Films

ROMANCING THE STONE

Brian D. Johnson March 4 2002
Films

ROMANCING THE STONE

Brian D. Johnson March 4 2002

ROMANCING THE STONE

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Lets face it, curling is not the sexiest of sports. It unfolds at a pace that makes cricket look frenzied. And for the uninitiated, the sight of large slabs of granite gliding down the ice in slow motion while players sweep and scream like tag teams of psychotic housekeepers can seem, well, strange. Last week, as some of the Canadian athletes competing in sleeker winter sports fell short of expectations, we began to pin our hopes on curling. We watched the women’s team, with their matching hairdos, calmly chat about strategy as they choked against Britain. And we saw balding, middle-aged Kevin Martin shrug as dreams of gold faded to silver. But now, for those who find the sport too slow, or the results too mixed, there’s a movie that acts as a hair-of-the-dog antidote to Olympic fatigue: a curling movie about a bunch of losers who make good.

Hitting Canadian screens with the timing of a well-placed rock, Men With Brooms is the new Great White Hope of Canadian cinema. Its director, star, co-writer and executive producer, Paul Gross, the former Mountie from Due South, is arguably the country’s most iconic leading man. In directing his first movie, he takes a shot rarely attempted in the sport of Canadian filmmaking, one no less peculiar than curling. Making a daredevil leap from the small to the big screen, Gross has tried to break the art-house mould of our cinema—with its pathological themes of incest, necrophilia and car-crash sex—to create a populist romp for mainstream Canada.

A screwball sports comedy iced with a frisson of romance, Men With Brooms is set in the fictional mining town of Long Bay.

It’s about a motley crew of curlers who try to score a comeback with the help of an addied veteran, a magic-mushroom farmer played by Leslie Nielsen {The Naked Gun).

From the opening scene of beavers trooping through the north woods to the strains of Land of the Silver Birch, its spirit is unabashedly, and absurdly, Canadian: Camp Canuck. Like a wayward stone glancing across a patch of rough ice, Men With Brooms is wildly uneven. But, like its ragtag band of curling heroes, it does come through in the clinch. This is the kind of Canadian movie you end up rooting for.

RINK-RAT REDEMPTION

From its hilarious opening scene of a bagpiper striking up Land of the Silver Birch while beavers march through the woods on some weird pilgrimage, Men With Brooms sets out to be the most Canadian movie ever made. And it’s a natural progression for Paul Gross, who embodied our national naïveté as a picture-perfect Mountie in Due South. His casual charisma and offbeat wit translate well to the big screen. Free of the Mountie straightjacket, he also has room to stretch, filling out the role of a more reckless romantic hero. As the film’s co-writer and novice director, beavering away at an ambitious ensemble piece, Gross may have bitten off more than he can chew. The film, like its curling team, often finds itself on thin ice. But in its final act, when push comes to shove, Men With Brooms becomes as likeable as its star. And by putting a homegrown spin on formula cliché, it carves out an odd originality.

Gross plays Chris Cutter, a former curling ace who comes home to the fictional town of Long Bay 10 years after he mysteriously left. No one knows why he ditched his fiancée, Julie (Michelle Nolden), at the altar, or hurled his team’s curling stones into Trout

Lake after blowing a big tournament. But when Julie’s father dies, he leaves a will decreeing that his ashes be placed in one of the sunken rocks-and that Cutter’s team reunite. Julie, meanwhile, has become an embittered astronaut, and her sister Amy (Molly Parker) is an alcoholic secretly in love with Cutter. His teammates each have their own frustrations. James (Peter Outerbridge) is a drug dealer on the run from a thug, Neil (James Allodi) is a mortician married to an ice queen, and Eddie (Jed Rees) is trying to get his wife pregnant with his listless sperm. Serving as their coach is Cutter’s father, Gordon (Leslie Nielsen), a magic-mushroom farmer who’s nursing a back injury-and a grudge against his son for dishonouring the game by cheating.

