CATEGORIES Action, Foreign Language, Horror, Independent, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, New Releases, Festival Reports, Fandom, New in Theaters, DIY/Filmmaking, Interviews, Toronto International Film Festival, Cinematical Indie, Celebrity Interviews, Features, Indie Spotlight, Toronto Film Festival, Movie News, New Releases, CinematicalThere's an old saying that all film journalists are just frustrated filmmakers who couldn't break into the business. And while I certainly think directing a film would be an awesome experience, to be totally honest, I'd rather have Colin Geddes' job. If you're a horror nut like me, and love Midnight Movies and the Toronto International Film Festival, Geddes is the guy you're going to want to get acquainted with. Having held the job for over a decade, Geddes has helped bring films like Martyrs and Hostel to appreciative festival audiences. As he prepares for yet another TIFF (you can keep up to speed with the event by checking out the official Midnight Madness blog -- where you'll find interviews, details about the films, and more ... ), Mr. Geddes was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about what it's like to program for one of the greatest film festivals in the world.
Cinematical: What brought you to TIFF as a programmer?
Colin Geddes: Being in the audience essentially. The year that I came to Toronto for school, I was coming to Toronto to study graphic design. That was in 1988 -- my first week in Toronto, I stood in line for the first year of Midnight Madness. I saw Hellraiser II, and Brain Damage. Every year I'd come back and see more and more films, and then I started doing a fanzine on Hong Kong films, which I think somehow got the attention of the film festival because I was writing about a part of world cinema that no one was really paying attention to. Then in 1997, Noah Cowan asked me to be co-programmer, and then the following year let me take over the reigns of the whole selection. I've been doing it now since '97. I never studied for film, I never set out to be a film programmer, but no one actually does.
Cinematical: And you have one of the most coveted jobs, ever.
Colin Geddes: I have no idea how that happened, but all the clues were able to line up for that first year. I think it must have been Hellraiser II for the first one, but in that lineup I met Bill and Remo -- we talked about the nuances of Italian cannibal films. In 1988 you couldn't find anyone to talk about this stuff. To this day, I'm best friends with those guys that I met in the lineup. I've been to the wedding of one of them. Another one I drove down to the Chiller Convention in NJ several times with.
Cinematical: Where do you see TIFF's place in the festival universe?
Colin Geddes: It's an audience-driven festival. If you go to Cannes, it's not so much about the audiences, it's more about the critics and the industry. To the same extent with the other major festivals. Really we're not a competitive festival. We don't have jury prizes -- it's all about the audience. When I'm programming, I'm always aware of the audience. I'm not programming a film because it's going to be a big sale for the industry and whatnot -- I'm programming it because I think the audience is going to like it. That sets things apart from other festivals. You can go and see a film, and the directors and actors will be there -- and often they'll be mingling with the audience afterward (depending on what level of film obviously ... ) -- but there's more of an interaction between the audience and the film.
Cinematical: When it comes to selecting movies, you manage to strike a balance between familiar titles audiences have been looking forward to and undiscovered gems (like you said you always pick for the audience ... ) -- do you consciously try to keep a balance between the two, or do you program solely on the quality of what's out there in any given year?
Colin Geddes: For me it's always the quality. There have been a number of films that might be big films, but it's not a good film. There are so many bad slasher films that pass by. What I look for, it's not just horror films -- it's a variety of films that are showing at Midnight Madness, and I look for stuff that's original and breaks the mold somehow. It's hard to do that, but again -- I'm programming for the audience and I don't want to waste their time with a film which is clichéd. For instance, I don't pick films that are so bad they're good. Like, I have a problem with The Room, because when I watch The Room it reminds me of the many films that I've turned down, and I have a really hard time switching that mentality off and enjoying it.
Cinematical: Do you only pick films that are going to have their world premiere, or do you pick films that have played at other festivals, etc.?
Colin Geddes: It's a mixed bag. For Midnight Madness this year, nine out of the ten films are world premieres, which might be a record. Fire of Conscience from Hong Kong has already had a release in Hong Kong. If people want to find it, they can find it on DVD -- but you're missing out not seeing it on a big screen with an audience. Sometimes we do select films that are at other festivals, because we feel we can give them a proper positioning and introduce them to a different audience. One would be Monsters. That's not in Midnight Madness, but it's one of the films I've selected for the Vanguard Programme. It's already played at SXSW and Los Angeles Film Festival, but we really feel that we'll get a new audience with the positioning that we have it in the festival.
