After nine years holding the London Film Festival (LFF) reins (she stepped up from deputy in 2003), well-regarded Sandra Hebron decided that this year’s festival – its 55th edition – would be her last. The decision was partly foisted upon her as she opted not to apply when the British Film Institute declared their intention to merge her post with that of the artistic director of BFI Southbank (the old National Film Theatre). It’s not that Hebron didn’t fancy the added workload, more that it just seemed the right time to make a clean break. “I’ve been here a long time and I’m genuinely interested to see what somebody else does with the festival,” she says. “I’m a big believer in cultural renewal.”
Known for her energy and knee-high black leather boots, Hebron says she didn’t approach her final year any differently to previous years (“the festival’s too big and significant for that”) but admits that, after two of her strongest programs in 2009 and 2010, she’ll be let down if her last line-up doesn’t also garner adulatory coverage. London has always acted as a sort of festival catch-all, showcasing the best work from the world’s other major fests, and is stuffed again this year with titles that have already unspooled at Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Toronto (including Carnage, The Descendants, W.E., The Ides Of March, Wuthering Heights, Restless and Trishna). One criticism that’s been leveled at Hebron is the paucity of high-profile world premieres (this year is no different with her Opening Night and Closing Night films – Fernando Meirelles’ 360 and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea – both crossing the Atlantic after Toronto debuts). Some voices in the industry feel she should have put more effort into convincing producers and distributors to skip Venice or Toronto in favour of making the LFF their international launchpad.
“We like world premieres when we get them but it’s not imperative that we have them in our opening, closing and gala slots,” she protests. “What’s more important for me, and always has been, is that the films that occupy those slots say something about the festival itself. 360 feels right for us because it’s very modern, it’s a British co-production written by Peter Morgan, and we opened a few years ago with Fernando’s The Constant Gardener. Similarly with The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies is a filmmaker who the BFI has supported from the early days of his career, a filmmaker who I’ve grown up with and whose work I love. There is a personal pleasure for me in that both Fernando and Terence are filmmakers whose work I hugely admire.”
Nor is she unduly concerned by the mixed response that 360 had in Toronto – a case of déjà vu for Hebron following last year’s LFF opener Never Let Me Go. “I think the screening circumstances of 360 in Toronto were far from ideal so I hope that London will be a happier screening experience and that the reviews might also follow from that,” she says.
This year’s LFF will see prestigious BFI Fellowships awarded to David Cronenberg and Ralph Fiennes, choices that Hebron and her team submit to the BFI’s Board of Governors. Both Cronenberg’s and Fiennes’ new film have gala premieres scheduled – the Canadian filmmaker with A Dangerous Method and Fiennes with his directorial debut Coriolanus. “I think it really is the moment for Ralph, directing a very good first film and after all his amazing performances,” says Hebron, laughing in anticipation of what she thinks might be a nerve-wracking night. “He’s on stage in The Tempest at the moment so he’s going to have to come off stage, leap onto a motorbike and get himself to the awards in about 10 minutes flat. We’re expecting a heroic windswept entrance!” In his motorcycle leathers, we hope. “I was actually hoping he might come in his Tempest costume,” she laughs.
Ask Hebron to reflect back on her happiest moments at the LFF and she chooses two. The first took place the year that David Lynch’s The Straight Story played at the LFF, and the touching response that greeted the film’s frail, elderly star, Richard Farnsworth, when Lynch brought him up on stage after the screening. “The entire audience rose to their feet, which for a British audience was quite extraordinary and it was certainly the first time that I had seen that,” she recalls. “It was hugely moving – David Lynch was in tears, Richard Farnsworth was in tears, I was in tears. I was just so thrilled that a reserved British audience had done something so demonstrative.”
Her second choice is interesting after earlier mention of the criticism levelled at her tenure: her programming of The Fantastic Mr. Fox as Opening Night film two years ago “because it was a world premiere and it felt like the festival had shifted up a gear… I know that over the years some of my opening night choices have made the audience work a bit whereas with The Fantastic Mr. Fox I felt like I was just giving them a treat.”
As for moments she’d rather consign to the recesses of her memory, only one really stands out for her – “and it was nothing to do with an angry filmmaker.” Rather, it happened following the 2006 LFF screening of Kelly Reichardt’s gentle, contemplative Old Joy when, on her way up to the stage with Reichardt, an angry punter confronted Hebron and told her that she should be sacked for programming the film. “To say it to me is rude but to say it in front of the filmmaker is not good behaviour,” she sighs. “It was a horrible thing to then have to say to Kelly, ‘This is not how our audiences normally behave.’”
After Hebron hands over the reins, she expects there might be an expansion of the LFF’s fairly small awards footprint---as soon as next year. Every year of her tenure, Hebron and her team have discussed implementing an Audience Award but “we’ve just never found a way of doing it that felt fair. But I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t happen soon.” She’d also like to see the LFF introduce a Best Actor and Best Actress award to complement the existing Best British Newcomer and Best Film awards (the latter chosen from a shortlist of titles drawn up by Hebron).
Asked to pick a desert island film from the nearly 3000 features she’s programmed for the LFF, she cites a short film called Branson Music Land USA "about this town in the US that has more country-and-western clubs and performers than any other town in the world. It’s a beautiful poetic black-and-white film that when I watched it I could physically feel my heart beating faster.”
Hebron has a film industry job lined up, which she’s keeping under her hat for now. But having transforming the LFF into a festival of international stature, and leaving it on with a record attendance last year of 132,000, 20% up from her first year in charge), she’s looking forward next year to finally being able to sit back---and watch the films like everyone else.