Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 147: Define Sexy

During my teen years, my dad had a friend who'd drop by from time to time. He was funny and confident and handsome, apparently smart and quite good at what he did.

He also had a wife he complained about endlessly. She was difficult and didn't like to do any of the things he liked to do. She made his life miserable in all sorts of inventive ways.

She never accompanied him on any of his visits so I never met her and after a while I just figured he had his own Rodney Dangerfield routine going on, his way of blowing off steam or disguising his true affections or whatever.

A few years later, I came back home for Christmas and he and his wife dropped over for a drink. She was everything he had said she was. Really one of the most dislikeable people I'd ever met. I couldn't understand how they had ever gotten involved in the first place, let alone stayed together for so long.

After a few drinks and not knowing how to assuage my curiosity without committing some social faux pas, I asked what had made him ask her out for the first time. He gave me one of those safe, "needed a date for the Prom" kind of answers.

So I asked what made him ask her out the second time. He paused, swirled the ice cubes in his drink and answered quietly, as if I wasn't even in the room.

"She's got this thing she can do with her tongue."


What defines attractive -- what constitutes Sexy is unfathomably subjective. Even those who are nobody's idea of "Happily Ever After" turn out to be everything to somebody.

But when you work in movies and television, you frequently have to find somebody with traits or attributes that everybody will either find attractive or completely understand why others would. Some might call it being "hot" or "cool". I've always referred to them as having "it".

Back in my thespian days, I was asked to audition opposite some Playmate of the Year candidate. She was stunningly beautiful and the film didn't require much more than that from her. Our scene consisted of a couple of lines followed by my character launching into a complicated monologue.

We trooped in to a standard studio casting session with the director and a half dozen producer types sitting at a long table. There was some sociable chit-chat and then we began the scene. I had a line. She had a line. I had a line. She had a line. I launched into the big speech.

Halfway through, I glanced at the head table. The director was watching me. Everybody else was staring at Miss November, who wasn't doing a damn thing but being Miss November. The director and I locked eyes. He smiled and shrugged, "What're you gonna do?"

I could've been Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks all rolled together that afternoon and nobody would have noticed, let alone remembered.

This week, one of the websites I frequent tossed up a video of a young lady I had never heard of named Alizee. She's a French pop singer in her mid-20's, mostly unknown in North America but it seems quite popular elsewhere.

Most of her Youtube videos number views of 8 million or more.

It took me about 30 seconds watching the video below to realize that whatever was going on, she had a lot of "it".

Don't ask me to define what that means, I couldn't even if we were to spend hours studying the film frame by frame -- not an entirely unpleasant thought.

My French isn't great, but I think she's singing about being in a bubble bath. And while there are those who might become aroused at the thought of anybody from France actually taking a bath, I don't think that's the main attraction.

Yeah she's cute and the tune's catchy and the choreography might strike some as suggestive but it isn't any of those things either.

Maybe she was just a refreshing change after a week of writing about football.

But whatever "it" is, Alizee has cornered the market.

If you figure it out, let me know. Hit the replay button as often as you need to. Like I've been.

And -- Enjoy Your Sunday.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Respect Your Opponent


CFL Toronto Argonauts - Montreal Alouettes

"You shall judge a man by his foes as well as by his friends." - Joseph Conrad

Although I've mostly talked about my Saskatchewan Roughriders this week, there is another team competing for the Grey Cup tomorrow night, a damn good one…

Led Anthony Calvillo, undeniably the best quarterback in the league and a brilliant head coach in Marc Trestman, this season's Montreal Alouettes feature explosive slot back Ben Cahoon, two-time Best CFL Lineman Scott Flory and an unparalleled offense killer in linebacker Chip Cox.

Any one of these guys could be a game changer. But they're only some of the 9 Alouettes in the starting line-up who have been selected to the 2010 CFL All Star team. This is a force to be reckoned with…

The way the world works these days, people are often dismissed out of hand as Left or Right, Hot or Not, worthy or un of consideration. We've become conditioned to judge based on our own ideologies, our biases and what is valued within our own realms of work and society.

Too often we end up thinking that the rest of the world operates (or ought to operate) the way the flowers who inhabit our own little hothouse do. We forget to give the Devil his due --  and inevitably he comes to collect -- upsetting all the beliefs we thought were immutable in the process.

There were no undefeated teams this CFL season. The football Gods did not relentlessly side with star players over less talented rivals. In this game of perfect timing and well-oiled machines, there were still opponents aplenty who bested those who didn't give them their full measure of respect.

Every single team in the league boasted players who were nameless before moments of spectacular athleticism, guys who suddenly had to be considered by next week's opposites, whose newfound respect changed the plays on the chalkboard, altered strategy and made the game even more interesting and unpredictable.

It's been that way for more than 100 years in Canadian football. There isn't a single team in the league who hasn't hoisted the Grey Cup, known dynasties or created stars out of players everybody else had given up on. Players who fans everywhere remember generations later.

It takes two great teams to play a championship game and those teams owe much of who they now are to the men they faced in the battles that got them to this final battle. Your enemies make you as much who you are as those who stand beside you. They deserve the same appreciation you accord your friends.

So let's close this week of football celebration with a tribute to all the teams who built the Grey Cup into the special Canadian tradition it has become.

Have a great Grey Cup. May the best team win. And may the one that loses earn your undying respect.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rider Fans: There's an APP for that. But no cure.


CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders  20091130

When you become a fan of the Saskatchewan Roughriders you become a fan for life. Win or lose, come what may in your own life, you stick with them.

Nothing they or you will ever do breaks the bond of loyalty and affection. Like the place they come from, every heartbreak is immediately healed by the knowledge that next year, next time, things will turn out better.

Last year, in the dying seconds of one of the greatest Grey Cups ever played, on what should have been the final play, the Riders snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by having too many men on the field.

Their legendary secret weapon, "the 13th man", the term that has always been used to describe the passionate power of their fans was suddenly made flesh in Calgary's McMahon Stadium and the coveted Cup was lost.

In other places there would have been cries for retribution and the portioning out of blame. Not in Saskatchewan.

Nobody named the player who screwed up. And nobody cared. Because there was always next year.

This year.

The year everything will be made right.

And if it isn't…

There is next year and the year after that. The sunrise in Saskatchewan comes at the end of a long fuse. Light is in the sky for hours before any ball of fire actually appears. But it always gets there eventually.

You can count on it.

Rumor has it that the team has concocted a secret ritual to make sure that they are never again penalized for having too many men on the field. They will carry a single 12 pack of Pilsner into each huddle. Any player leaving the huddle without a beer in his hand then knows he must immediately get off the field.

See, we're already able to laugh at the whole thing. "Team Redeem"? Please. The boys have nothing to apologize for. What's past is past. We're looking to the future.

And the Saskatchewan Roughriders stepped into a different form of the future before anybody else this season by becoming the first CFL team to develop their own iPhone App, available for free from the iTunes store.

rider app 2

It was another way to reward fans for their loyalty and dedication, by making everything Roughrider as close as their finger tips.

