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TORONTO ’08 DISPATCH | “Lovely, Still”, “Heaven on Earth,” “Religulous,” and “The Hunger” Cap A Busy

TORONTO '08 DISPATCH | "Lovely, Still", "Heaven on Earth," "Religulous," and "The Hunger" Cap A Busy

Sunday capped a typically busy first weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival. While audiences and industry anticipated the North American premiere of Darren Aronofsky‘s “The Wrestler,” other films in the spotlight included Nik Fackler‘s “Lovely, Still“, Deepa Mehta‘s “Heaven on Earth,” Larry Charles and Bill Maher‘s “Religulous,” and Steve McQueen‘s “The Hunger.”

Fackler, Knudsen, and Van Hoy Celebrate “Lovely, Still”

Producers Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy are clearly on a roll. Named to Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch list last week, the duo (producers of “Wild Tigers I Have Known” and “Old Joy“) are expected to imminently announce an overhead deal with mentor Scott Rudin early this week. In the meantime, they’ve been quite busy working the scene here at the Toronto International Film Festival. On Sunday, Knudsen and Van Hoy shuttled from a noon-time press & industry screening of Nik Fackler’s “Lovely, Still,” popped over to a showing of So Yung Kim‘s “Treeless Mountain” and then back to an afternoon tea reception for “Lovely, Still.”

Outside Sunday’s “Lovely, Still” showing, reps Cassian Elwes (from William Morris) and Cynthia Swartz (from 42 West) worked an end of hallway after the screening, while Knudsen and Van Hoy greeted well-wishers. Fackler’s first feature had just stirred an emotional response among a number of those who connected with his story of an aging romance, starring Martin Laundau and Ellen Burstyn. The small town story walks a tightrope and then takes a dramatic turn at its climax, leaving viewers both heartbroken and uplifted.

Producers Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy. Photo by James Israel/indieWIRE.

“If the actors were my age, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Fackler told indieWIRE, when asked whether people are focusing too much on the fact that, at age 17, he wrote the story of these two older lovers. Now 24, he seems to take the questions in stride. William Morris’s Craig Kestel, rep to such filmmakers as Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Ryan Eslinger and The Duplass Brothers, found then music video director and artist Fackler’s website. He later packaged the film, concealing the would-be filmmaker’s age until after the connected with the script. They would eventually work with Jack Turner and White Buffalo Entertainment to get the movie made and on the fest circuit within a year.

Ellen Burstyn reiterated a particular fondness for filmmakers at an early stage of their careers. She worked with Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Darren Aronofsky early on. Explaining to indieWIRE that she relishes the chance to work with a director before they’ve been through the “meat-grinder” she noted that emerging filmmakers are less likely to second guess themselves when they have less to prove and have not yet faced too much failure (or success).

Buzz is growing for Fackler’s feature, but those involved are still mapping out the best release strategy for the picture. The team is taking the temperature of buyers, while balancing a hope to get the movie — set during the Christmas holiday — out at the end of the year to make the most of post-fest (and awards) buzz. If they decide not to sell the movie, don’t be surprised if they take a high-profile DIY approach. In last week’s biz assessment ahead of TIFF, indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman noted that marketing consultant Matthew Cohen is already on board to help with distribution.

“We have plans in place,” producer Lars Knudsen told indieWIRE last week. “If we don’t get the offers we want or anticipate, it doesn’t end there. There’s been the sense: If you don’t get your film acquired at a festival, what do you do? Now people are waking up and saying: We, as producers and filmmakers, need to do that research and understand the marketplace better.” [Eugene Hernandez]

Spousal Abuse in “Heaven on Earth”

Domestic violence takes the spotlight in Indian director Deepa Mehta’s “Heaven on Earth.” Starring Bollywood actress Preity Zinta and actor Vansh Bhardwaj, the film opens with colorful festivities celebrating the wedding of Chand (Zinta) and Rocky (Bhardwaj) but fades when the bride is taken to her new home in Canada and the reality of a violent home life takes root.

