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Northern delights

Canada's top directors may flirt with Hollywood but at the end of the day they prefer to go home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 6:36pm

Ask the new wave of Canadian directors why they're getting calls from Hollywood and the answer is easy: Canada's thriving film industry has allowed them the freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want.

In a Hollywood built around commercial success - often at the cost of originality - Canadian directors are now bringing their voices to major feature films. So far, the response has been good.

When filmmakers are talented enough ... they will be able to work wherever they choose to
Cameron Bailey, Tiff Artistic Director

Awards season buzz is already mounting around Quebec native Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners and Montreal-born Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club, two Hollywood-backed efforts that premiered to strong reviews at the 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) earlier this month.

"I think we're at the start of something really great," says writer-director-editor Michael Dowse, who helmed The F Word and co-wrote The Grand Seduction; both also premiered at Toronto. "I think it's a sign of our system nurturing directors and letting them tell stories that aren't necessarily hinged on being completely commercial."

So while previous generations of Canadian filmmakers such as Norman Jewison and Paul Haggis moved south to pursue their dreams, the strong local industry has homegrown directors now choosing to stay put.

Vallee, who broke out with the 2005 French Canadian feature C.R.A.Z.Y., has since made films in the US, Britain, France and Quebec, which he has no plans to leave.

Villeneuve, meanwhile, brought his first Hollywood effort - the intense thriller Prisoners, which stars Australian actor Hugh Jackman as a Pennsylvania man who takes desperate measures to try to get his kidnapped daughter back - to the festival while also displaying his distinctly Canadian, art-house voice in the doppelganger drama Enemy.

That ability to appeal to a variety of audiences is the forte of the current generation of Canadian filmmakers, says Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director. "I think when filmmakers are talented enough and skilled enough, they will be able to work wherever they choose to," he says. "These great directors, who began their careers in Canada, are not just moving south of the border, but they are working across the border, back and forth. I think that's going to be the future of Canadian filmmaking."

Canadian films have never looked stronger, and a healthy injection of Hollywood stars is helping to broaden their appeal, especially in the comedy genre.

The F Word, which stars British A-lister Daniel Radcliffe as a medical school drop-out who falls for an animator played by American actress Zoe Kazan, also was well-received by critics at the festival and CBS Films has already snapped up the US distribution rights.

At one level, this crowd-pleasing, romantic comedy is universally appealing, with a sense the story could take place in just about any North American city. At the same time though, it's a testament to the evolving local film industry, with Toronto's skylines and urban neighbourhoods proudly on display.

Moving west of Toronto, the resort city of Banff, Alberta, plays a starring role in Jeremiah Chechik's The Right Kind of Wrong, which features True Blood actor Ryan Kwanten as a struggling writer who falls for a woman on her wedding day. The romantic-comedy failed to wow critics at the festival, but did nab a US distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures.

Other Canadian-helmed titles which had their world premiere at Toronto this year include Devil's Knot, a retelling of the notorious 1993 West Memphis murders by Academy Award-nominated director Atom Egoyan, and Xavier Dolan's new feature, Tom on the Farm, which has been lauded as his most "commercially viable" effort.

For actor-director Don McKellar, who was at the festival with his third feature, The Grand Seduction, the goal has never been to make it in Hollywood, but rather to have the freedom to make the films he wants to make. "I tend to generate my own things and I feel there's more support for that up here," he says. "And I think it would be very sad if I felt compromised down there doing some project I didn't believe in."

An English-language remake of Jean-François Pouliot's popular 2003 French-Canadian film Seducing Dr Lewis (which was set in rural Quebec), it centres on a dying Newfoundland fishing village that needs to get a full-time doctor in order to get its own factory.

Praised by The Hollywood Reporter as a "charming, wholly commercial little comedy", some critics are suggesting the film, which stars Irish actor Brendan Gleeson and Canadian Taylor Kitsch, could be the breakout hit the Canadian industry has been hoping for. That's fine by McKellar, but the Toronto native has no plans to head south. "I've done a couple of things and sort of flirted with the idea, but I know so many people who went down and were disappointed. All my friends in Hollywood are envious of what is happening here in Canada."



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