Day 1: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
T minus four hours. I glanced nervously at the wall clock behind Jacob, as words slithered out between his thin lips, one coiled phrase after another.
He’d cast himself in the character of Dark Messiah, that much was evident in the words he used, the condescending politeness, the pained expression when someone disagreed. Mere civilians might cringe mid-apocalypse, but he’d stay on the horse, semiautomatic rifle in one hand, the burden of seeing the world for its shit-bucket self curled up in the scarred palm of the other. The baddies would quake, the babies would live, and if there was collateral damage of the slow-moving who couldn’t get out of the way, whoever said life was fair was a loser anyway.
Jacob Ray owned a successful crisis management firm, BFA, that made problems go away for people rich enough to buy salvation. He’d been recruited as board director of the Toronto International Film Festival the previous year because his client base brimmed with political leaders and sponsorship-rich corporations. Many of TIFF’s multi-year funding commitments were due to expire in the near term; cultivating powerful decision-makers of the kind who owed Jacob a favor, the reasoning went, would have significant upside for the festival.
I’d had little functional connection with him until six months earlier, when Paul DelGrotto, TIFF’s former CEO, was suspended amid allegations of sexual wrongdoing and the board chair abruptly resigned. Suddenly, I pole-vaulted from artistic director to acting CEO, and Jacob became my board chair. The organization was in crisis, and the board didn’t have to look further than one of its own directors for a seasoned pro in the reputational wars.
“Everyone knows Samantha is fomenting civil war among the staff,” I said. “I ask her to stop verbally attacking the veracity of the women involved. The next day she files a HR complaint against me. Doesn’t it seem likely that those two things are connected?”
“No need to be defensive, Jane,” Jacob said softly, forcing me to lean in to hear him.
“Samantha was Paul’s assistant for twenty years. She resents his firing —.”
“He’s on administrative leave. We won’t be hasty in our judgments.”
“He sent photoshopped images of his penis to female staff,” I said, in exasperation. “From his own email account. There’s not a lot of room for ambiguity.”
After Lina Garcia, TIFF’s head of marketing and public relations, had gone to the human resources department with her complaint, the board originally chose to believe DelGrotto’s story of a consensual affair gone wrong, a disgruntled employee looking for revenge. They suspended Lina with pay and a gag order. Two days later, the photos of Paul’s genitalia appeared on TMZ, and four more women stepped forward with their own complaints.
Jacob’s eyes narrowed. “We don’t know for sure that it’s his body part.” He paused to stare at me pointedly. “Or who leaked the photos to the media. Regardless, Paul’s now at home pending investigation, and you’ve landed yourself in the top job. Temporarily, at least.”
The Dark Messiah is not above implicit threats.
It was the opening day of the festival, and a long line of people waited for me to troubleshoot the various firestorms. Jacob’s insistence on meeting in my office, despite the time crunch, was the latest in a series of power plays that began immediately upon his appointment as chair.
“I’ll talk to HR about transferring Samantha to another executive, at least until the end of the festival. I can make do with an intern as my EA for the next ten days,” I said slowly, not wanting to appear eager for an outcome I’d give my John Cassavetes collection to make happen.
“That would be a demotion, and demotion without cause is grounds for a constructive dismissal case. You should know the intricacies of employment law, if you’re going to manage an organization this size,” Jacob said, making a deliberate motion of looking down at his manicured hands, so as to avoid bearing witness to my management faux pas. “A hundred million in assets; we’re a target.”
Neutral face, Jane, I told myself, as I swallowed the “fuck you” lump of bile in my throat. “Well, you felt the need to bring this conversation up today,” I said finally. “Is there a particular short-term solution you’re driving toward?”
“It’s not up to me to tell you how to do your job. I’m just alerting you to the situation, and letting you know that the board is watching,” he said, rising to his feet. “And to offer any assistance to you, of course,” he added, reaching out to shake my hand. His flesh was as cold as I imagined it would be, although also sweaty, which was an unwelcome surprise.
