An award-winning director is scoring some big victories

Brian D. Johnson December 13 1993


An award-winning director is scoring some big victories

Brian D. Johnson December 13 1993



An award-winning director is scoring some big victories


Navigating his way through the Orwellian maze of the CBC’s new Toronto headquarters, director John N. Smith had a lot to think about. He was on his way to a mixing studio where sound editors were putting the finishing touches on his ambitious Second World War epic, Dieppe (due to air on the CBC on Jan.

2 and 3). As he walked, he talked about the “nightmare” that an injunction might block the CBC’s second attempt to broadcast nationally The Boys of St.

Vincent, his award-winning drama about sexual abuse at a church-run orphanage in Newfoundland. (In the end, an Ontario judge ruled against the injunction, allowing the film to air on Dec. 5 and 6.) But that was not all Smith had to deal with on this drizzly afternoon last week. His wife was arriving from Winnipeg, where she had just attended her father’s funeral. The next day. Smith would appear in court for The Boys, then fly to Los Angeles. There he would confirm details of his next movie with executives from Disney’s Hollywood Pictures—and meet with the woman who has agreed to star in it: Michelle Pfeiffer.

Smith’s career is taking off in spectacular fashion.

But in face of all the commotion, the Montreal-based director appeared remarkably calm, patient and cordial—qualities that may help explain why, after a 25-year career of discreet brilliance, he is finally emerging as one of Canada’s most respected film-makers.

In an industry infatuated with style, Smith seems resolutely intent on making movies that matter. “He has a deeply compassionate vision that he builds into everything he does,” says CBC chairman Patrick Watson, who first worked with Smith in the late 1960s and remains a close friend. Smith comes across as “a reticent, taciturn person who doesn’t present himself as a fancy dancer,” observes Watson. “And what this low-key demeanor was concealing from a lot of us was, obviously, the development of a major artistic sensibility.”

With The Boys of St. Vincent, that talent has been discovered by Hollywood. But the 50-year-old director, who recently took early retirement from the National Film Board (NFB) after 20 years on staff, has spent his time in the trenches. In 1969, while working for CBC-TV, he became the first Canadian journalist to be jailed for protecting his sources. At issue was a TV interview that Smith had conducted with a member of the terrorist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). “The anti-terrorist squad charged into my hotel room and threatened to beat the truth out of me,” he recalls. “I was hauled into court. The CBC ordered me to testify and I refused.” The interview never aired. And Smith served a one-week prison term for contempt of court.

He does not look much like a firebrand. Dressed in worn blue jeans, moccasins and a drab navy sweater, Smith is relaxed and softspoken. But he has an air of quiet authority about him, a deliberate focus that seems defined by penetrating blue eyes—and a sense of irony. Now, 24 years after choosing to go to jail for his principles, he sighs, ‘Tm still trying to get stuff on the air.” Last December, an injunction, under appeal in the Supreme Court of Canada, prevented viewers in Ontario and parts of Quebec from seeing The Boys of St. Vincent. A judge ruled that the drama, though fiction, could influence an ongoing abuse trial of Christian Brothers, the Roman Catholic order that ran training schools for boys in Ontario. Last week’s injunction request related to new abuse charges. When it was denied, Smith said he was “deliriously happy: I’ve been waiting a year for this moment.”

Dieppe, meanwhile, could plunge him into yet another controversy. It is a two-part drama about the disastrous 1942 raid on French soil, in which 3,363 of 4,963 Canadian troops were killed, wounded or cap-

