Volver, Attack the Block, Eden and Licorice Pizza.editor joins and to celebrate the 100th edition of London-based cinema magazine, and chat about the films behind his four favorite illustrated LWL covers:
Gemma Gracewood reports from a TIFF missing most of its A-listers, but putting its best independent foot forward in the interim, with cheers of solidarity from Jessica Chastain, Bowen Yang, Devery Jacobs and more.
Additional reporting by Ella Kemp.
This interview was conducted during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of writers and actors currently on strike, many of the films covered on Journal wouldn’t exist.
“It feels really lucky and hard-won and really fortuitous.” Bowen Yang, the SNL writer and actor, and a star of Larry Charles’ very silly new comedy Dicks: The Musical, is considering his journey to the film’s premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s late on the opening night of the 28th edition of TIFF, Dicks will rise soon after midnight, and with actors and writers on strike, Yang still can’t quite believe he’s here.
The film is one of several on A24’s slate at this year’s TIFF; all of them have been granted an interim agreement, which means that SAG-AFTRA and the WGA have given permission for Yang and his Dicks writers and co-leads Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp to flaunt their proudly queer-centric, sex-positive musical (complete with inflatable penises thrust into the Midnight Madness mayhem).
But the glamorous images coming from TIFF and other fall festivals can be confusing for film fans who have diligently absorbed the message that stars cannot promote struck work—so the artists who are here are keen to stress that they do have permission.
“I am a SAG member and WGA member; a very proud supporter of the strike, very happy to be here cleared by SAG,” says Backspot actress Devery Jacobs, who, with director DW Waterson, has produced a visceral debut feature about badass high school athletes. (Jacobs’ co-star Kudakwashe Rutendo is one of TIFF 2023’s Rising Stars.)
Star-struck on the red carpets
There are a number of other reasons for film creatives to be at TIFF—they may be contractually obliged under another country’s union rules, for example. Either way, the actors and writers you see in fall festival glam pics are cleared to put on the makeup.
Interim agreements are part of a strategy by the striking unions to elevate the work of studios that want to safeguard creative labor as artificial intelligence and distribution platforms continue to evolve. The agreements are granted to productions that promise to adhere to everything the unions are asking of the AMPTP. Everything.
So: regardless of the deal that will (fingers crossed) eventually be made, the likes of A24 have signed up for the whole package. That’s why they get to have their major stars here: Talking Heads and their Q&A moderator Spike Lee for the magnificent Stop Making Sense restoration; Nicolas Cage, Dylan Gelula and cast-mates for Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario, Yang and his co-stars for Dicks: The Musical.
“I think the union is being very selective in a very intentional way about what movies get these interim agreements,” says Yang. “In terms of it being a labor action, it’s a very, very beneficial one. These little things are proofs of concept: If it can work with a small studio, why can’t it work with everybody?”
“I’ve always been an independent filmmaker and I will stay the same… for me this is normal!” Director Michel Franco jokes, but his latest film Memory does have an interim agreement for its stars; at our interview, Jessica Chastain wears her signature “SAG-AFTRA on strike” t-shirt; her co-star Peter Sarsgaard, fresh from his Venice win for best actor, sports the same message on a lapel pin.
“I hope more independent producers and actors sign on and apply for the interim agreements, which is why we’re here,” Chastain tells Letterboxd. She and Franco have just finished making a new film, Dreams, also thanks to an interim agreement, which she sees as “a way forward for journeyman actors and below-the-line crew members, who have been really struggling and really hurt during the strike, to get back to work. I think right now the only people who should be out of work are the struck companies.”
Love for the locals
A-listers attract money, money keeps festivals rolling; there are whiffs of intense stress in the air, even while street-resale prices for the TIFF premieres of The Boy and the Heron and Stop Making Sense are in the hundreds of dollars (they both open in cinemas soon enough, settle down). Audiences are still highly engaged, thanks to TIFF pit-stops by big Cannes titles like Anatomy of a Fall (Sojourners editor-in-chief Zachary Lee tells Letterboxd “we’re eating good this year at TIFF!”). But while Letterboxd members are rating plenty of TIFF world premieres highly (add Sing Sing, His Three Daughters, Lost Ladies, Kill and Naga to your watchlists), industry noise around new films is muted.