“I discovered most people don’t want to talk about domestic violence because they feel they deserve it or are embarrassed,” said Mehta about her latest film. She also learned that after filming the project many of her friends were also victims of spousal abuse. “Unles we start talking about it, nothing is going to change. It’s a universal issue, domestic violence knows no caste, race or [borders].”

Zinta was sanguine when asked if she thought the film would be able to find an audience in her homeland – a country internationally known more for producing over the top musicals then hot-button issue-oriented work. “Indian audiences have matured. People who are ‘confident’ will get the film. Of course there are still the escapist musicals that are just fun and you can just leave your brains at home… they’re my bread-and-butter. But these [non-Bollywood] films do have an audience…” [Brian Brooks]

Director Larry Charles and comedian Bill Maher at the Toronto press conference for their film, “Religulous.” Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE.

“Religulous” Takes On Religion

Borat” director Larry Charles and comedian Bill Maher take on the final sacred cow by tapping their irreverance to stroke the slippery slope of skepticism when it comes to the God issue in their film, “Religulous.” Maher travels to some of the holiest sights in the world for some of the biggest names in monotheism: Jerusalem, Vatican City and Salt Lake City to openly polarize and debunk what Maher sees as the ridiculousness of religion.

“I say I’m a ‘rationalist.’ I don’t like the word ‘atheist.’ It’s too dogmatic. I don’t say there’s no God, I don’t [ultimately] know… A ‘rationalist’ is someone who bases their thinking on rational thought based on scientific evidence,” said Maher Sunday afternoon in Toronto about his personal view on faith. “We’ve become the Woodward and Bernstein of religion,” joked Charles. “We want to destroy the whole system…”

Maher, who apparently was picketed the night before at the debut of his doc the night before, went for the jugular when asked by a Canadian journalist why American political candidates wear their religion on their sleeves more then in other countries. “Because we’re a dumber country then you are,” he quipped. “People argue that if you get rid of religion, society will implode, but we see Western Europe has moved away from religion and despite that, we haven’t seen a collapse, in fact they’re quite well off…”

Maher quickly dispelled any notion that he had a difficult religious upbringing and was using bitterness as a tool to attack religion, saying his Catholic childhood was void of any personal trauma. “People ask me if I’m doing this because I’m bitter since I was raised Catholic, and the answer is ‘no!’ I wasn’t abused as a child or anything like that, and quite frankly – I’m insulted…” [Brian Brooks]

Sight and Sound in Steve McQueen’s “The Hunger”

“This film is all about taste, texture, and smell and sound,” said artist and first-time filmmaker Steve McQueen at the Q&A following the Toronto screening of his fantastically visceral work, “The Hunger.” In McQueen’s riveting, disturbing film, we see the final weeks of Bobby Sands, an IRA reactionary who lead a protest in the notoriously brutal Maze Prison during the heated Irish conflict in 1981. Atypically though, the film offers an unbiased view of the disturbing conflict, showing with striking imagery the prisoners as well as the guards and the brutality that they all witness. Commenting on how his film compared to others that have documented this part of Irish history, McQueen said, ” “I don’t think about what other people have done before.” He added, It’s about communicating ideas with images…You always have to put two things in a frame.”

Actor Michael Fassbender, who captures the tragic story of Bobby Sands, lost 35 lbs to offer the disturbing sight of a man slowly dying of self-inflicted starvation. When asked about working with Fassbender, McQueen said, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s on the screen.” McQueen offered a bit more, saying that “A look or one or two words and we were on the same page.” When one audience member asked how he lost the weight, Fassbender quipped, “”You looking for some tips? Stand up, let’s take a look at you.” Fassbender added, “I had ten weeks to lose the weight. I ate lots of berries, nuts, and sardines.” [James Israel and Cameron Yates]

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