FILMS

Georgia on their minds

Canadian film-makers add some Southern flavor to Camilla

June 28 1993
FILMS

Georgia on their minds

Canadian film-makers add some Southern flavor to Camilla

June 28 1993

Georgia on their minds

FILMS

Canadian film-makers add some Southern flavor to Camilla

It is a blazing hot morning in Darien, Ga., and Bridget Fonda and Jessica Tandy are playing a scene on a narrow dock. Behind them are several shrimp boats and a man mending a large, green net. On the muddy bank opposite, hundreds of tiny crabs labor for food while a green turtle swims serenely past. Tandy, 82, is a vision of cool elegance, dressed in layers of pale vanilla and creamy beige. She sits erect on the wooden bench, talking animatedly and eating the boiled shrimp that the crew has prepared for the scene. Fonda, 29, sits listening beside her, dressed in a dark, diaphanous dress with a body stocking underneath. Suddenly, a commotion from the opposite end of the dock interrupts the filming, forcing director Deepa Mehta to yell “Cut!” Hooting and hollering, a local fisherman has caught a baby alligator and is brandishing it at a dog, which barks furiously at the reptile. It’s just a minor delay on the set of Camilla, a $10.6-million Canadian-British co-production that has been filming for nearly three weeks along Georgia’s coastline. Tandy comes in off the dock to a shelter, looking uncomfortable while patting her throat. “I can still feel that shrimp right here. And shrimp in the morning!”

A labor of love for Toronto-based co-producer Christina Jennings, Camilla took almost six years of development before shooting began in Toronto in April. The arduous process seems to have been worth it. Boasting two Hollywood stars and a winning script

by Canadian novelist and screenwriter Paul Quarrington (.Perfectly Normal), the movie has secured major distributors in the United States and Europe.

The Canadian content in Camilla is strong. Mehta, who earned an honorable mention at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 for her first feature, Sam & Me, immigrated to Canada from India in 1973. And the supporting cast is a roll call of superb Canadian actors: Maury Chaykin, Elias Koteas, Graham Greene—and even London, Ont.-born Hume Cronyn, Tandy’s husband, in a cameo role. Shot in golden tones by celebrated Montreal-based cinematographer Guy Dufaux (Léolo, Jesus of Montreal) and scored by Hull, Que.-born record producer (U2) and singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois, Camilla has all the makings of a major artistic summit. But Mehta is cautious. “I hate building up expectations about a film at this point,” she says wearily after a long day of shooting. “We’ve got a funny and moving script, fabulous performances and a wonderful crew. But it’s ultimately up to the audience.”

A cross between a romantic comedy and a road movie, Camilla explores the unlikely friendship between two musicians who take to the highway in search of love, music and artistic fulfilment. Tandy plays Camilla, an elderly violinist who lives on a secluded island with her overbearing son, Harold (Chaykin). Freda (Fonda) is a talented singer-songwriter who lacks the self-confidence to per-

form publicly. She and husband Vince (Koteas) are at odds about their future direction: Freda is frustrated with her undeveloped musical abilities, while Vince fails to see the depth of her passion. They decide to take an oceanside vacation and rent a small cottage from Camilla. Freda is mesmerized by Camilla’s accounts of her world travels as a violinist, which led her to meet English dukes and Mahatma Gandhi.

Loosely based on an episode in the life of her younger sister, Ali (who wrote two of the movie’s songs), Jennings asked family friend Paul Quarrington almost six years ago to write a screenplay. The 42-year-old producer says that she wanted Tandy for the part of Camilla, but knew that her Academy Award-winning performance in Driving Miss Daisy would mean that she was inundated with scripts. However, the producer was an acquaintance of John Cronyn, a nephew of Hume Cronyn. John agreed to act as intermediary. Jennings sent off an early version of the script and a few months later got a reply. “I still remember the feeling I had when I got her letter—it was as if the floor had opened up underneath me,” Jennings recalls. “I had always known we had a good project, but when Jessica said, ‘Yes,’ then I knew we’d moved into a much bigger arena.”

That arena meant getting access to more funds through a co-production. While a resident at Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre, Jennings met a visiting British producer, Simon Relph, who agreed to become part of the project. Relph is a 20-year veteran of the movie business who had served as executive producer on the acclaimed 1990 film Enchanted April. His connections with major distributors, Majestic in Britain and Miramax in the United States, helped presell the film outside Canada (where it is handled by Norstar).

In the end, commercial distributors provided almost three-quarters of the movie’s budget—a rarity for a Canadian independent production. The rest came from seven different, mostly government, sources. “We could have ended up with a very nice Canadian film with Jessica in it,” says Relph, “but what we got was an international movie that comes from Canada that will be seen all over the world. And naturally we’re very happy about that.”

