National Canadian Film Day: Canuck Stars Discuss Homegrown Cinema

National Canadian Film Day

Photo courtesy the Toronto International Film Festival

National Canadian Film Day offers movie fans from coast to coast to coast an opportunity to look back at all that the Great White North has contributed to the history of film:

  • Mary Pickford,  the Toronto-born screen star who helped establish multiple film studios and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before becoming the first Canadian to ever win an Oscar — Best Actress in 1928/29 for Coquette.
  • Filmmakers Graeme Ferguson and Roman Kroitor, co-founders of IMAX
  • May Irwin, one half of film’s first onscreen kiss in 1896’s The Kiss
  • Christopher Plummer, who still holds the record for oldest person to win an acting Oscar at age 82
  • And 1919’s Back to God’s Country, a drama about a woman in rural Canada who must defeat a man who murders her father and attempts to rape and kill her, which celebrates its centennial this year. Reel Canada calls it, “Canada’s first genuine blockbuster — and oldest surviving feature film … a sassy, snowy adventure story that remains Canada’s most successful silent film.” The film, written and directed by Canuck movie pioneer Nell Shipman, is also notable for another milestone: Shipman became the first major star to do a nude scene.

So as we celebrate National Canadian Film Day, we recall some of our own discussions with Canadian actors, writers and filmmakers about the intersection of their craft and their country.

DAN AYKROYD on Ghostbusters’ Canadian roots

From Saturday Night Live to The Blues Brothers to Trading Places and Driving Miss Daisy, Ottawa’s Dan Aykroyd, 66, is one of the most famous and successful Canadian performers ever. Fiercely proud of his Canadian roots, Aykroyd, Zoomer’s March 2016 cover subject, took us inside his family’s century-and-a-half-old ancestral home near Kingston, Ont., and, in particular, the séance room — with its forest green walls, low wood-beamed ceilings, faded photographs and fireplace — where he conjured the idea for one of his most famous films.

MIKE CRISOLAGO: I wanted to ask you about this room we’re sitting in, the séance room. You said that this is where you conceived the idea for Ghostbusters.

DAN AYKROYD: Well my great-grandfather Sam was a dentist in Kingston and he was the reviewer for the local newspaper for whatever psychic acts were coming through town. After World War I … you’ve got families that were desperate to try to reach [their deceased relatives] and mediumship and spiritualism became very popular then. But you had to have someone to sort out the hoax from the real thing. So my great-grandfather was considered basically an observer of this phenomenon.

This room was where they had the séances … On Sunday, three or four big black cars would roll up, and the women would come dressed for Sunday church and the men in suits. And my great-grandfather Sam would hold the table here. And [medium] Walter Ashurst would sit and [they’d] hold hands. The circle would form and then within minutes Ashurst would go into a full-on, open mouth agog trance, and they would ask him questions.

So this is kind of my family business. So I’m sitting one afternoon reading about quantum physics and parapsychology and I go, “Would it be great to do an old-style ghost comedy but use the knowledge that people have been researching for years?” So that was where Ghostbusters came from.

GORDON PINSENT on a Quintessential Canadian Celebrity Sighting

When I sat down with the now-88-year-old Canadian stage and screen legend Gordon Pinsent, it was at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss the autobiographical documentary The River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent. And during our talk, Pinsent recalled a recent, quintessentially Canadian celebrity sighting moment.

“I went to Loblaws yesterday and an old gentleman came up and said, ‘Oh, it’s you! You’re one of the original Canadian actors,’” Pinsent laughed. “I said, ‘Well I didn’t go to auditions with John A. MacDonald!’ Original Canadian actors! Me and a couple of old cavemen. Makes you want to sit down.”

TANTOO CARDINAL on how her Indigenous community influenced her film career

It seems improbable, after a celebrated career that includes roles in films like Dances With Wolves and Legends of the Fall, that Tantoo Cardinal, 68, has never had a starring role in a feature film. That all changed, however, at TIFF 2018 with Falls Around Her, a film about an Anishinaabe musician (Cardinal) who returns to her northern Ontario community in a futile attempt to return to the land and leave fame behind. The Métis star spoke with Zoomer about how her upbringing in rural Manitoba influenced the actress and artist she’d become.

MIKE CRISOLAGO:  How did your formative years at home with family, like your grandmother, inform your artistic career?