Turn on your mobile device, tap the screen a couple of times, you've got the roster, injury reports, the weather at game time, heck you can even access the team's twitter feed.

Information is updated almost instantly on game day. You can find out who was in on the last sack and link to photos, video and audio. It's like having the broadcast booth color commentator in your pocket or the ultimate arbitrator for bar bets.

rider app 3 

When I first moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto, the allegiance the Riders had fostered in me for the CFL made me feel obligated to go see a Toronto Argonaut game. The stadium was twice the size of the Regina's Taylor Field. The football was just as exciting.

But at one point, the fans began to Boo the home team. I was shocked. The thought that any fan could do that to his own astonished me.

Years later, I had the good fortune to cadge a seat for a Toronto Maple Leafs game in the row behind the Air Canada Centre's legendary Platinum seats which only the rich and connected who run the city can afford. The gentleman in front of me spent the entire game talking to the players on the ice (who could easily hear him from that distance) as if they were nine year olds still learning the game.

His voice dripped with arrogance and condescension and petulant dissatisfaction. It's little wonder that an atmosphere like that has never spawned a champion.

In Saskatchewan, the fans expect that the guys on the field know what they're doing and they roll with the occasional (or sometimes frequent) brain fart. They know they're there because of the players and the players are what they are because of them.

Feel free to download the Saskatchewan App and become a Rider fan this weekend. Just understand it's going to become a lifetime commitment and there's no going back.

But you'll also be part of something unique in sport and special in life. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, November 25, 2010




Glitchy day at World Headquarters. My apologies to those who barely got started on what was supposed to be today's installment before it evaporated. Maintenance got underway and then I realized it's probably better to take the Halftime break and re-group.

Something my team probably won't have to do on Sunday, but as of today the Vegas Line has them at 4 point favorites. What's up with that? We're always the underdogs, the Cinderella team, the little engines that could!!!

Is this some nefarious plan to jinx us?

Nevermind. Being from God's country, there's already a direct line from the locker room to the Man upstairs.

Herewith "The Rider Prayer":

Our quarterback,who art in Edmonton..
Darian be thy name..
Thy game be done,
Thy will be WON in Commonwealth as it was in Mosiac ...
Give us this day the Grey Cup
and forget about Calgary's whiners, As we forgive all others who can't measure up.
Lead us not into interception and deliver us from Calvillo.
For thine are the Riders with Power and Glory.
Forever and ever

Oh…and forgive us our 13th man
as we forgive those who couldn't count last year.

(H/T Kate at SDA and Noel)

And for those who still don't understand the mentality of the Roughrider fan, a beautiful piece by the Globe & Mail's Stephen Brunt can be found here.

Back tomorrow for the second half.

(And don't forget that the real Grey Cup halftime show will feature the following)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

There Are No Sideshows



I believe it was the great Hollywood writer/director Billy Wilder who once said of audiences, "Individually, they're idiots. Collectively, they're a genius.". Truer words may have never been spoke -- and they apply to sports fans as much as those who spend their time watching movies and television.

Toronto sports emporium "The Skydome" sports a sculpture that has always bothered me. It depicts a bunch of fans heckling, cat-calling and blowing raspberries, implying that those who inhabit and paid for the place are basically boorish, brain-dead boneheads.

Likewise, sometime just before Sunday night's Grey Cup kickoff, some sportscaster will inevitably utter words to the effect that all the unimportant stuff is over and now it's time to play football.

But sideshows didn't get that moniker because they were less important than what happened under the Big Top.

They were simply set up next to or be"side" it. More often than not the money that came in from those gawking at the freaks and the menagerie subsidized the other acts or even made them possible in the first place.

From childhood we've all been aware that the lion tamer might be awesome, but there's also cotton candy and a guy who's the missing link.

Never underestimate what the audience really wants.

There was a time when the Grey Cup was just a football game -- and nobody cared.

Then, in 1948, a bunch of Calgary Stampeder fans showed up in staid, old "Toronto the Good" for the big game, bringing chuckwagons and square dancing. They partied in the streets til all hours, served pancake breakfasts to complete strangers and rode their horses through hotel lobbies and up the elevators.

grey cup 48

From that day on, the game became the dessert after a week long party with every dish the Canadian fun buffet can offer.

Fans and fan festivities have turned a mere sporting event into a cultural phenomenon.

A few days ago, I perused the full page event schedule of Edmonton's "Hot to Huddle" Grey Cup Week. It included everything from black tie awards and gala dinners and CFL Hall of Fame exhibits to "Bif Naked" and "Trooper" performing at the outdoor tailgate party.

Since it's Edmonton, there's also an "indoor" tailgate party -- as well as a pre-tailgate party, an after party and let's not forget the cheerleader extravaganza.

Each CFL team also hosts its own shindig that's open to all comers. Most are free, although a few charge $10 - $20 at the door to cover their damage deposits.

And to a great extent, the entertainment presented reflects the team culture. For example, the Edmonton Eskimos, this season's worst club indicates "live entertainment planned" -- plans many fans probably hoped might reach fruition during the season.

Traditional chokers, the Calgary Stampeders, are offering "cover bands" reflecting how their real stars never show up.

Still trying to raise enough money for a new stadium, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are handing out promotional Manitoba lapel pins. Now there's a real conversation starter for the office Christmas party.

Also hoping to hold onto their fan base until their new home is completed, the BC Lions are promising a "free gift" to anyone who shows up. Anyone. Rumor has it that coach Wally Buono is finally giving away his offensive line. 

The Eastern Champion Montreal Alouettes already know how to keep their fans happy, so they're promising "a party with a Montreal flavor hosted by Alouette cheerleaders". Expect pole dancing and meeting somebody named Chantelle.

The Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger Cats are both featuring a band called "Two for the Show" implying that their perennial talent searches are still turning up the same guys, but at least the ones they trade back and forth all season don't have to find new apartments.

Oh yeah, and Toronto is the only team that apparently needed a corporate sponsor to cover their tab. While every other city found a team related title for their celebration, the Argo party is called the "Wiser's Double Blue Bash".

But the party that truly caught my eye was the one the Saskatchewan Roughriders are hosting entitled "Riderville", because it features Kenny Shields. I read that name and wondered out loud, "My God, how is he even still alive!"

During my teenage Rock 'n Roll days, Kenny was the singer for a band out of Saskatoon called "The Witness", which became "Kenny Shields and Witness" and after several combinations and permutations plus a move to Winnipeg evolved into a rockin' little outfit known as "Streetheart" -- maybe one of Canada's greatest and certainly one of its most under-appreciated bands.


They had hits with "Action", "Look at Me" and "What Kind of Love is This" as well as releasing a version of "Under My Thumb" which was so good the Rolling Stones altered their own arrangement for live performances to replicate the one birthed on the Canadian prairies.

"Streetheart" songs also contain some of the best lyrics ever written by a Canadian band. Take "Snow White", a song about teenage lust:

"School uniform looks so charming,
But underneath, you're quite alarming.

Snow White, the teacher's pet,
Straight "A"'s ain't all she gets."

or the terrific and insightful "Hollywood":

"Hollywood why you lookin' at me?

I don't wanna be part of your mystery."

