TIFF 2013: Back where they started

10 rookie directors who lived to face another fest
Canadian director Don McKellar poses for a portrait in Toronto Friday, August 23, 2013 while promoting his latest film "The Grand Seduction" which will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan
Canadian director Don McKellar. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

The Toronto International Film Festival can make or break a first-time filmmaker. From the expectations of overeager audiences to the onslaught of critics, rookie directors can leave the festival hungry to return, or terrified to ever face a theatre again. As the 2013 edition of TIFF approaches, we take a look at 10 rookie directors—five homegrown talents and five international artists—who made their bones in Toronto, and survived to return this year.

The Canadian contingent

1. Don McKellar: Perhaps better known as an actor, McKellar has also done his fair of duty behind the camera, starting with Last Night, a non-explosive look at the apocalypse. The Toronto-shot drama, which McKellar also stars in (naturally), had its North American premiere at TIFF in 1998. McKellar has been coming back ever since, whether as an actor (The Red Violin) or director (Childstar). This year, McKellar is screening his biggest picture to date, The Grand Seduction, an English-language adaptation of the beloved Quebecois film starring Taylor Kitsch (whose CV we’ll just dance around for now).

2. Jason Reitman: With four acclaimed films under his belt, Reitman is arguably now as famous as his Ghostbusting father, Ivan. Ever since premiering his feature-film debut Thank You for Smoking at TIFF in 2005, Reitman has been on a hot streak, striking out only with 2011’s Young Adult (which, it must be said, was his one film to skip TIFF). Jason returns to Toronto this year with Labor Day, a nuanced drama starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin that appears to eschew the dark-comedy trappings of his previous work.

3. Jennifer Baichwal: The Montreal-born documentarian has been a regular TIFF presence since 1998, when she premiered Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles. Since then, she’s delivered such acclaimed films as Manufactured Landscapes, Act of God and Payback. This year, Baichwal is re-teaming with photographer Edward Burtynsky, subject of Manufactured Landscapes, for the doc Watermarks, which explores humanity’s most compromised resource.

4. Denis Villeneuve: The Quebecois director is a rare beast at this year’s festival, with two films that both happen to star Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners and Enemy). The filmmaker got his start at the fest back in 1998 with August 32nd on Earth, a moody drama focused on the themes of life, death and self-discovery that would come to define his nuanced work (Incendies, Polytechnique).

5. Ingrid Veninger: Canada’s reigning queen of DIY cinema, Veninger specializes in micro-budgeted, oft-autobiographical dramas. After directing a spate of short films, Veninger made her feature debut at TIFF with 2008’s Only, a day-in-the-life love story between two young tweens. The Toronto-based filmmaker returns to the festival this year with The Animal Project, which explores the “furry” subculture.

The outsiders

1. Eli Roth: TIFF’s Midnight Madness program has proven to be a boon for many a rookie filmmaker, but perhaps none more so than Roth. The American horror wunderkind brought his feature debut Cabin Fever to Midnight Madness in 2002, and quickly sold the ultra-gory pic to Lionsgate for $3.5 million, the biggest sale of that year’s fest. (It proved to be a wise investment on Lionsgate’s behalf, with the film eventually earning $57 million worldwide, and spawning a direct-to-DVD sequel.) Roth has since become a TIFF regular, returning with Hostel and last year’s Aftershock, which he produced and starred in. This year, the multi-hyphenate is back once more with The Green Inferno, a sure-to-be-quaint tale of American tourists and Amazonian cannibals.

2. Steve McQueen: Not to be confused with the late American actor, McQueen is a world-renowned British artist and director who’s won both the Turner Prize and Cannes’ Caméra d’Or. He made his directorial debut at TIFF in 2008 with Hunger, a startling portrait of IRA member and hunger-striker Bobby Sands (played by frequent muse Michael Fassbender). The filmmaker returned to Toronto in 2011 with the psycho-sexual character study Shame, and is back again this year with 12 Years a Slave, a far more conventional-looking period piece.

3. Laila Marrakchi: The Moroccan filmmaker got her career off to a fiery start in 2005 when TIFF screened Marock, a family drama that broke box-office records in her home country. The Casablanca-bred director returns to the festival—and genre—that made her famous this year with Rock the Casbah (which, no, is not a biography of The Clash).

4. David Gordon Green: Back in 2000, U.S. director David Gordon Green was making a name for himself as a master of gothic Southern drama, with his debut George Washington taking TIFF by storm. Since then, he’s had a somewhat eccentric career, with a long mid-stream shift into Judd Apatow’s comedy world (Pineapple Express, The Sitter and the HBO series Eastbound and Down). This year, though, Green appears to be returning to his indie roots, with the just-released Prince Avalanche and the 2013 TIFF selection Joe, which stars Nicolas Cage as a violent ex-con.

5. Richard Ayoade: Like McKellar, Ayoade is more known for his acting than directing. With his starring role on British television’s hit The I.T. Crowd (and, to a lesser extent, his bit part in last summer’s Ben Stiller comedy The Watch), Ayoade is famed for his ultra-dry wit. It’s a talent he transferred to the director’s chair with his coming-of-age film Submarine, which proved to be a modest hit at TIFF in 2010. This year, Ayoade is switching gears altogether for The Double, a dark Dostoevsky adaptation starring Jesse Eisenberg and Wasikowska.