TIFF 2013: 'The Big Chill' Reunion

L-R: Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, Barbara Benedek, Marcia Nasatir, Scott
 Foundas, Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan, Tom Berenger, Jo Beth Williams,
Meg Tilly, Michael Shamberg, and Kevin Kline
You heard it through the grapevine: the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival got off to a great start last night if you were at the Princess of Wales theatre for the reunion screening of The Big Chill. Last night marked the 30th anniversary of the film’s world premiere at TIFF ’83 (give or take a few days) and the excitement in the room showed what an opening night is all about. Not only did The Big Chill provide a strong opening in 1983, but audiences who voted it the People’s Choice Award winner for that year also embraced it. (And judging by the energy in the room it could easily win again.) The film went on score multiple Oscar nominations and it launched several careers, which shows how the festival’s influence goes back much further than some people give it credit.

The vibe in the crowd was equal parts nostalgia and youthful energy as festivalgoers of a surprisingly large range of ages chattered in anticipation of the screening as the speakers blasted tunes like “Heard it Through the Grapevine” to get the crowd in the mood. The event kicked off with TIFF’s current Artistic Director Cameron Bailey introducing Wayne Clarkson, who was the Festival Director of TIFF back in 1983 when it was called The Festival of Festivals. Clarkson recalled to the audience how the world premiere of The Big Chill seemed to mark a turning point for the festival, as it provided a strong boost for the event after a comparatively weaker year in 1982. Clarkson recounted flying down to Hollywood to meet with various producers and filmmakers in search of films for the festival, and noting how his meeting with director Lawrence Kasdan and the producers of The Big Chill provided some excitement that would eventually come to define the festival. Clarkson explained how the filmmakers noted the energy and camaraderie of the ensemble cast, which has come to be one of the film’s defining traits, and mentioned that they would love to continue the vibe by securing opening night and bringing the stars up to Toronto to share the film with an audience.
Lawrence Kasdan

Clarkson then turned the mic over to Lawrence Kasdan who gave a few words before inviting us to watch the film. Kasdan noted his appreciation for the wild reception the audience gave the film, not only in 1983 but at last night’s screening as well. Standing ovations ensued as each of the film’s stars took their seats in the theatre, and Kasdan remarked how such a reception at a festival can give a film a completely different life.

The high energy continued as The Big Chill went underway. The Big Chill was presented in an impressive new 4K digital transfer, which looked especially good if one considers that the film was on VHS when I last saw it. Hoots and claps, normally abhorred during screenings, were peppered throughout the film as the crowd enjoyed seeing younger versions of the stars or remembering favourite moments in the film. It was kind of like watching a family home movie on the big screen with several hundred people. (In the good way.)

I enjoyed The Big Chill much more than I did the first time I saw it on that old VHS. The film holds up well, especially when one brings to it some life experience that one didn’t have before. I don’t think one can appreciate The Big Chill fully when one is in high school, although one can certainly enjoy it; however, the film takes on a larger significance after one has experienced having a strong circle of friends like the group in the film. There’s a point to the old songs that lift the spirits of the friends following the funeral that I didn’t grasp before. I’m sure the first time my Queen’s meet for a similar affair, we’ll crank the mood up with “Rojo Caliente”.
Tom Berenger, Jo Beth Williams, Meg Tilly, Michael Shamberg,
and Kevin Kline

The highlight of the evening, naturally, was the post-screening reunion with the cast and crew. In attendance with Kasdan were his wife, Meg (one of the film’s producers and creative minds behind the film’s iconic soundtrack), co-writer Barbara Benedek, producer Marcia Nasatir, producer Michael Shamberg, and actors Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Tom Berenger, Jo Beth Williams, and Meg Tilly. The event was moderated by Variety critic Scott Foundas. During the discussion, the cast and filmmakers had the same friendly rapport one sees in the film. Insights and anecdotes brought out more of what allows the film to be such a crowd-pleaser thirty years after its release.
Glenn Close, Mary Kay Place, Barbara Benedek, Marcia Nasatir

Especially interesting were some of the comments made by the cast. For example, when asked where the actors saw the characters thirty years after the film, Mary Kay Place noted that she assumed that her character, Meg, didn’t conceive the child she desired at the end of the film, but she went on to adopt a baby and enjoy being a mother nevertheless. Kevin Kline immediately shot back that she was underestimating his manliness and ruining his idea of happily-ever-after as he assumed that Harold got Meg pregnant. (Kline easily stole the show at the event.) Close and Williams, on the other hand, noted how much they coveted Place’s role in the film since it’s the most complex female part in the script; however, after watching the film, one sees how much both actresses brought to the roles and added depth to their characters. Part of the success, Kasdan noted, was his unorthodox demand of having all principal cast members on set together at all times to help create the atmosphere of the onscreen reunion. It clearly worked, as last night’s event felt like a gathering of friends.

The success of last night’s revisit to The Big Chill ultimately shows that it’s not just the film itself that creates a festival experience. A festival premiere is a film experience for the filmmakers and the audience alike. The premiere is about the talent that made the film being unfurled before your eyes. It’s about the thrill of seeing artists one admires talking passionately about their work. It’s about the overall hype of the screening: it’s not a movie; it’s an event.

The Big Chill proved a significant milestone for the festival, as it showed how a good festival premiere turns a film into a phenomenon. TIFF brought that phenomenon back last night. The crowd wasn’t just watching The Big Chill at the Princess of Wales last night: we were watching a film become a classic.