Norflicks Productions Ltd. - Writer Resume

My drama writing career began, oddly enough, in London for the BBC - that’s right, I started at the top. I wrote a 60 minute drama about Canada, which was broadcast by the BBC in its overseas service in a series that dealt with the Commonwealth. I wrote the Canadian episode. The whole thing was, I think, a propaganda effort on the part of the BBC and the British government, which was trying to influence the choice of Sudan as to whether to belong to Egypt or to seek Dominion status or independence. I think in the end it chose independence, but at any rate, the BBC decided to broadcast a series of programs on the Commonwealth for the edification of the Sudanese voter. My hour on Canada was part of that. So my very first screenplay never appeared in English but was translated into Arabic and I attended the production and of course could not understand a word of my own screenplay. This was done, of course, not for television but for radio. As a young kid, I got a reputation in my family for being a liar. The reason they accused me of lying was that I couldn’t resist improving on stories that actually happened. It was a great relief to me, when I got to twelve or thirteen, to realize there was such a thing as fiction, which meant I wasn’t a liar, but in fact, an artist. I much preferred the latter.

I only became serious about screenwriting at the CBC when I was producing Weekend and Midweek, two hours a week of heavy Public Affairs. So I didn’t have a lot of time. The screenplay I wrote was Did We Leave Any Tracks? It drew heavily on my experience of the labour movement. It was the story about a man who was running for union office in the United States and his opponent is murdered. He knows that he had nothing to do with it but conducts his own investigation and chooses the method of trying to persuade the person he suspects into confessing by pretending to approve of what he suspects him of doing. The pretence takes the form of phoning when he learns of the crime and asking, “Well, did we leave any tracks?” The phone call is, of course monitored by the police, so we have the drama of a man, totally innocent, who is convicted by the evidence in a matter of hours. I had success with this little story in that Creative Artists in Hollywood picked it up and Marty Baum, who had put together Cabaret as a movie, tried to get it made. I optioned it to Warner Brothers and thought “this is very easy.” Carroll O’Connor, the star of All in the Family and then very hot, was given the script to read. In any case, it never did get made but it came close enough to whet my appetite. The best thing that happened to me as a writer was that I conceived of the series The Newcomers, which we sold to Imperial Oil. These were a series of dramas based on collected actual stories of immigrants going back a great many years covering the whole period of Canada’s existence. I chose not screenwriters, but people like Alice Monroe, George Rega, Timothy Finley to write the stories into screenplays. In order to compensate for their inexperience, I hired Charles Israel who instructed each of them in all the tricks of the trade. Charles had written successful movies in Hollywood and a great many radio dramas and was rooted to Canada by his affection for the country. He made most of his money elsewhere. Anyway, I sat with Charles as he worked with each of those writers and I learned a great many of the tricks. When I say “tricks,” I mean really how one ensures the development of the screenplay that takes account of the time limitations of film and also the money limitations. On The Newcomers, I wrote the story of one episode, which involved my family. Timothy Finley did the screenplay, but that was my first credit for a piece of television biographical fiction.

My next full-length ninety-minute drama was for television and it was the Quebec Canada 1995. Robin Phillips was slated to direct and so I had an outstanding cast: Martha Henry, Kenneth Welsh, Jackie Burrows, Louise Marleau, Albert Millaire and John Neville. The production was quite successful in that it was highly political and it looked at a situation just post separation. It was done in 1983 but it predicted that Quebec would separate in 1995. As luck would have it, it almost did. So the program was replayed twelve years after it was originally produced with considerable success. Although Robin Phillips was slated to direct, in the end he declined and John McGreevy did a lovely job of it. My next screenplay was Labour of Love and it was based on the story of my boss in the labour movement who, when he was very young, had gone down to cover a small strike in a backward Nova Scotia town where the attractive wife of the leader of a local consisting of five members conceived a passion for him. I transferred the locale to New Brunswick, which is where I came from, and Labour of Love as a comedy made quite a good impression and drew a good audience when it played on the CBC. The labour theme was one that I knew a great deal about, having worked for a trade union for five years immediately before going to the CBC. I knew the milieu, but the story was not autobiographical. It starred Don Francks, Michele Scarabelli, Maury Chaykin, Paul Bradley and Sheila McCarthy. My next drama was a drama documentary for which I won a Genie award with Donald Britain. The title was Hal Banks: Canada’s Sweetheart, directed by Britain and starring Maury Chaykin as Banks. The screenplay was about the importation of an American gangster by the Canadian government to set up a union in Canada. I had worked with the Norris Commission, which had investigated that, and in my union days I had helped organize workers out of the Seafarers International Union which Banks headed. So again, it was a case of me knowing a good deal and responding to the actual milieu with which I was familiar.

