Ah…The Writer’s Life (and who is the real film and TV visionary?)

 

Just as a preamble to today’s post, I should point out what should be obvious — I know a fair bit about Canadian film & TV. And, equally, I know very little.

It all kind of depends on your perspective, and to what you compare things. Certainly among my circle of family and friends, I know a good deal more than most of them. Yet equally, movies and TV shows (not to mention plays, books, bands) can come along that I’ve never heard of but others would look at me aghast for being so clueless. I’ve read articles and editorials — in major publications — where the writer clearly has no idea what he/she is writing about, or the significance of the Canadian celebrity they’ve been assigned to interview. Yet, to be fair, I can equally come upon a “fresh face” in a movie…only to discover they already have a fandom!

So if I sometimes seem oddly smug, or pretentious in my — at times — pedagogical analysis of Canadian film and TV, that’s ’cause I’ve spent a lot of years making it my hobby, and really do think I have something to say, some insight to offer that you don’t get, even when reading professional articles by so called professional entertainment reporters. Yet equally, if I can sometimes seem clueless, or like I’m hammering away at a “profound” point that, to you, seems obvious and so “last year”…that’s ’cause I haven’t (and can’t) watch everything, or read every article written on the topic.

Just thought that’s worth admitting.

Now…onward.

A few weeks back I referenced screenwriter John Krizanc when writing about some episodes of the crime drama, King (a series which, y’know, I kind of like…though I think I’ve done well to hide that fact). And even though the reference to Krizanc was, slightly critical (since I was criticizing the episode he wrote) it was in the context of pointing out that Krizanc had written some top notch political thrillers like H2O and The Summit. He also co-scripted (with occasional collaborator, Paul Gross) the successful comedy, Men With Brooms.

And I was thinking about…the Canadian film and television writer (cue: the Hinterland’s Who’s Who theme).

I’ve said before that in Canada we’ve kind of followed the Hollywood template of assigning an enormous amount of respect, authority, and adulation to the director. When a tag lines say: “a film by __” it generally means the director.

Now, I don’t dispute the director’s importance, or talent. But I do sometimes wonder if we go a little over board — if not in respecting the director, than in disrespecting everyone else. After all, looked at a certain way, one could argue the director is the guy who can’t write, can’t edit, can’t score the music, can’t act, can’t set up a shot or arrange lighting…but nonetheless gets to claim the finished film is a product of his genius and vision! To paraphrase the SF film, Forbidden Planet (when a cynic describes the job of a ship’s captain) — a director doesn’t need talent…he just needs a loud voice.

The fact that film awards have categories for editor, and cinematographer, and others would seem to indicate that it’s understood these people are contributing to the finished film. Someone once pointed out to me how often successful directors will work with the same team (editor, cinematographer) on movie after movie, so that it’s actually hard to separate them from their “team”. Indeed this same person pointed out that a certain major, hit making American director had made the occasional box office bomb…and those were always movies where, for one reason or another, he wasn’t working with his usual crowd, making you wonder how much was it his talent and vision responsible for his hits…and how much was it simply that he surrounded himself with talented visionaries. But, like a cult leader, he convinced them they were merely vessels for his genius.

In Canada, although this reverence for the director exists, it’s tempered by the fact that many of our “auteur” directors…write their own scripts (or co-write them…whatever that means!) As such, it’s certainly more reasonable to say “a film by ___” in those contexts.

But given the uneven box office history of Canadian films…there is the question whether this is always the best formula. And one could ask, are these writers (who understand things like structure, and denouement, and character growth) who direct…or are they directors who write. If you see the difference. I mean, very few of these writer/directors write things they don’t direct (either for another director, or as a novel, or short story) yet they do often direct from others’ scripts.

Still, I don’t want to get too carried away assigning credit, or blame. I’ve mentioned before that, though I might certainly pay a little more attention to a film if I know it’s made by someone who worked on a previous film I liked, I don’t necessarily see that as a guarantee of anything. I’ve seen movies I’ve loved…then the same director turns around and makes a movie I didn’t. The same is true of novelists, or even bands (how many times have you heard a great song on the radio…then realize it was the only good song on the CD after you’ve bought it?) Ultimately, my anticipation of an upcoming film (or TV show) might be influenced a little by the talent behind the scenes…but equally just by the premise, or the word-of-mouth.

Anyway…all this is just a lead up to talking about…writers.

By following the Hollywood lead of creating almost a religion around the director, are we kind of under valuing the true foundations of any storytelling medium? You know — the people who actually write the stories! Now, as I say, any artist can have their highs and lows. You can see a writer’s name on a production that’s really good…and equally see them credited with something that was pretty lame. (Curiously what I’ve also noticed is prolific Canadian screen writers whose names crop up on many productions…all of which I regard as awful, and I suspect they get the work, not because they are considered a “good” writer, but simply because they are quick and turn the pages in on time).