As soon as Jacob left, I dialed my partner Bob’s cell, then his direct office line, surprised when both went straight to voicemail. “Hi, it’s me. Please call back. Darth Vader made an appearance. I could use that strategic mind of yours. Otherwise, no later than six forty tonight, black tie.”
Our COO’s booming Scottish accent rounded the corner of my office before Burt himself did. “We need to cancel tomorrow’s screening of State. An emergency injunction has been issued after someone filed a complaint that it’s hate speech. No great surprise who will be behind that one,” he growled, refusing to look back at Victoria, our VP of development, who hustled in behind him.
She barely made it to his shoulder, but was twice as tough. Victoria used boxing lessons as a relaxation tool. “Finally, someone’s shown some leadership.”
“Hate speech,” I said, incredulous. “How?”
“Detestation and vilification that will expose a target group to abuse or delegitimization thus rendering them lawless, unworthy, or unacceptable in the eyes of the audience,” Burt said, reading from his phone.
I shook my head. “The Chinese government is going to be delegitimized by a film screening in Toronto?”
“Sounds about right,” Victoria said. “That settles the matter.”
This argument had eaten its own tail for months. “I honored the pledge you and Paul made to exclude State from the special showcase,” I said. “But you know I never agreed to ban the film altogether.”
“You understand, right, that it takes fifty million dollars a year to run this fucker?”
Victoria was gearing up for a fight. I admired her tenacity to do whatever necessary to get her job done; at the same time, I objected to some of her tactics. But she and Burt were diametrically opposed to each other’s position on this issue, and a blowout would serve no one well. “You and your team do an amazing job fundraising the yearly budget.”
“Cut the shit, Jane. You want the art-house directors like Yin Lee to love you, great. Have as many non-fat green tea lattes with them as you want. Hell, program State every day for a year after the festival closes for all I care. I agree, the film’s a punch in the gut. Chinese corruption sucks the motherlode. Yin Lee will win an Oscar. But the Chinese government gave us ten million for this showcase, and they don’t want a film highly critical of them to screen while they’re in town. It took us five years to make this sponsorship happen and if you fuck with it, I’ll fucking hang you.”
“How much wood would a wood fuck fuck, if a wood fuck could fuck wood?” Burt’s scorching tone bounced off Victoria’s hide, without making a dent.
I signaled for a time-out just as Samantha scurried in. “I didn’t realize there was a meeting in here. What’d I miss?” she said, notebook at the ready.
Samantha’s simmering hostility seemed even more apparent now I knew she’d made a HR complaint against me. Was she a conduit of information back to Jacob? “Have you connected with Devlin Ross’s people today?” I said, diverting the conversation. “Did she arrive? Have you gone over the donor stewardship sequence for tonight?”
“I need two more spots,” Victoria said, switching complaints without missing a beat. “I can cut them down to thirty seconds each, forty-five tops, but Devlin has got to give some face time with key targets of mine.”
We’d negotiated precise deal terms with Devlin Ross, the lead actress of Shifting Dragon, this year’s opening night film. She’d consented to one circuit of the VIP room at the after-party, sprinkling a little magic dust on the five biggest sponsors, but no single sponsor would receive more than three minutes of conversation. There would be no redistribution of unused minutes to other potential donors if one target was too starstruck to use their entire allotted time, a highly possible outcome given how mesmerizing she was.
“There’s no way Devlin’s people will agree to a last-minute change in terms,” I said. “If the three targets are critical, then I’ll lean on a friendly agent or manager tomorrow to get us an opportunity with another A-lister. Samantha, would you please go make sure Devlin has everything she needs?”
Samantha reluctantly left, while Burt began to pace his inner Braveheart up and down the short length of my office. “I’m working with the lawyers. We need to get that injunction lifted if we have any hope of screening before the festival ends.”
Veins bulged in Victoria’s neck. “We’re not going to screen it. The whole purpose of programming Shifting Dragon for opening night is to make the Chinese government happy. And now that State’s been banned, they’re even happier. Ten million dollars happy. Happy, happy showcase. Happy, happy opening night. You get the picture? Their entire delegation disappears in less than a week. I don’t want to hear anything about State until they’re gone. Not a peep.”
