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Ian Harnarine’s Toronto Film Festival Diary

Hi, my name is Ian Harnarine and I’m one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” for 2012. My short film Doubles With Slight Pepper won the award for Best Canadian Short Film at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and also won the Genie Award (Canada’s Oscar). I am adapting the short film into a feature and was invited back by the festival to compete in their PITCH THIS! competition. I will compete with five other filmmakers that each have six minutes to pitch their feature film idea to a live audience of over 200 industry professionals. The winner, selected by a jury of would receive $10,000 to further develop the project. Here is my experience at TIFF12.

Wednesday September 5th, 2012

Picked up my credentials and the Industry headquarters at the Hyatt Hotel. My badge gets me into all Press & Industry Screenings but can also work for public screenings 15 minutes before the start time after ticket holders have been let in. It can be frustrating, but you can usually get a ticket.

The festival proper doesn’t begin until Thursday, but today marks the beginning of TIFF’s Talent Lab for emerging filmmakers and the RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition announcement. A few months after the festival, “labbers” are given $500 and a theme to make a five-minute film.

Piers Handling (Director and CEO of TIFF) made the announcement that this year’s Talent Lab will be dedicated to Bingham Ray, who passed away a few months after last year’s Lab. On a personal note, I got to know Bingham at last year’s festival and will always remember him for his candor, kindness and willingness to share his decades of experience with us.

Jordan Canning’s film Seconds, about a man’s life that flashes before his eyes as he chokes to death on a piece of meat, wins the competition. It’s a terrific film.

I win because they have mini eggs Benedicts to eat! I also do an interview with a Toronto Star reporter who is writing a story on my Talent Lab experience last year.

I check in at my hotel (1 King West), which TIFF is kind enough to provide. The room is better than my apartment: it has a dishwasher and a washer/dryer! This is the life.

I work on my pitch for a few hours and then head to the Jet Lag Party which is put on by TIFF’s Sales & Industry Office and the Toronto Film Commission. It’s great to see so many friends from last year’s festival and meet others.

Then off to the Spoke Club’s popup. It’s a massive multi-floor space. It’s a wonderfully warm night for Toronto in September.


Thursday September 6th, 2012

The Press & Industry screenings begin with Rian Johnson’s Looper, which will open the festival later in the day. I’m a time travel geek so I love it – along with Bruce Willis! In general, one should try and see the films that won’t get big distribution because chances are a festival like TIFF is probably the only chance you’ll be able to see films from around the world. I went with Looper because it’s the opening night film and I know people are going to be talking about it – I think you’ve got to be part of the conversation.

Followed it up with West of Memphis, about the West Memphis Three. Although this story has been brought to light by the Paradise Lost trilogy, I still couldn’t help but get caught up in the sick injustice that happened.

Then off to The Hunt, which I missed at Cannes. An incredible film of a man being wrongly accused, but with a flooring performance by the lead, Mads Mikkelsen.

After that downer, it was time to hit the parties. Went to the Toronto Life party at the newly opened swank Shangri-La Hotel, which was filled with Toronto’s upper crust and fashion industry. Felt incredibly out of place as it seemed mostly fashion industry not film industry. In fact, we were readily identified by a few other TIFF goers based on our “look.”

Although there are tons of parties at TIFF, the festival puts on very few parties: one of them is the Opening Night Party. A massive blowout that was held around the Air Canada Center. It’s huge, loud, packed to capacity and overflowing with food, booze and beautiful people.

Ended up at Bungalow 8, which was on the rooftop of the Thompson Hotel. Incredible venue with terrific views of the skyline. A far more intimate experience coming from the Opening Night Party.

I went back to my room and practiced the pitch a few times before sleeping for a few hours.

Friday September 7, 2012

The morning began with a networking breakfast for a few members from TIFF & Edinburgh Film Festival’s Talent Labs. Got to meet some wonderful young producers from across the pond that I’ll definitely be keeping in touch with.

Then I had a one-on-one with a Toronto-based production company that has expressed some interest in my work. I still find it hard to talk about myself (without feeling like a dirty pimp), but it’s something that I’m working on.

I saw Peter Mettler’s new doc, The End of Time, which is mind-bendingly beautiful. I especially appreciated the unprecedented access he had at CERN. Made me nostalgic for my own high-energy physics days working on massive experiments in Germany.

Of course, TIFF has films but it also has an impressive lineup of panels and speakers. My first panel was on screenwriting. Stuart Blumberg (Thanks for Sharing) spoke a lot about the differences in writing for Hollywood and for independent films. Sergio Sanchez (The Impossible) spoke passionately about trying to get the stories we have within ourselves to the world.

I was invited to attend the party for Snoop Dog’s (I mean, Snoop Lion’s) Reincarnated on the top floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. This is my favorite venue at the festival – it has a great view of the city, can fit a lot of people but still feels intimate.

The ACCT (Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television) threw a wonderful bash at the The Shore Club. A massive red carpet that even had some real Mounties! It was filled with the who’s who of the Canadian industry and everyone was dressed to the nines.

Saturday September 8th, 2012

I started the day off with Argo. It was a public screening, which meant I had to rush for a ticket. I enjoyed the film and was reminded how much fun a real audience can be. From the chorus of “ARRRRS!” that are heard when the anti-piracy notice is shown to the applause for the good guys at the end of the film. Good fun.

How To Make a Living Selling Drugs is a doc that lives up to its name. It has an interesting infomercial type tone, but casually builds to a strong argument for the legalization of all drugs.

Eli Roth appeared at a Canon event (his film Aftershock was shot on 5D and is playing TIFF), where they had tons of their latest cinema cameras available for hands-on fiddling. My film was shot on the Canon 5D so it’s interesting to see how much they’ve embraced filmmakers.