When I knew Kenny, he was a skinny 16 year old kid with one of the most amazing rock 'n roll voices I'd ever heard. The lead singers in other local bands were either good or bad. But Kenny opened his mouth and you heard what you heard on the radio.

Back then, we used to kid him because he gushed his S's. He didn't slur them. He just turned every "S" into a "Shhh" as in, "I'm from Shhhashhhkatoon, Shhhashhcatchewan".

We never knew if it was unconscious or a practiced affectation but it worked. Because when Kenny did his between song patter, you could see all the girls just melt. And while the music was important, that segment of our audience was really the whole point of most of us being there.

I also didn't know anybody who worked or partied harder. Kenny led the kind of life that Keith Richards wishes he could write about.

And yet, despite multiple bypass surgery and being well into his 60's and who knows what all else, Kenny's still with us. And that voice is as strong and as pure as it ever was.

What follows is something from a recent "Streetheart" reunion show. If you're in Edmonton tomorrow through Saturday you can hear the same thing live.

And that's part of what makes Grey Cup week so special. Randy Bachman and Fred Turner may be headlining the halftime show. Tom Cochrane, Wide Mouth Mason and Andrew Cole have sewn up the big beer tent gigs. But there's still plenty of room for Kenny Shields and one of rock's greatest voices.

Give an audience what they want. Make them part of the fun. And they'll even turn up for a football game nobody thought mattered. For without the audience, there ain't no show, mainstage or sidewise.

That's something guys like Kenny Shields never forget.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dinner in Three Downs


saskmont football

I feed my dog what's called a BARF diet. That doesn't mean I'm hoping to get her on the next Twitter feed to become a CBS series -- "$#*! My Dog $#*!s".

It stands for Biological Appropriate Raw Food. It's what she'd eat if she didn't have a human buying her kibble and cans of dog food. And that means eating what she was designed to consume.

Similarly there is Food Appropriate for a Grey Cup Party.

Munchies for football games used to mean dumping a big bag of chips in a bowl, peeling the top off a container of onion dip, tossing burgers on the grill or brewing up a pot of chili. And there's nothing wrong with any of that good stuff.

But the Grey Cup is not only the always exciting football game the Superbowl wishes it could be; it's a game that crowns champions, so you might want to think about stepping up the menu a little.

Now, I'm what's known in polite company as a "damn good cook", so take my word for what follows…

There's a butcher near my home who combines and packages the BARF my dog eats. And coincidentally, he's one of a large and growing number of butchers who can also supply the perfect main course for your Grey Cup Party. It's known as Turducken.


Okay, any dish which includes "Turd" and "Uck" in its name may not sound appetizing. But I guarantee that once you have savored Turducken, you will not only have achieved gourmet Nirvana but nobody will ever turn down an invitation to one of your Grey Cup parties again.

Turducken is a boneless chicken coated in dressing and inserted into a boneless duck coated in a different dressing before both are then inserted into a boneless Turkey coated in its own special dressing.

It's incredibly simple to cook. But unless you're Julia Child or you just want to have all of your fingers for game day, I'd recommend leaving the prep to a professional.

Which means, because of the work involved, you'll need to order one from a butcher by tomorrow to ensure it's on hand for your guests. Market prices prevail, but on average 20-25 pounds of meat and the trimmings will set you back about $100. And. Well. Worth. Every. Dollar.

If that breaks the bank, ask you guests to chip in a few bucks for something special. They'll think it's Pizza or a half-time stripper. But they won't be disappointed when they see what you really got for them.

25 pounds will feed about 30 people so scale back or expand accordingly.

Once you've collected your bird(s) you can go all Redneck Christmas and deep fry it in the backyard.


But the traditional oven at 350 and 20 minutes a pound will ensure you also have your eyebrows come kick-off. Allow another hour to cool before serving. So time it to come out of the oven just before the game starts for service during the half-time show.

For those who want to start from scratch or get creative, the best Turducken recipe I know can be found here.

Another feature of Turducken is you don't have to buy any special beverages to augment the dish. The multiple flavors mean it goes with anything, the twelve year old scotch you've been hoarding for the big day or the six pack of light beer one of your buddies brought.

And if your butcher has never heard of Turducken, educate him with the clip below and then get on with a Grey Cup party that will be as memorable as the Roughrider win -- or make you still feel satisfied if -- you know -- the other guys -- happen to -- well…

Monday, November 22, 2010

First You Need A Hat



The finalists have been decided! And now the countdown begins to Canada's National Party -- Grey Cup Weekend.

This is where we show the world that the word "Football" has nothing to do with a round ball, knee socks and the magic sponge.

Nor does it have any relationship to a postage stamp sized field and taking four downs to do what real football players can accomplish in three.

It's time for the Canadian Football League Championship Game and all the hoopla that surrounds it.

This week at the Legion, we're taking a break from heady insights into Canadian drama to join a celebration that rolls from coast to coast to coast. That's mostly because my beloved Saskatchewan Roughriders have won a rematch with the dog-ass Montreal Alouettes and (frankly, after the season we had) I'm giddy with relief.

But like any good party the first order of business is deciding what to wear.

Since this year's game will be played in an outdoor stadium in Edmonton the last weekend of November, the wardrobe choice is simple -- a really thick skiddoo suit.

Whatever your team colors, turn up painted in them instead and by the end of the first quarter, they will be replaced by blue and your nipples will be permanently perky until sometime around July.

No, as any Royal watcher getting primed for Princely nuptials will tell you, what's most important for an occasion of this magnitude is your hat.

While NFL fans opt for ridiculous cheese heads and Viking horns, Canadian football fans have always chosen to define themselves regionally. Calgary has Stetsons, Hamilton has hard hats and most years Toronto Argonaut fans are known by their brown paper bags with two holes for eyes.

brown bag

When I was a kid going to Saskatchewan Roughrider games, the official hat was a sweaty green Co-op or John Deer ball cap with the team's "S" logo sewn or Sharpie'd over whatever was printed underneath.

But then branding and marketing took over. Fortunately, not the corporate kind, but the sort that comes from the addled minds of fans whose dedication to the Green & White knows no creative limitations.

There was a time when I, held hostage in Toronto, would have killed for the green and white rising sun Kamikaze headscarf that was Rider-fan de rigueur when we triumphed over the Tiger-Cats in Grey Cup '89.

melon hats

By the time we won our next Cup in 2007, the official headgear had become a watermelon carved into the shape of a football helmet. A swell looking rig to be sure although it filled up with fruit flies on warm days and froze to your head on the cold ones.

This season, Saskatchewan fans decided to meld their love of the Roughriders with the official game beverage (six to twelve Pilsners) and they began to origami beer boxes into game day cowboy hats.


So whether your beverage of choice is Western Canadian Pilsner or Quebec Bras D'Or or Black Horse, the requisite haberdashery for Sunday's tilt is the box it came in -- suitably reconfigured.

And you Brits contemplating what kind of chapeau might best represent your own national pride come Will & Kate's big day might want to consider eschewing the design mavens and donning a fashionable and much more economically feasible Double Diamond or Watney's Red Barrel instead.

