by Jim Slotek
(September 4, 2017 – Toronto, ON) This year will mark 35 years since my first assignment at the Toronto International Film Festival – or the Festival Of Festivals as it was then modestly known.
The place: A gala for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s hominid adventure Quest For Fire, a nominally-Canadian film by dint of the fact that some scenes were shot on the Bruce Peninsula. I was 24, covering the event for the Ottawa Citizen.
The guest of honor: the then-Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, casually seated at a banquet table, and as I was to find out, eminently approachable.
I was there with a then-girlfriend, whose immigrant father hated PET passionately. I suggested it would be a great gag to get him an autograph. With Mounties nearby keeping an eye on us, we asked him to sign it to “Andrei.”
“What kind of name is that?” Trudeau asked.
“Ukrainian,” he was told.
He nodded, personalized the paper, handed it over and said, “He must hate me. All Ukrainians hate me.” (In fact, the old man, while still hating Trudeau, had the autographed framed. “A celebrity is a celebrity,” he said.)
Hundreds of celebrity experiences would follow – but only one more would feature a sitting prime minister (Kim Campbell, who attended the launch of Ron Mann’s Twist, and who did not actually sit. She danced).
Meanwhile, the festival evolved many faces of its own. The parties developed a caste system that prohibited the likes of me from just walking up to heads of government – velvet ropes behind velvet ropes, VIP sections within VIP sections. At the City-TV Schmooze party, the VIP sections were by floor, with the late fest co-founder Dusty Cohl holding court at the top, pouring glasses of Crown Royal.
There were other parties of note – including Norman Jewison’s “picnic,” still going at the Canadian Film Centre, and George Christy’s mac-and-cheese lunch at the Four Seasons (where I met the artist formerly known as Marky Mark, who’d just debuted his role in Boogie Nights and respectfully called me “sir” – deference that would not be repeated the next four times I interviewed Mr. Wahlberg).
My favourite party: One for Tommy Chong, promoting the documentary about his time in jail for selling “Chong Bongs” to fans across state lines. Attendees at the aptly-named bar Stones Place were met with plates of special brownies at the door, and a warning that, “more than three and you’re on your own.”
The festival also meant fans who’d set up shop in front of the Four Seasons and the Intercontinental on Bloor seeking autographs from Brad Pitt, George Clooney or Julia Roberts. These days, it’s selfies in front of the Ritz Carlton and the Intercontinental on Front.
Press with the proper credentials were allowed past the throngs, where they’d be lined up in the hallway of the Intercontinental waiting for interviews, as the interior temperature hit the 30s C, courtesy of blazing TV lights in the rooms.
On the ground, TIFF was (and still is) huge lines of people with tickets for screenings (and lines of hopeful people hoping for last minute “rush seats”). Several friends of mine have traditionally booked their holidays for those 10 days in September. At least one of them managed to watch 50 movies in that time.
Occasionally, barriers between the gods of Hollywood and the great unwashed would drop. Hearts were warmed in 2008 when Colin Farrell randomly took a homeless man on a $2,100 shopping spree for new clothes and gave him $830 in cash to find lodgings. I was at a screening of a forgettable 2001 Matthew McConaughey film – Thirteen Conversations About One Thing – when a woman at the gala fainted (mainly from heat and dehydration from waiting so long in line). McConaughey leapt to his feet and she woke to the experience of getting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from him.
I later interviewed the McConaughey fan, and the story was front page – for a day. Something would happen on Sept. 11 that would take over the headlines for some time. The day was business as usual for a very short time (my interview with a young actor named Ryan Gosling ended abruptly when we both became transfixed by the horrific sight of the second World Trade Centre tower falling).
Actually, 9/11 in my mind was when TIFF rediscovered some of its soul. Organizers closed the festival for a day, hotels found space for foreign guests who couldn’t leave (space they had, since no one was coming in to take the rooms anyway).
And when the festival re-opened, it was minus all the Hollywood BS. No parties. No red carpets. No press conferences. Just movies. The world had changed – forever in some ways, just for a little while in others.
Sixteen years later, Hollywood’s hold over TIFF continues – particularly now that it is an acknowledged starting gun for awards season (competitively jockeying for that spot with the Venice Film Festival and Telluride). You can pretty much guarantee that the TIFF People’s Choice winner will have a spot in the Oscar Best Picture nominee list (La La Land last year, Room the year before that, 12 Years A Slave).
I have wavered over the years between enthusing over these 10 days and dreading the workload (this year, I’m a jury member, so I’ll be eating a lot of popcorn).
But there is no question, TIFF put Toronto on the map and gave it a moment each year where it really is what it often pretends to be, the center of the universe. The cinematic one, anyway.
Click here for a link to TIFF and other September 2017 film festivals.
Jim Slotek is a longtime Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter who has interviewed thousands of celebrities. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special. His writing also appears in Cineplex and Movie Entertainment magazines.