TIFF 2010: Special Presentations

This year the Toronto International Film Festival has selected a collection of films from both well-entrenched and recent breakout Canadian filmmakers for its slate of Canadian Special Presentations.

This year the Toronto International Film Festival has selected a collection of films from both well-entrenched and recent breakout Canadian filmmakers for its slate of Canadian Special Presentations. All returning directors to the festival, Sturla Gunnarsson, Denis Villeneuve, Carl Bessai, Jacob Tierney, Bruce McDonald and Xavier Dolan will soon convene on the fest with their new projects.

President of the Directors Guild of Canada, Sturla Gunnarsson continues to delve into the documentary world, following on 2008′s Air India 182 and 1997′s Gerrie & Louise, to deliver a doc on iconic Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki.

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie came about after Entertainment One president Laszlo Barna introduced Gunnarsson to Dr. Suzuki in hopes the director would make a feature based on the renowned scientist’s ideas. After spending some time with Suzuki, whom Gunnarsson had admired since attending the University of British Columbia when Suzuki was a “star professor,” the director felt the film should be about Suzuki as a person whose ideas have become part of conventional wisdom but who is still struggling with the world’s refusal to change habits.

The film looks at Suzuki’s history, including his family’s internment in Canada during WWII, as well as the ideas he presents in his legacy lecture, becoming as much a biography of ideas as it is of the man himself.

Though the film focuses on one of Canada’s most well-known figures, the director tells Playback it still didn’t make it a breeze to finance. “It’s never easy to finance a film. It’s particularly never easy to finance a theatrical documentary, but I think David is quite beloved and I think that a lot of people came on board and realized that it was time that a film like this was made.”

In the end, bodies and broadcasters from the NFB to CBC to Rogers, Telefilm and Planet Green all came on board to support the doc. “It’s kind of a who’s-who of institutions that all bought into the film.”

After its world premiere at TIFF, the film will open theatrically in October and will air on CBC in conjunction with Suzuki’s 75th birthday. It will also air on Planet Green sometime after its theatrical run.

Another veteran director, Bruce McDonald, will see his latest rock film Trigger premiere at TIFF as the opening film for the new Bell Lightbox. Following a retired rock duo (played by Molly Parker and the late Tracy Wright) as they embark on a tumultuous reunion, the film is one of McDonald’s latest rock-themed pictures, having just screened his film on the band Broken Social Scene this year (This Movie is Broken) and currently completing work on Hardcore Logo 2.

Also getting its world premiere at TIFF is Carl Bessai’s Repeaters, a film following three young people in a rehabilitation center as they relive the same events each day. A sort of thriller version of Groundhog Day, the film’s repeated day is treated less as a second chance by the characters and more as an opportunity to behave with impunity. The characters find they’re trapped in the parameters of a day that was supposed to be a chance to make amends with families but instead has disintegrated into violence.

Like Bessai’s Repeaters, Jacob Tierney’s third feature, Good Neighbours, is also a thriller that follows three main characters. Adapted by Tierney from Chrystine Brouillet’s novel Chère voisine, the film stars Jay Baruchel (The Trotsky), Scott Speedman and Emily Hampshire as three residents of an apartment complex in Notre Dame de Grace, a Montreal neighborhood being stalked by a serial killer.

“I thought it was more of a mean-spirited jaunt, or a fun time to have, than a random serial killer story,” Tierney says of his feelings about the book. The director’s father, Kevin Tierney, is producing.

The director initially read the novel during the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum and, for Tierney, it thematically fit with the mood of the time, so he set the film during the referendum. “It’s not a film about the referendum,” he explains to Playback.

“Ultimately it’s a film about a woman choosing between two things. Choosing to be like one of her neighbors or like the other one. So the yes/no thing became very important to me.”

He also brought young fellow Quebec director Xavier Dolan on board as a member of the cast after seeing his directorial debut J’ai tué ma mere (I Killed My Mother) last year. “I saw his film and was like ‘Holy shit, he’s such a good actor too,’” Tierney says. “I thought maybe he’s the kind of guy who would be into this, and he totally was.”

Dolan not only wowed Tierney with his directorial debut last year, he also picked up three awards at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight (including the Prix Regards Jeunes award for a young filmmaker’s first or second film) and saw his film chosen as Canada’s official submission for best foreign language film at the 82nd Academy Awards.

