Published on August 14th, 2014 | by Greg Payne


The Pop And Sizzle Of Midnight Madness

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From humble beginnings in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival has grown to become one of the most high-profile festivals in the world. Second only, and even that is debatable, to Cannes in terms of star wattage and glamour, TIFF is where Hollywood treks to unveil its Oscar-seeking slate every fall to an appreciative and film-savvy audience: since 2008, three of the fest’s People’s Choice Award winners followed it up with a Best Picture Academy Award. It also serves as a showcase for the best of world cinema with entries from every corner of the globe, and for eleven days in September, Toronto is the world capital of heady, challenging arthouse fare.

If that’s not your cup of tea, however, hang in there, you just might want to come anyway but be prepared to stay up late, because at 11:59PM, things start to get weird.

The Midnight Madness programme, begun in 1988, is the darker and more dangerous side of TIFF, where the term “challenging arthouse fare” takes on a whole new “grab you by the lapels and shake you until your nose bleeds” meaning. Run by TIFF programmer Colin Geddes since 1998, Midnight Madness takes over the Ryerson Theatre for ten straight nights during the festival to bring the world’s craziest, most extreme, most bizarre cinematic offerings to a crowd that demonstrates, year after year, their love of alternative cinema with a nearly violent passion. As a decade-long festival veteran, I can testify that some TIFF-goers take in some of everything: they’ll spend the daylight hours bouncing between A-list-studded H’wood fare of brows both lo- and high-, or a United Nations smorgasbord  of Danish “How dare you, sir!” costume dramas, Romanian abortion weepies, painfully earnest Haligonian coming-of-age tales, grungy American indie flicks and the like, then round off the day with the almost indescribably out-there at the Ryerson. On the other hand, some audience members just do Midnight Madness, every single screening. Takes all kinds, and that’s what makes the festival so great.

I sat down for a conversation with Colin Geddes in the lobby of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a colossal venue in the entertainment district that serves as the headquarters for the Toronto Film Festival Group, and its year-round film screening and exhibition programme.  A little under five weeks before the 2014 festival kicked off, Colin was battling a bit of a cold as we set up at a table outside the TIFF canteen, but that didn’t slow him down in the slightest as he waxed about his history with the festival, going from being a genre fan checking out the first Midnight Madness programme to becoming a major programmer at the festival, expanding his selection influence into TIFF’s other fields of exhibition  and ultimately taking the reins on the Vanguard programme as well.

NTC: Do you remember your first Midnight Madness film at TIFF?

CG: Yes, but I’m not sure which one was first. I’m going to have to go back and somehow find the schedule because I’m not sure if it was Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage, or if it was Hellraiser II. It was one of the two of those films. It was my first week in Toronto, I was huge horror film fan, a genre fan, and when I came to Toronto for college, the fact that these films were playing at the Bloor Cinema, down the street from where I was staying, was the best.

NTC: Where are you from?

CG: I was born in Toronto but grew up outside of Kingston.

NTC: So if memory serves, your first year in charge was 2002?

CG: No, it was ’98.

NTC: Okay, for research I was looking through the older program guides, and I thought I was still seeing Noah Cowan’s name up to a certain point. 

CG: Let’s see…Noah programmed until…’97 is when I came in and we shared the program, and ’98 was the full program.

NTC: What’s the first one in that case that you made the deal, said “Yes, you’re at TIFF”?

CG (thinking): The first film that…I’m trying to think of the first film that I introduced or was mine. Let me backtrack. The film that I remember being the most memorable from my first year of working with Noah was picking a film that really resulted in a relationship, a really great relationship going forward, with Takashi Miike. I selected Fudoh: The Next Generation, and that went on to be cited by Time magazine as one of the top ten films of the year. People don’t realize that, that Fudoh is in Richard Corliss’ list in Time magazine. And so it was Miike’s first time coming to a film festival, he met my parents…it was terrific. It helped to foster a relationship that went on for years.

NTC: Since then, what’s changed for you in what you’re looking for? When you’re selecting films, how has your criteria changed?

CG: Well, my scope of networking and connections has grown since then. And also feel I have more confidence in the films that I select. The films that I would select before, I felt really needed to be more kind of a sure thing, but now I can take a few more chances. I think I’ve found my voice as a programmer, I’ve developed a confidence with my curatorial skills.

NTC: Now, there’s a lot of salesmanship in what you do. I remember the first time we met was at FanExpo, you had a table there one year, and you were giving me the hard, enthusiastic sell on The Burrowers.

CG: Okay.

Colin Geddes and director Mike Flanagan at the world premiere of "Oculus" (Midnight Madness 2013)

Colin Geddes and director Mike Flanagan at the world premiere of “Oculus” (Midnight Madness 2013)

NTC: “You’ve gotta see this, it’s Tremors, it’s a western, you’re gonna love it.” Now…

CG: Did you?

NTC: I did. I did see it and it was one of my favorites…

CG (laughs): ‘Cause I’ve been losing sleep.

NTC: It was one of my favorites of the festival, actually.