Burt had just informed us of the injunction; how could Victoria have already discussed it with the Chinese partners unless she or someone close to her was the source of the original complaint?
From his expression, Burt figured this out too. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he yelled. “You really did throw us — me — under the bus for a funder?”
Victoria remained silent, but her clenched fists spoke defiance.
“Let’s hope your sponsors don’t read reviews,” Burt said, suddenly quiet, a dangerous sign. “The critics aren’t stupid enough to miss what a piece of utter shite Shifting Dragon is.”
A modern thriller starring one of China’s biggest stars, Andy Tse, and two Western actors who play CIA agents in need of rescue after being kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Shifting Dragon sought to telegraph a more muscular Chinese identity as international peace-brokers. It was billed as the crown jewel in a thirty-film showcase underwritten by the Chinese government and negotiated by Paul DelGrotto and Victoria. No films by Taiwanese directors or that dealt with Tiananmen Square could be programmed for the showcase.
Burt and I, like most of our colleagues, were dismayed by the precedent set in giving a sponsor veto over content. To avoid the criticism, Paul and Victoria had slipped into stealth mode. It was only after Paul’s suspension that the commitments he’d made surfaced, ones I was now required to honor.
I listened with one ear as Victoria and Burt raged at each other about censorship, the large domestic Chinese community that deserved programming, and the geopolitical history of Asia while I quickly scrolled through my messages. Still nothing from Bob. His usual response rate was five minutes; more than an hour, unprecedented. I looked up only when Victoria uttered a sentence she had to know would be the powder keg. “We need to be sensitive to our partner’s political realities.”
“That’s it,” I said, just as the snot began to combust out of Burt’s nose. “Burt, I know you’ll stay on top of the injunction. But it’s two hours to showtime. Let’s focus on tonight.”
Burt stormed out. Victoria vibrated with triumph as she moved past Samantha who had reappeared at the door, still clutching her notebook and pen.
“Everything under control, Jane?”
A retaliatory pinch at my waist; Tassio, the dresser, was not best pleased. “Put the phone down. You’re ruining the line.”
“I think we’re good.”
“We’re not.” His fingers reached under the dress to adjust the spandex underclothing I’d been warned against calling a girdle in public — their brand people hated that — pulling the nylon edges away from the curves of my buttocks, so that it became a de facto thong.
I dialed Bob and again it went straight to voicemail. Tassio yanked the phone away, tossing it over the top of the privacy screen to Samantha, who slipped it into her purse. She disappeared only to reemerge seconds later accompanied by a tuxedo-clad, gray-haired man who was seventy if he was a day.
“This is Gerald. He’s one of our volunteers this year. He’d be honored to be your escort for this evening.”
“Gerald can move when Bob shows up, but we’re fifteen minutes away — we can’t hold any longer,” Samantha said, reading my mind.
“I’m four inches taller than him.” I was dismayed to hear a slight whine infect my tone.
Burt pulled up alongside Samantha. “The fat man’s in position. Producers are getting itchy to start in case he hoofs it,” he said.
#fatmanrising — a hashtag started by a festival staffer to track famed distributor Larry Roth’s movements without identifying him directly — had gone viral. Within an hour, it had become the litmus test for whether someone was a festival insider. Unsquelchable. I had turned it over to Lina and the marketing department to discretely exploit.
“It’s trending on Twitter,” Samantha said. “It’ll be number one by the end of the night.”
I swatted away the dresser’s fingers as he reached into my bra to arrange my breasts. “What I look like isn’t important.”
“Tell that to Dolce and Gabbana,” he hissed. “The dress is going to be unsellable because of the sweat stains, the least we can do is give them decent photos.”
“I’ve read the clothing notes in case anyone from the media asks,” Avatar Bob piped up, helpfully tapping his jacket pocket. “Someone was kind enough to loan me their spectacles.”
Stepping from behind the screen, I linked arms with Avatar Bob. “Okay, then. I guess we do this.”