That’s a lot of premise. And the movie ricochets between farce and drama as it tries to find its rhythm. While setting up the plot, Gross also has to explain curling, which he does with clarity, and ingenuity. James spells out the rules for his rent-a-date lover (Polly Shannon) by drawing the configuration of the rink with lipstick on her body-yes, he uses her navel for the “button.” As the script tries to balance sports and romance, always a tricky combo for guys, the women get short shrift. But Nolden and Parker bring

some emotional depth to their roles as rival sisters.

Among the curlers, Outerbridge has the choice role as the Stoner who throws a mean rock. And Nielsen gets a few laughs as the zany coach who ingests psychedelics to observe “the big picture.” (This movie has a remarkably non-judgmental attitude to drugs.) But what’s most surprising is the weight that Nielsen lends to some tender moments with Grosseven in an unfortunate graveyard scene that makes you wonder if Paul is still haunted by the Oedipal angst of his Hamlet in Stratford two summers ago.

No matter how hard Men With Brooms works to be more than a curling movie, curling is what makes it click. Like any sports picture, it ends with a classic showdown-in this case between our hometown boys and an evil team of American curlers in silver jumpsuits who arrive with a fanfare of cheerleaders and pyrotechnics. It’s corny, but the film achieves a wacky adrenaline. And the filmmakers have great fun mixing and matching the game’s metaphors. With such gags as a sweat lodge of hot curling rocks, they send up and glorify its rituals all at once. And they do the same for Canadian patriotism-a slow-burn passion for which curling may be the ultimate metaphor.

B.D.J.

“Hopefully,” says Gross, “it reaches out to a huge section of the country that has largely been ignored by our cinema, smaller centres like Orillia, Timmins, Red Deer, Medicine Hat. The business is so oddly tilted—usually we don’t even attempt to distribute films there.” Men With Brooms will get an unprecedented release for a Canadian movie. On March 8, the eve of

the Brier men’s curling championship, it will open in more than 150 theatres across the country. Sweeping the path for this small Canadian comedy, which cost just $7.5 million, is a $2-million promotional blitz mounted by Alliance Adantis Communications. And this week the film’s cast is touring seven cities by chartered jet for a coast-to-coast series of premieres.

‘I think of the movie sort of like a banjo,’ says Gross. You may not like banjo music, but you’re still going to smile.’

But there are two Canadas—the urban core and the hinterland of small-town, suburban and rural communities. Curling and Canadian cinema belong to different worlds. Avid curlers and avid moviegoers don’t tend to be the same crowd, or even live in the same towns. And that makes the men behind Men With Brooms nervous. “While there’s a huge curling audience that we think is going to love this movie,” says Jim Sherry, a distribution executive at Alliance Atlantis, “we’re leery of limiting the potential. So we’ve targeted it in three ways—to a curling audience, as a romantic comedy, and as a buddy comedy.”

Robert Lantos, the veteran producer of Men With Brooms, is nervous about seeing it typecast. “I hope it isn’t perceived as only a curling movie,” he says. But he has spent a quarter century chasing the Great Canadian Movie, a quarry as elusive as the Sasquatch, and that’s enough to make anyone a little apprehensive. As Canada’s Medici of auteur cinema, the 52-year-old Lantos has helped produce a string of pres-

tigious but non-mainstream films by the likes of Atom Egoyan {Felicia’s Journey), David Cronenberg {Crash) and Denys Arcand {Stardom). He likes to make movies with a literary pedigree, and upcoming projects include adaptations of Brian Moore’s The Statement, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces.

By contrast, Men With Brooms is so unliterary that the adaptation is happening in reverse: the film has spawned a novelization, the lowliest of all genres, to create yet another flank in the marketing juggernaut. Joining the CBC, various sponsors and 18 Alliance Atlantis speciality channels in a Men With Brooms convergence coalition, Indigo mogul Heather Reisman has promised to fill her display windows with MWB books and paraphernalia.

But just as Lantos is gearing up for the gonzo release of the movie, something very strange is going on with his other recent venture in commercial filmmaking, Bruce McDonald’s Picture Claire. After its underwhelming premiere at the Toronto

International Film Festival last fall, McDonald took it upon himself to make a satirical version of the film. It explains, in hilarious detail, how he ended up directing an unsuccessful movie, beginning with the dubious decision to cast California star Juliette Lewis as a French-Canadian who speaks no English. Now McDonald wants Alliance Atlantis to release his deconstructed Picture Claire in theatres instead of the original (page 54).

