Celebs, directors and fans navigate festival at critical moment in industry

The Toronto International Film Festival wraps this weekend after 11 muted days that lacked its usual star power but still impressed movie buffs with its lineup.

Labour action dominated on-the-circuit chatter, with many sympathetic filmmakers and international talent urging increased pay and protections around the use of artificial intelligence.

The festival's red carpet premieres typically draw huge crowds of fans hoping to see A-listers such as Kate Winslet, Issa Rae and Chris Evans.

Those celebs were among those who didn't make the trek to Toronto due to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike despite being in some of the most buzzed-about films of the fest.

But fans such as London, Ont., resident Shannon McGuire, who has attended nearly every festival since 1996, didn't mind.

McGuire acknowledged that while it's fun to see stars, her main draw was a love of movies and she said TIFF didn't disappoint this year.

“It's a different year, it's been easier to navigate along King Street," McGuire said of the festival's main drag, where ticketholders and celeb-seekers alike gather to soak in movie hoopla.

McGuire's roster of 16 titles included Anna Kendrick's "Woman of the Hour" and the Olivia Colman-led "Wicked Little Letters."

She said those stars didn't attend her screenings, but she did spot Canadian celebrity Elliot Page in support of the queer cheerleading film, "Backspot," which he executive produced.

The filmmakers and actors who did attend the festival — on behalf of independent non-SAG films or because the union granted interim agreements allowing publicity — shared their thoughts on how they're navigating this critical moment in the industry.

Director Michel Franco and actor Peter Sarsgaard, "Memory"

Mexican director Michel Franco said he was very "blessed" to have his stars Peter Sarsgaard and Jessica Chastain at the premiere of "Memory," which tackles addiction and mental-health issues and received praise at the Venice Film Festival before coming to TIFF.

"The nature of filmmaking is always hard — I've always been an independent filmmaker and never gave way for streamers, always favoured theatres. That's why we've signed the interim agreement, that's why I have my actors," he noted.

Sarsgaard said he used his platform at both festivals to speak about the key issues facing the labour industry.

"These issues to me come down to making it possible for, especially emerging talent as writers and actors, to be able to support themselves and have the on-set training as journeymen to learn the craft of what we do, so in the future we won't need computers to write scripts and act," Sarsgaard said.

"Because we'll have an entire pool of people that have been supported artistically. If we support the artists then the AI is not necessary."

Director Ethan Hawke and actor Laura Linney, "Wildcat"

Ethan Hawke was so determined to make it to the festival this year, he said he took a last-minute overnight bus from New York to Toronto after three of his flights were cancelled.

"(TIFF CEO) Cameron Bailey has done such an amazing job running this festival through the pandemic and an industry at war with itself, and I just didn't want the festival to be collateral damage," he said in a video posted on the TIFF social media channel.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Hawke, who directed the drama about U.S. author Flannery O’Connor played by his daughter, Maya Hawke, said one possible "silver lining" to the strike is that it may lead more people to watch independent cinema.

"They might like it — they might like hearing different voices and hearing more unique stories. They might not, but it is a possible opportunity that some great will come of it," he said.

Laura Linney noted that if an independent film such as "Wildcat" can agree to the terms of a SAG-AFTRA agreement, which means it would abide by terms eventually negotiated between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, then the big studios should be able to as well.

"These small production companies who have agreed to all of the stipulations that have been put forward — they are leading the way to show that the business model is not only possible, but possible by companies that don't make as much money as you would think — as much money as the big boys, anyway. And so next year, it's going to be all independent films, I think."

Director Shawn Levy of Netflix's "All the Light We Cannot See"

Canadian director Shawn Levy of the upcoming Netflix series “All the Light We Cannot See” said it was “certainly disappointing” that his cast couldn’t promote the project alongside him.

“And I know many, many filmmakers here in Toronto during the festival feel that way.”

Levy’s adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set during the Second World War stars newcomer Aria Mia Loberti, Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Laurie.

“And I will just say that the work we do with our actors is forever. And if we do our job, well, it's really forever: the movie, the show, will live on way longer than a festival, way longer than a premiere," he said in an interview after the series’ first TIFF screening.

Levy said it’s important to remember “that the work stands even though the moment might be a little less sparkly and bright.”

He said he hopes to soon see an end to the Hollywood labour dispute.

“I just see the pain and the hardship that these strikes are causing, not just within the guilds that are on strike, but in the entire ecosystem of my industry. And I'm desperately hopeful that we can get to fair and equitable new contracts soon.”

Director Patricia Arquette, "Gonzo Girl"

Screen star Patricia Arquette made her directorial debut at TIFF with a film based on Cheryl Della Pietra’s novel about her time as Hunter S. Thompson’s assistant. She attended the festival with the film's leads, Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone, after securing an interim agreement with the union.

"I definitely support the strike, so I'm glad that we were able to come to this understanding," Arquette said.

She described AI, conglomerates and whatever changes may be on the horizon as "unknown horror three steps ahead of you."

"I have no idea how it's going to play out. I don't even know when this strike will end."

Director Richard Linklater, "Hit Man"

Richard Linklater, the Oscar-nominated director of "Boyhood" and the "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" trilogy, walked the red carpet for his steamy new comedic thriller "Hit Man" without stars Glen Powell and Adria Arjona.

"Well, there’s this little thing called the ‘actors strike,’ so like for most of the festival they’re just not here. Which is too bad, you know," Linklater said on the red carpet about the absence of his leads.

"I made this sexy-couple date-movie kinda thing, and my sexy couple isn’t here. Everybody’s stuck with me, sorry."

Director Jessica Yu, "Quiz Lady"

After the premiere of her comedy "Quiz Lady," director Jessica Yu took a video of the audience to send to the film's stars, including Sandra Oh, Awkwafina and Will Ferrell, and screenwriter Jen D'Angelo.

"We were so closely bonded in the making of this film, and so I can't separate my joy of being here from that feeling of what they're missing out on," she said in an interview the following day.

"But last night I sent them the clip of the audience cheering for them. That, I think, was very meaningful for for them. It's not the same as being here, but at least they could get a sense of what the reaction was."

Ahead of the screening, Yu read the crowd a note from Oh expressing her disappointment that she couldn't be present but saying she was "aligned with the larger picture of the SAG and the WGA strikes."

— With files from Kiernan Green, Nicole Thompson, Sonja Puzic, David Friend and Cassandra Szklarski

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2023

The Canadian Press