Omi

We’re going to go with a Blue Moon, what are you having?

That’s a lovely beer. I drink vodka on the rocks.

That will do the trick.

Yes, I know! With a squeeze of lemon and tonic on the side.

Tonic on the side, that’s interesting.

I slowly pour it in. I think the reason I do it is because you get a bigger glass of vodka. I suppose what I’m doing is watering down a martini without even realizing it but I’ve actually never had a martini in my life. [Photographer starts shooting] I hate pictures, by the way. No nose shots! [Laughs]

What do you remember most about being 22 and creating what is now such an iconic film festival?

I studied to be a doctor but I had been making movies since I was 8 years old and it just slowly started to progress into this. At 22 I visited a festival and had seen what’s out there and wanted to bring it to Chicago. I couldn’t get it off the ground financially without my parents and I got a bunch of friends together to help. Irv Kupcinet was a big columnist in Chicago at the time and said, “Okay, if you’re going to try and do this film festival thing you’re going to have to meet this movie star and she can help you. She’ll be like your new mother.” So I met this wonderful lady named Colleen Moore. She was a silent film comedian just like Mary Pickford but she retired here and married a man named [Homer] Hargrave, who was the president of Merrill Lynch. He had just died so suddenly I’ve got this film star widow with nothing to do and when Irv Kupcinet introduced me to her it was like magic. It was very much like a mother and son relationship, she helped me to do the whole thing. She knew all the movie stars in the old days so she got them all together to come to the first film festival.

Are those her eyes in the logo you created for the festival?

No, but interestingly enough she sort of inspired it because she was one of those faces back then in the silent film days. The silent film actresses were all very young and they wore a lot of white makeup on their faces with a lot of black eye makeup. [Colleen Moore] actually had one blue eye and one brown eye but in black and white movies you couldn’t see it.

It says a lot for so many people to have such faith in you at 22.

True story; in those early years she had said to me, “If we’re going to work together and make this happen, you’re too young. No one will trust you being 22,” which was absolutely true in those days. A friend of hers, Harold Lloyd, who was another silent film comedian, always wore glasses so she said, “Here’s a pair of glasses. You’re going to wear these and you’re going to be 27.” They didn’t even have lenses in them, they had fake glass but I became 27 for five or six years. It’s funny, I always lie about my age. I really don’t have a clue how old I am because I was always 27!

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Was it difficult to get people to come to Chicago when everything was in New York and L.A.?

Yes, it was very difficult to bring an audience because we were in November then and it was cold, snowy, wet and rainy and here we are showing all of these foreign films. But as for [getting actors and directors to come], no. People always wanted to come here. We had Bette Davis, King Vidor and Stanley Kramer the very first year. It was amazing. Colleen had all of these friends so we would have lunches and everything was at the Pump Room in those days. The Pump Room was the key place of the city. When stars went from New York to California the train stopped in Chicago and you stayed overnight at the Ambassador East or West Hotel and then you always had breakfast or lunch at the Pump Room and your train continued the next day. That’s why there are all of the fancy photos of those people [at the Pump Room] because they all were there and in Chicago on their way to the nice place. Isn’t that wonderful? But then when airplanes became a big deal it changed all of that … Stop me from drinking this! [Laughs]

How many movies do you watch a year?

If I’m in Cannes or Berlin for a film festival I watch about five a day, which is easy. I know it sounds crazy but it really is easy when it’s wonderful stuff. I rarely walk out of a film.

We heard that you don’t read or watch any TV.

I really don’t but I do watch the news. I used to be hooked on “House” though. Remember “House”? Oh my God, I love “House”! That is one that I’ll search out and sometimes there are marathons on. I was really raised in that world with all of the doctor stuff. My dad was a very tough-gruff kind of doctor and I run my office like he ran that hospital.

Last film that really moved you?

I saw a film with Juliette Binoche a couple of months ago and it’s a film we’re also showing called “A Thousand Times Goodnight”. It’s a brilliant performance by her and it’s really something worth seeing. She’s a French actress in real life and plays a photographer in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. She’s hooked on photographing terror and yet she has a family back home … It’s really chilling to watch. In one great scene her little daughter says, “Mommy, I wish you would die. I can’t keep saying goodbye.” It’s just remarkable. Her husband says, “You’ve got to make up your mind. Are you going to keep doing this?” and she says, “Okay, family is more important,” but yet she can’t give it up. She needs that adrenaline so she goes back into the war again.

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Favorite place to visit?

I love Paris. The Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris” is one of those that I can just keep watching over and over again.  That’s what Paris is all about … Rome is another place where I used to hang out a lot but most of my director friends have since died so I don’t go back to Rome much. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy.

You were close with Roger Ebert. What is your last memory with him?

I only want to remember the good moments. We’re honoring Roger opening night at the festival and even then we’re only showing film clips of him when he’s at his peak because I want to remember people that way. The last 10 years I couldn’t deal with it. I’m bad that way but that’s the way I was raised in the doctor world. It’s strange and it’s probably a flaw that people don’t like about me. I’ll take care of you as long as I can but I know when that time is that I have to leave you and say goodbye.

Top movies? If you had to pick a few.

The usual films. I like “Citizen Kane”, “Singin’ in the Rain” and all of that old Hollywood stuff.

Which new movies have you caught recently?

I saw “Gravity” a couple of weeks ago.  It didn’t do anything for me, I gotta tell ya. Everybody’s in love with this thing and yeah, it’s fascinating, the 3-D was fabulous but it had no script. It was gorgeous to look at, it takes your breath away but frankly I don’t get it. I’m not a fan of Sandra Bullock, I’m not a fan of hers. [She always plays the same character]. Always! But yet she always wins you over in the last reel, the last 30 minutes you’re in love with her.

What do you hope people take away from this year’s film festival?

Discovering these news directors, new films from all over the world and saying, “It doesn’t always have to be a Hollywood movie, look at this film from Romania, look at this film from France or Italy.” Because the directors are there, it’s a whole experience. It’s not just a movie, it’s more than a movie. You get to meet the people and sit around and talk with them and even hang out with them. That’s very important.

How do you keep your energy up?

Well, I guess it’s by having this at breakfast!

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What’s your typical order here at RL Restaurant?

Two of these! [Laughs] Dover sole or just the smoked salmon, which I don’t think is even on the menu anymore. You have to ask for it.

One thing you can’t travel without?

This is crazy but I travel with one of those sound machines. I really do.

Which setting do you listen to?

Thunderstorms. Isn’t that weird? I love rain. I look at it and go, “What am I going to do when this thing breaks?”

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

Today?

Sure.

I really admire so many people and they’re not the movie stars. I would pick a lady who I’ve become really close with, Paula Wagner. She’s a producer who does all of the “Mission Impossible” movies, she’s worked with Tom [Cruise] forever and Paula’s helped me with a lot of things. Sitting with someone who’s bright and is in the business and believes in you and you believe in them is interesting, you know?

Did you ever imagine the festival would become what it is today?

I always assumed it was going to be something great.

Is there anything you still want to accomplish that you haven’t had a chance to yet?

Sure, easy. Produce a big film. Just that … I was watching an interview with Cher on David Letterman. She’s 70 years old and he asked, “You’ve met Janis Joplin and all these people in real life. What is your suggestion?” She said, “The secret to the business is to die young,” and that’s right because you will forever be remembered as that, at your best. She said, “My problem is, I’m still alive.” [Laughs]

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Omi