At The Telluride Film Festival, Volunteers And Gig Workers Prepare For A Return To Normalcy — And Their Annual Traditions

· Sep. 1, 2021, 4:00 am
Welcome to Telluride, Sunday, August 29, 2021.

Caryn Sanchez is a true believer in the Telluride Film Festival. This year’s edition will be her 28th trip to the storied festival in the San Juan Mountains. She started attending the festival after moving back home to Colorado to work on her own independent films.

“I was working at a granting organization at the time, and the executive director was so concerned that if I moved away from L.A., I would just completely fall off the map in terms of filmmaking,” Sanchez said. “So he said, ‘You have an amazing film festival in Colorado. It's the Telluride Film Festival. I want you to promise me that you'll get in touch with them when you get there and become involved because it will help you stay in touch with the film culture, and it'll keep you engaged in what's happening outside of Colorado.’” 

Sanchez arrived at the festival in 1993 as an intern. She bunked with three other women in a boarding house. Two of her first roommates have since gone on to become a producer and filmmaker. 

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“In the past I would, if I had the time, I would arrive early, and I'd help them actually construct stuff,” Sanchez said. “One year, I was so happy because I actually made a concessions cabinet. I'd never used power tools before. I constructed a concessions cabinet, and all during the festival, I was annoying everyone. Like, ‘Oh, come see my concessions cabinet!’”

Sanchez is one in an army of volunteers and gig workers at the Telluride Film Festival, which — like many around the state and country — rely on people to do everything from take tickets, set up parties or concessions, and act as traffic cops for patrons getting to and from theaters. For many, it’s a way to stay connected to the film industry or do some celebrity sightseeing. For others, it’s an annual and indispensable fixture in their lives.

“The thing I love most about Telluride is it's always been a very sort of down to earth place, very unpretentious in a weird way, but when you consider the caliber of talent, it's a pretty high-end place, still the atmosphere when you get there is always very down to earth,” Sanchez said. “Everybody's like sitting on the sidewalks, drinking their coffee and checking out the sunset over the canyon at night, it becomes sort of this real magical place.”

Sanchez’s description of a magical place that appears once every so often brings to mind the musical “Brigadoon.” The festival’s hospitality center even takes its name from the mythical Scottish village that appears once every 100 years. 

Part of that magic is also spotting movie stars, which for a festival known for its intimacy, is easier than at many of the other larger festivals. Sanchez remembers working at the historic Sheridan Opera House in Telluride when Janelle Monáe stopped by to take pictures with Barry Jenkins. 

“She came over to me and she asked, ‘Can you recommend any films?’” Sanchez said. “I said, ‘Oh, we'll be showing a wonderful silent film here today, a Fritz Lang silent. It's actually one of his lesser-known ones that will be showing here with a musical accompaniment at the opera house.’ I was so pleased at night to see her and then a couple of her costars from ‘Moonlight’ showed up to actually watch this very obscure Fritz Lang silent film.” 

But for Sanchez and many of the returning volunteers, the real appeal of Brigadoon in the San Juan Mountains is the chance to see other returning faces. It’s a recognition that extends to pass holders and returning guests as well. “I've been there 28 years, and I'm not a senior member,” she said. “There are people who've been there longer than I have.”

Theresa Garcia is coming back to Telluride for her third year. She and her friends are just a few of the hundreds of volunteers that ensure the show will go on in the face of a pandemic. 

“We just started volunteering at festivals because that was a way that we could go to festivals or be kind of adjacent to festivals without having to pay,” Garcia said of her tradition with friends. “We said that we're going to spend Labor Day there every year for the rest of our lives. We'll see. But that's like the older volunteers like at my theater who have done that. They are best friends. They don't live in the same place. They meet every year and go to Telluride, and that's what they do. That's their friend trip.”

Already, Garcia also has a few funny anecdotes to share from her time as a volunteer, including the one time she sat in a theater during a movie and didn’t see her seatmates in the dark. “When the lights came on at the end, I looked and one side of me was Joel Edgerton, and on the other side of me was Lucas Hedges,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I just watched their film in between them.’ They were probably like, ‘Who is this person like sitting in between us?’”

The New Sheridan Hotel in Telluride on Sunday, August 29, 2021.

Unlike Sanchez, Garcia is not in the film industry. She’s just a film buff excited to spend a weekend in the mountains. 

“Just being a Coloradan, I don't think we feel like we need excuses or permission to go anywhere, but Telluride’s far away and expensive,” she said. “So, it is really nice to know that there's like a set time that I will go and I will get my Telluride fix.”

Away from the theaters where many volunteers are stationed, Justin Kalvin will be hard at work trekking supplies to and from parties thrown by studios and distributors. “It's literally just schlepping boxes and supplies to the various events that they have surrounding the festival,” he said. So, I'm going there before a party for some of the producers and distributors and stuff like that. We'll go set up the party space, and then wait until it's over and then clean it up and carry it back.”

In his downtime, Kalvin and his fellow behind-the-scenes workers will be able to catch some of the movies. “I love that part of Colorado and the drive out there,” he said. “I liked being out there and then being a big fan of movies. Whatever job I could do at that festival, I was interested in doing.”

Many of the regular festival goers like Sanchez are just excited to rebuild their version of Brigadoon after last year’s unprecedented cancellation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I know this year, 2021, isn't perfect,” she said. “It isn't what I thought it would be … but at the same time, it's like, I don't care. Whatever the experience is, it'll be one for the books.”

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