Watch and Learn
BY Dawn Calleja
Photography by Odeon Films
Michael McGowan isn’t like other Canadian filmmakers. He didn’t come up through the Canadian Film Centre or go to film school. He doesn’t pal around with Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar. And he freely admits he’s out to make money, and if he can do it in the United States, all the better. Perhaps that’s why McGowan’s latest feature isn’t like other Canadian films. “Saint Ralph is the story of a kid trying to triumph against the odds,” he says. No junkies, no incest, no dead kids. It’s charming, sweet, touching, even.
And what do you know—people like it. “It’s transcending common selling patterns, and doing it everywhere,” says 38-year-old McGowan. “It’s kind of a Cinderella story.”
When McGowan sat down to write the script for Saint Ralph—which hits theatres this spring—he wasn’t dreaming about kudos at Cannes, but about happy moviegoers. “I always want to write stories the audience will be entertained by,” he says. We don’t make many of those kinds of movies, especially in English Canada.
Part of the problem, McGowan says, is with the kinds of Canadian films that have hit it big, at least with critics. “Some of the successes we’ve had in Canadian cinema”—from directors like Egoyan and David Cronenberg—“have led to imitation, and that has tipped the balance to dark, difficult fare. If that were only one part of what we did in Canada, that’d be fine. But the balance has been tipped a little too far.” Yeah, but if we can’t compete on budget (and we can’t), isn’t that the only way to set Canadian films apart from the Hollywood schlock that invades our movie screens every Friday night? McGowan doesn’t buy that line. His movie-making heroes are indie guys like the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson who have managed to walk the fine line between artistic integrity and commercial success. Why can’t Canadian filmmakers do the same thing?
There are signs that things are changing on the Canadian film scene. “Atom Egoyan has gone on record saying he’s going for commercial success,” says McGowan. “There are too many dollars involved to just make a film for five friends.” That’s Telefilm’s line too. Back in 1999, the national film-funding agency stopped handing out dollars solely on the basis of artistic merit and started demanding a return on investment and a solid showing at the domestic box office—leaving some of the country’s most critically acclaimed filmmakers with empty pockets, including Egoyan.
Not McGowan. Some $2.5 million of Saint Ralph’s $6-million budget came from Telefilm. But he’s torn when it comes to the agency’s mandate—and so is Telefilm, it seems. “Telefilm wants to achieve a greater percentage of the box office and still make films with integrity,” he says. Though he can’t explain why a formulaic, culturally devoid flick like MVP: Most Valuable Primate gets precious Telefilm dollars and internationally renowned filmmakers don’t.
It’s a balancing act—both for Telefilm and for Canadian filmmakers. “The new head of Telefilm [former Film Centre chief Wayne Clarkson] needs to try to make films with integrity that will find an audience,” says McGowan, who’s hoping his next project will be an American one. As for his peers here at home, they need to give a little too: “Let’s pull up the blinds, open the doors and let the sun in a little bit.”