Then off to a TIFF Talent Lab party for current and past “labbers”. Great to meet up with friends from last year and meet some of the new crop of emerging filmmakers. A friend (who shall remain nameless) attended the Filmmaker Breakfast that morning and stole my favorite director’s nametag for me, knowing that he definitely wouldn’t show up!

The Silver Lining Playbook party was held at the brand new Soho House. It’s so new that it really didn’t seem finished. There was a huge amount of energy in the room – makes sense since it would later win the highly coveted Audience Award.

Sunday September 9th, 2012

Started the morning with a panel about Social Media Marketing for Indie Films. Christine Vachon asked an interesting question that I’m still pondering: Does the way we consume media now influence the media we create?

A fascinating panel about VOD followed. I didn’t really know much about the ins and outs of VOD, so it really was an education for me. I was flabbergasted to learn from Ed Burns that he has no advertising budget for his films. Amazing.

I then spent a few hours practicing my pitch. Starting to feel really nervous. Had trouble sleeping because of it.

Monday September 10th, 2012

Started the morning off with an interview for a local TV Station (CHCH). The focus was mostly about what’s happened since I won TIFF last year. For the first time I really look back at what an amazing blur it’s all been. So lucky to have had this bit of success.

I begin practicing and finally rehearse with my friend Karina Rotenstein – only to discover that I’m talking way too fast. If I talk at a normal pace I’m well over the six-minute time limit. Completely stressed out now. I need to cut out about a minute of material. Luckily my pitch coach (David Miller of Agency71 Productions and Producer of Amal and Blackbird) just happens to walk by. He’s clearly sleep deprived, but sits down and gives us some notes on exactly what to do. I go through it again, and I’m below the six minutes. THANKS, COACH!

I elect to stay at home and memorize the changes to the pitch. I think I practiced about 10 times consecutively. I take a nice hot shower and fall asleep pretty easily.

Tuesday September 11th, 2012

Call time for rehearsal is 8am. I finally get to meet the five other competing teams. Everyone’s energy is pretty high considering it’s 8am! We are ushered out of the room and will be sequestered in the green room together so we are not able to see each others rehearsals or actual pitches. A few are unhappy about this – I couldn’t be happier! These are amazing projects and I’d just feel depressed if I saw their pitches. My time comes and I go to my rehearsal. I completely bomb my first try. There’s something about being on stage with the bright lights on you – I just completely screwed up. I can’t imagine that this empty theater is going to be filled in a few hours and all eyes will be on me.

I do a second rehearsal. This time, I relax and try to stay in one place as much as I can. When I get nervous, I pace, which probably makes me look like a roaming lunatic. It goes a lot better. I head back to the the green room, where they have lunch waiting for us. I also get to hang out with my fellow competitors. They are all amazing people. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and good will towards to one another.

I practice some more and start getting really nauseous (which is normal for my nerves!). Finally a volunteer calls my name and I walk with him backstage. I can hear the team on stage right now – a group of really funny ladies that have the crowd howling. It’s going to be tough to follow. After a brief snafu with a wireless mic I head out there and do my pitch. My mouth turns immediately dry. I gaze out over the crowd. It’s massive. I recognize some family & friends but resist the urge to say hi. Something happens though. My subconscious takes over and I say everything that I wanted to say. I trip over a few words, but I think it’s fine. I leave the stage to applause.

An immediate sense of relief comes over me as I head back to the green room where some have found bottles of wine, which we drink in celebration.

A few hours later, the jury announces that I WON!! Can’t believe it. I take the stage and accept a large novelty check for $10,000 – so cool! The best part is that so much friends and family are there to celebrate along with me. I get inundated with photo and interview requests. I don’t remember anything aside from having a dopey grin.

Hours later, the SXSW party happens. It’s a notorious karaoke bash and it’s packed. My voice is really hoarse and my throat sore from all of the talking. Also, I’m mentally and physically exhausted, so I leave pretty quickly.

Wednesday September 13, 2012

I have a 9am breakfast with an interested producer. I’ve been a big fan of this person’s work for years, so it’s a humbling experience.

I get to relax and learn at panels on crowdfunding (my film was partly made on a Kickstarter campaign) and a wonderful panel on Canadian films set internationally. This is exactly what I want to do, so it’s inspiring to hear what Sudz Sutherland (Home Again) and Kim Nguyen (War Witch– I’m pretty sure will get an Oscar nomination this year) have to say about getting their films made.

Thursday September 14th, 2012

With no more meetings or obligations and most of the industry has left I can finally see some films!

I check out Leviathan, Artifact, Aftershock, Detroit Unleaded and Jump.

My mind gets absolutely blown when I settle into Mumbai’s King by Manjeet Singh. I haven’t been able to see a lot of the new Indian independent films, but I’m so glad I saw this. The energy reminds me of a New York indie film except transported to India. It’s wonderful.

Friday September 15th, 2012

I get to attend an event at the Ontario Legislature where the Countess of Wessex will celebrate TIFF and the British Film Industry. Piers Handling and Michele Maheux get awards and so does Atom Egoyan. It’s a terrific evening as I even get to meet the Princess! She seems really down to earth as she takes a try DJing.

Saturday September 16th, 2012

I get an invite to attend Spike Lee’s Bad 25 documentary screening and after-party. I take my mom (my wife’s back in New York) who has the time of her life. The documentary is a fascinating tour of the creative process. Of course, the music is amazing and so are the interviews.

I will leave TIFF the next morning, but at least I know who Annie is from MJ’s classic track Smooth Criminal!

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