When the anticipated failure of a movie inspires its director to perform satirical sabotage on his own work, you wonder if something is rotten in the state of Canadian cinema, or at least askew. Meanwhile, Lantos hopes that Men With Brooms will, to some extent, be Canada’s answer to The Full Monty, a quirky comedy with breakout potential about a gang of losers who turn their luck around. “I won’t sit here and pretend it’s a perfect movie,” he allows. “It’s not a masterpiece. But it’s a feel-good romantic comedy, a movie about us, in the broad sense. And it’s not about curling; it’s about a group of people.”

But it is about curling. And seeing Men With Brooms, which injects the sport with a goofy excitement, made me want to try it. Although my parents once played, I’d never so much as touched a rock. So I arranged a lesson with George Karrys, the 1998 Olympic silver-medal winner who served as a consultant on the film. We meet at the Avonlea Curling Club, in an industrial park of a Toronto suburb. I’ve come with an open mind, ready to sweep away any unfair stereotypes about curling being a pretext for drinking.

“Do you want a beer?” Karrys asks.

“Do curlers drink and curl?” I ask. “Recreational curlers do.”

“Well, if you’re having one.”

With beers in plastic cups, we head down to the ice. Karrys fits me with a pair of curling shoes. The right one has a sticky rubber sole, the left, a glass-slick surface of Teflon.

“This is the most important thing I’ll ever teach you about curling,” says Karrys. I wait for it, a master’s lesson in how to make poetry with 22 kilos of polished granite. But then he says, “It’s how you

step on the ice.” Oh, I get it, with the right foot forward.

The ice surface is pebbled, like an outdoor rink after a light rain. Soon I’m pushing myself around on one foot, as if on a scooter. Karrys positions me up at the hack, the rubber starting blocks. And as I timidly throw the first rock, I enjoy the feel of it leaving my fingers, a sense of pure momentum. It’s a lot heavier than a bowling ball. The first couple of stones stop shy of the target. Then one slides into the “house,” close to the “button.” I’m pretty pleased with myself. Next I try to throw a takeout, swing the rock off the ice and watch it hurde to the back wall, missing its target. “You can throw heat,” notes Karrys, like a driving instructor appraising a teenager’s ability to find the accelerator. “We call that a freight train.”

Gross, who has been lying down on the other side of the rink for a photo shoot, comes over to join us. “I just throw burners,” he says with a grin. “The nice thing about curling in a movie is it doesn’t matter where it ends up.” As he shows off his

form, Karrys and I sweep, an activity that’s as bizarre as it looks. In the movie, the team reverts to the old corn brooms, but the contemporary curler uses something that resembles a squeegee mop. In its attempt to throw more excitement into curling, the movie takes a few other liberties: two rocks shatter like broken baseball bats, although there’s no record of that ever having happened. (Oddly enough, there is a provision for it in the rule book.)

Although Men With Brooms pokes gentle firn at curling, it also elevates the sport, dismissing analogies to shuffleboard with rhapsodic comparisons to snooker, poker and rock-climbing. “Not once have I done anything to equal the grace of a wellthrown rock,” says Cutter, the skip portrayed by Gross, who himself displays an obvious affection for the game. “You watch what these guys do, the good ones, and it’s astonishing,” he says. “One of the great charms of the sport is that it’s still essentially amateur. It hasn’t fallen prey to the corrosive and polluting influence of big money and agents and managers. It’s also nice to see people completely committed to something that other people think is faindy funny.”

