Closeup/Television

Disquiet on the set

Riel never was an easy character to handle

Roy MacGregor June 12 1978
Closeup/Television

Disquiet on the set

Riel never was an easy character to handle

Roy MacGregor June 12 1978

Disquiet on the set

Closeup/Television

Riel never was an easy character to handle

Roy MacGregor

In the spring mist just north of the village of Kleinburg, Ontario, there are two signs. The first, crude and quickly painted, says only “Riel” and points down a tired road to the location where Riel, the three-hour CBC television drama is being filmed. The second sign, more lasting, simply warns visitors to beware of dogs—a cruel but unavoidable metaphor in that RieFs producer. John Trent, and its scriptwriter. Roy Moore, have been party to two of the most critically savaged film productions in Canadian history: Trent’s The Whiteoaks of Jalna and Moore's Black Christmas. The pavement gives way to mud ruts, the present to 1885 as the road twists to a loyally reconstructed Fort Garry. It is quiet but for the stifled chuckles of the stream; on the bridge a man pauses, his hands behind his back and fingers moving as if they are choking each other. High forehead, dark and curly hair, badly shaven—he is both Raymond Cloutier, the actor, and Louis Riel, the part. At the moment he is Cloutier worrying about Riel. A few minutes before he was Riel worried about Cloutier as he

stood before the cameras in the prisoner’s dock of the nearby Regina courthouse set, stumbling again and again over scene 247 : “And the learned Doctor Roy. On this stand he has called me a megalomaniac— stating that I have a recurring mental disorder . . . stating that 1 have a recurring mental disorder... that has .. . caused me to act as I have.”

A few more long pauses and they have given up. leaving the intense Cloutier to

walk slowly, deliberately up the road with his head downcast. He moves to the side of the studio and talks to his mother, who has been brought to Kleinburg from Montreal to see if her presence can help. Inside the studio, the film crew' fills in lost time by shooting textures of the courtroom scene, shooting and reshooting the judge’s sentencing of Louis Riel, which ends with the slate-cold line: “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Hopefully, there will be enough mercy left over that He will be able to disperse some to the film as well. The production, it seems, is as complex and troubled as the enigmatic revolutionary himself. Neither the reported $1.5-million budget nor the cast of some 500—including cameos by the likes of Christopher Plummer. Lome Greene, Leslie Nielsen and Barry Morse—could ever be seen as any guarantee of success, but no one, just the same, could have foreseen the troubles which were lining up to pester Riel.

Production problems have ranged from one actor falling off his horse to another actor.

Roger Blay, being kicked in the forehead by one. As a partial consolation Blay, playing Gabriel Dumont, was later scheduled to be shot in the same area during the filming of the Battle of Duck Lake, so perhaps a few pennies of taxpayers’ money ended up being cut in the makeup department.

But such incidents were miniscule compared to other worries that have long had many within the catty corporation saying Riel was “jinxed.” With a long history of CBC breakdowns—none of the original producer, director or writers is still around—Riel amounted to little more than snippy drama department gossip until August of 1976. In that month the collected research was handed over to Toronto writer Roy Moore, whose credits, apart from the critically savaged Black Christmas, included some successful American television work. Ironically, Moore’s background qualifications for such a politically sensitive film as this would have inspired the real Riel to renewed rebellion. Born 34 years ago into Upper Canada wealth in highly Conservative London, Ontario, the unilingual Moore laughingly describes his only acquaintance with Riel as whatever eventually sunk in through nine years of highschool history. “I was embarrassed when they asked me,” he says. “Because I knew nothing.”

Moore worked very hard at learning, however, and a year and a half later, after the usual rewrites, a workable script emerged. By then Riel was also a financial reality, the CBC having taken on a partner in Green River Pictures, a hastily established company that includes producer JohnTrentandasilent partner, Dr. Harold Silver, a Toronto plastic surgeon who has built an international reputation out of an eccentric practice in the Royal York Hotel.

Just how much money Green River put into Riel, Trent isn’t saying. Some say it isn’t much at all, but whatever it amounted to the deal could prove very lucrative to Trent once the CBC finishes with it, as he has tentative plans to turn it into a movie for international distribution (which would explain why the script often refers to “half-breeds” when speaking of “Métis”). Trent claims the total budget was “Mickey Mouse,” and he argued successfully and eloquently to get key people involved in the film for less than they would usually take, the idea being that the chance to do Louis Riel is an opportunity not to be missed.

