By John H. Foote
This year marks the 24th Toronto International Film Festival I have covered as press. In that time, I befriended the creator William Marshall and his wife Sari, two lovely people I came to love; Piers Handling, one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met; interviewed my idols, became friends with some of them, met and befriended Roger Ebert, and forged memories that sit fresh in the landscape of my mind. Sure, there were some bad ones, realizing that critic Rex Reed really does believe he is superior to the rest of mankind because he is Rex Reed, the disappointing revelation that the American press is given whatever they want…first. Interviews are set up and canceled in moments, you sometimes have ten minutes to get to an interview you did not see coming, but you do it. And you make friends with fellow critics from around the globe because we are forged together by a deep love of cinema.
There have been amusing moments, a beautiful young lady outside my hotel room door in nothing but a robe, hell-bent on getting in. Married? She did not care, but I assure you Sherri would have. Of course, she never got in. I remember being in Roots, looking up and seeing hockey stars Joe Sakic, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo walking down the steps, shopping, on an off day during the World Cup. While walking down the hall in the Four Seasons who nods at me but former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, much smaller in person.
The stars prove over and over just how human they are. Aidan Quinn, ferociously hungover, trying to get through the interview without vomiting; Catherine Martin making me laugh through the entire interview, just because she could; the great Chris Cooper, just interviewing the man; Ben Affleck with no clue how good The Town (2010) really was, that his career had been forever altered; Nick Norte, drunk, smelly at ten am; Tom Cruise introducing himself, as though he had too; Bruce Springsteen allowing himself to be vulnerable; Liza Minnelli, kooky as ever; Meryl Streep’s laser intellect, you just knew her mind never shut off; Francis Ford Coppola, wow, you just knew you were in the presence of greatness, brilliant man, who forgot his dark shoes and was wearing light brown loafers with a dark navy suit.
The pace is grueling, and since my accident in 2001 I have found the relentless moving difficult, but I do it. I did give up the parties because they impacted how many films I could see the next day, and the films are what matter most. Attending the first time after losing my wife Sherri was brutal, but film (as it can do) provided an escape from my deep grief.
Walking the streets, you might bump into movie stars, but I always found rock stars more intimidating. Encountering Bono in the men’s room was interesting, and meeting Madonna was strange, as she is. I am forever guilty that I interviewed the boss, Bruce Springsteen but could not get my brother into the interview, he loves the singer so. Rest assured Steve, the Boss knows your name.
I miss the hotel room filled with my girls, whether they were teeny tiny or teens, I miss them being there. I miss Sherri, calling her each night, listening to her talk about her day, then telling her which films I had seen. Taking Sherri to a Gala, several, Aurora to Eastern Promises and Ariana to Sharks Tale, great fun each. My mother in law, Ellie attended Jakob the Liar with me, a remake of the seventies film with Robin Williams.
Watching my girls through all of this was funny. Aurora was like a Little Rockstar, talking easily in the pool with Cate Blanchett and Drew Barrymore, her striking beauty catching the eyes of everyone near us. Ariana was less vocal, she was watchful, taking it all in. Yet comments about her looks, those heartbreaking blue eyes came from Drew Barrymore, Paul Giamatti, and again, Cate Blanchett. Both of my children made me very proud, I could take them anywhere.
It has become the most important cultural event in Canada, a ten-day period during which the eyes of the film world are fixed on Toronto, ten days that officially begin the Oscar race.
On September 5th I head into the city, staying this year with my daughter, to cover Tiff. Like a kid at Christmas, I am excited now, I cannot wait. More memories to be made.
Here are my fifteen fondest memories of Tiff from years gone by.
MY HOTEL ROOM
I live in the city for the ten days of the festival. For the first fifteen years, I stayed in a hotel, courtesy of whoever I was writing for. I would leave Wednesday and on Friday would return to the hotel to find the suitcases of my girls having exploded in the room. Clothes everywhere, toys on the bed announcing THEY HAD ARRIVED!!!! There was usually a couple of massive bags from the Disney Store, their first stop after the hotel. A note told me they were swimming. For two nights they stayed, and though I did not see them through the day, we had dinner each night, went swimming, grabbed rice pudding and stayed up late. The girls slept in one bed, Sherri and I in another. I loved that they came down, I loved that Sherri summoned the courage to drive in the city. It was great, because for three days that the hotel room was home. But it only became home when the girls arrived and ceased being home when they left. Fun, treasured times.
THE APOSTLE (1997) AND DUVALL
After being knocked out by his performance in the film, I attended the press conference and posed some questions to him. I caught him staring at me a few times and when the conference broke an aide came over saying Duvall wanted to see me. Uh oh, what had I done? Walking towards this legend he turned with a huge smile, pumped my hand furiously and thanked me for the kind words about the film. We became friends however at a distance. When he filmed John Q (2002) up here in 2000, before my accident I spent a lot of days on set with him, watching him act, taking in his process. We met again after the accident and have remained in touch when he is up here. Great actor, great guy.
THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
Pure movie magic, an absolute bliss out. I could not believe what was transpiring on the screen, and yet it was and it never faltered. The film was held together by the luminous performance of Sally Hawkins, who I think deserved the Oscar for Best Actress. Del Toro dared to be bold, took risks no other director would and by sheer force of will made them work. I said after seeing the film I doubted I would not see a better film in 2017…and I did not. I was thrilled the film won Best Picture and Best Director. Del Toro broke all the rules of monster movies and in doing so made one of the greatest.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997)
My daughters’ first day of school in 1997. I stayed home to watch her get on the bus, her little face against the window, waving frantically, not the least bit afraid. Sherri, on the other hand, was a basket case. Thank God there were other moms around to help each other calm down. If I recall, three came over for morning coffee. I hopped in the car and sped into the city to catch the screening of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Partway through this quietly devastating film, a father is driving behind a school bus carrying his kids, who sit at the back waving, frantically, smiling hugely. Suddenly the driver loses control and the bus plunges over a hill onto the lake where it skids into the middle. Then a horrific crack is heard and the screaming begins. Fuck…yes, I had put my baby on a bus that day, yes, I called home to make sure she was ok. Yes, I gave Egoyan a hard time for scaring the hell out of me, but he had made an exquisite film, haunting, powerful, deeply sad.
SARAH TIMES TWO (2007)
Twice Sarah Polley stunned me as a director, the first time with her feature film debut Away from Her (2007) a beautiful, haunting love story about a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s Alzheimer’s, which is slowly pushing him out of her memory. Julie Christie was luminous in the film along with a superb Gordon Pinsent. Polley directed with gentle wisdom and wrote the Oscar-nominated script based on the short story. Christie too was Oscar-nominated and Pinsent belonged there for Best Actor, as did Polley for Best Director. Her second masterpiece was the bold documentary about discovering her father was not the father who raised her. Stung by comments she bore no resemblance to her siblings, she starts digging and finds she is the product of an affair her mother had while working on a play in Montreal. I cannot fully fathom the courage it took to make this film, which was universally acclaimed, winning major critics awards in the USA.
Arriving at the press office the morning of September 11, 2001, American critics were crowded around TV sets watching CNN and the coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York. Flights were grounded, people were stranded, and through the madness and confusion Festival CEO moved through it like a Zen master in complete control. Handling canceled all red carpets and swung deals with hotels to house stars unable to get home. Though we were bound together by film, what was happening in the world dwarfed us, and we knew it. Everything in the world, about the world, had been forever altered. Driving home, I knew I could explain to my kids what had happened, but how would I ever begin to explain why? How could I explain that which I did not understand myself?
WALKEN MEETS AURORA
My oldest daughter was a brilliant child, speaking to her at three was like having a conversation with an adult. She was adorable, smart as a whip, this cute teeny tiny little ball of ferocious energy who missed nothing. When Christopher Walken entered the elevator with us on the next to top floor I saw her look, she stopped smiling stared at him with hatred. Oh, fuck I remember thinking. I spoke to Walken and he reached over to stroke Aurora’s face and she slapped his hand away telling him in a raised and rising voice “You’re a very bad man!” Stunned, amused he asked why as I waited in agony for the damned elevator to get moving. “You hurt the little mouse in MOUSE HUNT” she screamed at him. Still not moving. Walken smiled and asked her if her Daddy was a smart man. “Yes,” she sneered, “smarter than you mouse killer!” He explained, “Well your Daddy will tell you that was pretend, I would never hurt that mouse. It was pretend.” She looked at me for confirmation as the elevator started moving. “Oh, well, that’s ok then, if my Daddy likes you…that’s good.” Mercifully we reached the lobby and by now she and Walken were old friends. I apologized and shook his hand, having to run to a screening. Sherri and Aurora were invited to have breakfast with Christopher Walken, who was delighted with Aurora. I smile each time I think of this. Mouse Hunt…Jesus.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
Never have I had issues with homosexuality, it is not for me, but I have had friends my entire life who were gay and they are among the best friends I have. Two of my cousins are gay and they are among the finest people I know, love them both! One of the best weddings We attended was a gay wedding, Sherri and I had a blast. Brokeback Mountain (2005) did something to me no gay romance had ever done before. At some point, I ceased thinking of the characters as men, a same-sex relationship and I saw them as two human beings who were soul mates and happened to be male. Heath Ledger was miraculous as Ennis, the taciturn cowboy struggling with his sexuality, terrified of being caught, while Jake Gyllenhaal, his best work, is the careless Jack, his lover. Brilliant in every way the Academy proved gutless not honouring this as the years Best Picture. Though already liberal, I emerged with a deeper acceptance, even understanding if it is possible for a straight man to say such a thing. Without question the finest love story I have ever experienced.