Netflix broke the sales dam when it grabbed Anna Kendrick’s well-reviewed directorial debut Woman of the Hour, but generally it’s been slow-going at the cash register. Almost as soon as a film gathers buzz, it’s just as quickly relegated to “streamer status”—as in, not economically viable for theatrical release—which only drives home the strikes’ focus on tech giants and their lack of “data transparency” (as Steven Soderbergh put it in an earlier interview with Letterboxd).
On the upside, the absence of usual star-power has opened up space for independent and international films to capture more press. “It’s a joy to be premiering here, absolutely,” says Elliot Page, star and producer of Dominic Savage’s Close to You and an executive producer of Backspot.
The red carpets are smaller, sleeker, faster-moving; convivial rather than competitive. Tip-sheets (guides for the media as to who is coming down the carpet, complete with head-shots) are updated last-minute as more stars secure interim agreements. The streets around the festival venues, while still chaotic, are less intense without the days-long gatherings of fans hoping for a glimpse of a mega-star.
Who would have been here if the guilds were not on strike? Oscar-winner Kate Winslet, certainly, along with her Lee co-stars Andy Samberg and Alexander Skarsgård. Michael Fassbender for Next Goal Wins. Instead, many directors like Lee’s Ellen Kuras, Origin’s Ava DuVernay and We Grown Now’s Minhal Baig walk the carpet alone, while emphasizing togetherness.
Hope for a generation
“The directors’ guild isn’t on strike but they’re very much in support of the writers’ guild and the screen actors’ guilds,” says Baig. “I do feel that there’s an incredible sense of community that’s emerged. The difference between the last writers’ guild strike and this strike is that people are so much more connected than they were before—on social media, but also on group texts and chats—sharing information and helping each other, being resourceful and actually being a part of a community rather than operating in a very individualistic way. It gives me a lot of hope for the future.”
“The word union means together, right?,” Memory star Sarsgaard agrees. “It’s been kind of wonderful walking those picket lines and feeling the power of all of these people. We don’t get together like that as a union very often. So that I guess is an upside, but it is a very serious fight.”
As we file into full theaters and shout the traditional “Arrrrrr!” when TIFF’s piracy notice comes on the screen, it is momentarily easy to forget that the strikes carry on. In solidarity with their colleagues, comedy stars offer up chants for the picket lines. “Hey hey, ho ho, Dicks got an interim waiver so we’re good to go,” is Yang’s suggestion, while his co-star Sharp tries out “More indies, less technocratic, psychotic billionaires!” (“Rolls of the tongue,” Jackson laughs). Backspot lead Jacobs, taking a cue from her own cheerleading film, spells out: “F-U-C-K A-M-P-T-P! (Except when they come back to the table and offer us a fair deal. Then we can be friends.)”
But Australian actor Guy Pearce, who is at TIFF with Lee Tamahori’s 19th-century-New Zealand-set action film The Convert, is not in a cheerleading mood: “Creative work needs to be recognized and it needs to be respected,” he says somberly. “The difficult thing in our industry is there’s a sliver of people at the top who are well looked-after, as we know, and then there’s everybody else, who aren’t so well looked-after. Those who can afford it need to actually respect everybody in line.”
A people’s celebration
Tamahori was first at TIFF in 1994 with his break-out feature, Once Were Warriors, and he’s happy to be back with The Convert. “I’ve always enjoyed the rough and tumble of Toronto, which is a mix of buyers and sellers and film lovers and not pretentious. The audience speaks. It’s a bit more democratic.” (The TIFF People’s Choice Award winner announcement is imminent: 10:30am Sunday 17 September is the moment.)
Now in his seventies, with a Bond film and several Hollywood action features under his belt alongside his Māori-led stories, Tamahori has lived through several bouts of industrial action. He’s a pragmatist—“fighting AI is like trying to roll back the sea; it’s here, it’s going to stay, we’ve got to learn to live with it”—but even so, is protective of independent voices in the face of cookie-cutter superhero films.
“The large studio films, the large superhero movies and everything, they can be written by AI because they’re all the same. The human spirit, I think it lives in independent film, only because independent films are more about small stories, family, things like that.”
Sarsgaard agrees. An industry built on repeat-IP will fail to nurture new young talent, he says, whereas the humanity in films like Memory “remind us of why we’re doing this in the first place.”