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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Johanna Schneller

Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 12, 2003

What is to be done about the alleged press conferences during the Toronto International Film Festival? They should be a golden opportunity -- rows of glittering cast members from the hottest movies provide salient quotes to a lot of reporters who can't get one-on-one interview time.

They are popular: 45 minutes before its scheduled start, 25 people were already lined up for Tuesday's In the Cut press conference, which included director Jane Campion, and stars Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh; the number eventually swelled to more than 80.

Yet, they are consistently a stinking swamp of wasted time, and deeply embarrassing to boot -- to real reporters, to Toronto, and to the world.

With all that shiny talent revved up to talk, these are some of the questions the "journalists" asked of the In the Cut team: "Ms. Campion, what is the film to you?" "Ms. Ryan, did the nudity worry you?" "Jane, why did you use the word feminine to describe the point of view?"

And the single worst question of the festival: "Meg, when you held the bag with the severed head, what was actually in the bag?"

I was not involved in the making of In the Cut, but I knew the answers to those questions. A monkey would know the answers to those questions.

They are: 1) The film to Campion is the film Campion made, and if you can't tell what that is from watching it, you should stick to Finding Nemo.

2) No, the nudity didn't worry Ryan, or she wouldn't have done it. Did the reporter think her clothes fell off by accident, and stayed off for dozens of takes from every conceivable camera angle?

3) The protagonist is a female, therefore her point of view is feminine; had the protagonist been male, Campion probably wouldn't have used that word.

4) A prosthetic head.

No wonder actors hate the press. Even the two British reporters next to me whispered to each other: "God, such stupid fucking questions."

The talent gamely tried to find decent answers. Ruffalo talked about how Campion tried to create a visual dialogue to convey the poetry of behaviour outside a straight narrative.

But this made Ryan smile, and every time Ryan smiled the phalanx of cameras in the front row whirred to life so loudly that it drowned the answers out.

By the time the prosthetic head question came up, Ryan wasn't even pretending to look interested any more. When she wasn't actively disdainful, she was staring balefully into corners of the room. At least the cameras were quiet then.

It was more of the same at the School of Rock presser, questions so flat that the writer, Mike White, and the cast, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman and Joan Cusack, resorted to making repeated diarrhea jokes. One infamous microphone hog rambled on about how funny the film was and how much money it would make and how handsome Black looked in a suit, until moderator Jennie Punter mercifully interrupted: "What's your question?"

"All I can say is, I'm speechless," she replied. I wish.

It's a testament to Black's quick-wittedness that he jumped in and rescued us. "Okay, I'll run with that," he said, then proceeded to ride his own message track for a while, addressing the stuff he wish he'd been asked. He finished with, deadpan: "I hope that answers your question." The grateful room actually burst into applause.

What is the problem with these mummified scribes? It's not a language barrier; the most excruciating questions are always asked by people speaking their native English. It's not a question of being cowed by the crowd; I've been in dozens of post-public-screening Q&A sessions where the questions asked by ordinary filmgoers, in front of hundreds of strangers, were 10 times more trenchant.

Wednesday's Q&A with white-haired, cult-hero director Jim Jarmusch after a 1 p.m. showing of his episodic film Coffee and Cigarettes, for example, was a delight, with the amateurs posing questions worthy of graduate film students. They asked about script development, technical challenges, creative turning points and rejected ideas. Their questions built upon one another, and gave Jarmusch, a fine raconteur to begin with, the chance to deliver a half-dozen winning anecdotes. It was a blast, and everyone left smiling.

Unlike the press corps' typical questions ("How did you make such a beautiful movie?"), the audiences aren't all mortifyingly sycophantic. At a Pollack screening in 2000, one audience member dared to point out that director/star Ed Harris had stooped to a false cliché by depicting Jackson Pollack inventing drip painting in one eureka moment. Harris sputtered with indignation for 10 minutes, revealing unflattering sides of his character no press conference ever did. By contrast, I was in the DreamWorks suite immediately following a 1999 presser for American Beauty, and overheard its publicists complaining about how soft the questions were. Trust me, that is shocking. When a publicist complains that questions are too soft, it's time to turn in your press pass.

So what's the solution? Reporters could submit questions in advance, to screen out the egregiously inane ones. Moderators could studiously avoid calling on repeat offenders. Or -- and this would be my choice -- reporters with decent questions should band together and do what audiences do at bad films: Hiss the idiots down. ROBTv Workopolis