The festival founder and artistic director talks to Jeremy Berkowitz about how he gave up medical studios to pursue his love of film and set up the longest running competitive festival in the US.

Michael Kutza

The Chicago International Film Festival opened with Mia Madre and runs from October 15-29.

Why did you start the festival to begin with? You just had a great love of film?
I started it because I was studying to be a doctor and I was making short films on the side. I entered a film in a foreign film festival, won a prize and entered more festivals. I sort of got hooked and then I visited Cannes. I was a Chicagoan. I was just a kid. I said, ‘Look at all these amazing films out here.’ I wanted to bring them to Chicago and that’s how it all began. I pulled the whole thing off.

What are the challenges of putting together the festival?
In the arts you have to always work on sponsors, whether it’s the opera or the symphony or film. You need sponsors to pull it off. In Europe, the government pays for festivals. In America they don’t. That’s always a challenge. We have the official airline [sponsor]: American Airline. Cannes has the French, Berlin has the Germans, Canada you have the provinces. We don’t have [public funding bodies].

Then there’s films. I’ve got a great team. We scour the films throughout the world. About 4,000 films are [submitted] because we are a competitive festival. People enter shorts, docs and features. It gets bigger every year. And then there’s the manoeuvring of getting 150 directors here with their films. 

Was there a moment when you realised you’d created something big and lasting?
I think that happens every night. Last night we were in this amazing auditorium theatre. It was built in 1890. It’s a remarkable piece of architecture. Just looking at this crowd of over 1,000 people sitting in this magnificent place – that wows me. And I’ve got a great team to always keep things up and get the filmmakers excited.

Are most of the films from America or international?
There’s over 50 countries. We have an American Indie section and an Illinois section premiering films. We’re all over the place, but we’re known for discovering directors. Even Scorsese started back here in ’67. Over the years we’ve been increasing the competition. We started giving out a Roger Ebert Award. The family and foundations allowed us to do that. It’s cool because Roger started with us in Chicago back in the 60s. He started reviewing the festival right out of college. 

Is there an opening night that stands out over the past 51 years?
I will never forget the opening – I don’t know it must’ve been 1990 – we did the world premiere of [Saturday, Sunday And Monday], a Lina Wertmüller film starring Sophia Loren. And she came, the family came, Carlo Ponti came and Lina came. It was a remarkable premiere at the time. That will always stand out in my mind. As well as back in the seventies, we did the world premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Everybody was there: Jack Nicholson, Milos Forman, you name it. Those kind of moments you never do forget. They’re never going to happen again.

How did this edition’s opening night [Mia Madre] go?
It was smashing. Some technical glitches, but you know that happens today now that all festivals are digital. We all have surprises here or there.

Did the switch from film to digital change the festival circuit greatly?
Absolutely. For years of course everything was 35mm The best part of having 35mm is that someone might send you a film that has seven or eight cans of film and the seventh one might be left in Siberia somewhere and you can understand it. But you can’t understand when you are showing a digital feature and suddenly it freezes or starts again. 

Anything new this year at the festival?
We’re doing a big section this year on architecture. Chicago is a big home of architecture these days. We’re honouring a lot of architecture including Helmut Jahn who built the Sony Center in Berlin. He’s building the world’s tallest building in China – all of these remarkable things. We’ve always got something new cooking here; it makes it worth coming to.