If Friday was a day for films with downer and somewhat depressing subject matter at the Toronto International Film Festival, Saturday was a whole different thing, with Fox bringing a sneak peak along with a Pharrell Williams concert for Queen Of Katwe, and The Weinstein Company’s unveiling of the majestic and moving Lion. All three distribs trotted out movies based on amazing true stories that merged real life with reel life and not only struck a victory for diversity (which should please the beleaguered Academy no end), but at a time when audiences are craving more uplift made them feel good about themselves and the movies., Disney making their Fall season chess moves with
Uplift was certainly the word for 20th Century Fox’s joyous celebration of the new film Hidden Figures, which tells the little-known story of three brilliant NASA mathematicians, African American women whose efforts played a key role in the success of the space program during the 1960s. It turned out to be a highlight of the festival so far, and a successful launch to the film which opens wide on January 13. As TIFF’s guru Cameron Bailey noted of the Saturday afternoon presentation at Bell Lightbox, this was a different kind of programming for the festival. The movie is still being edited and director Ted Melfi couldn’t even attend as he is deep in post-production finishing it. Instead, Fox brought about 20 minutes of footage followed by a Q&A with stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monet, producer and songwriter Pharrell Williams, and producer Jenno Topping.
It was an emotional session with the stars visibly moved after seeing some of the cut footage for the first time. “I knew and I understood the importance of it, but to watch it and see that none of us knew these women and how impactful that was, so I understand the emotion, I do,” said Spencer. Williams, who afterwards provided a roof-lifting musical performance of the film’s rousing songs right on the streets of Toronto, said he knew he had to be a part of it. “You realize that these women were operating, dreaming and engineering in a matrix where the odds were stacked against them. I mean there was racism, sexism, discrimination. I mean how could you not want to be a part of this,” he said. Topping, meanwhile, said once Melfi got involved, Fox fast-tracked the movie. “Once a project has that kind of good will it just has to be made. It was the time, and all of us felt it. These women were the very first we went to for the parts and thankfully they all said yes,” she told the crowd.
Monet called the women they portray true superheroes. Henson said she was eager to play the genius Katherine Johnson (who is the only member of the trio still living) and that she needed a departure from Empire’s Cookie, for which she is again Emmy nominated. “If I had known about these women coming up, maybe I would have been a rocket scientist. To be part of a project that will give children like me, where I grew up, hope to dream a different dream, I can’t even quite put it in a word. It feels surreal right now. I am sorry I am so emotional. We need this movie right now. This world is really scary right now and we need hope, that’s what this movie is,” she said with real passion.
Henson added that what she truly cares about is that Johnson will be happy with it. “Whether the Oscars love it, whether it wins awards, I just want her to be happy. That’s all I care about,” she said, indicating that though this film is dated to debut nationally on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the studio is also planning an awards run by qualifying it in December. Fox won’t confirm that (for whatever reason) but take it to the bank. After this presentation I can say they would be committing Oscar malpractice not to make a serious run.
Williams’ songs alone, which he also performed in a rousing concert that began just as Toronto’s rainy (and HUMID) weather Saturday magically lifted, will give everyone in the Best Song category a run for their money, particularly a new anthem called “I See A Victory”. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign were smart, they would adopt this song right now and play it at every rally. For Fox it would be well-timed promotion. It, and the whole mini-concert which featured a gospel chorus and dynamite singers Layla Hathaway and Kim Burrell, was a real barn burner that had the entire Fox contingent – in a roped off area where I was standing – put down their umbrellas and dance. Marketing head Marc Weinstock told me they had specially designed “Hidden Figures” umbrellas and ponchos made five days ago when the weather report predicted rain. Smart guy.
New Fox Chairman Stacey Snider, just a few days into her official new Fox elevation, got a special song dedication from Williams. She seemed very pleased with the way things are going at the studio. Of Hidden Figures, the studio chief is especially proud. You might recall she had the Best Picture nominee The Help when she was at Dreamworks (for which Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar), but Hidden Figures presents a completely different view with African American women who are not in maids uniforms but in key roles in a major American initiative into space.That is an image that indeed inspires. You couldn’t ask for a better launch than Fox got for this movie here at TIFF.
The same is true of The Weinstein Company’s big Oscar hopeful, Lion, which reunites Weinstein with their Oscar winning King’s Speech producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman for the incredible and inspirational story of a five year old Calcutta boy named Saroo who gets hopelessly lost traveling on a train from his homeland, eventually adopted by an Australian couple, and searches for his original family nearly a quarter century later.
The tale is remarkable and all true. Reviews have been great so far (“a tearjerker that earns the tears”, said our sister site Indiewire). The crowd for the TIFF World Premiere responded big time to the movie and it certainly sets a path for TWC to get back in the Oscar game Harvey knows well. Carol missed out on a Best Picture nomination last year, despite getting six other nods, but it looks at this point like Lion has the goods to put TWC in that lineup again. Harvey practically invented the modern Oscar race and was accepting lots of congrats at the SOHO House after-party last night. He’s been here many times before, but the packed-to-the-rafters party seemed like the kind of hot ticket that has presaged so many of his big Academy runs in the past.
