English-French Productions — two in one!


As may have occurred to repeat visitors to this blog, when I write about Canadian pop culture I write both about the specific & the concrete…but also about the abstract & the ideal. That is, if we’re talking about “Canadian” pop culture then it behooves us to consider Canadian pop culture. To say there is more to the biz than simply one filmmaker making one movie that makes him (and his investors) some money…there are bigger and broader aspirations to be considered. Does a Canadian movie or TV show exist simply to make a handful of people money?…or does it exist to try and wedge open doors for all the productions (and filmmakers) that will come after, and to foster such notions as cultural identity…and national unity? Not as jingoistic propaganda (as in: Canada is the bestest country in the whole gosh durn world!) but as simply a reflection of the country as it is?

Since writing about one topic will kick start another idea in my head, I’m going to continue with my previous theme about the French/English schism in Canadian film & TV. Last time I was writing about the announcement of an up-coming English-language remake of 19-2, a popular French-language TV series.

I had remarked that I missed the days when English-Canadian networks and stations (notably the CBC and Showcase) would make the — occasional — effort to program Francophone series and movies, either dubbed or sub-titled. But the truth is, as much as I applaud the cultural motives behind such things, they were usually ratings failures. And to be brutally honest, in a lot of cases, I don’t really recall them as being that good (some, yes, but some…no). I mean, one can blame their failure on cultural schisms or an Anglophone audience too dense to recognize greatness when it is put before them — but even I’m hard pressed to recall with much fondness a lot of these productions…even ones that were huge hits in Quebec. But another factor is, of course, the dubbing and sub-titling. Sub-titled productions are generally seen as having an obstacle to winning an audience (if the audience wanted to read something, they’d pick up a book) and dubbing, unless it’s well done, can be awkward and distracting (often the sound mix seems wrong, so the dubbing is too loud and strident…like you’re listening to voices for a Saturday morning cartoon). Hence why occasionally producers turn to the idea of re-making a production entirely in the other language, ala 19-2.

But there’s yet another option.

And it got me thinking about that other little sub-genre — the dual project. That is, instead of remaking a project in the other language, make it for both Solitudes to begin with. What actually kind of prodded my interest was to realize this isn’t an issue unique to Canada.

I just recently came upon a reference to a U.K. series that was shot in both English and Welsh — and then I was intrigued because it was mentioned that past such series were usually just dubbed into the other language. Me — I didn’t even realize there were any series shot in — or dubbed into — Welsh, period! (But then, I’ll confess, it was literally only within the last few years that I began to realize that lilting accent you’ll often hear in U.K. films is a specifically Welsh accent).

So anyway, other countries’ filmmakers have also grappled with the question of how to accommodate more than one language even within their borders (I’m guessing in India it must be a total headache, what with fourteen official languages!)

In Canada, the idea of making a production for both groups to begin with (as opposed to sub-titling it, or literally re-making it with a new cast) has happened before — occasionally. I believe (though I’m not sure) in the 1950s the soap opera The Family Plouffe was shot simultaneously in French and English. And in the 1980s there was the attempt to do that with the hockey soap opera He Shoots, He Scores (Lance et compte). But it proved more successful in French than in English. After an initial season shot in both languages (utilizing a bilingual cast) the tepid English ratings were such that it couldn’t justify such an expenditure and in its second season, the English version was just an obviously dubbed version of the French version. It was cancelled then in English — though continued in French for another few years (and was revived for a sequel series years later).

(Admittedly, I’m not sure why it would be so expensive — if the cast is comfortably bilingual, surely you could shoot a French/English production and not have to use much more film than a single language film, just as long as you rehearsed it thoroughly before shooting, and so cut down on the number of re-takes needed).

Anyway, as He Shoots, He Scores indicates — it can be a problematic experiment. Although, as with anything, is that an indication it wasn’t a good idea…or that it wasn’t the right project to try it on?

More recently, there was a René Lévesque mini-series shot simultaneously in both languages, which failed to win an Anglophone audience. Yet really, one is left to say: um…that surprised anyone? Cultural commentators have long lamented that English-Canadians don’t always evince that much interest in Canadian history at the best of times…and here was a loving bio-pic about a guy whose primary goal was to rip Canada apart! It’s perhaps an interesting illustration of the easy going Canadian psyche that English-Canadians, I don’t think, hate or even dislike René Lévesque (indeed, I think in retirement, Lévesque enjoyed a successful sideline as public speaker…throughout Canada) but that doesn’t mean they want to sit through a few hours chronicling his life.

