Last night Hot Docs premiered Being Canadian, a documentary where comedy writer Rob Cohen (among his impressive credentials, Cohen has writing credits on The Simpsons and Big Bang Theory) travels across Canada in 10 days in a journey to discover what it truly means to be Canadian. Even though the road trip was only 10 days, this is a project over 5 years in the making. In that time they collected interviews from Canada’s biggest stars, including Mike Myers, Jason Priestly, Dan Aykroyd, Seth Rogan, Michael J. Fox, Alex Trebek, Trailer Park Boys, William Shatner, Cobie Smulders, Will Arnett, Martin Short, Dave Foley, Howie Mandel, Rush… the list goes on.
Among the many Canuck passions touched on in the documentary is the nation’s love of Tim Horton’s. When we sat down for a roundtable discussion with Cohen and producers Colin Keith Gray and Megan Raney Aarons, it was only appropriate that we did so over double doubles and donuts and at Canada’s ubiquitous coffee shop.
Would you say the final product is the film you set out to make?
Rob Cohen: Colin and Megan and I, when we started this out it was a very different movie. We realized as we shot some stuff and actually started to interview some people, the interviews we had would steer us in different directions than the questions we went into the interview with. The classic example is Howie Mandel, who was great. He was funny and he was sweet and he had great stuff to say to all our questions but then got very serious in a very passionate way about Canada and how important it is to maintain a connection in Canada. He still has a place up here and he says he carries the keys around with him to that place so he always knows that he’s got this connection to Canada. I think that was a big turning point for us because we realized it wasn’t necessarily going to be a silly movie. Also we never planned to explain a county because that’s impossible. It was only our opinion and it was also a slightly tongue and cheek documentary, so it’s evolved and we kept refining it as we shot more and more and then in the edit we continued to refine it. When we did the road trip that was really the spine. It was helpful to decide how we wanted to present our impression of this subject, not the be all end all.
At what point did you decide that a cross country road trip was going to be part of it?
RC: We always in the back of our head wanted to do a road trip but we had this embarrassment of riches once we started to put the word out and people wanted to participate. They would hear so and so participated, the generosity of people just continued to add more interviews, but we knew that we needed a thru-line and so the road trip was at first just a discussion but then we realized we really need to do it and then the timing worked out where we had Canada Day as our deadline, so it just seemed perfect. We back timed it and actually started to attach the chapters to the road trip. We realized how important the road trip was going to be in the last phase of the shooting, I don’t think the movie would really work without it. It would just be talking heads.
Colin Keith Gray: That was definitely the classic journey for us as filmmakers where that was about 5 years into the process when we realized we needed that narrative spine to tie all these amazing interviews together. The angle of Rob’s focus, we knew that we wanted to attach a bit more of his personalized journey and it’s also a tongue and cheek way to play with some of the classic documentary narrative archetypes, like the personal road trip movie with the ticking clock deadline. All of it is kind of arbitrary but we thought lets have fun with it.
10 days isn’t very much time to drive across the country, let alone to shoot a documentary while you’re at it. How did you deal with that schedule?
CKG: The deadline was crazy, it was such a punishing schedule because it was interviews, b-roll, driving b-roll, and then we’d have to drive to the next location every day. We did fly some legs as well but it was a lot to cram into 10 days. We could have easily taken two months to do it I think.
Megan Raney Aarons: You have your hypothesis going into a film and it’s been really wild to watch Rob grapple with that hypothesis and then see it shift and change. In almost every single interview we walked out with a new revelation and it caused us to go from just focusing on comedy to Rob opening it to this bigger journey of ‘who am I?’ His identity as a Canadian. A personalized take on that which then opens it up to a whole country, so the road trip of course is a natural extension of that but we went in with our eyes wide open because we’ve been a small footprint from the start. As a crew we kept it lean and mean deliberately because we were going into people’s homes and wanted to be nimble, but that also means that everyone’s wearing a lot of hats and the days are hectic.