Following Dolan’s breakout year, his second film Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) has already won him a second Prix Regards Jeunes from Cannes and opened theatrically in Quebec in June. The film, about two friends who are infatuated with the same mysterious man, is written and directed by 21-year-old Dolan, who also stars in the film. It will have its English Canadian debut at TIFF.

Finally, another Quebec filmmaker who had a successful 2009 rounds out the Canadian Special Presentations line-up. Denis Villeneuve has been steadily on the rise since the end of his self-imposed hiatus, which started after 2000′s Maelström and ended with the making of his short film Next Floor and Polytechnique.

Examining the Montreal Massacre, Polytechnique sparked controversy in Quebec but won critical acclaim, including nine Genie Awards and the title of Best Canadian Film of 2009 from the Toronto Film Critics Association. For its part, Next Floor – a beautifully shot, surreal take on opulence and greed – won the Grand Prix Canal+ for best short at Cannes.

Villeneuve’s new film, Incendies, is based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad and follows twins Simon and Jeanne as they follow their mother’s last wishes to track down the father they’ve never met and a brother they didn’t know existed.

“I was totally astonished when I saw the play and I remember clearly going out in the street with my wife at the time and she just looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to make a film,’” Villeneuve tells Playback on the phone from Montreal.

He lived with the play for five years, keeping it at his side and reading it over and over throughout the production of the film. “It took me almost six months of thinking to know exactly how I would be able to get inside the play from a cinematic point of view,” he says. He kept the characters and the narrative structure of the original intact but otherwise rewrote the story from scratch. He says the biggest gift he received from Mouawad, outside of the permission to adapt his play into a film, was the freedom to do what he wanted with the material and the allowance to make mistakes. “For me it was the perfect situation,” he says.

Incendies will have its world premiere just before TIFF at Venice Days, a parallel section of the Venice International Film Festival, which runs from September 1 to 11. The film marks Villeneuve’s first international coproduction, having partnered with TS Productions in Paris. He says the experience working on a coproduction was like going back to school, as he was able to work with sound technicians and an editor from France and learn from filmmakers of a different background.

This isn’t the first time Villeneuve has broken out of the norm to develop creatively. In 2009, he told The Walrus his hiatus was, in a way, his version of going back to school, using the time to reflect on what he was doing and find subjects that spoke to him for his work. Now, he tells Playback, his films are coming from his guts rather than his head.

“I have to live with the project for years and after that I will have to live with the film for the rest of my life, so you have to choose very carefully,” he says. “Intuition is the main partner in that kind of decision. I cannot go against that.”

Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie
World Premiere
Director: Sturla Gunnarsson
Production companies: eOne/NFB coproduction in association with the CBC
Executive producers: Laszlo Barna, Steven Silver, Tracey Friesen
Producers: Janice Tufford, Sturla Gunnarsson, Yves Ma
Distributor: eOne Films

Good Neighbours
World Premiere
Writer/Director: Jacob Tierney
Production company: Park Ex Pictures
Producers: Kevin Tierney
Executive producers: Kirk D’Amico, Joe Iacono
Distributors: Alliance Atlantis, Myriad Pictures
Key cast: Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire
Budget: $5.4 million

North American Premiere
Writer/Director: Denis Villeneuve
Based on stage play by: Wajdi Mouawad
Producers: Luc Déry and Kim McCraw
Coproducers: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto, Anthony Doncque
Key cast: Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, Rémy Girard
Production company: micro_scope

Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats)
English Canadian Premiere
Writer/Director: Xavier Dolan
Producers: Xavier Dolan, Carole Mondello, Daniel Morin
Key cast: Xavier Dolan, Niels Schneider, Monia Chokri
Production companies: Mifilifilms Production, Alliance Vivafilm
Distributor: Remstar Distribution

World Premiere
Director: Carl Bessai
Writer: Arne Olsen
Producers: Jason James, Irene Nelson, Richard de Klerk, Carl Bessai
Production companies: Rampart Films, Ravenwest Films, Resonance Films
Key cast: Dustin Milligan, Amanda Crew, Richard de Klerk
Worldwide sales: The Film Sales Company

World Premiere
Director: Bruce McDonald
Writer: Daniel MacIvor
Key cast: Molly Parker, Tracy Wright, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie
Producers: Leonard Farlinger, Jennifer Jonas
Production companies: New Real Films
Distributor: eOne Films