While the film world's attention will focus on the 11 days of the Toronto International Film Festival, the cinematic event is only a starting point for the films screened. We caught up with three emerging Canadian filmmakers – Matt Johnson, Anne Émond and Kevan Funk – whose films won cheers at TIFF in 2016. We spoke to them about their year since.
His 2016 feature was Operation Avalanche, a mockumentary about a NASA conspiracy to fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. The film, distributed by Lionsgate, was one small step in Canadian filmmaking, but one giant leap for Johnson and his production company Zapruder Films.
"The success of Operation Avalanche was a big boost for us," says the Toronto-based Johnson, whose whose 2016 festival experience involved the premiere of Nirvanna the Band the Show, a small-screen series he created with Jay McCarrol. "Among other things, it helped us to establish a grant program to help female first-time filmmakers."
With the Women First screenwriting competition, Johnson and Zapruder Films address the gender gap in the feature film industry. Shortly after last year's TIFF, it was announced that Chandler Levack's feature film Anglophone was the first winner of the competition. (Levack's short film We Forgot to Break Up will be screened at TIFF this year.)
Toronto's Johnson has been an outspoken critic of TIFF and Canadian film funding agency Telefilm. Johnson chose to premiere Operation Avalanche at Sundance in 2016 rather than at TIFF a year earlier. "I don't think TIFF is the platform or stepping stone young Canadian filmmakers expect it to be," says Johnson, who believes that Canadian features are slotted as sidebars, compared to American and international films. "At Sundance, Venice and Berlin, Canadian films are treated as equals to all the others. But TIFF doesn't integrate them."
Season two of Nirvanna the Band the Show airs on Viceland beginning in November. Johnson's next feature film is a time-travel story involving a plot to go back in time to assassinate Hitler. Where Operation Avalanche was demanding to film, Johnson seeks to make more straightforward features in the future.
"Hopefully, our future films will be more broad," Johnson says. "Now that I'm older, I'll be making less-complicated films."
We'll believe that when we see it.
Do not dismiss the popcorn-fuelled lady in her sleepwear at TIFF Bell Lightbox this fall. She's the Montreal filmmaker Anne Émond – and she belongs.
Émond is this year's Len Blum Resident. As such, in October and November, she'll live and work in the Lightbox. The residency includes an apartment and an all-access pass to the facility's public screenings. "I can go watch a film in my pyjamas," the French-Canadian screen writer-director says. "When I was a teenager, it was a dream of mine to live in a movie theatre."
The residency extends a love affair between TIFF and Émond. In 2015, her drama Les êtres chers (Our Loved Ones) had its Canadian premiere at the festival. At the same time as Les êtres chers was earning applause – it would go on to be selected as one of TIFF's 10 best Canadian feature films of the year – Émond was back in Quebec filming Nelly, a biographical drama on the polarizing Quebec writer Nelly Arcan.
"It was a crazy 36 hours," Émond says. "I was shooting Nelly until six in the morning, and then I'd go to the airport and fly to Toronto to do interviews and present Les êtres chers, and then I'd take a plane back."
Nelly had its world premiere last year at TIFF. Like Les êtres chers, the well-received Nelly was judged by TIFF as one of the year's 10 best Canadian films. Because of its subject matter, however, the film was a tough sell internationally. Arcan, well known in Quebec and France, was an obscure figure elsewhere.
"What I heard from the distributor was that the most challenging part was getting people to the press screenings," Émond says. "Once critics saw it, they enjoyed it."
Along with touring with Nelly on the festival-and-arthouse circuit, Émond wrote the script to Jeune Juliette, a comedy feature film about a plus-sized teen who is comfortable with her physique. As well, she's co-writing an English-language mini-series.
Émond is seeking financing for Jeune Juliette and, at some point, looking for a producer for the TV series. Interested parties will know where to find Émond this fall, at the Lightbox.
His 2016 TIFF feature was the brooding hockey drama Hello Destroyer. His year post-TIFF was hello Kevan Funk. And if the British Columbian filmmaker made a splash with his gripping first feature, he made even more noise with a letter to TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.
Following Bailey's early 2017 opinion piece in The Globe and Mail that called for Canadian filmmakers to tell more outward-looking, less-personalized stories, Funk penned an impassioned private note in response to Bailey, who subsequently asked Funk if it was okay to post the e-mail publicly on TIFF's website. Funk agreed, and now has mixed feelings about it.
"I was a little frustrated that the letter was used by people for pull quotes, without context," says Funk, whose note examined the institutional hurdles that are impeding, to his mind, the telling of true-north narratives. "My interest was for a broader, more public conversation. It was not meant to be an indictment of TIFF and Cameron Bailey, who I have a ton of respect for."
Beyond the notice for his letter, Funk enjoyed a breakthrough year. Hello Destroyer was part of Telefilm's Canada Now series, a program dedicated to publicizing the year's top Canadian films. As part of the series, Hello Destroyer travelled to London, New York and Los Angeles for well-attended one-off screenings.
The film's success helped Funk secure management and an agent in Los Angles. In Canada, Funk won a MuchMusic Video Award as best director for A Tribe Called Red's song Stadium Pow Wow. He's currently working on a family drama Age of the Dinosaur, inspired by his 2012 short, Yellowhead.
A year ago, the first press screening of Hello Destroyer was marred by a faulty print. It was calibrated incorrectly, which made for a murky look to a film that was purposely dark to begin with. That was subsequently corrected. Funk's future is now much brighter.