If you don't know how to turn a beer box into a cowboy hat, an instructional video is appended below.

And for those who come here for screenwriting insight, you can't create much better regional dialect than the accompanying narration (ie: "Just shit-can that piece", "This part which was un-molested" or "Make an all the way through hole").

Get busy, because we'll have more Grey Cup fun tomorrow and every day this week.

"Go Riders" (or "Allons les Alouettes"  if you must)!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 146: The Future of Theatre & Maybe Everything Else


Earlier this weekend, LA based Canadian screenwriter Brent Piaskoski twittered a suggestion -- "I think more people in L.A. would go to plays if they called them live 3D movies".

I'm sure Mr. P was just joking around, but I also think there's a lot of truth in what he has to say. And I'm beginning to believe that a form of 3D might be about to transform not only theatre, but a lot of the other things now classed as "Live" entertainment.

Back in the fall of 1973, I was doing a play in London. The great part about that was I was onstage in the center of the English speaking theatre world.

The bad part was that because our show was playing at the same time as everything else in town, the chances of seeing another play were few and far between.

But one Saturday night, I managed to catch a late night performance of something just making a name for itself, "The Rocky Horror Show".

The pure theatricality of the piece, combined with its unbridled fun and the sense that I'd discovered something very hot before anybody else had me rushing our cast through the next Saturday night's show so they could all see it as well.

The Show was just as much fun the second time, but a couple of things were different. A new song had been added and one of the cast members had been replaced and as a result there were bumps that hadn't been there the first time around.

The show was the same -- but it wasn't…

The first thing you learn about any live performance is -- it's never exactly the same twice.

What's more, by the finite nature of "Tonight at 8:30" or "This venue can only accommodate (so many) patrons", a lot of people never get to see the shows or performers they'd really like to see live.

Or get to see them when they are at their creative peak.

Lately, movie theatres have begun screening digital feeds from New York's Metropolitan Opera or Britain's National Theatre or Wrestlemania, expanding the "live" audiences for those performances.

But it's still not like you're there and mostly feels the same as watching TV or a movie instead of being inside a legit theatre or sports arena.

Musical acts like U2 and Kenny Chesney have offered 3D concerts, but even then -- well, its still mostly a movie.

But what if…

What if you could see a play from London or New York or Stratford, Ontario in whichever city or town you now live and it would feel just like you were right there in the original theatre with the real actors right in front of you?

What if you could see U2 that way in any small town hockey arena? What if you could see "The Rolling Stones" -- not as they are now, but as they were during the Steel Wheels tour of 1989 or the Beatles from 1963?

All of that is about to become possible.

What you are about to see is a holographic CGI performer working with a live band on a concert stage in front of a live audience. Right now it's a virtual character. But the technology to record real people or replicate past performances is not that far off.

Live 3D Theatre and Concerts and Opera and Dance and maybe even sporting events. Can't get to the next Super Bowl? See it in the closest football stadium -- or maybe even your living room.

The options audiences would have with this technology are virtually endless.

Even if you don't understand Japanese, savor the possibilities and -- Enjoy your Sunday.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Great Movies


My first exposure to the essential works of cinema, the films you absolutely need to have in your professional vocabulary, happened when I was 7 or 8 years old.

Television was a new arrival in my part of the world and one night a week the CBC would run a feature film without commercials under the title "Great Movies". My dad would make popcorn and the whole family would gather around the B&W set as Toronto Star film critic Clyde Gilmour introduced classic films.

It was through him that I was introduced to "Casablanca", "A Night at the Opera" and "How Green Was My Valley".

In later life, Vampira clones hooked me on horror and Sc-fi while Elwy Yost on TVO's "Saturday Night at the Movies" filled in the gaps in my education with hard to find films like "Nightmare Alley" and "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp".


These days, if I had to get by with just one TV channel, it would be Turner Classic Movies, where great movies never stop unspooling.

TCM does a seasonal selection of its own "Essentials" introduced by a film luminary with a selection of films that made them who they are or taught them what they know. This season, that's Alec Baldwin, who perfectly defined what makes a movie "Great" a couple of weeks ago, describing them as the films you can watch 4, 5 or 50 times and always discover something new.

Despite the mass availability of almost every film that's ever been made these days, it seems to be getting harder to see them as they were intended. There are fewer revival houses and even fewer TV channels that don't chop or change films to fit commercial breaks or their perceived audience.

The other night, I stumbled across a screening of "Goodfellas" with all the swearing removed and even iconic lines like "You lost your cherry!" corrected for polite company to "You lost your virginity."

What's the point?

And between high-priced DVDs, over-priced Video on Demand and soon to get out of hand rates for streaming or downloading films, building your cinema vocabulary threatens to become something only those with a lot of disposable income can do.

But I just found a way for you to build your movie collection with at least a year's worth of essential films BEFORE those higher stream rates kick in.


The Open Culture website has just provided links to 225 great movies FREE to stream or download from completely legal online sources. The selection ranges from silent classics to foreign films like Georges Fanju's "Eyes Without a Face" to "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas".

Many of the film links also take you to sites with even more great free movies available.

I've always held that there's no such thing as a bad movie, that inside even the worst of them there is something you can learn. And great movies make the learning so much more enjoyable.

This is your free ticket to hundreds of them.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tear Down This Wall

I'm often accused of just wanting to tear down the current system we have for creating film and television in Canada.

And many of those who share my opinions on cultural topics often encourage me to find some way of working within the structures and programs already available to Canadian artists, offering that "at least we've got this" or "what other choice do we have" or maybe "C'mon, I think they're finally starting to listen to us."

Maybe it is possible to change a system by diplomatically massaging it from the inside. That was the mantra of the failed radicals of the 60's, who dialed back their passions, cut their hair and got government jobs. But I just never saw much changed by those who followed that strategy or witnessed progress toward their intended goals which was not measured by months or years but by generations.

Institutions change incrementally, sometimes over eons. Artists need to be quicker on their feet because most of us only get a few years to make the most of whatever talents we were either born with or acquired.

So I remain one of those, "this isn't working, get rid of it and find something better fast" kind of guys. I may not know exactly how to replace an alternator or carburetor but the car ain't running and somebody must, so let's help a brother out here.


In this last week, a couple of hiccups have disrupted the Canadian cultural scene, bringing some of our institutionalized problems into public view.

One was the awarding of the Giller Prize in Literature to a novel, "The Sentimentalist" which wasn't on the shelves of the country's bookstores. The other was "The Tudors", a series with minimal Canadian artistic and craft participation, winning the Gemini as Best Canadian Drama.

I thought the cause célèbre surrounding the Giller little more than that. If people really wanted to read the winning book, it was readily available in digital or PDF form for less than half the price of the hardcopy, hand-stitched and specially bound edition the publisher insisted was all it could/would manufacture.

For me the choice was really, did you want to read the story or did you want the Faberge egg for your coffee table so people will think you've read it or you were well placed and connected enough to have laid hands on a copy.

One of the most purchased items in LA is the NY Times Review of Books. Not because so many people out there strive to be more literate, but because that broadsheet provides countless studio and network development types with story coverage without them having to actually buy and read the books.