Cinematical: How self-conscious are you about the fact that TIFF tends to be an early barometer for awards season?
Colin Geddes: [Laughs] We're aware of that, but it's always so funny how it pans out. One of the International Programmers, Jane Schoettle, she's the woman who picked Juno. She's picked a lot of films which have gone on to win awards, but we never know going in because we feel strongly about all of the films, and it's not until the audience sees it that the life begins. The big success story for TIFF was Slumdog Millionaire, and that was a film which was slated to just get a straight DVD release. It came to Toronto and everyone signed up and realized that this is a great film, and that's where the life began for that film. That's the exciting thing to see, especially when you have -- like last year's selection that I had -- The Loved Ones ended up winning the Midnight Madness Audience Choice Award. It was the first year we had the award and I was like, "Hmm -- is Jennifer's Body going to get it, is Daybreakers going to get it ... " -- all films with merits to them. But it was really exceptional that a film that had no online presence, no trailer -- I don't even think they had a poster at that time -- really rose up and the audience embraced it. It's great to see the underdog film get it.
Cinematical: As far as I can tell, Midnight Madness slates started as a kind of Land of Misfit Toys, but it has become something of a festival mainstay now. All the Midnight programs I've attended seem to sell out before everything else. Has the definition of a Midnight Movie changed as this slate has become more popular? And can you talk a little bit about its evolution ... the reasons why you think that is?
Colin Geddes: I think that Midnight films are easier to access. I always like to say that for Toronto -- the Midnight Madness program -- it was started as a spot for films that didn't quite fit the definition or parameters of film festival films. And I like to joke that the rest of the film festival, they've got the art -- we have the fun and the art. I throw away any pretensions and want to present ten films that are going to excite you, thrill you, and make you laugh -- just give you a really good movie-life experience.
As far as it evolving ... some people will say, "Oh, Midnight Madness films have become more mainstream," but I never like to agree with that. I like to say that we set the trends, and the mainstream follows.
Cinematical: Walk us through your typical day when selecting films for the Midnight Madness portion. How are the films selected, how are you watching them (home via screeners or special screenings, or international film festivals ... ). Are you just flying solo on this or do you work with a team?
Colin Geddes: For Midnight Madness I do work with a team, but it's primarily throughout the course of the year just me keeping a tracking list of films that I know are coming up. I get this list by paying attention to the industry papers, keeping close relations with filmmakers, film societies, journalists, and I just kind feed into this pool with some of this list. Then I have to go out and find these films. A big part of the selection is going to Cannes, because there's market in Cannes and so many of these films are screened there. Also, I can meet with the directors and producers, so I know what's coming and how to get that. One of the films that I selected this year, The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman, my first film from mainland China -- I went to the Hong Kong film market in March, and met a producer and he took me to a production office, and I watched a very early cut of it on a computer where they were doing their editing. So I'll see things very raw sometimes. I'll get works in progress sent to me and I'll either watch them in screening rooms or watch them at home, or there will be special screenings set up. But often times, I do see the films in very raw states. It's a little hard, because I have to fill in the gaps a lot of the time. I'll see films that don't have finished CGI, that don't have finished sound mixing. It's taught me a lot about the craft of film. Often times I'll get a foreign language film, and they'll send a subtitled script with it. I've even been at screenings with someone who is simultaneously translating films for me.
Colin Geddes: It's a variety. I keep a very open mind with most production on films, because you have to fill in a lot of the gaps yourself. You have to realize, "Ok, that's got to be polished up there, that has to be fixed there ... " But what we're looking for really, is the narrative base of the film -- if the story works, if the characters are believable, if the acting is solid.
Cinematical: Do you offer critique to filmmakers if they ask you?
Colin Geddes: Oh yes. It depends on the various levels of it. I'll give constructive criticisms like, "Maybe shave off a few minutes here, or if you could streamline this, get rid of the voice over ... " The worst thing is having voice overs on films. Often times the directors will take that and put it toward their film whether we select it or not. Many directors and producers do value the input, but then every once in a while you'll get someone who doesn't appreciate it and takes it as a slight. I've never directed a film. I can only imagine how hard it is, and the emotional, physical, and financial strain to make a film. To make a film that works, with a cohesive narrative that goes from A to B -- that's great. That's something which a lot of people can't do. I have a lot of respect for what they've done. Every once in a while you'll get some filmmaker who doesn't quite get that, like the filmmaker who decided last year ... One day, I started getting these emails on Facebook from people I didn't know telling me I made a mistake and I should go back and reconsider someone's film. When he heard that he didn't get into the festival, the director's status on Facebook was to email me and tell me that I should change my mind and give the film a second look.
Cinematical: Yes, because clearly harassment is always the way ...
Colin Geddes: Yes, that's not the way to do it. It's not professional in the least.
Cinematical: Are you able to tell us what's the best film you screened for this year's Midnight Madness that didn't make the cut?
Colin Geddes: Not really. I can talk about stuff in the past that I missed out on.
Cinematical: Ok, give me a few gems from the past.
Colin Geddes: Let's see, there's a little Japanese film that I felt there was a bit of a cultural barrier between the notion of the curse that played in the film. And yes, I ended up not selecting the original Ring. There were so many films from Japan that had to do with these cultural curses. To one extent it's this really serious thing, where you like look in a toilet stall where a girl killed herself and then you have seven days to live -- it was such a repetitive thing. Ring kind of got it right and was based on a book, but it didn't really work for me. And then two years later, there it was.
Last year I didn't select Paranormal Activity. It went on to great success, but I had a lot of basic problems with the nature of the film. Subsequently it was able to go to great success because of a really well-crafted marketing campaign. If I personally can't get excited about the film, people can see through me -- I can't lie about a film.
Cinematical: Well this is why we like you so much, because we know we can trust you.
Colin Geddes: [Laughs] Oh the pressure, let me tell you -- every year. But it's essentially something which is ... it kind of changed the way I look at films and expect people to react to them. I like it when people come out of the film and they have a dialogue, and they discuss the film. An excellent example of that would be Martyrs. That split audiences. However, they talked about it. I like engaging people. I don't want people to come out of the film and 100% of the people are like, "That was really fun! I really liked that!" I want people there who are like, "No, that blew," and then people will go back and forth to figure out why it worked, why it didn't, and why it's all a very personal thing. Film consumption is such a personal thing.
Cinematical: Yeah, I mean that's the point of these festivals. To get people talking and excited -- otherwise it's not very interesting.
Colin Geddes: Yeah, another good example of that is Hostel. The fanboys all liked it, and then there was another group of people who didn't like it, but you guys are talking about it and there are deeper points and scenes in this film. Maybe they're not apparent to you now, but you're going to think about it and it's not going to leave you.
Cinematical: Yeah, I really enjoyed the film.
Colin Geddes: Another interesting story is that the cuts that I saw of Hostel, were very different than what ended up in theaters. With Hostel, as far as I know, the ending has never even been released. It was a very personal ending that he liked, however the studio distributing it said that with that ending it's going to limit them with the number of screens they can get just because it was one of those brutal, bummer endings. That was something Eli and I talked about -- how can you fix this, or change it when you wildly love how you made the film.
Cinematical: I imagine it's incredibly hard for a filmmaker to do that. Sticking with horror, there's clearly a legitimate horror presence at TIFF's Midnight Madness each year. How important do you think it is to highlight horror films at a big festival?
Colin Geddes: It's really important. Horror films have always been the underdog and people expect them either be really gory or violent or gratuitous, when often the best horror films are more subtle and sublime than that. A good example that we had this year is John Carpenter's The Ward. It harkens back to a lot of older, 1940's films than any of the more extreme, violent horror films we've seen recently.
There's also a lot of messages about things that people want to put in horror films that often get overlooked, like Eli Roth's Hostel. That was very much a reaction to what people were seeing on the news -- all the horrors from Iraq and Iran. All the Abu Ghraib experiences. And also just about turning the ugly, American tourist experience on it's ear where the tourist became the meat. The other interesting thing is that there has been to some level a bit of a mainstreaming of horror. An example would be one of the films I've selected which is outside of Midnight Madness -- Let Me In. That's more of a mainstream horror film -- it's also because that's a film which like the original, deals more with the human experience and emotion. It's starting to fit into a phrase people have been coining as "elevated genre". It's a film which has the tropes of horror films, or what is considered B filmmaking, but actually hides a really strong emotional presence. With Let Me In, anyone who starts crying about making a remake -- I say, "Slow down, it's based on a book -- the same book as the original. No one starts bellyaching that they made a new version of Romeo and Juliet or a new version of Macbeth." I mean, if they ever do a new Hellraiser, it's just another adaptation of Clive Barker's short story.
