featured Interview

In the Mouth of Midnight Madness: A Conversation with TIFF's New Programmer, Peter Kuplowsky

August 4, 2017Ben Mk






What makes a movie midnight-worthy? For nearly three decades, the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness programme has been known for bringing audiences the most audacious and shocking movies from filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Eli Roth and Dario Argento. This year, the lineup includes a new film from festival favorite Ryuhei Kitamura and the highly anticipated The Disaster Artist, which tells the story of the making of Tommy Wiseau's infamously bad — yet beloved — cult classic, The Room. We spoke with the festival's new Midnight Madness programmer, Peter Kuplowsky, about what to expect come September 7th.

To start, can you briefly share how you came to be involved with the Midnight Madness programme?

Peter Kuplowsky: Well, the story really begins with how I became a programmer, because it's sort of one long chain of events where I just said yes to things [laughs] and showed up on time. And I find the thing [is] showing up on time. That's the old axiom, but it does work.

I was working at the Bloor Cinema, and I was working for the [University of Toronto's] Cinema Studies Student Union as an undergrad student where I was a programmer for their film club, where they would do free movies on Fridays. And at some point I really wanted to play kung fu films, and I noticed that there was this guy who was showing kung fu movies at the cinematheque. And his name was Colin Geddes.

And I talked to him, and he told me he had film prints. And I said, "Oh, I'd love to rent these film prints from you for the University of Toronto film club." I started renting from him, he invited me to some of his film screenings, and he just sort of began to notice that I was a real sort of a keener for putting on movie screenings.

At the time, I was sort of known in Toronto as the Troll 2 guy, because I was the one playing Troll 2 at the Bloor annually. And those were screenings that I sort of set up myself. So, at some point, Colin asked me if I was interested in working with him at another festival, and we actually collaborated on something in North Carolina called Action Fest. He was asked to be the festival director of this festival where it sort of celebrated action cinema and stunt men. And it sounded like a blast, so he and I went down to do that in April, before he needed to lock his TIFF programme.

And we had such a great time doing that, we did it for two years. Eventually, the founders of the festival had different plans, and so it didn't happen again after we did it, but we had such a great time working together. I had been working at TIFF simultaneously as a coordinator for something called TIFF Nexus, which was a video game initiative that the festival ran for a few years. And when I finished that contract, it happened to be right after I finished working on Action Fest with Colin, and he invited me to be his programming associate for Midnight Madness.

And after four years of doing that, he was generous enough, as he retired, to pass the baton to me, which I feel incredibly honoured and privileged to have received. Because I've been a fan of the programme ever since I first saw SPL with Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen in 2005. That was my first Midnight experience, and it really kind of rocked me. And I do even remember thinking, "how do I do this?" How do I get up on stage with Sammo Hung? [laughs] And here we are.


Regarding the film selection process — the @mmadnesstiff Twitter account Tweeted out the night before the lineup announcement that locking in the final set of movies came down to the wire. How hard was it for you to decide on these 10 films, and what was your criteria for deciding whether or not a film belongs in the programme?

Peter Kuplowsky: Well, I think part of the reason it came so down to the wire is that it's my first year, and I definitely was feeling pressure to deliver something that I thought would excite both the audience and really excite myself. That it was something that I would be really excited [about], to get in front of all these ten films and [be able to] speak to them and present them and trust that they would be received warmly by the audience as well.

And so, really it came down to the wire because with only ten slots, at a certain point I did have more films that I liked than I did have slots. And it was really about what would make the grade — [what] would make the cut. And in terms of criteria, I kept going back and forth. I thought of genre diversity, which I think I did achieve, but I had other films that [I] felt [were] even more different than some of the movies that I ended up with.

I was thinking about representation, be it to gender and people of colour. And, you know, all these questions and pressures that weren't necessarily being imposed on me, but I was definitely aware of and conscious of while working on the programme. And so those were things that sort of kept me up at night. I wanted to make sure that I felt like I was doing something in putting a lineup together that I could stand in front [of], and that I felt that the audience would get really excited about.

In terms of criteria, I remind people that Midnight isn't just a horror program. So it's not like every film I have to see has to be super scary or super bloody. What it has to be is — I've been using the word electric. They have to be something that I think is going to get you to sit up. To wire you up. Because it's midnight when these movies start, for the most part, and it's got to keep you awake. And, you know, that's not to say that I'm not going to play something that's a little slower, because I am.

A film like The Crescent is a little bit more [of] a slower burn. But I feel like there's something stylistically occurring in the movie that is going to be really captivating, so that there's a degree of experimentation or innovation. Even in a genre film, because genre films also have a reputation of being very generic.


[Genre films] do get stale after you've seen a few of them.

Peter Kuplowsky: Also in the semantics of the word genre. It just feels like genre films are just formula movies. And it's true that they adhere to a formula, but really, the best genre films that you can think of — the ones that you respond to the most — are the ones that upset the formula. They begin at a comfortable place, but then as they take you along they become unpredictable and potentially make you uncomfortable in either an entertaining way or a distressing way that is, for us horror fans, still entertaining.

