THE REEL STORY OF FILM IN QUEBEC
For many decades, Montreal has been a home base for English-speaking filmmakers whose works are both central to the Canadian film industry and abroad, and yet who feel themselves outside the general picture of Quebecois film. Because of their proximity to the American film and television industry, these artists and their city have seen several boom periods in which local artisans have busily co-produced or "service-produced" filmed media alongside partners from central Canada or, more often, the United States. These ties to productions from outside Montreal have paralleled a busy local indie scene, and most film and television professionals will say they've made a career from working within both these paradigms.
The generations of Anglo-Quebec filmmakers who've chosen to work and live in Quebec, rather than in larger cities where the working language is English, believe they find opportunities in the axis between cultures and between languages that enriches their work in crucial ways. "We're very influenced by the French arts community," says Leni Parker, a 45-year-old actress whose work in the Montreal theatre has been augmented with TV and film roles, including Denys Arcand's festival favourite Stardom and Mambo Italiano, the hit written by Steve Gallucio, a Montreal playwright and screenwriter of Italian descent. "It infuses us, and it makes our work better to be influenced by Francophones, to be able to go to their shows and watch their movies. We don't have the numbers to support a purely Anglo community, but we've integrated, and we all help each other. There are a lot of collaborations and translations; we have a total rapport with Francophone playwrights and screenwriters."
In the early days of film there was little industry in Canada, so ambitious artists headed south. Born in Montreal in 1902, Norma Shearer was by the mid-1920s one of the most famous actresses of the silent-film era. Danville, Quebec's Mack Sennett directed numerous silent slapstick comedies in Hollywood and had earned an Academy Honorary Award by 1937. Meanwhile, Canada's north was attractive territory for early documentary filmmakers, and American Robert Flaherty - commissioned by Sir William Mackenzie - was deemed the father of ethnographic film for his 1922 work, Nanook of the North. The film was shot mostly around Port Harrison, in Northern Quebec.
Studio publicity portrait of Norma Shearer
Mack Sennett, 1910
The roots of Canadian cinema go back to the 20s with CPR's Associated Screen News where pioneering Canadian writer/director Gordon Sparling got his start. Sparling was a prolific filmmaker in the 30s, releasing no less than 20 short films. Composer Howard Fogg, an American, scored Sparling's 1934 film, Rhapsody in Two Languages. In 1939, the Scottish documentary producer John Grierson was invited to study Canada's film production. His work in Canada led to the creation of the National Film Board.
Gordon Sparling (left) directing a camera operator with Associated Screen News.
Source: Cinémathèque québécoise, 2000.0078.PH.02
Located in Ottawa during its early years, the National Film Board moved over 400 employees to studios in the Montreal suburb of Ville-St-Laurent in 1956. The new strategy was to model the NFB after the first wave of Hollywood studios. Rather than act as producer for freelance filmmakers, the NFB would keep producers and directors on staff to make films that furthered its mandate of 'expressing the national identity through culture.' The unofficial mandate was to use film as a "hammer for social change." According to the NFB's current director, Tom Perlmutter. "The NFB had amassed this huge wealth of creative talent (many of the foremost film producers and directors in the country, including Colin Low, Tanya Tree, Roman Kroitor, Don Brittain, Tom Daly and Arthur Lipsett) and they worked together under the roof of the NFB, interacting and creating films that spoke to the aims of the NFB." Some of the most enduring initiatives of the NFB happened during these "golden years".
Early NFB logo
In 1967, the launch of the bilingual Challenge for Change/Société nouvelle, a community-media initiative that was recently the subject of a recent anthology edited by Concordia film professor Tom Waugh and Ezra Winton, a Montreal-based documentarian. That year was also the occasion for Expo '67, a landmark global event in the province's history that used the power of film to communicate to the world Montreal's modernity. In recognition of its innovation, the NFB was even given its own showcase at the World's Fair, the Labyrinth Pavilion.
In Issue 88 of La Revue de la Cinemathèque, the Film Board noted, "Montreal's Universal Exhibition in 1967 gave the National Film Board of Canada an extraordinary chance for innovation. From the start, the NFB had been a pioneer of documentary and animation filmmaking, but In the Labyrinth lifted the cinematic experience to new heights. This gigantic audiovisual presentation in three rooms, with simultaneous projections on multiple screens, was a real technological breakthrough. In the Labyrinth was directed by filmmakers Roman Kroitor, Colin Low and Hugh O'Connor, and became the precursor of IMAX technology, co-invented by Roman Kroitor."