I also wondered why the Bank that has made its name synonymous with the Giller Prize just didn't come up with a few bucks for the publisher to expand their operations.

But then Canadian banks balk at actually investing in artistic ventures. Much easier to slap the logo on an awards evening or film festival and appear culturally supportive and aware while reaping the additional benefit of giving the wife a chance to meet her Lit 101 heroes.

The Gemini awarded to "The Tudors" represents a stickier issue. 

We all know that Canadian networks are loathe to cough up the cost of a big budget television series. But by investing a small portion of the budget they can purchase a "minority" position in a foreign made production. This means they qualify the broadcast hours as Canadian content, often for a fraction of what it would cost to fill the time slot with anything else.

THE TUDORS - Season 2

If you are a Canadian character actor, a grip or a post production house, you can benefit by being employed on one of these shows.

If you're an actor capable of carrying a series or a writer wanting to tell an epic or expensive story, your options diminish, if they exist at all.

In other words, those most capable of showcasing the ability of Canadian talent to compete with the rest of the world have the least opportunity of doing so.

Would any of the current and coming crop of Minority shows, "The Tudors", "The Borgias" or "Camelot" have been purchased by CBC or CTV if they had been pitched by a Canadian writer? Please…

If you think networks whine about not having money when they're in front of the CRTC, you should be in an office with them when your series pilot script has six characters and they only want to pay for five.

You'll also be asked to set your gritty urban drama in cottage country for the additional tax breaks or your cottage country show in a part of the prairies that's never heard of lakes.

Many a Canadian creative has woken from a fevered sleep or stepped from the shower with a fully conceived update on "War and Peace" and then realized, "Not in this lifetime."

Those following a "work within the system" approach are often happy enough with the local employment levels Minority shows provide.

Others might suggest that a network can only qualify for one if they are also programming one in which they have the Majority position.

But since Minority co-pros currently outnumber ones where Canadians hold the Majority position by something like 4-1, you know that's not going to fly.

These "inside the system" folks are always so enormously fair minded. They try hard to see things from the point of view of the guy with his foot firmly planted on their necks.

I'm sure they all believe that they're simply exemplifying the polite and diplomatic fair-play nature of Canadians -- without realizing they are strengthening the hand of those who would dictate our culture and what creative dreams we can and cannot have.

Working "with" the arts institutions as they are structured in Canada is a trade of freedom for financial security. But as Benjamin Franklin once said, "Any society that will give up a little Liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

Globe & Mail television critic John Doyle recently penned a piece equating the two award related upsets with clueless elites, a government that self-identifies with hockey and a national population that drinks a particular brand of coffee.

I read it three times without getting a firm handle on what he was saying. But Mr. Doyle is probably a much smarter guy than I'll ever be and maybe you are too, so enlighten me if the penny drops.

But in reading the comment section of his column to see if somebody else could elucidate his point(s), I stumbled across someone who articulated my own "Bomb-throwing", "bridge-burning", "Career-suicide" philosophy better than I've ever been able to do.

I don't know who "E. Sorbin" is, but brother or sister, thank you for this…

"Let's face it: the "elite" Doyle is referring to are but an extension of the "champagne-swilling socialists" as exemplified recently by Layton and his wife, also Adrienne Clarkson and husband. This group is less an elite than a cultural Mafia and socialist Brahmin class subsidized forever and a day by government grants, subsidies, pensions, expense accounts a.k.a. taxpayers' money.

They thrive on a system of closed-circuit cronyism, promoting themselves and their ilk to positions of authority where they can shape policy on where funding (read: cultural awards) ultimately, go.

So sometimes taxpayers' money goes to non-event events like the Geminis, or to obscure publishers in the East Coast who do not have to worry about market competition or making profit margins.

Because, like the CBC, their very existence is already guaranteed by grants and subsidies from the government, all in the name of protecting and rewarding the many voices of Canadian culture. Problem is, sometimes it really just looks more like a culture of moochers than so-called gatekeepers of Canada's heritage. Or, perhaps, that is precisely Canada's heritage?"

Sometimes it feels that what we have in this country are a lot of gifted artists and a few people in positions of power who would prefer that art and culture remain the prerogative of a particular group or attitude -- those who live in a world where the bond of a book's paper or regenerating affection for a syphilitic despot and the monarchy he spawned take precedence over artistic expression.

That's the wall I want to tear down, blow up or burn.

Because I'm not sure how much progress we can make as long as we're herded around by people who think they know better than the artist when it comes to their own Art or who can make more money by controlling or restricting our access to both the resources necessary to create Art and the product itself.

Maybe some of you may think this is off topic (as well as off-color) but it might make the point to someone who loves the game of "football" as much as Mr. Doyle.

This is how Sky Television in Britain is marketing their new HD delivery system. This is what they feel most likely appeals to their version of the Tim Horton's swilling masses. It's an image with which Canadian artists are unfortunately all too familiar.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Train Wreck


Two years ago, I helped get a new reality/lifestyle show off the ground, producing and directing the first episodes and mapping out what would transpire over the first season. It was a complex and ambitious series so we began interviewing for an additional producer position.

One of the applicants had a lengthy resume in that style of programming and said she'd just come off a "train wreck" series. In my naiveté or maybe pre-conditioned to believe reality television actually had something to do with reality, I assumed she meant some Discovery/History/Whatever series about famous train derailments.

When she said another show she'd done was also a "train wreck" series, I began to wonder if a programming niche for disaster aficionados or railroad buffs had escaped my notice. Then she said she was up for another one.

That's when I learned "Train Wreck" was reality-speak for a series where you watch other human beings screw up, fail and fall apart.

These days "That's (apparently) Entertainment".

Being a guy who's doesn't understand the societal benefits of short selling the stock market, government run casinos or getting somebody to sign up for a sub-prime mortgage, I've never fully embraced the attraction of watching people fail -- or perhaps worse -- seeing them humiliated for my enjoyment.

In other times, I wouldn't have been the guy lining up for tickets to bear-baiting, Christians getting fed to lions or William Wallace being drawn and quartered.

Call me old fashioned but in my world good television still includes being amazed, uplifted or cathartically reborn.  Watching somebody get numbingly drunk before being coerced into a sex act as giggling housemates enjoy the soap opera, not so much.

But such "mirroring of our society" is all the rage in some circles, justified as socially important or necessary to understand by those selling it. And it makes money, so it's embraced by many broadcast networks.

Last weekend's Gemini Awards may not have depicted the Canadian Television Industry finally hitting bottom, but you could see that the down button on the elevator was firmly depressed.

The "Best Series" was one that is Canadian only by some definition cooked up by chartered accountants. Much of the nominated and winning talent either doesn't carry a Canadian passport or only uses one to come home for free medical check-ups. Some categories were filled out with talent that hasn't even been seen on a Canadian TV screen since the last virtually unwatched Gemini ceremony.

There were worthy locals honored to be sure, including some already cancelled shows and one brave soul who communicated the trophy's growing insignificance by leaving it in a gutter for the first passerby.

