Last week, CANADALAND podcaster Jesse Brown and actor/ writer Jay Baruchel got together to chat about the state of the English Canadian film and television industry for a live podcast at The Bloor Hot Docs cinema. Most of the talk merely confirmed what we all already knew: there’s A LOT of room for improvement, to put it lightly. The tongue-in-cheek name for this event was Jay and Jesse Solve Canada, or depending on where you looked, Jay and Jesse Solve EVERYTHING, but of course, nothing was really solved.
Jay Baruchel was just as charmingly awkward as most of the characters he plays. He was startled by the volume his voice in the microphone as he voiced appreciation for the big applause his entrance received. Hiding under a beard and an OHL Barrie Colts hat, his body language suggested that of a bashful boy getting a sex talk from his parents, not an actor talking to fans about his passion. Jesse kicked off the conversation with an extremely relevant if slightly naive quote from a younger Baruchel: “since I was a kid my goal was to make movies to fulfill my responsibility to Canadian cinema.” Anyone who has followed Jay’s career at all knows that, despite being tied to massive Disney franchises like How To Train Your Dragon, best picture winners like Million Dollar Baby, and star studded comedies like Tropic Thunder, he has stayed true to his roots by making approximately one Canadian movie per year. His Canadian patriotism is even made fun of in movies where he plays versions of himself, such as Knocked Up and This Is The End. In the latter, there’s a scene in which Jay explains to Craig Robinson and Emma Watson that he’s just not into the whole L.A. lifestyle. Yet as he explained to Jesse, it’s not his discomfort that’s kept him here (it’s hard to imagine him feeling comfortable anywhere, except maybe a hockey game) but his pure love of the country.
After snortling at his own quote read to him by Jesse, Jay went into a very heartfelt explanation about how having family members that served in the Canadian military has caused him to always see things through a “prism of patriotism”. When he was around 12 years old he discovered the films David Cronenberg, and decided that he wanted to make a similar contribution, to be a great filmmaker who stayed in Canada and made movies here that were seen all over the world. While Jay is now two decades into his acting career, his career as a filmmaker is just getting started. In 2011 he wrote Goon, a Canadian movie that actually opened at #1 in English Canada, which is extremely rare. It was recently announced that Goon 2 will begin shooting next month, which will be Baruchel’s directorial debut.
“A culture’s art survives, and if I have a chance to add to the tapestry of the small country that I was born into, that means a lot more to me than doing it somewhere else that’s just not where I’m from.”
So while Jay has done a good job of navigating the business on both sides of the border, he had a lot to say about what’s wrong with things up here. Without naming names or organizations, he described an “old boys club” that’s “not exclusively boys and I don’t think they’re all exclusively old, but they definitely have a club”. Basically a small amount of “gatekeepers” who decide what gets funded and aren’t necessarily motivated by art. If you’re in, you’re in, and everyone else is out of luck. In other words, it’s not what you know, but who you know, though I imagine this is common in just about every country… and industry for that matter.
Obviously one of the biggest issues Canadian film faces is audience indifference. Not only do most people not think it’s important to see Canadian films, many actively dislike them, because historically, most of them are subpar. Has anyone ever said “this movie feels really Canadian” and meant it as a good thing? Is this the fault of the “gatekeepers” with poor taste? Possibly, but it’s also the fault of bad filmmaking. I don’t believe that the people making these government funded films that no one ever sees think they’re making bad movies, but often that’s just the sad truth.
Confession time: a couple years ago I was handling the social media for a website that aimed to promote Canadian film, and I did not always practice what I preached. At this time I was only an occasional film reviewer for Dork Shelf, so I thought hey, why don’t I combine these two things and be Dork Shelf’s Canadian movie guy? It didn’t take very long for me to regret this idea. It was very disheartening and often led me to reach very far to find things I liked in certain movies. I’m not saying ALL Canadian movies are bad, but when you agree to review one you don’t know until it’s too late, and giving it a good review just because it’s Canadian would be doing a disservice to the readers. So now anytime a Canadian movie comes across my desk, I opt to do an interview instead of a review, therefore making a friend instead of an enemy. After all, anyone who gets a film made and released in this country is already an underdog, so who am I to shit on that? Especially when they’re doing exactly what I wish I was doing. It’s so hard to get anyone to go see ANYTHING these days, I don’t want to deter a single potential paying viewer.
The Good News
One thing made clear the other night was how much we have going for us. We have government funding. We have capable crews used by the world’s biggest productions. We have one province that has flourished by creating its own industry with its own language and cultural identity. We have a thriving music industry that’s embraced internationally. We have countless passionate and patriotic artists. And most importantly, we have had some success (Trailer Park Boys, Goon, Kids In The Hall) that has transcended borders despite humble aspirations. It’s not impossible, it can be done!
“There are some legitimately, authentically Canadian things that have connected with people. It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most high minded stuff, but Trailer Park Boys is religion to me, I put it up there Shepherd’s Pie, Joy Division, just everything that I love.” -Jay Baruchel
So why can’t we seem to get it together? Funding, quotas, marketing and distribution are huge, complicated factors, but still moot points when the product isn’t good. I’m going to go out on a limb and express an unpopular hypothesis: maybe filmmaking just isn’t our forte? Bare with me a moment here, this isn’t as shameful as it sounds.
