Skip to main content

Actor/director Jason Bateman’s new fim The Family Fang will have its world premiere at TIFF Monday night.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

What do these three filmmakers have in common: a lifelong actor; the daughter of a renowned playwright; and a University of Toronto graduate who's been attending TIFF since it was called the Festival of Festivals? They're all hoping to find distribution for their features during the next three days at the Toronto International Film Festival. The hitch: Because their work is about humans, it's considered a tough sell.

I'm being glib, but only a little. What I mean is that the films of these three – Jason Bateman, who directed the drama The Family Fang; Rebecca Miller, who wrote and directed the comedy Maggie's Plan; and Tim Godsall, who co-wrote and directed the comedic drama Len and Company – are character-driven. They're not about spies or superheroes, they're about ordinary people "who are somehow familiar to you," as Godsall puts it, experiencing moments that both ring true and catch you off guard. It says a lot about our current artistic climate that even with budgets under $10-million, these films are a risk to make, and a gamble to distribute.

Look at Bateman, 46. The guy has been famous since he was an 11-year-old on the TV series Little House on the Prairie; he's lived his life on sets, from Silver Spoons to Arrested Development to Horrible Bosses; he directed three sitcom episodes at the age of 18, which made him the youngest person in the Directors Guild of America; and he's already helmed a feature, 2013's Bad Words.

On top of that, Bateman is intimately familiar with the subject matter of The Family Fang: how parental demands can weigh children down, and how becoming an adult means accepting the flaws in one's parents. He and Nicole Kidman play siblings trying to extricate themselves from their artist father (Christopher Walken) who used them in his performance pieces. Bateman's own father, Kent, managed his career until Bateman fired him at the age of 20.

"It was a complicated relationship that's been written about ad nauseam," Bateman said this week in a phone interview. "I'm comfortable with it. But it's fertile ground for me to explore."

Despite all that, there's no guarantee Bateman's film will sell after its world premiere Monday night. "The things that are easy to market are fun to look at, but they aren't very satisfying to the soul," Bateman says. "I knew The Family Fang was more complicated and difficult, with layers, nuance, subtext, tonal complications. Frankly, I'm not bright enough to know how to market it. I'm happy to participate in whatever way the people who do know want me to. I wish them luck."

Rebecca Miller, 52, is no slouch, either. Her father is the playwright Arthur Miller; her husband is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis; she's written novels and screenplays and she's directed four previous features. Maggie's Plan, her most lighthearted effort to date, has a glittering cast and a commercial hook: a charming academic (Greta Gerwig) realizes that she wants to give her new husband (Ethan Hawke) back to his ex-wife (Julianne Moore).

"The idea seemed so relevant to our contemporary state, where we can be married more than once, or have many relationships in one lifetime," Miller said in a separate phone interview. "We're constantly being encouraged to live authentically, to be fully in love all the time. I think it's hard for modern adults to know how to be in the world – how to be true to yourself, while hanging onto any truths or ethics."

Yet the film is deadpan and sophisticated enough that some might not get it. "Part of what makes any kind of nuance a tough sell," Miller says, "is that people have so much information coming at them now. They need something direct, like an arrow to the heart, so people can say, 'I want to see that.' That's hard."

Because Godsall – who was born in Montreal, raised in Ottawa, learned his craft in New York and Los Angeles, and now lives in Toronto – is at a different phase of his film career (the beginning), he's just "happy to be included" in TIFF, he said in a phone interview. "It's a nice validation to get in. And I can walk from home to the screening."

Len and Company is about a prickly music producer (Rhys Ifans) who retreats to upstate New York to ponder whether his success has any meaning, only to be dragged back into life by his Miley Cyrus-esque client (Juno Temple), and his aspiring-musician son (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who knows a little something about famous, reclusive fathers). "At the point where he should be pulling people closer, Len's natural instinct is to push them away," Godsall says. The thing Godsall likes best about the story – that its resolution is "very, very modest; there's no big reformation, just a glimpse of a slightly more open Len" – also makes it difficult to shill.

Godsall is keeping his hopes to scale. "I've had my expectations damped down by professionals," he says, laughing. "'Don't be alarmed if there's not a feeding frenzy, it doesn't work that way with movies like this.' I only hope that when it screens on Friday that people like it, and that Rhys and the others walk away pleased. After that, I'll tune into the machinations of the film industry."

Miller's hopes for her Saturday night premiere are also personal. "It'll be exciting to be in a huge theatre, to hear that many people alive in the room with the film. With this, maybe more than anything I've written, I have a sense of speaking directly to an audience. I want them to enjoy this present I made for them."

She knows that "the humanist $50-million movie, such as Kramer vs. Kramer, is a rare beast right now." But she believes that an audience for them is out there. "Just look at what people are drawn to on TV," she says. "Perhaps now that the conventional systems are breaking down, and there are more avenues for distribution, it may be a positive for filmmakers like us." She laughs. "I feel pretty optimistic, for some reason."

Bateman admits he wants his next directorial effort to be more overtly commercial than The Family Fang. He's developing projects that have "more popcorn elements, and are a bit more simplistic in their concepts." But his favourite films are, like Miller's, those that make him "lean in a bit to figure out what a director is trying to convey," he says. "I like to sit in a movie theatre and watch something that exposes the parts of people that are just under the surface of what they think they're showing the world. I like exposing cracks and veneers."

Godsall agrees. "It's surprising to me there's not more of a place for those films. There are a few people, the Noah Baumbachs, who've carved out that niche for themselves, by repeatedly making really good work. But I'm not sure a tiny movie like mine can make its way in the world. I guess we'll see this weekend."