We're an entertainment empire in decline, a fact maybe better illustrated by the other big Canadian television story from last weekend, the unmasking of "Lake Shore".

For those who were busy watching all eleven repeats of "Lost Girl" on Showcase in the hope of pumping the ratings so it might eventually equal any single hour's numbers for an episode of "Heartland", "Lake Shore" is a Canadian series that hasn't filmed a single episode or been picked up by a broadcaster, but has garnered more press than that managed by all of the Gemini nominees' publicists put together.


"Lake Shore" is the low IQ brain child of producers Maryam Rahimi and George Tsioutsioulas, apparent students of the broadcaster approved Canadian school of American television mimeography. 

Hoping to cash in on the success of MTV's "Jersey Shore" they decided to replicate its "Guido-Guidette" premise in a Toronto locale, plumbing the depths of Canada's far more diverse multicultural communities to prove us as equally capable of showcasing idiots.

Somehow "Guido" and "Guidette" are considered terms of disparagement by Italian Americans offended by "Jersey Shore" and harmless endearment by MTV PR flacks.

I'm not really sure who's telling the truth there as I once helped a friend of mine shoot a documentary on the machismo of Italian males, which included two nights in a Woodbridge, Ontario watering hole as a stream of swaggering morons parked their Camaros long enough to enlighten us on what made them "so fuggin' hot". By an almost equal count half wanted to make sure we didn't go calling them "Guidos" while the other half wore the badge proudly.

Such are the sociological questions Rahimi and Tsioutsioulas (pictured below being interviewed on CTV's "Canada AM") seemed to suggest would be addressed as their cast of "discoveries" from eight different ethnic backgrounds mixed and mingled in the world-class clubs and hot tubs of Toronto.


Unfortunately, in their hustler zeal to find a buyer for their series they released a Youtube trailer which included a few examples of homophobia and one young lovely professing her hatred for all ethnicities -- although -- she harbored a special hated -- for Jews.

Although the offending trailer was immediately pulled from Youtube (ostensibly for violating a CBC radio copyright) and the show's website went immediately dark, a shorter clip with the same remarks remained online.

Now the more worldly among you might shake your head, mutter "What a dimwit!" and move on. Others might be outraged.

And the latter had the opportunity to be outraged further when the Toronto Star published interviews from those who auditioned for the series wherein they described being "encouraged to make anti-Semitic comments" by the producers.

All part of the "be outrageous" tactics required to get a show on the air these days?

Just a bunch of naive kids eager for their 15 minutes of fame?


Or maybe it's where the gradual decline of intelligence and ethical behavior among Canadian broadcast executives has led us.

Somewhere in LA, there are Canadian writers rolling around on the floor laughing right now because I implied Canadian broadcast executives had any ethics in the first place. But I firmly believe they once did and that some still do or struggle to embrace them in their darkest moments or while being pressured to best the competition by any means necessary.

But for the most part you won't find much ethical behavior in the ranks of those who program so-called "Reality" shows.

The first thing you realize when you play in this arena is that nobody calls it "reality programming". It's "Lifestyle". That's mostly because there's no CMF money for reality shows.

But if you can make the audience think it's real while proving to the funders that you're actually selling a makeover show or a kitchen competition or documentary on driving habits you'll get the federal bucks.

Either government bureaucrats don't watch the shows they're financing or they've got paper to cover their asses saying it's about something else.

The show I worked on fit into the Lifestyle category of "Real Estate Porn" meaning it was designed for people who get hot in the presence of a copy of "Architectural Digest" and shouldn't venture into a Vintage Hardware store un-chaperoned.

To tell our stories, we employed actors as some of the credited experts or real life contacts of the central characters of the piece. You would have perceived them as real people and that was the intention. Only real "real" people wouldn't have articulated as well or gotten us wrapped before getting into overtime.

That's something that happens frequently in this genre. Check out the film/video category of Craigslist any given week and you'll find all kinds of Lifestyle shows trolling for non-union performers to augment their "casts".

A lot of these people are very talented, they just haven't broken in yet. And many move from reality show to reality show without ever getting tagged as being other than who the show producers and networks claim they are.

The program I was doing centered on construction and on one job site I was approached by a day laborer asking us not to show him on camera. That's a common request. Sometimes a guy's ducking child support and doesn't want his wife knowing he's working. Sometimes they just want their privacy. But this guy was pretending to be somebody who did something more than haul lumber around on another reality show and he didn't want to blow his big payday.

The story lines are often as contrived. More than once the network asked us to ramp up the tension or suspense by suggesting a task had to be accomplished in an impossibly short period of time. I'd point out that the professionals involved were telling me such things just don't happen. The response was, "Jim, we're not recreating reality, we're manufacturing it." followed by "Tell them that's what they have to say if they want to be on camera."

And, y'know, if you dig sewers 40 hours a week and this is your one chance to impress the in-laws by being on TV, a lot of people do what they're told.

One afternoon, we were ensconced in a site office, coincidentally watching another makeover show to see how they did things when a building inspector walked in to sign some papers. On screen, another real life character was decrying the workmanship of his predecessor, screaming that nothing was to code and it would all have to be ripped out. The inspector looked confused, "No, that's done right." Didn't matter, the other show ripped out the shoddy work and now faced the impossible task of completing the makeover on time.

Instead of serving Canadian audiences real drama and comedy, the CRTC has allowed Canadian networks to get the same Cancon and requirements of licensing bang from a cheaper fake version that doesn't employ professional writers or actors or in many cases even pay a living wage.

Last summer, I was approached by a couple of young filmmakers who had a "Lifestyle" concept to sell but had never been in a network meeting and wanted somebody to watch their backs.

The execs we were meeting liked their show but balked at paying what it would cost to get it on the air. The arguments they made to the neophytes astonished me. They quoted weekly license fees that equaled the take-home pay of a kid working in the fast food industry and argued that most of their programming came from people just happy to "work for credits".

In one case, one of those guys working for credits has been doing that for three successful seasons.

In Canadian television, there are lifestyle networks raking in enormous federal subsidies who, in any other industry, would face the wrath of other government departments for not even paying those working for them the minimum wage.


In the 1950's, American television was rocked by what became known as the Quiz Show Scandal, when it was discovered that popular Quiz shows were feeding audience favorite contestants with the answers to questions, forcing others to take a dive and generally not delivering what the audience thought it was watching.

Paul Attanasio's brilliant script for the Robert Redford directed film about the scandal, "Quiz Show", concludes with a TV Executive of the time flummoxed by the outrage and wondering what all the fuss is about -- "We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're -- we're in show business."

But when you make a habit of pretending what you're selling is legitimate instead of a cheap facsimile, when you don't feel you're required to pay people for honest labor the way the rest of the world does, and get caught up in your own immunity to any rules that apply to others -- how far a leap is it to think the mores of basic decency, of not embracing homophobia and anti-Semitism don't apply to you either?

And you don't have to have been around television that much to know that "Lake Shore" would not have garnered anywhere near the free publicity it got if it hadn't appeared not only viable but desirable to somebody in a cushy corner office.

