Field reporter Jennifer Lee divulges on her day and night adventures at TIFF.
by : Jennifer Lee- Sep 17th, 2009
Day 1, Thursday Sept 10th
Once a year, for the last 34 years, Toronto has been the home of one of the largest and most reputable film festivals around the globe. And, like all good things do in the world of film, the festival has steadily grown into a major Hollywood affair with a buffet of celeb-studded gala soirees, lounges boasting swag upon swag and of course throngs of fans lining the street of every festival venue, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the their actor d’jour. For me the festival is an extended experiment in sleep deprivation and malnutrition. In case you didn’t know, living on sporadic helpings of hors d’oeuvres is not a sustainable diet. But when you’re attending 9 AM screenings and parties that don’t peter our till 4 AM officially and 5 AM usually, food becomes an unnecessary distraction from a much needed nap or the small window of time you have each evening to erase the day’s fatigue and look worthy of even nearing the red carpet.
Black ties were pulled out even before today’s official festival madness. Last night, Hollywood starlet Ann-Margret was honored at a pre-TIFF celebration in support of Best Buddies, a community for helping people with intellectual disabilities. The screen legend had the room roaring in amorous laughter when she began her speech by worrying that the slit in her dress may be too high now that she was on a raised stage. Giggling, she accepted a shawl from a front row table to cover up.
With glamour already in the air, day one begins with grand hullabaloo. Festival energy is best gauged by the size of diehard stargazers congregating outside the Intercontinental in Yorkville (where the bulk of festival interviews are done) and Roy Thompson Hall where the gala presentations take place. Today the mass gathering of people suggests that no one quite yet knows who’s in town but they do know that the opening night gala
Creation, directed by Jon Amie and starring the happily wedded Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, is sure to bring out the stars. Timed perfectly with the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the biopic about the life of the late great scientist saw stars Bettany and Connelly walk down the red carpet, the latter dressed in a stunning Bottega Veneta dress.
Away from the bright light of the gala, I step onto the rooftop of men’s department store giant Harry Rosen, where Canadian golden boy, NBA player Steve Nash, is guest hosting the night’s most fashionable festival party. It’s a shoulder to shoulder event here—just cozy enough for me to inconspicuously measure my height against that of Nash’s. Surprisingly he’s not that tall; in 4 inch heels, this 5.4 girl was near eye level!
Tomorrow night the city will be full up to the brim with stars. Tonight, it’s critical to be in bed before sunup and rest before the weekend — expected to be a literal war of hot ticket events.
Day 2, Friday Sept 11th
Every time I approach the Intercontinental I get nervous. The crowd today is double what it was yesterday. Inquisitive eyes scan me up and down as I approach the red carpet to enter the hotel for my interviews, once ascertained that I’m no one of particular importance, the crowd’s attention shoots back and forth from the drive to the door hoping George Clooney (here to promote 2 Oscar hopefuls,
The Men Who Stare at Goats and
Up in the Air by director Jason Reitman of
Juno renown) will suddenly appear in my place. Adding to the mania of the crowd are a handful of girls skipping around in sandwich boards and blowing on whistles whilst singing a cheer, Matt Damon’s face (also in the city) is on the board — clever PR for his festival entry the
Informant … if only there weren’t the voices of hundreds of fans to contend with.
Women Without Men is the feature of the day. The directorial debut of Shirin Neshat, Women Without Men is adapted from the infamous novella of the same name written by fellow Iranian native Shahrnush Parsipur. Set in 1953 Iran, the story begins in the summer leading up to the country’s historic coup d’état. Neshat — who is a visual artist first and a director second — provides the audience with a thought provoking, visually robust, glimpse into the lives of 4 women, each living a different variation of suppression and social alienation. The narrative weaves between the plight of bourgeois life as experienced by a kept wife to the numbing abuse endured by a female prostitute. Riotous in imagery as it is in drama, the film is a testament to Neshat as an artist immersed in film. I had hoped to speak with Neshat about her first feature but my interview is canceled. It’s been announced that she has won the Silver Lion Best Director at the Venice Film Festival (from which she only just flew in from for TIFF) and now she must go back to accept the award, to be presented to her tomorrow. There are worst things to embark on 2 consecutive 10 hour flights for.
After a short albeit invigorating nap, I begin preparing for the night’s affairs. After a quick primp, I head over to the Phoenix music bar to check out the metal on offer. Jessica Pare and Rob Stefaniuk are amongst the crowd for the post-premiere celebrations for
Suck, a Canadian-grade flick starring music legends Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop as members of a wannabe bloodsuckers band.
