Brian D. Johnson: ’You never get sick of the good stuff’

From the archives: The Maclean’s veteran dishes on the highs and lows of the festival

Read the entire interview with Brian below:

Q: Anyone who takes film seriously in this country knows who Brian D. Johnson is. He’s been writing about movies at Maclean’s since 1985, he’s been to Cannes for the last 18 years in a row, and this will be his 27th year covering the Toronto International Film Festival, and he wrote this book [Brave Films Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever], which in my opinion should be required reading for any journalist covering the festival. Heck, for anyone who loves movies. Now, Brian, let me get this straight. Your first involvement with TIFF was actually delivering films before you were writing about movies?

A: Oh, yeah. I was a freelancer, and when TIFF came around for three years I paid my dues at the festival by hoisting celluloid up fire escapes to projection booths, which is kind of what you had to do back then. It was really the best job I ever had. I’d pack an Econoline van full of, you know, metal crates of film, and go . . . they treated you like a hero.

Q: Really?

A: You know, people were lined up around the block . . . you know, the organizers are very nervous because if I don’t show up with the film . . .

Q: There’s not going to be a movie!

A: There’s no show. I’ve never felt such a vital part of the film industry as when I actually delivered the movies to the theatres. It was great. And also it was like going to the gym, you get into great shape.

Q: I can imagine! But then you didn’t stop there, you just didn’t deliver film, you’ve had different roles with the festival. Such as…?

A: Well, mostly I’ve been a film critic, you know, being part of the publicity mill. But I’ve been a filmmaker, I’ve had two films programmed at the festival, and this year—I’m kind of dreading it—but I’m an interview subject in a documentary about Garth Drabinsky. So that’s going to be a bit weird because, you know, seeing yourself on the big screen is . . . I’m sure that can’t be easy. So I’m going to get some of my own medicine, you know?

Q: Exactly! That’ll be interesting. Now, listen, when you were a kid is this something that you always thought about? Were films always important to you?

A: Films, no. I mean, I liked movies like any other kid, but movies were not special to me until I became a film critic.

Q: Really?

A: Well, I shouldn’t say that. But yeah, so I’ve had no education in film aside from just watching films at a particularly ripe period during the late ’60s and early ’70s when that whole kind of New Wave splashed through North America.

Q: You lived through it.

A: Yeah, and everybody who was at all kind of intellectually/artistically inclined, movies were a huge part of your life. I mean, you know, foreign-language films, we all went to foreign-language films, you know, it just was part of growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s. So I had that kind of informal education in film. And I was politically involved, I was kind of left-wing, and also, you know, the New Wave movement, and also film criticism itself—although I didn’t know it at the time—was kind of a very, you know, somewhat ideological movement. It was critical of the status quo, it was full of all kind of French structuralist nonsense. But I just lucked into it. I went to journalism first—it’s a long story, you don’t want to hear the whole story, but basically I was sort of into hard news and then kind of flipped into the arts, and when the Maclean’s film critic kind of disappeared I stepped into his shoes, knowing a good job when I saw it.

Q: Enthusiastically, I imagine.

A: Yeah, it’s a great job, because films are about everything, so you can basically cover every single kind of human activity and write about it in a way that very few other beats allow you to.

Q: You mentioned that sort of the most memorable moments in the festival sort of in the 1980s and in the early ’90s were always in the cinema itself rather than at a party. Do you still feel that way?

A: Well, there have been some good parties, but the amount of time that I’ve spent sort of chasing celebrities and party tickets and all the rest of it, when you come down to it it’s just a blur. But, you know, what really does remain with you. It’s the films. And that’s particularly true in Cannes as well. I mean, you’re in this spectacular fairy-tale setting on the Riviera but it’s really in the dark room, that’s where the magic happens. And I remember in Toronto at TIFF… like, increasingly as journalists we have to follow, you know, the Oscar pedigree films because that’s what people are interested in. But meanwhile the joy of going to a festival, if you’re a cinephile, is that there’s this whole world of films that you’ll never get another chance to see. You know, or the notion of discovering a film.

Q: Right.

A: And I remember once, after my business was kind of done, towards the end of the festival, Ruby Rich—who’s an American critic—and I, we sort of said, “Let’s try to find something,” you know, “really interesting to go to.” We went and we saw this film by Claire Denis, a French director, called Beau Travail, which was set in East Africa in the deserts, the moonscape of East Africa, where you had French Foreign Legionnaires choreographed like modern dancers with a Neil Young song in the background, and it’s… it was like dying and going to heaven because of the surprise. You know, it’s like you walk into a theatre not knowing what to expect, not knowing what you’re going to see, and then you’re transported to another world, and that’s the magic which doesn’t get old.

Q:  Now, listen, you deal with celebrities pretty much on a weekly basis, you’re interviewing them for stories and so on. Have you ever been star-struck?

A: Well, it’s kind of your professional duty not to be star-struck. Inevitably there are celebrities who pose more of an emotional challenge than others. I mean, outside of film. You know, talking to Mick Jagger is kind of the Everest of interviews, you know, what do you ask and how do you. But part of the way you do a celebrity interview is you establish, as soon as you can, that we’re both just people and we have our agendas and you’re going to try to make it interesting for them because they’re on an assembly line. You’re not. I mean, you’re on a different kind of assembly line where during a festival you’re seeing one celebrity maybe after the other, but they’re sitting in a room having one journalist after another come in for maybe eight hours? And I’m not saying we should feel sorry for them—it’s a privileged existence—but that is difficult and it’s difficult to stay fresh. So it’s part of my job as a journalist, not quite buttering them up, but you want to kind of find the moment. You know, you want to find a chemistry of some sort, and usually that means that you’re going in there with a very specific set of questions, just like if you’re playing a jazz score and you’ve got the score in front of you, but you’ve got to be ready right from the opening moment; to find a spontaneous kind of hook into it that doesn’t feel scripted.

