TIFF 2010: Interview With Programmer Colin Geddes
Per TIFF's website: "Colin Geddes selects cutting-edge films for the Toronto International Film Festival's Real to Reel, Vanguard, Visions and Midnight Madness programmes. Since joining TIFF in 1998, he has introduced new talent and programmed many notable world premieres including Miike Takashi's Ichi The Killer; Johnnie To's Full Time Killer; Eli Roth's Cabin Fever and Hostel; Alex Aja's Haute Tension; and Pratchya Pinkaew's Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior
"A specialist in Asian cinema, Geddes' additional programming efforts include the Asian rep theatre Golden Classics Cinema, TIFF Cinematheque, FantAsia Toronto and in May 2010 he was appointed as Festival Director for ActionFest in Asheville, North Carolina. He is on the advisory committee of the Reel Asian Film Festival, The Austin Fantastic Film Fest, and has served on juries for several international film festivals. For more than a decade, Geddes curated the Kung Fu Fridays screening series, which showcased martial arts and cult cinema from Asia.
"Geddes holds one of North America's largest collections of Hong Kong cinema promotional materials, posters, and lobby cards. In July 2008, La Cinémathèque Québécoise presented an exhibit of fifty posters from the collection. Over the past fifteen years, Geddes has rescued abandoned 35mm prints from Toronto's closed Chinatown cinemas and garbage heaps and in March 2010, he donated 200 feature films originating from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the University of Toronto.
"In 2004 he founded Ultra 8 Pictures, an independent theatrical distribution and booking company, dedicated to bringing offbeat international films to Canadian cinemas. Releases have included Bubba Ho-Tep, A Tale of Two Sisters, Ju-On, and The Human Centipede."
* * *Michael Guillén: Colin, I was especially impressed with your selections for TIFF's Vanguard Program this year and thank you for taking the time to talk with me regarding same; but, of course, your Midnight Madness program has been a favorite with TIFF audiences for years so why don't we start there? Can you provide some background on the Midnight Madness program, how it got going, and how you became involved?
Colin Geddes: Back in 1988 when TIFF was known as the "Festival of Festivals", they created Midnight Madness as kind of a catch-all for films that didn't quite fit into the perspective of film festivals. At that time, film festivals didn't really have the time for horror films; they were all about the arthouse and international films. Midnight Madness developed after that when they realized that it was almost like an entryway drug for film festival audiences, especially the younger audiences (even though the rating was 18 and you had to be 18 to go). But this was how the Midnight Madness films were described: these are films that don't have any pretensions. We throw out the window all the notions of art house cinema that most festivals love to boast about and focus on plain and simple fun and adrenalin. But at the same time, we realized, "No. We are watching art."
My personal history with the Midnight Madness program was when I came to Toronto in 1988 from the countryside. My first week in Toronto attending school, I stood in line for the first year of Midnight Madness and I saw Hellraiser 2 and Frank Henenlotter's Brain Damage (1988). Coming from rural Ontario, in that line-up I met these kindred spirits who I could talk to about the nuances of Italian cannibal cinema. To this day I'm friends with those two guys I met in the line-up. Raemo--I've been to his wedding--and Bill and I have driven to New York to go to horror film conventions several times and now Bill's actually a film producer; he produced last year's documentary Examined Life. So I went back to see more films in the film festival each year; but, Midnight Madness was always the anchor.
TIFF ended up being my film school--I went to school for graphic design; I never went to film school--but, I learned everything about world cinema from seeing 40-60 films every year, as much as I could. Then I wrote a fanzine about Hong Kong cinema around 1992-93, I believe, called Asian Eye. In my first issue I had an interview with John Woo before he went to the American market. In the second issue I had an interview with Jackie Chan. But by doing the zine and writing about a world cinema that no one was really paying much attention to at the time in English, it put me on the film festival's radar. I got a press pass and--once I got a press pass I could see everything!--however, that was also a sad year too because I realized I wasn't seeing the films with the audiences, which was really where my heart was: the audience. So after scoring my press pass, I became more involved in the film festival world and in 1997 Noah Cowan--who is now the Artistic Director of Bell Lightbox but who was running Midnight Madness--brought me on as a co-programmer and that year I brought him Takashi Miike's Fudoh.
Guillén: So you shadow programmed for Noah for a while?
Geddes: Just that one year. The following year he turned around and said, "You have the program."
Guillén: Wow. What a break!
Geddes: 1998 was my first full year as a programmer and I had a lot to learn because it's very difficult going from the perspective of a fan to a programmer; from a fan into the industry side. Being able to negotiate and swim through these shark-infested waters of the industry is a hard skill to acquire, especially when you have such a passion about these films and you see how they're bought and sold. It's not pretty and there's not a lot you can do.
Guillén: On this issue of the earlier perception of genre films not necessarily being considered art, that's changing quite a lot, isn't it? In fact this year's TIFF is juiced up with genre, which had much to do with drawing my attention to these shifting tastes in curatorial programming and to a more general recognition of TIFF as a programmers festival.
