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Philadelphia Film Festival 2016: Interview with Artistic Director Michael Lerman

The Handmaiden (2016)

This year, the Philadelphia Film Festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so it seemed like the time was ripe to talk to long-time festival alum and artistic director Michael Lerman, a Philadelphia native who currently divides his time between programming for Philadelphia, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Thanks to Lerman and co, the festival — which runs from October 20 to 30 — features a number of must-see options, including genre and arthouse titles split into categories like “Masters of Cinema,” “World Narratives,” “American Independents,” and “The Graveyard Shift,” a genre block I’ve been attending off and on for the better part of my adult life.

Some of my most anticipated titles of the festival are representative of its diversity and include Ozon’s WWI melodrama Frantz, Assayas’ thriller Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s mystery The Unknown Girl, Koji Fukada’s Harmonium — with the dreamy Tadanobu Asano — as well as Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, and, most of all, Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden. Expect to see reviews of these, and more, over the next couple of weeks. I got a chance to talk to Lerman about some of these titles, his personal festival favorites, the positives of programming in Philadelphia, the challenges of narrowing down the festival selections from hundreds of titles, and the secret screening Halloween weekend of an unrevealed (but apparently unmissable) genre film. The program boasts, “We’ll be delivering to you one of the hottest genre titles of the year that is going to make everyone else jealous that you saw it first. No one will know what they’re seeing until the title credits roll, but we’re sure you will not be disappointed in taking the risk.” Ever the skeptic, particularly when it comes to mystery screenings, I’m holding out hope that this one will be exciting (and that it will be Verhoeven’s Elle, which I had the privilege to see last weekend, but would love to see again).

Personal Shopper (2016)

Diabolique: The programming really seem to cover a wide range in terms of genres, countries, and themes, but is there any particular direction for this year’s festival? Even if it’s something unintentional?

Michael Lerman: Not particularly. I think we were just trying to get the best movies, because this is our 25th anniversary, so we’re really trying to blow it out this year. There’s a lot of homage, there’s a lot of classical pieces of work, especially in the genre and arthouse space, and then I think there’s also a lot of social realism going on right now in foreign cinema, so those are the two things that stand out. I don’t think they’re really themes so much as they are overall trends.

Diabolique: There’s a lot of diversity, maybe more than I can remember from earlier years, I’m guessing partly because of the anniversary and partly because of some of the great things you had to choose from this year. I know you program at other festivals, so is there anything you focused on to try to make Philly stand out? I’m sure it’s also a challenge because it comes at the tail end of so many other festivals in the summer and fall, so how do you factor that in when you’re narrowing down the selection?

Michael Lerman: I think the cool thing about Philadelphia is that we get the best of the best. I’m very proud of the Toronto program we had this year, but for Philadelphia, I kind of get to cherry pick from all the great festivals and then we get to put together what we think are our favorites from the best stuff of the year.

Things to Come (2016)

Diabolique: Do you think there’s a specific Philadelphia audience taste that you have noticed or try to take into account?

Michael Lerman: I find that Philadelphia audiences are very adventurous, so I can kind of get away with doing anything and I think that there will always be something for someone. You know, we played A Serbian Film years ago and it went great, so I think you can get very esoteric with the foreign stuff and that’s one of the great things about Philadelphia audiences. Our core demographic is a little bit older, the kind of people who have time to buy passes and who are retired and are there to binge so many movies, but then you also have people who take weeks off of work to do it. And then there are also young people, who are drawn to stuff like our secret screening and we’re so excited about that.

Diabolique: Definitely. I was at that screening of A Serbian Film and I was surprised at how many people were there and didn’t walk out or complain angrily afterwards.

Michael Lerman: I watch movies all year and I have seen people walk out — it’s crazy watching people do it — but I also love an audience that’s willing to engage with a film and talk about it even if they hate it. Philadelphia audiences seem more willing to engage together with cinema and with the art form in way that’s really rewarding.