Cinematical: When you see someone's name like John Carpenter -- who hasn't made a film in nine years -- do you automatically start clearing a spot for his film before you've even watched it?
Colin Geddes: Definitely not. I do have to see the film and there have been big names where I've had to be like, "Sorry, your film doesn't work for us." I mean, I've had to turn down many Dario Argento films.
Cinematical: [Dramatic gasp!]
Colin Geddes: [Laughs] I love Dario Argento, but he's never able to kind of fit those marks that he used to. When I selected The Mother of Tears, I thought, "You know what? This is the best he's going to get. It's not Suspiria. It's not his best works." And then the following year he had a film called Giallo, which was just a mess and I had rejected that.
We've had a director's slot where we've shown Dario Argento, George Romero, and now we're showing John Carpenter -- so there is kind of a director's slot, but it still matters on how the film is.
Cinematical: Fair enough. I know your specialty is Asian cinema, and I wanted to get your input as to why Asian films seem to be a big draw for festivals/Midnight slates?
Colin Geddes: It's a varied genre -- you can have action films, horror films, or you can even have offbeat weird comedies like Symbol or Big Man Japan, which totally defied description. It's just a different, more risk-taking mentality with Asian films. A lot of those films, they're not making them for a Western audience -- they're making them for their own audience, so there's a kind of innocence to the films. Also, a lot of horror films like Machine Girl are a new kind of wave of very jokey, exploitive Japanese horror films. I tend to stay away from those, because those are films being made for a Western audience, and they never quite work on a whole as a film. So I'm very particular about what I show -- like I've shown The Host. That was one of my personal favorites.
Cinematical: What are your thoughts on Hong Kong cinema in the aftermath of 1997 and the return of Chinese rule? I know many people thought that the films would suffer, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Would you agree with that?
Colin Geddes: That's a really complicated question, because it's a cinema which has shrunk. If you look at how many films were being made just before 1997 and how many films are being made now, it's just a shrinking history. It doesn't have the internal support that other countries have for filmmaking. Right now, who can you point to as a top Hong Kong filmmaker -- Johnnie To. Who can you point to after that? There's not a lot of names. That's why I'm really excited to be showing Fire of Conscience, because Dante Lam is like the new upcoming name/action director, but no one really knows him outside of Asia. There are a lot of things which affected the industry -- number one was piracy, really. And this was piracy on VHS. That's why piracy never really impacted us in the same way as Japan. Japanese audiences expect a degree of quality. They will not pay money for some crappy bootleg version. But in Hong Kong it's a very different mentality. It's kind of a mass cultural mentality, of being on top of trends and kind of, "What have you done for me lately?" -- where it doesn't matter if you saw the newest Star Wars on the crappiest thing possible, you were the first to see it. So you got bragging rights. It's kind of more based in the mentality of the culture.
Cinematical: So, what else do you have on your plate these days?
Colin Geddes: I have another gig outside of the film festival now. I'm the festival director of ActionFest in Asheville, North Carolina. They just had their first edition in April. It's a small festival devoted to international action films. They showed 25 films from around the world. They even gave a lifetime achievement award to Chuck Norris.
Colin Geddes: They hired me on this year in May as festival director and right now we're wrapping up to do the new edition of the festival in April. For me, as someone whose been pigeonholed as a horror film guy, it's nice to be able to go into another programming job where I have an even broader agenda. And it's a film festival, which celebrates the people behind the camera -- the stunt men, and action directors .... It's a genre that some people take for granted in many respects.
Follow TIFF (@TIFF_NET), TIFF's Midnight Madness slate (@mmadnesstiff), and Colin Geddes (@colingeddes) on Twitter. Stay up to date with what's happening at the fest by following/using the hashtag #TIFF10 or #TIFF.