Colin Geddes

Meet the man behind TIFF's Midnight Madness

My first Midnight Madness experience was the 2002 screening of Volcano High, a visually-kinetic Korean film I describe to friends as 90210 meets The Matrix. When the credits rolled at two in the morning, I joined the rabid crowd in cheering and clapping. Since then, Midnight Madness has been my favourite part of TIFF, introducing me to edgy international genre films, including Martyrs, À l'Intérieur and REC. It will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013.

Colin Geddes, who programs Midnight Madness - and its "cooler, older sister", the Vanguard series - has one sweet job. In the midst of pre-festival chaos, he graciously spoke with me about how he got involved with TIFF, what his job is like, and his favourite Midnight Madness moments.

Was there a childhood moment that made you fall in love with film?

I was always obsessed with war and science fiction films and comic books. I grew up in the countryside, just outside of Kingston. A lot of that stuff was hard to obtain. This was before the Internet and video tapes. You could only see films in the theatre and late night TV. We only got two channels on a black and white television, so I read up so much on films that I couldn't actually see until I moved to the big city.

How did you start working for TIFF?

My first involvement with the film festival as an audience member was in 1988. I came to Toronto to study graphic design at George Brown. I stood in line at the Bloor Cinema for the first year of Midnight Madness and my life kind of changed after that. It was my first exposure to the film festival and every year, I would come back and see more and more films. In many respects, TIFF served as my film school.

I started working for TIFF in 1997 when Noah Cowen was the programmer for Midnight Madness. He asked me to come on board as the co-programmer. In 1998, he handed me the complete reign.

Before working for TIFF, you published a film zine. Tell me about this period in your life.

Around 1989, I stumbled upon Hong Kong cinema. This was before John Woo and Jackie Chan came into Hollywood. I discovered a cinema which was exciting and vibrant and accessible. You could go into Chinatown and find VHS tapes of Hong Kong films and the majority of them had English subtitles.

No one was writing about these films at the time and I started a fan zine called Asian Eye, which was dedicated to Hong Kong and Japanese action and fantasy films. I had an interview with John Woo and Jackie Chan before they hit the mainstream.

It was more of a film journal than a simple zine. I did two issues. Each issue was around 70 pages and now, years later, University of Toronto is actually using my writing as teaching supplements and teaching aids for their cinema courses.

Writing about a national cinema that wasn't getting much attention got me on the radar of the Toronto film festival. Noah Cowen and the other programmers would talk to me and engage me about this cinema that was incredibly intriguing, but not a lot people were paying attention to in the English language. That really helped give me a stepping stone into the film festival world.

What kind of work goes into programming Midnight Madness?

Throughout the year, even starting the day after the festival ends, I'm already tracking films. I'm networking with directors, producers, sales agents; trying to find out what films will be ready for the next festival. I'll be requesting screeners and attending festivals.
This year, my living room floor was littered with screeners. I watched a minimum of 200 of those during the summer. It's like mining. You have to go through so much to find the real gems.

The flip side is being diplomatic with people. A film could be great, but it might not necessarily be a fit for Midnight Madness, which has particularly skewed criteria. So the diplomatic part is talking to directors and producers and telling them that it's unfortunately not a fit - and to be positive while doing it.

What are your criteria for a Midnight Madness film?

The audience is coming out at Midnight. Some of them are die hard festival goers and have already seen up to four movies and this is their last stop. So it's my mission to grab them and wake them up. Something has to happen in the first 15 minutes of the film or something's got to hook them until the end.

I've seen films where it gets crazy and violent and heads get ripped off at the end, but you've got to sit through 90 minutes of just talk and not a lot of action to get to that.

At the same time, I don't look for films that are just violent or action-filled just for the sake of it. I look for films which are new, twists on old conventions and challenging. I also look for films that are big spectacles.

If you look at Dredd 3D, it's a big spectacle and it's going to open this year's program really well. Hopefully the attention that Dredd 3D will get will pass right onto a smaller film like Come Out And Play, which is a film from Mexico.

If a person could watch just one Midnight Madness film this year, which one do you suggest?

John Dies at the End, the Don Coscarelli film. Coscarelli directed Phantasm and the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. This new film is all over the place. It's crazy; it's wild. But when I watched the film, the second it was over, I wanted to watch it again. It was that good.

What have been your favourite and proudest Midnight Madness moments?

One of the proudest moments was when we had the North American premiere of Ong Bak. Overnight, we introduced the very first international Thai movie star, Tony Jaa. The reaction to the film at two in the morning was just incredible. Audience on their feet, cheering and screaming.

Another moment was last year's opening of The Raid, which was the first Indonesian martial arts film that anyone had ever really seen. For it to win the Audience Choice Award just made my heart swell.

If you could direct, write and produce your own Midnight Madness film, what would it look like?

Check in the program guide. There's a profile in there of the programmers.

Author's Note: From the program guide - "It's a heartwarming tale about a boy chasing his red balloon through the streets of Paris. Until the tables turn and the balloon becomes a pulsating, snaggle-toothed monster that chases the boy and eventually rips him to shreds. I expect slamming doors and the sounds of little children crying at the film's premiere."

How many hours of sleep do you get during the festival?

I can safely say that I'm the last programmer who gets to sleep. A lot of people think that because I work for the festival, I get to go to all the parties. I'm introducing screenings throughout the afternoon and in the evenings, doing Q+As, and then a film at midnight. I rarely have room to go to parties. Then once the film is over, I sometimes have to go out and celebrate with the director. I'd be lucky if I get to bed at 4.

Please list some of the cool things in your office.

A fully operational working 16mm Steenbeck editing table. Around 500 reels of 16mm films, which include cartoons, features, documentaries. An original Chinese poster for Jet Li's film Once Upon A Time in China. I have a framed picture of the Midnight Madness audience - looking at the audience from the stage - from the world premiere of All The Boys Love Mandy Lane in 2006.

So no guillotine, bear trap or electric chair?

No. I'm probably less gruesome and gory. In fact, one of the misconceptions of Midnight Madness is that it's about horror films and the grisly. I mean, we had the world premiere of Borat, although you could argue that was a horror film.

Speaking of genre films, this summer saw the battle of the superhero movies: The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. Which one did you like the most?

I liked the Avengers, because it was filmed like a comic book. It was a Marvel team up with a bunch of heroes together for the first time on screen, battling a threat, trading jokes and quips back and forth like they used to do in the old Marvel comics that I grew up reading in the 70s.

What are your future goals? Is there anything you haven't done yet at TIFF that you'd like to do?

The fabulous thing now with (TIFF Bell) Lightbox is we have programming all year round. We're going to be soon announcing film screenings that I've been able to program outside of the festival. In October, November and December, we'll be able to share films with audiences. I find that incredibly exciting. We've barely scratched the surface of the possibilities that we'll be able to deliver to the audience.

Photo by George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF


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