Films

School for celluloid

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 23 1998
Films

School for celluloid

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 23 1998

School for celluloid

Films

The Canadian Film Centre is a leading place to learn ‘the literature of our generation’

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

To many people, it is still known as “the Jewison Centre.” So when the Canadian Film Centre gave its first Lifetime Achievement Award to Norman Jewison at a star-studded gala in Toronto last week, a casual observer may have wondered if he was giving the award to himself. Even Jewison wearily

concedes that “it’s a kind of a self-aggrandizing situation, and I’m sure people will interpret it that way, although I hope they don’t.” And they shouldn’t. Jewison did found the centre— the country’s most exclusive film school—and, as chairman emeritus, he sits on its board of directors. But he does not run it. He is too busy making movies. And the man who does run it, executive director S. Wayne Clarkson, says Jewison was the obvious choice for this inaugural award, which coincides with the film centre’s 10th anniversary. “Deciding to give it to Norman took all of about five seconds,” says Clarkson. “He embodies in many ways why the award was created.” Jewison is fond of saying that “film is the literature of our generation” and that “film is forever.” With a career spanning two dozen movies, 12 Oscars and 45 Oscar nominations, his legacy as one of Hollywood’s great masters seems safe. But even in the face of all that, Jewison says, almost wistfully, that “the establishment of the Canadian Film Centre is the one thing I’ve done that will hopefully live on—the most important thing I’ve done in my life.” The centre has certainly left its mark on the landscape of Canadian cinema. Over the course of a decade, its graduates have written, directed or produced more than 50 feature films. The alumni include Don McKellar {Last Night), John Greyson {Lilies), David Wellington {Long Day’s Journey into Night), Paul Quarrington (Whale Music) and Michael Ondaatje {The English Patient). The centre is also the only film school in the world that produces its own features. They have ranged from Clement Virgo’s 1995 ghetto drama, Rude, which was shown in Cannes, to Vincenzo Natali’s recent science-fiction thriller, Cube, which earned back its $500,000 budget with a single sale to a U.S. distributor. The centre, which accepts no more than 10 candidates to each of its annual directing, screenwriting and producing programs, has been called elitist. “What’s more accurate is to say it is elite,” counters Clarkson. “This is a ^«¿-postgraduate program. It’s difficult to get into. You can’t just walk out of any of the fine film departments at Queen’s or York or Ryerson. You need to have related experience.” Then he adds: “Being a film director is an incredible talent, and not everybody has it. Astronauts are elite. Jet pilots are elite. Film-makers are no less.”

The centre owes its rarefied image partly to the fact that this breeding ground for cineasts was once a breeding ground for racehorses. Its home is the Windfields estate, a stone mansion overlooking a swimming pool, tennis courts and 23 acres of lawns and gardens in north Toronto. Windfields once belonged to Argus Corp. tycoon E.P. Taylor, who raised thoroughbreds. The stable that housed the champion steed Northern Dancer is now outfitted with two dozen computers: it serves as the centre’s new multimedia facility, MediaLinx h@bitat. The main building once served as a bed-and-breakfast for the Queen Mother. And Clarkson works out of a bungalow that was Taylor’s home office. “The bankers would make house calls,” he says, pointing to a spot above the fireplace where a shotgun used to hang. “Apparently, in the middle of negotiations, for dramatic effect, E.P. would aim the gun out the window at a fox or a squirrel and blaaam!” Clarkson, 52, a marathon runner who logs 80 km a week, still sees red foxes on the grounds—descendants of the survivors.

At first, the centre had trouble escaping its garden-party image. The residents’ ranks—filled with such would-be directors as broadcaster Anne Medina and actress Margot Kidder—seemed celebrity-heavy. And there was a constant round of socializing with visiting stars, from Clint Eastwood to Liza Minnelli. Don McKellar says that his time there, in 1991-1992, “was really valuable, and I had a lot of fun. But we got fed up with all the celebrity lunches. It

was the year of the Great Revolt. We demanded more of a program.” His group also challenged the selection process by which directors are chosen to make short films. McKellar’s script for Blue (starring David Cronenberg as a pornographer) was initially rejected. But it became one the most successful shorts in the centre’s history. “The impulse for making Blue,” recalls McKellar, “was sitting by the pool, looking at the mansion, thinking, ‘Gee, this would be a great place to make a porno film.’ The porno scene was actually shot in E.P. Taylor’s bedroom.”

Over the past few years, the centre has evolved significantly. In 1994, it raided the American Film Institute in Los Angeles to hire an artistic director, acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Dezso Magyar, who brought some rigor to the program. And the genial Clarkson, a former film scholar in cowboy boots, has turned fund-raising into a fine art. As a non-profit organization with a $6.5-million annual budget, the centre depends on industry and government support. This month, it launched a $15-million capital endowment fund, with $3 million already pledged from TV’s private sector.

Meanwhile, the residents’ short films—shot with crews of 50 professionals volunteering their time—are sold around the world. But for anyone planning to be the next Norman Jewison, the odds are steep. “Of250 people who want to be directors,” says Clarkson, “10 get into the centre, six direct a short film, and one gets to make a feature.” A lifetime achievement award takes little longer. □