Midnight Madness is certainly not for the weak of heart. But those who were feeling a little brave this year decided to take part in the Toronto International Film Festival‘s lineup of horror films, led by Peter Kuplowsky. No stranger to the festival circuit, Peter trained under Colin Geddes for four years before taking the reins himself.
At just 30 years old, Peter already has quite an impressive resume. He is not afraid to take risks and, because of his meticulous planning, creates a safe space for a memorable movie-watching experience for all to enjoy.
We had the opportunity to chat with Peter about this year’s lineup, and to see where we can find him next.
Kimberley Drapack: How did you first become involved in film?
Peter Kuplowsky: I’ve always been interested in movies and I’ve always wanted to make film. When I was eleven years old my mom took me to the TIFF offices back when they were at 2 Carleton and I interviewed Steve Greystock, not realizing that over a decade later that I would be working with him. TIFF seemed in the cards for a long time.
I was an undergrad student at the University of Toronto specializing in Cinema Studies and at the same time I was helping out with an emerging festival called Toronto After Dark. I enthusiastically volunteered after just having come back from Montréal and experiencing the Fantasia Film Festival. It was an eye opening experience to me and was my first introduction to film festivals because back then Toronto was an 18+ festival and I couldn’t get into any screenings, although I definitely tried and was turned away.
U of T had a student union that had a very generous budget to rent movies so I became a programmer there, selecting films to the student union to show other undergrads. I heard that Colin Geddys, who used to run the midnight madness program, had a large kung fu film collection and I was really into Hong Kong cinema, I reached out to him and started renting prints from him and at the same time I was working at the Bloor cinema as a concessions jockey. I really wanted to start putting on movies there, specifically this one film, Troll 2, considered one of the worst films ever made. I found it so entertaining. I ended up booking the Bloor and putting on a screening of the film there, it was a big success and got Colin’s attention, and he referred to me as the “T2 kid.” We organically began to hang out in the same circle and he noticed my enthusiasm for film programming and putting on shows and eventually asked if I wanted to be an assistant and help him on some of his projects. Initially, it wasn’t Midnight Madness, we collaborated on a festival in South Carolina called Action Fest, I think it was sort of a trial run. We worked on the festival for two years and then after that, I had just finished another job and didn’t know what I was going to be doing and that’s when he suggest I start working with him on the Midnight Madness program.
For the last four years I was the the programming associate, working with Colin. In January he retired, and he generously passed the position to me, which I was completely thrilled about. As bittersweet as it was, I’ve been such a huge fan of this program since I first started attending, I’ve always felt that it was kind of a state of the union of genre films for the year because it was so tightly curated and it spans such a diverse array of different type of genre films, not just horror movies, but martial arts films, films from the around the world… it’s surreal to have that responsibility now but it’s something that I feel really privileged and excited about.
K: Your goal for Midnight Madness over the next five years is to create a lineup of not only horror films, but also a broader genre of films and to emphasize movies that discuss important hot topics. What does this mean to you?
PK: My favourite kinds of genre films or “movies to watch at midnight” are movies that really upset expectations because one of the attractions or appeals of great genre cinema are not really their generic properties, or the generic formulas you expect, it’s the stuff that you don’t expect and the fun is watching the movie that starts in a very familiar place, as many horror movies and action movies do, but it’s how those movies subvert the formula and subvert the expectation of what people are really looking for when they watch genres. They’re looking for something that’s recognizable and familiar but they’re looking for something to surprise them and I think the best genre films do that. I’m very interested and passionate about the films that go out on a limb and take those risks and try to challenge expectations and transgress those boundaries. In putting together this year’s lineup, I was really interested in finding a mix of film makers who had a history with the program and filmmakers that were brand new and trying new things. I think I achieved that with films like, Let the Corpses Tan and The Crescent, respectively, one is an action film and one is a horror film but they are told in very esoteric and eccentric ways. The style and form in which they articulate and express their story has it’s own identity and is not something you can compare easily to other films.
K: It’s great that you found films that deliver important messages and aren’t just there for their jump-scares.
PK: It was important for me to deliver a wealth of different experiences. I have a film such as David Bruckner’s, The Ritual, which is a traditionally scary movie about campers getting lost in the woods, it’s also from an emerging filmmaker who has spent the last ten years has making a number of short films and anthology projects but he has yet to make a feature. He was someone I wanted to support but his film differently assumes a traditional trajectory, where as, a film like The Crescent is a lot more esoteric and psychedelic and unpredictable.
