Fear and loving at the Toronto International Film Festival.

By Dave Karger and Karen Valby
Updated September 27, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Honestly, i think i was a little scared to come back to Toronto,” said Salma Hayek. The actress, who found herself stranded in Canada last Sept. 11 when attention fixed on CNN rather than the big screen, returned to the city to premiere her labor-of-love biopic, Frida. ”I just had such bad memories associated with the festival.” – A 10-day gathering for celebrity and cinema that straddled the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the Toronto International Film Festival has become inextricably linked to 9/11. So as film-industry players boarded planes from New York and Los Angeles and beyond for the 27th annual event (held Sept. 5-14), one question remained: How would the festival acknowledge the anniversary while also conducting business as usual? – ”I’ve never been this anxious about seeing one of my movies,” said Anthony LaPaglia, whose drama The Guys, in which he plays a New York City fire captain mourning the loss of eight men, premiered on the 11th. ”These festivals are designed to be like supermarkets for movies. The fact that we’re here is kind of weird…. My greatest fear is that people will see it as opportunistic and I’m really hoping they don’t.” – But it was another offering that evening that proved controversial. 11’09”01, an anthology of 11 short films by directors from countries such as Japan, Mexico, Israel, Iran, and France, at times turned a critical gaze on America. Were the films pure artistic expression or mistimed political grandstanding? ”I don’t want to watch the ones that are specifically anti-American,” said Assassination Tango director and star Robert Duvall, who didn’t attend the screening, during which entries from Egypt’s Youssef Chahine and England’s Ken Loach drew boos from the audience. But India’s Mira Nair, who directed one of the shorts, saw value in the debate. ”I think it’s an important opportunity to see 11 points of view in a context that doesn’t really encourage more than one,” she said. Indeed, the more people hissed, the more others applauded. – It was a relief, then, to make new, controversy-free memories in Toronto. Like on Sept. 12, when a crowd of 2,600 jumped from their seats and offered their support to Denzel Washington, in a dark blazer and sneakers, before he even introduced his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. Still more gratifying was the standing ovation that followed the movie as Washington invited his subject (and the movie’s screenwriter), Fisher, to share the stage. Also earning overdue props were session musicians the Funk Brothers — marvelously resurrected in Paul Justman’s documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown — one of whom played piano while A-listers flitted in and out of a hotel lounge.

Another hot spot was the lobby at the Four Seasons Hotel, where stars, directors, and press milled in tight clusters. ”The elevator at the Four Seasons is the best part,” said Roger Dodger director Dylan Kidd. ”It’s like, ‘Oh, Salma Hayek! Oooh, it’s Kyra Sedgwick! Oh, you’re Frances McDormand!”’ With much of Hollywood crammed into a four-block radius, the festival at times felt like a fabulous class reunion. ”Last night I walked into a bar,” says Phone Booth’s Kiefer Sutherland, ”and I saw Forest Whitaker, who I hadn’t seen in ages. Then I ran into John Cusack, who I hadn’t seen since we did Stand by Me together. I met Pierce Brosnan and Bryan Brown. It was like ‘Wow, this is the coolest bar in L.A….in Toronto!” At the gin-soaked party for White Oleander, buddies Aidan Quinn and Sean Penn mocked the art of celebrity schmooze. ”Heeeey, man!” yelled Penn. ”You were so great in Desperately Seeking…Desperation!” ”Dude!” rallied Quinn. ”I loved your work in S — -ty Times at Ridgemont High!”

VIP areas aside, Toronto’s rep as an informal public festival often resulted in close encounters between celebrity and civilian. One fan tailed Bowling for Columbine filmmaker Michael Moore yelling ”Roger! Roger!” And Frances McDormand found herself face-to-face with an admirer outside a screening of her free-love drama, Laurel Canyon. ”I think she was in her 60s,” McDormand said. ”She said, ‘I just want to thank you for Fargo.’ And I said, ‘Thank you very much, and how’d you like this one?’ She goes, ‘I want to thank you for Fargo.’ Okay, lady, I’m sorry. I know it’s hard to see Marge in a pool kissing a girl. So all I could say was ‘I’m really glad you came.”’

No surprise, then, that some stars preferred room service to the red carpet. ”I was supposed to go to all these parties but I just couldn’t do it,” said Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose gutsy performance in the S&M comedy Secretary secured her instant It Girl status. ”So instead I went back to my hotel room and got into my pajamas and watched tennis.” The Four Feathers’ Wes Bentley couldn’t even be bothered to attend the film’s press conference with the rest of the cast.

