The Canadian Patient

The triumph of The English Patient raises the question: Why can't Canada make its own hit movies?

Brian D. Johnson March 24 1997

The Canadian Patient

The triumph of The English Patient raises the question: Why can't Canada make its own hit movies?

Brian D. Johnson March 24 1997

The Canadian Patient


The triumph of The English Patient raises the question: Why can't Canada make its own hit movies?


Is there anybody from Picton?”

The frail voice belongs to a young Canadian soldier who lies mortally wounded in a field hospital in Italy. It is 1944, close to the ragged end of the Second World War. The boy is a mess of blood, and he knows he is about to die.

“Why Picton?” asks the nurse.

“He’s from there,” says the doctor. “Edge of Lake Ontario, right, soldier?”

The scene, from the opening sequence of The English Patient, is a poignant one. But for a Canadian viewer, it carries an added frisson of sentiment. We are not used to seeing Canadians fight wars and talk about places like Picton in the movies—especially not in sweeping epics nominated for Academy Awards.

The English Patient is not a Canadian movie. But it is based

on a Canadian novel, the 1992 Booker Prize winner by Michael Ondaatje. Two of its lead characters are from Montreal—even if they are played by a European (Juliette Binoche) and an American (Willem Dafoe). And the story, a multicultural narrative set on the quicksand frontiers of love and war, questions brute patriotism with a poetic intelligence that seems, in the end, distinctly Canadian. It is about identity.

We can, in other words, take some modest pride in the tact that The English Patient is favored to win for best picture at


next week’s Academy Awards (page 48). It leads the race with 12 nominations, including best actor (Ralph Fiennes), best actress (Kristin Scott Thomas) and best supporting actress (Binoche). The Oscar spotlight has drawn unprecedented attention to a Canadian novel, with one million copies sold in the United States and 300,000 in Canada. But aside from that, Ondaatje—who served as the filmmakers’ unofficial muse during the shoot in Italy and Tunisia—is clearly pleased with the alchemy that has transformed his elliptical novel into a romantic epic. Asked if he feels it can be considered a Canadian movie, he told Maclean’s, “I hope so.” With an American producer, an English director and an international cast, the film “really was a mongrel stew,” he said. “I’m rather startled that the Canadianness survived to some extent, and I was always glad that that was there—even if Toronto was just mentioned in a torture scene.”

Still, the triumph of The English Patient raises some questions. Could it have been a Canadian production? And, if not, why can’t Canada bring its own stories to the screen?

The most simple answer is money. The English Patient is a $40million epic, and so far the only Canadians making movies on that scale work in Hollywood—notably Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), James Cameron (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters). But Canada, it seems, cannot even procure the rights to its own literary sensations. After a Hollywood bidding war, Jodie Foster’s production company recently snapped up Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s new best-seller. And, despite a serious and concerted effort to acquire The English Patient, a Toronto-based company lost out to an American producer, who made the movie with Miramax Films.

In January of 1993, Rhombus Media offered $250,000 for Ondaatje’s book, proposing an adaptation to be directed by Canada’s Atom Egoyan, with encouragement from the federal funding

agency Telefilm Canada. Rhombus partner Niv Fichman says the bid met with an encouraging response from Ondaatje’s New York City agent, who told him the field was wide open. But then, British director Anthony Minghella teamed up with Berkeley, Calif.-based producing legend Saul Zaentz, whose hefty credits include One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And Rhombus—a small company best known for the acclaimed feature Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould—was in no position to compete. In fact, Rhombus did not even find out about Zaentz’s production until it was announced at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 1993.

Having seen The English Patient, Egoyan says he has no regrets. “I don’t think I would have done it any better,” he told Maclean’s, “just differently. I would have made it with a lot less money. And I don’t know, quite honestly, if my adaptation would have been anywhere near as successful a commercial breakthrough as the one that was made.”

