Sunday, January 08, 2017

Lazy Sunday #452: Bill


Most of you know Bill Marshall, who passed away last week in Toronto, as the founder of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the largest public film festival in the world and the most influential festival in getting movies into theatres and in front of audiences around the world. But he was so much more than that.

Bill was one of those people who just made things happen. He got politicians elected, produced films and partied long and hard. The kind of outgoing, tenacious guy who never took "No" or "That's not possible" for an answer. To parrot one of his phrases, he was a guy who just went out  and "got shit done".

I was fortunate enough to have a film in the first festival in 1976, when the event went by its original name, "The Festival of Festivals". 

The film was "The Supreme Kid" by Vancouver filmmaker Peter Bryant and its presentation at the now long gone Toronto Dominion Theatre on a Friday morning might've been the only legitimate screening it got in the country in which it was made.

The Festival then was only a week long affair with nowhere near the publicity it now gets and featuring titles most people had never heard of, so I didn't expect much of a turnout. But the place was full and Bill and his festival founding partner Dusty Cohl were there with the express purpose of showing me off.

They'd promised a star studded week of movies but no big names actually came, so I guess being able to introduce somebody who was a star of a movie at least helped them prove they hadn't been snowing everybody.

And they were gracious hosts, later dragging my wife and I to party with Wilt Chamberlain, the only real celebrity who'd come to town.

At that time, Bill had only produced a low budget movie called "Flick" or "Frankenstein on Campus" depending on what poster or print was handy when somebody wanted to show it.

But a few months later he launched Dick Benner's "Outrageous" which became a huge success and set him on the path to producing another 18 features.

Either because I had attended that first festival or because I was among a handful of screenwriters in Toronto, I always ended up getting dragged into bars and bistros with Bill and a couple of years later was hired with three other scribes for a mini-series he'd sold to CBC.

For reasons too complicated to explain (and you'd only be getting my side of it anyway) the project eventually collapsed due to a combination of broadcaster, studio and guild acrimony and I headed off to Hollywood to seek my fortune there.

Barely a week later, at my first ever glittering party in the Hollywood hills, I flopped down on a couch with a glass of wine and found myself almost in the lap of Bill Marshall, who said…

“Geez, Henshaw! We can’t be seen together. We’re suing each other.” At which point we both cracked up.

The great thing about Bill in those days was he was exactly the sort of character the Canadian film industry desperately needed. A guy who understood how things must be seen to be done in an overly cautious and closely regulated nation –- and yet knew how the real world worked so they could actually get done.

He was one of my producer mentors long before I’d ever contemplated producing anything and he not only taught me a ton, but contributed to some of the defining moments of my life.

Much has been written, for example, about the earth-shaking argument he got into with Mordecai Richler on a TIFF panel about Canadian culture. The press, as usual, mostly took Richler’s side in reporting it. But everybody who was in that room, including me, knew that Bill had won the day and a lot of ugly truths about how culture is made and supported in this country were laid bare.

There are two things I feel deepest about the loss of Bill Marshall. One is the memory of nights of frivolity and story telling or intense discussions about craft and production and building an industry of which I'm now one of the sole survivors.

But more important is the realization of how badly we need someone like Bill Marshall today. A guy who could convince or cajole the driest bureaucrats and most tight-fisted of investors to take a chance at trying something different -- of just ignoring what everybody accepts as an unchangeable  reality and going out and getting shit done.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

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