You could float Marco Mueller on the lagoon, he’s so buoyant. Heading into his sixth year as Venice’s artistic director, he can finally see his longed-for new palazzo physically taking shape on the Lido - as many screens as Toronto, he crows, but under one roof. It will open in 2011, the final year of his current contract, and it’s hard to imagine that will be the end of Mueller’s close partnership with Biennale president Paolo Baratta.
When Venice kicks off on the Lido on September 2, its “front” will be reversed - former entrances will become exits while building work goes on beside the Casino. There will be two red carpets, and each of the festival’s sections (Venice Days, Orrizonti, Critics Week, and so on) will have their own theatres.
To attendees who remember the good old days when films had the habit of not actually starting at all, not to mention on time, it all seems ominously ambitious. But there’s no limit to Mueller’s will or Baratta’s backing. “I am more optimistic than ever before about the future of Venice,” declares Mueller.
Once again Mueller has assembled a varied line-up; geographically and thematically, from debuts to experienced directors. He says it’s “contradictory in the best sense of the term - contradictory but affirmative and in the end, fun”. He cites Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog working together in the Bad Lieutenant remake, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans as an example of contradictory.
“Although we have a few studio films, you cannot imagine journalists will go back to their hotel rooms and write puff pieces about them,” says Mueller in the type of quote he could live to regret. “Finally, we have managed to create a dynamic between the attraction of a film and the possibility of revealing unexpected market potential. We have also managed to strike a balance with our partners and the world.”
By this, Mueller - who is still insisting he will roll Venice’s start further back into September - means Telluride (September 4-7) and Toronto (September 10-19). There has been a lot of programme shuffling to do with Telluride (which keeps its line-up under wraps until the opening day).
“That has cost us [effort],” Mueller admits. “We want Venice films to world premiere here and then go on to their international careers.” Still, he insists, “we are harmonising what each festival can offer and I don’t think we have lost anything we specially aimed for.”
Mueller has his favourite discoveries in the line-up of 71 world premieres and there are significant directorial debuts - Tom Ford with A Single Man, Egypt’s Ahmed Maher with The Traveller (“I’ve been dying to find a new talent like this,” says Mueller). Mueller is also in love with Lebanon, a feature fiction debut from Israel’s Samuel Maoz.
What’s certain is that the festival is covering all angles, from first-time discoveries, to bigger works from auteurs (besides Herzog, there are Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, opener Guiseppe Tornatore’s Baaria, Jaco van Dormael’s English-language Mr Nobody and Fatih Akin’s Soul Kitchen). Then there are the potential cult/genre titles - George Romero with Survival Of The Dead, Shinya Tsukamoto with Tetsuo The Bullet Man, and Cheang Pou Soi with Accident.
Although there are no UK films, geographically, the festival has a strong US-Europe-Asia backbone (Michele Placido, Patrice Chereau, Claire Denis, Michael Moore, John Hillcoat) which lends weight to some of the more eclectic additions.
And there are appealing titles screening out of competition - Soderbergh’s The Informant!, Grant Heslov The Men Who Stare At Goats with George Clooney, and Joe Dante’s The Hole.
While Venice is typically front-loaded, Mueller is planning to “stay exciting even when Telluride is over and Toronto is under way - we want a big second weekend.” (Last year, Hurt Locker, Rachel Getting Married and The Wrestler closed the festival.)
Mueller is non-committal about the number of buyers attending, but says: “I feel almost definitely contented.” Days before the world’s second-largest competitive film festival kicks off, that’s probably about as good as it gets.