Not every hit movie has to be an epic. Independent films from Britain and Australia have sailed to spectacular success on budgets within reach of Canadian producers: The Crying Game ($5.8 million), Trainspotting ($3.4)—and Shine ($6.2) and Secrets and Lies ($6.6), both current Oscar nominees for best picture. This year, it is the same old story: Canadians have to be content with yet another nomination for best animated short (La Salla, by Winnipeg-based National Film Board director Richard Condie).

So, why don’t Canadians make hit movies? We are one of the world’s leading exporters of TV shows ($750 million worth in 1995), and the only country to sell series television to U.S. network prime time. Our singers, from Alanis Morissette to Céline Dion, dominate the pop charts (page 52). Our authors, from Atwood to Ondaatje, are among the hottest in the Englishspeaking world. Yet Canadian movies occupy less than two per cent of screen time in this country. In Australia, meanwhile, domestically produced films take up 11 per cent.

What does Australia have that Canada lacks? A number of things: an irrepressible confidence, more generous government support for its cinema—and some 13,000 km of ocean between it and Hollywood. Canada sits in the shadow of the most powerful entertainment economy in the world. It siphons off our most ambitious writers, actors and directors. Canada also has the unfor-


Hit movies elude Canada even though it is a leading exporter of TV

túnate distinction of being the only country in the world that Hollywood treats as part of its domestic market.

The major studios suck about $200 million a year in box-office revenues from Canada without contributing anything to indigenous production. Even foreign distributors lump Canada and the United States into a single territory. The British producers of Trainspotting, for instance, sell their North American rights to Miramax, based in Los Angeles, which subcontracts Canadian rights to Alliance Releasing, based in Toronto. “What it means is you’re buying retail rather than wholesale,” explains Dan Johnson, president of the Canadian Association of Film Distributors and Exporters. “You’re paying more. And you wind up buying films in large bundles, which increases your risk enormously.”

The distribution of feature films—unlike music and TV programming—is basically unprotected by Canadian-content regulations. Quebec, with the built-in protection of its own language and culture, has a built-in market for its movies. But EnglishCanadian cinema has trouble finding an audience beyond the arthouse fringe. And at a time when the nation’s cultural sovereignty is under siege—with the World Trade Organization’s recent ruling against protecting Canada’s magazine industry—Hollywood’s domination of our fragile movie industry seems painfully symbolic. Film is the defining art form of the 20th century. But as the century draws to a close, Canadian cinema is still struggling to make its mark.

Independent film, of course, struggles to survive in every country. In France, cultural nationalists are in a panic about Hollywood imperialism because their own movies occupy just 45 per cent of screen time. Here, with less than two per cent, there is barely a murmur of outrage.

Some industry types, including Telefilm Canada executive director François Maceróla, are pushing for a box-office tax similar to the one in France, which raises $250 to $500 million annually for domestic production through a fiveper-cent levy on each ticket. But it would fall under 10 separate provincial jurisdictions. And powerfiil Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti (former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson’s adviser during the Vietnam War) would certainly urge trade retaliation. Valenti, who once flaunted his connections by showing up at the Cannes festival with the U.S. Seventh Fleet, “lives by the domino theory,” says Dan Johnson. “If he can’t keep a pleasant collection of tuque-wearers up here under control, then how’s he going to control the unapologetic nationalists in places like France?”

Meanwhile, public funding for movies in Canada is less generous than in Australia, Britain and most European countries. Australia subsidizes film to the tune of $90 million, more than three times Canada’s per capita rate. Our feature production now subsists on an intravenous drip of support from Ottawa—$50 million annually. But that pales next to the $200 million set aside for television (which does not include the CBC’s basic allocation of $600 million). “Feature film has always been neglected by the government,” says Maceróla. “There’s a lack of infrastructure and financing. There’s no continuity and no star system—unlike television.”