CKG: We were right in the middle of this Indiegogo campaign which is really worth mentioning, that a key part of our funding came from everyday people and everyday Canadians. We had just launched that campaign as we were embarking on the road trip. We knew we wanted to do an Indiegogo meet up in every city, and that was also a place to get some ‘man on the street’ testimonials from everyday Canadians. We would clump it all together, let’s do the meet up, get some man on the street, Meg our other shooter would get some b-roll of the city, divide and conquer. On top of all that Rob was starting to do some press because there was already some interest brewing. It was a bit of chess match, coordinating ‘you do this and you do that’, and then Rob yelling at us the entire time.
RC: I will say, without tooting our own horn, because that’s not a Canadian trait, this was as lo-fi as you get. We all have day jobs and it was run and gun. These guys would do audio and camera and lighting. You have to decide where you’re going to use your ammo the best so we would have to stop and start and that’s why this took while. We knew that when we’re going to New York, not only do we have to keep it lean and mean, but can we book Mike Myers and Michael J. Fox and Conan and Malcolm Gladwell in one trip, that makes it crazy. It’s a good kind of crazy, but this was a home movie. We always say it’s a home movie about our home.
With precious little time to talk to people on the street, how did you go about choosing who to talk to?
MRA: Because three of us had been in the trenches for so long, with all the copious number of interviews, we also know who has talked. We know the kinds of voices that are being represented so as we sit there and look at a crowd, a) who’s the sucker who will talk to us?, but it was also we know that we haven’t talked to any women today, let’s try to find someone who’s not North American. We wanted to tick as many boxes as we could in terms of types.
CKG: We deliberately went to places where there’s more tourists and international tourists and just wrangled those comments. We also went out to our larger family of global shooters and production managers and had them do interviews for us and get testimonials from around the globe. Rob on his travels would also always bring a little camera and get some more comments, whether it was in Kenya or Japan. We were trying to just pepper in some international perspectives on Canada wherever we could.
MRA: We’ve shot in India and have spent a lot of time in England, so we were able to call up friends and say here’s the types of questions, here’s the kinds of things we’re looking for. Then to stand back and see that footage come in and the crazy comments (laughs).
RC: The Vegas thing was awesome. We went there because it’s such a great cross section of the world, not just the U.S. We knew that if we could go out on the strip for just a few hours at night, we would get a variety of willing and coherent individuals. The girls that made it in are rock stars but we met some intriguing characters and it really did become its own animal. Definitely the balloon guy should have his own movie.
CKG: He was like a stalker balloon guy.
RC: Yeah, he was hitting on everybody .
CKG: But doing his balloons at the same time. It was very strange (laughs).
Your interview with Dave Foley is done with both of you lying topless in bed. Did Foley suggest this, or did he insist upon it?
RC: I think it was a combination. We had just arrived here, we were on our road trip and we met Dave in the hotel bar and we wanted to just shake it up but also we were really tired from the road trip and he’d just been filming, so it seemed like the most convenient and creepy way to do it. That was one of my favourite interviews because we got to relax and he’s so hilarious that I could lie back in bed and giggle, seemingly nude with Dave.
CKG: Rob always plays a great straight man in the interviews, he would rarely crack up in interviews and that one you repeatedly giggled throughout the interview but it was also weird because the camera man Tyler was standing on the bed straddling them. There had just been a bomb scare at the hotel so it took us a while to get up to the room. There was, I want to say 50 fireman and cops… the whole thing was just weird. We were halfway into the road trip and already delirious and then it was like, shirts off, get into bed.
RC: It was sort of a perfect recipe for something horrible.
What was the most surprising of your findings?
RC: Throughout the whole experience?
Or just lying in bed with Dave Foley
RC: Well there were some surprising findings that were out of frame but I don’t want to embarrass Dave. Honestly I would say it was how passionate all the Canadians we talked to were about Canada. We all goofed around but everybody took us in a different turn which is a credit to them and I think made the interviews better and made the movie better. We did it because we love Canada, but coming out of it I realized how much I love Canada.
What’s on your Dork Shelf?
RC: My Dork Shelf is Six Million Dollar Man stuff. I have all the dolls, I’ve got lunch boxes, I’ve got weird bits of stuff like scripts, that’s mainly my Dork Shelf. And I also have a life-sized me encased in carbonite Han Solo thing hanging on my living room wall.