TANTOO CARDINAL: Well, I didn’t live in the same building as a TV until I was 16 years old and going to school in the city. We didn’t have television. We didn’t have telephones. We had radio and we have a sense of entertainment — the stories, sharing the news. All of these things were a part of my life. Now, it’s a misrepresentation, or a misinterpretation, to say that it sounds like I spent a lot of time with my grandmother in the bush. I spent a lot of time alone in the bush as well, and having that contact, because where was the audience? It was the trees and the communities; the friends were the birds and all of that. I did have friends, yes, and part of school, but there was a lot of times I spent alone. And so I guess the world of entertaining is a part of our culture, especially where I grew up. So I’m so grateful for that experience that where I’m getting my images and my impulses, or whatever is feeding my creativity, is from a clean place that wasn’t manufactured by a games company or movies that were being created by other people. I did see movies, but those were on occasional trips to the city, to the town of Fort McMurray, or when the forestry would bring a fire prevention film, they would bring cartoons along and a feature, possibly. So, those were my early days of entertainment, so you can see we better start amusing ourselves.

MC: How do the types of roles you get offered today differ from the acting parts you were offered when you were starting out your career?

TC: For one thing, this is my first feature in a 48-year career, so that should be able to illustrate that most of the stories were led by other characters other than the indigenous women. There are young women that have played leads, and Tina Keeper herself played a lead on North of 60 for a number of years and so I guess, for me, it’s a double-pronged thing in that this is my first opportunity in all those years to play a lead and also … I’m a woman of a certain age, so because primarily what’s going on in the film business, they’ll have younger people playing the leads and telling the stories. It’s been a great frustration for me many, many times that I am just a colour, or some kind of background, for these lead characters. That’s their stories, it’s not my stories, and it’s been so frustrating only to be able to share just a moment, or a flash, or a piece of wisdom, or something like that, and not having my character’s life really respected in terms of the overall story that we tell as people in this world today.

MC: Do you hope, then, that this leading role might lead to more starring turns and opportunities to tell your story?

TC: Yeah, I’m hoping that it leads to more opportunities to tell our stories.

ATOM EGOYAN on one of his favourite Canadian films

Egoyan, 58, the famed Canadian filmmaker and two-time Oscar nominee told me in 2016 that, “There’s a broad section and diversity in terms of the people who are appreciating [National Canadian Film Day] because they’re also seeing their own stories reflected back at them.”

When I asked which Canadian film he’d recommend people check out on NCFD, his answer comes quick:

“I love The Grey Fox. This is a film that was made by Phillip Borsos and it was the story of Bill Miner, this legendary sort of bank robber told in B.C. and it’s a lovely, lovely film. I’m so thrilled. That’s a revelation for people who haven’t seen it before. That’s a great movie.”

COLM FEORE on the “Canadian sensibility” in film

“We are slightly bent. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We just see the world in a slightly different way,” the Can-American actor, 60, noted in 2016 when I asked about Canadian sensibility in film as compared to our American counterparts. “And we see the conflicts in a slightly different way – perhaps more humanely and less black and white. It’s more nuanced, I guess.”

Feore, who, like Egoyan, sits on the NCFD board, praised the initiative for its outreach in communities around the country — especially how it connects with young people. “We’re showing them there is a career in Canadian film — telling our stories. And as the technology has evolved to allow people with fewer and fewer funds to make better and better films, the possibilities are endless.”

I also asked him which Canadian film he’d recommend on NCFD.

“I think in terms of the passion and the power and the fact that it has been very successful internationally, I’m going to go with my gut on this and go for Xavier Dolan’s Mommy … That could be an entry point to so many other very contemporary Canadian films with a really bright spark of a guy who cannot but get people interested. I think Xavier and Mommy, because it knocked me out of my seat.”

TINA KEEPER talks Indigenous Film Sovereignty

In 2018, the film Through Black Spruce, based on the Giller-winning novel by Joseph Boyden, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, directed by Don McKellar, was optioned and produced by 57-year-old Cree actress, producer and former Liberal MP Tina Keeper, who spoke with Zoomer about Indigenous film sovereignty and questions raised about both Boyden’s controversial claim of Indigenous ancestry and the fact that a white man (McKellar) directed a film about about a young Cree woman from James Bay (played by Tanaya Beatty) searching for her twin sister who went missing after moving to Toronto to become a model.

MIKE CRISOLAGO: Were you expecting a bit of a backlash, or did it surprise you?

TINA KEEPER:  The idea of Indigenous film sovereignty is so critical for this country and it’s something that I’ve long felt committed to because of the need for an equitable opportunity to tell our stories. So Through Black Spruce is really situated on that path, I think. I would argue with anybody who thinks that we’re outside of that.

So if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to make this film, it wouldn’t be made. It wouldn’t have been made for five or 10 years, possibly, if it was every going to be made. So I think that the idea is that I saw an opportunity to collaborate, to make the film. I really felt that I was part of a team. I was critical in that team, and I think that that’s — I feel like I’m on that path and that this work is not outside of that path.

You know, I think mainstream voices don’t even understand the lack of opportunity that’s still in place for Indigenous filmmakers, where we don’t have the film slates, the production slates that other companies have. So this is where partnership and collaboration is so important, until we have a place of equity.

