INTERVIEW

The Mind Behind Midnight: A Talk with TIFF Programmer Peter Kuplowsky

The Best of Genre Comes to TIFF 2019

Words By: Brendan Frye
Published August 28, 2019
The Mind Behind Midnight: A Talk with TIFF Programmer Peter Kuplowsky

TIFF has always been a place for new and exciting cinema. Many great films are shown for their first time in the theatres of Toronto. Among all the big-budget red carpets and A-list celebrities filling the streets, there is also subversive and exciting cinema spattering the slate of films.

Most of these films sit in the Midnight Madness section of the festival. This late-night selection of ten movies veers towards the more genre-focused side of cinema, offering audiences some local and international cinema that pushes boundaries while being memorable and exciting at the same time.

Programing this segment of the festival since 2017 is Peter Kuplowsky. He is known for his work on the festival, along with being a producer on some fantastic Canadian cinema including Manborg, The Interior, and The Void. CGMagazine had the chance to jump on a call with him to discuss this year's festival, what fans can expect, and the evolution of genre cinema at TIFF over the years.

CGMagazine: I want to ask you about the diversity in this year's lineup and how you as a programmer and the entire TIFF team selected these movies and brought the entire collection together?

Peter Kuplowsky: Well, with the midnight program, the buck really stops with me. I consider myself very fortunate that I have a lot of autonomy with this program and a lot of trust from everyone else. Certainly, there's a conversation; sometimes I'm the one to see the film first, other times someone else in the department sees the film and suggests that I look at it. I've always been interested from the very beginning, when I took over from Colin to further his project of really trying to redefine Midnight as not purely horror or genre, but a section that really does have a transgressive and edgy and electric feeling to it where the parameters of what genre films are is something that I feel was constantly in conversation and changing. If you think back on the best and most defining genre films of various generations, they tend to be the films that really moved the needle, that really expanded what the previous expectation of that genre could be. So I always approach it as that I'm interested in seeing films that work within familiar formulas, but where the variables are new. Because I think that's the best type of genre film.

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Blood Quantum - Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

I will say I didn't go into this year expecting the lineup to be as eclectic as it is, I didn't expect to have half a lineup of first-time filmmakers. I'm excited that turned out to be the case, but it wasn't necessarily something I went in expecting. I'm a big believer that in a program like this—it's only ten films—I feel like the films have to be somewhat in conversation with each other. It can't be the same sort of movie every night, it has to be different flavours, different styles. But films that also complement each other in many respects. These weren't scenes that I set out to find. But as the lineup started to cohere, I liked the fact that there were a number of films about communities that are underrepresented on-screen and largely made by those communities like Blood Quantum, The Vigil or Crazy World. Similarly, it is a lineup of discovery, so I liked that there were so many first-timers who are emerging filmmakers. In many ways I'm confident with a few of these names, we'll be seeing them again and again—if not in the section, but in bigger and bigger genre productions. I really think that some of these filmmakers are going to go really far and I'm really excited about the voices that I was exposed to. I'm looking forward to sharing them with a larger audience.

CGM: I do want to touch on the fact that there are quite a few of these films getting a lot of buzz going into the festival. Were you expecting that?

PK: I was very conscious, to be honest. I really wasn't sure what people were going to think, because there are a lot of big genre studio films coming out this fall. There's one coming out right at the start of the festival, the new Stephen King IT sequel. and you know, I was wondering if people were going to expect those types of movies in the section? Are they going to be disappointed with some of these films? You worry sometimes that if there isn't that pre-hype, will anyone come? But I've been really grateful to see that people are excited about the lineup. I was fortunate to have a few films that I feel come with built-in hype like Richard Stanley's return to the section after 29 years.

That was really exciting, then double that with the fact that it's Nicolas Cage returning to midnight, after two years, where I feel like he's been in a full, complete renaissance and totally embraced genre films and midnight cinema. I remember in an interview at Mom and Dad, he was so charged from the screening that he was calling himself "a midnight actor, that's my thing." I'm really excited to have him back and that he's brought Richard—or rather, they brought each other—along for the ride. Then, of course, Takashi Miike. I've never had the pleasure to host him myself. My predecessor, Colin Geddes has hosted many times and this is his ninth time in the section, which is really exciting. I really want him to get to ten because I feel like we can then make a jacket we can give him and anyone else who makes it to ten.

