The movie had not gotten a great deal of press coming into the festival, in fact, very few people had actually seen it. The festival programmer for sure had seen the film, and later I learned that Francis Ford Coppola had screened it for his friend, offering some advice. Part way through the picture I knew two things, the first it was going to be a tough sell, the second, the performance within was among the greatest in film history. It came into the festival with no real heat, but when the film festival ended, everyone was talking about The Apostle (1997). Rarely had a film so exploded out of the festival’s ten day run, going from unknown to the single most discussed movie of the event.
In a year that saw LA Confidential (1997), The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and Gattaca (1997), it is rather extraordinary that the film that emerged from TIFF with the most heat was a self financed little movie from actor Robert Duvall, who also directed and wrote the screenplay, about a flawed southern preacher who helps build a church in a black community to ease his conscience and do his penance. I remember the screening as though it were yesterday. I attended both the press and the public screening, and the memory of th Gala public screening is seared int my mind. There was an electricity in the theater, as we were all bound by experiencing what was happening on the screen. Somewhere in the theater sat Robert Duvall, carefully watching the reaction of the audience to his very personal work that had taken thirteen years to bring to the screen. Partway through two young men got up and moved up the aisle, pulling their cell phones out like weapons and heading for the lobby to duel. Once there they began a bidding war for the film that would go into the night and see Bingham Ray win the war to bring The Apostle (1997) to October Films as its distributor.
Having shopped his script around to all the large and small studios in the eighties Duvall was exasperated with the process and a little surprised that he, an Academy Award winning actor could not get such a small film made. He was not unknown to audiences, his appearances in The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Network (1976) and Apocalypse Now (1979) making him a critically acclaimed and high visible actor. More, his work on the mini-series Lonesome Dove (1987) made his character Gus McCrae one of the most characters in America during the run of the exceptional program. Why would not they give a mere five million dollars to make the film? Sidney Lumet had agreed to direct, Duvall had written for himself a splendid role, but by 1995 there were no takers. It was then that Duvalls’ accountant suggested he make the film himself, had the money, they would find distribution later, why not make it himself?? And that is precisely what he did.
Duvall would win the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor for the performance, followed by the National Society of Film Critics Award, a Screen Actors Guild nomination and an Academy Award nomination. How he lost the guild and Oscar that year remains a puzzle to me, but he did, to Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets (1997), a fine performance, but not one for the ages as was Duvalls’.
The story of The Apostle (1997) is what makes TIFF unique. Directors and producers often bring their movies to this festival in hopes of selling it or striking a distribution deal. The film may come here unknown, but after a single screening can emerge the hottest ticket at the festival. Like a hidden jewel, a needle in a haystack, the film is discovered, celebrated and something arrived with no heat, is suddenly red-hot. Remember American Beauty (1999)? The film arrived here with the decision nearly made to send it straight to DVD and not give the film a theatrical release. It screens. The critics speak, and Dreamworks realize they have lightning in a bottle, riding the wave all the way to an Oscar for Best Picture. This, not the stars, the big Hollywood films is what makes TIFF the single most exciting film festival in the planet.