If I were to take any show I'm currently selling, or have an idea on how to make a Canadian version of "Lost" or "House" or whatever enjoys current popularity, I won't get on "Canada AM" or CBC Radio or elicit color photo spreads  in print arms of broadcast conglomerates unless somebody inside those organizations is floating a trial balloon or attempting to take the public temperature before signing on the dotted line.

And that means that network people charged with finding the next big thing likely screened that 8 minute hate filled screed and thought they just might get away with it -- just might catch "Jersey Shore" lightning in a bottle and trade any harm that might be done for a richer bottom line.

Not to single out anyone here, but it's interesting to watch the entire "Canada AM" segment devoted to "Lake Shore". It comes across as a full on sell job of how exciting it's going to be. As a producer, you can't buy this kind of validation for an unsold show under any circumstances beyond it being already 99% sold.

I wonder if Seamus O'Regan might want to consider  an "It Gets Better" video for the victims of anti-Semitism.

Given what happened this weekend, it seems unlikely that "Lake Shore" will ever find a spot on the TV dial. Networks loathe to take a risk on drama become just as loathe to green-light a far cheaper reality show bound to give second thoughts to potential advertisers and with which any PR might not be good PR.

But given the "iffy" ethics of some television executives and the possibility that a little editing and some pre-release spin can make it look like this whole tempest was a giant misunderstanding and nobody ever intended to go that far -- who knows.

And then the hustlers who began dominating our industry a decade ago will have won another one and that plummeting elevator that is Canadian TV will slide past the basement level and into P1 or P2, from whence the ride back up to the light takes even longer.

A few days ago, a frustrated Canadian screenwriter posted a comment on facebook that read: "In meetings I tend to pitch to, or align myself with, the smartest person in the room. The technical term for this is "career suicide."

Sadly, for most of us pitching to Canadian networks, it's all too clear that the smartest person in the room is us -- and until that changes Canadian TV doesn't stand a chance.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 145: Kat Dennings New Media Mogulette


All Art and most commerce is subjective.

Some people like the same TV shows, movies or music I do and some don't.

Some people love Fords or Chevrolets and others wouldn't be caught dead buying one.

When I was 8 years old, my friends and I would argue endlessly over who made the best pick-up truck, though none of us had ever actually driven one and we didn't have the first clue what we were talking about.

These days that depth of knowledge will qualify you as a color commentator on Hockey Night In Canada.

Or to have your own blog.

I seldom post reviews of what I like or don't like here. And when I do it's usually to make a point about something else.

A few weeks ago, I posted my dissatisfaction with the final episode of "Rubicon", mostly to illustrate my feeling that the audience didn't get what it had been promised. Somebody linked that post to a TIME magazine piece and I was flooded with hate filled diatribes from fans of the series.

Now that AMC has cancelled "Rubicon" does that make my opinion more valid than theirs? Of course not.

For all I know the show didn't go forward because it was too expensive, hadn't delivered a desired demographic or somebody threw up on somebody at the wrap party.

That's a long way of saying -- don't get too bent out of shape by what's coming next. I don't mean anything personal and I'm not questioning any fellow creative's professional skills or level of talent.

Over the last few weeks, a number of new Canadian made web series began to debut. They're the first wave of an initiative designed to assist new media.

In their own words, "The intent is to assist independent producers/creators to finance the production of original drama series created initially for the web. The Independent Production Fund intends to explore the potential for high quality, story-driven drama with new and innovative narrative forms."

All well and good and I'm sure those creating the various series all have a well defined target audience in mind. Story wise, what I've seen so far doesn't appeal to me and I doubt it was intended to. And that's all okay.

But what I'm noticing is that all of the series feel like either short form TV shows (a scripted TV pilot that has been reformatted into mini-episodes) or audition pieces designed to offer an arena or characters a broadcaster might like to further as hours or half hours.

But since the whole point of this exercise was to find "innovative narrative forms", I'm wondering why that's about the last thing I'm seeing.

And I've got to ask if the IPF is simply carrying more of the development load formerly shouldered by our broadcasters -- development we already fund through our taxes and cable fees.

Is the $1.2 Million from regular Canadians delivering anything that can establish any kind of new media presence or form of story telling? Or is it there to create a finished product that development execs not skilled enough to assess script and talent alone might more easily understand?

Most of what has debuted replicates what can also easily be found elsewhere on the web. Non-Canadian of course, but then, beyond the odd mention or mailbox, nothing about these new series feels like a uniquely Canadian perspective either. 

Is all this just another version of the (in)famous "create a Canadian copy of a foreign success" syndrome?

On the IPF website, each series lists its running times (between 3 and 10 minutes) and the number of episodes which will eventually be rolled out, usually on a weekly basis. Once again, that copies the TV model in micro form and replicates where the web was a couple of years ago, not where it is today.

TV established the weekly episodic format for most drama because it was cost effective and created a schedule most viewers could follow without needing much more than the odd promotional reminder  --  "Seinfeld -- Thursday at…".

But in a world of DVRs, full season DVDs and year round TV debuts, not to mention thousands of new Internet pages and links arriving daily, shouldn't these new Canadian offerings be trying something new rather than hoping their audience will stick around and/or maintain interest from week to week?

Similarly, Youtube established the "no longer than 10 minutes" rule when it debuted, and no doubt shorts remain the web's main form of video consumption. But there are many web series now that run 30 minutes or more and interact across multiple platforms.

Overall, it feels like anything innovative, experimental or explorational was tossed overboard in favor of another "make-work" Arts program built to serve a bureaucracy that values what fits on a comparative chart more than trying anything new or risky.

Or enormously enjoyably creative…

Which brings me to Kat Dennings.

Ms. Dennings is a talented Hollywood starlet who apparently registers high on the "hot" scale in her demographic. She's been blogging for some time and also has her own video channel on Youtube.

Since much celebrity generated Internet video is designed to enhance celebrity, most people probably dismiss her musings as just that. But I think if you look closely, you'll find somebody trying really hard to create a unique "Brand" and offer an original point of view.

What follows is a short, loopy riff on her 2008 film "Nick and Nora's Ultimate Playlist" a film barely different from most of the young urban angst regularly funded by Telefilm but which earned more than $33 Million on its far from extravagant budget.

The sound and picture quality aren't great. But I predict you'll find more originality in it than in the government approved Art we're making. And instead of costing $1.2 Million, it probably didn't set Ms. Dennings back more than a sheaf of craft paper and a box of Crayolas.

Dennings videos currently average 100 hits for every one garnered by the new Canadian videos. Maybe that's an obvious side-effect of celebrity but it may reflect a desire to view and share video that can't be found somewhere else.

I continue to believe that Canadians will never succeed in finding an audience on TV, in movies or on the web until the creative choices of bureaucrats and the need to meet their needs is removed from our production system.

Whether or not you agree -- Enjoy Your Sunday.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sell Perfect Scripts in 24 hours!

The "learn to write" and "sell what you wrote" industries have been a going concern for almost as long as there's been a film business. Skim showbiz publications, search the net or pick up a local free weekly and there will invariably be a list of lectures, seminars and workshops on writing scripts, selling to television or creating webisodes.

