Which movie mogul went to high school with Stevie Ray Vaughan? Sunday's fest provided the answer
For one day, the sponsors took a back seat at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And at any rate, the day might as well have been brought to you by Sony Pictures Classics.
Because it was the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and because that day fell during TIFF a decade ago, the usual pre-screening barrage of advertisements – as many as seven before most screenings, for Bell and Cadillac and AMC and others – were dispensed with for the day.
In place of the ads was a brief and affecting film in which a variety of TIFF attendees, from director Piers Handling and COO Michele Maheux to filmmakers, executives and media members, talked about the 2001 festival, and how it reacted to and went on in spite of the attacks on New York and Washington.
Two studio executives were also included in the film: Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, the co-chiefs of Sony Classics. The sadness of 9/11 aside, it was a remarkable day for Barker, Bernard and SPC. They screened their film "A Separation," an acclaimed film that is Iran's entry into the Academy's Best Foreign-Language Film category; showed "The Skin I Live In," the upcoming film from Spanish director Pedro Almodovar; and held a TIFF premiere for "In Darkness," the Polish Oscar entry and a film that seems almost certain to be nominated and quite likely to win.
Other SPC titles screening at the fest included "A Dangerous Method," "Take Shelter," "Restless," "Footnote" and "Damsels in Distress."
(Above: Barker, left, and Bernard, right, with SPC acquisitions and production VP Dylan Leiner; photo by Sonia Recchia/Getty Images.)
And in mid-afternoon, Barker and Bernard were the subject of a Q&A in TIFF's prestige "Mavericks" program. The event was designed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their company, with frequent SPC director Jonathan Demme posing questions to the pair.
In the middle of the discussion, Handling sprung a surprise of Barker and Bernard: he came onstage, interrupted the talk, and brought out a dozen directors who'd worked with SPC over the years.
At Sony Classics' 20th anniversary party later Sunday night (the second SPC party of the weekend), Barker was still buzzing about being interrupted by the directors. But he was just as eager to talk about "In Darkness," and how he thought it was Polish director Agnieszka Holland's best film … and about his company's other foreign contenders, "A Separation" and "Footnote" … and about how he really hoped to land a Best Picture nomination for "Midnight in Paris," the second-highest-grossing film in SPC's history. (The first is "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.")
A high-school friend of Barker's was on hand to provide some perspective. "We used to skip school to go see movies," he said of their schooldays in Dallas. "That's what Michael was passionate about then, and it's great to see that it's what he's still doing."
(Bonus factoid: another of Barker's high school classmates, it turns out, was the late guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.)
Other Sunday debuts included "Anonymous" from SPC's parent company, Sony Pictures. A real change of pace for director Roland Emmerich (best known for big-budget extravaganzas like "Independence Day"), the Elizabethan-era drama concerns the true authorship of William Shakespeare's plays, and advances the theory that the real Shakespeare was a drunk who was barely literate, while the true author was the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere.
This being an Emmerich movie, the scholarly questions are put in service of a plot that focuses more on a plot to seize control of the British monarchy; the stakes are high, the intrigue is thick and the director even finds room for sweeping vistas and big battle scenes.
But the movie is also lots of fun, and it boasts a remarkable performance by Rhys Ifans as De Vere. Best known for his assortment of oddballs and misfits – most notably Hugh Grant's roommate in "Notting Hill," who famously answered the door in his underwear – Ifans is completely unrecognizable in "Anonymous," partly because of extensive hair and makeup work but also because he rarely speaks above a whisper, and disappears into the skin of a man whose high station prevents him from publicly engaging in his true passion (and gift).
"In terms of transformation, I don’t think I've ever done anything so all-consuming," Ifans told TheWrap in a morning interview. "I was given the opportunity by Roland to play a part that I would not necessarily have been cast in, and as a result, it was all-consuming. But it wasn't daunting – it was a relief."
Making an afternoon debut was "Samsara," a wordless and plotless image-based doc that sold out all three of its public screenings. A sequel in mood and technique if not in story line (it doesn't have one) to the 1992 film "Baraka," the movie travels around the world, from an enormously striking landscape of temples in Burma to a meat-processing plant in the United States.
Its director, Ron Fricke, was the DP on Godfrey Reggio's classic film "Koyaanisqatsi"; "Baraka" and "Samsara" both take a similar approach, with time-lapse photography and gorgeously composed shots of landscapes that range from the frightening to the astonishingly beautiful.
It is also a pointed and ruthless critique of much human activity; when Jane Fonda recently saw the film, said sound mixer Matthew Iadarola, she ended up sobbing.
One of the interesting facets of "Samsara" is technical: it was shot in 70mm and then transferred to an ultra high-definition 4K file. But TIFF, according to producer Mark Magidson, didn't have any theaters equipped to show the format.
To complicate matters further, the festival would have offended sponsor Christie if it brought in a 4K system from Sony, the company that currently markets them to movie theaters. So Christie hastened production on its in-the-works 4K projector and installed one in a theater at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. As a result, Samsara is unique in having all of its screenings in the same room.
Also premiering: "Albert Nobbs," an indie from Roadside Attractions in which Glenn Close and Janet McTeer both play women in 19th century Ireland who spend their lives masquerading as men to give themselves more opportunities in a male-dominated and poverty-stricken society.
Both women have stirred up heavy Oscar buzz for their performances, with Close all-but-anointed one of the Best Actress frontrunners for the film, which she has been trying to get off the ground for two deades.
But don't ask them about anything like Oscar buzz, as TheWrap did on Sunday afternoon, or you're apt to encounter denial and silliness.
"We don't even believe that the thing is opening tonight, let alone anything else," said McTeer. "We're still slightly shocked that anyone is seeing the movie other than us. We're still in slight denial.
"It's going to be really interesting," added Close. "I can't imagine walking in to 2,000 people." She grinned at McTeer, who has some brief exposure in the film. "Waiting to see your breasts."
"I hardly think that's at the top of their agenda," said McTeer laughing.
"It might be!" Close insisted.
"You just say that because you're jealous."
Close agreed immediately. "I am deeply jealous. Are you kidding me?"