Of course, sometimes a writer will claim the finished film is bad because what they wrote — the script that was good enough to get actors to sign on, and financiers to write cheques for its production — was mangled and re-written by the director (and the actors) who take it upon themselves to treat the script as simply a vague guideline, and to improvise scenes (and dialogue). So that the finished film…isn’t what they actually wrote. Sometimes, such re-writing does, indeed, improve on the work — the extra eyes pouring over it finding ways to fix it the writer was too close to it to see. But equally as often…a perfectly good script gets mucked up by actors and directors who think they can write better scenes…when they really, really, really can’t.

Still, I was thinking about how there are writers toiling away in Canada (as they do in Hollywood) almost anonymously. And while if a director works on films with similar themes and concepts, he’s considered an auteur…but if a write seems to bring up recurring ideas in his scripts, it’s largely ignored. Or if a director leaps from genre to genre, he’s seen as taking creative leaps…if a writer works in multiple genres, he’s just seen as, well, a working writer.

I was thinking about this and the writer Malcolm MacRury when I (rather belatedly) caught the blistering mini-series ZOS: Zone of Separation.

ZOS seems to have flown under the cultural radar — and that’s a freakin’ shame. Aired back in 2007 or 2008 on The Movie Network, it seems to have pretty much fallen off the landscape. I don’t think it’s been released to DVD, and even though the CBC was listed as a production partner, that network has yet to air it (granted, it was a R-rated cable show of violence, sex and profanity, and the CBC brass maybe figure they have no slot to stick it in). A drama about peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia it tackled its earnest, socially relevant premise…with an unapologetic pulp entertainment vibe. It was angry, and blistering, and full of moral outrage…but it was also darkly funny, bizarre, edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, and a soap opera with a huge — no, a huge — cast of characters. Some likened it to the American cable series, Deadwood, in terms of tone and themes, except transplanted to the 21st Century.

MacRury was credited as “creator” of the series, and wrote a number of episodes (with veteran director Mario Azzopardi directing all the episodes). But there was some suggestion the basic idea (of peacekeepers) started elsewhere, and MacRury was brought in to craft a saga around it. In much the same way that Due South producer Robert Lantos suggested in interviews that he had pitched the idea to networks of a Canadian-American buddy series about a country mouse/city mouse…and Due South “creator” Paul Haggis was then brought in to work with that vague archetype and conceived a series about a Mountie in Chicago and he fleshed out the characters, the relationship, and established a style and tone.

So, whether MacRury invented ZOS fully grown like from the head of Zeus, or whether he received a call asking him if he’d like to pitch a concept involving peacekeepers in Yugoslavia, I don’t know. But the point is: in some pieces about ZOS much was made of the fact that MacRury had worked on the U.S. series Deadwood, and so had proven he could handle the concept and the structurally audacious attempt to juggle a bunch of characters in an isolated locale, following separate story lines, that nonetheless weave about each other to form a whole. And certainly viewed that way, you can see the similarity. Both series set in a kind of lawless frontier town, peopled by a cast of characters of differing temperaments, agendas, and aspirations. Not that ZOS was simply recycling the same plots or characters…though there were occasional echoes. Colm Meaney (in ZOS) as a bar owning mobster and self-styled “first citizen” of his community evoked Ian McShane (of Deadwood) as the hotel owning mobster and self-styled “first citizen” of the community.

So the undercurrent (at least that I perceived) in some of those articles and comments about MacRury’s Deadwood connection was almost that MacRury had kind of learned his craft on that critically acclaimed series — that he had learned from American writers like David Milch. And the apprentice was now ready to step out and become the master.

By virtue of their large cast, a thematic connection between Deadwood and ZOS was the notion of moral ambiguity. Not so much that you didn’t have clear villains (though even they might have flashes of humanity) but I mean that you weren’t always sure who you were rooting for in any given scene — right and wrong not a clearly defined line. In ZOS the local head of the U.N. observer mission (Michelle Nolden) clashes with the newly arrived head of the peacekeeping troops (Rick Roberts)…yet they are both, ultimately, “good” guys, where we can kind of see both their points of view.

And it got me thinking about a series a few years back called…Peter Benchley’s Amazon. A fantasy-adventure series about castaways in the Amazon jungle, I remember when I first caught a couple of episodes, it was kind of hard to get into because I wasn’t entirely sure who was the star, who was the “hero”. Instead, it seemed to be a group of characters, with different goals, intentions, and temperaments…yet, depending on the scene, you could find yourself sympathizing with different characters. At first it threw me (preferring a clear “hero” sometimes) but after a couple of episodes, I started to dig that, the complex character interaction, the fact that “right” and “wrong” wasn’t so easy to define.

And here’s the funny thing: Peter Benchley’s Amazon was “developed” by none other than Malcolm MacRury.

