Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

In A World Gone Mad: Writing the Canadian film

This past Friday afternoon at the Knox Presbyterian Church, a hungry lunchtime audience gathered, paper bags and sandwiches in hand, as Tony Burgess , Kenneth J. Harvey and host Martin Levin took to the stage. What happened next left me fascinated as these two writers presented different pictures of the screen writing experience, and yet concluded on a shared idea that calls out for more Canadian content in our national theatres.


Tony Burgess is the author of several works including The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, and Caesarea, while Kenneth J. Harvey lists his bestsellers as Blackstrap’s Hawco, Inside, and The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, and has been promoting his latest work Reinventing the Rose. They are both men of significant novel-writing success, yet have had strikingly different experiences while writing for the screen.


Tony Burgess, chewing gum and cracking jokes, launched into a brief 101 course on battling your way through a filming process. When approached to write the script for Pontypool , Burgess grabbed the opportunity despite his lack of knowledge in the film business. Suddenly he found himself transported to the world of commercial films, a place full of clashing egos and unwanted opinions. It was, in Burgess’ own words, “siege warfare.” He realized quite quickly that if he were to maintain any control over his own script (and remember, it’s a script deriving from his own novel too), it was necessary to fight.


“Never say I don’t know,” urges Burgess. Instead say, “No” to other people’s ideas as a first defence against the power plays. As he continues to reflect, it feels as though we, the audience, are being given fighting tactics. Forget your quiet writing habits, if you want to write for the movies, you need to become a warrior. Bull-headedness appears essential when dealing with movie-making egos. It’s enough to ruin any writer’s appetite. (As I sit in the audience and peel into my tangerines, squirting juice across the chairs.)


Contrast this discussion with Kenneth J. Harvey, who arrives on stage and kicks off his portion of the event with a few Zen jokes: “If you lend someone $20 dollars and you never hear from them again, then it was probably worth the money.” Clearly, he’s setting a different tone for the audience.


Recently, Kenneth Harvey wrote a screenplay so his daughter would have the opportunity to act. I’m 14 and I hate the world is an international success. Unlike Burgess, Harvey pursued the independent film route with his screen-writing, applying for the First Time Film Makers grant and winning $45,000 toward the project. While he needed to arrange everything in terms of logistics and money, he maintained “absolute control of this film.” With his family and crew on set, everyone keen to give support, his impression of film-making collaboration is truly positive. For Harvey, stepping beyond the novel into screen writing was refreshing.


While these two men presented different pictures of what it’s like to write for the screen, they both agreed upon one vital point: The Canadian film industry if floundering. With all content pouring over from the USA, Canadian ‘blockbuster’ films (think Men with Brooms) are missing the mark. We shouldn’t be focusing on presenting our culture, but instead, we should focus on presenting an entertaining, universal story. But even further than this, even when a zombie movie is made that can certainly appeal to a wide audience, the screens aren’t available (theatres won’t play it) and the money can’t be gathered. Without the ‘screens’, say both Burgess and Harvey, investors simply aren’t interested in giving funds.


At this point, the tone became dark within the room. My stomach was rumbling (two tangerines does not make a lunch) and the future of Canadian entertainment seemed doomed. But then light broke forth as Kenneth Harvey suggested a solution. “If 10% of screens had to be Canadian films, so many jobs would be created. The government could pull financing, the industry would boom.” Much like Canadian content regulations, the same concept could be applied to theatres. But first policies would need change, and how is that going to happen in our commercial, power-playing world of big money entertainment?


It was a woman from the audience who suggested (urged, actually) a way to make change happen. She stood in her black and white tweed jacket, red leather gloves, and raised her hand as she shared her thoughts: “Write letters to the editor. You’ll get heard. Believe me, the government pays attention to that sort of thing.” She used to be a media analyst for Justice Canada, and last Friday repeatedly insisted that writing letters to the editor (not bothering with the MPs) is how change can happen.


And suddenly the obligation was turned upon us, the audience, and on you too, the reader. So what comes next? Well, if you’re so inclined, write a letter to your editor. And if you’d rather stick with less regulations, then don’t bother writing anything.


Last Friday was fascinating and insightful. From two contrasting opinions derived a corresponding problem about Canadian films, and with the help of an audience member, a possible course of action was presented. Who knows, maybe it was the start of a Canadian film-making revolution? Or maybe it was just the end of a good conversation. Either way, it was certainly worth my skipping lunch.