TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Directors David Fincher and Danny Boyle came to the Telluride Film Festival with very different motivations for their fundamentally dissimilar films. But both will leave the festival having accomplished pretty much exactly what they needed to do.
Fincher, the director of "Fight Club," "The Game" and "Se7en," appeared at the 35th annual film festival to receive an opening-night career tribute award. In addition to his 167-minute director's cut of last year's "Zodiac," the filmmaker brought with him about 20 minutes of footage from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the decades-in-development reworking of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about the reverse aging of a boy born as an old man.
The brief glimpses of Fincher's Christmas Day release established a couple of critical facts about "Benjamin Button."
First, the collection of scenes made clear that the director and screenwriter Eric Roth have used Fitzgerald's story as more foundation than blueprint; the many departures from the original story are apparent in the period movie's opening scenes, when Button is born as an infant with a senior's face, not as a fully grown old man from tip to toe. Second, Fincher was able to show that the technology used to insert "Benjamin Button" star Brad Pitt's face onto the torsos of the stand-ins who play the title character at widely different ages is both invisible and effective: Although the body may not be Pitt's, every small facial expression is.
Finally, audiences saw in several overtly emotional clips a side of Fincher that hasn't been clearly obvious in his early work: heart.
"It's probably the most romantic movie I've ever been offered," the director said during a rare Telluride downpour. "So, yes, it's the most romantic movie I've ever made."
Fincher also wants moviegoers to realize that he does not see Fitzgerald's story as an endorsement of the line attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw that "youth is wasted on the young," that it's a tragedy to have so little life experience when your body is willing, your attitude hopeful.
"A lot of people come away thinking that," the 46-year-old Fincher said. "But I see it the opposite way -- that youth is never wasted on the young."
A year ago, the award-season impetus for Daniel Day-Lewis began at Telluride, when in a similar tribute audiences saw early footage from the actor's Oscar-winning "There Will Be Blood." Fincher said there's no such intention behind screening the footage of "Benjamin Button."
"It's not about selling the movie -- it's a treat, an appetizer," he said. "It's not a positioning statement, it's not marketing. It's that in the last two years, we have been doing something like this, and, oh, that doesn't look like people trapped in their closet" -- a reference to his thriller "Panic Room," about a mother and daughter hiding from bad guys in a small room.
The British director Boyle landed in Telluride exhausted from racing to finish "Slumdog Millionaire" in London but also relieved that his film about an impoverished Indian teen was going to get the treatment it deserved.
"Slumdog Millionaire," which is populated with some nonprofessional actors and was filmed in Mumbai, stands among the very few movies acquired for American distribution in the last few years by Warner Independent Pictures, the specialized film unit of Warner Bros. But when Warner Bros. closed WIP earlier this year and had to accommodate several New Line movies into its fall schedule when New Line was folded, "Slumdog Millionaire's" prospects looked dim.
Warner Bros. contemplated several different options for the film, including a direct-to-video release or a sale to another distributor. As the studio sorted through the possibilities, invitations to both Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival stood unaccepted.
"When you hear that Warner Independent Pictures has closed down, you have to be concerned," said Boyle, the director of "28 Days Later," "Millions" and "Trainspotting," among other films. "I'm experienced enough now to know to keep calm, relax and don't panic. I knew it was a good film and that people would want to see it."
That proved to be the case. Fox Searchlight, which has distributed most of Boyle's movies, last week entered into a joint "Slumdog Millionaire" deal with Warner Bros. as the invites to Telluride and Toronto were welcomed. A last-minute addition to the Telluride schedule, "Slumdog Millionaire" had its first public screening Saturday night, and the response inside the sold-out theater could not have been much more enthusiastic. The film arrives in American theaters on Nov. 28.
"It's a very sophisticated audience here, and they don't mind subtitles. In fact, they even laughed at some of them," Boyle said the day after his film's first showing. "Festivals are the great originators of non-processed material. It's where the audience declares, 'This may not fit the strict definitions of what is a big film, but we like it.' It gives the film clout, and it's something the studios pay attention to."
"Slumlord Millionaire" concerns a fictional 18-year-old orphan who uses remembrances of his very difficult life to help answer questions in the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"
Given all that his film has been through, Boyle knows that he has been lucky. "The independent film world is clearly in a massive crisis," the director said. "We need some movies to work to get the faith back."