And so that was important to me. To find films that I felt were delivering that experience where you were never really quite sure where the movie was going. That sort of helps induce a kind of electric feeling when you're watching these movies. And so I've got comedies like The Disaster Artist and Bodied; I have a very traditional scary horror movie like The Ritual; I have an experimental horror movie like The Crescent; I have a sort of traditional crime movie that builds up to an outrageous gory action sequence like Brawl in Cell Block 99; and then I have something that's very experimental in its approach to action, like Let the Corpses Tan.

I really wanted to balance between films that I felt delivered really classical genre experiences, but I still think were doing really innovative stuff, be it in how they maybe stripped the genre down to its sort of barest essence — so it's a very minimalist but very satisfying experience — or films that I think very much complicated how genre cinema is. I think in the press release, I use the term "to expand and explode genre definitions" — that's what I'm really interested in. I'm really interested in showing something at Midnight that is going to be unpredictable.


It actually ties into my next question. But before I get to that one, do you remember how many movies you actually looked at in total when you were choosing the lineup?

Peter Kuplowsky: I was actually trying to figure that out the other day. I think, for the Midnight section specifically, I watched over three hundred features. And again, for only ten slots, it's really competitive. And out of three hundred, I'm bound to like more than ten, so it was a hard decision.

So, back to your quote — in the press release, you're quoted as saying that you want to "expand and explode the traditional definitions of genre and shock cinema." Is there a certain aspect or genre that you feel has been underrepresented in past Midnight Madness programmes?

Peter Kuplowsky: I think Colin has always had a really diverse lineup in his programmes, so I feel like the difference is really going to boil down to sort of our interest in terms of different sensibilities. I'm a big fan of when sort of avant garde experimentation meet genre level sort of storytelling. So something like Let the Corpses Tan really excites me, because I feel like it's a very traditional story — it's a cops and robbers kind of story — but it's represented and it's executed in a very sort of experimental way.

And I feel like some of these films actually [are] films that [would have been] featured in the Vanguard programme, and with the retirement of that program, I definitely wanted to make room for those films at Midnight. And some of these "Vanguard movies," they're going to appear elsewhere in the festival. I've seen what the other programmers have been doing, and there's some really terrific stuff that I think would have been in Vanguard last year but are now going to be in CWC or Special Presentations, or even Wavelengths.

And, for me, I definitely wanted to have the more sort of genre experimental films that would appear in Vanguard to be at Midnight this year. So that's going to be different. I think that, inherently, is going to make this programme feel a little different in its sensibilities. Because it's like a mixture of the Midnight Madness that everybody loves and what the Vanguard programme was.


Of all the movies in your lineup, which one stands out — or speaks to you — the most? And why?

Peter Kuplowsky: I definitely don't like picking favorites, because I do stand behind all ten of them. In terms of ones that I feel like could use the extra amplification, just because, you know, they might not have the biggest media arm behind it or the most money behind it, are some of the smaller, emerging filmmakers.

Coralie Fargeat's Revenge, I think, is terrific and a really promising debut, and I think Vampire Clay is a really interesting story behind the scenes, because it's the first-time feature of a filmmaker who's actually worked in the industry since 1992, but as a special effects makeup artist. This is his first feature, and I find the story of a guy who's been through the industry and [who] has worked for as long as he has now telling his own story to be really, really interesting for me.

And the movie is about a really ridiculous concept — about haunted clay that attacks art students. But what I found both charming and creepy, and wonderful and freaky, was how this special effects artist basically took one of the base ingredients for his special effects — clay — and he made that the monster. So the monster is basically a special effect, but reduced to the barest ingredient of what that special effect is. So it's just clay, but it moves like a blob. It can absorb you, it can turn you into a clay person, and I think was a very resourceful and clever way for him to achieve a number of gags that he absolutely knew how to do, from being a professional effects artist, but doing so in ways that I feel like I hadn't seen before and were really clever and fun, and creepy and weird. And so that one I really like.

And then the last one I'd amplify would be definitely Seth Smith's The Crescent, which is the Canadian indie film [of Midnight]. It's his second film, but I think very few people saw his first film, Lowlife, from a few years ago. And the story I tell about Seth is that I've been programming shorts for the past two years, and we had been talking back and forth. He mentioned he was working on a feature, and he started showing me footage, and I got really excited. And then I saw the feature.

I really love this movie. I think it's just such a singular vision that could have only come from Seth. It's a haunted house movie that I think will remind people of other sort of traditional classic horror films, but I don't think anyone's seen a film done in this style. Much like Let the Corpses Tan, it's taking a very traditional story but filtering it through a very unique sensibility that's affording it an opportunity to be very experimental — both in aspect ratio, with cinematography [and] with sound design.

There's this incredible effect throughout the movie known as paint marbling. It's very similar to how they achieved some of the cosmos effects in 2001 or The Fountain, and it's really, really beautiful, and I think really hypnotic and psychedelic. And so that's another reason why I think, while it's a slower movie, I think it's going to provide a very sort of Midnight trip in the vein of, say, Eraserhead or something like that.


