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The Frears of Silence
How a long, tortured walk taught me to relax with and accept awkward silence
I generally and genuinely like meeting people and have a natural curiosity about what makes them tick. I’ve long held the belief that if you have never met someone before – then you literally have EVERYTHING in this world to talk about! But back in 2005 during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), that theory of mine was silently taken to task.
It was a warm September evening as we, my colleague Carrie Wolfe and I, stood in the back of the dark auditorium of Elgin Theatre watching the final minutes of Mrs. Henderson Presents, a film we were working on that was directed by Stephen Frears. The Elgin, a theatre with an origin that dates back to the late vaudeville, early silent movie era was painstakingly restored to its former glory in 1989. And it was the perfect venue to debut this film - a charming biopic about a widow, played to perfection by Judi Dench, who buys and revives a dilapidated theatre in London back in the early 30s.
If you are not familiar with him, Stephen Frears is an accomplished British director/ producer with several impressive awards under his belt. He’s probably best known for his brilliant and iconic films: My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity and more recently, The Queen - but there are also countless other impressive projects that he has been involved with.
Stephen, along with a couple of his cast members, Bob Hoskins and Kelly Reilly, were in attendance for the screening that night and fortunately for all - the film was very well received, and as the end credits started to roll - the audience erupted into applause and proceeded to give Stephen and his actors a standing ovation. We were pleased and hoped that the director would be too as we positioned ourselves at the back door to make sure their cars were in place and the drivers were ready for the talent departures.
The final assignment for Carrie and I that evening was simply to make sure that Stephen got into his car and was driven to The Windsor Arms Hotel to attend the annual director’s dinner that was being hosted by the festival CEO, Piers Handling.
We had ONE job.
As Stephen exited the theatre, instead of turning right towards the cars – he took a sharp left and started to walk in the opposite direction of the growing crowd of actors, producers and publicists. We called out, “Stephen - your car is waiting here to take you to your dinner!” to which he simply replied (without turning to look at us) “no thank you – I prefer to walk” and dismissively waved us on.
Walk?!? It’s at least a half hour walk up Yonge Street! He’ll be really late for the dinner! He’ll end up walking through a few sketchy pockets along the strip by himself! Oh my!!
Carrie and I looked at each other with confusion and concern as she surmised, “maybe he thinks it’s closer than it actually is???” and I replied, “maybe, but it looks like we’re gonna have to walk now too!” After all - he was our responsibility and we couldn’t let him walk on his own.
So we quickly turned back to find his driver and once we did - we directed him to go ahead to the hotel. As we turned and started to work our way back through the crowd in pursuit of our escapee, Miranda Richardson suddenly appeared standing directly in front of us, she literally came out of nowhere - almost as if on cue.
“Where’s my car?” she asked us in a fairly condescending and expectant manor – it was a question that caught us completely off guard because she wasn’t attached to this film of ours in any way, so we obviously hadn’t arranged a car for her. In fact, we had no clue that she was even in town until shortly before the screening, when we learned that Stephen had invited her and offered her a ride to the theatre as they were both staying in the same hotel. Carrie and I looked at each other again, shrugged our shoulders and responded back to her with “we have no idea where your car is!”
Stephen’s car had already disappeared, so we suggested that she speak to a festival rep as we certainly didn’t have the time to solve her transportation problem - we had a director to catch!
The moment we finally did catch up with him was the moment the night really started to crumble for me.
Between the car redirect and the Miranda diversion, Stephen had gained a considerable lead on us so we literally had to run to catch up - and the moment we finally did was the moment the night really started to crumble for me.
He clearly wasn’t in a talking mood, but for some unknown reason – I made it my mission to break his armour and to engage him in conversation. I knew we had a long walk ahead, and the thought of walking that entire distance in silence felt horribly awkward to me.
So I started to talk. And I talked a lot.
I was still trying to catch my breath as I congratulated him on the terrific reaction and response to his film, to which he offered a blunt “thanks.” I then asked if he had been to Toronto in the past, or if he had ever been able to explore the city, to which he replied “no.”
Then I started to discuss the rapid growth of multiplexes in Canada, and was surprised to learn he had very little interest, but evidently I did, so I just kept talking on about it - and the more I talked, the faster he walked. So, we walked faster too!!
