It’s been 57 years since Michael Kutza raised the curtain on the first Chicago International Film Festival and six years since the charismatic festival founder and West Side native stepped down as artistic director. After helming the fest for over five decades, the larger-than-life personality has accrued a lifetime’s worth of stories—some funny, some surprising, and some that you just needed to be there to believe—and now he's telling them all in his recently released book, Starstruck: How I Magically Transformed Chicago into Hollywood for More Than Fifty Years (BearManor Media), in a page-turning story of his early days, growing the fest into one of the world’s finest, and the eye-brow raising anecdotes from his decades-long journey.
We sat down with Kutza to talk all things Starstruck, his favorite celebs and get a preview of what big plans he has next.
Congrats on the book. It's really juicy, and I'm excited to talk about it.
I bet you never read it.
Oh, my God. You're not old enough for some of those stories.
The cover of Starstruck
My jaw did drop a few times…What inspired you to put this story down in a book?
I'd been doing the festival for 50-plus years, and people would always ask about what it was like working with Tom Cruise or [Steven] Spielberg, for example. I kept telling everybody stories about little incidents, and they said that could be a book. So, I started writing down all these little stories, and they became like little movies, and therefore, I laid the book out like a movie.
All the chapters have movie titles, such as “West Side Story” (I was born on the West Side of Chicago), and “A Star Is Born,” as in the life of [silent film star] Colleen Moore, who the movie was written for. Every story is an episode of a bigger picture.
The original title of the book was My Life Is a Movie because once you read it, you know that nobody could have a life like that.
Why did you decide to change the title?
I would ask people close to me what they thought, and they said, “Why don't you make it broader than just yourself? Even though it’s about you, why don't you make it something about all those famous people you've brought to Chicago?” Then it slowly developed into the title Starstruck, which I love.
You dish some really juicy gossip. Did you have any qualms about how people might react?
Well, luckily most of the people are dead. And for those who aren't—I have four lawyers listed in the acknowledgements [laughs].
But really, [every story] wraps up into something positive with a happy ending.
One of my favorite chapters is “Sorry, Wrong Number,” in which you share a few of the unusual requests you received from Hollywood celebrities over the years.
It's really funny—I put the festival together, travel the world, spend six months looking for the movies, get the movies in place, then my staff organizes the films, and as soon as the talent arrives, suddenly it's my job to take care of them. I would certainly never have expected that would be my job.
They all have special needs. Jack Nicholson was always high, but he had to have this certain kind of white wine in the car.
And Faye Dunaway had to have a white limousine with a telephone. I said, “Faye, white limousines are either for funerals or prom night.”
[The requests were] silly things like that.
With those experiences in hindsight, what advice would you give to someone aspiring to start a festival like that today?
Oh, my God, there must be 4,000 festivals running in the world now. The tough part today, even with the current Chicago International Film Festival, is getting people back to the cinema. People are still hooked on Netflix and HBO, and they're very lazy, and with COVID, it's tough to get people back into the seats. I can't imagine starting a festival these days, but I think they will always have a niche market.
I’d hate losing the big screen, and the experience of hanging out with people and watching movies. I'm hoping that'll come back.
Do you miss being at the helm of the festival?
Oh, God, no. Not with the dilemmas I just mentioned.
I do miss having the stars and all that, but who are the stars today? Are there any stars today? Frankly, I think the good old days are over.
What actors are you most impressed with right now?
Timothée [Chalamet] is okay. He’s a little strange, but he's talented. I also enjoy Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep. I'd go see a new [Martin] Scorsese film because I know it’ll be done perfectly and it’ll have the same characters—[Robert] De Niro and [Leonardo] DiCaprio. We helped Scorsese’s career by accepting his first film at the festival.
I'll go see the director's things. Maybe the directors are the stars right now.
Chicago entertainment reporter Bill Zwecker interviews Robin Williams
Aside from releasing the book, how do you channel your creative energy these days?
Right now it's selling the book. I've never done this before; it’s all new to me. It keeps my energy going. And I started working on another book about personal friends rather than film friends.
What can you share about that?
The title—It’s called The Crazies.
I've also been approached about making [Starstruck] into a movie by two filmmakers, one company in Canada and one in the U.S. They’re saying it might make an interesting movie, so I said, “Make a documentary while I'm still alive.” I'd love it.
Photography by: From top, photos: by Chicago Film Festival staff; on the cover, Anna Nicole Smith photo by Steve Arazmus, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise photo by Robert Dowey, Sophia Loren photo by Matt Gilson, Jack Lemmon photo by Steve Arazmus; by Timothy M. Schmidt; by Robert Dowey; by Robert Dowey