Behind-the-Scenes: The Canadian Film Biz..and Superheroes!

Today: another in my irregular series of behind-the-scenes pieces detailing some of the creative process behind the stories in my collection of Canadian superhero prose tales, Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History. Now, obviously, a writer banging on about the “what” and the “why” behind a tale can be problematic. After all, most of us don’t necessarily want to see what goes on in a kitchen before the food arrives at our table, do we? And it can smack too much of hubris, as a navel-gazing writer waxes on about their inspirations. However as a guy who’s been writing op-ed pieces and reviews of film, TV, comics, etc. for years, it should be clear that I think digging beneath the surface of popular entertainment is part of the process, part of how we appreciate the storytelling.

Equally — I’m trying to promote my book. So writing about it is one way of doing that (maybe you stumble upon this blog, get mildly intrigued by my posts, and decide to check out the book itself). At this point, I’ve received little public feedback on the book (on-line reviews or anything) — pro or con — so I’m still hanging in limbo about whether people liked it/didn’t like/didn’t “get” it/whatever.

So today’s story-du-jour is: “The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle.”

It’s an interesting one because it ties directly into another long time interest/hobby of mine — namely Canadian film. I’ve been writing about Canadian film/TV for years (this blog primarily started out focused on that topic). So it seemed an obvious backdrop for one of my superhero stories.

Or maybe it’s not-so obvious.

Y’see one of the intents in my collection was to use superheroes as a genre — a milieu capable of incorporating multiple themes. Too often superhero stories (in non-comic book mediums) are focused on being about superheroes — as opposed to telling stories in which superheroes happen to be the protagonists. But one doesn’t expect a private eye story to only be about deconstructing the clichés of private eye stories. Likewise, Star Trek episodes aren’t self-reflectively intent on dissecting what it would mean to be a starship captain.

This is kind of the problem with superhero movies — they are often stuck in the rut of being “superhero” movies. Hence why a lot of critics were pleasantly surprised by the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier — as it was less a “superhero movie” and more a political/conspiracy thriller in which the hero wore tights.

In that vein, many of the stories I wrote for my book try to function first and foremost on the level of being adventures, or mysteries, or thrillers — in which the hero is a superhero.

So “The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle” mixes a kind of Gothic mystery (a group of characters are trapped with an unknown adversary on an isolated island) and social satire (the characters are part of a film crew) — in which the protagonist is a superhero. In other words, a similar plot could’ve featured a private eye as the hero, or an amateur detective.

It was also unusual because it’s just very, very, very rare to have stories use the Canadian film industry as a setting. There are a kazillion movies, books, and TV shows that use Hollywood as a backdrop — from comic satires, to mystery thrillers — but next to none drawing upon the idiosyncrasies of the Canadian film biz.

Since part of the creative challenge of my stories was to deliberately draw upon a Canadian setting, I had jotted down notes of “Canadian” things I could use for various tales. And one of the notes was: “set a story against a Canadian film shoot — possibly during the late 1970s-early 1980s boom n’ bust period dubbed Hollywood North” (the stories in my collection being set in various decades).

As a long time observer of, and commentator on, Canadian film/TV I was aware of things that would be slightly different from the Hollywood clichés and so could add flavour to such a story — things which have rarely been employed in a story. So the characters bicker about the need to import American “stars” vs. hiring Canadian actors and the director has made a name for himself directing shlock but is hoping to break out of that box with a respectable literary adaptation (in the 1970s, many of Canadian cinema’s commercial successes were English-Canadian slasher flicks and French Canada’s soft porn films). There are some subtle (and no-so subtle) cultural in-jokes, and nods at the film biz in general.

I didn’t have a plot at first — but I had an idiom. At one point I think I considered a Phantom of the Opera-type tale of some mysterious figure running about a Toronto sound stage. But eventually I settled on a film crew on an isolated island — a nicely archetypal setting for a thriller. It also was another cultural nod, as the setting is a castle on the St. Lawrence River, suggested (albeit only vaguely) by the real life Bolt Castle.

But I needed a hero. When embarking upon my project, I jotted down various notes for plots, settings, super powers, and names, often mixing and matching them when the time came, assembling my stories like literary Mr. Potato Heads. So I might come up with a story by selecting from different columns: milieu, time period, hero, etc.