HITLER AND DOWNFALL (DER UNTERGANG) (2004)
A film that humanizes Hitler seemed like a complete impossibility, but from Germany came this masterpiece. Bruno Ganz is brilliant as Adolf Hitler in the last days of his life in the bunker below the earth. Shaking, I’ll, yet still able to fly into a rage, Hitler knows the end is coming, he understands the war is lost. How Ganz was not an Oscar nominee for his splendid performance as a monster, because we never see the horror of the man. This Hitler is utterly defeated and beaten down, an old man at his end. The performance made it hard to hate him as we should, to see his crimes that saw the massacre of six million Jews. Yet we know, we always know. That stooped walk, the swastika on the arm, the tiny moustache under his nose, he was indeed the monster Hitler. An electrifying, stunning performance.
ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)
Cameron Crowe directed and wrote this valentine to sixties rock and Rolling Stone magazine, for whom he wrote for when he was fifteen years old. They, of course, had no clue he was a kid, not until they saw him, his writing was so advanced and mature, filled with a deep love for rock. In making this memoir, Crowe launched the career of Kate Hudson who is simply astounding as the wise beyond her years Penny Lane, not a groupie, but a band-aid. Young William is following a fictional band called Sweetwater, kind of a CCR feel to them, trying to get an interview with their star guitar player Russell. Being with the band he gains great insight into the band and finds a greater for Penny Lane and music. Critics loved the film, but audiences never really discovered it. Crowe won an Oscar for his script, Hudson deserved to win but did not and somehow Billy Crudup is still not a huge star. You can feel the love of the music, and it sets one free.
THE AMOUR (2012) MOMENT
Partway through this powerful film, I felt myself sob out loud, the power of the film hitting home with the passing of my wife the previous April. It was all too familiar and I sobbed. A woman, tiny, in her late 60’s sitting beside, reached over silently and took my hand. She held tight for the rest of the film and through the credits. When the film was over she asked me if I had lost someone recently. “My wife, four months ago” I answered. Kissing my cheek, she said her husband had died five years ago and it still hurts. Then she turned and left before I could offer her thanks; before I could learn more about her, and though I look for her each year, I have never again encountered her. Maybe for a short time, knowing I needed her, Sherri paid me a visit in another body. Who knows?
DE PALMA BESIDE ME
Sitting down where I usually sit I was busy with my notes when a burly bearded man sat beside me. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he might borrow a pen. Looking at him I realized the great Brian De Palma was sitting beside me. For thirty minutes we chatted, mostly about his films Blow Out (1981) and Casualties of War (1989). What an absolute treat. When the film ended we walked out together, I shook his hand and we went in different directions, never to be forgotten. Or so I thought. When I returned to my hotel, there was a message from him inviting me to dinner the next night. I went and for three hours was regaled with stories from his beach house days with Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and Spielberg, through to his production stories. Was pretty great.
AMERICAN BEAUTY (2000)
Arriving with no fanfare, in fact, headed for a straight to video release, American Beauty was on no one’s radar. Twenty-four hours after the first press screenings it was the talk of the festival in press lines, hallways, and restaurants. Sam Mendes was instantly the hottest director in movies, and his film would go on to win five Academy Awards. DreamWorks brought the film here hoping it might grab a good review or two, they were completely blindsided by the raves the film received. Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Chris Cooper, Wes Bentley, Thora Birch and Mena Suvari became instant superstars in the city for a few days, their film an almost instant pop culture miracle.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
Unfinished, the film was brought to Toronto to gain insight into how it played for an audience. Press, directors, stars, and producers lined up for the screening, genuinely excited about the film. Three hours later the hallways were abuzz with the film and the director, Paul Thomas Anderson, who was instantly a star. The film played like a Scorsese film merged with an Altman film crashed into a Lumet film, gritty, powerful, bold. Burt Reynolds found the role of a lifetime, and the cast was electrifying. The film exploded out of the festival to become one of the most acclaimed works of the decade, launching the career of the most exciting director of the new millennium.
ALL THE KING’S MEN (2006)
but for no positive reasons. The film arrived top loaded with major stars, Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins, and Jackie Earle Haley, I mean what more could you hope for? It was a remake of the 1949 Oscar-winning Best Picture and offered Penn a plum role as an idealistic young politician corrupted through time by his own hunger for power. But two hours later, the deflated audience sat stunned at how dreadful the film was. There was polite scattered applause, nothing like the normally thunderous ovation that greets the end of each Gala. Though the stars had gathered on the stage before the film when the lights hit their box afterward, they were nowhere to be seen, perhaps in the nearest bar drinking their sorrows about the film away.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.