Now what “developed” means, was left deliberately vague. After all, it was billed as Peter Benchley’s Amazon, and American novelist Peter Benchley was credited as the creator and he even wrote the first episode. But although that first episode introduced the main characters…it was largely just an Arthur Hailey-esque Airport type scenario, depicting a plane crash in the jungle. It would be a few more episodes before the series’ true tone and nature would emerge, and before the main characters would truly start to get fleshed out and be defined as people. Because Peter Benchley’s Amazon wasn’t really a story about castaways surviving in the jungle (essentially Gilligan’s Island only without the laugh track) as that first episode implied. After a few episodes, the castaways stumble upon a time lost village of 17th Century Puritans who have descended into tribal barbarism, locked in an eternal cold war with the local Indian tribes. And that’s where the series pretty much stays for the rest of its single season run.

Now maybe Benchley did envision this (certainly he wrote a novel utilizing a not entirely dissimilar premise called The Island) but I’m equally guessing it was Malcolm MacRury who did much of the creative heavy lifting in “developing” the series. As I say, in the sole episode Benchley wrote, we didn’t even get a hint of what the series would quickly evolve into.

So it struck me as kind of funny that the makers of ZOS would cite MacRury’s work on Deadwood as proof he was the guy to do ZOS…when he was clearly already staking out that narrative territory a few years before Deadwood!

ZOS, Deadwood, and Amazon are all set within a community isolated (figuratively and/or literally) from the rest of the world — communities teetering on the razor’s edge of chaos and insanity. In each case, the story essentially starts with the arrival of outsiders, bringing outside influences that disrupts the status quo with a new way of viewing the world (order in ZOS, law in Deadwood, rationality in Amazon), creating enemies within the ranks of those who don’t want change. Indeed, there’s a stronger link between Amazon and ZOS, in that both deal with religious and racial intollerance, and two communities at odds with each other (aspects not really used in Deadwood).

All three series boasted a huge soap opera-like cast of disparate characters — not simply in terms of bit players and supporting parts, but genuine characters with their own plot threads and emotional arcs. As mentioned, they all also played around with a certain ambiguity, where the “good” guys and the “bad” guys might switch labels from time to time. In Amazon, the leader of a tribe of Indian headhunters (played by Pedro Salvin) who you assumed would simply be a stock villain…defied expectations and emerged as one of the series’ most interesting, most sympathetic characters.

Far from MacRury having learned how to juggle a huge cast of characters in a frontier town from the creators of Deadwood…one wonders if he was hired for Deadwood because they were impressed with his work on Amazon!

Truth be told, I’ve always kind of wondered if the makers of the hit ABC series, Lost, were kind of borrowing from Amazon themselves. I mean, don’t get me wrong…Amazon only lasted a season and wasn’t well distributed or publicized, so the makers of Lost might claim they’d never heard of it. But both involved plane crashes in a jungle, in stories mixing elements of mysticism (not necessarily a hallmark of previous — and very occasional — “castaway” series). Some of the parallels are perhaps obvious — in both cases the main cast of characters included a medical Doctor and a singer (but that could just be seen as an extension of Gilligan’s Island’s professor and movie star). But more interesting, both involved a character with a serious disability who finds his affliction mysteriously alleviated in the jungle (in Amazon, a guy’s leukaemia goes into remission, in Lost, a paraplegic discovers he can walk — and, in both cases, those characters develop a spiritual affinity for their environs not shared by their colleagues). And in both series, a boy becomes the focus of contention between rival tribes.

Anyway, so what’s my point?

Well, just that even as critics are quick to point to directors as having “vision” and being auteurs revisiting similar themes, screen writers, too, sometimes have a “voice” that can be heard if you listen. Malcolm MacRury has written various things (including family dramas and more — and things that I freely admit haven’t always impressed me), just as John Krizanc has written comedies as well as political thrillers. But it can be interesting, when perusing credits, to realize that sometimes the thread that connects various projects (in theme, or style) is not the director, or the producer…but the writer.

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2 Responses to Ah…The Writer’s Life (and who is the real film and TV visionary?)

    • Administrator says:

      Perhaps most telling is the visceral hostility expressed toward that book in many of the reviews on Amazon. Kind of reminds me of the reactions I get when advocating for Canadiana! I guess anything that questions the status quo tends to get people riled. This mindset is so ingrained that even when a director does fairly credit the writer…it’s given as much significance as when he thanks his mother at an awards show. I’m reminded of the film Mon Oncle Antoine which was often cited as an example of director Claude Jutra’s personal vision…when writer Clement Perron was drawing upon his own childhood experiences!

      The irony is, not too many writers I think are trying to take anything away from the directors — they just want a smidgen of respect. If you put a writer and a director in separate rooms, and tell them to create something, the writer can write a story…while the director has to wait until the writer turns in his pages.

      In theatre directors and writers share adulation, and in TV, the creators and show runners are generally writers, not directors (and old Canadian TV movies often reserved the “by” credit for the writer). So really it’s film that‘s the odd man out in choosing to belittle the writer’s contribution.

      But, I’m just preaching to the choir 🙂 …