In 1974, the NFB also established Studio D, the world's first government-funded film studio for productions by women. Of the many filmmakers who got their start at Studio D is Alanis Obomsawin, the prolific Abenaki-Canadian documentarian behind Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and Gene Boy Came Home.
Some of the most popular works to come out of the NFB in the 70s were the Montreal-produced English-language Vignettes, which were short films about Canadian history and culture that were broadcast on the networks and on the CBC during commercial breaks. These are significant because they exemplify the beginning of one of the NFB's main secondary activities, which is facilitating the broadcast of their films on television networks, in original or altered forms.
As Perlmutter asserts, for several decades up until the early 1980s, "the history of English-language film and television production in Montreal is the story of the NFB". And yet even as early as the 1970s, Canadian independent filmmakers had begun to branch outside of the NFB and onto their own.
Often regarded as the decade in which the auteurs rose to prominence in American feature films, the 1970s in Quebec also gave rise to directors and producers with ambitions for the big screen and homegrown stories to tell. Among them was Paul Almond, a veteran television director who'd made his reputation in 50s and 60s on shows such as CBC Summer Theatre, On Camera, and TV movies like 1961's Macbeth, starring Sean Connery. In 1968, he directed his first feature film, Isabel, a thriller filmed on location in Shigawake, Quebec. His sophomore effort, 1970's Act of the Heart, starred a young Donald Sutherland and put Montreal's religiosity in front of the camera.
Act of the Heart , promo poster
© 1970 Universal Pictures
These were also the years in which Robin Spry got his start as a writer, director, and producer. With the backing of the National Film Board, Spry dove right into the heart of the Quebec nationalism debate with his searing 1974 documentary, Action: The October Crisis of 1970, roundly considered a documentary classic in Canadian film circles. Two other major films of the period featured Shawinigan-born actor, screenwriter and director Allan Moyle and Stephen Lack. Montreal Main (1974) and Rubber Gun Show (1977) were gritty portrayals of Montreal's street life and drug culture.
Action: The October Crisis of 1970
Copyright © 1973 NFB
But no other film up to that point managed to put Montreal and its English-speaking cinematic talents on the international map in the way that 1975's Lies My Father Told Me did. Directed by Czech-transplant Ján Kadár and based on the 1949 story by Montrealer Ted Allan, this Canadian production became an international art-house sensation when and won the 1976 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, as well as an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film was the first major production credit for Montrealer Harry Gulkin, who went on to produce film version of Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes (1978) and Mordecai Richler's Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978).
Cover art for Lies my Father Told me
© 1975 Columbia Pictures
NFB documentarian John N. Smith began to make highly regarded made-for-TV movies in the early '90s (The Boys of St. Vincent, Dieppe) before trying his hand in Hollywood with the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Dangerous Minds. Smith returned to his Canadian career and directed some of the most memorable TV series on Canadian television during the 90s (Random Passage, The Englishman's Boy) before returning to the big screen in '09 with the Newfoundland-shot - but Montreal-produced - Love and Savagery. This latter was the first film co-produced by Montreal's Park Ex Pictures, a company started by Kevin Tierney, who also began producing made-for-TV movies in the early '90s ( One Dead Indian, Choice: The Henry Morgentaler Story), and who has now become one of Montreal's most successful English-language feature film producers.
Another world-class producer who got his start in Montreal is Robert Lantos, a Hungarian refugee who emigrated to Canada in 1963. His film Joshua Then and Now (based on the book by Montreal author Mordecai Richler) went on to international box-office acclaim after playing in official competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Lantos and others founded and built up his Montreal-based Alliance Communications, which later evolved into Alliance Atlantis and Alliance Vivafilm. During this period, Lantos also produced Bruce Beresford's Black Robe (1991), one of the most internationally known films ever set in Quebec. In 1998, Lantos sold his interest in Alliance, and now produces through his company Serendipity Point Films.
