TORONTO '99 ON THE SCENE: Weepies, Long Movies, Incest, and Other Taboos in
by Beth Pinkser
Even at the best run festival in the world, things run late. That was
the case Monday night as the world premiere of "A Map of the World" was
delayed about twenty minutes, pushing back the next film, Agnieszka
Holland's "Third Miracle," even later.
This wasn't of much concern to
anyone but partygoers, who faced mostly empty rooms while people were
Maybe the "Map" crew was late because they were trying to sell the film
before its first screening. The feature from first-time director Scott
Elliot, who hails from the New York theater world, is one of only a
handful of high-profile, big-name vehicles that didn't come into the
festival with distribution already in place. Even the littlest movies
here seem to have somebody behind them already, so it's strange that
this movie is still on the market given that it stars Sigourney Weaver
in an Oscar-caliber role, as well as Julianne Moore and David
Strathairn. Based on the best-selling novel by Jane Hamilton, one of
Oprah Winfrey's Book Club selections, the movie was produced by Kathleen
Kennedy, Frank Marshall, and the Overseas Film Group, the latter of
which has its own distribution arm in First Look Pictures.
"They didn't want to go the studio route, I think," says Sigourney
Weaver. "Scott turned down bigger deals and bigger budgets because he
didn't want that kind of pressure on his first feature." So with $5
million and five weeks to shoot last year, they went to a farm just
north of Toronto to film. "I'm glad he did that," says Weaver. "It felt
like we were off on our own. I don't know how we could have preserved
the kind of energy we had if we were on a studio backlot."
Weaver also thinks that the movie's content benefited from the lack of
studio oversight while they were filming, especially in terms of
sticking to the dramatic elements of the story. "There might have been
some pressure to make it more schmaltzy, more predictable," she says.
The big drawback to the film as it is: it's a weeper. "A tough sell," an
editor said to me after the screening. "I hate that," says Weaver. "When
they say it's a tough sell, they mean it's too scary, because emotion
puts some people off."
What is it about movies that make you cry that scares people - men and
studio executives, in particular? If the emotion is honest, then crying
is the best testament to a movie's power. "Map" brings on the tears, but
so what? The story is about normal people who are unmade by a simple
tragic accident. It's not depressing, but human. "It really pulls you in
both directions," says Weaver. "It's about the resiliency of the human
spirit. It's actually very optimistic."
At least "Map" isn't three hours long. That length and the anti-weepy
factor kept some people from the Gala premiere of Istvan Szabo's
"Sunshine," even given the draw of Ralph Fiennes playing three
characters over three generations of an Hungarian Jewish family. The
film is also looking for a distributor.
If "Sunshine" wasn't long or deep enough, there was a 10 p.m. screening
Monday night of Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin" (Sony
Pictures Classics), a third century B.C. epic which weighs in at just
under three hours. Chen is at the festival, musing about Chinese
nationalism, the possibility of making an English-language movie and
maybe even moving to Los Angeles. His biggest concern, which is also
what his movie is about, is absolute power corrupting absolutely. "I
want to make sure nobody wastes my time," he says. "A lot of filmmakers
sit around for three years or so waiting for the money to make a picture
and nothing happens."
One film that was too long for some viewers, although it was just 100
minutes, was Tim Roth's directorial debut, "The War Zone." The dark
drama about incest played at Sundance to subdued movie industry
audiences, but no controversy. At the first public screening in Toronto
on Monday, the theater erupted at the graphic sexual scenes.
"The War Zone" is a grim affair, but also a probing psychological drama.
To that end, some people in the audience responded loudly, expressing
their feelings (they were shouting out "blasphemy" at the screen). One
man got so upset he stood up and yelled "I trusted you" before running
out. According to several people, the man turned the corner and bumped
right into Roth. He started to chew out the actor-turned-director, then
after a conversation burst into tears. The question and answer session
after the film lasted an hour and a half. (To get a different side of
Roth, viewers should see the sentimental, sweet "Legend of 1900," a Fine
Line release from Giuseppe Tornatore that will not offend sensitive
And speaking of blasphemy, Kevin Smith's "Dogma" is getting anything but
calls of heresy at festival screenings. While some critics have
complained that Smith's explanation of his Catholic beliefs is too much,
the laughs are so loud at screenings that whole chunks of dialogue get
swallowed. (And there have been no protests from Catholic groups here.)
So far, the only one making noise is Smith, who speaks up when asked
about Miramax backing out of distributing the film. Lions Gate bought
the $10 million film just after Labor Day and will release it in
December. "I'm sad to realize that there's no Miramax logo on the film,"
says Smith. "But Lions Gate doesn't have to worry about people
boycotting theme parks."
[Beth Pinsker is a New York based freelancer whose work has appeared in
Entertainment Weekly, Us, Interview, TV Guide and Texas Monthly.]