And one of the superhero ideas I had jotted down was — brace yourself — The Beaver!

Yup — I decided to go there.

I mean, the whole point of my book was to embrace unapologetically a Canadianness, and that included coming up with Canadian-sounding superheroes. But the Beaver? Egad!!! Common sense said stay far away from the water-logged rodent. It’s silly-looking, it’s forever tainted by its association with a slang euphemism, and it’s just too Canadian. The few times people have employed a beaver motif is invariably as a joke (in Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck he encountered a Canadian costumed character called The Beaver — but it was satire).

Those were all the reasons not to do a beaver-themed superhero.

Only here’s the thing: those were also the reasons to do it.

I mean, if it seemed like a problematic idea, if it seemed an impossible task — then wasn’t that a gauntlet I should pick up, if I was going to make any claim to being a creative person? Heck, when they first came up with the idea of Spider-Man apparently the publisher said no one would want to buy a comic about a “spider” hero. And look how that turned out.

So I decided to break the idea down into its core parts. I didn’t have to make a hero to suit other people’s expectations. If the buck teeth and floppy tail are silly — I didn’t have to use them, did I? Most superheroes simply pick and choose what they want from their totemic inspirations. Spider-Man doesn’t shoot webs out of his butt. Batman doesn’t hang upside down (or, um, do anything that’s actually bat-related).

(I think one of my favourite bits of serendipitous inspiration was when I decided that the character should employ beaver motifs, like Batman — with his batmobile, batcave, etc. So I decided on an A.I. computer nicknamed DAM (get it? Beaver…dam?) — and then I realized DAM could stand for Data-Analysis-Mechanism. I mean it practically wrote itself — it was like kismet was winking at me!)

So instead of making my character a humourous creation waddling about in heavy furs with buck teeth — I made mine a slick, credible crime-fighter, drawing a little upon Batman, Aquaman, and even the Martian Manhunter. Oh — and I made her female. Yup, a female heroine called “The Beaver.” If I was gonna role the dice, I was gonna bet it all, baby.

I’d like to think I did what most people would say was impossible. I made a compelling, convincing superhero using a beaver motif. But you’ll have to decide for yourself if I succeeded.

So now I had a setting (an island), a milieu (the film industry), a time period (the late 1970s), and a crime-fighter. I can’t quite remember how the plot fully assembled itself. I think because of The Beaver idea I leaned toward an equally totemic adversary (y’know, Spider-Man v. The Vulture, Batman v. Catwoman, etc.), and settled on a villain called The Bear. At first I considered having the film crew inadvertently disturb some ancient evil on the island (a trusty cliché) but that would undermine any attempt at making it a “mystery” if the villain’s motive is unrelated to the characters. And it would make the film shoot idea extraneous. So — and without giving too much a way — I decided to connect the villainy to the film a bit more integrally.

That was one of the things I most enjoyed about writing all of these stories — letting the ideas drag me along, forcing me to be more creative to justify them. Like going with a Beaver heroine when all common sense said to not. Once I decided to connect the crime to the film shoot, I think it made for a more interesting, more twisty, adventure where the solution arises organically from the events (as opposed to it just being some unrelated monster lurking on the island).

In some respects The Beaver, The Bear, and The Eagle is among the most plot-heavy stories in the collection — at least in the sense that it’s meant to unfold like an Agatha Christie mystery/thriller, with a collection of characters, some twists and turns, a few tense, moody sequences, some surprise jolts, and — hopefully — an unexpected revelation or two in the climax.

And this creative process I was employing, where I wouldn’t run away from challenging ideas, relates to the heroine herself.

You see, one thing I sometimes do is I “cast” characters. A number of the characters in this book — in my mind — I picture after actors I might happen to have seen in something (and others I’ve cast subsequently). That could make a whole ‘nother essay about who I might cast as the various superheroes. Though just because this is how I picture the characters doesn’t mean that is how the reader has to picture them (sometimes I picture very different actors as the same character!)