The nine-week shoot moved to Savannah, Ga., on June 1, ending on Jekyll Island, farther south and six miles off the coast, last week. Despite extreme heat and humidity (temperatures at times soared to 40 degrees) the atmosphere on set has, by all accounts, been congenial and co-operative. Fonda, a veteran of 14 films including Single White Female, praises the mostly Canadian crew and characterizes the mood as one of “relaxed exploration.” Fonda, with her slim, coltish grace, says that she related a lot to her character—“to her fears, that sense of feeling inadequate about something you love. In Freda’s case, it’s music. It’s that glimpse of a world that has magic and joy—you’re shown it and can appreciate it but you really can’t be it.”

Fonda says that it has been a privilege to work with Tandy. She describes a scene where Camilla recounts the plot of a pulp novel written by her husband, Ivor, now dead. “We’d rehearsed the line a few times and so it wasn’t as funny any more. But when the camera rolled, Jessica did this thing where she flared her nostrils as she said, ‘And the Chinese warlord kidnapped the baby and raised him as his own.’ ” It cracked me up—in fact I kind of got hysterics. She’s amazing.”

Fonda is not the only one who voices her admiration. Almost everyone on set, from the director to the head of makeup to her driver, remarks on Tandy’s stamina and

charm as well as her acting skills. Says Chaykin: “She has a sophistication and grace that doesn’t come from her position but from within her.” He also appreciated her sense of humor. And with Chaykin around, Tandy probably needed one: according to Fonda, Chaykin jokingly accused Tandy of being high on set one day.

When asked about her endurance under the demanding conditions (12-hour days mostly spent outside) Tandy acknowledges that it has been difficult. But, as the end of filming approached, she was still enthusiastic. “It’s a wonderful part,” she said. “Camilla has led a strange, lonely kind of life but she still has vigor and guts. She’s a survivor. I don’t like to play old ladies who have given up.”

Tandy notes that the most challenging thing she had to do during the shoot was to look as if she could play the violin. Her character performed Brahms’s Violin Concerto at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre decades ago. The plot calls for Freda and Camilla to travel to Canada to hear the same concerto in the city’s newly renovated Winter Garden—without telling Vince or Harold. In real life, a tangled coincidence surrounded the scene. On the very day that the crew was to shoot the orchestra scene with some members of the Toronto Symphony, the TS was performing the concerto at Roy Thomson Hall. What’s more, the symphony’s principal

DIANE TURBIDE in Jekyll Island

double bass player is Joel Quarrington, brother of screenwriter Paul. In the end, TS musicians played part of the concerto in the morning at the Winter Garden Theatre for Camilla, and then the orchestra performed the entire piece as scheduled at Roy Thomson Hall that evening.

There were other odd little incidents throughout the undertaking. Mehta hired a first assistant director from England, Gareth Tandy, who had worked with her when she directed an episode of The Young Indiana Jones in Benares, India—without knowing that he was Tandy’s nephew. “When I called him, I told him who was in it, and he said something like, ‘Oh, my dear old auntie,’ ” recalls Mehta. Another coincidence: while Tandy was in Toronto, the 1947 Tony Award that she had lost in the 1950s found its way back to her. A young couple canoeing near Sarnia, Ont., had recently found it in the water.

Serendipity did a walk-on role in several scenes as well. In the opening beach sequence, several snowy white egrets wandered curiously up to Tandy, staring inquisitively as she peered through binoculars. At other times, dolphins seemed to appear on cue. In fact, many of the Canadians speak of the wondrous wildlife around Savannah and on Jekyll Island, a haven for deer, pelicans, a wide variety of bird life, all manner of bugs, and alligators.

Director Mehta experienced another, less pleasant side of the Old South. On a rare night out, she went to dinner at an expensive restaurant on nearby Sea Island. As Mehta, the only non-white there, walked past one couple’s table, the man said loudly, “I guess the Greyhound just stopped by.” Shocked, the 42-year-old director turned around to stare at the man, who was dressed in blacktie. “I just said, ‘F—k you,’ and walked off,” she says, taking a drag from her cigarette.

Shrugging, Mehta turns to a happier topic: the camaraderie and professionalism of her colleagues. “It’s a funny business,” she says. “You’re intensely involved with all these wonderful people and, poof, it all goes away. Smoke and mirrors, but then it starts all over again. I guess that’s why I love it.” At the wrap party the next night, the crew is buoyant. The final day of shooting has gone well. And the very last scene featured Tandy and Cronyn on a beach suffused with the setting sun’s golden light. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house—I mean on the beach,” notes one crew member. Suddenly, the partygoers stand up and begin to applaud. like royalty, Tandy and Cronyn have arrived at the poolside gathering to mingle and say their goodbyes. There is much hugging and handholding. Then, arm-in-arm, the two actors, true to form, make their exit—stage left.