Thursday, February 25, 2016


Back in 1964, Don Owen did something nobody thought was actually possible. He made a Canadian feature film. Perhaps the first of what could be considered the country's modern era.

Don had been an anthropology student at the University of Toronto and worked part-time as a stagehand at the CBC. At some point, he talked himself into a job at the National Film Board of Canada and was assigned to their documentary unit.

Somebody there decided the NFB should do a short documentary about a juvenile delinquent and a parole officer. Maybe something that could be shown in schools to show that youth being rebellious wasn't really all that cool.

Don took the assignment. But instead of finding real people, he hired a handful of actors, took to the streets of Toronto and shot a raw and largely improvised feature called "Nobody Waved Good-bye".

It included scenes where lead actor, Peter Kastner interacted with real Torontonians, who had no idea they were in a movie. Including one sequence in which he almost got punched out for short-changing customers in a parking lot.

The NFB didn't know what to do with Owen's combination of improv and cinema verite, so they sent it off to the New York Film Festival where it garnered rave reviews, a US distributor and the first of many festival prizes. 

One New York film-maker by the name of Francis Ford Coppola was so inspired by the film, he snagged Kastner to play the lead in his own breakthrough feature, "You're a Big Boy Now".

Suddenly, Don was the hottest thing in Canadian film-making.

But sometimes being the hot new thing is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, he had a hit movie. But no one around him quite knew how to support the new guy or what should come next. 

So, while developing a more structured and traditional feature, he shot some documentaries with such varied subjects as Mohawk steel workers in Manhattan ("High Steel") and new Montreal Poets ("Ladies and Gentlemen -- Mr. Leonard Cohen") while continuing to win awards at film festivals around the world.

In 1966, he released his 2nd feature, the flawed "Notes on a Film About Donna and Gail". And followed it up a year later with another, "The Ernie Game". 

"The Ernie Game" had been developed as one of three features the CBC intended to run as part of their Canadian Centennial celebrations. But it was determined to be "too extreme for broadcast". Instead it won "Best Feature" at that year's Canadian Film Awards and went on to further recognition at Festivals in Berlin and Chicago.

I first met Don in the mid-70's when he was prepping another feature, "Partners". He was an eccentric, energetic, thousand ideas a minute kind of guy, who could appear unfocused and erratic, but still had the power to zero in on plots and characters that were utterly unique.

By this time, the Canadian film industry had caught up to and begun to surpass him -- only going in a direction that ultimately wasn't great for either one of them.

Referred to now as "the good old, bad old tax shelter years", it was a time when dozens, maybe hundreds of films got made using money from dentists and real estate agents. Movies which starred B-Movie or TV series Americans and copied whatever genre trend or high concept that was the flavor of the month.

Movies that tried to be about something important they were not. And woe to the writer/director who didn't want to work that part of the turnip patch -- namely Don Owen.

Don went into a period where he wrote or developed a lot of projects that didn't really go anywhere. In 1984, his sequel to "Nobody Waved Good-bye" -- "Unfinished Business" would win Genie nominations for writing and directing, but not success at the box office.

He would make one final feature, "Turnabout" in 1988.

Don Owen died last Sunday, a decade after the Toronto International Film Festival had hosted a retrospective of his work. The city he had first brought to the screen now home to dozens of crews shooting dozens of films every day.

One wonders what might have happened had he followed orders and just shot a little documentary about a parole officer and a juvenile delinquent.

But he didn't. 

For a taste of what the world was like back then, you can see "Nobody Waved Good-Bye" here.

No comments: