10 Questions Not to Ask During a TIFF Q&A
I love TIFF. I really do. To some extent, I love how filmmakers, actors, producers, writers, and all sorts of talented people from all over the world can come to Toronto for ten days every year to share with the city work that they have devoted their entire lives to. There are few things more electrifying and grand than watching a world premiere of a film. Regardless of what I think about the quality of the film, watching people standing shoulder to shoulder on stage in one of Toronto’s many awesome movie houses before the lights go down as they earnestly thank everyone who made their hard work possible is a thrill unparalleled.
But once the movie ends and the applause starts to die down, I leave the theatre in fear and apprehension. It’s nothing against post-screening Q&As. I have conducted and been a part of many during my time. But something about huge festivals brings out some of the most awkward, easily answered, and redundant questions from people who I wonder about. Do these people only ever watch movies at TIFF? Have they ever seen movies? Do they know that sometimes what they’re asking can be seen as awkward or rude? Why couldn’t they just google this answer since it has been in hundreds of interviews before? Why are they asking about the personal lives of the people involved?
I get incredibly uncomfortable during festival Q&As, mostly because I know what it’s like to be on stage and be in the industry. So let’s try to make these occasions – which should be fun and not eye rolling – better for everyone. Here are ten questions not to ask of people during what should be a special time for the audience and attendees alike.
1. What inspired you to make this film/take this role?
I know what you’re thinking. “This is a perfectly valid question.” Well, yeah, to a certain extent it is, but the answer was almost undoubtedly given to you during the introduction and it’s most likely the first question to get asked by the moderator of the Q&A when things get started. The number of times I have seen this question get repeatedly asked after it has already been answered is staggering.
Also, it’s the most boring question for anyone involved with the production to be asked. It’s like I always say: Try to never ask a question you can google the answer to. You have to remember that these people have quite likely been spending all day talking to mostly unimaginative press types looking for blurbs and soundbites and they will have answered their question in some cases over 50 times in the past eight hours.
Yes, I know, you’re tired. You just watched five movies, but you really want this question answered. Just know that I guarantee the people on stage are infinitely more tired than you could ever imagine and asking them to give prearranged soundbite answers only makes them more tired.
It’s not very perceptive or thoughtful, and if you want to impress someone on stage, remember that everyone in that auditorium just saw the same film you did. Now is the chance to ask something SPECIFIC about what you just saw. There are no spoilers in that room, ask whatever you want.
2. Have you seen (fill in the blank) and did you think about it when making this film?
There’s one thing I have learned. Nothing gets creative types more annoyed than when you try to foist influences upon them, especially if you’re wrong about said influences. No one likes having their work compared to the work of others. People who make remakes hate having this brought up. It’s unavoidable at times, but asking this in a Q&A is quite gauche and presumptuous. This is the kind of thing that should come out organically, through the artists own admission. If they constructed something to be an homage, they would straight up tell you without playing games with the audience. Everything is a singular work of art, and if you ask this and you’re wrong, the answer you’ll get is a very curt “Nope!” Believe me, this was a lesson I learned early on when interviewing people.
3. More of a comment than a question, but…
SIT. THE. FUCK. DOWN. NOW. This is a Q&A for the people to ask things of the people on stage, not for you to give some grandiose treatise on something everyone else in the room probably figured out. Your insight isn’t needed in that room. People on stage never know how to react to that shit, and again, you might be wrong and you’ll look like the biggest jackass in a room full of over a thousand people. Don’t fucking do this. I can’t stress this one enough, and it would have been number one if the other two didn’t irk the artists I know on a personal basis more. When you start your speaking time with this or you don’t even have a question and you just start talking at people, it’s a sure-fire way to get ignored and brushed off.
4. What kind of struggle did you face getting this film made?
Again, sounds like a valid question, especially for films that have challenging subject matter. The thing you’ll soon realize is that unless the production was filmed in the middle of a warzone, the answer is almost uniform across the board. Movies are really fucking hard to make. Ask anyone who has made one what the struggle was like. They’ll all tell you that it’s hard work. And the one percent who say their production was blessed with sunshine and rainbows all the time are fucking lying to you.
5. Asking for advice of any kind
It’s a Q&A, not an informational seminar of how to break into the industry. Everyone’s experiences are different, yours included. What can someone say other than to just keep trying and to never get discouraged? Maybe something about carving your own path. I mean, if you want to get into acting how is asking Robert Downey Jr. going to help you in the slightest? It’s a google-able answer, for one, and there’s no way that your life lines up with his perfectly. The only advice I can give is to never ask for advice in a crowd full of people.
6. Asking for help with a project or asking someone to look at a screenplay.
SIT. THE. FUCK. DOWN. NOW. And let the “Not a question, but a comment” person slap the shit out of you. This one happens all the time and it pinpoints the EXACT moment when any and every Q&A goes wildly off the rails. You will not get a Hollywood moment where some director thinks you’re brilliant after explaining your project across thirty seconds or less in a packed auditorium. It’s the point where ego and desperation uneasily mix that leads to this point. Never go this route. Ever. I’ve seen Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow both asked this one and man does shit get awkward if you ask it to the wrong people.
7. Asking for a photo/autograph/hug during a Q&A.
I can’t believe I’m even bringing this up, but with more celebrities attending the festival, this one comes up at least once or twice a year at the public screenings I attend. You’re even more selfish and deluded than the people asking for advice or to help with a project. You’re deliberately wasting everyone’s time for something you most likely will never get, something you could have gotten if you showed up early for the red carpet, something that can get you thrown out by security, and you look like a crazy person no matter how affected you were by something. Keep that in check. Some people are nice and accommodating, but the rest of the people whose time you’re wasting with this won’t be.
8. What are your thoughts on (insert completely unrelated topic here)?
I once saw someone ask about abortion rights at an animated kids film about a dog trying to save a princess. Yeah, not the time, guy.
9. Can you explain the movie to me?
No. Remember you are at a festival that shows many different kinds of movies. Some of them even require you to THINK or puzzle over what you saw. Contrary to popular belief, some films are works of art, and if you didn’t understand it, look inside yourself and question what it was about the film that didn’t make sense. Don’t insult the intelligence of the people who made it. This one sadly happens more often than not with people who bought tickets to something that they didn’t read the description of before hand.
10. What’s it like being here?
What are they going to say? That it sucks? They just made a movie and people watched it. They also most likely got a free trip to come and stay in the city from someone. How would you feel? I’d be fucking psyched! Thankfully only second rate journalists with no real questions tend to ask this one, so it’s really something I only have to put up with at press conferences that I have to cover, but still, lay off it when you’re asking questions. That one’s just a personal one that bugs me.
Happy festing everyone! Stay hydrated, be sure to eat frequently, and most importantly, be thoughtful and engage with what you’re seeing on more than just a surface level. The people who come from all around the globe to be here will thank you for it.