TORONTO – Piers Handling still remembers the taste of the wine — Francis Ford Coppola’s wine, that is.
The director and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival sipped the delicious red while visiting the Oscar-winning director at his California winery to see his film “Twixt” in his cutting room.
He was there with Cameron Bailey, artistic director of TIFF, to decide whether the film should be a part of the 2011 festival. It ended up in the lineup.
“We had a wonderful lunch at a picnic table by a roadside cafe surrounded with just normal people rolling up to have burgers and hot dogs and all that kind of stuff,” recalls Handling.
Choosing films for the annual celebration of cinema, which this year runs Sept. 7 to 17, is a year-round process that sometimes involves travelling to movie makers’ private screening rooms, edit suites and homes.
“I’ve certainly been to people’s screening rooms in Mumbai, in Calcutta, sometimes places where I don’t even know exactly where I am or how to get back to my hotel, but I go because I want to feel what it’s like to make that film there,” says Bailey, noting their programming team fans out all over the world.
“It’s not just seeing them, because that can happen digitally. It’s more a sense of understanding them — to be in the context where the film was made, to be able to talk to the writers, the directors, the producers, to understand why it was important to make this particular film now. All of those things are critical.”
Bailey recalls watching a film in the basement of a certain producer’s home in London a few years back.
“He was making tea upstairs and brought down some biscuits,” says Bailey. “In the end, the film became a very big film and I won’t name it, but it did go on to win an Academy Award.”
Then there was the time he and Handling went to director Agnes Varda’s house in Paris to see her film projected onto a wall.
“Her voiceover was not on the film (yet), so Agnes had her script and she had a little microphone,” says Handling. “She read the voiceover while she was projecting the film.”
TIFF programmers have “a massive tracking list” for films that are in production, so they’re usually not surprised by what’s available, says Bailey.
This year, however, comedy star Louis C.K. caught them off guard.
“He called up our office himself, totally cold, and said, ‘Hi, my name is Louis C.K., I made a movie’ — and we’d never heard of it,” says Bailey.
The film is “I Love You, Daddy” and it will make its world premiere at TIFF.
“He had made it with his own money, he’d financed it himself completely off the radar of the entire film industry, wasn’t represented by any big company,” says Bailey.
When TIFF programmers go to a filmmaker’s home or personal studio to see their works, sometimes the producer or director is sitting right beside them.
“That can be a somewhat awkward experience because they’re reading your every move as you sit and watch,” says Bailey. “But you get something out of that as well. You get the fact that this is always going to be a human exchange, a human interaction.”
If the filmmaker is present during the screening, Bailey tries not to reveal any physical reactions.
“Even if you’re shifting in your seat, sometimes that makes filmmakers nervous,” he says. “I was in Mumbai just this past July and a filmmaker had come to watch the film with me, and I guess she couldn’t take it anymore and she just left and then she told me afterwards, ‘Oh, you were moving too much.'”
Bailey likes to jot down his thoughts with a pen and notepad if the filmmakers are present (on his phone if he’s alone) but won’t if he thinks it will make them too nervous.
If a filmmaker asks what Bailey thought of the movie, he says he always tries to offer something positive, even if it doesn’t seem a right fit for TIFF.
Sometimes the film needs work and isn’t ready for that year’s fest but might debut the following year.
“Our advice to filmmakers is: ‘Don’t rush it, take your time and if you have to wait, if you possibly can, make sure you get it right,'” says Handling.
“Because the world premiere of your film is the most important screening.”
TIFF programmers don’t demand a completely finished film before approving it for the fest, but they’ll never choose one sight-unseen, says Handling.
“Occasionally you’ve seen a rough cut of a movie but that’s pretty unusual now,” he says.
“We see a lot of films with temp music. Not everything is there, not all the sound effects are there. In some cases we’ve seen films, especially the CGI-oriented films, with a lot of green screen, the film’s not completed that way. That’s a little weird, a little strange.
“But you’re used to this now and it’s really the story at the end of the day that actually shines through.”