bill herzog

Rocky Mountain High: Telluride Film Festival

“Thank you both so much for that fantastic experience,” wrote historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow to Bill and Stella Pence after the 8th Telluride Film Festival in 1981. When festival attendees enthuse over the event, it is frequently in reverent, semi-religious tones, and the word “experience” is invoked more often than not, facts immediately apparent in the clippings, correspondence and other documents contained in the Telluride Film Festival records, which were recently cataloged for Special Collections at the Margaret Herrick Library.

Mischa Richter, The New Yorker, April 2, 1984

Laura Dern, Roger Ebert and Kyle MacLachlan, 13th Telluride Film Festival, 1986

Always held during the Labor Day weekend, the Telluride Film Festival marks its 42nd year in 2015 and will be held from September 4th through the 7th. The festival was founded in 1974 by Bill and Stella Pence, Tom Luddy and James Card, along with the Telluride Council for the Arts and Humanities, in a small mining-turned-skiing town located 8,745 feet up in the Rockies’ San Juan mountain range in southwest Colorado. If there was an unlikelier location for an upscale film festival anywhere on Earth, no one seemed to be able to think of it. But the Telluride Festival took people’s breath away – at that elevation, sometimes literally.

While James Card dropped out early and Tom Luddy remained a jet-set adviser, it fell to the Pences to manage the intricate details of what soon became one of the world’s premiere film festivals, albeit with help from guest directors and contributors such as Kenneth Anger, Errol Morris, Bertrand Tavernier, Buck Henry, Salman Rushdie, Laurie Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman and Stephen Sondheim. The Pences retired just after the 2006 festival, and Julie Huntsinger and Gary Meyer now run the proceedings, along with the stalwart Tom Luddy. In addition to showing contemporary films, the festival is well known for its tributes to such venerables as Hal Roach, King Vidor, Joel McCrea, Janet Leigh, Don Siegel, Jimmy Stewart, Elmer Bernstein, Mickey Rooney, Michael Powell, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson.

Over the decades, many of the honorees have fallen in love with the festival during their tributes and become regular attendees, turning up year after year to enjoy the events just like any other moviegoer. This enchantment of celebrities as well as of regular folks has become part of the Telluride “experience,” and any given year, you might pass on the street, see in line or just bump into, such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Isabella Rossellini, Ang Lee, Jack Nicholson, Agnès Varda, Michael Moore, Philip Glass, Emily Watson, Julie Christie, Carrie Fisher, Jean-Luc Godard, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marion Cotillard, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep, Gérard Depardieu or David Lynch. In years past, you might have run into Robin Williams, Robert Altman, Jacques Demy, Sven Nykvist, Peter O’Toole, or Russ Meyer.

Theresa Russell and Nicolas Roeg at the 15th festival, 1985

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, 38th Telluride Film Festival, 2011

Bill Murray, 39th Telluride Film Festival, 2012

Sean Penn and Werner Herzog,  34th Telluride Film Festival, 2007

One passionate devotee of the festival was animation director Chuck Jones. One of the many honorees who went on to become a frequent attendee, Jones even designed several of the festival posters. In his own tribute to the annual event and its challenging location, Jones called the Telluride Film Festival “the most fun you can have without breathing.”

Read more about the Telluride Film Festival at the Academy website.