tured. Portraying both the beachfront tragedy and the back-room manoeuvres that led up to it, the film blames the fiasco on military leaders blinded by political ambitions. Says Smith, “It raises the question that The Valor and the Horror raised: just because you’re on the winning side, does that make you morally superior?” The Valour and the Horror, last year’s CBC documentary series about the Second World War, mired the network in bitter controversy. “It’s been quite something to be making Dieppe in this atmosphere,” the director adds. ‘There is an undoubted chill. We in this country seem to be amazingly scared of historical controversy. But it’s tremendously important for each generation to tell the history as it sees it.” After a career of making intimate, small-scale dramas, Dieppe marks a departure for Smith. “It was the scope of it that attracted me,” he says. “It’s fascinating to work on a large canvas.” Armed with a meticulously researched script by playwright John Krizanc {Tamara), Smith marshalled a strong cast, including Kenneth Welsh, Gary Reineke and John Neville. Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, portrayed as a fatuous opportunist by Victor Garber, is the chief villain of the piece. And he is Dieppe’s apologist, justifying the slaughter as a valuable lesson that saved lives in the long run. “Mountbatten and his huge department put on a massive and continuous 30-year propaganda barrage,” says Smith, “with the slant that this was the rehearsal for the real thing.”

Dieppe does, however, challenge the conventional wisdom that Canadians were just innocent colonials being duped by British imperialists. In the film, Canadian commanding officers Harry Crerar (Welsh), Andrew McNaughton (Peter Donat) and Hamilton Roberts (Reineke) are all blamed to varying degrees. “It was only the Canadians’ campaigning that got them the job,” says Smith, ‘To me, one of the interesting things is to bring the responsibility back home.”

The story's true innocents are the young troops who are sent to slaughter-the boys of Dieppe were as powerless as the boys of St. Vincent. Dieppe veterans served as ad visers on the film, says Smith, "and so many of them told us when they hit those beaches, they had an overwhelm ing sense that someone knew they were coming. It was an insane slaughter." Smith adds, "We're not trying to be smirch the war record of any of the veterans. We are say ing they were pawns in a larger game."

Mounting a $5 million mini-series with a large cast was

a kind of military operation in its own right. For the battle scenes, filmed on the beaches of Lake Ontario near Picton, Smith’s crew mushroomed from 40 to 120. But the director seems unfazed by it all. Making Dieppe was much easier than The Boys of St. Vincent, he says. “There’s no comparison.”

With Boys, the difficulty was emotional. Co-writing with Des Walsh and Sam Grana, Smith found the process became painfully personal. “In creating the characters,” he explains, “you have to become the boy and become the abuser. And I got very, very deeply involved with individuals whose lives had been permanently scarred by these things. There were times when Cynthia [his wife] would say, What are you doing to yourself?’ And my only answer would be, ‘I hope when you see the film you’ll feel it was justified.’ ”

Although he was never sexually abused, says the director, The Boys brought the pain of his own childhood to the surface. John Webster Newton Smith grew up in Montreal, the second of three sons born to a Jewish mother, Margot Fink, and a Presbyterian father, MacDonald Smith. He was a construction worker; she was an X-ray technician. When Smith was 13, his father slipped on the stone steps of his house, fracturing his skull. He fell into a coma and never came out of it. “I was devastated,” Smith recalls. “Childhood stopped at that point.” In making The Boys, he says, “There was something about the private pain [of abuse victims] that I felt. It was a deeply imprinting childhood pain that I could identify with.”

Devoting his youth to hockey and football, Smith was an unexceptional student. But in his final year of high school, his mother threatened to pack him off to military college if he did not win a scholarship to McGill University—“so I panicked and studied hard.” Winning the scholarship, Smith turned down offers to play football in the Maritimes and U.S. college hockey. “It was a turning point,” he says. “I reached the end of my obsession with competitive sports. It happened one day in a football stadium. I carried out my blocking assignment. The guy I blocked was carried off on a stretcher. Somehow that was the epiphany—I felt I was coming out of a cloud.”