CG: And that’s actually a good example of a film that when I first started, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to admit. Because it’s a little bit more of a slow burn…it’s not quite the blueprint that I was going for in the beginning. But you can see that, with J.T. Petty as well, you’re in the hands of a really smart, confident director.

NTC: Okay, so I’m one guy on a convention floor, but you’ve got the forum to say to hundreds or thousands of people, however many fit into the Ryerson on any given night, “You should see this. You’re going to love this.” How does that dynamic feel? Is that how you approach it, as “I’m going to bring you something that you’re going to love?”

CG: I think that one of the traits that I have is that my enthusiasm is apparent. And people like seeing my enthusiasm, it’s kind of infectious. That said, I can’t get enthused for something that I don’t believe in. It’s authentic. I’m not going to pitch someone like…I’m trying to think if there’s…I’m not going to cite any films in my program where that happened, but it’s essentially pretty rare. I’ve actually been really lucky to like and feel confident with the films that I’ve picked. But I couldn’t turn around and get you excited about Transformers.

NTC: Right.

CG: Like, “Hey, oh my God! There’s going to be giant robots fighting and…and…” No. I can’t. I can’t get that pitch.

NTC: But by the same token, the same movie but made in Japan with guys in rubber suits could have a certain edge to it.

CG: Well, that’s the thing, is that if there’s that creativity.  I mean, an example would be…

NTC: Mighty Peking Man?

CG: Mighty Peking Man. Yeah. I mean for me, Mighty Peking Man was about being able to have the Shaw Brothers logo on screen at the Uptown. And Mighty Peking Man is like, “Look, this film is so fun, it is so goofy, let’s just kind of roll with it.” Another giant monster thing would have been Big Man in Japan, where it’s, okay here’s a totally different twist on the “giant superhero, giant monster in Japan” thing that you usually see. I just try to find the fresh twists on conventions on these things and figure out how to pitch those.

NTC: What’s been your biggest surprise in terms of success, something you brought to Midnight Madness which then went on to become a huge mainstream hit, that you though “Wow, that caught on more than I thought it was going to.”

CG: I’m trying to think if it was actually the same year. The two that I would really go for, and I think it was in 2003, would be Ong-Bak. I didn’t expect that, pretty much overnight we had a Thai film star. Like an internationally recognized Thai action film star. No one could have named an actor from Thailand up until that point, but overnight Tony Jaa became the thing. But then also the in same year was Cabin Fever and Eli Roth. And I would have never…

NTC: I think Cabin Fever may have been 2002.

CG: Yeah, actually you’re right, yeah.

NTC: But Eli Roth, here’s a guy who became a star basically because…

CG: Yeah, became an accomplished director, accomplished producer, an actor, a personality, like how did that happen? Wouldn’t have seen that coming at all. I mean, he was a very confident young director, and wow, now he’s like the spokesperson for horror, really. It’s interesting, because I feel that Eli strikes a chord with some people… he’s a charismatic guy who can speak to his fans directly. There are a lot of directors and personalities who don’t have that talent, so sometimes I feel like there’s a little bit of a backlash towards him.

NTC: Was there ever something you thought was going to be an absolute sure thing, this is going to be the next big thing, and then just kind of got out into the mainstream and didn’t quite launch?

CG: Well, when I’m selecting films I’m not trying to program for the mainstream. I’m surprised sometimes when a film will go that route, but by the time that it goes into the distribution machine, oftentimes it’s not the film to blame for any failure. Some people think that financially, You’re Next was a failure. You’re Next launched the career further of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. You’re Next cost so little to make, that the exposure that it got, and how far it went, was not any kind of disaster. But I’m programming specifically for those nights, for those audiences, and what happens to the film afterwards, happens. Because I’ve seen some films which have…All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a perfect example. That film: audience loved it, went over really well, introduction of a new talent, got sold to a big studio…

NTC: …and sat in distribution hell for five years.

CG: Yeah. So I can’t second guess that, because as soon as it goes into the hands of a distributor, totally different decisions are being made.

NTC: You brought up Adam Wingard, he’s one of your returning champions, he’s got The Guest this year. I’d like to talk about You’re Next. I thought it was pretty fantastic, and one thing I liked about it was that it had a pacing that I think really works for Midnight Madness. It’s got the slow burn, then the shock, then the twist, then the bloodletting. Is there a certain pacing that you’re looking for? People are up in the middle of the night for this. They may be jacked up on Red Bull, but you’ve gotta keep them awake.

CG: I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to that. I think I’m more ruthless than the other programmers, or I have to be because I have to find something which I really feel that the subject matter, the characters, the concept is going to somehow grab that audience, is going to get their attention and keep them going for the next…you’ve got to hit it. Let me backtrack here. What I look for is a film that is going to pop, sizzle or grab the audience’s attention within that first twenty minutes and hopefully continue until the end of the screening. Very rarely will I pick a film which is a slow burn, but sometimes I’ll give a curveball like…

NTC: Gozu springs to mind. Gozu’s a real slow burn.