Roger Blay was originally hired—by the original director, Eric Till—to play Riel, and the bitterness began immediately when the new director, George

Bloomfield, replaced Blay with Raymond Cloutier, whom the producers decided was even better for the part. Cloutier originally demanded $60,000 for the grueling threemonth role, was offered an insulting $15,000 and rose eventually to $22,000. If the film is released later internationally, Cloutier will get a small payoff, possibly

$10,000. Part of'the reason Cloutier came down so far was that the director, Bloomfield, was to get only an estimated $25,000. Bloomfield claims he was initially offered $ 12,000 when he felt his impressive credentials—including Child Under a Leaf with Dyan Cannon—deserved roughly 10 times that. But he settled because he. like Cloutier, desperately wanted to be involved in Riel. “It’s abominable what the CBC is doing to directors,” Bloomfield says. “You can’t afford to do something for them unless you want to help them out w'ith their finances.”

All might have gone well had the main participants not learned later that scriptwriter Roy Moore was getting $100,000 for his work ($30.000 for the script and $70,000 for future rights). They weren’t all angry with Moore—“He’s the only one being paid correctly,” says Bloomfield—but the inconsistency of pay led to a lasting bitterness. Many of the French-Canadian actors, Blay says, found the writing “tough to talk” and were furious with the lack of women in the

script, as the Métis had been a matriarchal society. They wanted revisions; Moore balked. They wanted Moore on set; but when he came, Blay admits, they froze him out. “I don’t want to see him again,” Blay said with a month to go in the shooting. “You do a film with people, not paper.”

Raymond Cloutier, who sees Riel as a mutual cousin of Hamlet and René Lévesque, announced: “I’m not happy with the script.” As someone who may well be the method actor’s method actor, Cloutier was beginning to see his Riel somewhat removed from the scripted Riel. Cloutier and writer Roy Moore talked, but to little avail. “I think he [Cloutier] has very strong attitudes that are very much his own,” Moore says. “But they are not Riel’s. He has been hired to play Riel as scripted by me.”

Then, early in May after a confusing session on set, Raymond Cloutier was whisked off to Toronto General Hospital where he was admitted under a doctor’s care for severe exhaustion. An intense, very serious man who had, by all accounts, taken the full burden of the film on his own shoulders, Cloutier was simply unable to go on. Several days of rest and treatment later, he was back on set, haggard and visibly shaking, but determined to finish the film. Trying desperately to work through Riel’s documented trial speech—the same speech, apparently, which originally won Cloutier the part—he was confused and losing his concentration. Director Bloomfield, a kind and extremely patient man, finally cleared the courtroom of extras and replaced them with several massive Styrofoam cue cards, complete with three-inch-high lettering. Cloutier then read his lines, anxious eyes racing from one card to the next.

“You have to decide,” said a very worried John Trent. “Are you going to go ahead or are you going to stop? And I’ve made a professional decision—we will take it ahead.”

Most of the remaining hope for Riel lies in director Bloomfield, a huge, shavenheaded man whose motherly attitude on the set comes naturally. With his wife pregnant this past winter, he asked for a verbal “pregnancy clause” with his contract and when the baby was born just prior to the actual filming, he simply let things worry about themselves for a while. It is very much through Bloomfield’s gentle prodding that Cloutier—who is said to be superb in his previous, as yet unreleased film, Two Solitudes— is going to finish his first English-language lead role. “Quite simply,” says Blay, “the French-Canadian actors love working with George.”

It is John Trent, however, who watches Cloutier when the actor is offstage, just as Trent acts like a second director onstage when Cloutier is there. An interview with the star is only possible with Trent sitting in and rewording every phrase that comes out of Cloutier’s mouth. But not even Trent can adequately explain Cloutier’s description of his Riel portrayal as “biblical pop.” And there is nothing anyone can say after Cloutier says he will feel no relief and no happiness once the difficult film is completed. “After you have been inside a character, completely, for over three months,” he says. “It can be very difficult to leave.” Trent’s great concern is justified in that his reputation is very much on the line with Riel. One of the most controversial figures in Canadian films, Trent’s career has been earmarked with vast and impressive projects which have yet to deliver vast and impressive successes. His feature-film work with Quadrant Films—Blue Blood and Sunday in the Country—showed small profits and largely negative reviews. His best-known CBC work is, of course, Jalna, the flashback monstrosity which has long haunted Trent—“They never forget it,” he says—but which he defends by pointing out it eventually made a profit in international sales, disastrous Canadian reviews aside. Ironically, Riel also relies heavily on flashback, so much so that the film’s main star, Cloutier, finds the whole thing rather “deceiving.”

Trent, however, fully aware that Riel means more to him than anyone, remains optimistic. “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp.” he says. “Or what else is there?” No one needs to remind Trent that if Riel works he will be redeemed. If his reach comes up short, however, it will be a long fall. And toward the end of May the production was slipping behind schedule, with two key scenes—the asylum and the hanging—yet to be shot with Cloutier. “Raymond is fine and it will be finished,” said Roger Blay with great confidence.

For those who believe in such things, there was a third sign to be found at Kleinburg this spring. Just how symbolic it is will not be known for several months, of course, so here it is, without comment: Someone placed several chickens inside Fort Garry for authenticity—and one of them laid an egg.1^1?