K: When putting together the line-up for this year, or previous years, is there a certain way in which you go about choosing your films?
PK: I think that a good programmer, especially one that is putting a section together that is as tightly packed as something like the Midnight Madness section, it’s something that I learned from Colin, you have to consider how they flow together. You don’t want a program of ten zombie films or ten martial arts films. You want to deliver a different experience each night and in putting this line up together I was thinking about how I wanted to start, what I want to do in the middle and how I wanted it to end. There is an audience that tries to come every single night so I’m very considerate of their experience each night so I want to change things up.
In terms of how I found these films, you watch a bunch of films that have been submitted to the festival and you’re watching films that you have been contacted about, sometimes by the filmmakers themselves, or their sales agents/distributors. We’re also going out in the world and looking for these movies. I have a background in short film programming, I programmed short films for the Toronto After Dark festival for eleven years and I currently do short film programming for Fantastic Fest. One of the other things that I do when I first started working on the Midnight Madness program was that I emailed a lot of short film makers that I had been a fan of to see if they were working on features and a few said they were, such as David Bruckner.
I try to be thoughtful in terms of putting things together. For instance, it was very important for me that the first film be something that would have a lot of impact, and the film that I chose, Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, is a movie that I thought wouldn’t make sense to have anywhere else but at the start of the festival because I think it’s a sort of film that can start a conversation that can carry through the festival.
I wanted to end the festival on a lighter and fun note, and Vampire Clay ended up being my choice because I really like the story behind the making of the film, it’s the first feature of a filmmaker who is in his late forties, and has worked in the industry of special effects and as a makeup artist on much lower budget productions and I have seen some of his short films and I was really impressed with them and excited to see what he would do with a feature. I found the film really resourceful and fun and unpretentious. I think it is a great counter note to some of the other films in the program where this is a fun way to end the festival experience, not a heavier way.
K: Do you have a particular film that you are most excited for audiences to see this year?
PK: I’m excited to see how the audiences will react to Brawl in Cellblock 99, simply because I’ve broken the tradition. Historically, every Midnight Madness film begins at midnight, or 11:59 PM, but I’m starting this film at 10:45 PM. The reason is that I really feel that the first hour and seven minutes are not really delivering the Midnight Madness experience. It’s more of a gritty crime drama that’s rather sober and measured and deliberately paced, but about halfway into the movie, a big plot detail emerges that begins to escalate and bring a momentum to the story that makes it feel a bit more Midnight Madness oriented. When it finally gets to the climax and delivers a really brutal and bloody sequence, that I think is going to shock and satisfy the Midnight crowd. I’m looking forward to see how that plays in the room, the steady escalation where people aren’t going to be sure of where the movie is going and then what the movie will deliver in its final scene.
K: Are there any current trends in the horror genre that you were hoping to include or avoid within the lineup?
PK: It’s interesting, while watching the submissions this year, I did see a few trends emerge. I think that you can look at a number of films this year and see a lot of parables of broken masculinity taking place. At the same time, what I was hoping to see more of is women working in genre, and I did see a small, but a presence of women that is just great. A lot of this is a systemic problem where a lot of emerging female directors just aren’t getting a chance to make that jump from short films to feature films as quickly as their male peers are. Last year, we had the amazing film, Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau, and this year we have Hélène Cattet returning for Let the Corpses Tan along with Coralie Fargeat’s debut, Revenge.
A really common genre that gets submitted to a genre festival is the rape-revenge film, or a sort of female-vengeance story, but the fact that this was directed by a woman had me really interested and I think Coralie gives you a really new perspective on how this story gets told, specifically in how she puts the scrutiny and the gaze of the film more centred on male bodies than female bodies. In a rape-revenge story, that’s a really substantial detail.
I’m hoping for the industry to allow more voices to tell stories, because I do think we are seeing the same story over and over again. The amount of times I’ve seen a horror movie or action movie hinge on a protagonist that just wanted to ask a girl out and the whole movie is just so that he can win that girl… it’s a trope and it’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and there’s nothing wrong with that type of story, but there’s more than that.
I’m encouraging filmmakers to think about their films and if it’s a story that’s already been heard before, then why do they feel they should tell it again? What do they want to add to the conversation? That’s something that I’m interested in finding in future editions of the program.