When I heard [the term] "slower movie," I thought of one from a couple years back, The Witch, which was a really sort of slow-burn but [also a] really intense movie to watch. So it's kind of similar to that movie?

Peter Kuplowsky: Definitely in pace. I actually think The Crescent is closer to a film that was similar to The Witch as well, called Eyes of Fire, from the '80s, which I definitely recommend your readers [to] check out. It's a really, really underrated indie film. I don't think it's ever been given a DVD release, but you can find it out there, somehow. It's really eerie. It's pretty much the same plot as The Witch, to be honest, but it has its own sort of scope and vision and sort of eclectic sensibility.

Another one that stood out to me was Great Choice, about a woman being stuck in a Red Lobster commercial!

Peter Kuplowsky: [laughs] I don't want to say too much about that one. That's going to be a short film that I'm playing in front of Mom and Dad, the Nicolas Cage/Selma Blair movie. And it is going to be a very exciting screening, I think.

Does it have kind of a Stranger Things kind of '80s vibe to it, maybe?

Peter Kuplowsky: No, not really. I wouldn't say that. Well, Mom and Dad is a film made by one half of the team who made Crank, so it's got a very sort of twitchy, very modern sensibility to it. And then I think Great Choice has this — again, I kind of want to let the audience discover this for themselves. All I'll say is that it is about Red Lobster commercials. [laughs] And something horrifying in a Red Lobster commercial.

A related question — Do you think audiences will gravitate to these films as well? If not, what film do you think will be the biggest hit with viewers?

Peter Kuplowsky: I think that the one the audience is most excited to [see] — just looking at Twitter after the announcement — is probably The Disaster Artist. It's had a lot of hype since its screening as a work-in-progress film at SXSW, and in the months since then, with the release of a teaser a month ago. And [with] the stars that are in this film, I think there's a lot of hype for that movie. The Room, of which it's based on, is such a massive cult film. And it's a big cult film in Toronto, [as] there are still monthly screenings. So that's definitely the hottest ticket.

But it's followed closely by Bodied, which I think is appealing not just to the cult film community, but also the music and rap community in Toronto. It's written by a Toronto battle rapper, it features a number of really terrific battle rappers in the cast, and Eminem is a producer. So that one is also going to be a hot ticket.

But I think also genre fans are super excited that there's this new Ryuhei Kitamura film [called Downrange] at the festival. [This is] the guy who did Versus, and I think this is his most indie film since Versus, so it has a really stripped-down but very brutal edge to it. I had so much fun watching this movie, and I can't wait to watch it with the audience.


Of course, you've also been involved with Toronto After Dark, which covers very similar ground to Midnight Madness. Do you feel that there's still room for both Toronto After Dark and Midnight Madness? And do you feel that they complement each other?

Peter Kuplowsky: I think they do complement each other. I think there's absolutely room for both festivals. There's just so much content being made now. There's just so many films that come out.

A few months before Midnight Madness is [the] Fantasia [Festival], which is a three-week-long film festival full of genre programming, much of which doesn't play at TIFF because their Canadian premieres occur in Montreal, and [because] our festival sort of tries to prioritize Canadian premieres, at the very least. But it's not like we miss out on stuff either way. Because I feel like their programming this year was as strong as ever. I'm really excited about this year's program. And there's just that many movies.

And sometimes when I pass on a movie that I really like, it's simply because I feel like I only have the ten slots, and I'm trying to find films that I think are really going to pop in a room as big as the Ryerson. There are smaller genre movies [for which] maybe the filmmaker's next film should be at TIFF. But, in the meantime, there are still great platforms like Toronto After Dark for them to showcase their movies to, still, a really sizeable audience. And I still fully intend to contribute to Toronto After Dark as a consultant, and if [there's] something I can't fit in at Midnight Madness, I'm 100% going to recommend it to Toronto After Dark or recommend it to the other festivals in the genre community at large.


[Like] the other two hundred and ninety films that didn't make the cut this year!

Peter Kuplowsky: Exactly! [laughs] I definitely like a chunk of them. A chunk more than ten.

Is there anything else you want to share, or that you want people to know about this year's lineup?

Peter Kuplowsky: One thing I'll mention that is kind of a neat detail is that I'm breaking the Midnight Madness convention this year. I'm starting one of my movies early. I'm not starting it at midnight. I'm starting Brawl in Cell Block 99 — the time might be slightly subject to change — but it'll likely be 10:45 pm. And the reason I'm doing this is because I think that the film actually becomes a Midnight Madness movie. It doesn't start as one.

The first hour and seven minutes exactly are more of a sober crime drama that — [while] I think it's very good — would have been more appropriate in a Vanguard programme. It's got sort of a slower pace to it, but then by the hour-and-seven-minute-mark, a character enters the film, and it really becomes a Midnight Madness movie. And so I kind of thought it'd be really fun if the audience gets there early, we start watching the movie a little bit earlier, I start exactly at 10:53 [p.m.], and then when the clock strikes midnight, so does the movie. I just think it'll help the film, I think the audience will have fun with the concept, [and] I think it'll add an extra degree of excitement to the room.






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