Diabolique: When you’re programming, how do you try to find a balance — from festival selections, genres, countries, and so on —  because there’s so much to choose from? Or do you even bother to find a balance and do you just go for what you love?

Michael Lerman: I think that we start for going with films that we love. I definitely do. And those are always the first that we jump on. And then, past that, it gets to a place where you look at what gaps you have and what kind of cinema you haven’t represented yet. For example, we have a section called New French Films and this year is extremely strong for French cinema, so there’s a lot in that section, maybe more than there would have been other years. But you put together what you love and then you see what else is needed and just try to make something really well rounded that has something that can appeal to everyone. And that’s the key to programming for me, I think.

Illegitimate (2016)

Diabolique: Do you have a favorite type of film to program whether that’s country or genre?

Michael Lerman: I try not to play favorites, but the thing that’s always exciting for me is when you find something you didn’t expect. For example, we have a Romanian film this year called Illegitimate that I saw in a bar in Berlin and I just fell completely in love with it, so finding that — and that’s a film that’s not played a lot of festivals in the US yet — is something that’s really exciting.

Diabolique: That one is definitely on my list. Aside from that, do you have a particular favorite selection?

Michael Lerman: My favorite film of the year is the OJ documentary that we’re showing, the five-part documentary called O.J.: Made in America. It’s basically a history of race relations in America since 1960 and how that parallels the OJ case.

Diabolique: I’m looking forward to that one, but also especially to The Handmaiden. Usually every year of the Philadelphia Film Festival that I make it out to see things during the Graveyard Shift programming block. How do you specifically narrow down the genre selection, considering that so many exciting things have come out in the last few years, particularly a lot of things with arthouse appeal — things like Dogtooth that aren’t strictly genre films, but have a lot of those elements in place?

Michael Lerman: I think the section has gotten smaller over the years and I think that’s because things have found their way into other sections. For example, we have Age of Shadows in World Narratives this year and that’s a straight up genre movie. It’s an action movie, it’s a Hitchcockian thriller, and Kim Jee-woon is a filmmaker that a lot of the genre people know for films like I Saw the Devil, but we put it in another section, because we didn’t want it stigmatized as just a genre film.

But I think that the process of narrowing down the genre stuff is just like anything else: finding the best stuff, but also finding the coolest stuff and finding what people are doing around the world. I’ve been talking a lot today about the movie Under the Shadow, which unfortunately opened before the festival, so we weren’t able to include it, but having an Iranian movie do that kind of thing in genre cinema is really exciting. And with The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook — whose films we’ve had at previous years of the festival — has come back with something very new, very different, and very sexual and alive in a way. It felt very fresh and very new and doing that in a genre space in particular is something exciting.

I’ve been working in the genre space for a long time. I worked for Fantastic Fest and I’ve worked for horror film festivals and I feel like I’ve done a lot of work in this space. So I try to find something that’s different and is not just your average slasher movie. Something like Eyes of My Mother, which we’re showing during the section as well — which is also an American independent film —  is exciting and that’s what we’re trying to do: find the things that are exciting and fresh and new.

The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

Diabolique: That’s also what I really look for as an audience member and critic. I tend to be someone who writes more about dark arthouse than conventional horror because I’m usually looking for something that I find new and exciting.

Michael Lerman: If you’re looking for dark arthouse, we have some of that in the program too. I would recommend the film Suntan, which is very edgy, weird, and amazing.

Diabolique: I’ll add that to my list. I’m also really excited about The Unseen Girl, which seems like it’s going to be kind of in that realm.

Michael Lerman: Yeah, it’s more social realist, but it’s also a detective movie which is cool. There’s also a movie called My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea that I think you should see, which I think is just kind of badass in the way it’s put together. Harmonium is also great and sick and weird. And don’t miss the secret screening, because it’s awesome, but I don’t want to give away anything about it.

Diabolique: I’m dying to see what it is! And thanks so much for chatting with me and for putting together some really amazing programming for the next few weeks.

And if you’re in the area:
View the program guide.
View the schedule by week.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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