Anyway, so while I was in the middle of trying to conjure out of clay my semi-aquatic superheroine, I caught a Canada-Mexico co-production known, among other titles, as The Boy Who Smells Like Fish. It co-starred Douglas Smith, Carrie-Anne Moss — and the American actress-singer Zoë Kravitz. And there are scenes where Kravitz is in a swimming pool. So just when I’m crafting a heroine who bobs about in the river — I’m watching Zoë Kravitz’s head breach the surface of the water. And so I kind of started half-picturing Kravitz as The Beaver.

But even though I was picturing her that way in my mind, I knew I couldn’t describe her that way. After all, Kravitz has brown skin, and I had already decided my story was going to be a period tale (at that point I was still waffling between the 1960s and 1970s) and that the Beaver would be a media-personality in her alter ego (eventually I settled on an actress). It just wouldn’t be realistic to imagine a brown-skinned actress working successfully in Canada at that time (certainly not playing the romantic lead in a major movie). Even today Canadian film is a long way from offering a (consistent) level playing field for actors of colour.

But then my orneriness reasserted itself. The orneriness that made me create a character called The Beaver — when anyone would say that was stupid; that made me chose the Canadian film industry as a backdrop for an adventure — when anyone would say to avoid that milieu. The orneriness that told me if an idea seems difficult or problematic — that’s all the more reason to stick with it.

The easiest path doesn’t always lead to the best stories.

Of course it would be unlikely — but equally it’s a story about superheroes, which are themselves unlikely.

I started thinking about it. Chinese-Canadian Adrienne Clarkson was already a TV personality in the 1960s. Latina actress/singer Céline Lomez was probably the closest thing Canada had to a sex symbol starlet in the 1970s. The late D.D. Winters (later Vanity) would begin her career in the early 1980s. One doesn’t want to sanitize Canadian history by ignoring racial discrimination — but equally, one doesn’t want to play into other narratives (and historical whitewashing) by ignoring the fact that Canada has always had (some) diversity.

So I decided to go ahead and refer to the character as having light-brown skin — though I leave it deliberately vague as to what that means ethnically (since she’s actually an alien, she didn’t have to confirm to a specific ethnic type). So you can picture her as Zoë Kravitz. Equally you could imagine Jessica Parker Kennedy. Or Jessica Lucas. Sometimes in my head she would even morph into Melissa O’Neil — who’s Asian. As I say: I leave it vague.

Part of the fun of this creative process was just embracing ideas and seeing where they take me. By accepting the character as non-white, it opened the door to a minor little scene. At one point a character laments our heroine is the wrong ethnicity for her role and he would’ve preferred a white actress (he doesn’t say it’s “Political Correctness run amok” — because this is decades before the phrase was coined — but he might as well). But when she points out the role’s ethnicity isn’t technically white either — he just shrugs and walks off.

This scene was inspired by on-line complaints I’d seen where (some) people angrily denounced a 2011 version of Wuthering Heights where black actor James Howson was cast as Heathcliff. They whined and whinged, insisting they were only concerned about the integrity of the work. Except — as was pointed out by others — in the original Emily Brontë novel it’s implied Heathcliff isn’t actually supposed to be white, but most likely a Gypsy (or Roma). So if these literary purists were going to complain about a black actor shouldn’t they equally complain about all those other movie versions starring the likes of Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes? And if they were okay with WASP actors then isn’t it equally legitimate to cast a black actor? (Indeed, a black actor might better realize the novel’s theme of Heathcliff’s ostracization for a contemporary audience). Needless to say, such logic whizzed right over the heads of those complainers.

The scene in my story is a couple of lines and of only minor importance to the plot (I’m sure many an editor would insist it be excised). But I included it precisely because it was extraneous. Hopefully it adds dimension to the story by making the characters part of the real world, having real world conversations.

As I mentioned near the start of this post, I was trying to write a collection of superhero stories that were about more than just people being superheroes. And that scene was an exchange between characters that arose only because I saw a brown-skinned actress and decided to let that take me where it would. Letting the story, and the characters, direct my writing, not vice versa. (Addendum: there’s actually another, albeit subtler, example of letting the story/characters tell themselves — namely there was an aspect of the heroine I had assumed would be one thing, but by the end of the story I was thinking maybe she was something else. See if you pick up on the same vibe I did 😉

The Beaver, The Bear and The Eagle is available in the collection Masques & Capes: An Imaginary History. Buy it, read it, and see what ya think (and post your own review!)

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