Still, in the face of adversity, Canada has produced some brilliantly distinctive films—including Goin’ Down The Road and Mon Oncle Antoine in the early 1970s; The Grey Fox, The Decline of the American Empire and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing in the 1980s; Exotica and Crash in the 1990s—films that have won international praise and, in some cases, earned profits. But along the way, perhaps in reaction to Hollywood, Canadian cinema has acquired an odd speciality: a pathological taste for dark, antiheroic, sexually transgressive dramas. In an essay about “perversion chic” by critic John Powers in the March, 1997, issue of Vogue, two Canadian films are singled out for special mention: Crash, David Cronenberg’s rhapsody of flesh and metal, and the upcoming Kissed, Vancouver

director Lynne Stopkewich’s weirdly tender tale of a female necrophiliac bringing passion to her job as an apprentice embalmer.

Unlike the Australians, who can make a feel-good movie about an artist’s descent into mental illness {Shine), Canadians seem uninterested in making the kind of fare that can spawn a break-out, mainstream hit. But Crash has certainly made some impact. Fuelled by controversy, it has grossed $25 million around the world since it premièred last summer, even before opening in the two largest markets, the United States (where it is slated to open this week) and Britain (where it is still under scrutiny by the censors). And its producer, Alliance Communications, recently announced that it will start shooting Cronenberg’s next movie in September—a virtual reality adventure called eXistenZ with a budget of about $50 million.

As CEO of Alliance, Robert Lantos is the most powerful impresario in Canadian cinema. Buying, selling and producing film and TV around the world, Alliance is the largest truly independent production company in North America—Canada’s very own little Hollywood studio. It can afford to play in the big leagues. In fact, Lantos is currently lining up a major Hollywood star for a remake of The Count of Monte Cristo with director Roman Polanski.

Alliance is also the one Canadian company that could have produced an epic on the scale of The English Patient. And in a recent interview, director Norman Jewison told Maclean’s: “I’m surprised that Robert Lantos didn’t jump on Michael Ondaatje’s book when it first came out.” Lantos declines to say why Alliance did not bid for the novel. But he maintains, “If Norman Jewison had called me and said, ‘I want to make this and I want to do it with you,’ I probably would have bought the rights without even reading the book.”

Holding court in his sprawling penthouse office at Alliance’s Toronto headquarters, Lantos fires up a Cuban cigar with a jet of butane and defends his strategy. ‘We don’t make popcorn movies,” he says. “We have to stay out of the mainstream. Attempting to compete can only lead to failure because of what we’re up against.” Then he adds, “There’s only one direction we can go in, and that is with film-makers who have powerful visions. There’s a handful of them in Canada. They tend to make dark movies, movies that are counter-Hollywood and anti-television. I’d be thrilled if one of our luminary directors came to me and said: There’s this lifeaffirming book where good triumphs over evil, a story of human kindness, and I’d like to make it my next movie.’ ” Lantos smiles. “Those calls rarely come.” _

Canadians don’t do triumph of the human spirit. Our screenwriters seem allergic to happy endings. And most people would have a hard time coming up with the name of even one Canadian romantic comedy—which is especially odd considering the comic talent that this culture generates. It is a familiar list—Jim Carrey, Ivan Reitman,

Dan Aykroyd, Lome Michaels, Mike Myers, and the SCTV gang, to name a few. Canadians have been exporting irony to the United States for decades.

Private Parts, the new movie starring Yankee shock

jock Howard Stern, was scripted by a Torontonian, longtime Reitman cohort Len Blum. “The Canadian perspective,” says Blum, “is not just something that takes place in Sault Ste. Marie. It’s a sensibility and a point of view.” In writing Beethoven’s 2nd (1994), he says he modelled the family on Canadian families he knew. “I think American movies should be written by Canadians,” Blum adds. “We do more for our culture that way—it’s a way of getting our values seen around the world.”