Ears ringing, I make my way to the Windsor Arms hotel (a sophisticated boutique hotel impossible to book during TIFF) where Canada’s favourite Hollywood director Paul Haggis (best know for
Crash) is hosting a charity event for Artists for Peace and Justice, an organization committed to raising money for underprivileged children in Hati. Out in support of the event was Colin Farrell, whose film
Triage premieres tomorrow evening as well as unofficial festival visitors Kim Catrall, Rachelle Lefevre and Kelly Rowan, who looked stunning in a black and white dress paired with classic Louboutins.
With the clock nearing midnight, I travel over to the
Passenger Side premiere party. Held at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighborhood, the venue served up delicious Mexican fare, especially created to for the LA road trip movie (the spot is known for its delicious brunch offerings). Guests hover near actors Adam Scott (looking the part of an indie-film star in his skinny black tie) and Joel Bissonnette, hanging out on the patio with director Matt Bissonnette and producer Corey Marr. The crowd rolls out at 2 AM, some still in search of late night fun (bars are able to obtain special 4 AM permits during TIFF). This one opts for bed. Have to get home and clean off the quesadilla droppings on my shoes before they stain!
Day 3, Sat Sept 12th
Note to readers: if ever you fear you might be too tired to carry on with your day, try watching a film about Charles Manson in the morning to keep you awake albeit disturbed. A dark comedy of Technicolor proportions,
Leslie My Name is Evil, unfurls the story of Manson and his female followers from commune to courtroom. Guiding the trajectory of the narrative is the film’s title character Leslie (Kristen Hager), a recent suburban runway, Leslie is a hippie femme fatale in search of a surrogate family and a new way of life.
I catch up with writer/director Reginald Harkemaand and his cast on the back patio of the Intercontinental. Shortly after our meeting, I’m crowned a “groovy chick” by Harkemaand for congratulating him on his film’s nocturnal coloured wit, which apparently “uptight straight guys” (the critics) don’t seem to get; immediately I’m given a record, one seen in the hands of festival goers all over town. It features the film’s title and Leslie, wrapped in the American flag and of course, like all good Manson vixens, a crucifix symbol carved into her forehead. “She was very much a product of her time,” says Hager of the dangerous beauty she played. “Everyone was trying to rebel again the generation before them and she was very much that person.” We end the conversation on the gala premiere, which inevitably leads to talk of her carpet attire. “I love fashion period,” she exclaims as we start on the subject. Hager is all smiles and hand motions as she tells me about the Renata Morales dress she has selected from the designers Fall 09 collection.
Fashion is the theme of the evening. Tonight belongs to Holt Renfrew, who is hosting its annual TIFF event, this year erected in a sprawling loft space in the city’s hip Queen West neighborhood. By 10 PM, the loft is sweltering from the body heat of the mass of people it is housing. Even the beautiful people like
Twilight beauty Rachelle Lefevre (who’s amber locks are even more divine up close than they appear on screen) are seen politely dabbing beads of sweat off their face, while supermodel Alexis Chung (the evening’s guest DJ) looks like she’s near ready to faint from want of cool air, yet somehow still manages to look it-girl worthy in blouse, short shorts and booties combo. The heat goes up another 10 degrees when Montreal’s indie-darlings The Stills — looking more runway than dive bar (me suspects they’ve been styled by the night’s gracious host) — take the front stage. Given the night’s offerings, one concludes that a little perspiration, never hurt anybody.
Day 4, Sun Sept 13th
Waking up for screenings is becoming more and more difficult as we approach the halfway mark of the festival. After another breakfast skipped (did I eat dinner last night?) and about 30 yawns into the morning, I decide it best to dedicate today to films and pass on the parties tonight. I can’t allow myself to be swayed…not unless I want to collapse somewhere in between Tuesday’s Big Three, including the festival’s crowning jewel the Instyle magazine party. A handful of screenings later, the day’s standout is
Despite being overwhelmingly exhausted from festival work and play,
Balibo immediately captures and holds my attention. A true story based on the events of 1975 in East Timor,
Balibo directed by Robert Connolly, documents with epic cinematic sweep and journalistic care the story of a group of 5 Australian journalists, who lost their lives in the struggle to tell the world about the Indonesian led invasion of East Timor, a story that till this film, remained shrouded by those countries that turned a blind eye during the invasion including the USA, UK and neighbouring Australia.
