I loved watching on TV screens to be honest. Angela Lansbury, Julie Andrews, I never thought we’d get Julie Andrews and I remember saying that when the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music happened, I said, we’ll only show it if we can get Julie Andrews. It was Christmas actually when her agent rang and told me that she was coming, and I had to tell my mum which was one of those bizarre moments where it’s like Christmas came early, at Christmas when we all watch Sound of Music she’ll be coming over.  

Another person who I absolutely love was Al Pacino, Danny DeVito was great as well, Daniel Day-Lewis for my first festival for There Will Be Blood where he did a fantastic public interview afterwards with Todd McCarthy 

It’s always been a combination of trying to invite people who you have admired and whose work you admire, and trying to support new filmmakers, whose work isn’t yet well known in Ireland, trying to bring them to a broader audience, trying to use the festival’s ‘brand’ to make people understand that there is a huge and very exciting, dynamic world of cinema outside the English language. 

FID: Has everyone always been at that great level, or – without naming any names at all! – have there ever been guests that have been challenging? Even in terms of the logistics of getting them over.  

GH: I think logistics are really hard. Ireland is a small island of Europe and a lot of promotion takes place either in of LA or New York, or occasionally London, so you are convincing people to take a certain small flight to do promotion somewhere else. 

Now on the other hand, it’s Dublin. It’s got a reputation for being fun, it’s quite small, it’s quite informal and there’s a rich literary history, we have some nice hotels and some nice restaurants, but sometimes the level of information just becomes overwhelming, and the number of agents far outranks everything, so that part isn’t fun. The other side too, is people have fun and they don’t want to go home, you know. 

But it is quite an informal festival, it does have red carpets, but it’s not that hierarchal and it doesn’t have a Market, generally people know they’re not going to be forced through a press conference for instance, so they’re going to be doing a select amount of press and then the rest of the time is going to be theirs, most people genuinely come to the dinners you know, and they sit like a normal regular person and they have dinner with other people and chat about projects, you’ll have a short film maker sitting beside an Oscar winner sitting beside somebody in animation…that feels like a leveler. 

In terms of bad behavior, I think in every situation you’ve got people who are under the cosh, people with jet lag…there are stories, but unfortunately, they must stay locked forever in a vault where no one has access to it! 

FID: Two years ago, one of the last things I remember doing before we went into full lockdown was seeing Makeup by Claire Oakley, the festival was already at this stage where people were starting to beg off events because of how things were going. Do you remember what the vibe was like around that time where we could almost see where the wind was turning? 

GH: I really, really do and I can tell you. So I’ve known Pavel Pavlovsky for a number of years, and I had asked him to come to do a masterclass in directing, he had been saying for years that he would come, it just had to fit in with his schedule. I’d emailed him sometime in December and asked, is this going to be the year? He said yeah sure put count me in. Another person who I’d been trying to get to Dublin for many years was Charlie Kaufman. This is going to sound like long range stalking, but I had started that campaign about 8 or 9 years before. I kept saying Charlie, make it this year, just come on, you’d stay in a nice hotel, you can meet everybody, everybody loves your film, we all think you’re one of the greatest screenwriters, directors, please come! Both of them said yes…then obviously the clouds started to get greyer and greyer and grayer… 

We did have people who pulled out, they were just because they were in the middle of shoots and aware that they could get stuck here and they wouldn’t be able to get back, that was the big fear. You could just slowly see people drop off, events, audiences with kids suddenly started thinning out. 

I had one phone call from Pavel asking are you worried? And I said all I can tell you is we’ve got all the things we need to put in place, we’ll make sure we’re as up to code as we can be, before we even really knew what that meant. He did come, and I actually emailed Charlie Kaufman and said I just wanted to check with you that you are still okay to attend, and he went, why wouldn’t I!? That was where we were, for some people it was the most important thing they were thinking about all the time and for others, it was just something that was there percolating in the background. We finished the festival, standing ovation for Herself and we all went off, crashed and then then five days later we were in lockdown. It was bizarre.  

Charlie Kaufman at VMDIFF 2020

We had a whole range of Irish films from 2020. I mean, it’s just heartbreaking. There was Rialto, there was Arracht, there was Rose Plays Julie, there was a whole raft of new Irish work that was literally on the runway, ready to go for March and April releases, and then it all just stopped. 

FID: What was last year like in terms of programming, and ending up fully online? 