Cover art for Joshua: Then and Now
© 1985 20th Century Fox
Quebec's capacity for film non-NFB production began to expand in 1965 when Mel Hoppenheim founded a Canadian arm of the technical equipment company Panavision. Over the following decades, Hoppenheim opened several large studios in and around Montreal. The presence of such high-end facilitates, not to mention Hoppenheim's expertise, increased film production, particularly by foreign producers. In 1997, Hoppenheim donated $1 million to Concordia University, which the school used to open the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.
Beginning in the 90s, Montreal experienced a boom in foreign 'service' production. At times, there were up to a half-dozen American co-productions being shot in Montreal simultaneously. They included Hollywood films including the Robert de Niro vehicle The Score, Brian de Palma'sSnake Eyes, Tom Hanks' Catch Me If You Can, and dozens more. Numerous TV shows were also shooting concurrently in Montreal, including Radioactive, Student Bodies, and Popular Mechanics for Kids - shows on which both Jacob Tierney and Jay Baruchel began their on-screen careers. The biggest boom-time giant of all was Cinar, a prolific production company that fell from grace in 2000 amid charges of fraud. Periodic booms in 'service' production have not translated into a boom for domestic production.
Since the mid-00s, the English-language film and television sector has struggled with a complex mixture of challenges including: increased tax-credits in other provinces, reduced competitive benefits from the US exchange rate, changes to international co-production rules, and the devastating effect of CRTC rule changes which effectively reduced the obligation of Canadian television networks to fund and produce Canadian dramatic television. To aggravate the situation in regions like Quebec, Network TV production is increasingly controlled out of Toronto resulting in decreased regional production. Resources for non-news content production are especially limited for CBC Montreal because the station is a tenant at La Maison Radio-Canada and does not own its own facilities and equipment. One alarming side effect of these changes is that many English-speaking directors, screenwriters, actors and producers who'd tethered their artistic practice to Montreal began to work farther because it is increasingly difficult to make a living in Quebec in the field of English-language drama production.
Alain Goulem, a local actor born in Montreal has been a professional actor since he was 8 years old. Indeed, one of his first parts was in John Smith's pivotal TV miniseries The Boys of St. Vincent. Goulem and other Montreal-based actors have worked through several boom periods, and he could see that the 2000's boom was never going to translate into a homegrown industry. "I don't think Montreal ever was dominant in the TV world except as a great place to shoot American co-productions," says Goulem. He and others credit the work of the Montreal chapters of ACTRA and the Canadian Directors' Guild, as well as several Montreal casting agencies and business agents with building Montreal into a player in the global film and television market, at least for a time.
Kevin Tierney began his career during the mid-nineties boom in television, which he characterizes now as a "completely different world" from film production. "I started in TV, and now as a TV producer, you work out of Toronto," Tierney says. "As a film producer, you can still work out of Montreal. You pretty much never have to go to Toronto, because all or most of the distributors have offices here. As a TV producer, you go to Toronto to take your meetings, and if you have the good fortune to get a show, it's basically run by executives in Toronto. Ten or fifteen years ago, Montreal was a huge booming production hub, with millions of dollars in production money that all went away. We don't have the networks anymore. In the wake of that, you really have to scramble if you want to work in TV."
However, at least two international TV production companies are currently thriving in the city: Incendo Productions, which has cast both Goulem and Leni Parker multiple times in multiple roles, produces about a dozen made-for-TV movies annually. They now claim to be the largest TV distribution company in Canada and hold distribution deals with 20th Century Fox and Paramount.
Another Montreal-based production company making international waves is Muse Entertainment, whose main office is on St-Jacques Street in Montreal. Muse has filmed dozens of productions in Montreal, including the TV series Durham County and Being Human. Alongside their prodigious television operations, they have also produced several prestige film features shot in Montreal, including Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain and Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic.
If English-speaking filmmakers in Quebec have had one major advantage over their counterparts in the rest of the country since the decline of cross-border productions in the early 2000's, it's SODEC, the granting agency that helps local artists get their film made, finished, distributed and marketed. "If I were anywhere else in Canada I would probably move to Quebec too, if not for other reason than existence of SODEC," says Kevin Tierney. "That's the reason Quebec films are successful, that we have been able to create a critical mass of product."
SODEC - Société de développement des enterprises culturelles - is the funding agency in Quebec in charge of advancing Quebecois art at all stages: from production grants and tax credits for film projects from post-grad shorts to major features, through to the exhibition and distribution of films both at home and abroad. The organization is not permitted to spend more than 20% of its annual budget on Anglophone productions, but that nonetheless amounts to several Anglo films per year. SODEC also provides funding for locally produced cultural events such as film festivals, and can also be called on to help local filmmakers applying for funding to enter international film festivals.
