Friday 19 April 2013

Film Festivals Q&As: The Cringe Factor

My first experience of film festivals was Cannes for a few years in the 90's as a teenage then student, a place which would never lower itself to do anything as vulgar as Q&As (press conferences, yes, but no Q&As). Besides, good luck moderating one in the Grand Palais with its audience of 2300. But as I went to other, smaller film festivals later on, I grew to love Q&As, and the chance to experience the interaction between the audience and the director and the cast in an informal atmosphere. But as any film festival veteran will know, they also seem to attract some of the most pretentious, annoying or downright bizarre people . So I have tried to remember as many embarrassing incidents as I can. And because it would not be fair to just pour scorn on other, I have kept the most embarrassing incident for the end, one which involves myself...

Hideous Kinky, London Film Festival 1998: the old grumpy pensioner

My very first screening at the London Film Festival, ever! Hideous Kinky was a rather boring adaptation of the novel of the same name, about a young British woman (played by Kate Winslet) trying to give her life some meaning by emigrating to Morocco with her daughters. By then, the London Film Festival was a much less lively and vibrant experience than it has become, and the afternoon audience was populated by pensioners. I was thrilled when director Gillies McKinnon took to the stage to answer questions.

And the first question, by an old man in the audience, went a bit like this:

Man gets up, proceeds to shout at the director "this is a terrible adaptation, you have completely ruined the story, this was rubbish" then walked out under the booing of the audience, while he carried on loudly grumbling. Crikey!

Teknolust, LLGFF 2004: the angry woman with short hair and boyish looks

This was a rather terrible effort about a scientist (played by Tilda Swinton) who creates clones of herself  and a confused story about a sexually transmitted computer virus and the need to love more to save the world, or something like that. Director Lynn Hershman-Leeson was present and was very sweet however, so I felt like forgiving her. Besides, she explained than financing collapsed a day before the shoot and they basically had to improvise and do what they could. And this is how one of the questions went:

Angry woman with sort hair and boyish look: "Why are you here?"

Lynn H-L: "Erm, I've been invited"

Angry woman with short hair and boyish look: "Mmh yeah ok, I kind of liked your film but it's got nothing LGB about it and frankly I wonder what it is doing here"

At which point, while the rest of the audience cringed and Lynn Hershman-Leeson seemed taken aback, the moderator felt the need to intervene, explaining that, while technically the story did not have a clear LGB element, the presence of icon Tilda Swinton, the San Francisco vibe and more subtle elements made this indeed a proper candidate to feature in the festival. Not terribly convincing I have to admit, and perhaps the angry woman with short hair and a boyish look had a point. She just had a terrible way of presenting it.

Charlie Kaufman, BFI talk, September 2011: the annoying, really annoying smug audience member

Charlie Kaufman, scriptwriter of such gems as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, came to London to give a talk and was probably the most fantastically entertaining and compelling orator I have ever listened to. The talk he gave reached such heights of surreal brilliance that while I was supposed to cover it for my blog, I ended up not being able to, as I could not possibly give it justice without just typing a transcript. Speech within the speech, enlightened and seemingly semi-improvised possible outcomes about the actual speech he was given, it was unique, just like the man.

After an hour of this, it was (sadly) time to give way to the audience for some questions. And this is at that time when an exceedingly pleased with himself young man started his question by this (debatable) claim: "If we have all come here to listen to you, it is because we all have issues, just like you", at which point you could see Charlie Kaufman visibly winces with bemusement. I cannot actually remember the question which followed , just some pretentious nonsense which was more about himself than anything else, and the talented host did his best to respond the best he could to this pretentious nonsense without hiding his displeasure.

Damsels In Distress, The Gate Notting Hill Q&A: the misguided question and the catty film director

Damsels In Distress marked the welcome return of director Whit Stillman (Last Days Of Disco), in a film that divided the audience who saw it as the Surprise Film at LFF 2010 right in the middle: it was love or hate and walking out, nothing in between. I enjoyed it so much than I jumped on the chance of seeing it again at a special screening at the lovely Gate Cinema in Notting Hill in London, with a Q&A with the director attending.

And an audience member went on to ask: "Watching your film I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh or not, whether the laughs were intentional?" I sort of can see where he was coming from, as the kook factor and the so unusual blend of comedy was miles away from your usual laugh-fest. But this went down like a lead balloon! The director got incredibly defensive and catty, nearly aggressive even. He proceeded to humiliate the unfortunate audience member by telling him with a surely tone that indeed, this was a comedy, therefore laughs were intentional, and he was indeed meant to laugh, or at least he was hoping he would laugh or he had not done his job properly. He carried on mumbling "Jesus, I cannot believe that question, is it meant to be funny...". As I caught a glimpse of the unfortunate and unwitting offender, he was paralysed and absolutely mortified.

