Writer Tim Long has been bringing audiences to Springfield for years with The Simpsons. Now he’s taking them to Hobart with The Exchange. The setting of Long’s film, like Springfield, is fictional. But unlike the town from which Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie hail, it’s north of the Canada/US border.
Long crafts a uniquely Canadian town in The Exchange. Hobart is everywhere and nowhere in the snowbank buttressed land of Canada’s imagination. On the surface, it might seem like the saddest and snowiest Canadian town around. I’m biased since they shot the school scenes at D.A. Moodie Middle School in the very boring Ottawa suburb of Bell’s Corners where I grew up. For Long, who was born in Brandon, Manitoba, and grew in Exeter, Ontario, it looks like home.
“We moved to Exeter in the early to mid ‘70s and I remember our house be buried because we were in the snowbelt right next to Lake Huron,” says Long, speaking with That Shelf by Zoom. “Even though we weren’t the coolest place, we were definitely the snowiest place. But I didn’t think of it as dreary.”
Hobart has The Exchange’s mostly-fictional character Tim Long (Ed Oxenbould) dreaming of romantic cities full of vibrant arts, life, and culture. This yearning inspires him to sign up for a school program to house an exchange student from France. The exchange student, Stéphane (Avan Jogia), turns out to be a boorish horny teen, which dashes Tim’s dreams.
Tim Long on Writing Tim Long
Long relates to Tim Long’s quintessentially Canadian reverie that life is better elsewhere. “There’s a real town, which we depict as a little weird and eccentric, but a genuinely lovely kind of place,” explains Long. “The town that exists in the character’s head is the worst place in the world. It’s not cultured and very ‘I got to get out of here.’ I feel like that was true of me.” Long, who participated in a similar school program as Tim, acknowledges that he has a lot in common with his namesake. “He thought he was so smart and cultured and really is neither of those things. He realizes, for the most part, that the people in the town are pretty great.”
Long says that writing a character who draws inspiration from his own life more overtly than characters on The Simpsons do is just a matter of degrees. “I worked a lot on the script before we shot with [director] Dan Mazer who could not have had a more different experience than me,” notes Long. “He grew up in bustling London, England going to a fancy private school. But he also understood the experience of being like an alienated teen.”
However, Long says that the heart of the process isn’t much different from writing in another character’s voice. “I’m also drawing on my own experience when I’m writing The Simpsons,” he explains. “I’ve written plenty of alienated Lisa Simpson lines, which are things that I thought as well. Everything is kind of made up, but also sort of true.”
The White Squirrels of Hobart
There are shades of Springfield in Hobart, but none evokes the world of Evergreen Terrace quite like Hobart’s white squirrels. In Toronto, these ultra-rare sightings conjure ideas of critters munching on sketchy street food or radioactive waste, doing for Hogtown what Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish does for Springfield. Long says the white squirrels aren’t a rarity in Exeter, but rather an element of local flavour that made its way into the film.
“We had a white squirrel living in our front lawn and it just seemed very normal, but at some point, I registered that they were different and not every town had them,” says Long. The writer notes how Exeter, like Hobart, embraced the white squirrels as a kind of town mascot. “There was really was a guy in a white squirrel outfit walking around at parades.”
Part novelty, part local flavour, Long says that elements like the white squirrel helped shape The Exchange. “As a comedy writer, you’re always looking for real life things that you couldn’t make up,” reflects Long. “If the white squirrel didn’t exist, if I don’t know if I could make it up. It’s one element of the town that I plucked out and put it in the movie. It gives it a through line.”
The Longs vs. the Simpsons
When it comes to creating the family dynamic of The Exchange, Long says it wasn’t difficult to leave the Simpsons’ dynamic and enter another clan. “Writing for film that has its own natural rhythm. It’s less heightened than it is for The Simpsons, but in both cases, I’m drawing on my own experiences,” observes Long. “Everyone’s been in a family and everyone’s had parents that sometimes drive them crazy. It’s just a question of modulating it.”
The Exchange marks Long’s first feature as a screenwriter after years of writing for shows like Politically Incorrect and The Late Show with David Letterman. (He was also a consulting writing on The Simpsons Movie.) Crafting a story for a live-action feature length work brings its own challenge. “It took me a beat before I got used the way that movies work,” admits Long. “It’s a little less gag, gag, gag driven, and it has to be a more realistic. With a live action movie, it’s obviously harder to stage car crashes or send people into space. You have to work within the limits of physical reality.” The Exchange instead draws its humour from Tim’s alienation, awkward family dynamics, and the rift between expectations and reality.
These elements are at the heart of The Simpsons’ best episodes, too. When asked about The Simpsons’ enduring appeal—it recently became the longest-running series ever—Long is modest, but agrees that the diverse writers and long-running cast keep the show fresh. However, he credits creator, Matt Groening for crafting a world that’s unique yet universal. “The characters that Matt Groening drew and the world that he drew are weirdly specific, but they resonate with people all over the world. People recognize and love the way Bart Simpson looks or the way Homer looks everywhere.”
While some Canadian TV series like The King of Kensington, SCTV, and Schitt’s Creek will endure like The Simpsons, one could say that Canada isn’t especially known for being funny, at least when it comes to movies. Tim Long disagrees and notes that the tradition of Canadian comedy is alive and well in films like the Bob and Doug Mackenzie lark Strange Brew. Moreover, he says that Hollywood is full of laughs from the land of the maple leaf. One simply needs to look beyond a project’s national status and see how ex-pats like himself bring their sense of humour across the border.
“You could easily say the Ghostbusters is Canadian because it was written by Canadian Dan Aykroyd and directed by Canadian Ivan Reitman. That’s a Canadian movie as far as I’m concerned,” notes Long. “Same thing with the Christopher Guest movies. What would those movies be without Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy? Splash has John candy and Eugene Levy and is infused with their sensibility. A movie doesn’t have to be stamped with the CanCon seal of approval to be Canadian. In that sense, I don’t think there’s been a great comedy movie from the last 30 years that hasn’t had at least a little bit of Canadian content.”