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He Shoots, He Scores: Michael Dowse and Jay Baruchel Talk GOON and the Canadian Conundrum

Rachel Fox

by:
March 1st, 2012

"Obscene finger gestures from such a pristine girl!" This poster got pulled in Toronto and Montreal after complaints.

Despite some controversy  involving  obscene finger gestures in subways and bus stops, director Michael Dowse's hockey comedy GOON (co-written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg) managed to kick some serious Canadian box-office ass on its opening weekend, pulling in roughly $1.2 million (the film is currently available on iTunes and will be released in select US cities on March 30).

A Canadian film pulling in $1.2 million domestically on opening  is practically unheard of;  it's a cinematic triumph that's almost beyond comprehension. Like the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup, maybe.

 

Centered on Canada's beloved game of hockey, GOON is actually something of an anomaly on our cinematic landscape: an English-language comedy penned by proven talent (Canadian Evan Goldberg is responsible for films like SUPERBAD and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS) featuring some recognizable American stars (Seann William Scott, Liev Schreiber) that opened simultaneously in markets across the country.

Telefilm, the governmental arm that funds a goodly chunk of what this country produces,  is often lauded for what many in the industry perceive as a lack of  support for commercial (notably genre) fare in favor of an "arty," cerebral, highbrow esthetic. Filmmakers and audiences alike argue that the institutionalized approach towards production by Canada's biggest movie producer has become stale and is in dire need of an overhaul. Perhaps the injection of cash from GOON will promote some sort of change within the system.

Director Michael Dowse in Vancouver. He's a Habs man. (Ryan West photo.)

Director Dowse, whose domestic box office track record was secured after  FUBAR 2 scored with audiences last year, spoke with me in Vancouver. "I make films for the audience: I keep them short, I keep them funny, and I keep the stories good," he said.  "I’m sick of 'auteurs,' you know what I mean? The films need to start making money otherwise we’re not going to be able to keep making them, at least under this government."

"I think the audience is ready to support Canadian films. I refer to this as our 'Platinum Blonde' phase of Canadian cinema," he says, referencing a Canadian hair band popular in the 80s, "and I think we’re coming out of it. We’re heading into something which is a little more commercial. And good."

Furthering the Canadian movie conundrum  is a frustrating lack of cohesive promotion and distribution of the vast majority of films. Certainly, when discussing the nature of Canadian cinema it's critical to note the stark contrast between how films are both handled and received by audiences in English Canada vs. Quebec: in 2011, seven of the top ten highest grossing Canadian films in Canada were in French.

Ryan West photo.

Ultimately, unless one resides close to a major urban center or happens to be flying on Air Canada (surely, the most consistently reliable place to screen a Canadian film) it can prove almost impossible to see a Canadian movie. Apart from being hard to find, Canadian films are woefully under-promoted by their distributors, who are obligated to release films nationally (which could just mean Toronto and Vancouver) in order to satisfy certain funding requirements of Telefilm. Investing any serious money into promotion is seen as a guaranteed money-loss that eats away at the bottom line; minimal promotion means miniscule audience attendance, ensuring a short  theatrical run. It's a vicious cycle.

"I think we have a problem with English language producers: I don’t think they’re strong enough," says Dowse. "I think they come from an event-planning background and not necessarily from a business-planning background."

Dowse is keenly aware that GOON will benefit from a huge advantage that the majority of small, independent Canadian films don't typically get - star power. "I think those actors are available to be cast, and you have to just hustle and cast good actors. We got Seann William Scott and Liev Schreiber and it wasn’t crazy-hard to do. I think there’s always the ability to get better actors in your films – that’s the big thing, in terms of getting it out there. For better or worse it’s a star-based system. The better talent you can get into your films, the wider of a release you’re going to have. I also think that distributors are ready to release Canadian films. But you’re talking to someone who is not in a position to complain about it at this point!"

Jay Baruchel at the Whistler Film Festival. (Rachel Fox photo.)

I had a chance to interview Jay Baruchel at the Whistler Film Festival in December of last year. Baruchel wears his heart on his sleeve; it is a  heart that seems to beat as much for hockey as it does for Canada. The fiercely patriotic actor (whose tattoo of a red maple leaf was made famous in KNOCKED UP) chooses to reside in his hometown of Montreal over Hollywood.

"I want to do for Montreal what Cronenberg did for Toronto," he says. The  actor-turned-screenwriter was candid about the state of our national cinema when prompted, becoming visibly animated over a topic he is clearly versed in and passionate about. "The joke about Canadian cinema, as [director] Jacob Tierney will tell you, " says Baruchel, "is, 'Oh, when is your movie coming out?' The answer being, 'It’s been out… for three weeks!' But you would never know."

Can we say that you’re having the “Canadian film experience” here at the festival?

Absolutely. Government funding and everything!

Let’s talk about Canadian films. We listen to Arcade Fire, we love Canadian music, but we don’t really get a chance to see Canadian films -

English Canadian films.

Fair enough. But it's pommes et l’oranges.

You’re right, though. It’s my raison d’etre and rallying cry for God knows how long. As long as the people who control what we see don’t stand to financially benefit from putting out Canadian films, there will always be that cultural apathy. I think they have to feel it in their wallet. The thinking of corporate conglomerate media is, “we will fulfill a minimum obligation in terms of releasing Canadian films, yet we’ll fill our coffers by getting the rights to American ones.” That’s what we’ve been combating.

I’m not saying that we have to stop making movies for film students; we should still make those movies. But there are different types of Canadians, so the movies should reflect that. Why can’t we have fucking comedies and horror movies and action movies and love stories – we should be able to have it all. It shouldn’t all just be for kids that have graduated from Concordia Film. Those movies have a very small minority of an audience. And the fact is, no one wants to release a Canadian film. Those two things have been a cancer in our culture for a long, long time.

Ideally, GOON is part of a movement. I saw TRAILER PARK BOYS, these guys that did their own thing and it’s 100% bona fide Canadian. It’s profitable and it’s massive and it’s populist. Populist is not the be all and end all, but it puts butts in the seats and it allows people to make more interesting things later.

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