Cinematical: How important is a "midnight movie" slate to a festival like Toronto?
Colin Geddes: The Midnight Madness category was originally devised as a spot for films that didn't really "fit in" with a traditional festival agenda. We're talking back in, say, 1988, when genre films didn't necessarily "belong" at a film festival. So the category gave us a chance to introduce quality genre films to an appreciative audience. Plus these movies often work as a "gateway" for new audience members. With the festival being so huge, it's sometimes overwhelming. And if you're an 18-year-old kid coming to Toronto, like I was, where are you going to start? You're probably going to start in the horror stuff, the weird stuff. The rest of the film festival gets the "art," and I get the "fun." And the art. And what we see now is that, of all the different slates, Midnight Madness is one that almost always sells out, ticket-wise. From an industry standpoint, these are quite often the films that sold -- and seen.
Cine: And they're not always horror films either. You have seven or eight of 'em, but then something like Borat makes the cut as well...
CG: Yeah, it's a mixed bag. Now, Borat is an outrageous comedy, but I also knew it would it would bring a lot of attention, and it's great to have that kind of "hook" sometimes. If I can get an 18-year-old kid who'll come and see Borat, and then he comes back to see The Host from Korea or Princess from Denmark, I've done my job there. Borat is kind of the "anchor." On the other hand, I like to take a chance with one or two selections. Two years ago I programmed Calvaire (The Ordeal), which was ... an out-there film. Half the audience was truly perplexed by that one, but it's an excellent film and precisely the kind of title we like to "introduce" to our viewers. This year we have J.T. Petty's S&MAN, which is in a similar vein. Something that's going to be confrontational; something that might divide audiences.
Cine: Something that's going to get people talking. ...
CG: Exactly. Let's take a chance on a movie like that. But that's a completely different kind of film from, say, The Host or Severance.
Cine: So let's start at the beginning. When do you and your staff start looking at Midnight Madness submissions?
CG: Hmm, let's see... The festival ends on September 16th -- so we start looking at films on the 17th.
Cine: And they just keep trickling in all year?
CG: Luckily, because they're genre films -- that's my passion. So I'm in a good place where my hobby has become my profession.
Cine: I know the feeling.
CG: So all year I'm talking with friends and filmmakers and agents and liaisons, and they'll say "Oh, I have one you should definitely check out." And then I do a lot of research; it's kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. So the films are always trickling in, but we really pick up right around the time that Cannes winds down. That's when ALL the tapes and DVDs really start pouring in. Let's just say that during summer ... I don't get much of a tan.
Cine: So how many people work on the Midnight Madness team?
CG: It's almost a solo thing. We have some great people on our screening comittee who really "get" the genre stuff, so I'll watch a film and then pass it over to them and see what they think of it. And then sometimes they'll get a submission before I see it, and if it falls under the genre umbrella, they'll make sure I sit down and watch it. So mostly it's me and most of our programmers, but also Noah Cowan, Tom Powers and a few others, if they see something that'd fit in the Midnight Madness slate, they'll get it to me and let me know what they think of it.
Cine: Do you also travel to other film festivals to see what's out there?
CG: Yeah, this year I went to Hong Kong, the Phillippines, and Cannes; when I was in Hong Kong this past March, there was a market there, and that's where I got to see Sheitan.
Cine: So what happens when you toss away the submissions that A) you don't really like, or B) just might not fit at Toronto? Say you have 50 films that you really like. How do you whittle that down to ten finalists?
CG: It ... is ... hard! Really hard. That's the other downside of my summer: sending out rejections. I have to reject films from people who've spent their lives working on some of them -- and they're good! But because I'm looking at films from all around the world, I can still only pick ten. That's why festivals like Fantasia are so great; they can pick 90 titles! I can only do ten, so I try to consider what will work best for the Toronto Film Festival.
Cine: Do you find yourself saying "no hard feelings" to filmmakers all the time? Please submit again, etc.
CG: Yeah, I boil it down to this: It's like breaking up with a girlfriend every day. "You're smart, you're beautiful, you're funny! It's not you, it's me!" And it's so hard. This year, towards the end of the selection process, I was juggling like a drunk clown. We were down to the last slot, and we had five worthy films, amd my criteria fell to "OK, which one hasn't been discovered yet, which one's from a first-time filmmaker. ..." -- as opposed to: Hey, this one already has a home at a studio or this filmmaker has already made a name for himself elsewhere. If I can do something with The Abandoned by Nacho Cerda, that will help me make my decision. Discovery is a big part of it.