Then, I thought he SURELY would be interested in knowing about the retail promotion that we had planned for the theatrical launch of his film (we were working with Talbots on it), and when I explained the concept - he feigned interest with a “hmmm” as he picked up his pace yet again. He was in great shape!
And then I really stretched. For some bizzaro reason, I started to talk about other retail partnerships that we’ve had on other films, like The Gap and Banana Republic, and I noted that the Gap had been a sponsor of our annual TIFF party, which I’m sure he made an immediate mental note NOT to attend. I even asked him if they had Banana Republic in the UK. I actually asked him that.
In desperation, I turned to Carrie and signalled for her to help me, but she just gave me a blank stare as if to say “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?”
From that moment on, it was clear that I was on my own - so I resorted to calling out buildings and businesses as we walked (actually, ran) by them like I was leading some kind of pathetic late night tour of the city.
But for my final hurrah, the pièce de résistance, I expressed my love for a restaurant that we quickly passed at the corner of Yonge and Wellesley called The Garlic Pepper.
The Garlic Pepper was a tiny hole-in-the-wall Szechwan joint that our team visited annually towards the end of TIFF. It was the comfort food that we all craved, and each year it marked the end of another successful festival for us.
They had this amazing “crackling rice soup” which I went on to describe to him as a “very interesting soup because it sizzles when you drop the rice into the hot broth and it is delicious!” And then I asked him, “Have you ever tried crackling rice soup?” He didn’t respond - he just stepped on the gas and raced through another red light, which at this point had become a pattern.
A walk that should have taken 30 minutes, took us only 20 - obviously fuelled by his desire to lose me. And when we did reach The Windsor Arms hotel, before I could say one more word - he quickly slipped through the doors and disappeared into the crowd. Once inside, I imagined him throwing himself up against a wall and hiding behind a plant or some large object.
While setting out to work on this post, I googled “awkward silence” and came across a number of articles and studies on the topic - so I can take some comfort in knowing that it is a thing, and that others also suffer from an absolute fear of awkward silence too. I feel like the quote below from this feature in INC Magazine kind of nails it:
“Awkward silence is a real issue for people…when you’re face-to-face with another person or with a group of people, you face what Nietzsche called the horror of the vacuum of space with nothing to say.”
-Justin Zorn, co-author of Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise
I certainly felt trapped in some kind of weird horror vacuum that night!
As soon as he was out of our sight, Carrie turned and asked me what I was thinking - and I didn’t know how to answer because I really didn’t understand what happened or what had possessed me. I just couldn’t stop myself and I was equally horrified.
Maybe it was the kerfuffle back at the cars that threw me off my game and I panicked. Maybe it was the excruciating pain that my stiff new shoes inflicted on me as we sprinted up Yonge Street. Or perhaps it was just sheer exhaustion from the weeks of prep leading up to the festival that finally broke me.
No matter what the trigger was - I was clearly overtaken by a massive wave of insecurity. And I can see clearly now how completely insensitive I was to Stephen by making my needs greater than his. I robbed him of a moment of solitude that he clearly wanted and the space that he likely needed.
The good news is that I never found myself in that situation again. And since that experience many years ago - I’ve come to characterize embarrassing moments like this as being just a funny part of life’s journey.
There actually were a few positive lessons that come out of that crazy, horribly long and uncomfortable walk:
I learned to be comfortable with awkward silences and no longer take it personally when these situations arise.
I learned to really be able to laugh at myself. I beat myself up VERY badly over this experience back then, I really punished myself for it. But I eventually found myself laughing out loud over how ridiculous it was, and I continue to see humour in embarrassing situations.
I learned to ditch uncomfortable shoes for comfortable ones, because you never know when you are going to have to walk (or run!) long distances or stand for hours with what you have on your feet!
In case you are more curious about the “very interesting” crackling rice soup than Stephen Frears was…
I managed to find a very familiar-sounding recipe for the soup online from Char Ferrara’s cute site, Wok & Skillet. She calls her version “Sizzling Rice Soup” which sounds about right! You can find her recipe here.
I might whip up a big pot of this soup someday and invite Carrie and our former colleagues over so we can reminisce and enjoy a few laughs together, just for old time’s sake 😊
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