TORONTO 2000: Moose Attack, "Chasing Sleep,"
"Suspicious" Offer, and Mean Men?
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/9.12.00) -- As many films as there are screening in the Toronto
Film Festival this year, there are about just as many moose. That's right,
Moose in the City, an outdoor art exhibit, has 325 moose sculptures decked out
in various colors and designs placed throughout the city's streets and corners,
from the Loblaw Companies' Decadent Chocolate Chip Moose to Warner Brother's
Pokemoose to Bell Canada's Global Commoosication. Those comedic Canadians --
what a sense of humor they have!
Sobering up audiences real quickly, however, were a number of
serious-minded films that screened on Sunday. One of the more auspicious
and disturbing surprises came from first-time American feature filmmaker
Michael Walker with his Lynchian thriller "Chasing Sleep." Produced by
France's StudioCanal, along with the help of Robin O'Hara and Scott
Macaulay's Forensic Films and shot over only 24 days, "Sleep" finds
Jeff Daniels miles away from the likes of "Dumb and Dumber" and
"Arachnophobia" as Ed Saxon, a man who wakes up in the middle of the
night to find his wife missing. With increasingly little sleep and
losing his grip on reality, Saxon descends deeper and deeper into a
waking nightmare where time lapses and bad plumbing plague his every
At the film's industry screening over the weekend, U.S. distributors
were aplenty, eager to catch a glimpse of an American discovery worthy
of -- but perhaps too dark for -- Sundance Competition. Walker didn't
disappoint with his gripping debut effort, aided by the evocative
cinematography of Jim Denault ("Boys Don't Cry") and a disturbing,
textured sound design by Paul P. Soucek. Post public screening, one
industry-savvy viewer noted, "You've produced a film that's obviously
not for all markets." Still, audiences were entranced by Walker's unique
vision as well as the star power of Jeff Daniels, who told the crowd his
reasons for taking on the indie assignment: "It was a great chance to do
something that I hadn't done before, you hear actors say that all the
time and they don't really do it. And this truly was different."
Perhaps the most impressive difference was "Chasing Sleep's" financing;
it's the first time the French company, Studio Canal Plus, has financed
a debuting American filmmaker. "Canal Plus was great," said the nervous,
soft-spoken director. "I only met them three times and they fully
financed the film." Hoping to create more opportunities for U.S. based
directors in France, executive producer Scott Macaulay commented after
the screening, "It's a barrier to break through."
Walker hopes to capitalize on the momentum of "Chasing Sleep" and launch
a second film soon -- either a story about "a girl who becomes
schizophrenic" or "a big Hollywood romantic comedy." He clarifies, "but
with similar themes."
Lynne Stopkewich's sophomore effort "Suspicious River" shares similar
themes with her perverse, exquisite first film, "Kissed" -- which
launched the director's career here four years ago. A much darker and
more challenging work, "Suspicious River" stars Molly Parker, who
played a charming necrophiliac in "Kissed," as a motel clerk who begins
enigmatically selling her body to the guests. Stopkewich characterizes
the film "as a drastic choice. . . I found 'Kissed' kind of funny, in a
Lynchian way, so there's a darkness, but there's also an ironic humor
about it. And 'Suspicious River' goes down a definitely dramatic dark
road. The first time I saw the film I wanted to lie down."
Responding to criticism that the film is overly somber, Stopkewich
answers, "I would be more concerned if people thought it was soft or
lukewarm or forgettable. And ultimately, I know that's not the case." A
U.S. distributor made an offer on the film just prior to its Sunday
industry screening, according to Stopkewich. "I'm thrilled, because any
offer on this film would be amazing," she laughs, "because it's a dicey
project to take on. But it's there," she adds, satisfied. William
Morris' Cassian Elwes, who is selling the film, could not be reached for
For Stopkewich, there was a 5-year gap between her first and second
films -- too long for an energetic aspiring director. "Five years to be
behind the camera [again]. It's kind of crazy," she says. "How am I
going to learn my craft?" Stopkewich has kept busy, trying to get other
projects off the ground, shooting a documentary about Lilith Fair which
she hopes to premiere at Sundance, and developing a slate of digital
films to showcase Western Canadian filmmakers. Stopkewich, who had a
difficult time raising the money for "Suspicious River," noted of DV,
"It's a really viable option."
Another long-awaited sophomore effort came from Shirley Barrett, who won
the best first film award at Cannes for her debut "Love Serenade" four
years ago. Barrett was a lot more lax about her time away from
filmmaking. "It takes me a while to write, and also, I had a baby," says
the smiling Aussie. "I got two small kids at home, so I was doing it in
a real part-time way. So that's my excuse." Barrett's "Walk the Talk,"
which world premiered here, starts off hilariously in the gaudy
Australian region of Surfer's Paradise where young, ambitious, self-help
mantra-wielding Joey Grasso (Salvatore Coco) convinces his fiety
paraplegic girlfriend (Sacha Horler) to bankroll his own talent agency.
Coco's incessant upbeat persistence to promote a local 40-ish blonde
bimbo and waste away his girlfriend's finances, unfortunately, begins to
weigh on the viewer's patience. (There were several walkouts at the
film's industry screening.) "The main risk is that people will become
so exasperated with Joey that they will lose sympathy for him and I
don't want that to happen, so that's a risk I unwittingly took," says
Barrett. "My feeling with Joey is that you would keep sympathizing with
him and understand that he's doing this with the best of intentions. He
genuinely doesn't want to do anything bad."
When asked how she would react if a distributor asked her to cut down
some of Coco's scenes of blind ambition, Barrett responded, "Look, you
could probably cut a bit of it down and it would survive. But I wouldn't
change what he did and what he was striving for." Stealing his
girlfriend's money? Giving her false expectations? Obsessing over
another woman? He's not exactly sympathetic protagonist material.
But come to think of it, neither are many of the depictions of men in
Toronto's recent films. Jeff Daniels may have dismembered his wife, just
about every man in "Suspicious River" is out to screw Parker's character
both psychologically and physically, "Stardom's" male heroines are only
mildly better to Arcand's young starlet, Rod Lurie's Gala screening of
"The Contendor" has all of Washington -- particularly Gary Oldman's
shrewd Senator Runyon -- out to eviscerate Joan Allen's prospective Vice
Presidential nominee, then there's French entry "Baise Moi" ("Rape Me")
and let's not even get started on the Iranian films.
"If you try to write interesting characters, people do terrible things,
people do anything for love. What would be the other option?" asks
Barrett. A woman abusing a man? "Which you could do easily -- in a way,
that's what I did in 'Love Serenade.'" Perhaps it's just a phase, then.
High anticipated upcoming screenings include masculine entries like
Michael Corrente's soccer saga, "A Shot at Glory," Joel
Schumacher's Vietnam training drama "Tigerland" and Jonathon
Glazer's Fox Searchlight heist thriller "Sexy Beast."