At McGill, Smith earned a BA and spent two years as a graduate student studying political philosophy. There, he met his first wife, Eleanor, marrying her in 1966, and their student apartment became a screening room for the McGill Film Society. On campus, Smith also became immersed in radical politics. After leading an occupation of the administration building in 1967, he persuaded the CBC to let him make a TV program showing the students’ point of view. “I went through the first of many experiences with programmers who were upset with content

and wanted to change it,” he recalls. “But it went on the air, with a balancing discussion at the end, and I was completely hooked. I said, This is what I want to do with my life.’ ” In 1968, Smith landed a job in Toronto as a researcher with The Day It Is, a local CBC current affairs program, and its network counterpart, The Way It Is. Branching out into editing and producing, he won national notoriety by defying his employer and the courts over the FLQ interview. “I happened to hit the CBC in its most paranoid year ever,” he says. “It seemed everything I did caused people to become very nervous.” Smith’s feud with his bosses peaked after they refused to run an interview in which then-Secretary of State Gérard Pelletier argued that the CBC should never order a journalist to give up his sources. Smith and Watson, who hosted the interview, threatened to quit. Their bosses called both men on the carpet and gave them a stern reprimand. “Patrick and I looked at each other in astonishment and grinned,” recalls Smith, “then we slapped each other on the wrist.”

Smith and Watson took their talents to New York City, where they created a PBS series called The 51st State. Winning an Emmy for it in 1972, Smith fielded generous offers from the U.S. networks. But, intent on moving from TV to film, he took a job at the NFB. He cut his teeth on short films, including the Oscar-nominated First Winter (1981). Then,

turning to features, he pioneered a form of “alternative drama,” which used nonprofessional actors, improvised dialogue and documentary techniques. In 1986, Smith won acclaim for Sitting in Limbo, an affecting tale of West Indian teenagers in Montreal. He followed it with the award-winning Train of Dreams (1987), a gritty portrait of a juvenile delinquent. Then, in Welcome to Canada (1989), Smith dramatized the illegal landing of a boat-load of Tamil refugees in Newfoundland in 1986.

At the NFB, Smith met his second wife, director Cynthia Scott. (They have one son,

The Boys of St. Vincent: individuals whose lives were permanently scarred

aged 18; he has two other sons, 21 and 26, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.) Scott, meanwhile, has made her own mark with alternative drama, winning international acclaim for The Company of Strangers (1990). “It’s tremendously helpful being married to a film-maker,” says Smith. “We are key consultants for each other. And we’re both passionately involved in our work. We don’t leave our films at the office.” But Smith’s emergence as an artist, out of the fray of journalism, has been gradual. “I never grew up with the idea that I was a creative person,” he says. “For all my years in the film industry, I just considered myself a working mechanic kind of person, and didn’t realize that I was allowing my internal emotional life to express itself.”

With The Boys of St. Vincent, the connection became clear. Unlike Smith’s earlier films, it is a scripted piece with professional actors. But the scenes between the abusive Brother Lavin (Henry Czerny) and the psychiatrist were improvised—with a real psychiatrist, Pierre Gauthier. Even in the scripted scenes, Smith looks for the unexpected, says Czerny. “So many directors try to control what’s going to happen in a scene,” he says. “John sets up this situation where everybody is expecting something to happen and nobody knows what.”

Discovered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado last year, The Boys became a sensation in Hollywood. It put Czerny on the map: he is now shooting a new Tom Clancy thriller, Clear and Present Danger, as Harrison Ford’s co-star. And Smith, who was deluged with scripts, chose a drama called My Posse Don’t Do Homework, based on a true story about a white woman teaching blacks and Hispanics. After seeing The Boys and meeting its director, Pfeiffer agreed to work with him. Shooting is due to begin in February.

Despite the lure of Hollywood, Smith says he does not intend to abandon Canada. He has two local projects in development: Love and Savagery, an obsessive love story set in Newfoundland, and Sticks and Stones, based on the story of a foster child that a woman told to him after a seeing The Boys. Meanwhile, he worries about Canadian cinema. “It’s absolutely criminal the way the Film Board has been cut,” he says. “Our cultural institutions would not exist without public funding. How else do we swim against the tide of exactly what I’m going to do—work in Hollywood—which is trampling creative film expression all over the world?”

Fate last week, Smith was holed up in Beverly Hills, taking meetings. In Hollywood, they play the kind of hardball that will make his CBC trials look like slow-pitch. But John N. Smith has won the high ground, and is seeking victory on his own terms. □