CG: But Gozu is also so weird. It’s a slow burn of just strange David Lynch surrealism. But I try and get… I don’t want to sound pompous, but it’s kind of like a DJ. I’m trying to build a rhythm throughout the whole week, so when I’m actually picking the films, where they’re playing, it kind of adds to the full experience. So right now The Guest is going to be the closing Saturday film and I was talking with one of my colleagues who’s seen it and we’re like “Jeez, maybe we should have put it on a Friday, maybe it hits that Friday peak.” I select the films to try and really make an impact early on the audience and then within that I try to balance the whole series out.  So I don’t like having two extreme horror films back to back, I try to pace it with, like, a horror film, a black comedy, maybe an action, then back to a comedy.

NTC: As always, you have a really wide mix this year. You’ve got the new Kevin Smith movie. Now he’s obviously not someone that you have to introduce as a filmmaker to the crowd, this crowd knows him.

CG: Yeah.

NTC: So how did Tusk come to you?

CG: Well, we don’t have to introduce him to that crowd as a filmmaker, but this is a very different film than his previous body of work. I mean it’s similar, maybe just genre-wise, to Red State, but it is out there.

NTC: The trailer looks terrifying.

CG: It’s terrifying, but also absurd. It’s really…I would say that Kevin is just uncompromised in his dedication to going full-on weird. This is going to be one of those films, and you know the way it goes when people are like “You ever see that film, that…that Tusk? That’s that…that was weird!” You know, like non-believers who are like “Yeah, The Matrix blew my mind!” You know, the people who haven’t tried the really good stuff. But anyways, how did it come to me? Well, I was aware of it, and I was talking with the sales agents who represent the producers.

NTC: Did he produce this one totally independently?

CG: Yeah. The distributor in the states is called A24. That’s the same distributor which did Spring Breakers.  They have very particular tastes, so they told me about it as well. So I was hearing about it from a sales agent, I was hearing about it from the U.S. distributor. We got an email from him that they were submitting the film and Kevin actually flew up with a copy of the Blu-ray because we were the first group to see it outside of their own camp.  And as soon as I saw it I knew that it would play perfectly for the Midnight Madness audience.  In fact, I invited the film right out there (he points out the Lightbox lobby doors towards King Street) on the sidewalk, and I got a big Kevin Smith hug.

NTC: I’ve always felt there’s a certain affinity, at least aesthetically, between Midnight Madness and the old grindhouse circuit. It’s the weird, the wacky, and the violent. Now comedy doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit with the grindhouse, but you do have a history of presenting comedies, like Borat and God Bless America. So this year you’ve got Jermaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows. So tell us about that one, and what makes a comedy fit into Midnight Madness?

Documentary director Mark Hartley, at a daytime screening of "Not Quite Hollywood" (Midnight Madness 2008)CG:  It’s black comedy. I’m not going to be playing the newest Jim Carrey film, obviously, I’m not going to be doing that. It’s very specific, and What We Do in the Shadows is like a Christopher Guest film meets Edgar Wright. It’s a mock-doc about four vampires ranging in age from like a hundred and fifty to, like four thousand, living in a house in Wellington. And it is so funny. It’s one that I’m really looking forward to seeing with an audience and sharing with the audience, because they’re just going to discover and enjoy that film so much. The Midnight Madness selection, oftentimes there’s a misconception that it’s about horror films. But it’s really a cross section of the wild, and wacky, and absurd from around the world. So that can be laughs, chills, and thrills.

NTC: Or facts, you’ve had documentaries several times as well.

CG: Yes, but it’s a documentary about a film studio that made ninja movies, and blow-‘em-up movies and movies with boobies.

NTC: Which is my next question because the film I’m most looking forward to is Electric Boogaloo, because in 2008, my favorite film of the festival, not just Midnight Madness, was Not Quite Hollywood. Of course you got Mark Hartley back for Machete Maidens Unleashed, and now he’s back again. And I remember at Machete Maidens he was asked “What’s your next project?” and when he mentioned something on Cannon Films the audience was “Oooh! Sounds great!” So talk a bit about your relationship with Mark Hartley.

CG: Here’s the thing. This is a film that I’ve really, in many respects, taken on the faith of the brilliance of Mark Hartley’s editing and his directing skills because I saw the film only as a locked edit cut with interviews. And the structure. So I haven’t seen the interstitials. I haven’t seen those animated bits that, and you know, that’s where Mark pops, when the music comes in, and the animation, he’s like the Ken Burns of irreverent film history. So I actually remember “Oh yeah, I have to ask if I can get to see the new cut, to see what’s going on,” because it’s going to be those in-between moments which make the whole thing just terrific and fun.

NTC: After the first two, you say this is one you’re kind of taking on faith, did you kind of have a mental slot, like “Okay, when he’s got it finished, I’m going to have room for it”?

CG: Well, at the end I had to see it to make sure that it works. I mean, if a director has a film in Midnight Madness before, it’s not a pass for him for what else he’s doing. But with this I saw the film, I saw the content, it’s all there, it’s a great story. The leap of faith was just, like “Okay, I know he’s going to be able to make that magic happen.”

(to be continued…)

Toronto International Film Festival:

Midnight Madness programme:

Midnight Madness on Twitter: @mmadnesstiff

Greg Payne
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