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There is a bittersweet irony that the Toronto theatre that hosted the premiere of The Big Chill three decades ago has been converted into a Pottery Barn homewares store. But the demise of an old movie palace to make way for a soulless franchise can’t dilute the love that the town’s film festival goers have for director Lawrence Kasdan’s tale of idealism, friendship and change. Many of those original audience members turned out for a 30th anniversary screening and cast-and-crew Q&A session earlier this week.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), then known as ‘The Festival of Festivals’, was seven years old when it hosted the World Premiere of The Big Chill. TIFF was a well-liked, generally well-attended event that was on the cusp of being one of the world’s leading festivals. Similarly, the film’s cast were respected actors but not marquee draws and director Kasdan had scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back to his name but only one directorial effort, the decidedly unsentimental (though critically-acclaimed) Body Heat. There was a sense of synergism about the pairing.  

““I was at that screening as a member of the public, so I do remember what it felt like,” says Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF (pictured, right). “In addition to helping its stars break through and its influence on cinema generally, The Big Chill represents a landmark in TIFF’s own history. It showcased the Festival’s ability to seek out and attract up-and-coming contemporary classics and helped the Festival move to the forefront of the international landscape.”

Attendees at the premiere went wild for the tale of baby-boomer pals gathering at the funeral of the most idealistic member of their college clique, who has committed suicide (played by Kevin Costner, his flashback scenes entirely excised from the final cut). The chemistry between cast members, amongst them William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Meg Tilly, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jobeth Williams and a scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum, was entirely infectious; the film would win the People’s Choice Award at TIFF that year.

"The film had something to do with friendship,” Kasdan told reporters on the red carpet ahead of the September 5 retrospective screening. “It's not a particularly rose-colored version of it; it's what really happens. People rub each other wrong, but the friendship survives and helps you deal with the world." Kasdan and screenwriter Barbara Benedek spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the personalities of their characters. “"We thought that maybe if we were specific enough there'd be some universality", he said. "The characters came from studies of people we knew. These were real people on the screen".

The launch provided by the Toronto’s enthusiastic audience fuelled the film’s marketing and subsequent box office success, almost in spite of studio ambivalence. Kasdan (pictured, left; l-r, Berenger, the director, Goldblum, Kline and Hurt) recalls, “[The studio] said, 'How can there be seven protagonists? It's impossible’. The subject matter also wasn't exactly in their wheelhouse. The head of Columbia Pictures said to me, after the first test screening, 'I didn't know it was a comedy.'" On the back of three Oscar nominations (Picture, Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Glenn Close) and a blockbuster soundtrack of classic 60’s hits, The Big Chill took US$56.4million domestically (a staggering US$143.4million in 2013 currency).

As was to be expected, the 30th anniversary screening took on a celebratory mood. Audience participation was encouraged, with spontaneous dancing breaking out in the aisles and classic quotes (“It’s just good investigative journalism”) echoed verbatim. Kasdan, Benedek and producers Michael Shamberg and Marcia Nasatir accompanied the cast (excluding Goldblum and Hurt, through work commitments, and the late Dan Galloway) on the Prince of Wales Theatre stage following the screening (the film restored to 4k clarity by the studio archivists). Variety’s senior film critic, Scott Foundas, had the enviable task of moderating.

“This movie's been available in your living room for 30 years, and yet you all came out tonight. I really appreciate it," Kasdan told the sold-out audience, adding for comic effect, "You'll have no trouble recognizing the cast. They haven't changed a bit.” (Pictured, right: l-r, Gleen Close, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, Tom Berenger and Jobeth Williams)

"It was an extraordinary experience to have challenging work that also made you laugh,” said Mary Kay Place, (who played the maternal Meg) “and then to have as much fun during the day working as you did at night dancing and playing charades and singing Broadway show tunes at a piano at Jeff's and Kevin's." Tom Berenger, cast as TV actor Sam Weber, recalls his stunt-leap into the front seat of a convertible as pretty tame action-hero stuff. “Anybody could have done it,” he says, “that was a pretty low car.”

Canadian native Meg Tilly, so memorable as the beatific Chloe (pictured, right) and who had all but retired from acting, perhaps best sums up the love shared by both the film and the festival audience. “It was one of the cosiest sets I’ve been on,” she said. “We all rented condos on the beach and Friday nights we’d get together and have parties and dancing and food.” The reuniting of the cast was a special moment for the actress. "I'm so happy they had the idea to bring us all together to do this," she said. "It's such a gift, I get to see everybody again and I haven't seen everybody in so long. To see their happy smiling faces, that was such a blessing. I'm really grateful."

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