Q: You just gave away all your trade secrets. I feel so lucky right now!

A: One of my favourite TIFF interviews actually was with Errol Morris, the documentary director, who is a famous interviewer, so my first question was, “What’s the secret to a good interview? ” And he said, “Shutting up.”

Q: Oh, wow!

A: And then there was a long pause.

Q: Oh, no!

A: It’s true, though.

Q: Really? Because then you are forced to fill in the silence?

A: Yeah, in fact often if you feel uncomfortable with a subject and you don’t kind of pave over all of the gaps and if you ask a difficult question then say, “Like, like, you know, when…” if you don’t do that, you just leave an abyss and let the person fill it, there’s something about an open mike where people feel they have to say something, whereas if you make it easy for them you’re cutting your own throat as an interviewer.

Q: Twenty-seven years of covering the festival, there must be a moment that stands out. Is there?

A: It’s a blur. I wish there was a moment that stood out!

Q: Gotta be one, one juicy little…

A: One juicy little… I mean, there are lots of moments. I remember meeting Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs

Q: Wow.

A: . . . before he was Quentin Tarantino, and you’re interviewing him, and this guy was talking, I mean, like a mile a minute. He makes Martin Scorsese sound like he’s on Quaaludes he’s talking so fast. And I’m asking him about violence, you know, and his language is violent, the way he defends his violence, because it’s more disturbing than Hollywood violence. And he’d been up all night partying with his, you know, festival rat friends, Robert Rodriguez and all these guys who are, like, this new sub-wave of American filmmakers that were coming along. In retrospect, you think, “You know, that’s when he was just starting out” . . . and that’s kind of exciting when you catch people early on or, you know, if you go to a diner and have a hamburger with Jason Reitman and he’s doing his second film, Juno, and you have no idea what’s in store for him. Talking to Jane Fonda and sort of studying her complexion. You know, the thing about movie stars that is really interesting when you talk to them, is that in person their beauty—or lack of it—you can’t really disguise it in person. You see the person, you know? I don’t think I was ever so star-struck by anybody as Gregory Peck.

Q: Really?

A: Just because he was sort of an icon for movies of my youth. And most of all I wasn’t expecting much when I walked in. It wasn’t, “Oh, wow, Gregory,” but the charisma of the guy just bowled me over, I thought, “Wow, this is a real movie star.”

Q: That’s lovely.

A: Jessica Lange, back in the day, thinking this is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

Q: Wow.

A: Madonna, not so hot.

Q: Really? Wow! Wow! Incredible. You heard it here first! I read about, in this book, a place—was it called Heaven? An after-hours sort of disco club that everyone frequented and anything happened and everything did happen and was encouraged to happen. Did anything happen there for you?

A:  No, nothing happened. I didn’t go to Heaven.

Q: You didn’t?

A: I didn’t die and go to Heaven, I didn’t live and go to Heaven. No, you know, a lot of the festival lore I feel I kind of missed out on.

Q: You were working.

A: And, you know, films get out late, and what are you going to do with Robert De Niro and, you know, Martin Scorcese . . . and it was a time in the film industry where the whole thing was kind of a river of sex and cocaine, you know? So I didn’t actually take part in that, you know? I mean, I was in a band at the time, in a different kind of world, but that sort of champagne-and-limousine world . . . escaped me.

Q: It’s for the best.

A: Yeah, for the best.

Q: Professional through and through.

A: Well, no, just missing out, I think. Just missing out on it, you know? Yeah, the parties, the parties. And it used to be I would go to a lot of TIFF parties, but now who’s got the time, you know? The TIFF schedule is so insane you spend all your time chasing films and interviews and you drop into a party to grab a bite or get a drink or talk to someone . . .but it’s definitely the TIFF industrial complex now, it’s not as festive a festival as it once was just because it’s not so local, it’s not so homey, it doesn’t really belong to us anymore, it belongs to the world, for better or worse.

Q: I want to ask one more question, if there’s something that you’re excited to see.

A: Yeah, I think The Master, which is… I think everybody’s excited to see The Master because it comes from Paul Thomas Anderson—Magnolia, etc.—because it stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, and because it is about—or not about, depending who you listen to—Ron L. Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and the trailer looks great. So that’s one we’re all dying to see. I’m kind of dying to see the De Palma movie. I mean, De Palma . . . with Rachel McAdams in it. I’m also dying to see the Terrence Malick film, also with Rachel McAdams. So there’s those, and there’s a lot of good films at TIFF that I’ve already seen, you know, at Cannes, including Michael Haneke’s Amour and The Hunt, a Danish film. There’s lots of stuff. You know, it’s funny, TIFF gets obscured by the celebrity glitz but the fact is there’s still a bedrock of world cinema there that’s there for the taking for those who want to expend the incredible energy it takes to actually navigate this festival.

Q: Do you ever get sick of movies?

A: I get sick of bad movies, and the majority of them are not great, but you never get sick of good movies. And whenever you see a really good movie it’s like, “What was I thinking? ” You start to sort of give the benefit of the doubt to kind of okay and mediocre stuff, and then something blows you out of the water and you say, “Wait a minute, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we care,” you know? So you never get sick of the good stuff.