I meet with one of the film’s star Oscar Isacc to talk about the film. Heralded by critics to be Hollywood’s brightest new talents, Isaac is as engaging in person as he is on screen, and, seemingly unaware of the acclaim of his talent. With modesty he candidly shares that he feels almost not responsible his brilliant performance in the film. Having only two weeks in between wrapping a leading role in
Agora (in which he plays opposite Rachel Weisz) and the filming of
Balibo, Isaac approached his role in a way quite contrary to his usual meticulous technique. “It’s the first time I approached it in such a loose way,” he shares.
Loose though it was for him, consummate it is for the audience watching him in the role of Jose Ramos-Horta, legendary Minister in the East Timorese government. Himself “shell shocked” by his first viewing of
Balibo at the festival, Isaac confesses that he had no idea how powerfully this story would translate in the film. “I think I underestimated the whole thing, I even underestimated Rob,” says the actor. For Isaac as it will be for most audience members, the story portrayed in
Balibo is eye opening, as its makers expected it to be. It’s as Isaac — who before the film was unaware of the history of East Timor — puts it: “I think that’s sort of the point.”
Moving from heavy to dark subject matter, I chat with Xavier Samuel, the star of Sean Byrne’s
Loved Ones. A horror flick described by its director as “Evil Dead meets Carrie,” the gore gets going when the father of a demented teenage girl kidnaps her crush and brings him back home where the adolescent torture (i.e. not having a date, not having the right date) tied to prom is literalized in blood. I find Samuel stretched out on a reclining lawn chair, the 25-year-old actor is dressed in the casual attire of a hoodie heartthrob complete with tortoise Wayfarers. While under the radar now, the baby-faced Aussie is soon to hit super stardom with the release of the third Twilight film. Cast in the role of newborn vampire Riley, Samuel has already landed a spot on twihard’s radars. Despite fans waiting for him outside restaurants and shops while filming on location in Vancouver (“They’re very patient.”), Samuel says life is as per usual and he’s going to try and keep it that way. “My hope is that after it all, it will be relatively easy to lead a normal life.” As for life on the Twilight set, he is just having a great time working and hanging out with “down to earth, extremely lovely people.” Keep an eye out for this bloodsucker, he’s got the quite charm to compete with a some fellow cold ones.
Day 5, Mon Sept 14th
Refreshed and happy from a tranquil night of rest, I walk back into the darkness of the cinema with no fear of nodding off (it has yet to happen but the fear is often there).
A decade of slumber could not have prepared me for the emotional fatiguing
Partir. Written and directed by Catherine Corsini, the film is an examination of marriage and the bonds that tie us in and outside this relationship. “I wanted to film something that was not black and white, to show how situations can complicate life,” says the director in our interview. And so it is that by the film’s end, neither wife nor husband can be seen to have clean hands or pure hearts.
Emotions get further worked during the screening of
A Single Man. Chronicling a not so ordinary day (it being the final day) in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a 52-year-old British college professor struggling to overcome the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode). Knowing that he will end his life at the end of this day, George begins to see the beauty of the smaller moments in the grand dance. In conversation with Firth about fashion designer turned director, Tom Ford, the actor is all praise for his director’s thoughtful approach. “He had a very clear idea of how he wanted to put things together,” says Firth. For the actor, Ford’s love and talent for narrative is what makes the film shine; “It’s in the storytelling…that’s why he wanted to work in this medium.”
Now on to the next heart-wrenching drama
Mother and Child, this time a cocktail event in honour of the film, rather than a screening itself. Hosted by Swarovski at their Yorkville location, the event is a glamorous affair with lovlies and dandies looking dapper in black. The film’s star Naomi Watts pops into the event before heading off to the premiere at Roy Thompson Hall. Prim and petite, the actress struts ahead of the fashion curve in a black jumpsuit to redefine jumpsuits.
From here, the theme of the evening strayed away from runway fashion towards all things categorized under the umbrella of hipster (in the non-derogatory sense of the word). Tonight is the premiere of
Leslie My name is Evil and to celebrate, the film has put together a happening little party at the Berkley Church, where the “cool” prefer to party. This is the only festival event where I have encountered a buffet table and a crowd with black-framed glasses to spare. Partygoers indulge in Bloody Leslies from the bar, as they bop around to tunes from the summer of love, while serious film folk like actor Daniel McKeller from the film, stand in a cluster on the border of the dance floor talking shop. I leave before the dance floor clears, tomorrow is the Big Three….must get home to bed.
