Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s 40-year relationship with the Toronto International Film Festival helped put his movies on the map in Hollywood.
But that impressive trajectory out of Toronto of iconic Egoyan dramas like Next of Kin, Family Viewing, The Adjuster, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Guest of Honor — often psychodramas about families shattered by death, loss and betrayal, as parents and children grow apart — got off to an inauspicious start in 1982 with an early short film that screened from a sidewalk outside the Uptown Theatre on Yonge Street.
“It was the ultimate act of chutzpah,” Egoyan recalls of joining fellow rag-tag filmmaker Bruce McDonald, both of whom had shorts rejected by Toronto fest programmers that year, when a feature by a close friend did get an invite.
Feeling a prized Toronto fest berth just beyond their fingertips, years before becoming inescapable fixtures on the TIFF red carpet, Egoyan and McDonald rented tuxedos and a generator and used a 16mm projector to screen their shorts on the wall of the prestigious cinema until the police shooed them away. “We didn’t get arrested, but I remember being interviewed as the police came to tell us to stop the screening,” he adds.
That daring gate-crashing episode only underlines how Egoyan, driven as a self-taught filmmaker, managed over four decades to go step-by-step through the global film festival circuit to become a genuine filmmaking legend in Canada.
And he did it with a deliberate career slow burn, typical of how his audiences solve his dark and complex movie puzzles. The payoff is a celebrated career with Egoyan becoming a master of press conferences and interviews by day, and red carpet premieres and parties by night. But before that ascent, the Toronto Film Festival and its early trials, tribulations and successes served as an essential staging ground for Egoyan’s later work.
Egoyan returns to TIFF this year for the world premiere of Seven Veils, his opera-inspired drama that stars Amanda Seyfried.
Looking back, the Canadian director’s interloper status had lifted in 1984 when his debut feature, Next of Kin, did get invited into TIFF. But the film’s premiere at the then New York Cinema in Toronto was not without drama.
“The theater was packed and I thought, ‘That’s amazing. People have come to see my film,’ ” Egoyan recalls. But Next of Kin was preceded by a short film directed by another local upstart filmmaker, John Frizzell, and when his screening ended, the theater virtually emptied.
“For a moment, for a brief 15 minutes, I thought I’d arrived,” Egoyan remembers, even though Next of Kin went on to screen at the International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg, where it won two prizes.
“[Toronto] really did open my career up to the world of film festivals, and I can’t imagine my career without this world,” Egoyan adds of a trajectory that really took off with his second film, Family Viewing, which won the best Canadian feature prize in Toronto and additional trophies in Berlin and Locarno.
But it was hardly smooth sailing from there in Toronto, as his third film, Speaking Parts, which opened the Perspectives Canadian sidebar at the Uptown Theatre in 1989 — a major honor — gave the young director a brush with disaster.
As cinemas back then still used film projectors, the local lab that spliced reels together for the Speaking Parts print got the order wrong. So, during the TIFF premiere, the first reel jumped to the third.
Suddenly, an alarmed Egoyan jumped out of his seat to tell his puzzled festival audience not to go anywhere as he had another print at home, across town, and would retrieve it to continue the screening.
“It was surreal. I jumped into a taxi and told the driver, ‘You have to rush because there are 900 people waiting in a cinema.’ And he was like, ‘Oh yes, 900 people waiting for you.’ He thought I was delusional,” Egoyan recalls. He soon emerged from his home clutching film reel cans that convinced a sniggering cab driver to finally step on the pedal.
The good news for Egoyan was, unlike his screening for Next of Kin, when he returned to the Uptown, his audience had remained in their seats.
“It showed how well my career was going, that people were actually waiting to see my film,” he recounts, though even more stress awaited Egoyan with his fourth feature, The Adjuster, a dark drama about an uptight insurance adjuster and his clients, which marked his first glitzy gala premiere at Roy Thomson Hall at TIFF in 1991.
“That was not a good screening. I remember Federal Express was sponsoring the night and people were upset,” he recalled.
That included Michael Barker and Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics, who had been keen to see the Toronto audience reaction to a title they’d bought out of Cannes.
“[The Adjuster] had been really successful at the Directors Fortnight, and people were so disturbed by that movie and I thought I’d never have a gala again,” Egoyan says, adding that the dark comedy — which audiences in Cannes and other festivals loved — baffled the mostly corporate first-night audience in Toronto.
Nevertheless, Egoyan did go on to earn the best Canadian feature film prize at the closing awards luncheon at TIFF that year, and on a whim gave the $25,000 check that came with his trophy to John Pozer, a filmmaker who’d come in second place with The Grocer’s Wife.
“I did the oddest thing in my life. When I got this prize, I gave it away,” Egoyan recalls. That was especially inexplicable to his immigrant parents, since The Adjuster was inspired by the true story of his family home burning down and his father having to navigate an insurance claim.