My next venture is probably my most successful, a coproduction with Southern Television in England and Polyphon in Germany of some German children’s books, The Little Vampire. The books were for very small children and I changed the age to teenagers, which required a great deal of invention on my part. Not only was the series number one in Germany and in England, but it was number two in France. It was directed by Rene Bonniere as was Labour of Love. When its DVDs were finally released to the public in Germany in 2009, twenty years after it first aired, they had the largest advanced sale of any DVDs in Germany that year. The series distribution was mishandled in Canada, not released until two years after it was out and I lost control of the property. Subsequently a movie was made without me participating, which flopped, as did a subsequent series in which I was not involved. My next feature in 1992 was Oh, What a Night, produced by Peter Simpson, starring Corey Haim, Robbie Coltrane and Geneviève Bujold. I’m proud of the script, in spite of some of the best things in it being eliminated by the producer. Nonetheless, the movie is played around the world to some considerable success. It was directed by Eric Till. The story is autobiographical. My mother died when I was fourteen and this is the story of a romance that took place a year or two after that in which I suffered the confusion of a boy who didn’t know what he wanted most – sex with the attractive married woman next door or simply the arms of an older woman around him to comfort him in his weaker and more confused moments. It was this sort of dichotomy that some of the editing destroyed, but nonetheless the film did fairly well. The next film is a comedy, Balls Up!, inspired by a story developed by Alan Erlich and me and directed by Alan, an MOW about a lottery scam. It starred Tim Carver and Torri Higginson. Albert Schultz also appeared. What remains to be recorded are those screenplays I’ve written that have not yet managed to get made. I’ve already mentioned one of those, Did We Leave Any Tracks? Following that I wrote Three Coffins for Moonbeam, which was the story of a shootout at Reesor Siding in Northern Ontario between the local settlers and the strikers. I shouldn’t say “between them,” because it was only the settlers who had guns. Three of the workers were killed, six were wounded and no one has ever done any time for their murders. In my story, which was fictional, there were two love stories, one between a union leader and a member of the staff of the Head of the Kapuskasing Mill against whom they were striking; the other was much more romantic, two young people, one English, one French, very much in love, he from the management side of the community, she from the settlers, the poorest of the poor. There were a number of directors interested in it but have done very little to have it produced.

My next major script that has yet to be produced was a mini-series, Fields of Fire, about the fall of Quebec. The story, unlike most histories of that engagement, does justice to the role of the Indians in the battle and includes revelations of the corruption in the French colony, well established in a subsequent trial. The importance of the battle and the subsequent peace, the Treaty of Paris, which has its 250th anniversary next year, can hardly be overestimated. The British decision to maintain the boundaries of the French colony and their treaties with the Indians was what propelled the Americans and British into the war that created the United States as an independent country. It was also the battle that ended the successful effort of American Indians to stop British colonists from moving past the Appalachian Mountains. And it established the basis for what would become Canada. As well, it persuaded the British who had been able to land an army a thousand miles from the sea on the shores of a swift flowing river at night, that if they could do that, they could do it anywhere. That’s when the British Empire really took off. This mini-series went through a long and tortuous experience with Peter Simpson as producer before it collapsed, but the Telefilm’s Reader’s Report declared my script to be, “one draft short of a masterpiece.” Ted Kotcheff was slated to direct. Another script for which I have received a good deal of praise and attention is Florence. Again it’s based on a true story – the last woman hanged in Canada, Florence Lassandro, was hanged for the killing of a Mountie in which she had played no part whatsoever. Jessica Lang had agreed to play in this one and Robin Phillips had wanted to direct. We were, however, fixated on Julia Roberts and Keifer Sutherland, who were then a number. Unfortunately we approached them just as they were breaking up, so it never happened. But Florence, a vital piece of Canadian history remains to be made. Only Susan is the only thing I have ever written specifically for a director, in this case Izabel Grondin from Montreal. She is a master at horror and suspense but has never made a feature-length film or indeed an hour-long film for television. She has worked on short films and been recognized widely for her skills with the mystery-suspense genre. Every frame contains suspense. When I realized I wanted to work with her I also realized that I had a story, or rather, a situation in mind.

