For journalists, the Toronto International Film Festival is a heady 11-day stew of screenings, interviews and alcohol-soaked after-parties. Throughout the fest, I’ll be delivering daily updates on every aspect of this year’s monstrous event (free booze not included—sorry).
The movies: While I was only able to catch a mere one film today, it was for a good reason, as I had stellar interviews scheduled throughout the day. In between, though, I somehow managed to get to the premiere of Xavier Dolan’s latest, Tom at the Farm. The psychological drama marks the fourth film for the Quebecois multi-hyphenate in as many years, which is all the more astonishing/jealousy inducing once you consider the fact he’s only 24.
Fresh off winning the International Federation of Film Critics’ best film prize at Venice, Tom at the Farm is a highly compelling experiment, a homoerotic take on Hitchcock that, as bizarre as it sounds, may be Dolan’s most mainstream effort yet. The director casts himself in the lead, playing a timid Montrealer who visits the rural hometown of his now-deceased boyfriend, Guillaume. Once at his former lover’s boyhood farm, Tom is quickly pulled into a series of sexually charged power games with Guillaume’s family, especially his brutish, homophobic brother (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Although Dolan offers sharp flashes of humour, the film is flooded with darkness, and closes with a chill that lingers long after you leave the theatre.
The talent: As mentioned above, Tuesday was a bonanza of interviews, with both Hollywood and independent filmmakers forced to bear with my poorly articulated questions. Up first was a tag-team session with Liam Neeson and Paul Haggis, respectively the star and director of Third Person, a globe-spanning meditation on love and loss.
Neeson, alternately sipping tea and chewing a toothpick (what is it, exactly, with actors this year and toothpicks?), was calm and measured throughout the 15-minute interrogation, his Irish brogue at first intimidating, then strangely soothing (not bedtime-story soothing, mind you, but soothing nonetheless). Resisting the urge to ask him to record his famous speech from Taken on my voice mail, the conversation instead drifted to why the actor wanted to so desperately re-team with Haggis, his director on 2010′s The Next Three Days.
“I was very scared by the script when I first received it, because it wasn’t something I’d normally be offered now,” said the 61-year-old star, who’s become something of a late-life action hero. “But I have such respect for Paul, who is a magnificent writer, so I jumped in. Plus, there’s a wonderful whodunit element to the story, and we don’t see those types of movies now where we’re asked to think about it afterward.” (It was at this point that I neglected—wisely, I think—to bring up Battleship. Or Clash of the Titans. Or The A-Team.)
Haggis, smoking a cigarette, echoed Neeson’s thoughts on the film’s layer of mystery, which he begged audiences not to spoil at Monday night’s world premiere. “Too often now, we’re just completely fed every piece of information, and every our brain cells don’t need to work when we go to movies,” said the Canadian filmmaker, best known for his Oscar-winning film Crash (and confusing David Cronenberg fans in the process).
“I didn’t want to make that kind of film. I wanted to make something that was challenging, where I know smart people are going to come to it, and I’m going to trust that they’ll figure it out, or not. I used to love standing outside a movie theatre and arguing about it with friends; it was such a joyous experience, and I wanted to share that this time.”
The theme of puzzles would recur just a few hours later during my interview with Errol Morris, the legendary documentarian whose latest film, The Unknown Known, examines the rhetorical and linguistic games Donald Rumsfeld used during his time in the George W. Bush White House. Morris, who famously examined another U.S. defense secretary in his Robert McNamara doc The Fog of War, was easily my most intimidating encounter of the festival, as it’s no easy task preparing to interview the king of interviews.
But after a somewhat rocky start (“What is that question?” he asked of my first query, which admittedly was weak), it was hard to stop the Oscar-winner from eloquently rhapsodizing about America’s profound mistake in Iraq. “Why did these guys go to war? I made a movie where McNamara talks about the Cuban missile crisis and their attempts to avoid going to war. What’s the version in The Unknown Known? Rumsfeld says he gets a surprise call from Dick Cheney’s office, and to come to the West Wing, and he goes over there, and there’s [Saudi Arabia] Prince Bandar and maps over the table. Are they trying to prevent war? I don’t think so!” Morris said with a strong air of righteous indignation.
“Rumsfeld tells us they are giving assurances to Bandar that this time…they are going to kick ass. We’re talking about regime change. We’re talking about war. I think, whoa: Aren’t we supposed to be ameliorating conflict? Preventing conflict? Not pushing it forward with this kind of crazy enthusiasm.”
It was a different type of battle that concerned my final interview subject of the day: the legendary Hong Kong director Johnnie To. With more than 50 films under his very expensive-looking belt (the 58-year-old was easily the best-dressed man in a room filled with best-dressed men at the Shangri-La Hotel), To is an expert chronicler of the bloody Triad gangster wars that tear Hong Kong apart, and came to TIFF with his latest cops-and-crime saga, Blind Detective. As I was obsessed with To’s work during my teenage years—especially his crime epics Fulltime Killer, PTU and The Mission—the chance to talk to the sometimes-reluctant filmmaker was pure wish-fulfillment.
Speaking through a translator, the dapper To touched on everything from his long working relationship with actor Andy Lau, the Cantonese-language cinemas of Toronto’s past and his desire to break free from his gangster-heavy CV. “I’m working on a musical drama right now,” said To, who also participated in a discussion as part of TIFF’s Asian Film Summit. “It’s based on a play, which has no singing, but I’m going to add the music in. My dream will be all the actors, actresses participating int he film will sing their own songs.”
When I pointed out that it sounded similar to Tom Hooper’s experiment in Les Miserables, To laughed (thank god) and noted that was “a bit too ambitious, to aim that high. But that’s the idea.” As long as he doesn’t cast Russell Crowe, I’m in. (Check our TIFF homepage later this week for my full interview with To.)
The parties: After the gauntlet of interviews and a heat that made my clothes become one with my skin, I had to admit I was done for the day. Although there were several high-profile parties in the mix Tuesday night, including a post-premiere reception at F-Stop for Man of Tai Chi, a Soho House gathering for the cast of young/sexy/not-me cast of Don Jon and an intimate dinner at Lucien for the cast of How I Live Know, I decided the most exclusive party (for one) would be held in my apartment. I still made it a black-tie dress code, though. You have to have standards.