Perhaps. But slipping some Canuck wit through the mouth of Howard Stern is no substitute for a national cinema. In fact, it is reminiscent of Canada’s surrender to Hollywood in the 1940s, when Ottawa abandoned the idea of setting import quotas on U.S. movies. In return, the Americans promised to boost tourism by sprinkling Canadian references through Hollywood films—with the absurd consequence that, out of the blue, a character would say, “I’m from Medicine Hat.” In 1987, Ottawa bowed to U.S. pressure again when Tory communications minister Flora MacDonald lost a bid to protect Canadian film distribution. During negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement, Ottawa abandoned proposed legislation specifying that only Canadian companies could distribute foreign films not owned by existing Hollywood studios. Consequently, Canada became the only country in the world whose distributors have to buy foreign movies from American middlemen. The Investment Canada Act does, however, prohibit new foreign film companies from distributing films they do not own or have world rights to. And last week, after a protracted fight, Netherlands-based PolyGram NV announced that it will comply with the requirements in setting up a production-distribution company in Canada. It also promised to reinvest a portion of its revenues in the domestic industry.

Television, meanwhile, has become a thriving sector under government protection, with revenues of $2.2 billion a year. It is the economic engine of production in Canada, generating its own talent pool, but it has remained stubbornly segregated from the feature industry. Unlike the BBC and Channel Four in England, which co-produce films for theatrical release and then air them, the CBC has nearly always insisted on broadcasting its dramas first—which kills any theatrical window. The one attempt to make a TV mini-series do double duty as a feature film, Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990), was a failure.

_ With Canadian features clinging to the

fringes of a TV economy, it is no wonder they reflect a fringe culture. “But it’s not as simple as an industrial problem,” says Peter Simpson, chairman of Norstar Entertainment. “Movies are not about money. They’re about ideas. You can’t just legislate it and you can’t just throw money at it.”

Big-screen drama is a form of extremism. It requires passion, and invites hyperbole. Canadian film is rooted in the cold-eyed documentary tradition—which tends to portray an unheroic, unromantic world ruled by an invisible narrator. That dry, discerning narrative tone can also be found at the heart of Canadian fiction. And perhaps what makes our literature so compelling—its interior voice—is what makes our films so difficult.

Wayne Clarkson, director of Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre (the school that Jewison founded in 1988), wonders if there is something about the sheer scale of cinema that intimidates Canadians. “I’ve always had a deep-seated fear,” he says, “that there’s something inherent in our character that is not conducive to big-

screen storytelling, which tends to be so dramatic and over-the-top.” Adds Clarkson: “We are a very reasonable people. We deliberate. We contemplate. We don’t dramatize our history, we report—and that’s the difference between the big screen and little screen.”

Egoyan concurs. “Canadians love to have their stories told back to them on the small screen, and in literature,” he says. “But there’s something about the big screen that makes us uncomfortable.” Egoyan seems to thrive on enhancing that sense of alienation. “A lot of our films, including my own, want to project a sense of mystery and estrangement,” he concedes. “I can’t tell a story any other way.”

That became clear to him last year in Hollywood while he was negotiating to direct a movie for Warner Bros. The studio offered him a script called Dead Sleep, a thriller about a female lawyer who falls in love with her client while defending his right to pull the plug on his comatose wife. “It was a script I would never dream of writing,” says Egoyan, “but I’ve been so influenced by those movies, I really wanted to see if I could, you know, enter the belly of the beast.” Egoyan wanted to cast Susan Sarandon as the lawyer.

The studio wanted a younger star.

He eventually withdrew from the project.

Instead, Egoyan went on to make a $5-million Canadian movie that he wrote and produced himself, The Sweet Hereafter. Based on the 1991 novel by American author Russell Banks, it is the story of a small town dealing with the litigious aftermath of a fatal school-bus crash.

And in a curious reversal of the usual pattern, the film-makers have shifted the setting from New England to British Columbia.

