Canadian Filmmakers Say (and do) the Darndest Things


Okay — snarky alert! I’m going to be (a bit) snarky with this post. You have been warned.

As with many of my posts, today I’m writing about Canadian film, and Canadian culture, and where — or if — they meet. Now my perspective is slightly unusual because I adopted Canadian film & TV as a kind of hobby years ago, and set up a website, The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies (& TV), in which I make some effort to watch and review as many Canadian movies as I can. As such, I tend to think about what makes a movie “Canadian”. Sometimes I’ll pick up a DVD of a movie that is technically “Canadian” (in terms of financing) but isn’t set in Canada and in which none of the lead roles went to Canadians and I’ll think about the limited hours in a day I have to devote to this hobby and I’ll ask: “Why am I supposed to consider this movie Canadian when clearly the filmmakers themselves didn’t?” And I’ll put it back on the shelf, maybe to review it some other day…maybe not.

Recently I came upon a few interviews with Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, one-time horror-meister turned, in recent years, critical darling. And Cronenberg was lamenting the state of modern filmmaking and, specifically, film financing, explaining how he was finding it increasingly hard to get American money for his films.

When Cronenberg started out he made movies set in Canada (albeit, often rather nominally) and with Canadian casts — usually one or two imported stars for marquee value, but surprisingly often with the “hero” role going to a Canadian, or at least key supporting roles (Michael Ironside getting a major career boost as the villain in Scanners, or who can forget Jack Creley as the televised media guru in Videodrome?). Cronenberg, with his violent and controversial horror films, was putting Canada on the cinematic map, becoming one of the first (domestically-based) Canadian filmmakers to gain an international profile, and that coveted auteur status.

Then, of course, he discovered Hollywood — and Hollywood money.

He continued to make movies in Canada, but more and more they weren’t actually set in Canada. And the lead roles increasingly went to non-Canadians. It reached a point where sometimes it seemed about the only thing Canadian about Cronenberg’s films…was Cronenberg. Despite this he — or at least his circle (and fans) — were quick to express outrage if there was any suggestion his films shouldn’t be recognized as “Canadian” and honoured at “Canadian” film awards.

I mean, that’s kind of the key issue, ain’t it? Canadian filmmakers should be able to make any movie they want, starring whoever they want, set wherever they want. But if they want government money ear marked for “Canadian” movies, and expect to be nominated at “Canadian” film awards, then shouldn’t there be something a little more, I dunno, Canadian about their film? They basically want to eat their cake and have it, too.

The last time Cronenberg set a movie in Canada? I believe that was 1996’s Crash. And by “set” I mean I think you can glimpse an Ontario license plate. Cronenberg’s “Canadian” settings have always been pretty soft — unlike with his movies like Cosmopolis, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method and others which are pretty explicit about where they are set.

The last time he made a movie where a Canadian actor was cast as the protagonist? That’d be Scanners about thirty years ago!

And now Cronenberg is lamenting that, gosh darn it!, he’s having trouble scaring up American money so he can hire his Hollywood actors and set his movies in America!

Cue: the world’s smallest violin!

In fact, furthering the irony, in one recent article, Cronenberg admitted that his career has largely been indebted to government financing — Canadian government financing.

Hollywood likes to spend money if they think they can make money. So if Cronenberg is finding it hard to get Hollywood money, it’s presumably because his recent box office returns haven’t been anything to encourage investors.

I dunno. It makes ya despair, it really does. Cronenberg — and the mentality he has come to represent — would insist they have to set their movies outside Canada and hire Hollywood actors because that’s where the money is — and now he admits that he’s having trouble getting American money (and, we can infer, his movies aren’t performing very well). But don’t worry, kids, all is not darkness — ’cause Canadian and other international financiers are quick to write him checks so he can continue to pursue his bracingly unique vision of making…American movies.

I mean, if Cronenberg wants Canadian money to make his movies, and can’t seem to get American money anymore, maybe it’s time he’s told to start making, y’know, Canadian movies again, set in Canada, with mainly Canadian casts. I say “mainly” because, hey, I’m not a total Scrooge, and clearly Cronenberg has struck up a sincere creative relationship with American actor Viggo Mortensen and others. But when almost all the main roles in his movies are now being reserved for non-Canadians, I see a problem.

Around this time, I also came upon reports about the up-coming The Grand Seduction…an English-Canada remake of a popular French-Canada comedy. Directed by Don McKellar, it’s about a small East Coast town which tries to woo a big city doctor into settling there. Apparently the cast will be headed by Irish-born Hollywood actor Brendan Gleeson. Now, I dunno, but when I heard where the movie was going to be set, and knowing the central character would be a wily older fellow who is the ring leader of the town’s folk, I half figured the role would practically be handed to Gordon Pinsent — I mean, doesn’t it seem almost written for him? Other Canadian actors that easily pop to mind might include Andy Jones, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer (the latter two if the filmmakers were willing to look outside a strictly white cast, which I’m guessing they aren’t — oooh, told ya I was gonna be snarky).

But it’s Gleeson who’s going to be in the centre seat (even though in Hollywood movies he usually plays supporting roles in ensembles).

Now let’s get something straight: I like Brendan Gleeson as an actor. He’s one of those actors who probably the best thing you can say about him is no movie was ever the poorer for having him in the cast. No, seriously — that’s probably the best thing you can say about any actor. So I like Gleeson — but I don’t like the optics.

The French-language version of Le Grande séduction featured an all Quebec cast and was considered a fun movie and worthy of remaking. Now English-Canadians get a hold of it (with a population some three or four times that of Quebec!) and seem to suggest that, well, gosh, no one in this country is good enough for the role. The irony is that director McKellar is himself an actor, so has probably experienced a few instances where he was turned down for a part because the producers wanted to hire an international celebrity. Now he’s behind the camera — and he’s doing the same thing, shoving his thumb in the eye of the Canadian talent pool. Like the villain in the climax of an action movie who shoots his loyal aide because there’s only room in the escape craft for one.

