Media, Darling: Norman Wilner

A lifelong Torontonian, Norman Wilner became the senior film writer for NOW Magazine in early 2008. Previously, he reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada, and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta!) for the Toronto Star column from 1988 to 2006. These days, his DVD column appears Tuesdays on MSN Canada.

His byline has appeared in Cinema Scope, Montage, Marquee and even The Hollywood Reporter that one time. You may also remember him from his appearances as a critic and commentator on any radio or television program that will call him.

In 2008, he was elected secretary and vice-president of the Toronto Film Critics Association; in 2009, he was a member of the features jury for Canada’s Top Ten. A member of the international film critics’ organization FIPRESCI, he has sat on festival juries in Toronto, Montreal, London, Vienna and Palm Springs.

He lives in Kensington Market, just a short walk from any of 14 coffee shops. He’s on Twitter as @wilnervision, and blogs most days at

Photo credit: Michael Watier

Did you always want to be in the media? If not, what other careers were on the horizon?
I’ve always wanted to write about film – it wasn’t until my last year of high school that I figured out a way to do it in a fashion other people would want to read. And even that feels like a humblebrag; I still can’t believe my opinion is given any weight beyond “Oh, he liked that? I’ll probably hate it.”
Nah, this is what I had to do. I’m trained for nothing else. And my brother Mike has claimed all sports for himself, so it’s just as well.
Where would you like to be five years from now?
The glib answer would be, “that assumes print will still be around in five years.” But I’m lucky enough to write for NOW, which has only grown stronger as the newspaper industry has declined, and will probably be just as healthy and as essential to Toronto’s arts culture as it was when I joined the staff in 2008. I’d be more than happy to still be doing what I’m doing right now in five years’ time… maybe with a little more television on the side.
Any advice for people getting started in your industry?
Cultivate your masochistic side. It takes a long time to establish one’s voice, and longer still to build a reputation that will draw people to said voice. Whenever anyone asks me for advice, I tell them to start a blog, and maintain a regular publishing schedule; whatever else you do, it’s good to have something that’s exclusively your own. Facebook pages don’t count.
What are your favourite media outlets, not including your own?
I follow Torontoist, BlogTO and Spacing pretty religiously, both on their websites and their writers’ Twitter feeds. Jonathan Goldsbie, who used to write for Torontoist and now contributes to the National Post, has pointed me to more local news in the last year than any old-media organ.
It’s a rare day when I don’t end up on the websites of The New York Times and The Globe and Mail, and I check The A.V. Club whenever I’m near the Internet — which is, like, always. The radio’s always tuned to CBC, and I occasionally watch CityTV news just to laugh at their hyperbolic intros and general sense of impending doom.
I also keep up with Toronto’s film critic community (after I’ve filed my own reviews, of course); Jason Anderson and Adam Nayman are dear friends as well as excellent writers, so I read them wherever they turn up.
Best interview you’ve ever had?
I’ve had some great interviews in the past. I’ve talked to Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright several times over the last few years, and they’re always invigorating. When I was 23 and in full Cassavetes worship, I got to sit down with Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel and Al Ruban at a Los Angeles press day celebrating the re-issue of his lost films; that remains one of the best days of my career.
I was lucky enough to get half an hour with Rod Steiger when he came to TIFF with Guilty As Charged in 1991, and an hour with Arthur Penn a few years after that. TIFF’s great for those unexpected opportunities, and for getting to sit down with directors as they come back over the years. I got to knock around with Peter Jackson when he was here with Dead-Alive and Heavenly Creatures, and Terry Gilliam pulled me into his elegant but rambunctious orbit more than once. Richard Donner gave me some invaluable training advice when he heard my obnoxious dog barking in the background during a phone interview. Steve Coogan’s been a great interview every time.

The worst interview I’ve ever done would have to be Mike Leigh, whom I interviewed for Global TV’s Entertainment Desk in 1996, when he came to Toronto with Secrets and Lies. I asked what I thought were halfway intelligent questions – I’d seen all of his films, and wanted to engage him in a genuine conversation about his approach to drama and to casting – and he did everything he could to render the footage unusable, answering in monosyllables and even picking his nose on camera. I was gutted, both personally and professionally. Apparently he just doesn’t like doing television.
Best advice you’ve ever been given?
“It’s almost never personal,” which my producer, Bonnie Laufer-Krebs, gave me immediately after she watched the Leigh footage. A close second would be “Never apologize for the things you love,” which the late John Harkness was fond of saying – usually after telling me he’d just ordered another boxed set of Japanese gangster movies from Amazon’s U.K. site.
What rule(s) do you live your life by?
This sounds incredibly lame, but I just try to be honest in everything I do. That means giving my genuine opinion when I’m asked, for good or ill. A critic who’s worried about offending people by going against the grain or making a controversial argument is already worrying about the wrong things.
What’s the most important tip you can give PR pros?
Sometimes, you have to take no for an answer. And if you describe every new project as the greatest and most important thing in the history of ever, that just means you’re utterly mercenary and we can’t trust you to be straight with us.
Best experience you’ve had with a PR pro? We love to hear about #wins.
It comes back to honesty. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and over the years I’ve worked with plenty of good people – Maria Manero and Anna Perelman at Allied Advertising, who set up a terrific TIFF lunch date with Danny Boyle last year on very short notice; Victoria Gormley at Warner Bros., who comes up with opportunities I’d never expect to get from a major studio; Angie Burns, formerly of Maple Pictures; Suzanne Cheriton, Dana Fields, Debra Goldblatt.
I hate?
Pandering. (See above re: “greatest and most important thing in the history of ever.”)
I love?
I love that I get to be a champion for movies that people might otherwise miss, and I love that I work for a newspaper that encourages me to do so at my discretion. I love that I get to talk to filmmakers whose movies I’d be lining up to see anyway: Boyle, Wright, Gilliam, Steven Soderbergh, Kelly Reichardt, Olivier Assayas, Jia Zhang-ke, David Cronenberg, Bruce McDonald, Denis Villeneuve, Denis Cote, I could go on, and that I don’t have to fight for space when those interviews run.
Wait, did you mean actual, tangible stuff? Then the monkey bread at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Kensington Market. And now I’m hungry.
I recently finished Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, about the history of Chinese food in America. I’m currently reading John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense, which looks at new perspectives on canine behaviour.
On deck: Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, which he told me about in an interview a couple of years ago and I’ve been waiting to read ever since, and The Erotic Engine by Patchen Barss, which argues that every major technological advance has been in some way motivated by a pornographic purpose. Groovy.
Best place on earth?
I’ve been to Cannes just once, in 2008. If there is a better place for a cinephile, I haven’t found it. I also have a twisted love for Times Square in New York City. Stand in one spot for half an hour, preferably with a latte and a couple of black-and-white cookies, and the whole of humanity will flow past you.
Dinner guest?
Either Terry Gilliam or Billy Connolly. They’re the only two people I’ve met whose charisma cannot be measured by conventional means and they’re both tremendous storytellers.
Jon Stewart is my spirit animal.
Favourite app (or whatever you are downloading these days)?
I’m a big fan of comedy podcasts, so when Earwolf and Nerdist release versions of their apps for the Android platform, I’ll be all over them.
Pool or ocean?
Ocean, absolutely. I’m mildly allergic to chlorine.
Voicemail or email?
Email. Compact, concise, not prone to garbling when you walk under a bridge… it’s just easier for everyone.