CLARIFYING CLAIRE

You often hear about film directors fighting for final cut. But this must be the first time a director has tried to subvert his own movie by making a DVD-style cut that tears it to shreds-then suggests releasing this version in theatres instead of the original. That’s what Toronto filmmaker Bruce McDonald has done to Picture Claire. The $ 10-million drama stars California actress Juliette Lewis as a French Canadian from Montreal who speaks no English, travels to Toronto to track down her lover, and gets mixed up with a murder. The film, which also stars Gina Gershon, Mickey Rourke and Callum Keith Rennie, premiered to a tepid response at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. The next day was Sept. 11, and any interest in it was eclipsed by events. “Suddenly I had time to reflect,” says McDonald in a commentary that runs over his dissection of the film. “We blew it. We made a shit movie. So where did we go wrong? Let’s begin the autopsy.” With frequent fast-forwards and rewinds, McDonald cuts scenes and resurrects unused footage of Lewis-including a priceless four-minute shot of her eating a sandwich. Mischievously conflating fact and fiction, he creates a charming artifact that unfolds like Entertainment Tonight hosted by JeanLuc Godard. His fascination with Lewis is itself fascinating. And there are wonderful, gossipy bits about a supposed feud between Rennie and producer Robert Lantos. As McDonald retraces a chain reaction of creative errors, he often makes Lantos the fall guy, but in the end shoulders much

of the blame himself. The movie was initially written for Quebec actress Charlotte Laurier-“of course,” says the director, “I was in love with Charlotte and imagined myself learning French and living with her in Montreal.” After casting Lewis, he adds later, he fell in love with her and imagined living in California.

McDonald’s commentary is tongue-in-cheek, but in an interview he said, “Juliette Lewis as a French-Canadian is ridiculous, sort of. Why don’t we get Denzel Washington to play Trudeau? Lantos indicated we could either make a low-budget movie with unknowns, or get a star. After making four movies, I finally caved into the star thing.” Lewis, meanwhile, has seen McDonald’s deconstructed Claire and would rather it be released than the original movie. “It’s vastly entertaining,” she told Maclean's. McDonald also sent it to a few friends, including author Michael Ondaatje, who calls it “a tender and hilarious revelation of the movie industry-an original portrait of how films get made, and how small mistakes become large ones.”

Lantos and executives at Alliance Atlantis, which owns the film, have also seen it, but they won’t comment. McDonald would like to see the new version released before, or in tandem with, the original. For now, it’s a “sketch,” he says. Finishing it would cost almost half a million dollars, but if Alliance Atlantis balks, he says he’ll raise the money with 30-second commercials that he’ll direct and insert into the reçut movie. Another first for Canadian cinema.

B. D. J.

As we leave the rink, I wonder if curling could actually become cool. It offers all kinds of nifty jargon—you might win a cashpiel by using the hammer or stealing, and by throwing soft freezes or peelplus bullets, but if you dump your inturn you might take the gas. And the

game, with its Zen-like rhythm, seems tailor-made for the drug culture. The curlers in Men With Brooms seem to spend more time stoned than drunk. Maybe curling will be the new bowling, another retro pastime for sybaritic nonathletes. But it’s surprisingly physical. Gross warns me that I’ll feel stiff the next day: “you’ll feel it in the muscle that connects your leg to your penis.”

Worlds removed from the suburban curling rink are the opulent headquarters of Serendipity Point Films in Rosedale, a few doors down from the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club. This is the production house that Lantos built after selling his Alliance empire to make way for the Alliance Adantis merger. It’s early afternoon. Lantos noses his black Mercedes SUV into the sole parking bay beside the building—an architectural temple of sun-washed limestone. By the time he reaches his penthouse office, an expanse of blond wood with a wraparound terrace, a cappuccino is waiting on his desk. “I phoned ahead,” he explains as he offers me a dish heaped with shards of French dark chocolate.

Lantos has pursued Canada’s cultural real estate with the same appetite that he brings to personal luxury. One of his most solid successes was Due South, and in its leading man he saw the makings of a movie star. “If ever there was an opportunity to make a bona fide Canadian movie for a broad, mainstream audience,” he says, “I thought it would have to involve Paul. He’s Mr. Canada. His persona has been frozen for posterity by Due South.” Gross and Lantos discussed various vehicles, including a hockey movie. But there have been a lot of hockey movies. “And I couldn’t see doing one that wouldn’t be political,” says Gross. “It’s so tied into our national ethos—if Canada ever does dissolve, you’ll be able to trace it back to the day they traded Gretzky to L.A. It’s a game we’ve largely sold or lost. I thought I’d like to do something that wasn’t urban, but set in a small town that’s been largely bypassed.” When Gross came to him with the idea of a curling movie, recalls Lantos, “I said, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ He said, ‘That’s right. That’s the point.’ And it made me smile. So I said, ‘Like, a movie about men with brooms?”’ Gross, however, disputes the story. “It’s my title—Robert takes credit for everything. I also came up with the cutline, ‘a sweeping epic.’ ”