Cine: And it's not just what's "good," but what will work best with this specific audience.
CG: Yes. If you're at this festival, you've probably already seen 3 or 4 movies throughout the day, and now you're standing in line for a Midnight selection. It's my duty to grab your attention, to shake you and wake you up, so I need a film that's going to "hook you" in the first 15 minutes or so.
Cine: I know that Toronto prides itself on offering a lot of (world, international, North American) premieres, yet JT's S&MAN, for example, already played at Austin's South By Southwest Film Festival. Does that factor into your decision at all?
CG: Lately premieres have become more of an important issue. We really try to get world premieres. S&MAN would qualify as an international premiere, since this is the first time it's playing outside its country of origin. I know it played well at SXSW, but I didn't think it reached that critical "peak" yet, so why not give it a chance up here?
Cine: So obviously it's not a situation where "Oh this film played Festival X, so we don't want it here."
CG: Sometimes that's an issue, but not always. Also, films can sometimes get "lost." For example, Sheitan played Tribeca, but I think it probably deserved another chance.
Cine: OK, so The Host, for example. When did that movie first hit your radar?
CG: Oh, I've been tracking The Host for a while now. I'm a big fan of Bong Joon-ho's previous film, Memories of Murder, which I saw in Korea in 2003. And when he announced that he was starting on a monster movie, I immediately began tracking it. I started having meetings with the Korean distributor and we talked about it again in Hong Kong -- and then I got to see it in Cannes. It worked, it delivered. And right out of the gate we said "We want it. It's perfect for Midnight Madness."
Cine: So you had it in your sights before the "buzz" got started, mainly online...
CG: Yeah, and that stuff helps a lot, because it shows that the movie is working, and the momentum is there.
Cine: Do you find that for a film like this, if it plays Toronto, that it has a much better shot at attracting a distributor?
CG: Most definitely. We have a really strong industry side, and someone actually gave me a chart. If you look at all the films that have played the festival over the last five years ... about 87% of the Midnight Madness selections have earned some sort of legitimate theatrical or DVD release. So it's a great platform for people to discover these types of films. Nobody knew much about Ong Bak before it premiered here -- and that movie got a standing ovation at 2AM from 900 people. Tony Jaa's career took off from there. Cabin Fever is another great breakout story; Haute Tension is another.
Cine: And I guess the common thread is not just that these are good genre films, but they're pretty well-made films, period.
CG: Yes. Sometimes during the submission process, people will give me a movie and say "Oh, this is really bad. You'll like it." I'm like "No, that's not what it is about." It's not about "bad for bad's sake." I'm not a big fan of "camp," where you're supposed to like it because it's making fun of other bad films. I'd rather watch that old '50s movie that was trying to be good...
Cine: A movie that tweaks older horror movies, but in a good way, is Andrew Currie's Fido. Normally that'd be a perfect fit for Midnight Madness, but it's premiering in the Canada First slate -- for obvious reasons.
CG: Oh yeah. When it comes to the Canadian films, me and those programmers like to thumb-wrestle over films. "I want it! No, I want it!" Ginger Snaps I wanted for Midnight, but it's all good either way. This way we just get MORE horror films.
Cine: Absolutely! So let's backtrack for a second: How did you go from a passionate genre fan to working for the film festival?
CG: Weird, weird trip. I went to school for graphic design, got lazy and worked in the restaurant industry, and then wanted to work on some portfolio projects. My main project was a 'zine that I was going to design, and I ended up writing most of it. And since there was a strong horror movie community in Toronto, it worked out well. Each of my friends was an expert in a different area; one guy on the Italian horror, another one was big on Mexican genre films, and on and on. At that point I discovered, through the film festival, Hong Kong films. So the 'zine was called Asian Eye, which focused on, of course, Asian genre films. And since there was nobody else really covering this stuff, people started to respect what I had to say. And that's the great thing about the fan communities. You find your expertise, you get on your soapbox, and eventually people start coming to you for your opinions.