Day 6, Tues Sept 15
Normal people start their day off with breakfast and coffee, a run or perhaps a session at the gym. I start my day off removing the bobby pins protruding out of my hair from last night’s do, eating a sugar packet for energy (festival leaves no time for grocery shopping) and watch a heist film about morphine addicts. Only 4 days left of being a festival zombie. A festival gem directed by Gary Yates,
High Life is a darkly comedic tale of an introspective junkie named Dick (Timothy Olyphant), who’s life as indifferent fate has it, is thrown into turmoil when Bug (deftly played by actor Stephen Eric McIntyre) an unruly ghost from the past returns with a grand plan to land him and his old friend a spot on easy street. But no money is easy money, as Dick and his gang of social degenerates learn after Bug’s unpredictable ways elevate the heist from petty, to penitentiary worthy.
I meet Stephen Eric McIntyre and Rossif Sutherland, who plays Billy in the film, on the patio of Empire Restaurant to chat about High Life. We’re sat on a bench, McIntrye and Sutherland are on either side of me. It feel likes we’re on a school bus, except I never got to sit with the cool kids on the school bus, and these guys are definitely of the back of the bus variety. As is Olyphant according to his co-stars: innately cool and dexterous in his acting ability. “He comes to the set full of ideas, comes to the set with a willingness for success and a willingness to share and anytime your lead person brings that to set, you’re good to go man,” says McIntyre of Olyphant. Sutherland has similar praise for director Gary Yates. Of his vision he says: “He had that clarity…which allows us as actors a lot of freedom.”
It’s getting late in the afternoon and I have to get home to prepare for the Cinema Against AIDS benefit in support of amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS research and Canada’s own Dignitas. A staple event at international festivals including Cannes and Sundance, this is the Toronto International Film Festival’s first year hosting the gala soiree. A black tie affair costing $1000 a plate, organizers pull out all the stops to ensure a night well worth its price tag. After all, it’s not often the time between ones entrée and main course (prepared by a renowned chef case Jamie Kennedy) is filled with a performance by the ethereal Sarah McLachlan, or an après dessert treat arrives in the form of a serenade by Deborah Cox, or that you get Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York charming you into bidding on a skiing package in the Alps guided by pro big mountain skier Manu Gaidet — and most definitely never all in one night! Off stage, celebs such as Bill Nighy (Love Actually) looking dapper in a tux and black-framed glasses, captured guests attention when not bidding on a one-of-a-kind hand painted Balenciaga dress or a trip to New York Fashion Week, as Eloise would have you experience it.
It’s about 11 PM and it’s time to head over to the
High Life premiere party at Empire Restaurant, where this afternoon I chatted with some of the cast. I walk in as Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Eric McIntyre and Rossif Sutherland and some other cast and crew members are playfully posing for photos for the media. The party is busy but the temperature in the resto feels like it’s hovering somewhere just above zero and so after a couple of hours of literally chilling, it’s time to skip over to the night’s main event, the InStyle Magazine party at the Winsor Arms hotel.
I pass actor Oscar Issac (who I spoke to a couple of days ago for
Balibo) on his way out as I enter the party, say a quick hello, grab a drink and zig zag through the crowd of suits and gowns, I recognize some faces from the amfAR event earlier. I hang out with some friends near the back of the room, who tell me I just missed Clive Owen, I’m consoled by the towering glass jars of candy laid out for indulging. Beside me, Gregory Smith from CBC’s
Guns and the festival’s
Leslie, My Name is Evil tucks in with a giggling female companion, while a serious looking Harvey Weinstein passes by the goodies on display and makes his way to the side terrace, joining the company of Sarah Ferguson, occupied in deep conversation with fellow Cinema Against AIDS presenter James Purefoy (TV’s
Rome), and Colin Firth arm in arm with stunning wife Livia Giuggioli (who just recently turned 40 and for whom Firth sang to on the momentous occasion), seen mingling with partygoers including Adrien Brody.
I’m not sure what time it is but the party is still crowded when I leave. I touch the “S” that I can’t see but know has been drawn on my wrist in invisible marker by security. I ponder what the “S” could mean on the ride home, for me, the “S” is for swansong: the festival is winding down and I’m getting ready to wrap up my coverage, tonight’s will be the last of my big festival parties. From here on in, three square meals may just be a possibility.
Day 7, Wed Sept 16th
I was wrong about the three square meals. I wake up and rush to my morning screenings as per usual. No breakfast, left my granola bar on the kitchen counter. I can look forward to FIJI water from the media lounge to sustain me yet again. I’m in the theatres all the way through lunch and then I begin my interviews.
I meet with Australian director Ana Kokkinos of
Blessed in the back courtyard of the Intercontinental, still trying to recover from the evocative narrative of her film, which I only just watched. “I think film makes you think of your own relationships,” says the director when asked about the redolent quality of her work. And relate all audience members will to this nuanced tale of familial bonds and societal devastations. A film split in two parts: the children and the mothers, Blessed examines the individual struggles of the two groups to love and be loved, unveiling the mucky inner-workings of civilization’s most primal of relationships.
