Q & Eh?: When Asking the Audience Goes Wrong

For some reason, I always jump at the chance of going to a post-film Q+A, expecting an insight into the film-making process, a chance to unpack the themes and ideas behind their new creative work, and enjoy the company of those directly involved. But I struggle to think of one which has actually fully delivered on their promise. Of course, it works both ways – it’s a give and take scenario, and an uncooperative subject doesn’t help matters. However, more often than not, it is the questions from the audience that leaves the experience often being a squib of the damp variety.

It seems there is always one question, be it awkward, ill-judged or just bonkers, when you can hear the other cinemagoers groan, sigh, grit their teeth or bury their heads in their hands. Hey, I’ve asked dumb questions too, but I’m mostly of the camp that thinks “Hey, they’ve taken the time to come here, no one enjoys the press junket experience, let’s not bombard them with crap.” Sometimes it’s a non-sequitur or an attempt to be funny, and in some instances the line of questioning may even be justified, but it’s always better leaving the probing to the journos who actually have some weight behind them rather than Joe Anonymous.

So, here are a few examples of some memorable clangers I’ve bore witness to. Please excuse the paraphrasing and anecdotal nature, but hopefully the essence of squirm-inducing embarrassment has been successful transposed. And apologies to all concerned.

The League of Gentlemen – The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse – London, 2004

With a Q+A, you never know what kind of crowd you’re going to get, and in particular how primed they are for the film they have just seen. Naturally, you’re going to end up with some who have no expectations or prior knowledge, but sometimes that’s better than outright misinformation. For the big screen follow-up to the TV series The League of Gentlemen, three of the four members (Steve Pemberton was filming Lassie at the time) gathered to take the usual questions, including another run through of the Papa Lazarou character genesis story, which even back then they had told many times before. The highlight of the night though was one puzzled punter who, in a mixture of confusion and annoyance, enquired what this had to do with the previous film. You know, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Oh, to have been in their brain during the preceding hour and a half or so to see what on Earth they made of it all.

Park Chan-Wook – I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK – Barbican, 2007

The nature of a duff question can be as much about the timing as the content itself, and the necessity to ‘end on a good one’ was proven here. No doubt in response to scenes in which the ‘Cyborg’ dreams of spouting hidden gun barrels and opening bloody fire on the staff of the mental institution in which she resides, the final question of the night came in the form of asking whether he thought Oldboy had any part to play in the Virginia Tech massacre that had happened some months before (a link which was reported, but quite swiftly discredited). The awkwardness hung ever greater as it had to be translated into Korean, then his answer given, and then translated into English. It was unsurprisingly a diplomatic answer, saying it was a tragedy, but felt the link between violence in reality and in cinema was tenuous and his films had no part to play. But it was an ill-conceived debate to launch right at the end of the discussion.

David O Russell – Silver Linings Playbook – BFI London Film Festival 2012

David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart - audience out of the picture

David O. Russell and Bradley Cooper with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart – audience out of the picture

The ‘Surprise Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2012 (and such a surprise that I didn’t even know the title of the film until it came up in the end credits) also heralded with it surprise guests, namely star Bradley Cooper and director David O Russell. Russell spoke eloquently and sensitively about how the story spoke to him personally and in particular with regards his son’s bipolar disorder. Now, Russell’s anger issues are well documented (notably on-set scuffles with George Clooney on Three Kings, and Lily Tomlin on I Heart Huckabees), but still one audience member’s question quite openly, though not directly, referred to his infamous indiscretions. Okay, so being that it was a surprise film, said audience member would not have known when he took his seat that in about two hours they would have a chance to needle Russell, and certainly those past transgressions are inexcusable, but the atmosphere in the room completely thickened as a result. Russell though was on good behaviour and deflected talk of anger issues back towards his son’s own problems and how that was channelled into the making of the film, but there was a minute or so where a previously jovial interview could have gone sour.

Rich Moore & Sarah Silverman – Wreck-It Ralph – BFI Southbank, February 2013

As mentioned previously, timing can make or break a question, and the first to come from the audience here was the perfect mix of nerd fury, unentitled indignation, and crippling nerves. It came from a young nerd who took the special guests to task about the wait between the US release and its eventual UK release, complaining that there were a lot of fellow geeks out there who were fans of games and they were cross they couldn’t see it – or at least that’s what could be made out from the sweaty stutters and clammy swallow-pauses. But when your question is targeted at Silverman and director Moore (previously of The Simpsons and Futurama, so no stranger to irreverence either), they’re not going to be overly sensitive to your needs. With mock sincerity, they sarcastically praised their courageousness in asking the question, and for a minute or two they pretty much ribbed him good. It culminated in them claiming that “they wanted to release it on your birthday, but Disney were like ‘Nooooo’”. It was pretty mean, but pretty funny too.


So, any more Q+A horror stories? Or have you been to a Q+A where the questions from the audience have actually been good?


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