If any Canadian director has a reputation for abstraction, it is Egoyan. But The Sweet Hereafter, which stars Britain’s Ian Holm and Canada’s Sarah Polley (The Road to Avonlea), marks a departure. “It’s a story where the emotions are so raw,” he says, “you never feel that sense of confusion, because you always know what’s happening. In my other films, the characters were more schematic, but in this one they’re very full-bodied. You can smell them.” There is a sense that the industry, like Egoyan, is on the verge of finding a popular audience. “I don’t think we should be surprised if a Canadian film does go the distance in the next few years,” he says. “We’re certainly poised as an industry.”

One candidate on the horizon is The Red Violin, a $13-million movie being filmed in five countries and several languages. The stars include Greta Scacchi, Samuel L. Jackson and Colm Feore. Directed by Quebec film-maker François Girard, who wrote the script with actor Don McKellar—the team behind Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould—it traces the life of a violin from 17thcentury Tuscany to an auction in contemporary Montreal. Before settling on an international co-production, Girard and McKellar shopped their script around Hollywood. And it was an education. “You’d get a much faster response from the studios than from Canadian agencies or the CBC,” McKellar recalls. “If they got the script the night before and they hadn’t read it, they were embarrassed. And they love it. They always love it—because they’re trying to buy you.” But at one meeting, he adds, “this guy kept talking about how at the end of the millennium people are looking for an uplifting vision. Finally I realized, ‘Oh, he wants a happy ending.’ ”

The film-makers ended up signing a distribution deal with the

ITime-Warner subsidiary New Line International, f “They’re telling us, This is our Shine for next year,’ ” McKellar reports somewhat sheepishly. “But we don’t know what’s popular. The film has sex, lots of sex, and action, sort of. It has sort-of stars. It’s epic, it’s cinematic and exciting. But who knows? The main character is made out of wood.”

Success is hard to predict in the movie business. Hard Core Logo, Toronto director Bruce McDonald’s most recent feature, had all the trappings of at least a cult hit. A robustly entertaining road movie about a Vancouver punk band, it got rave reviews. But it sank at the box office. “I don’t know if I want to go down the feature road again,” sighs the film’s producer, Brian Dennis, who is now working in TV.

“It is so disheartening to get the critical response you want, and nobody goes to see it.”

Getting screen time for Canadian movies is a chronic sore point, and the producers of Hard Core Logo did not get the downtown screens they wanted. But the real problem is that Canadians—at least English-Canadians—are not in the habit of going to Canadian movies. “What the industry needs,” says Dennis, “is a Shine or a Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

Our directors are more prone to make Four Funerals and a Wedding. But it is a young industry. After the chaotic years of taxshelter financing, the current funding mechanisms have been in place since only 1985. The Canadian Film Centre, now in its ninth year, is training a new generation of film-makers. And a fresh breed of independent producers is tapping the dramatic wealth of Canadian literature— often with foreign co-producers.

Sturla Gunnarsson, director of such CBC dramas as Diana Kilmury: Teamster, is preparing to shoot a movie in Bombay, India, based on Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s Booker-nominated novel, Such a Long Journey. Toronto producer Christina Jennings has a dozen features in development, including adaptations of Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath and Timothy Findley’s The Stillborn Lover. And Anna Stratton, who co-produced last year’s Genie Award winning Lilies, is developing adaptations of four novels with her partners at Toronto’s Triptych Media Inc.—Swan’s The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angels, Carol Shields’ The Republic of Love, and Matt Cohen’s Emotional Arithmetic.

The buzz around Canadian fiction in the international film community “is tremendously exciting,” says Stratton. “It’s really heating up. Literary agents are becoming more aggressive. And there’s a lot of bidding going on. What’s happened with The English Patient and Alias Grace will improve the financing opportunities here for adapting Canadian novels—and for raising money outside the country.” But the smaller, independent producers need to be supported, Stratton urges. “If you look at the arts, the vitality comes out of the independent companies—the small theatres, the small publishers. It was the Coach House Press that first published Michael Ondaatje.” Then she adds: “Maybe the next time an English Patient arrives, it will be a Canadian production.”

Maybe. With some luck, some money, a lot of vision—and a little Canadian patience.

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Canada has esteemed directors but few hits