So…What’s the Big Deal? And to Who?

Last time I was prattling on (as I’m wont to do) about my recurring theme of Canadian identity in Canadian movies and TV (and, honestly, if I took a little more time with these posts, I’d probably come up with more novel topics…but for the time being, I’m trying to post something every few days…which leads to a certain repetition of theme).


I was talking about the curious tendency for some Canadian movies and TV shows that supposedly are set in Canada to nonetheless have the actors use American pronunciations, phrases, or refer to institutions and offices that don’t necessarily exist in Canada…but do in the United States. In other words, they are ostensibly set in Canada…but don’t actually seem to evoke the real Canada. Series like the current Saving Hope and Continuum and others come to mind. Indeed, at this point, I’m hard pressed to say whether one can even seriously say Saving Hope is set in Canada — yes, occasional shots show Toronto’s CN Tower, but a lot of cities have needle towers. Meanwhile the actors seem to be being coached to use American pronunciations and terms that aren’t really authentic to a Canadian setting. At least Continuum does explicitly refer to Vancouver as the setting and B.C. flags are seen in the shots, though it too can present an oddly ambiguous Canada at times.

Whether this “soft”, vaguely ambiguous Canada is a deliberate political agenda or whether you just have Canadian filmmakers who, spending all their time watching American movies, trying to get work in American productions, or in some cases, actually living in Los Angeles, literally just don’t know what Canada is like…I dunno.

And I finished my post by mentioning that when this is pointed out (either as voiced by me, or by others) usually the backlash is quick and vicious.

It’s not important! insist those who make these strangely anonymous “soft” Canadian movies and TV shows — them and their supporters. Only a rabid, crazed, Kool-Aid Drinking lunatic would even fixate on it! they argue — and such people should be put down like mad dogs!

Okay — maybe they don’t go that far. But certainly they seem to feel institutionalisation would be an appropriate way of dealing with us.

Gosh — it’s almost like I (and others) have touched a particularly raw nerve with them.

And you know what? They’re right! They are one hundred percent totally correct. It’s not a big deal and it shouldn’t be important.

So why do they do it?

You see, you just have to flip the argument around.

Just about the first thing any storyteller is told by a wise old mentor is — repeat it with me, kids — write what you know. Draw upon your own experiences. That’s just storytelling 101.

The most natural thing in the world is for a Canadian storyteller to set their story…in Canada. It’s the person who doesn’t that is the one clearly making a big deal about it, who clearly feels that it’s important.

I mean, just think about all the scenes that have to be re-shot because the actors accidentally used the Canadian pronunciation…even though they are supposed to be playing a Canadian in a Canadian setting.

ACTOR: <<Well, leftenant, let’s go->>

“Cut!” shouts the director. “Do it again.”

“Sorry?” says the actor, bewildered. “What happened?”

“You said ‘leftenant’, not ‘lootenant’. Do it again!”

“But, uh, aren’t I playing a Canadian?”

“You wanna sound like an ignorant canuck?” snarls the director. “Now say it the way Stanislavsky would want you to, you dumb rube!”

“Right — sorry.” (Clears his throat) <<Well, leftenant, let’s->>

“CUT!” shrieks the director.

And so on.

I’ve heard stories from the horse’s mouth of people on sets. Stories of a production being halted so that red Canada Post mail boxes can be removed from a shot. And remember, in movie making, time is money.

Or there was an anecdote about shooting a street scene of a car driving down a city block — with a fake U.S. licence plate so the production could pretend it was American. But it was a one way street, and in order to do re-takes, the car had to be driven around the block to the top of the street — but the fake license plate wasn’t legal on city streets. So after the shot, crew would run out, unscrew the fake U.S. plate, attach the real Canadian plate, send the car around the block to the top of the street, then remove the Canadian plate and re-attach the fake U.S. plate. So each switch would probably take — what? Two minutes? Two and a half? So that’s four to five minutes added to the filming for each re-take. Not a lot…except when you realize they’re presumably shooting the scene 10, 20, times. Now we’re looking at an hour or more added to the filming schedule just so there’s a U.S. license plate on the darn car.

Yeah — clearly it’s a big deal to someone.

And think of all the money spent over the years on props like U.S. flags and blue mail boxes to insert in to backgrounds — on low-budget, penny pinching productions.

Clearly to someone, it’s very important.

And that someone ain’t me. I’m just the guy pointing out that it’s odd when even supposedly Canadian characters in a supposedly Canadian setting…sometimes don’t actually sound Canadian, or refer to Canadian things.

And if it’s not always intentional (I mean, clearly sometimes it is intentional, but equally sometimes it might just be a reflection of ignorance) it does reflect a laziness and lack of professionalism.

I mean with Global’s The Firm or Space’s Being Human — Canadian series that do explicitly pretend they’re set in the United States (both in Boston, I believe) — I’m guessing they try to be pretty meticulous about how the actors talk and the terms they use. Since it’s supposed to be America, you won’t find too many of the Canadian actors saying “leftenant”, and you won’t find too many scripts that accidentally refer to the Premier of Massachusetts. ‘Cause they’re professional. ‘Cause they know it would break the “reality” they are attempting to create if in their American setting the characters talked in a way that clearly indicated it wasn’t America and that the filmmakers knew nothing about the United States.

Yet in these soft Canadian series a lot of the scenes and dialogue can make no sense — like an episode of Saving Hope where the doctors casually talk about a patient’s temperature going above 100 degrees…when that would mean he’d presumably be spontaneously combusting going by the Celsius scale which is, after all, what the staff at a Canadian hospital would be using.

So if there’s professionalism applied to a set-in-the-U.S. series like The Firm, why is there not the same professionalism in some of these series which purport to be set in Canada…but don’t seem to pull it off very well?

And why is it such a big deal for them?

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