Kokkinos credits her luminous cast (including Deborra-Lee Furness , Miranda Otto and Frances O’Connor) for
Blessed’s raw portrayal of the lives of blue collar Australia in the late 90s. “They all brought a lot of truth and heart to their roles,” she compliments. After working eight years on adapting the script from the award-winning stage play,
Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? Kokkinos embarked on an intensive rehearsal and production stage. Listening to her talk of the cast’s 6 week rehearsal period, I inquire as to whether she would describe her directing style to be hands on, her reply is, I assume, why Blessed is the unrelentingly haunting work of critical renown it is. She says without hesitation: “It’s the only way to make a movie.” Moving on to more light-hearted but equally poignant subject matter, I prepare for a round table interview with Youth in Revolt’s star Michael Cera. While waiting for Cera in the hallway of the hotel’s 3rd floor, a few journalists and I spot a half eaten chef’s salad on a tray resting before the door of one of the rooms. Note: When you and your colleagues start joking about scavenging leftover room service with ravenous eyes, it’s time to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Cera arrives to our interview with a backpack and a nervous smile — both are endearing. His timid demeanor makes for interesting questioning, or more a lack of anything resembling a long-winded answer. “It was nice to watch a director work that way,” he says of director’s Miguel Arteta open directing approach. “It was really fun,” he replies when asked what it was like to portray two characters in the film, Nick and his rebellious alter ego Francois. And finally, on getting to play a different character (i.e. the bad boy) than his usual adorable neurotic teen, he affirms: “It was nice.”
Maybe Cera just isn’t good in a group, maybe the characters he plays on screen aren’t too far off from the real Michael Cera, which ever it may be, the actor gives an exceptional performance in Youth in Revolt, warranting it a quirky and charming film worth seeing in theatres. In other words, the film is nice and it would be fun for you to watch it.
Day 8, Thurs Sept 17th
It’s my last day working the festival circuit. While two full days of screenings still await the diehards, I will wrap my last interview today and toast my last premiere party tonight — each for
Phantom Pain, the day’s gala presentation.
The feature debut of producer turned director Matthias Emcke, Phantomschmerz (
Phantom Pain) stars German superstar Til Schweiger known to North American audiences for his role in films including King Arthur and most recently his role as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, opposite Brad Pitt in Inglorious Bastards. A megawatt German import, Schweiger is the most unassuming star I’ve interviewed the entire festival. Dressed in a down vest that carries the Warner Bros. stamp (the studio behind
Phantom Pain), he begins our interview by telling me about his trip up the CN Tower with his daughter Luna, who plays his onscreen daughter in the film. After sightseeing, the two “shopped till they dropped” at Abercrombie and Fitch and Hollister, stores not available in Germany and then had McDonald’s. Not the day-in-the-life one would imagine for an actor described as the Brad Pitt of Germany, making him all the more delightful for it.
Adapting his off screen charm to the big screen, Schweiger plays Marc Sumner, a playboy Peter Pan with a penchant for bikes and mountain adventures. “He’s a man who’s always looking for an easy way out,” says Schweiger of his character’s cavalier lifestyle. Life as he knows it changes when he loses a leg in a motorcycle accident. “Through his accident he is able to see his life and become a better person,” the actor explains. Met with a standing ovation when premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, the overwhelming positive reception of
Phantom Pain has romanced first time actress Luna into following her father’s footsteps. Though more than happy to encourage his daughter, he tells me he will not be enrolling Luna in acting lessons anytime soon. “I think that’s the worst thing you can do to a child [actor], they lose their naiveté,” proclaims a fatherly Schweiger.
Later that evening, following the gala where the film’s star walked the red carpet in the same t-shirt, jeans and down vest ensemble that he was wearing when I interviewed him in the afternoon, the group makes it way over to Kultura, in Toronto’s east end. Crowded together in the private dining room of the restaurant, the party is an intimate affair with the sort of indie-spirit much missed at festivals of TIFF size. Closing time at Kultura and the party moves to the other side of town where the Drake Hotel’s Lounge Bar and a 4 AM special festival license await us. The space is a filled to capacity and everyone in the room seems to be in some sort of festival induced euphoria. My own is a product of knowing that this time tomorrow night, I will be asleep. Jack White and Meg White (in town to promote their documentary
The White Stripes Under White Great Northern Lights) may be hosting a party at my local, The Beaconsfield, tomorrow night but nothing, not even rock idols, could pull me away from the paragon of three square meals and a 10 PM bedtime.
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