GH: We had been really clever, I had spent an awful lot of the summer talking to my colleagues in Galway in Cork, so it wasn’t exactly like we didn’t know what an online festival could look like. What we didn’t know was how long it takes to move from one to the other, and whether the audiences were there and what films you’d get. We held out – probably a bit too late being the optimists that we are – until the end of January and then we just knew that we can’t do this, we have to go online. At that stage the numbers were just skyrocketing. 

You worry when you move last minute, some things don’t come with you, but when we pivoted to online, we didn’t lose any films which was the big shock. The other side was the audiences were there, which was great, but it’s horrible. I don’t care what anyone says, films and film festivals are about the anticipation. As you’re going into the screening, the excitement of being in the cinema and then finding out what people think, it’s about film makers saying hello to each other as they go in and out, that sense of ‘I would never have been to see that thing except the one I wanted to was sold out or it was raining or such and such dragged me because they had a ticket’. There was none of that, it was Twitter!  

I took to ringing the film makers just before the screening went online to say best of luck because I desperately needed to try and create some kind of human aspect to it, but everything was pre-recorded. Opening night, I drove over to my mum’s, with a big balloon in the back of the car just trying to recreate the excitement of being on a red carpet talking to film makers who were all dressed up to the nines. 

I do think there is definitely an opportunity for people who live outside of the city, or who have their own constraints towards getting to the cinema but for filmmakers, there’s nothing that beats being in a cinema and seeing the film that you worked on for four or five years projected on a big white screen, you know? 

FID: With that in mind, how excited are you for audiences to be going back for the festival? And what are some of your favourite memories of audiences, crowds, their reactions? 

GH: You see a lot of these films either on your own on a computer or you see them in another film festival somewhere, or if you’re lucky enough maybe sometimes to see them in a private screening, but you’re regularly on your own or surrounded by very cynical industry professionals, who haven’t cracked a smile since 1978. What I love is that sense of “Yes! We got it right!” when you see an audience get it.  

I remember sitting at the back of Viva with Paddy Breathnach and he was slightly nervous on our closing night, and him saying “It’s OK, they’re laughing in the right places.” You can forget that these films are art forms and are intricately structured to have one thing feed into another, they’re completed in a way by an audience and their response.    

I was very lucky, my first opening night was In Bruges, and you know the top of the Savoy just literally blew off. It was a black comedy, which I love, they had had a great cast who were there, and it announced Martin McDonagh’s talent to the world. There is nothing like a comedy and that sense of communal laughing.  

There’s something about a standing ovation too, where people genuinely are unable to stop themselves from applauding. When the film makers are there, which is always lovely, they don’t really know what to do because unlike theater or ballet dancers, they’re not used to people throwing flowers and cheering. Wild Rose was one closing night like that. Another was The Raid which had this mythical reaction where people started a standing ovation while the film was still on. 

There are certain films that you protect, and you love, and you genuinely find yourself standing outside, anxiously waiting like an expectant parent to see whether or not they get the response that that you want. 

It’s tough for film makers, you know, because they’re sitting there thinking I need to fix that, or I need to change that edit. some of them can’t watch. Al Pacino was somebody who came with the film Wilde Salomé. We had tea beforehand, which was again quite surreal, and he was really nervous because he thought I could show this anywhere and it should be fine – there I would be Al Pacino, but here he felt like this was bringing an Oscar Wilde film back to Dublin, into the cauldron.  

Al Pacino at DIFF 2011

FID: The Q&A can be great for audiences getting to engage with filmmakers and getting to even just for themselves getting to reflect and respond to what they’ve just seen. But have there ever been occasions where questions come up that leave you with your head in your hands? 

GH: Oh yeah! But Q&As are hilariously subjective, I think. First of all I find them really hard, I’m always trying to find hosts to try to keep that energy level up because I’m really conscious that for the filmmaker this is their Q&A, but you can often find people who’ve been talking all day long or doing something else, they’re distracted and just want to get it done. But for audiences also there’s sometimes this kind of bizarre sense of like, “oh God, they’re not gonna talk now are they?” 