Noah Cowan, who is the co-director of our film festival, started the Midnight Madness program. He knew that I was one of those guys who'd come and see all the MM movies, and also that I had some knowledge of international genre films. So he'd consult with me on some titles, and then in 1997 he asked me to be co-programmer, and then the following year gave me the whole job. My first year programming I got Takashi Miike's Fudo, with Miike in attendance. Some of the other films I programmed back then were Orgazmo, which was before anyone knew who Parker and Stone were, a film called The Ugly by Scott Reynolds, The Acid House and Komodo, which was directed by Michael Lantieri, who has since gone on to win Oscars for his work on The Matrix.
Cine: Any misses you'd care to mention?
CG: Well, yeah, I turned down Soft for Digging! [Note: Digging director J.T. Petty was sitting with Colin and I during this interview] At the time I thought it was maybe a little too slow for Midnight Madness, although I definitely liked the film.
Cine: Moving over to Mr. Petty: You've had some solid festival experience with S&MAN. Did you think that because the flick had already played at a high-profile festival, it might not have a chance to make Toronto?
JT: Yeah, I was a little worried about it. It's always hard to look at it from the other perspective if you're the one who raised this movie and put years into it -- and now you're just trying to get it out there. It got programmed here pretty early on...
Cine: So the fact that it already played elsewhere, and still got chosen for Toronto... That must have been a nice shot in the arm.
JT: Well, sure. SXSW is a great festival, especially for the "movie geek" crowd, and those are the people who are very near and dear to my heart. And what I like about Toronto's Midnight Madness audience is that everyone acts like teenagers. I guess the main difference between the experiences is just the size of Toronto. I mean, we watched The Host last night with, what, 900 people?
Cine: So let's talk a bit about the individual films you chose for Midnight Madness '06. Severance is a title that's been getting a lot of good, geeky buzz online lately. It comes from the guy who did Creep, which played here two years ago...
CG: Yeah! Christopher Smith is back with Severance, which I was able to see at a market screening in Cannes. And then Chris and I talked about it London. It's a great, rollicking horror film.
Cine: And again, it's a movie you picked for the festival, and a few months later - boom - there's internet buzz all over the place for the flick.
CG: Yeah, I think it's a special film. I get so many movies sent to me that are dumb, sexist stoner teens in a van ... going somewhere in the country, and you just don't like them. And you don't really CARE if they live or die. In the first ten minutes of Severance, you're like "OK, that's the stoner, that's the brown-noser, that's the underdog that just might save the day. ..." and then halfway into the film when they're dying and getting hurt, you don't WANT them dying and getting hurt. And I think that's a pretty hard thing to pull off.
Cine: And I'm hearing that it's not a horror/comedy, but it does have a strong sense of humor...
CG: The tagline when it was in Cannes was "The Office meets Deliverance." And so many people were saying "Oh, it reminded me of Shaun of the Dead!" Well, they're probably only saying that because it's British and it's funny and it's scary. But I don't think it's an accurate comparison.
Cine: People have been saying the same thing about Fido, which (except on the most cursory level) is nothing like Shaun.
JT: You guys are right, but there's also that fact that if you say "This movie is similar to Shaun of the Dead," it helps to get people into the theater.
Cine: True enough. Moving on to All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, I've been reading some recent articles up here in Toronto that say it's one of the "hot buy" titles.
CG: Yeah, that's one that came to me really early on, and I watched it with a friend. I found myself wondering "Is this flick as smart as I think it is?" And my friend said "No, you're right. There's really something going on here." And it's a premiere, first-time director... See, my main priority is not "Let's get this flick sold." It's "Let's get the filmmakers here, introduce them, show the film to an appreciative audience who are going to show the thing some love." And then the movie ends up on the radar of the buyers and distributors. As of now, it's kind of a dark horse. NO ONE has seen it yet. [Note: About 48 hours after this conversation, the Weinsteins bought Mandy Lane.]
Cine: OK, so regarding another Midnight selection: Borat. I have to ask: How furious were you when the projector broke during the jam-packed premiere screening?
CG: Oh man, Yeah, so Borat comes in on a cart drawn by peasant women -- with a horse. We had a full house, 1,200 people, everyone's having fun before the screening, Borat hits the stage, cups my balls... The film starts, runs for 15 minutes, the house is rocking -- and then the projector goes down. OK, we're running 350 films, which means shit is eventually gonna happen. So we were scrambling, trying to get this part for the projector. I'm alternating between crying and throwing up. Luckily, Michael Moore was there, as a guest of Sacha/Borat, and he leapt on stage with director Larry Charles, and they both did an impromptu Q&A. Before that, Borat stood up in his seat in the audience and invited everyone to come to his hotel to have "a sexy-time." Some magician in the audience stood up and started doing tricks ... Meanwhile, we're still trying to fix the projector -- and we know it's just not going to happen right away. So I asked Sacha if he'd like to do some mid-movie Q&A, and he was ON. And I mean, this was supposed to be his big premiere! But the guy's an incredible talent ... he helped turn a potential disaster into an absolute highlight.