Most are pretty pricey as weekend entertainments go. But they're usually cheaper than a semester of film school tuition and come with the promise of networking and celebrity access. Some even include cocktails afterward or a boxed lunch as part of the admission fee.

I've attended dozens of them, probably been a speaker or panelist at just as many more. And how worthwhile they are often depends less on who does the talking or the topic discussed than what the individual members of the audience are trying to get their heads around.

I've filled up half a notebook in the presence of somebody spewing exactly what I needed to hear at that point in my life and development. And I've doodled for pages as somebody else droned on, boring me to death, yet scoring a standing ovation from everybody else.

The best bit of writing technique I ever obtained came from a couple of fellow students as we were eating our box lunches. It turned into something I've applied to every script I've written since and it made most of them a million times better.

Drop a hundred bucks in the bucket at the top of the page and I'll pass it along. But I guarantee half of you will say "I'm already doing that!" and the other half won't think it's worth anywhere near $100.

The second best teacher I ever had started a retreat weekend by saying, "I can't teach you anything you don't already know. All I can do is show you how to use it…" implying that whether you used his wisdom well or badly was also up to you.

And that's completely true.

If you're spending $300 to listen to somebody who can spend ten minutes on the imperative of attaching #12 brads to your manuscript, you're probably not going to get your money's worth. But graduating from a prestigious film school that leaves you staring down the barrel of an outstanding $40,000 student loan with no job waiting in the wings might not be the most beneficial career path either.

Pick your poison.

I've always believed that screenwriting was a little like carpentry, a craft almost anybody could learn and even get very good at but few do well. Being able to make a living at it is an entirely other matter that may or may not correlate to your talent or expertise.

But like carpentry, where you get schooled in the basics and then begin an apprenticeship, anybody's writing will automatically get better and richer if they can be doing it every day.

So as important as it is to learn the basic skills, it's far more important to be working at them in an environment where you can see the results on a regular basis.

I started off writing movies that somehow got made. But where I really honed the craft was on a TV series, one shot so tightly to a schedule that more often than not what you wrote one day was shot the next and available in dailies on the third.

The memories of how any scene had been constructed were still fresh enough while viewing the final takes to quickly learn how you'd messed up or where your creative instincts had been spot on.

It's always been my belief that you make better writers by giving them the opportunity to work not the chance to listen to others talk about how they work.

Yes, you'll always leave those sessions invigorated and inspired. Certainly, in my case, many left the hall muttering, "Shit, if that idiot can do it…".

But invariably you end up back in front of your own blank computer screen with your own thoughts. And I'd argue that having the expectations of a waiting cast and crew and network or studio is a far more pressing incentive than tapping out a new idea to be mailed to people who mostly won't read it.

Likewise, I'm sure it's possible to delineate the skills of the showrunner. But until you've arrived at the production office one morning to deal with a lead actor with pneumonia, the truck carrying horses for the cavalry charge broken down a hundred miles away, 400 extras on a 4 hour call and the writers room up in arms over some insulting notes from the French co-production partner -- you haven't got a clue about actually being a show runner.

Yet, instead of creating greater opportunities for writers to actually work and learn from the end product of their own labor, the Canadian film and TV industry seems to keep putting more emphasis on "training".

Each year, millions more in Federal and Provincial and Corporate dollars are poured into film schools and conferences and seminars and retreats. Studios and networks set up their own courses to train genre writers and showrunners. Guilds and Unions append seminar listings in their newsletters.

On one level you can't fault any of them for this. If they don't do it, they've got people screaming that they feel left out or ignored or without something to do that'll make them feel part of the industry. Simply by existing, workshops and seminars provide hope and the promise of a better future.

And yet by doing it, they also get guys like me coming out of the woodwork to wonder why you need to keep training people for jobs that don't exist or while you already have dozens of people with hundreds of credits who are barely working -- if they are even working at all.

In many ways, it leads me to believe that all these "educational initiatives" are little more than a smokescreen to hide the fact that until Canadian film and television is about being a real profit and loss business dependent on box office and ratings to survive there is no future industry for any of us.


That's part of the reason I stopped hop-scotching the country to disseminate my own personal pearls. I knew 90% of the people eagerly hanging on my every word didn't stand a chance in hell of ever selling a script.

What's more, for every kid I'd mentored who'd gone on to make millions in Hollywood, there was one with far more talent left weeping in the CBC Atrium after their best work had been savaged by somebody without enough talent to color co-ordinate sweaters at a suburban GAP outlet.

No matter how high the level of creative talent rises in this country, it can never overcome the glass ceiling of CRTC and CMF mandates which limit production to the least and cheapest requirements of license.

And if the jobs of industry bureaucrats and network executives are to continue the smokescreen to hide their lack of commitment and lack of resources must get thicker.

One recent writing brochure that crossed my desk came highly endorsed by some of those who purport to hire writers, assuring potential students that their teacher, despite his lack of writing credentials had "recently been in LA pitching HBO, Showtime and Fox".

It's a sign of either their naiveté or their desire to climb on the snake oil wagon that nobody mentions there are guys who drive cabs, wait tables or once did stand up comedy taking meetings with all those entities and many more even as you read this. 

That's because that industry is based on new ideas and catching an audience's imagination instead of meeting regional quotas and bureaucratic funding rules.

By the last time I did a writing seminar I had already decided I didn't want to be part of peddling false dreams and providing less than hungry producers with new meat because the more experienced lambs wouldn't be led to slaughter any more.

I was appearing at a very well-thought-of institution to talk about making a first feature and decided to be brutally honest. I started by asking how many of them wanted to make a film. Of course every hand in the room went up.

So I asked that they keep them there until I described a scenario under which their personal code of ethics would not allow them to operate and only then to take their hand down.

I started by asking who would be willing to falsify government funding documents in order to get financing. These people had all probably cheated a little on an income tax form or knew somebody who had, so all the hands stayed up.

I asked how many would have no trouble lying to a bank or group of investors. How many would lie to family members to get their funding? A few began to waver.

How many would launder money?

How many would sleep with a member of the opposite sex to get their film made?

With a member of the same sex?

How many would be willing to cheat a writer out of his credit or find somebody willing to kick back fees to do a re-write?

How many would construct a contract with a foreign actor so he actually earned more than the Canadian actors needed to qualify as Cancon?

How many would sign side-deals with their crews that paid them less than union scale?

How many would skimp on meals and craft services to save a couple of bucks?

How many would make under the table deals with suppliers that benefitted them more than the production?

How many would falsify financial statements for years to come in order to keep their personal fortunes afloat while the artists who had made their film struggled to survive?

By the end of my list, there wasn't a single hand still raised. I asked how any of them expected to make a movie in Canada if they didn't resort to such things. And then we spent a couple of hours talking about not falling into any of those traps.

After the class was over, every single student communicated their appreciation. The school never asked me back. And I wouldn't have gone if they had.

We don't need yet another evening set aside to teach those already flooding from our film schools about structure and format and inciting incidents. We need places where they can practice what they've already been taught, see a finished product and have it appraised by real audiences.

For an industry to grow here we need to stop selling hope and start yelling "Action!".