The premiere also brought out stars Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, and Dev Patel (who is terrific playing the older version of the boy). Kidman, great again in a supporting role as the boy’s adoptive Australian mom, was beaming at the reaction to the film, especially what it says about being a mother. “My favorite part of it is when he (Dev) says to her ‘oh if only you had your own children, and she says ‘what are you talking about? You are my child. No matter what happens to you, I love you’, and I think that is what every mother feels,” she said while offering praise to Sunny Pawar, the Calcutta boy who plays the young Saroo, sharing the role with Patel. “He’s amazing,” she said of the non-pro while giving all credit to director Garth Davis. “That’s all Garth because he got those performances. That is the hardest thing to do, to get performances from children who are not actors like that.” Kidman evoked the same words in talking about this film that Henson did in discussing Hidden Figures. “We need hope right now. And what about love?” she asked me like it was a novel idea for a movie.
Kidman had literally just flown in from Cincinnati where she had been shooting her next film, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer the night before for director Yorgos Lanthimos (Lobster). And Mara seems like she is in every movie in Toronto, with roles in Una, Jim Sheridan’s Secret Scripture (both for sale), and Lion. “I know. It’s terrible. I think I should take two years off,” she laughed at the embarrassment of cinematic riches.” Everything just got piled on top of each other”. As for Patel, he was clearly happy with the strong reaction to Lion. “I am all a little discombobulated taking all this in,” he said of the crush of people, including Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs making their way over to talk to him. “This is so different to when you are on the journey making a movie. That is so isolating and kind of introspective and now you are here with all these human beings!”
TWC, with lots of personnel changes and layoffs this year, is coming back this Fall not only with Lion, but also Michael Keaton’s The Founder (which has bounced around the schedule, now landing with a qualifying run in December and going wider in January) and TWC-Dimension’s Gold, which brother Bob Weinstein honchoed and is a completely different kind of movie for that label. You need only look at the promotional materials to see that star Matthew McConaughey, nearly bald and pot-bellied in another game-changing role, will be in the hunt for another Oscar nomination. When I asked about it, Harvey referred me to his bro’. “Go ask Bob about it. That’s his movie,” he said with enthusiasm.
Disney, a company the Weinstein brothers are very familiar with, was also competing for attention at this all-consuming festival last night with their new, and yes, also 100% true story involving kids (playing chess in this case) called Queen Of Katwe. The film, a six year labor of love for the studio and director Mira Nair, is about a young Ugandan girl, Phiona Mutesi, who overcomes the odds to become a world champion chess player. The real Phiona, on hand for the Toronto World Premiere celebration last night, was very modest when I caught up with her. I’d heard she just won another chess match before hitting TIFF. This Disney bash, one of the liveliest, genuinely joyful after-parties imaginable, happened at the Spice Route restaurant where stars Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo among others were dancing away the night with the young cast of kids from the movie. Disney’s entire brain trust was also there, clearly proud of putting the Disney family label on a very different kind of live action family movie that most studios shy away from.
Disney chief Alan Horn, an amateur chess player himself, certainly related to the story, telling me how he once tried to get a major chess master to give him lessons when he was running Castle Rock. To convince him he was worthy of the honor Horn had to prove he was serious, so they started a sort of “audition” game, but it was stopped after about five moves by the master, who apparently thought Horn was a lost cause. Later though, Horn said he made a deal that if Horn could get him into a few Castle Rock premieres he would take him on anyway – and that is exactly what happened. Disney’s Sean Bailey and Distribution head Dave Hollis, along with Marketing honcho Ricky Strauss, all told me they hope word of mouth will help the movie catch on when it opens September 23. Some were comparing it to another offbeat Disney project, 1993’s sleeper hit Cool Runnings about a Jamaican bobsled team. This one certainly has that kind of spirit.
Oyelowo has been having a great TIFF so far which has also included Friday night’s World Premiere of his interracial love story, A United Kingdom, which he told me has been drawing lots of interest from top distributors since its debut. “That movie was a six year journey for me to get it to the screen, and it was the same thing with this. It’s just not the norm,” Oyelowo said, adding that both movies are directed by women, as was his recent film Five Nights In Maine and of course Selma.
“They are 50% of the population. It shouldn’t be weird for an actor,” he says of his support for women directors. He also loved working with the cast of Queen Of Katwe. “They say don’t work with animals and kids, but I would never say that because I learned so much from them. They aren’t movie actors. They are just so open and free and true. If you are studied and technical it doesn’t work, so you just have to get messy with them,” he explained of his acting style for this movie in which he plays their chess coach. “It actually sort of reignited my excitement about movie acting, because it’s so vibrant with life. With all these kids around you it is quite the thing.” Nair had strong praise for her experience in working with Disney on this project. “Disney has been the sweetest, most rigorous and absolutely humane studio I have worked with, because what you have seen is an absolutely authentic film about Zambala, about the Ugandan people in our city today. It’s deeply truthful and Disney is going to bring out to millions of people across the world,” she said.
Quite an inspiring day at the Toronto International Film Festival.
A longer version of this article appeared earlier on September 11.