Why It’s Harder For Us
Think about it, what countries have the strongest film industries? Who makes movies that the entire world watches? The U.S. obviously, and to a lesser extent England, France, Italy, some Asian countries… What do they have in common? In the case of U.S. and England they share a language and some cultural history with us. Europe and Asia have rich histories and very strong cultural identities that they have developed over centuries of art and literature.
People often blame our lack of cultural identity as a reason for a lack of interest in domestic productions, which is undeniably true. We all know Quebec films do well because they have a vested interest in preserving their language and seeing themselves and their stars on screen. English Canada is content with American media because like it or not, we’re really not so different from them. I would argue that the regional differences of someone from Toronto and someone from St. John’s are far greater than the differences between someone from Vancouver and someone from Seattle. The good news is this can go both ways, as illustrated by Trailer Park Boys, which many Americans assume is American, even though to us it’s VERY Canadian.
Another thing these countries have that we don’t are large populations. Larger populations equal a bigger audience, which equals more money and bigger budgets. Not only that, but the more people there are in a country, the more likely it is that one will be a Kurosawa or a Scorsese. Filmmaking isn’t something that just anyone can do, it’s a precious gift bestowed on a very few.
We have a small person complex because we ARE small (not geographically of course, which also creates challenges). Not only are we small, but we’re young. We’re America’s younger brother that never had to fight for anything because after our big brother fought for his independence, we lived at home so long that our mother country no longer cared when we left. There’s not a lot of conflict in our history, and what’s the most important ingredient in drama? Conflict! People always say hardships build character, and we’ve had it pretty easy. Perhaps that’s why we are such humble, gracious and polite people… do you think Orson Welles had many of those qualities?
Another theory, and this may be stretching it a little, is to blame our crappy weather. For almost half the year, it is physically painful to be outside in Canada. That’s not to say that we can’t make movies in the winter by bundling up or keeping shoots to interiors, but it definitely poses an extra hurdle. Why do you think California is the moviemaking capital of the States? The sunshine of course. This is basically the same reason we suck at the Summer Olympics but dominate the Winter ones. Then again, this doesn’t seem to effect Quebec.
Obviously I’m not saying that we don’t have talented filmmakers in this country, we have many, but we lose a lot of them south of the border as soon as they achieve any success. You can’t really blame them for that, why toil in a broken system when you can thrive in a well-oiled machine?
Most people don’t recognize how difficult it is to make a good movie. I would argue it’s one of the hardest things to do. Even if you get one element right: the script, the cast, the cinematography… Everything has to work together to make it truly great, and that rarely happens. So while you may think I’m being too hard on our filmmakers, I don’t think they’re being hard enough of themselves. As I mentioned, getting a film made at all in this country is an accomplishment in and of itself to be proud of. Get it distributed and you’ve climbed Mount Everest. Get people to actually see it and you’ve performed a miracle, but this still isn’t enough. For a movie to matter it has to really resonate with people and entertain and connect with them enough for them to go tell their friends it’s worth spending an evening and $15 on.
Calling All Martyrs
In 2013, Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson made The Dirties, a dark but humorous look at high school bullying. It did well at festivals, won some awards, and was even released in the US as part of Kevin Smith’s Movie Club. By almost every it measure, it was a successful Canadian movie, yet most Canadians have never heard of it. That’s because The Dirties is still an anomaly, it’s the exception to the rule. We need to make 20 Dirties every year before people begin to pay attention and stop seeing Canadian movies as homework.
No one person has the answer as to how we can do this. At the end of the podcast (remember that Jay Baruchel thing I started this off by talking about), there was a Q&A session where people were asking Jay questions as though he were Canada’s Minister of Film. He admitted he wasn’t qualified to answer them. It wasn’t his idea to call it “Jay and Jesse Solve Canada,” he’s just been made an uncomfortable spokesperson who is visibly agitated by unfortunate circumstances, but he did mention one thing offhand that I believe held more significance than anyone realized at the time.
When grilled by Jesse about why Jay doesn’t use his clout to make his passion project here, Jay said that’s exactly what he’s trying to to do, which is why he just bought a house in Toronto, to, as he put it “put my money where my mouth is.” He has always been a resident of Montreal, but the emphasis there remains on French productions. Jesse responded “the first step is I live here so let’s talk about this stuff, let’s make it better. So we’re done!” in a reply that’s glibness I’ll accredit to the fact that their time was almost up. It was joke but this was actually the closest they came all evening to getting to the root of the problem. Keeping Canadian talent in Canada is the best way to solve this issue, and it’s going to take a couple martyrs. Cronenberg could have made more money by going to Hollywood, but he stayed here and became one of the few truly great Canadian filmmakers. If Ivan Reitman had done that, Ghostbusters could have been a Canadian movie. Talent is our most precious resource and we’ve been letting the best of it go. Let’s not forget that the director of the two highest grossing films of all time grew up in Chippawa, Ontario. While James Cameron maybe couldn’t have made Titanic or Avatar in Canada, he probably could have done something just as impressive that would have given us a little more legitimacy so that the next Cameron or Denis Villeneuve wouldn’t feel the need to leave.