The joke is that even those on the inside making these decisions will change their stories depending on which way the wind (or the argument) is blowing. They will insist that importing an actor was a purely creative decision and they cast the best person for the job, and how dare it be suggested otherwise. And then, in almost the same breath, will admit that they needed an international name to score at the box office. And then if the movie bombs, they’ll say, okay it wasn’t to score at the box office, but it was to secure financing.

And, y’know, I’m well aware of how futile making this argument is. The narrative has already been written by the Powers That Be, and the heroes and villains cast. I recently came upon a few articles about another Canadian movie and about the valiant filmmaker’s struggle against the evil, soulless, suits-of-bureaucracy who had the temerity to push for more Canadian actors in the movie. The narrative was clear: filmmaker = visionary hero; bureaucrats = evil nationalists. However, what the articles failed to mention was that in the movie in question none of the principal roles went to Canadians. This wasn’t an issue of some filmmaker who wanted an American actor for that one, perfectly cast role and was being stymied by faceless bureaucrats…this was an issue about a movie (made with Canadian tax payers money) where none of the roles were going to Canadians, and the bureaucrats tried to hold out for at least one token role…and gave in anyway, and the movie went ahead with no Canadians in principal roles.

Yet the news articles made it clear where they stood: this was a story of triumph! Like Perseus defeating the Kraken, the filmmaker vanquished those bureaucratic bastards who were asking for something as outrageous as a single Canadian actor in a so-called Canadian movie.

Now, really, why am I picking on The Grand Seduction? After all, compared to a lot of “Canadian” films, it’s actually doing better than some, with most of the roles going to Canadians. I’ll admit, it’s partly just ’cause it was the wrong movie at the wrong time and fell into my sites when I was building up a head of steam to write this. And maybe because I was perceiving it as being intended as THE Canadian movie of its season (whenever it’s released). That is, while other “Canadian” movies make no bones about their desire to suppress their Canadianness, it was supposed to be the cultural banner bearer — an English-language transposition of a French-Canadian hit.

I wouldn’t want a Canadian film industry that closed the door on importing actors. Some of the best, most memorable performances in Canadian movies have been given by non-Canadian imports (I can’t think of any right off the top of my head, but I’m sure I could). If I were a filmmaker, there are plenty of American, U.K. and other actors I’d love to hire for my movie…along side the equally talented Canadian actors I’d cast. So to refuse that possibility would diminish the films…and could result in an insular, parochial, industry. But, then, I’m just blogging — I’m not in charge of any movie’s purse strings. I write what I write — sometimes stridently so — simply to get you, the reader, to think about issues, to question the otherwise unquestioned status quo. And the problem is not hiring an imported actor for a specific role in a specific movie — it’s when it is so clearly a part of trend that has been going on for decades.

When Hollywood hires non-American actors to star in their movies, it’s a sign of confidence — they don’t feel threatened by hiring actors from all over the world (and most of these actors live in America, or are otherwise associating themselves with the Hollywood crowd anyway, so are American for all intents and purposes). Whereas when Canadian movies hire non-Canadians it’s generally a sign of insecurity, a lack of faith in themselves, and giving the finger to the Canadian talent pool.

Put another way: when Hollywood hires a non-American it is irrespective of his nationality…when Canadian filmmakers hire a non-Canadian it is because of his nationality. (I mean, if talent is the only factor, why are most imported actors from Hollywood? Why don’t we see, say, more Swedes brought in to star in Canadian movies?)

It also influences how the audiences perceive the “identity” of the film.

I mean, if you see a poster advertising Brendan Gleeson — are you going to think of it as a Canadian movie? Or as, essentially, a Hollywood movie set in Canada? The Shipping News rather than Men With Brooms.

And does it matter?

Well, yeah, it matters a bit, because Canadian films are forever struggling against a negative reputation. Which, ironically, makes it all the more important that Canadian movies clearly present themselves as Canadian — so that the critically acclaimed films (as some of Cronenberg’s films have been) and the populist films (as The Grand Seduction clearly hopes to be) can help tear down the stereotype and maybe establish a new one — that Canadian movies, made by, and with, and about, Canadians and Canada are worth seeing. I’ve made it clear before that a recurring theme with me is about industry building…not just the success and failure of individual productions.

And with all that being said, and my grumbling like an old man with haemorrhoids, there are some glimmers of change. I’ve remarked before that on TV we’re seeing a number of Canadian-made TV series, including those directed at the American market, that star Canadians when just a few years ago it would’ve been automatic that an American would be brought up to headline. But it just feels that for every step forwards, there’s another step back.

And sure, Cronenberg, McKellar and others aren’t the villains here. They are just trying to get their movies made, jumping through whatever hoop will get a producer to sign a check. And if that means throwing a few fellow Canadians under the bus — well, so be it. Yeah, they aren’t the villains…but I have trouble seeing them as innocent victims, or as heroic visionaries, either.

So in the meantime, Cronenberg will tell sad stories about how hard it is to drum up American money, and McKellar will bring in international stars to make a movie Quebec did with the local talent. Other filmmakers will tell of their valiant struggles with bureaucrats to cast American actors and to set their movies in the US. And they will all tell us how they are enriching Canadian culture both at home and abroad in the doing.

And maybe they’ll even convince themselves that’s true.

And now that I’ve probably ruffled a few feathers, maybe next time we’ll look at something I’ve been meaning to muse upon for a while: actors…

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2 Responses to Canadian Filmmakers Say (and do) the Darndest Things

  1. maria del mar says:

    I suggest you continue ruffling feathers.