But the most sleep-deprived attendees were the acquisitions execs hungry for the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Indie distributor Newmarket bought the Danish drama Open Hearts, the drug comedy Spun, and the Swedish weepie Lilya 4-ever. United Artists got Together, a coming-of-age story from China, and upstart Manhattan Pictures International purchased The Secret Lives of Dentists, a portrait of a marriage starring Campbell Scott and Hope Davis. Miramax fell for the Juliette Binoche romance Jet Lag and The Magdalene Sisters, a drama about abuses at an Irish laundry convent in the 1960s.

Lions Gate roared through the festival, snapping up Stevie, a documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, and the French thriller Irreversible, which comes with the marketing nightmare of a 10-minute rape scene. But the studio’s biggest catch was the low-budget gorefest Cabin Fever, which went for seven figures plus a reported $12 million advertising commitment. Outside the packed press screening, representatives from New Line, Revolution, Lions Gate, IFC, and THINKFilm slugged it out for seats. ”This feels like a dream,” said director Eli Roth. ”Within 15 minutes of the movie starting we had three offers. By the time the screening was out we already had six offers…. It was like, Oh my God, it’s happening, it’s real.”

The festival did conclude with a handful of awards — the chief audience prize went to Whale Rider, the story of an orphaned Maori girl (also acquired by Newmarket) — but much of the buzz surrounded upcoming Oscar hopefuls. Perhaps the most adored was Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ 1950s-set melodrama starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid. ”I can’t even get a ticket for my girlfriend,” Quaid lamented the day before its gala screening. ”There’s an ass for every seat.” (Fortunately, a last-minute chair was found for her rump.) Arriving in Toronto from the Venice film festival, Moore was asked to return to Italy to accept an award from that jury but declined, explaining that ”you can’t dis one festival for another.” All the hubbub had Haynes, who has experienced only fringe success with Safe and Velvet Goldmine, feeling the glow of mainstream possibility. ”I’ve always had that thicker skin where I’m [just] engaging with critics who find my work interesting,” he said. ”Now it’s like, my skin is thinning, man! People are using the O-word. You find that greed factor sinking in.”

Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear, who plays sex-addicted Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane in the seamy Auto Focus, was reeling from his often contentious interviews. ”You’re used to getting the same questions,” he said. ”Not with this movie. Some people say, ‘That poor man struggling with that affliction.’ Others say, ‘Ppfff. What is with celebrities?’ Others say, ‘Boy, men really do like to have fun.’ Others say, ‘Why are these women giving themselves over so easy to Bob?”’

Some Toronto rookies were overwhelmed by the junket whirlwind. ”[A journalist] asked me how I enjoyed the Spanish soap I was on,” said Welcome to Collinwood costar Jennifer Esposito. ”I’ve never been on a soap and I’m not Spanish. I think she thought I was Salma Hayek.” Colin Farrell, who plays an unctuous publicist in Phone Booth, summed it up best: ”It’s all f — -ing talking and working and moving and shaking.”

All that moving and shaking almost unhinged 22-year-old White Oleander newcomer Alison Lohman, who froze as her limo arrived at her premiere. ”There were flashing lightbulbs and all these people. [My publicist] was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to have to walk through this.’ I flipped out. So we went around the block and I came back and got control. The extra block really helped.” But the most eagerly awaited new actor was the one who didn’t even show: Eminem, who was performing in Detroit the night his drama 8 Mile drew the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, and Jessica Alba.

While 8 Mile qualified as a pure popcorn movie, many filmmakers were determined to link their work to Sept. 11. The Magdalene Sisters director Peter Mullan drew a comparison between an asylum-like convent in Ireland and latter-day Afghanistan. ”An organization that denies women their freedom, their sexuality, their education, their livelihood, and keeps them under lock and key?” said Mullan, who won the festival’s Discovery Award. ”Does that sound like the Taliban or does that sound like the Catholic Church? Take your pick.” Not surprisingly, the Vatican has already protested the film.

Director Atom Egoyan, who opened the festival with Ararat, about the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey, also noticed a new relevance for his film. ”We have scenes with customs officers and airports,” he said. ”The moment where [one character] says ‘How could someone hate us so much?’ — that is an incredible thing for us to wrap our heads around.”

Even the Toronto scenery evoked eerie associations. ”The sky is blue and there’s very tall buildings on the horizon,” said Pierce Brosnan, who was promoting his Irish family drama Evelyn, while looking out a 26th-floor hotel window. ”You can’t help but be haunted by the images of last year.”

Still, many attendees appreciated the focus on 9/11. ”Unfortunately, I think our business has quickly forgotten about it,” said Evelyn costar Aidan Quinn. ”There was all this talk about how there was going to be a new wave of meaningful films and less blowup terrorist action. That’s turned out not to be the case. It’s heartening when festivals like this become popular.” Even jittery Hayek was glad she’d made the trip. Said the actress minutes before being whisked away to the airport: ”I have a new appreciation of Toronto. I’ve had a beautiful time.”

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