AFI Fest 2013: an Interview with Lane Kneedler, Associate Director of Programming

AFI Fest, the incumbent monarch of Los Angeles’ film festivals, rears its glamorous head again with John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks kicking things off at the Chinese Theater tonight.

MovieMaker spoke to Associate Director of Programming, Lane Kneedler, about the secret hardships of being a programmer, this year’s rising tide of female filmmakers, and the insider’s scoop on which films the lucky Angelenos with free tickets should be watching.

Lane Kneedler

The Fest, running November 7th to 14th this year, owes its unique “indie-meets-awards” personality to both geographic and calendar placement. “Being at the end of the festival year and in Los Angeles,” says Kneedler, “We’ve positioned ourselves as sort of a “Best of” festival, where we show things from Cannes, and Toronto and Berlin.” Accordingly, a large portion of AFI Fest’s line-up is devoted to a wide selection of international circuit favorites, with Chile’s Gloria, India’s The Lunchbox, and Iran’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn amongst the offerings in this year’s World Cinema category. And, of course – this is Hollywood after all – the fest’s timing at the cusp of the nascent awards season means it provides plenty to chew on for voters and pundits alike, with Gala screenings of hopefuls Inside Llewyn Davis, Out of the Furnace, and August: Osage County, as well as conversations with Bruce Dern, David O. Russell and Steve McQueen.

A festival with something for everyone! But how does its staff even begin to curate such a broad collection? “We end up showing about one percent of all of the films we look at,” explains Kneedler ruefully. “That’s the tough part, whittling it down.” Well, we don’t envy him, but we definitely plan to capitalize on his hard work over the next eight days. See you at the Chinese Theater!

Kelly Leow (MM): How did you start working for AFI Fest?

Lane Kneedler (LK): I first started in film festivals back when I was still in college–I was a volunteer at Sundance and that’s how I got interested in the whole film festival world in general. Then when I moved to Los Angeles I started doing various jobs, like at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and started working for AFI Fest as a Programming Coordinator in 2005. As the festival has evolved, I moved my way through the programming department. That’s pretty much how it works for most people.

MM: Did you always want to be a programmer?

LK: I kind of did. When I first learned about the position—watching movies all day for a living, showing people strange and new films—it was a lot of fun. When I first went to film school, I wanted to make films and possibly be a director, but I found out that I am much better at supporting other filmmakers than doing it myself, and had a real passion for that: sharing films that I thought deserved a wider audience. It’s hard, because if you want to break into the programming world, a lot of people start by volunteering, and it’s difficult to spend that amount of time without any money coming back to you. It is a huge time commitment watching movies all weekend, all evening, as soon as you get off your other job, or school. And it’s a different job than a film critic as well, as you have to be willing to watch a lot of bad movies. Here at AFI Fest we looked at 3,500 movies this year, and I’d estimate that about three-quarters of that margin were not extremely good. The hard part is in finding what you do want to show in that 25 percent.

MM: Do you look for something specific in a film that makes it a good fit for AFI Fest?

LK: We have a diverse programming line-up here, so there’s not necessarily a formula for what would be a perfect AFI Fest film. We show dramas, documentaries, experimental films, short films, animation and all sorts of stuff. We try to cast a wide net for what we want to showcase and what filmmakers we want to support every year. That being said, a lot of people who start out making films try to mimic what they see in theaters, or try to mimic successful filmmakers. Those sorts of films we are not that interested in, because you are looking at so many hundred films every year, you get bored with seeing the same thing over and over again. So when we see a filmmaker or artist that has a unique style or unique point of view–that’s something that is gonna definitely get a lot of traction in the programming world.

MM: Speaking about trends in submissions, can you name any you witnessed over the past year?

LK: Last January one of the main headlines coming out of Sundance was the dominance of female filmmakers that they had, in their competition and in their program overall. And that was something we were very happy to see them leading the charge with, and something we tried to take up. More than half of the films in our competition are from female filmmakers this year.

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Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman

MM: Wow! Is that a record for AFI fest?

LK: I’m not sure. It’s definitely something we haven’t had in a while. We have such a long history: The festival actually goes back to a time when it was called Filmex, run in conjunction with the American Film Institute out of the AFI campus. Then in 1987 Filmex closed and AFI Fest opened, and I personally have only been here since 2005. I know a good amount of the history but it’s still hard to track sort of historical things like that. But that’s something we were excited about. Another trend: I’m a big genre fan and I think audiences and festivals are getting hipper to edgier, genre-tinged sort of works, like the film Borgman, that was in competition at Cannes. Stranger by the Lake was another Cannes film that represents a new, queer, genre cinema, and I think that has a lot to do with organizations like Drafthouse Cinema, who have been educating and recruiting younger audiences to get more into foreign language film. So that’s something as well that we have been noticing and trying to include in all of our sections. We have one section in the festival specifically for Midnight film, which has a really fantastic line-up this year–Eli Roth and Ti West are in there, as well as some other great international films.

MM: The Midnight Film Series is pretty new for AFI Fest, right?

LK: Yeah. It’s something that came up in parallel to our free tickets. When we realized that we would have fuller houses for almost anything we showed because of free tickets, it was easier for audiences to take a risk on films that they know  less about, or that sound a bit more challenging or darker. Sometimes people go to the movies to get away and have a laugh, but some of our films can be heavier than that. So when we noticed that we could pack our theaters with all sorts of great international cinema, we also  realized that if we show movies late at night people will come to those as well. We always wanted to show more fringe stuff and the Midnight Cinema was a logical step.