I had been a newspaper man in northern Ontario and had covered a murder. When I arrived on the scene the murderer was still at large and I joined the police chief in a search of the town. As we were walking down the street, we heard a shot and the Chief of Police led us back to a man’s apartment. There was a body across the room lying in a heap and a gun rack on the opposite wall with a gun. We got out of there thinking that the murderer had struck again, but after a short time the police chief said he wanted to go back to the apartment. We went back. He took the gun off the rack, smelled it, felt its barrel, and realized that it had recently been fired. Then, as I watched, he linked its trigger guard over a strut on the rack, pulled it toward him and let go and the gun slid back into the rack exactly how we had found it. So I imagined a situation in which two very young people, very much in love, but who didn’t know one another very well at all, being invited, perhaps in their honeymoon, to a cottage in the far north of Quebec by an older couple whose marriage was in trouble. Accidently, the wife of the older couple dies in a fall from a cliff after a quarrel between the two of them. The husband, distraught, goes back to the cottage, takes the gun and kills himself in the manner I described above. So, his body is discovered. Neither the young man nor the young woman were together at the time. Two people are dead and the area is so isolated that the only possibility that could occur to either of them is that their partner must have done it. Who else? Food for Sharks is an effort to exploit a feature of the cinema that is too often ignored and when I had the idea, was being ignored completely – the power of the silent movie. After all, that is what had launched the industry and there is a reason for that. Almost all our attractions to other human beings have their origins in the visual. We place an enormous value on visual beauty and silent film doesn’t let anything get in the way of that.

So the story I conceived is of a woman whose beauty inspires love in the bodyguard of her sleazebag of a husband. Not only that, the woman is a theatrical designer and she has used the bodyguard, a giant East Indian, as a model for the costumes she is preparing for an opera, Turandot, she is about to mount in Montreal. Her care for capturing his beauty has persuaded him that she loves him and for that reason he kills the husband quickly, efficiently disposing of the body and the car. She, quite by accident, has witnessed the murder and flees to the garden. When the bodyguard returns and searches for her she remains hidden. This is what we see, all of the action thus far described, and we conclude that he is now looking for her as a witness and is determined to eliminate her. This is seemingly confirmed when she, instead of reporting the crime, gets on the plane for Korea where the opera she is going to bring to Montreal is being prepared. He, having seen her plane ticket, and knowing her itinerary, follows. Food for Sharks is not a silent movie except for its two leads. Other people in it talk, but the only people we care about are the two principals. The Korean police and the Montreal police talk in French, English and Korean, so there is no subtitle required. Consumed is about a group of Canadians in L.A. and of course Cathy Smith who was about to go to jail. So its subplot is about the obsessive relationship Canadians have with the USA. It is indeed that culture that consumed Cathy Smith. When Jim Hanley, a friend, suggested I write a script about Cathy Smith, I objected on the grounds that I had never had any real contact with the kind of life she lived. He urged me to meet and talk to her and when I did, I discovered the connection. My sister, who was easily as beautiful as Cathy in an Ingrid Bergman-ish sort of way, had met Paul Robeson and Orson Wells in Montreal when she was just twenty-four. She followed them to New York and worked for the civil rights movement. She was by then a copywriter in an advertising agency, and what they used her for was to book fashion shows in prominent New York hotels, then include black models and invite Orson, who had a radio show along with his most influential friends. In this manner the Waldorf Astoria and a number of other top American hotels that practiced segregation were forced to drop the policy.