“We were totally underinsured and my father, like most immigrants having struggled in the face of this catastrophe, was left to ask what boy had he raised that would give money away publicly.”
The upside for the young filmmaker, however, was that by his act of paying it forward, for the first time in his career, Egoyan brought a cheering audience to their feet.
“Everyone started applauding and I remember thinking, ‘If nothing else, I bought myself a standing ovation,’ ” he says.
But Egoyan had learned a valuable lesson with his first-night audience for The Adjuster, and with his next film, Exotica — the Bruce Greenwood- and Mia Kirshner-starring strip club drama that competed in Cannes in 1994 and earned the Critics Prize — he bypassed Roy Thomson Hall and hosted a premiere in another TIFF venue.
In 1997, the Canadian director, who was born in Cairo and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, before going east to cut his teeth as a filmmaker at the University of Toronto, did finally feel his arrival on the world stage with his premiere at TIFF of The Sweet Hereafter, his seventh feature.
“The film had won three prizes in Cannes and was going to open the Toronto Film Festival, and that was amazing because there was so much to celebrate in that it was Canadian cinema, it was an incredible breakthrough moment. That screening couldn’t have gone better,” Egoyan remembers of the New Line Cinema drama starring Sarah Polley and Ian Holm and based on the Russell Banks novel about loss, secrets and lies in the wake of a deadly school bus crash.
Egoyan is quick to add the stars aligning for The Sweet Hereafter — which earned two Oscar nominations, for best director and adapted screenplay — would be difficult to repeat today as, before the age of the internet, a film could be launched in Cannes and arrive fresh in Toronto later that year after a tour of the summer festival circuit.
“By the time TIFF comes round, Cannes feels like old news,” Egoyan remarks as Toronto has instead become a launchpad for awards season contenders leading up to the Academy Awards.
He also recalls seeing people in his premiere audiences taking out their mobile phones and filing early reviews of his work even before the final credits had rolled.
“That really represented the end of something,” Egoyan observes.
That reality of Toronto, Telluride and Venice setting the Oscar table each year was brought home with Guest of Honor, the 2019 family drama that starred David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira.
That film was headed to a Toronto premiere, but switched to Venice when that invitation came and Egoyan’s team felt the need to stake out turf in the early summer festival circuit before Guest of Honor played in Toronto at the Elgin Theatre, and then at Vancouver, London and Busan.
Despite premiering in Venice, Egoyan recalls the Toronto premiere for the film as a satisfying experience.
“That was a really great screening,” he says. “I felt the audience was super connected. I remember they got the humor, the feeling, you could sense that collectively.”
Today, Egoyan and other auteur directors have to choose where they want their film to land on the global film festival circuit, whether it’s the Toronto/Venice axis, Sundance/Berlin or a premiere in Cannes. And that depends in great part on when a film is completed.
“That’s the thing people don’t understand, that your festival itinerary is so dependent on the cycle of the film production,” he says. “If you’re shooting a film in the winter, you’re not going to wait a year for Cannes. You have to look at Venice or TIFF. You really can’t plan your production around where you want a premiere.”
And even when Egoyan gets one of his films into Toronto, it needs to go into Roy Thomson Hall or the Princess of Wales Theatre, as that’s where buyers of sales titles will look to gauge an audience reaction before getting out their check books.
Asked about Toronto festival audiences, whose reputation industrywide is one of being sophisticated and generous, Egoyan accepts that how his films are received is not under his control.
“There’s no way of anticipating how something will go. Going back to the Speaking Parts screening, I was just so exhausted and it was a nightmare for me, but there’s something about people waiting for that film and the screening ended up going pretty well — I heard from other people.”
Guest of Honor
And despite his celebrated status in Toronto, Egoyan recalls the early rejection of his short film in 1982 that drove him to risk arrest to recall so many other filmmakers he’s known who were left distraught after their work got a thumbs down from TIFF programmers.
“You make a really good film and, for whatever reason, it didn’t make the cut,” he says. “So it’s not to be taken for granted. We’d like to think good films find their way, somehow. But I can’t guarantee that because I’ve seen friends’ films that don’t find that and it’s heartbreaking.”
Egoyan also sees Toronto having moved beyond the early decades when TIFF audiences looked to his next film, or that of David Cronenberg, to get excited about Canadian cinema, with the industry now having so many homegrown directors and their work to choose from.
“It’s wide open,” Egoyan says of the Canadian filmmaking landscape. “And there’s a necessary responsibility these festivals have to discover new talent. That’s what festivals are, that’s what my journey has been. I owe so much to how I was introduced to the world stage, through the festival system. And there are many young filmmakers clamoring and deserving of that.”