Interview with John Nein

Lost and Found at the Movies celebrates films and filmmaking. Why do you think it is so important to have this program in a library? 

I was drawn to the idea of libraries offering access to inspiration. There’s an association that libraries’s public programs often have with literature, poetry, and non-fiction writing, for obvious reasons. But my sense was that movies, maybe because of their commercial veneer, are less frequently a part of those conversations. But I’ve always felt that the artistic practice, intellectual and social preoccupations, historical context, and cultural relevance of filmmaking should occupy the same place in dialogue we cultivate around art. We live in a city full of storytellers, film artists, and craftspeople, archives and historians all steeped in the history of the movie industries. And all of those people bring personal interests and passions and artistic process to their work. We should relish the idea of peeling back the layers of their process. 


What movie made you fall in love with film?

There was no one film that opened the doors for me. When I was a kid, I got swept up in watching movies in a theater – that immersive, visceral charge. I watched mainstream movies like every kid at that time. I didn’t really start watching art house, independent, and foreign-language films until later, and I guess it was a combination of those films and classics that spurred me to be a part of it. My “favorite” movies change from year to year. But the film that comes to mind more often, not so much because I love it more than others, but because it’s ultimately about the love of movies, is “Cinema Paradiso.” I would have first seen it in high school, but I still come back to it over and over again. 


Do you think this period of time [during home quarantine due to coronavirus] will affect how we view films? Do you think that people will begin to value movies more again?

I’m not sure I see meaningful fluctuations in how people value movies (or don’t) over time. Cinema fills such different roles in people’s lives, whether that’s escapism (which certainly will be popular at the moment) or engaging us with other people’s experiences or processing the world in meaningful ways. Difficult circumstances and dark times (the implications of which, sadly, stretch far beyond the pandemic) bring out the most indispensable quality of artists: their ability to frame meaning, to reorient us through their point of view, to express something that no other form can, and hopefully, in doing so, open our eyes to the light. And I look to filmmakers for that now as I always have. 


What are your favorite books that have been adapted to film?

There are so many adaptations I love, but I also think – somewhat controversially – that we have to set films free from the book. There has always been this bizarre friction between literature and film, which I understand; there are lots of bad adaptations and people are protective of the experiences they have reading certain books. But literature and film are two completely different mediums. I gravitate toward adaptations in which you feel the freedom from constraint and embrace the cinematic form. It’s easy when films are adapted from unremarkable books, like “Rebecca” for example. Most of Kubrick’s films are adaptations; they reflect his own sensibility as an artist. Or take “Chimes of Midnight,” which is technically an adaptation of the Henriad, but what makes it so profound is what Orson Welles brought to it. But I love a lot of classics too, like Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s “Sense & Sensibility,” James Ivory’s “Remains of the Day,” and the Coen brothers’s “No Country for Old Men.” More recently I’ve loved “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” which totally embodies that freedom (especially the end, which is brilliant). If I had to choose a favorite, I guess it would be “Blade Runner,” for its visionary world building and its purely cinematic, poetic expression of the ideas in the book…and beyond. 


People are stuck at home right now. If you could impart your expert advice to our audience, what films would be a “must” for them to see?

Our mass sequestration has led to a deluge of online cultural recommendations – what everybody could be reading, listening to, and watching. And that’s great, but it’s also left me completely overwhelmed by endless lists and so many cool things I’ve never read, heard, or seen. It’s Fellini’s centenary and I’d never seen “Il bidone” (“The Swindle”), which is a beautiful, heart wrenchingly fatalistic redemption story disguised as a con artist film. I watched a few zombie movies (a fascinating expression of collective anxiety around contagion). But after being all over the place for a week, I decided to explore a genre I want to know better: film noir. I guess that’s my suggestion: make yourself a syllabus and do a deep dive. Binge watching is a chance to pick a filmmaker or a genre or a period and just watch it all!


What upcoming films are you looking forward to?

In terms of things I’m looking forward to in the summer or fall, there’s so much that’s up in the air right now, but a few that I suspect will be worth the wait are Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (I keep watching that trailer with such a grin), Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks”, Cary Fukunaga’s James Bond feature “No Time To Die” (another trailer I keep watching), the Korean-American film “Minari,” which won the grand jury prize at Sundance this year, and as adaptations go, there will be Denis Villenueve’s “Dune,” Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” and Ridley Scott is making a film from a non-fiction book I liked many years ago called “The Last Duel.” 

John Nein is a Senior Programmer at the Sundance Film Festival and deals primarily with U.S. and international feature films. He also plans the festival’s panels and runs the Institute’s film preservation initiative. John grew up in Europe and the U.S., studied history at Carleton College, and earned his MFA from UCLA’s Film Directing program, where he made several award-winning shorts and lobbied tirelessly for better coffee in the vending machines.