The thing is, I came close to incurring the wrath of Whit Stillman myself... As he had described earlier as he had spent in time in Europe since his last film all these year before, I thought about asking him whether he had considered making a film in Europe just like Woody Allen had been doing recently, completely forgetting that the director had made Barcelona (set in Barcelona obviously), all these years ago. Thankfully I never asked that question and had a lucky escape.

FrightFest 2012, Dario Argento Q&A: the Caravaggio

Dario Argento (Suspiria, Inferno) came for a special Q&A at FrightFest in London last year, and as talented as he is, was not the most eloquent interviewee at first, with the moderator seemingly doing all the talking, although he did warm up progressively. Then it was time for the questions for the audience...

A young, startstruck fan did not have a question, he went on a rant about how Dario Argento was basically the second coming of art, the epitome of genius, then went on to solemnly proclaim say: "You are the Caravaggio Mr Argento". Well Mr Argento's surprising poor grasp of English and look of bemusement meant that he did not know what to respond to such grand claims and probably did not understand them anyway, which might have been for the best

Adoration, LFF 2008: the experiment of Doctor Ox

I am a huge fan of Atom Egoyan, and I had placed Exotica in the top 20 of my favourite films which I published last year. In 2008 he came to present Adoration at the London Film Festival, an intriguing film bracing such issues as terrorism and integration, with his wife Arsinée Khanjian as seductively mysterious as ever. This time, the embarrassment came from the director himself. To my dismay, he had already come across as being awfully smug. He then asked the audience if anybody had seen the opera he had directed for the English National Opera in London in 1998 but nobody raised their hand. He expressed his displeasure, explaining that most people at a previous Q&A had actually seen it.

Except that I had actually seen it. And it was awful. There was no way I was going to raise my hand in case he asked me about it. Intrigued by the unusual prospect of an opera by this director, and enticed by the £5 seats you could grab at the ENO at the time, I had convinced a friend to see it with me. As it started, a two notes, very slow tune went on for five minutes. Then the lights went on the stage, and for a further ten minutes, the cast, dressed in white drapes did nothing, nothing at all. Then some green characters came on stage very slowly as the music had not changed. At which point my friend fled, and I joined her at the interval, just as some characters dressed in orange had made their dramatically slow appearance.

A Toute Vitesse: Cannes Film Festival 1996: How I learned never to ask a question never again

Back in the mid 90's, I had a crush on actor Gael Morel, having been mightily impressed and touched by Les Roseaux Sauvages by André Téchiné. He was roughly my age and seemed to be sharing some of my romantic inclinations and trials, in the film anyway. And in 1995, as Gael Morel presented Le Plus Bel Âge at Un Certain Regard in Cannes (a frightfully boring film set in La Sorbonne), I plucked the courage to ask him for an autograph at the end of the screening as he was leaving the screen.

But he was back a year later in 1996 with his first film, A Toute Vitesse, presented at the Director's Fortnight. Now I said Cannes Film Festival does not do Q&As, which is technically not true, as the Director's Fortnight actually did at the time, in a small tent outside the screening room right after the daytime screenings. The film was actually terrible, pretentious, unconvincing, and rather annoying in parts.

I cannot actually remember much of the story, but at the Q&A, I was trying to think of anything I could ask, just so that I could speak to him. And there I went: "Is there much of an autobiographical element in this film?", as I backed up my question with elements of his script and Gael Morel's own life. Surely that does not sound too bad, I hear you say. And Gael Morel actually did not object to the question, explaining that, yes indeed, especially being his first film, there was some truth to that.

But the thing is, within seconds of speaking to the object of my affection, I completely lost all composure and confidence, getting completely star struck. I started slurring my words, blushed, made some weird facial expressions, yet soldiered on carrying on asking my question as stopping half-way through would have been even more cringe-worthy. I must had came across as completely retarded and I could almost see the rest of the audience cringe. And as he answered and looked me in the eyes, things went worse as I started sweating profusely, feeling like I was about to faint any minute. I was absolutely mortified, all the more as everybody else seemed perfectly calm and composed when asking their question. To this day, I have never been able to ask a question at any Q&A, as this traumatic experience is branded upon my brain.

I am sure memories of other embarrassing Q&As will come back to me and I shall update this post as they come along. But I am sure a lot of our have such experiences to share, and I would love for you to get in touch with me and share them. Please e-mail me via the contact list on my blog, with your first name, location, and the name of the film and the year and place the incident took place, and I will publish them!

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