When I first started here the sections were more geographically focused. We had new Asian cinema, European filmmakers, and now (the category) World Cinema is so much more border-crossing and border-dissolving that (these divisions) didn’t really make sense from a marketing perspective anymore.

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Alain Guiradie’s Stranger by the Lake

MM: What are the AFI Fest team’s main festival stops on the circuit? Can you name some that are your favorites to attend?

LK: Every year we go to Sundance, and sometimes I go to Rotterdam right afterwards, and then we go to Berlin in February, SXSW in March, the next big festival would be Cannes in May, and then Locarno and Telluride and Toronto, to get some last minute films in before we lock the program. I really admire the Sundance sensibility for programming. They have a really democratic process there where films are just coming to them from complete nobodies, like Escape from Tomorrow this past year that nobody had heard of. Another festival that I really am a huge fan of is the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. It happens every August before Toronto, and it’s got a sensibility that’s very much in tune with our sensibilities here at AFI fest. They are interested in showcasing new filmmakers, first-time filmmakers, and then their stuff is also a little more edgier and experimental – some of our stranger films like A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, or The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears – those sort of films premiered at Locarno this year. It’s also a festival that’s more under the radar than Toronto or Cannes. And it’s also an incredibly beautiful place. It’s surrounded by the mountains, and right next door to this lake, there’s cable cars everywhere. It’s really gorgeous. I was very excited about when AFI agreed to start sending me there because it’s just a delightful place to go.

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Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness

MM: How big is the team at AFI Fest?

LK: Myself and the festival director Jacqueline Lyanga both travel to both of these festivals together, so we are working on the programming in tandem. Then we have two seasonal programmers on for about four-five months out of the year. And they manage our about a half-a-dozen associate programmers who are watching films, and about 30 or 40 of our volunteer screening committee–they are the ones that watch the first-pass for all of our blind submissions. That’s the basic size of our staff.

MM: Does it get tense when people feel extremely strongly in opposite directions over something?

LK: It’s a funny process. Sometimes you will be arguing with someone and say, “Well, if you give up this one I will let you have this other one.” I feel for filmmakers who are submitting their films to festivals and don’t get a lot of feedback, because sometimes it can feel like a personal rejection of your film, but there are all these other factors. For example, you can have two films that are very similar in subject, and they can both be amazing, but we can’t show two. So you have to stand back and figure out which is best.

MM: Are there any filmmakers that get a free pass? Like, we’ll show whatever you make?

LK: Not too many. It’s always the most nerve-wracking when you have a filmmaker that you love, and they send you a new film, and you’re like, “Oh man, if this Errol Morris movie is terrible…” I use him as an example because his new movie (The Unknown Known) is great and we’re very excited to have him at the festival this year.

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Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons

MM: Are there any lesser-known films at the festival you’d recommend to people—ones they might not be considering seeing?

LK: We have a section of the festival called New Auteurs which is our juried competition section, and most of these films are lesser-known because they’re from first- or second-time filmmakers. We have films in there like Nothing Bad Can Happen from Germany, which premiered in Cannes. It’s a fascinating tale of a Punks-for-Jesus type of zealot who gets mixed up with this family that is not religious, and how his beliefs cause friction to the point where they torture him. It’s based on a true-life story, which is crazy. Or a film like The Selfish Giant by Clio Barnard who made The Arbor, an experimental-documentary hybrid. The Selfish Giant is really funny and dark and uncategorizable. What’s nice about this section is that we’re sure that these are filmmakers who are going to have fantastic careers in the future, so we’re lucky to have this opportunity to show them. A lot of them have been winning awards around the year, like Harmony Lessons from Kazakhstan won awards in Berlin. We throw them all together and see what our jury picks, like an end-of-season Battle Royale.

MM: And who is the jury this year?

LK: For features our jury is all critics. This year it’s Karina Longworth, Amy Nicholson, and Peter Debruge.

MM: And Agnes Varda is the Guest Artistic Director.

LK: Yeah! That’s so fun. That was another idea we came up with a few years ago; David Lynch was the first person we invited. We wanted to see what these other filmmakers whom we admire would pick if given the same opportunity as us. Her picks this year are so fantastic. A Woman Under the Influence is my favorite John Cassavetes film; Pickpocket, the Bresson film, is just flawless and beautiful; and I really liked that she picked After Hours, a Martin Scorsese film—I never would have chosen these as Agnes Varda’s picks, so it’s very exciting. And she’s going to be here for most of the festival, and when we show Cleo from 5 to 7 we’ll have an extended conversation with her. The other of her films we’re showing, Documentur, is a lesser seen film about Los Angeles, so we thought it was perfect.

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AFI Fest 2013’s Guest Artistic Director Agnes Varda

MM: How do you see AFI Fest evolving in the future? Or maybe it’s too early to think beyond this year’s festival.

LK: [Laughs] Well, we’re still getting used to the free ticket system! I’d like to see the festival expand and have more screenings around the city of Los Angeles. It’s nice having it all contained in Hollywood and Highland; it makes Los Angeles feel very homey, but there are some fabulous venues Downtown and in other places. But that’s just my wide-eyed speculation.

I think the best thing that the festival can do is the hardest thing to quantify: when we have filmmakers come from all over the world – like Kim Ki-duk, or Hany Abu-Assad – and meet other filmmakers and collaborate with them in the future. They all stay at the Roosevelt Hotel so it feels like a film camp in the middle of Los Angeles. MM

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