So the devil is in the details and it’s easy to talk about what’s wrong, but it’s important to take the steps really towards creating works and really finding partnerships that work, I think, whether they’re with Indigenous partners or non-Indigenous partners, as long as the Indigenous voice is in a lead position. And I never felt that I wasn’t in a lead position.

And I think that sometimes Canadians find it difficult to believe that an Indigenous woman could have a critical position in this kind of project. I’m finding that a lot of the discussion is patronizing, rather than empowering. And so that’s what I really have to say is that I really felt that I was part of a team that was truly collaborative. I think that my aim has always been towards Indigenous film sovereignty, and I think that that’s something we can do together as Canadians and Indigenous people. And I think that it has to be done because we need the money, too.

LAWRENCE HILL and CLEMENT VIRGO on blending history and cinema

Both award-winning artists in their own right, author Hill teamed up with filmmaker Virgo to adapt his novel The Book of Negroes into a celebrated miniseries that played like a feature film in 2015. In a discussion with Zoomer before its release, the pair discussed the blending of history and cinema.

CLEMENT VIRGO: Do you anticipate, Larry, that people [approach the story] in terms of a sense it’s going to be a history lesson for them, or a sense that this character is so interesting and this story is so interesting [that] that’s the access point for them?

LAWRENCE HILL: I think their primary access point is the story, but I think many people have told us that they do appreciate the history underneath it … I, personally, am happy to see [the mini-series] start outside Black History Month because sometimes people in Canada are so obsessed with Black history they think that the only time you can talk about it is in February.

CV: I know for me, when I read the novel, finally, it was that [lead character] Aminata is such an interesting and compelling character. We have a character that is so amazing, and then at the same time you get a love story and you get all this wonderful history. It’s a road movie like, say, The Wizard of Oz and she’s almost like a Forrest Gump character, where she intersects with history.

LH: She does. And I think we both share a preoccupation with not slipping the viewer, or the reader, some bitter pill of medicine. No reader, or viewer, wants to be preached to, or slapped around and told this is what to think, or how to feel. So you have to develop your drama and make it interesting and, as you say, smuggling some interesting nuggets as you go, but not make them feel like they’re lessons to be learned. That’s very pedantic, and people don’t like that. We have to entertain.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER demonstrates Canadian humility

The legendary stage and screen actor, who remains the oldest performer to win an acting Oscar, is arguably the most singularly talented actor our country ever produced. From his starring turn in The Sound of Music to his Oscar-winning performance in Beginners, Plummer — 89 and a two-time Zoomer cover subject — told me that he couldn’t wait to ditch his leading man status.

“Don’t forget that the early days one was a kind of leading man on the screen. There’s nothing more boring than a leading man. I couldn’t wait until I was a character actor in my 40s. The roles immediately got more interesting and more diverse. So it was really in my 40s, that on screen, that I started [being] happier in my work.”

And when it comes to his historic Oscar win, Plummer retains his Canadian humility.

“It’s a huge honour and it’s nice to be recognized … but then so is a Tony, so is an Emmy, so is all of them. But it was nice to come when it did.”

As for Plummer’s legacy, lets just say the actor doesn’t spend much time thinking about it.

“There’s no time to think about that. [Laughs] No, no, I just keep on doing it … You want to go onto other things and that always enriches you anyway. You read more and you come back with more knowledge and it enriches your performances.”

ANDREA MARTIN on everyone assuming she’s Canadian

There are a number of Canadian stars who people outside of Canada mistake for Americans – Mike Myers, Jim Carey, Ryan Gosling – but Andrea Martin, 72, may be the only American star who people assume is Canadian.

“Listen, there are many times when I think I’m a Canadian,” Martin quipped when we spoke in 2014. “You know, everything that was important in my life began in Canada. My career really started there and I got married to a Canadian and my kids were born in Toronto. I have a place there that I bought a few years ago and I lived there for 18 years.”

Because of this, and the fact that she’s appeared in a number of Canadian film and television productions, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, we’re making Martin an honorary Canadian on our list. Below, she explains the important role Canada played in launching her career.

“Two weeks out of college I got the part of Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in the United States, and it was a national touring company. And the touring company was made up of Canadians. Derek McGrath played Linus, I played Lucy, and Derek was my boyfriend on the road. Even though I got work immediately in New York, it seemed like a huge place to me, because I grew up in Portland, Maine. And Toronto, when I came to visit Derek, immediately felt manageable, and I just took to it like a duck in water. So when I visited him I loved it, really, the moment I landed in Toronto, and then I just stayed. I stayed from 1970 to 1988, I think. My career just took off in Canada and, as I said, I got married and had my children. And then the success of SCTV is really what brought me back to the States.”

Click here for more on National Canadian Film Day screenings and events.