Cathy, who had met Levon Helm of The Band when she was seventeen, fitted into the same category. Somebody gorgeous enough and talented enough to be a complimentary accompaniment to any man no matter how prominent or influential. I don’t think there is a young Canadian woman with those attributes who isn’t tempted to use them for fame and fortune. And if the temptation falls close enough to home, as it did in the case of Cathy, she is apt to be sucked into the vortex of American celebrity culture and to be consumed by it. And Hope to Die is a work of pure imagination without any biographical overtones, about an old man facing death who is granted one last adventure and seizes it, practicing the skills of a lifetime on behalf of good cause, not realizing that he has aided and abetted by someone who perceives his real weakness and therefore his need. This is my favourite script. Robin Phillips wants to direct it and Alan Bates had agreed to play in it shortly before his death. I have another script that I wrote for Kitson Vincent, but he paid for it and owns it. It’s about a Cuban defector named Daniel Kennedy. I also did an adaptation of a very fine book by Neil Bissoondath. Looking back over my work, I think it reflects a grasp and interest in Canadian history that is rare. That’s what The Newcomers were about – a land made up of newcomers. That’s what Three Coffins for Moonbeam is about – it’s about a part of our country, the North that we treat as a colony and the tensions and violence that creates. It also illustrates how it’s an area that exists beyond normal law. Florence, the last woman hanged in Canada, is reflective of ethnic isolation. She is Italian and she is surrounded in that world by the institutions hastily assembled to cope with both the threats and opportunities of the new world. A Mafia story set in Canada’s rural west.

Oh yes, a script I failed to mention, Glory Years, which is about Tom Longboat, the great Indian runner. Tom is not your usual Indian story. Tom was a success. Tom didn’t waste his money on getting drunk. He led a good, wise and productive life. But he too was cheated at the apex of his career, doped by his own coach who later went on to become a Canadian legend in his own right. By the way, Tom Longboat, long after his death, was chosen as Canada’s Athlete of the Century. I am presently working on a script called Rebel Girl based on Faith Johnston’s book A Great Restlessness about Dorise Nielsen (no relative). Dorise became a Nielsen after arriving in Canada to teach in a one room schoolhouse in Northern Saskatchewan. She married a local farmer, Pete Nielsen, who was also Chairman of the school board. He went to persuade her to return after she ran away because one of her pupils had died for want of a doctor and she had then discovered that in that primitive community there was no cemetery. Dorise Nielsen went on to become a member of Parliament, the first communist ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons, though she masked that affiliation by running as a “Unity” candidate. What appeals to me in the story is that Dorise, while utterly genuine in her social concerns, is really at heart, an actress destined for the stage. In Saskatchewan in the Depression, the only stage was political. And her mentor comrade, understanding Dorise, took full advantage of it. So in a sense, it’s a showbiz story. Like many great stars, Dorise was rough on the men in her life. She left Pete for her campaign manager and left him when he had what he thought was a heart attack, then left the third man in her life when he got too old. This last parting was in China where Dorise ended up, faithful to the end to the cause of revolution she served.

Every writer’s resume should, like a fisherman’s, end with the one that got away. I happen to know the President of Time Life Films, Jack Beck, a distinguished man who had worked with Edgar R. Morrow at CBS. Jack and Marlon Brando were working on a very ambitious project and I was invited to join them. It was to consist of a major motion picture and six documentaries. It was called The First Americans and it dealt with the true story of the white man’s relationship with American Indians. The feature film was to be written by Carl Foreman, directed by Martin Scorsese, with a cast that included Brando, Jack Nicholson, Carl Malden, and Candice Bergen, all working for scale. Jack and I were to write and produce the six accompanying documentaries. My company was then owned by Torstar, and I took the following deal to their board. For six million dollars we would own all rights to the movie and the documentaries in Canada and all revenues. After the US partners had recouped their six million, we were to recoup our six million if there had been a shortfall in Canada and we were then to participate as an equal partner in all subsequent world revenues. The Torstar board turned it down basically on the grounds that if Brando was working with the likes of me – that is, a Canadian – something bad had happened to him and it was bound to show on the screen. This story illustrates one of the great problems of this country, believing in ourselves. That’s why we’re such suckers for hockey – it’s one of the few things we believe we’re good at.