Matt Damon put Robinson Crusoe to shame as an astronaut stranded on Mars and Sandra Bullock tried to spin doctor an unpopular Bolivian president into re-election during the second day of the Toronto International Film Festival.
The big winner from the galas and premieres that unfolded on Friday was Damon’s “The Martian.” The 20th Century Fox release impressed audiences and critics with its gripping and often very funny survival story that will likely factor into this year’s awards season race, not to mention score at the box office. “It’s okay to laugh,” director Ridley Scott assured the audience before the lights went down during the premiere at the Roy Thomson Hall.
On stage prior to the screening, Scott was flanked by an eclectic company of actors, ranging from dramatic stars like Jessica Chastain to performers known for lighter material such as Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig. On paper, the mix of talent could have been jarring, but audiences responded to a film that blends disturbing scenes of Damon performing self-surgery or enduring a range of Red Planet peril with jokes about disco music. “I’m very good at casting,” Scott said.
The Warner Bros. release of “Our Brand is Crisis,” which opens on Oct. 30, drew a more mixed reaction at the world premiere. While many in the crowd loved Sandra Bullock’s performance as a political consultant who tries to tip the scales of a presidential election in Bolivia, the story felt undercooked.
At a Q&A after the screening, Sandra Bullock — joined by producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov and director David Gordon Green — revealed that the script (which had been in development for eight years) had originally been written with a male in the lead role. “I guess I possess those masculine qualities,” Bullock quipped. “I stepped into a role that maybe George could have played, or maybe I could have played it better.” The line received a round of applause.
After another audience member asked a long-winded question about the character’s hair, Bullock stopped them. “I love talking about hair,” she interrupted. “It’s called root grow out, and all the women in this room know about it. To get your hair a certain color, and you’re trying to step out of that world, sometimes the roots grow out. It wasn’t white. It was more of an ashy blonde.”
Later on, Clooney got a big laugh when he suggested that he filled in for Bullock’s butt double during a scene where she moons her political opponents. “The reason it was a lot better is that George is a lot less hairy than I am down there,” Bullock teased. “Baby bottom. It was amazing. We just matched what we thought the character’s ass would look like.”
But Toronto is more than just a festival. It’s also a market for pictures looking to attract bidders. As the stars walked the red carpet, distributors furiously worked the phones. So far, however, there have been few sales.
That could change soon. Hot projects such as Meryl Streep’s “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the story of a New York heiress who dreams of being an opera singer, and “Eye in the Sky,” a thriller about drone warfare with Helen Mirren, are attracting interest. At one point, it appeared that “Ms. Sloan,” a gun-control drama that pairs Jessica Chastain with director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), had found a winning bid, but a deal collapsed at the eleventh hour.
Friday was also a day to celebrate some improbable resurrections. “Gotti,” a drama about infamous New York mob boss John Gotti, has been brought back from the brink after languishing in pre-production for years. Over the course of its tortured history actors like Al Pacino and Lindsay Lohan came and went, while directors like Barry Levinson and Nick Cassavettes embraced and abandoned the project. Through it all, John Travolta has remained attached as the “Dapper Don.”
He was on hand at Toronto, appearing at a party off the festival’s main drag designed to attract foreign buyers. Despite the setbacks, Travolta and newly appointed director Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”) said they expect to begin shooting in February.
There’ve been changes along the way, and the “Gotti” they intend to make is radically different from the one that was originally planned.
“We were doing a $60 million movie five years ago, and now we’re doing a $10 million movie,” said Travolta. “It’s a character piece now, much more along the lines of ‘Pulp Fiction’ or ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ It allows us to have greater freedom.”