As we neared the stage, the venue manager appeared to guide my companion to his seat and I walked to the microphone amid the glare of five hundred cameras. Sweat pooled in my armpits and at the nape of my neck; my fingers left marks on the edges of the chic black podium from gripping it too hard. I’d introduced many films over the years, so the mechanics of what I was about to do was familiar, but the import of standing there as acting CEO rendered me momentarily speechless.
Shortly before finishing NYU’s graduate film school, I abandoned my dream of being a filmmaker in New York to care for my mother during a prolonged battle with cancer. That fate blocked my first choice was hardly a surprise. Good fortune was reserved for people born into families with cleaner karmas than mine.
But a love of film was in my bloodstream and could not be denied. Four years later, I landed a part-time gig as a TIFF programmer, then moved to full-time, promoted to senior programmer after a few years, and eventually appointed artistic director once it became clear to Paul I’d work like a Trojan but let him take the credit. Give a foolish, weak man with a Mussolini self-image enough rope and he’ll hang himself, or so my hope in retributive justice went. I calculated the odds at 20 to 1 — on an optimistic day.
In the meantime, I kept my head down and ears open. I watched every film that crossed anyone’s desk and I slowly perfected my craft. I built a global network among the indie filmmakers who would have been my peers. I had one mantra: Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
Never, though, did I think I’d get the top job this quickly, or in circumstances that were half opportunity, half poisoned chalice. Turn it down and the board might hire a CEO who’d remain a couple of decades or more, bringing in his own people to take the senior positions like mine. Accept the interim appointment and risk being made the scapegoat for a festival half-baked by Paul, produced during chaos, and mired in scandal-related negative press.
“You’ve got this, Jane,” Bob had said. “And I’ve got your back.”
Except he didn’t. The two-headed snake of Jacob’s insidiousness and Bob’s unexplained absence lay curled in my thoughts as I stood at the microphone. But still, an electric current of excitement fizzed in my bloodstream as I leaned forward to speak.
“Good evening. I’m Jane Browning. As the festival’s acting CEO, it’s my very great pleasure to welcome you to the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival.”
Applause broke out around the room, and I waited for it to take its course, willing my voice to steady. “We’re delighted you’ve joined us for tonight’s film, Shifting Dragon, which kicks off our special spotlight on the vibrancy and complexity of contemporary Chinese cinema. And we hope to see you often over the coming ten days, for films from every corner of our planet, stories that challenge the status quo, from filmmakers who shed new light on what it means to be human, to be a citizen, in this troubled century. Please join me in giving a very warm Toronto welcome to the hundreds of amazingly talented directors, writers, producers, and actors whose work we’re honored to present this year.”
A guttural sound from the balcony competed with the applause. All heads, including mine, swiveled to witness Devlin Ross stumble her way over a seated Huntley Bartlett, supporting actor in Shifting Dragon, who hadn’t thought fast enough to get up. She milked his lack of chivalry for every ounce of attention she could get, prolonging and exaggerating her teeter. Her costar, Andy Tse, stood and extended his hand to assist, causing rows of young women to swoon in delicious delight.
Twitter had been vicious about Huntley’s performance after a rough cut of the film leaked. Hoping to extinguish the negative momentum, the film’s production company ordered Huntley to skip the festival, offering an escalating non-appearance bonus, but his agent had hung tough, labeling it an infringement on Huntley’s first amendment rights. Huntley would go where Huntley wanted to go, and neither God nor goddamned Beijing was going to interfere.
Taking pity on Huntley, I began to thank the long list of sponsors, forcing attention back to the stage. Finally, I headed back to my seat but paused in consternation at the end of the aisle. Avatar Bob had melted away as imperceptibly as the real one, replaced by a woman I didn’t know. Small, curvaceous, with carefully sculpted blond hair, she seemed exuberant, if that’s not too strange a description for someone who was not uttering a word. A life force so strong, she seemed to be in full motion when not even moving an inch. It was impossible to take my eyes off her, and I didn’t even try.
She whispered in my ear the second I sat down. “The tsunami is coming. It’s urgent that we speak about Bob.”