Geddes: That's very much what it's about with the festival. I don't think a lot of people understand that because--if you look at other festivals--you don't really follow the programmers. There's no--for lack of a better term--branding of who these people are; who these taste makers are. We've really tried to change that in the past couple of years. This year in the program book, for example, there are all our pictures. So, yeah, it's all about tastes and currents. For example, there was one film Cameron Bailey, Steve Gravestock and I all watched and they didn't like it so much but I did. I realized there was an audience for that film because I knew I shared their taste. But even when my taste is not 100% matched to a movie, I can still realize its potential audience and that's a part of being a programmer. You have to acknowledge, "Okay, there are some problems with this film but I'll overlook that because often times the audience aren't going to have the same problems I'm having with it." As a programmer you have to trust that a film will find a life on its own.
Guillén: Diana Sanchez was telling me that she's given an allotment of 18 films to select for TIFF, is that the same for you?
Geddes: For Midnight Madness, obviously I have 10. I'm always trying to get them to give me an 11th but that would mean the festival would have to go an extra day. Oh wait, they made an extra day!
Guillén: Next year!
Geddes: Truthfully, I don't know if I could handle 11 Midnight Madnesses in a row. So yes, I do have 18 and 10 go to Midnight Madness.
Guillén: You had a strong presence in Vanguard this year.
Geddes: It starts off as a select number; but, then once in a while it's like, okay, we need to find a home for this film. At the end of the day, it's always a bit of a fight because every programmer has around five films that got away just because of space. We just can't fit them all in. It's the same thing with Midnight Madness. There were a number of other films that I saw that were good but, at the end of the day, there were only 10 I could fit in. At the end of the process towards the end of August there's always a give-and-take where it's like, "Okay, we want this film and where can it go?" If we haven't filled all of our slots--there's these kind of "mercy slots" where you have to make a case to Cameron--we'll do all sorts of various things. Jane Schoettle one year offered Cameron a bribe: she left a beautiful baked banana bread on his desk. In order to get one film in myself, or to at least get it into a certain cinema, I think I gave away my secret barbecue rib recipe.
Guillén: Such power broking!! Returning, then, to this issue of personal taste: what determines the placement of the films you favor? How do they end up in respective programs? Specifically, in your case, how did your films end up having such a strong showing in Vanguard? Was it their edginess that found them a home in Vanguard rather than in Midnight Madness?
Geddes: Yes, it's an edginess to the films. What separates a film from being in Vanguard instead of Midnight Madness is often the pacing and the tone. A perfect example would be Sion Sono's Cold Fish. That is potentially one of the bloodiest and grisliest films in the festival. I Saw the Devil by Kim Jee-woon is the most violent film. There's a difference. There's brutal violence in I Saw the Devil but a grisly grotesqueness in Cold Fish. However, it takes half an hour setting all that up in Cold Fish through the drama and the Midnight Madness audience wants something in the first 15 minutes to keep them jolted. So, for me, it's a pacing thing that separates Midnight Madness from the other programs like Vanguard.
Vanguard was initially brought about because one year we had, I believe, Wassup Rockers and a couple of other films skewed towards a younger surfer audience, for lack of a better word. You know, skinny white kids. They didn't come out and where were they when they were who these films were for? We realized these films were being buried in Contemporary World Cinema so we had to slowly carve out parts of that. Vanguard is traditionally an edgier program, maybe a little more youth-driven--maybe 20s-30s? It's hard to assign an age range to these films--but they're films that are a little more raw. Not in an experimental sense; that would be more for Visions. Films in Vanguard are a little more explosive.
Guillén: I was discussing with Diana that one of the complaints levied against TIFF's line-up this year has been that past practices of programming retrospectives of single filmmakers or particular national cinemas have been more or less eliminated in favor of programming "contemporary" films. I'm trying to gain a sense of why the term "contemporary" should be used to dismiss a film's artfulness outright. Especially because you are so knowledgable in popular trends of genre and monitor--as you mentioned earlier--"tastes and currents", where does that lead to an understanding of the "contemporary"?
Geddes: I'm not well-versed nor do I like using terms like "contemporary." For me cinema is such a personal thing that I can only speak from the gut about it. At first when you said that, I thought, "What? They want more period costume films? What are they saying?" For me, honestly, it's such a random thing. We do not set out as programmers saying, "Okay, this year we're going to address these themes and these trends and this or that nation's cinema." At the end of the day, it depends on the films. There are several established directors whose films I have turned down because they're just not good. My attitude about programming is that--since for 10 years I was in that audience before I started programming--I'm not going to waste their money. I live in this city. I see the audiences. I interact with the audiences. I know them. Some of them I know personally. I'm not going to waste their time with something that is pretentious and indulgent. I'm going to give them honest, serious cinema; but, again, at the end of the day it's how that year plays. Some years, within the Midnight Madness realm, I'll have maybe eight films that I wish I could have selected. Some years there's only two. Some years there's only one. Some years I'm scrambling to find a really good, coherent program. It depends on the year. As programmers, often times we work in a bubble. We can't talk publically about what we're showing or what we've selected so it's not until September comes and people start looking at the lineup that we realize, "Okay, we did something good."
