It was 14 years ago this week that I attended my first-ever Toronto International Film Festival. While trying to patch together a crazy-quilt schedule of must-sees ("Gravity," "12 Years a Slave," "August: Osage County," "The Fifth Estate," "Rush," "Labor Day" among them) to best serve the needs of RogerEbert.com for this year's 38th edition that starts tomorrow, I was reminded how it was a more pleasant, less pressure-packed affair back then.
I recall sitting face to face with one of my first girlhood crushes, Terence Stamp, in the middle of the busy mezzanine lobby at the Four Seasons, his bare feet perched next to my thighs as I tried to focus on my questions about "The Limey."
Publicist extraordinaire Jeff Hill yanked me out of a dinner sponsored by Premiere magazine—I was running out of things to say to my tablemate, director Mike Figgis, anyway—and deposited me at a late-night screening of one of the best documentaries ever about the making of a terrible film, "American Movie."
Before the lights went down, one of the doc's co-producers, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., strolled through the packed crowd with god-like cool, his face sprinkled with glitter. I ended up interviewing "American Movie"'s hapless star, Mark Borchardt, while we both awkwardly stood in the lobby after the show.
Actors had no problem ambling around the upscale environs of Yorkville, the festival's former hub, with nary a handler in sight. I recognized the once-gawky star of "Gregory's Girl," John Gordon Sinclair, as we crossed paths and we chatted like normal people about "Gregory's Two Girls," the sequel to his indie career launcher—on the street, not in some a stuffy hotel room at 20-minute intervals.
It was that year, 1999, that everything would change and the Hollywood awards-season machine would threaten to overshadow a festival best known for welcoming titles no matter how esoteric, small or obscure. That is when "American Beauty" cracked the code to using the festival as a first stop to best-picture Oscar glory.
The film's post-screening party was the hottest ticket in town and I remember being waved in by the DreamWorks publicists at the door while spying Liev Schreiber waiting in line for his chance to enter. I don't think the star of Showtime's "Ray Donovan" ever lingers patiently outside of festivities anymore
But one of my favorite fest memories was finally having the chance to meet Roger Ebert and his charming wife, Chaz, after interviewing him on the phone many times over the years. I spied him at a showing of "Boys Don’t Cry." Being a newbie, I asked Roger for advice on how to best use my time at the festival.
"Go to the movies," he said. "Skip the parties."
Chaz might have chided him for being a spoilsport, but he was right. For a film lover, Toronto is the ultimate all-you-can-devour cinematic buffet—almost 300 features this year—with entries from 70 countries. Yes, a little elbow-rubbing with the more-famous-than-thou notables (along with free potables) in the city's swank eateries is sometimes a necessity, if only to take a break from sitting in the dark.
But taking Roger's advice to heart, I will be concentrating my efforts in seeing as much as I can with the occasional detour to a celebrity-filled soiree. Or a special event.
Speaking of special events, it turns out that Roger—who I last saw when we both covered "Cloud Atlas" at the 2012 festival, mere months before his death in early April—will be attending this year's TIFF at least in spirit. A film tribute will take place before the screening of tonight's opening-night gala for "The Fifth Estate" at the Roy Thomson Hall.
As TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling told Indiewire.com, "We feel it's fitting that we pay tribute to Roger in a way we would hope he would have wanted—in a cinema surrounded by friends, family and the Toronto audience, which was so close to Roger's heart."
Yes, at a movie—definitely not a party.
Check back for the next five days for my daily blog wrap-ups. No one can fill Roger's shoes—or favorite theater chair—but I will try to take his advice to heart and make it mainly about the movies.