Festivals are crucial in the international system of film distribution-independent films count on festivals to find international distributors for their films. Montreal has had a number of its own festivals over the years, including Fantasia, which had its twelfth edition in 2010. Seen as an alternative to the Montreal World Film Festival (FFM) and the Festival du nouveau cinema (FNC), Fantasia's head programmer Mitch Davis emphasizes that it is part of his festival's mandate to premiere and promote locally made Anglophone films, and he does so with the help of SODEC. "We have meetings with them constantly." Davis considers SODEC's support as invaluable to several stages of the film distribution process."
English-language feature films that have premiered at Fantasia in recent years include genre films by Phil Spurrell (The Descendent) and Karim Hussein (The Beautiful Beast). The festival boasts some of the best stats anywhere, appealing more than any other festival to a young, multilingual, multi-ethnic demographic. And their model of being a film festival "for and by the people", jumpstarted by amateurs and surviving largely on ticket sales, is more forward-thinking than any other festival in Montreal.
These days, some are speculating that the Montreal is at the threshold of another renaissance. Other directors from the younger generation are choosing the city are their base, including Mike Dowse (FUBAR, It's All Gone Pete Tong and up-and-coming documentarians Yung Chang ( Up The Yangtze) and Neil Diamond (Reel Injun).
Like the original NFB filmmakers, Chang and Diamond are part of a corps of talented individual artists who have chosen Montreal as the place to develop their careers and practice their art. Like many young filmmakers here today, Chang has a film-production degree from Concordia University's Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. He worked with production luminary Daniel Cross at local doc-production house Eyesteelfilm on his multi-award-winning first doc, which was co-produced by the NFB. Diamond, a Cree from James Bay, moved to Montreal to work with the NFB, and has since co-founded local Aboriginal production company Rezolution Pictures with a clique of other Montreal-based aboriginal filmmakers.
"I moved to Montreal because it seemed like the right place to live; a city where I could come to tell the stories I want to tell," he says, noting that Canada's most acclaimed aboriginal filmmaker, Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) has opened a production office in Montreal with his longtime producing partner, Norm Cohen, a Montrealer.
Another success story for Rezolution Pictures has been the young Mohawk film director Tracey Deer, who was born and grew up in Kahnawake, Quebec. Her documentary, Club Native, a 2008 look at Mohawk identity politics, earned her the distinction of becoming the first Mohawk woman to win a Gemini Award.
Tracey Deer, director of Club Native and Mohawk Girls
With its foundation in 1997, there's little doubt that the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema has played a major role in revitalizing the cinematic landscape of English Quebec, especially in the fields of experimental and art film. The department has turned into a hub of creativity, collecting many practicing film-makers as professors, who in turn mentor the next generation cineastes. An influential mentor at the School of Cinema is Peter Rist, whose wide-ranging studies of East-Asian cinema have brought a worldliness the school's students and their views of contemporary cinema that wouldn't otherwise be there. Another such figure is Arto Paragamian, whose work is most prominently featured in the iconic 1996 multi-director film, Cosmos, which many consider the calling card for the new wave of Quebecois film.
On the documentary front, film lovers will surely know the occasional Concordia lecturer Peter Wintonick from his infamous 1992 work, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which is now mandatory viewing in many undergraduate departments across the continent. In 2006, Wintonick was awarded the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. Meanwhile, professor David Douglas maintains an open channel to contemporary Cuban cinema by dividing his teaching efforts between Concordia and the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba.
Together, these artists, promoters and granting organizations have helped transform Montreal from the satellite production hub it once was in the 80s and 90s for major film productions, into a more radical and adventurous city for avant-garde tastes, internationalized experimentation, and cutting-edge documentary work.
In 2010, the Robert Lantos-produced film adaptation of Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version opened in theatres across North America, after premiering at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals this fall. Lantos optioned Richler's book when it was still in galleys, and worked for years to bring this Montreal story to the screen. The main character and most of the supporting roles were played by a cast of international actors, but Montreal plays a main role in the film, and its screenwriter Michael Konyves is a Montreal native. In interviews, Lantos emphasized that he was determined to shoot on location in the story's real places, with local crews. Two major films released in 2011 were Funkytown, written by Steve Gallucio, and The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom, directed by Tara Johns.
