Michael Moore’s unveiling of his “secret” movie and the continuation of what TIFF Director Cameron Bailey called the “Jake Quake” (as in Gyllenhaal) marked the official opening of the 40th Toronto International Film Festival with the eclectic pairing of Fox Searchlight’s Demolition kicking things off at the Princess Of Wales Theatre and then Moore’s new European-shot documentary Where To Invade Next invading the same venue later in the evening. The former, directed by TIFF favorite and Canadian-born Jean-Marc Vallee, was actually the perfect slot for the often dicey and bad luck opening film of this festival. The dramedy, in which Gyllenhaal plays a man trying to put his life into perspective following the death of his wife in a car accident, played well for the crowd with stars Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper among the many whom Vallee introduced before the screening. Following his big run with Nightcrawler, which played TIFF last year and went on to great success, as well as this summer’s Southpaw plus recent Venice Film Festival opener Everest, you can see why Bailey used that “Jake Quake” phrase. Gyllenhaal is just terrific in Demolition, offering more proof why this actor is picking some of the most interesting roles of anyone in his generation of actors.
But the real buzz and anticipation seemed to be all around the Moore film, which the controversial Oscar-winning filmmaker managed to shoot with no word even leaking out on the internet. In his intro, Moore kept the subject matter close to his vest. “I’m not going to say anything about this movie. We haven’t said anything about it the whole time we were making it. We’ve been digging for something else in this movie and it is called the American soul,” he said (while later admitting it was intentional that not one foot of film was shot in America.) “We had a good, and emotional, time making it, because it was difficult as Americans doing what we ended up doing. Nobody knows what this movie is about … We were secret about this not because we were stealing something from the NSA. It’s because we’re filmmakers and we wanted to make a movie without all the noise and the hype. We thought, What if we made a movie where we didn’t go to a studio or a distributor and didn’t take any of their money. We will work for union scale. We’ll just go do it and disconnect from ourselves from the internet and social media and just quietly focus on our art. And we wanted it to be just the best of what we could make.” Moore told the mostly Canadian crowd they were literally the first to see the film and you can believe it. Virtually every distributor was in the audience also seeing it for the first time. WME, which is selling it, has held it back from everyone, trying to turn this TIFF premiere into an event, and no doubt, a bidding war.
So what is it about? Moore takes his cameras and usual on-camera persona to Europe, where he shows that aspects of what was, or should be, the American Dream are alive and well overseas. So he “invades” Italy, France, Iceland, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Tunisia and so on with the intention of planting the American flag in support of several good ideas that make those citizen’s life better. In Italy, he discovers workers get several weeks of paid vacation and two hours a day for lunch in addition to other perks. In France, school kids are served gourmet lunches every day. Iceland is run by women who are the only ones who seem to know how to govern. In Slovenia there is no tuition for college students. In other countries, health care isn’t an issue, it’s a given. Moore says this idea for a film has been percolating for about 30 years — ever since he took a train tour through Europe.
He admitted he was tired of being Fox News’ whipping boy after making his last film, Capitalism: A Love Story six years ago, but that now the time was right for another movie and this was the one. The best sequences I thought were early on in Italy and France, where his signature amusing style could really come through in the nearly 2-hour film. Considering the angrier tone of some of Moore’s work, he noted in the post-screening Q&A that the crew was actually calling this “Mike’s happy movie” because the things he discovered while shooting all over Europe, and on one sojourn to East Africa, are things that are really rather awesome. “This was the no-problems, all-solutions movie,” he said. “We made a conscious decision to do a couple of things here. One was that we would not shoot a single frame of this movie in the United States of America. And we would say more about who we are in hopefully a profound and devastating way by going elsewhere, so that maybe we could examine what happened to our American souls.”
He expects some critics to ask why he didn’t go to Greece (where financial problems nearly brought the country to a halt) or show that Italy is a real mess in some ways, but rather than what mainstream media present as the negatives, he said he was going after something a little more positive for these couple of hours. “If you want to know why I didn’t go to Italy to talk about their high unemployment rates, my answer is I went there to pick the flowers, not the weeds…I wanted to say that we decided to trust your intelligence and the level of your experience, whether you are American or Canadian, and tell the truth. You don’t need another documentary to tell you how f****d up this or that thing is. We need to get up off our asses and do something, and get inspired by what we can be.”
During the Q&A, Moore even brought some souvenirs for the crowd, including a pencil made in Germany (by people who work “only about 36 hours a week”) emblazoned with his film’s title, as well as a brochure on how to enroll for a free college year in Slovenia. Ushers passed them out to everyone. The combination of Demolition (which opens in Spring 2016) and Where To Invade Next erased the curse of TIFF’s opening night (although I personally loved last year’s opener, The Judge). Toronto is off to a roaring start.