Cine: OK, moving on to some of the other Midnight picks: Trapped Ashes, which is anthology from a colorful bunch of directors...
CG: Yeah. Sean Cunningham, John Gaeta, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Ken Russell. It's kind of a throwback to the old Tales from the Crypt, House That Dripped Blood "arthouse" style. So you have four stories from some amazing directors, and Joe Dante's wraparound story. Four perverse, creepy tales. Ken Russell's is just delirious and Sean Cunningham's is probably going to surprise people. John Gaeta, another Oscar-winning FX artist from The Matrix. This might be more of an arthouse-type horror movie, but it's fun. It hits all the right notes. The producer and screenwriter is Dennis Bartok, who was the curator of the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, and this guy's knowledge of film is impeccable. He was the guy who was able to bring the directors together. When I saw the film, I thought "Wow, I can get five directors for the price of one!" And it's gonna be fun.
Cine: Next we have Black Sheep. When I was here at the festival last year, I was flipping through one of the trade magazines the volunteers give out, and there was an ad for Black Sheep, although it was obviously still in production. Now a year later, here it is at the festival.
CG: That's another one we were tracking. We knew it was in production. Noah Cowan went down to New Zealand, he saw some rushes and spent time on the set. When I was in Cannes they showed me about fifteen minutes of it... Yet it was the last film sent to me, so we went into a screening room and watched it -- and it delivered. It's like, and I hate to make the obvious comparison, but it's like early Peter Jackson. Splat-stick comedy. Killer genetically-engineered mutant sheep start attacking, and when you get bitten by one of these killer sheep, you'll then turn into a were-sheep, half man and half sheep. AND all of the sheep effects and creature designs, like The Host, were designed by Weta Workshop.
Cine: OK, so tell me about The Abandoned.
CG: It's really a discovery. Nacho Cerda, an incredible Spanish filmmaker who made three shorts, including Aftermath and Genesis, which were recently released on DVD. Because of the graphic nature of one of them, Aftermath, a lot of retailers refused to stock the disc. So I've known Nacho for about six years, and I know he's a talent. He worked so hard to get his feature off the ground, and when he sent it to me... I was amazed, and I saw it in a very rough state. The film was co-written by Karim Hussain, who is one of the founders of the Fantasia Film Festival, and he's also a director in his own right. The third person they brought in to help them with the script was Richard Stanley, the director of Hardware, Dust Devil and the original director on the Island of Dr. Moreau remake. They all met at the Fantasia Fest in, I think, 1998 and they just clicked.
(At this point J.T. interjects with a very good point: A rather amazing 5-disc DVD set of Dust Devil just recently hit the shelves, so maybe you Richard Stanley fans should check it out.)
Cine: One of the Midnight picks is not a horror movie, although it's pretty darn crazy. What's the story on Princess?
CG: Let's call it a... vigilante rampage in the underground of the porn industry in Denmark. If Travis Bickle went on a rampage and brought his 5-year-old niece along with him. Oh, and by the way: the movie is animated. And definitely for adults only.
Cine: So we can close out with S&MAN. Now, lots of the Midnight Movies are colorful or raucous crowd-pleaser type movies. Body counts and crazy creatures and such. But S&MAN is a little quieter and maybe more cerebral than those flicks. What are we hoping that people will be saying after they walk out of the movie?
CG: I'll be happy if they're just talking about the film, and I pretty much think they will be. About how it pushed their buttons, how it made them upset, made them question things. It really addresses why we watch these films. Is there a line between filmmaker and viewer, and can that line kinda get ... lost?
JT: I think a lot of it is just admitting how much bullshit there often is in documentaries. There's obviously manipulation going on all over the place. This one might have some more "overt" fiction than others admit to, but while researching these underground horror films, you're wondering what's real and what's not. And it's cool to see people arguing about what they just saw onscreen.
And there we have it. Thanks very much to Colin Geddes for taking time out of a very busy week to drink some coffee with Cinematical. Also thanks to JT Petty for sitting in and adding some extra insights to the conversation.