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Color Out of Space - Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

CGM: What do you think being part of TIFF and being part of the Midnight Madness screenings can do for their career and for these films in general?

PK: In many ways, because the midnight section is so tightly curated, and there's only ten of them, these films are definitely amplified to the industry as something to strongly consider. Oftentimes for the films in the section, it is easier for a distributor to take a chance on that film because that TIFF laurel and that Midnight Madness status does go a long way in terms of both consumer confidence and distributor confidence. I'm really hoping that some of these films actually have the opportunity to go much further beyond a festival run, and even a VOD run. Quite frankly, I think a film like The Vigil is as scary as Insidious. It's a really terrific, spook-em-up, that I think could absolutely play commercial, and yet has elements to it that I think also makes it very comfortable in a film festival climate. Also, we have seen a lot of supernatural movies that are steeped in Christian mysticism, and I really liked this film really embraced Jewish demonology and folklore that is less exposed to horror movies, and it still does so in a very commercial way. I'm really excited to see if a film like that actually gets studios and actual distributors excited about taking a chance and actually rolling that out on a bigger scale. I think we've seen it happen time and time again in this section with filmmakers like Eli Roth, and James Wan, for that matter.

CGM: Tackling TIFF as a whole, how do you feel this lineup that you've helped create fits with the overall TIFF schedule this year? Does it stand out?

PK: Well, I'm actually really excited about the general TIFF lineup, because of how much genre stuff there is in the festival. One of the things that was actually interesting per your first question about how this lineup was put together, is that there were a lot of genre movies this year that we were looking at, and many of them have ended up in the festival, even if they weren't in the midnight program. That was largely because of these conversations I was having with other programmers like Michael Lerman, where we were discussing some of these genre movies. We realized some of these movies can work as a special presentation. I was really interested in some of these discovery style genre movies where there are first-time features. I really felt like it was going to be a boon for them to be in the section, and I felt they worked for the section.

There were some of these other films I liked as well, for instance, Synchronic from Aaron Morehead and Justin Benson who are well known the genre circuit. I felt like they were absolutely able—especially because they've got an Avenger in their movie—to work in the special presentation section. I was really excited at how often I had conversations with the team and I realized that genre films don't have to be exclusive to midnight anymore—they really don't, they can be in any section. Almost every section of the festival has something that a Midnight Madness fan would enjoy and that's really exciting for me, and I do actually encourage Midnighters to see films outside of the program.

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Synchronic - Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

I know myself, I'll be uploading at some point on Twitter, under the hashtag, #vanguardlives, posting films that that I feel anyone who likes genre cinema or midnight cinema should go check out at the festival because there's really a lot of stuff that narrowly made the cut to Midnight that I'm still happy will be at the festival. Like there's this amazing Indian movie called Jallikattu, which is in Contemporary World Cinema. It's one of the most spectacular and visceral films I've seen all year. I've compared it as kind of like an Indian Jaws, but that is almost reductive. It is about an animal that is let loose and it's causing havoc in a community, but it's far more wild and delirious than that sort of glib description implies. There really is some exciting stuff from the rest of the program. I mean there are other films that I think genre audiences would enjoy, such as The Lighthouse,which is amazing. I'm planning to go actually. Usually, during TIFF, I only have time to watch movies at midnight, because there's nothing else on, and I have to be there anyway for the intro and Q & A, but I'm really hoping to go see Lighthouse again with an audience because it's such an amazing and unexpected film. Even if you know The Witch and you think you know what you expect, I think it's going to defy expectation. It’s a really, really fantastic movie

CGM: That’s what I'm excited for as well. Maybe I'll see you there.

PK: I think the fan base, as they communicated to me on social media, their excitement is extended past the midnight program, as you sort of implied like the there's just a lot of really great genre programming throughout the festival this year.

CGM: Anything else you want to add to the readers just in preparation for the festival?

PK: I think I would just sort of reiterate that idea to take a chance on something. I appreciate there's a lot of confidence in the Midnight brand to take a chance on the Midnight movies, but if you see anything else while you're flipping through the catalogue or going on TIFF.net and looking at films, if something strikes your fancy, trust your instinct. I think the programming team has made some amazing choices this year.