 We had one Q&A with Lynn Ramsey who was in with You Were Never Really Here. I let it go on because I thought it was amazing to have her here, but people were saying it was too long, it should have been 20 minutes, tops. I was thinking well, if I’m going to get to listen to anybody, I think it would actually be Lynne Ramsay if I’m really honest. 
In terms of the most stupid question, this is the record holder. It was the first screening of Topsy Turvy which is a Mike Leigh film about Gilbert & Sullivan. Leigh had broken his legs and had to actually hobble with crutches to the front of the screen. There was a very difficult Q&A, then they opened it to the audience and the very first ‘question’ from some brave sod was “you don’t know much about making films because if you did, you’d know that you start a film about two guys when they’re born and you finish it when they’re dead.” 

FID: What are some of the the films or filmmakers that really stand out to you for being unknown quantities that really shot up afterwards?  

GH: Paulo Sorrentino was one. I was really a huge fan of Consequences of Love and then he came with El Divo. I’d seen his films in Cannes and so I was delighted to welcome him. Somebody who I don’t think has made enough films and needs to make more is Kenny Lonergan, the great playwright and screenwriter. He came with Margaret which had huge troubles, eight years of litigation, then of course he went on to be Oscar nominated for Manchester by the Sea and has done quite a lot of television. Kenny’s become a friend of mine, he’s someone that I really do adore and I loved that I got to meet him through the Festival. 

It is interesting to see how there’s generations of Irish actors and directors coming through. Kate Dolan, for instance, You Are Not My Mother is a really strong debut this year. Our opening night An Cailín Ciúin, Colm Bairead’s film is really strong, it feels like there’s this wonderful moment. incredible really beautifully made feature films, they’re really exciting, passionate and dynamic. Every year brings a whole new raft of new film makers who have you going wow, and maybe that’s where a festival is at its most powerful. 

FID: One of the big things for DIFF every year is the Surprise Film. Do people still try to get the surprise film out of you? 

GH: Oh yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely.

FID: What is it like to have to guard that secret? 

GH: The first thing is that I consider this the downside of programming the festival, to be honest! It’s always one that does really well, it has an obsessively loyal following of people who’ve always gone – and I was one of them before I got this job, so I loved not knowing, then suddenly became the person who bore the brunt of having to walk around knowing what it is.  

A surprise is a surprise, so it shouldn’t be the same every single year, yet sometimes you find yourself drifting towards that You want to try and pull a couple of film makers who you can catch on the cusp of a career – Squid and the Whale was an early one, that was a really good one. Rushmore was another that was a surprise and worked really well. Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place…that didn’t work! It was really long and people, of course, don’t know what it is, so unless in the first couple of minutes they get a sense of what they’re about to see, there’s a sense of nerves in the audience which is actually really funny when you’re the only person who knows standing at the back. 

For Get Out Dave Burke, who is the general manager of Universal, was always a huge fan of the surprise slot because he thought it was t fun to show something that nobody knew what it was. And I agree, there’s a huge liberation to actually going to a film and not having a clue what it is, right? For Get Out, I thought that was the best way to see it. But I still got given out to, for showing a horror! When we did Muppets Most Wanted, Ricky Gervais and Constantine the Kermit lookalike introduced the screening and gave out to the audience for buying a ticket to a film they didn’t know and that they deserved a 3-hour film on some boring pedantic subject. It was funny to see them turn the tables on the people who enter that slot!  

Part of what I think makes audiences so attached to the Surprise Film is how it’s linked to the past. It has been a staple since the beginning.  

FIDWhat are you personally excited about seeing in future years of the Dublin International Film Festival?  

GH: I would hope that there’s more diversity on screen. I mean that in the sense that I see an increasingly diverse Ireland, I see really exciting pockets of film makers around the country in different cultures and languages, a lot of whom are working in short forms or documentaries that they’re posting online, not necessarily aiming it towards a cinema audience. There is really exciting, intellectual, very political, very engaged work, that I would love to see some coming onto our cinema screens. The range of talent is very exciting.  

Another one is the audiences. We had really good audiences before lockdown, I want to see them come back. I don’t want them to necessarily just go to see the studio films. I want them to come back and I want them to feel safe and confident in watching experimental films, challenging difficult, somewhat controversial films.

I think that the opportunity to see that, whatever fears people might have about going out or spending money on something that they might be able to get free, I hope that they remember how important it is to do. I think that is what makes a film culture healthy.  

About Luke Dunne

Luke is a writer, film addict and Dublin native who loves how much there is for film fans in his home county. A former writer for FilmFixx and the Freakin' Awesome Network, he founded Film In Dublin to pursue his dual dreams of writing about film and never sleeping ever again.

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