By Amy Kaufman and Steven Zeitchik
6:00 AM PDT, September 17, 2013
Filmmaker Josh Waller spent the better part of the last decade trying to get his crime thriller "McCanick" made. Over the years, its budget shrunk from $10 million to less than $500,000. Actors fell off the project. The film's location shifted from New York to Detroit to Philadelphia. Then in July, just when he thought he'd reached the finish line, Cory Monteith, one of his lead actors, died at 31 of an accidental drug overdose.
So when he learned weeks later that "McCanick" had been accepted to the Toronto International Film Festival, Waller was caught between elation and trepidation — unsure of how to handle the burst of attention fueled by the "Glee" star's death.
"Every time [his death] comes up, I'm hesitant about how to react," the director said, choosing his words carefully. "I'm genuinely sad that a friend is gone, and then at the same time I'm really excited that I got a movie made. I want to be like, 'Yeah! Everyone watch it!' But almost everywhere online, now all it says is 'McCanick' is one of Cory's final roles.'"
Waller wasn't the only one in such an awkward position at Toronto, which concluded over the weekend after 11 days of screenings. Another film Monteith acted in — "All the Wrong Reasons," from first-time Canadian director Gia Milani — also premiered at the Canadian fest. (Director Nicole Holofcener faced a similar situation with her "Enough Said," starring James Gandolfini, who also died following a heart attack over the summer.)
A film festival is a place where movies, particularly independent ones, are chirped about early and often by their principals, who seek to gain much-needed support from industry, media and fans. That's true particularly at Toronto, whose approximately 280 features are studded with shiny award contenders that attract a disproportionate amount of the ink.
But the Monteith movies show a tricky side to the festival game, one where the hoopla of a premiere can collide with more basic human sensitivities. Waller and Milani say they struggled with how to talk about their films without appearing as if they were capitalizing on a tragedy, especially since Monteith's death likely brought more interest to the small films than they would have otherwise received.
"Leading up to [Toronto], I almost felt guilty," Milani said in an interview after her film premiered at the festival. "It was so bittersweet."
Before Toronto, Milani explained, the media heat grew so intense — members of her crew were being called by reporters — that she stopped doing interviews for a few weeks. When she finally unveiled the movie, she acknowledged that the Monteith-driven attention left her "a little overwhelmed."
The awkwardness surrounding "McCanick" was heightened by the fact that in the film Monteith played a drug dealer recently released from prison. David Morse, who starred in the movie as a grizzled detective, said he expected to be bombarded with questions about his late costar, even as he was "actually looking forward" to the prospect of celebrating Monteith's performance. At the film's premiere, he told an audience how proud he was of Monteith, saying the actor "was very smart to do this role." Morse then started to choke up.
At another screening of "McCanick" the following night, however, Waller somewhat surprisingly didn't acknowledge Monteith in his opening remarks. Instead, he chose to focus on the long gestation of the project (the script was written in 1994) and on Morse, whom he joked was not as tough in real life as he appeared on screen.
The late actor's presence in the movie did elicit a response from the audience: When his name flashed in the opening credits, several people in the crowd could be heard gasping.
Monteith's collaborators have avoided engaging with reporters about whether they saw any indications that the actor, who had acknowledged struggling with substance abuse, was using again.
Milani said that most interviews she conducted at Toronto, while centered on the star, were "not salacious." And Morse too said he was surprised by how "admirably respectful" most journalists had been despite "an opportunity for people to be kind of crude."
Those who worked with Monteith said that they believed he would have wanted them to go forward with their publicity efforts.
"Cory was very happy with the film and wanted people to see it," Waller added. "And people on the outside that don't know any better will be like, 'Oh, they are totally just using Cory.' I just want to do justice to the film."
According to Milani, the late actor had been keen to spread the word about "All the Wrong Reasons." Monteith was an avid tweeter, and on set he'd scroll through his feed between takes and tell Milani that when the film was rolling out, he intended to "blow it up all over Twitter.'"
In Milani's film, Monteith plays the goal-oriented manager of a big-box department store whose wife's struggle with depression is threatening his career ambitions. Though the film features an ensemble cast, the actor's part is still relatively meaty.
Milani said that during filming she grew close to the actor, who would sometimes rib her good-naturedly. After a particularly long day, Monteith found himself humming, and Milani turned to the "Glee" star and asked with a straight face if he could sing.
"He just looked at me and said, 'You are really tired,'" she recalled, laughing.
Because Monteith was known for playing upbeat jock Finn Hudson on "Glee," Morse said he initially questioned whether the actor could handle darker fare. But on set, he told Morse about his own experience with drug abuse and his desire to channel his past into his performance.
"He was so excited about being able to creatively bring that experience to life, and I started to get it," Morse recalled. "I started to think, 'If he can really access those emotions, this could be something special.'"
Almost immediately after Monteith's death, Waller was flooded with media calls asking not only if he had seen any signs of trouble from the "Glee" actor on set but also whether fans would ever get to see one of Monteith's final performances.
The answer now is yes — "McCanick" was picked up in Toronto by the small distributor Well Go USA, which says it will release the movie in April, though it is unclear how many theaters it will play in.
"Reasons," meanwhile, has yet to secure U.S. theatrical distribution, but Milani did win the $10,000 Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award at the festival, providing a boost. She's also taking the movie to a number of other Canadian festivals in the coming months.
Still, the general attention has left her in a state of conflict. "It's a filmmaker's dream to have a movie recognized," she said. "And a filmmaker's nightmare to have it recognized for this reason."
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times