Nirvanna the Band the Show to premiere at TIFF

But wait... doesn't the show's Matt Johnson think the Toronto International Film Fest has serious problems? Why yes, yes he does.

TIFF announced today that the upcoming festival will host the world premiere of Nirvanna the Band the Show. The revamp of Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol’s web series, about a couple of dimwits going to outrageous lengths to land a show at the Rivoli, is set to air on Viceland in 2017, but festival audiences will get a sneak peak at a couple of episodes.

The announcement will come as a surprise to some, considering the conversation I had with director and co-star Johnson back in January, when we discussed how veteran Canadian filmmakers repeatedly receive the spoils of what both Telefilm and TIFF have to offer.

“As a filmmaker it doesn’t make sense for me to have my films playing there,” said Johnson, a day before he took his moon-landing thriller Operation Avalanche to Sundance. We talked about the difficulty that a small Canadian film has garnering attention within TIFF’s massiveness, and how playing a major foreign festival is perceived to be the bigger accomplishment for Canadians since there’s no perception of local charity involved.

“I still stand by that,” says Johnson when I visited him last week at the Zapruder Films office. “This is a completely different thing.”

TIFF is the only major festival with a forward-thinking program for television shows, so there’s the very practical reason why premiering Nirvanna the Band the Show at home only made sense. But Johnson has more personal reasons as to why he is excited to bring the show to the festval.

“With me – and I think with you – there’s a false sense of anti-TIFFness,” says Johnson. “I think people think that I am at war or have a real problem with TIFF, which is not actually the case, as you know.”

I do. Even in our first conversation from January, Johnson talked about TIFF as his favourite festival and he does so again today.

“We can just focus on the facts,” says Johnson, who criticized the flashy gala slots that are typically reserved for veteran Canadian filmmakers, while new talents fight for attention in smaller venues. “Not that I hate TIFF. I think TIFF is amazing. In fact, I’m happy that we get to play our TV show there, specifically because it’s a Toronto show made by an entirely Toronto crew made for Toronto.”

In the show, audiences can expect to see local landmarks like the CN Tower, the Santa Claus Parade and SkyDome playing a role in quasi-scripted scenarios. Johnson and McCarrol show up in character as Matt and Jay, respectively, and unsuspecting bystanders become part of their lunatic narrative.

One episode has Matt and Jay head over to Yonge and Dundas Square, unaware that the 420 celebrations are happening. Amidst the haze, Matt goes to buy snacks for Jay and returns with about 10 Doritos bags. Then comes a moment of unplanned hilarity: “I get mobbed by random strangers coming to eat these chips.”

Even the NOW Magazine office got caught unawares in one of Johnson’s ploys. An entire episode is about Matt and Jay trying to manipulate their way onto the magazine’s cover, so they attempt to sneak into the building. They could have just asked for an invite, but then they wouldn’t have captured the resistance they got from our receptionist – which is exactly what they wanted.

“It would have been pretty easy for me to call Kate (NOW’s director of editorial strategy) or you and be like, ‘We’re coming – we’re trying to do this thing,’” says Johnson. He cites Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as an explanation for why he didn’t. “It’s almost like trying to measure the location of a particle. You can’t ever know where an atom is, because as soon as you measure it, the energy you took to measure moves it. The show works the same way. You can’t tell the people you’re trying to do a scene with that you’re doing a scene. Because as soon as they know, they’re no longer themselves.”

That same formula is also at work in Johnson’s hilarious and thrilling Operation Avalanche, where the filmmaker surreptitiously got people at NASA to feed his narrative about faking the moon landing. (He’s actually gearing up for a US press tour for Operation Avalanche, before the film launches in all the major cities on September 16. Curiously, eOne Films has yet to set a Canadian release date.)

For now, Johnson and his crew are finishing up the season of Nirvanna the Band and deciding what episodes to show at TIFF. And he’s looking forward to seeing how the CanCon debate, which began with his interview with Calum Marsh in The Globe and Mail, will continue to develop at this year’s festival.

Since those initial conversations last winter, Sleeping Giant director Andrew Cividino spoke up about his issues with Canadian film financing in an interview with Johanna Schneller. “There is still a lot of work to be done in supporting emerging filmmakers,” he said.

TIFF also initiated a panel called Breakfast at TIFF, where people within the industry could speak up about the problems and benefits of our financing system and festival. Johnson was among the panelists.

“I actually loved that Breakfast at TIFF,” he says, explaining that the initiative was a remarkable gesture, encouraging the discussion instead of trying to snuff it out. “It’s like all of a sudden, the media and filmmakers feel empowered to challenge the structures. I think that is a step in the right direction. Any amount of rebellion, even against something as great and philanthropic as TIFF, is good. It’s good for them to have people from a younger generation saying you could be doing a better job. In the same way that I think that Telefilm could be doing a better job.”

At this point Johnson lets his own discomfort with the situation seep in. He’s unwittingly become the poster boy for whatever this rebellion is. And he’s fully aware that he’s not the ideal candidate for the job: he’s a white male who has had the luxury of financing his films outside the major CanCon insitutions.

“I feel like I’m in such a bizarre situation,” says Johnson, warning that the next sentence will make him sound like an “arrogant prick”.

“The national fund — the fund with all the money that Telefilm has — is going to be accessible by filmmakers like me and Andrew Cividino very soon,” he says. “We are going to be in the position of someone like Atom Egoyan and Deepa Mehta.”

In fact, Johnson already has plans to knock on Telefilm’s door for his next move, the ultimate Canadian movie about John A. MacDonald. And he’s eyeballing a world premiere at Roy Thomson Hall.

“So take us seriously when we say, this is a corrupt, brutal system,” Johnson warns. “Because if the people who are about to get all this money are telling you, ‘Don’t let us take all this money,’ then you know something is wrong. Once we’re in the system, once I’m given a $3.5 million cheque from the Canadian government, when they say, ‘Do what you want Matt,’ it will be pretty tough to get me arguing against the system at that point.”

Find out more about what’s coming to TIFF 2016 here. | @FreshAndFrowsy

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