The movie certainly became Gross’s baby. He scripted it with Toronto playwright John Krizanc, and always assumed he’d direct it, although he’d never directed anything before. “That was his number 1 priority,” says Lantos. “I’m not sure he foresaw the intensity of what he was getting into. But the impressive thing about Paul is he can rise to the challenge. After two seasons, I asked him to take over producing

‘One Of the great charms of the sport’ says the director, ‘is that it’s essentially amateur. It hasn’t fallen prey to the polluting influence of big money.’

Due South, because it was the only way to keep him in the series. I didn’t know if he could do it. Not only did the show get better, but he produced for a lower cost.”

Over the first of several beers after our curling session, Gross shakes his head when asked just how difficult it was to direct. “It’s not a learning curve, it’s a learning cliff,” he says. “Making a movie is so much more complicated than television. If one slips through that’s good it’s miraculous. So many things can go wrong, and with this kind of budget, there’s no fat. The curling sequences were under-scheduled and under-shot. In the editing, it was like salvage work scraping through these bins of various things.” Then, he adds with a laugh, “I was planning to get into more sophisticated camera moves, and we had a whole bunch of gear on the truck. But it never came off the truck.”

But in a cinema overripe with directorial style, Gross took pleasure in deferring to his actors, and telling a straight story that plays with a well-worn formula. “In

this country, we pride ourselves in breaking narrative,” he says, “and a few people are really good at it: Cronenberg and Egoyan. But we can’t produce a consistent diet of auteur geniuses. I just wanted to tell a story that’s fun and accessible. I think of the movie sort of like a banjo. You may not like banjo music, but you’re still going to smile. Everyone was driving toward a feeling of giddiness.”

Some of the giddiest moments are provided by beavers, which parade through the film as a running gag. “I think beavers are funny,” says Gross. “They’re strange creatures with flat tails and they sound like five-year-old kids tied to a chair and gagged. There’s something about Canadian iconography that’s really weird— beavers and Mounties. Something melancholic and slightly hysterical. It’s funny to have a beaver as a national symbol. I think it was Margaret Atwood who said it’s the only mammal that, when faced with mortal peril, will chew off its own testicles and

offer them to an assailant.”

Anyone expecting the politesse of Const. Benton Fraser might be surprised that, in person, Gross is far more irreverent and outspoken than his character on Due South. As the conversation shifts to Hollywood movies, he says, “They get thinner and thinner and dumber and dumber.” While marvelling at Ridley Scott’s direction of Black Hawk Down, and appreciating how much harder it would be to shoot a war than a curling match, he says, “Its politics are really fascistic: don’t get involved with Negro countries. But how did he do it? Even with money, I don’t know how you’d do it.” Gross, 42, is candid about the difficulties he faced doing doing double duty as a director and actor. “I would sit in the editing room and think, ‘God, why weren’t you better? You should have been better in that scene.’ It took me a while to completely objectify myself.” His fans, of course, have already done that. Although Due South expired four years ago (“We’d run out of stories”), its cult following lives on. During

the Men With Brooms shoot, half the audience for the curling tournament was made up of volunteers from the Due South fan club. And many of them stuck around for the entire 10 days. “That’s baffling,” says Gross. “I still don’t understand that kind of devotion to something.”

Perhaps that’s the nature of stardom in Canada. Like curling, it’s an oblique pursuit, a game of deflection and ruse. We have a film industry in which the biggest names are behind the camera; no wonder Paul Gross felt he needed to direct. Now, as his movie is about to hit theatres with an avalanche of hype, he’s understandably nervous. “It’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a film this small,” he says. “You can’t go out to tell a story thinking that this is the Great Canadian Movie.” But, like the beleaguered skip who overcomes insane odds in Men With Brooms, he can cling to the curious Canadian notion that greatness is always just a stone’s throw away.