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The Story's The Thing:
or Why do so many Canadian movies not work?


What can amaze me about a lot of Canadian films is why they got made at all.

No, really. We are constantly told how difficult it is to make movies in Canada. How, without big studios (like in Hollywood), it can take months of negotiation just to line up the financing as each organization (whether it be a government funding agency or a private production house) only offers a portion of the total budget, and each one demanding you have the others on board before they'll sign on (in a cinematic Catch-22). Making movies should be next to impossible, with only the best and the brightest making it through.

So why do so many Canadian movies seem so...ill-conceived? Half-finished? Undeveloped? If it's so hard to get movies made, how come movies come out where you'd think just a cursory glance at the story outline should've sent up some red flags somewhere?

One reason, I think, is summed up by a phrase I saw attributed to a funding agency head who said, "We aren't supporting movies, we're supporting filmmakers." In other words, they don't necessarily finance a movie because they think the movie's any good, they're financing it because they believe the filmmaker has potential and should be supported and nurtured so that someday, maybe, he will make a good movie. Yikes! Is anyone else feeling dizzy at this moment?

I remember watching the movie Rollercoaster (no, not the George Segal thriller, but a Canadian movie about alienated teens) and thinking it seemed like a movie where the filmmaker didn't fully have a vision of what the story was or why. My biased personal opinion? Yeah. But then I came upon a website for the movie, where the filmmaker provided an on-line diary detailing the process behind the movie. Turns out he was a TV director, had worked on some teen dramas, and wanted to make a feature film one day about teens -- and he knew a guy who knew a guy. To make a long story short (according to the filmmaker himself) this pal comes to him one day almost out of the blue and says, people are so impressed with you, I've got the financing lined up -- let's make your movie. Only, the filmmaker didn't have a "movie", or a script, or even a plot. He was being greenlighted to make a feature film...and there wasn't even a story proposal yet!

Then there's the story of Diplomatic Immunity, in which there was a script -- for ten years was there a script. It's just that it was a script that didn't seem to be working. But instead of walking away from it, Telefilm gave the filmmakers more and more money to rewrite, and redraft it ('cause they're supporting the filmmakers, after all) and getting Hollywood-style reading groups to comment on what they liked and didn't like about the drafts. In the end, the movie was made...and the final version still seemed to suffer from the exact same problems that had plagued it from day one -- ten years of rewrites, and they hadn't fixed the central problems! Worse, the filmmakers then blamed their lead actress for failing to make the character likeable when the readers of the various drafts had long complained she wasn't likeable as written. Arrgh! Man -- the apocalypse can't come too soon for me.

So clearly there's a problem in the very process by which films are made in this country. Too much is taken on faith, and maybe not enough care is given to the movie itself. Magazine editors like to say, I don't reject writers, just stories -- but that doesn't mean the reverse is automatically viable, or logical: that you shouldn't back stories, only the storytellers.

As I said, too many Canadian movies seem unfocused and undeveloped. As an illustration, I did a test where I read somebody a list of movie titles, some Canadian, some American -- and almost invariably we could identify which were the Canadian movies simply by the generic, non-descript titles that seemed to reflect the generic, non-descript plots. In fact, some Canadian movies are so vague and ill-defined, story and character-wise, that I've seen movie listings that are reduced to describing the movies by their themes ("this movie is about alienation in an urban context") rather than their plots. Yet if you're struggling to find a place for yourself on the video shelf, to attract the viewer's interest, you need a story, a concept -- a plot. For example, "A coming of age story" (a favourite among Canadian filmmakers) does not describe a plot, it describes an idiom. Yet too many Canadian movies are like that...movies without a strong, identifiable plot or even premise.

The reason is simple. It's darn hard to write a plot, darn hard to come up with a linear story, where one scene follows from the last, and which can actually fill up 90 minutes (which is why ensemble movies are so popular with filmmakers -- it's easier to write a script with a bunch of little, half-formed plots, than a movie with one fully developed plot).

Of course, equally, you can have the opposite problem, a movie that does have a core, identifiable concept...but nothing else. In the whimsical A Problem with Fear we have a very clear, off-beat concept -- a man suspects his personal phobias are somehow killing people. Okay -- that's an idea you can write on the back of the DVD and that makes it stand out. Only, A Problem with Fear was, well, frankly not a very good movie. Because although there was a concept, the plot -- the how and why and what of the movie -- was still vague and undeveloped.

Too often in Canada, there seems to be a disregard for scripts and scriptwriters. That's ironic because that's a trait Canadian filmmakers seem to have borrowed from Hollywood -- yet, in all other respects, Canadian filmmakers dismiss Hollywood as a sausage factory that makes bad sausages and they resist all calls to emulate its thinking.

Many of Canada's top directors are writer-directors, yet one suspects they're directors who write, rather than writers who direct (David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, Atom Egoyan and other writer-directors have directed scripts written by others, but they've rarely written scripts for others to direct). Many Canadian films employ improvisation, ad libs, or other techniques that shift the emphasis from the writer to the director and the cast. Sometimes that works, creating a spontaneous, cinema verite feel. Yet there can be a real problem with that, too.

Glancing at comments on the Internet Movie Database for director Bruce MacDonald's The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess I noticed that some negative reviewers singled out the script for criticism (I haven't seen the movie yet, so I have no opinion one way or the other). Yet, in one interview MacDonald put a big emphasis on how he and one of his stars, rocker-turned-actor Hugh Dillon, improvised dialogue and scenes, added in song and dance numbers, and generally "took liberties" with the script...much to the consternation of the writer. MacDonald's derisive assessment was: "(the writer) had the mistaken idea that he was the resident genius." I repeat, I haven't seen the movie -- maybe I'd love it, but my opinion is irrelevant. My point is that if someone sees a movie and doesn't like it, who should they blame? The writer whose name is on the script...or the actor and director who decided to take "liberties" with the script and improvise the scenes that the audience actually sees and, in the minds of some reviewers, are terrible?

This is no minor issue. Aside from the frustration for a writer of working months on a script, only to see it treated as little more than a guideline for the finished film, there's the very real impact it can have on a writer's rep. I know one writer who wrote a script, and saw it changed without his input during filming. There are still good scenes, written by the writer, but there are also a lot of bad scenes, awkward scenes, and one inparticular that gets a laugh (it's not a comedy) -- none of which did he write. But who do you think the audience blames? That's right, the writer. And when that writer tries to pitch his next script...all anyone remembers is he was the guy who "wrote" that bad scene that got a laugh.

Perhaps what it boils down to in many Canadian movies is a lack of respect for story and even the notion of a script -- yet the script is the thing that should decide whether or not the movie gets financed and made. The script is the dry run for the thing that will hit the silver screen. If there's no script to judge, or if the script is weak or seems padded...maybe the whole project needs to be re-considered. And if the script was good enough to secure the financing, maybe the actors should stick to acting and the director to directing and leave the writing to the writers.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Oct. 14, 2005

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