© 2010 Remstar
It isn't only large-scale productions that shoot here either. In 2008, local indie production house Couzin Films brought Adam's Wall, a film set in the city's Orthodox Jewish community, to the screen. Montreal is especially active in the sphere of documentary production, with local outfits such as Eyesteelfilm, Rezolution, and Loaded Pictures producing well-regarded documentaries on such topics as Montreal street-artist Roadsworth and the Alberta Oil Sands in the last two years.
A scan of recent and upcoming productions shows that crossover and portability are still the nature of the industry. Most directors, producers, actors or programmers, works in a tightly referential yet open network of film and TV professionals across the continent. But there are many compelling reasons why practitioners choose Montreal as their home base.
Melora Koepke is a Montreal-based film and culture writer. She is the Film Editor at Hour Magazine, and is also a regular contributor to several Canadian magazines and newspapers, including The Walrus, enRoute, the Vancouver Sun, and Maisonneuve, where she is a former contributing editor, as well as at the CBC. She also teaches writing at Concordia University. She is currently at work on a collection of stories and a non-fiction book on the cultural economy of adoption.
The Trotsky (2009) Directed by Jacob Tierney
This comedy, which premiered amidst much buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, was Tierney's second feature. Stars Jay Baruchel as a young Montreal West high-school student who is convinced he's the reincarnaion of Leon Trotsky. With a bilingual script and supporting cast that includes big names on the Montreal scene, including Saul Rubinek and Genevieve Bujold.
Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2008) Directed by Erik Canuel
After premiering at the Fantasia Film Festival in summer 2008, this bilingual comedy about an Ontario cop (Colm Feore) and a Montreal detective (Patrick Huard) teaming up to solve a murder on the Quebec/Ontario border went on to break box-office records in Canada, becoming the most successful film in the country's history and making a name for its producer, Kevin Tierney, and setting the stage for future successes of his production company, Mile End Pictures.
Barney's Version (2010) Directed by Richard Lewis
Robert Lantos produced this film after buying rights to Mordecai Richler's last novel while it was still in galleys. This semi-autobiographical story about Barney Panofsky (played by American actor Paul Giamatti) was shot in landmark locations in Montreal and in the Eastern Townships, by a majority Montreal crew.
Joshua Then and Now (1985) Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Robert Lantos's first major production, adapted from the famous early novel by Montreal writer Mordecai Richler.
Reel Injun (2010) Directed by Neil Diamond
This Genie-award-winning documentary about stereotypes of Natives in the Hollyood canon, made a name for its Cree director Diamond, a Montrealer by way of Wakaganish, on James Bay. Diamond, one of a new generation of Aboriginal Montreal filmmakers, is a cofounder of Rezolution Pictures, currently one of the city's most prolific production companies. The film was sold in two versions, as a theatrical documentary and the more well-known TV verison, which aired on CBC Newsworld.
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) Directed by Alanis Obomsawin
One of the best-known documentaries by Obomsawin, the only remaining director on staff at the NFB. The internationally reknowned film documents the Oka Crisis of 1990, in which authorities and citizens clashed over land rights on a Mohawk reserve south of Montreal.
Ryan (2004) Directed by Chris Landreth
Oscar-award-winning animated short produced by the NFB, that imaginatively documents the life of Ryan Larkin, an iconic NFB animator from the late '60s and early '70s who suffered from mental illness and drug addiction before his death in the late '90s.
The Boys of St. Vincent (1992) Directed by John N. Smith
Though this groundbreaking made-for-CBC movie documented events that occurred at a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland, it was produced in Montreal and directed by one of the NFB's most influential documentarists of the '60s and '70s, who made the switch to fiction filmmaking with this film.
Choice: The Henry Morgentaler Story (2003) Directed by John L'Ecuyer.
Made-for-TV biopic of Montrealer Henry Morgentaler, champion of women's Abortion rights in Canada. One of Kevin Tierney's early successes as a producer.
Student Bodies (1997)
A popular and iconic teen sitcom shot in Montreal, about students running a nepaper at the fictional Thomas Edison high school. Angenially involved everal emergent Montreal talents, such as Jacob Tierney and Jay Baruchel.