Movies change all of us — even the stars who act in them

Imagine a 10-year-old John C. Reilly, entranced by the image of
Willy Wonka doing a somersault on the big screen. Or young
Maria Bello, watching Indiana Jones outrunning the boulder and
thinking, “That could be me.” Or a future First Nations
filmmaker seeing a movie that reflects his culture.

Movies change us. And this year, I asked each person I
interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival what
movie had the biggest effect on her or him.

Reilly, starring in and producing The Sisters
, an existential western based on the novel by
Patrick Dewitt, seemed unwilling to answer. Then he drew a deep
breath. “I will say this,” he began. “Gene Wilder as an actor
really changed my perception of what a man could be. I saw all
his films as a kid, but particularly in Willy Wonka; that movie
gave me a template for how to be a man. You could be sensitive
and you could be whimsical and you could be into romantic

He continued: “There’s a sort of duality to my personality. And
I feel like when I saw that movie as a kid, I was like, well
I’m half Charlie Bucket – you know, the little kid who gets the
ticket – and I’m half Willy Wonka. I really do relate to that:
‘We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams,’
you know that wonderful poem that he says.

“So that made a big impact on me because at the time, in the
1970s, when that movie came out we were still holding onto
these ideas of macho virility … people like Gene Hackman,
Robert Duvall, these intense very virile tough guys. But
somehow I felt like I was never going to be quite that tough. I
had all these other things going on inside me. And then I saw
Gene Wilder, and I was like: Oh, you can be like that.”

Mario Bello, who plays the mother of a sexually confused
teenager in the Canadian coming-of-age story Giant Little
, also saw in the movies a version of herself that she
hadn’t previously thought possible. “When Indiana Jones came
out, I remember thinking: I’m an adventurer. I want to see the
world. I’m that guy. But I wasn’t. I was a girl. So I feel like
one of the reasons I became an actor is because I wanted to be

“And when I look at it now – and now there are female action
heroes; back then when I was growing up there weren’t – but now
I live it. I was just in Ethiopia, visiting a tribe who only
five people meet a year … and for me, that was so exciting, to
live in a tent by a river filled with crocodiles, and to jump
out of helicopters into sulphur pools in the middle of nowhere;
to me, that was true adventure and excitement.”

For Gwaii Edenshaw, co-director of the first feature filmed
entirely in the endangered Haida language of the West Coast,
the movie that hit him hardest was Once Were Warriors,
a 1994 Australian drama about a Maori family. Though the
Indigenous group hailed from half a world away, said Edenshaw,
“it was one of those movies where it felt like somebody was
talking about us.”

He also mentioned Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 films Atanarjuat:
The Fast Runner.
“For everybody who’s an Indigenous
filmmaker … that was the movie that made people think that it
was possible.”

For Tina Keeper, First Nations actor, politician and producer
of the movie Through Black Spruce, it was a film about
a strong female artist that most affected her. “It was when I
was in theatre school, when I was in university. I remember
seeing the film Camille Claudel. I thought, even if I
just live and die as an artist, a female artist! Because she
was a great artist.”

Keeper didn’t think there were many avenues for a First Nations
actor – it would be a few more years before she shot to fame
with TV’s North of 60 – but Camille Claudel
helped keep her going. “It really spoke to me and helped me
make that decision to do theatre despite whatever. I loved

That feeling of seeing yourself, or an idealized version of
yourself, came through in many of the answers. Olivia Vieweg,
whose graphic novel formed the template for the German zombie
movie Endzeit – Ever After, said 2001’s Ghost
changed her. “I saw it when I was 18, and it felt
like it was about me and my feelings. I thought it was super
cool that it was a comic adaptation – like our film!”

Her director, Carolina Hellsgård, recalled: “One of the
earliest key moments, when I was 10, I remember is watching
Hitchcock’s The Birds. I remember hiding behind the
couch, watching at my grandma’s place. I couldn’t go outside
for a while afterwards. When I think back, I remember how
transformative the experience was.”

For directors, the movie that most affected them was sometimes
the one that made them want to make movies themselves. David
Mackenzie, at TIFF with Outlaw King, said it was
Stranger Than Paradise, a 1984 film by Jim Jarmusch:
“I saw it when I was 18 and I went to see it four times in one
week. It just blew my socks off.”

Don McKellar, director of Through Black Spruce, saw
Modern Times as a little kid. “I remember my parents
took me to this Charlie Chaplin retrospective at the Eglinton
Cinema when I was quite young. I didn’t even know what was
going on – it was black and white, they weren’t talking – and
it was amazing.”

And Eva Husson, the French director of Girls of the
which also played Cannes: “One of them might be
Chungking Express by Wong Kar Wai. The fact that he
dared to be extremely subjective and poetic. But I will add
another: Jane Campion, The Piano. She was a woman
director and she won the Palme d’Or. It was possible! I was 16
and I thought, I can do that – it’s possible to put a strong
woman on the screen.”

Ever the contrarian, Werner Herzog said he had no answer to the
question. “It doesn’t exist for me. It’s more literature. I
read; I do not see many films. I had the feeling that I was the
inventor of cinema in a way. And I still behave as if I was the
inventor of cinema.” Perhaps sensing that this seemed a little
over the top, he added: “I’m speaking about a general climate
in my soul.”

A formative film can also drive one to try to capture the same
kind of lightning. Peter Hedges, director of an addiction drama
called Ben Is Back, said Thomas Vinterberg’s The
changed him. “It is such a raw, real depiction
of a family. It’s a film I watch and re-watch. If I could make
a film that was in that range of emotion and humanity, I’d be
happy, and I’ve certainly never gotten closer than with Ben
Is Back

Jimmy Chin, co-director of the cliff-climbing documentary
Free Solo, said that when he saw the 2010 Formula One
doc Senna, “It flipped a switch for me, because I went
into it with a certain attitude, like I’m not really interested
in race car driving, and I knew that was one of the issues with
climbing films; they don’t necessarily have a broad appeal.

“But after watching the film and understanding the danger and
the technical aspects and the aspiration, all that stuff, I
came out thinking: Formula One driving is so badass.
Senna is the most badass thing ever. It made me think:
I know how to do that with climbing a mountain.”

And Joel Edgerton said that watching (and starring in) the 2016
drama Loving, about an interracial couple in the
1960s, awoke in him an anger at injustice that echoed when he
read Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased, about gay
conversion therapy. He adapted it into a film of the same name
that he also acted in and directed. “And I wonder, if I hadn’t
gone through this experience (with Loving), if reading
the book would have had a different effect on me.”

Reilly, clearly affected by watching Wilder, went on to a
career as a comedian, singer, theatre actor and big-screen
star. “And I can only hope through my work that I’m touching
someone who’s 10 years old right now in the same way. That I’m
showing them there’s a million ways to be a man.”

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