K: Along with your many years of experience as a festival programmer, you also have a lot of producing credits, such as: Manborg (2011), the concluding segment Z is for Zygote in the anthology film The ABCs of Death: Part 2 (2014), The Interior (2015), The Void (2016), and the short film adaptation of Dave Eggers short story Your Mother and I (2016). Do you see yourself more as a producer, or would you rather be programming festivals?
PK: Both roles I’ve stumbled into somewhat organically. I’ve always wanted to make movies but early on I found myself more preoccupied with showing other people’s movies. While doing that I’ve made a connection and friendships with short film makers and then those friendships eventually turned into collaborations where I asked a short film maker what they were working on and they would start talking about their process, and because I was gaining contacts and experience working alongside distributors and exhibitors and sales agents and financiers, I was able to parlay some of that experience and some of those contacts into helping some of these short filmmakers make new projects including features.
I found that in my desire to want to make movies I feel like I realized that maybe I’m better at other people make their movies. I really enjoy that sort of collaborative process. Career wise, I’m trying to see if I can balance programming for festivals six months of the year, and helping people get content and getting their films off the ground the other six months of the year.
The most valuable thing about programming is seeing what other people are making and the quality. A lot of the stuff I’m seeing, by objective or conventional standards, might not be up to snuff, or “great works”, but I feel like they’re always teaching me something or establishing trends, some to potentially follow or some to maybe avoid. They are also revealing filmmakers, actors, or cinematographers that I may want to work with. It’s one of the reasons why I want to continue programming other festivals because I feel by watching short films, it’s allowing me to see a couple years into the future because I’m looking at filmmakers that are starting out. I hope to notice them and put them in touch with people that can help them make their films.
K: You’re part of that process with them.
PK: A lot of programmers see a movie well before it’s finished. A few of the films I saw this year, in their assembly versions, or their first drafts. There was a back and forth between me and the filmmakers and their producers about what I thought was working and what I thought wasn’t. While I never intend to say, “I think you should do this,” I try to be candid in terms of what my reactions are. Sometimes it has an effect on someone and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a real feedback loop between festival programmers and filmmakers these days.
K: It’s always best to do what you love.
PK: Fortunately enough I still like movies. There’s always that period where I’m in the eye-of-the-storm watching stuff and maybe haven’t seen something in three weeks that I’ve liked, and that’s when you get worried because at that point if something good comes around you’re not sure if you’ll notice it because you feel so beaten down. The thing is, every time I’ve gotten that feeling, every time I do see something that I think is strong and good, you notice it within a few seconds. It can be the subtlest decision on the director’s part but I feel that it’s so apparent. As subjective as it may be, there is a way to direct a movie or a way to tell a story that can immediately convey to the viewer that someone is in control and steering the ship.
When someone asks me what I consider as constituting a good film, or what I look for as a programmer, it sounds like a simple thing, but I look for direction. I look for a film that I feel is articulating it’s ideas of clarity. Whether it’s the movements of the camera or the staging factors, I don’t feel like things are arbitrary or left to chance. Even if it’s a movie where things are improvised, or a documentary, the assembly or decisions that are made in putting the package together just feel like decisions.
I like hearing the voice of the filmmaker or the collective voice of the team that has made a certain movie.
K: It must be like a lightbulb that comes on when you do see something special.
PK: When I do see something I like, I have a tendency to stand up and start pacing a bit. I get rather excited when that lightbulb goes off.
K: It must be really exciting to be in the screening and to see the same reactions that you first had.
PK: I love watching the audience watch something in a program. Going to Fantasia in Montréal and then my first Midnight Madness in 2005… it’s the reason I do this. I love sitting in an audience that for ninety minutes or two hours there is a feeling of complete unity where everyone is in line or joining the wavelength of the story being told.
I think Midnight Madness is one of the programs that really delivers that because it often plays with big emotions and is able to create that feeling to get everyone as energized and charged.
K: What’s next for you?
PK: I go straight into Fantastic Fest where I do a shorts programme that is broken up into three sections. There is a horror section, a general comedy section and a section of more experimental, arthouse genre exercises.
After that, the machine sort of beings to start up again for next year but before it does, in earnest, I will likely be trying to work on my many projects with various filmmakers and it kind of depends on what is ready and what needs the help.