(And as another illustration of the differences in the two camps — or the attitudes toward national unity — the English-language CBC put up the money to turn the Lévesque project into a bilingual production, yet a few years before, Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French wing, couldn’t be bothered to set aside funds to make the Trudeau mini-series bilingual, opting instead simply to show a dubbed-into-French version).

Now perhaps an interesting case is the biker-mob drama, The Last Chapter (which even spawned a sequel). Now I didn’t particularly care for the Last Chapter but, I believe, it did do quite well…in both French and English. Which perhaps makes the case that dual language projects can be viable — even successful — but you have to latch on to the concept that appeals across the country. In the case of The Last Chapter, it fully embraced its bilingual theme — the action covered Ontario, Quebec and possibly elsewhere, with Francophone and Anglophone characters — it just didn’t rely on a pre-existing interest in Canadiana as did René Lévesque. People watched The Last Chapter, not because it was “good for them”, but because they wanted to see a Sopranos-like saga about mobsters, nothing more. And maybe the fact that it starred Michael Ironside, Roy Dupuis and Marina Orsini helped. Dupuis and Orsini both being no strangers to Anglophone audiences, each having appeared in a variety of English-language projects, as well as some high profile French productions dubbed or subtitled into English. And, of course, Ironside is an international celebrity. In other words, it had star power — or at least, vaguely familiar faces — for the Anglophone audience.

Now what was also intriguing about the production of The Last Chapter was the two versions were not wholly French or English. The English version still had French scenes (with sub-titles) and the French version still had English scenes. As such, I’m guessing only half the scenes (if that) were shot in both languages, the rest were just shot in one and used in both versions.

Now that’s intriguing because the thinking — and the fear — is always that sub-titled productions have trouble winning an audience. But maybe what The Last Chapter indicated is that the audience doesn’t mind some sub-titles…as long as it’s not the whole thing. Likewise, recent American TV series such as Heroes and Lost proved ratings hits, despite both often employing lengthy sub-titled sequences. Even pulp thriller movies like Salt, with Angelina Jolie, had a lot of sub-titles…and it was a box office success. Another factor is, of course, whether the sub-titles are clear and legible enough for the audience to follow! I’ve seen a lot of sub-titled Canadian movies that are hurt by poorly done sub-titles: either too small, or white letters on white backgrounds, or going by too fast to read adequately.

And maybe the audience doesn’t mind sub-titles…as long as they feel it’s a movie in their language, with a few sub-titled sequences (even if those sequences actually take up a big chunk of the film)

And let’s not forget Bon Cop, Bad Cop, the bilingual buddy-cop movie that was a big hit in Canada. Granted, it was a huge hit in Quebec, but only a modest success in the rest of Canada — but it was a modest success in English-Canada. I know Anglophones who don’t normally watch sub-titled films who, nonetheless, happily watched Bon Cop, Bad Cop.

All this is to say, maybe another way of doing dual productions is not to shoot it entirely in both languages, but to come up with stories that justify a mix of English and French, and to cast actors either recognizable to both sides or to use an ensemble where at least some of the actors will be recognizable to one camp, and the other actors to the other camp. And mix up the casting, so that it’s not simply Anglophone actors in the English sequences and Francophones in the French scenes, which might reinforce a sense of “foreigness” about those sub-titled scenes, but cast bilingual actors to bridge the scenes (in the way Colm Feore and Patrick Huard spoke both French and English in Bon Cop, Bad Cop, or the actors in The Last Chapter crossed back and forth…including Ironside who, I believe, used a language coach to help him with his French scenes).

You could do a Francophone cop investigating a crime in a mainly Anglophone community — or vice versa. Maybe do a fantasy/Twilight Zone-ish tale about a character who lives parallel lives (ala Sliding Doors or something) where the separation between the two realities is symbolically illustrated for the audience because one reality is in English and the other in French (or a sci-fi movie on an alien world about two alien races where one speaks English, the other French — symbolically, of course, since it is, y’know, an alien world).

Just stay away from historical bio-pics and the “culturally relevant” tales that are only really geared for one side anyway, and then act all shocked when it performs badly with the other group.

And I’ll wrap up this theme with my next post

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