Guillén: So perhaps the issue is more one of matching audiences to programs? Because the same folks complaining that TIFF's line-up is overloaded with "contemporary" films have no objection, let's say, to the Wavelengths program, which suits their definition of cinema. My sense is that TIFF's programming team is striving to satisfy variant audiences with tailored programs that are sensitive to shifting trends. In your case specifically, it strikes me that the audience for Midnight Madness is--at this juncture--an identified demographic. As you say, you know who your audience is. The audience for Vanguard, by contrast, seems to have an appetite for discovery titles rather than known quantities. As a programmer for such a constituency, when you've found the 18 films that you want to place in the festival, do you then narrow them down and say, "This is a discovery title. This is something that might break out? Where should I place it?"
Geddes: Yeah. Our marketing department and the press is always trying to get us to boil these things down and compartmentalize them; but, at the same time, we have the difficulty of choosing which is--for example--our favorite child. One of the other children isn't going to like that. For Midnight Madness the first film I invited was The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman from a first-time director from mainland China. I've never selected a film from mainland China because, quite frankly, most mainland Chinese films don't speak to me. They're about peasants eating dirt. This one, however, is a game changer regarding how people perceive mainland Chinese cinema. It's vibrant and exciting. It's like a cross between Ashes of Time and, say, God of Cookery and Iron Chef. It's got animation in it. It's got a throw-down rap song in the first 15 minutes. It's a first-time mainland Chinese director, a Polish DoP, Japanese actors: a great, exciting mix. So I look at The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman as a breakout title and I've been recommending that film to a lot of people. Within the Vanguard line-up, I would recommend Adam Wingard's A Horrible Way To Die.
Guillén: I'm so glad to hear you say that because I'm familiar with and am a fan of Adam's experimental short films, and his first feature Pop Skull, and I was so pleased to see A Horrible Way To Die in your Vanguard line-up. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. What was the quality of that film that you felt suited the Vanguard program?
Geddes: I always felt bad that I didn't select Pop Skull. It was rejected, unfortunately, and rejected is such a terrible word because it doesn't quantify or tell why that happened. The reason Pop Skull wasn't selected--I really liked it!--but, it wasn't for Midnight Madness and at that point in time I was only programming Midnight Madness. There was no other program that could understand and take Pop Skull, unfortunately. So this year by selecting A Horrible Way To Die for Vanguard, I'm kind of making amends to Adam but also, too, because it's much different than Pop Skull. It's a controlled drama. I do believe there is a problem with the title. And I was giving him some tips and advice on how to cut the trailer because it was pushing the film as something that it isn't. The dramatic tone in A Horrible Way To Die is closer to Monster's Ball, more than anything else. It's sharply written by Simon Barrett who wrote Dead Birds, which was a film I scheduled in Midnight Madness several years ago.
One final thing about TIFF's line-up--and this is somewhat from an audience perspective--every year we look at the films and it's always such a large line-up of films. People on the press and industry side complain, "Oh, it's too many films. We can't cover it all. You've got to cut it down." But I'm like, "No! Don't lose a single film." To shorten the line-up would make our job as programmers harder to select films. We offer as much as we do because every audience member's path is different. If you're leafing through the program book and you're thinking, "I like Italian films. I like baseball. And I like food. Oh! And look, here's an Italian film about a pasta maker who has a baseball team!" Each audience member selects their own path and it's the adventurous ones I respect. I give it up more and more to the audience to make those decisions rather than the selections being dominated or determined by industry or press. Last year I was giving a talk at a private club on the subject of how to program a film festival and one guy in the audience raised his hand and said, "This is how I do the film festival. I go to the Scotiabank or the AMC and I pick a film, simple as that. I just pick a film and I go in. And you know what? Eight times out of ten, I'll like the film. If I don't like the film, I talk to people about it and weigh the pros and cons." For me, that is how to do a film festival. If you have a free block of time, go see this. If you've never seen a film from, say, mainland China, then go see that. If you've never seen a film from Colombia, give it a try. Anyone who's limited by English-language films only are not getting the whole picture. There was a piece in yesterday's L.A. Times about how the American media is really missing out on the full scope of the festival.
Guillén: Chris Fujiwara and I were recently talking about how there is this middle range of films between high brow art fare and fan boy genre films that receive short shrift critically and which, in my opinion, TIFF addresses admirably through the breadth of its programming.
Geddes: There's a term that Travis Stevens has brought up that is being bandied about by programmers: "elevated genre." In the meditations on film section in the program book I brought up that there is now a movement where films are being recognized as having the tropes of genre but that have more of an emotional impact. The two big films one could point to would be Let the Right One In and The Host. Let the Right One In, yes, it's a vampire film but there's a lot more going on there. The Host is a family drama that just happens to star a monster.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.