Monday, February 16, 2015

A Canadian screenwriter

Last week one of the earliest screenwriters in Canada passed away. When I say "earliest", there weren't a lot of feature film screenwriters in Canada until the early sixties. 

John Hunter was one of them, born in 1938, a Manitoba boy just like me.

He was one of those people who helped the fledgling Canadian film industry discovered, or maybe discovered the film industry itself. There were films made by the National Film Board of Canada, but we really never included them, as they were government films showing wilderness films and animals and maybe a few Eskimo documentaries (now called Inuit). 

NFB as we knew was very hard to get into, almost impossible. 

The first time I saw a true independent feature was in 1969 by a filmmaker called Don Shebib. And he made Going Down The Road for around $25,000. There were always Quebec films but English Canada finally had our own filmmaker. I remember him coming to our TV station and we were all pumped up to see a real Canadian film.

John became one of those pioneers and while Hitchcock started with silent films, we were a little bit behind but caught up quickly.

John's first feature, The Hard Part Begins, was very much what the Brits called "kitchen dramas", which was usually about losers, in fact so was Goin' Down the Road. I was never really sure why we made so many of these sad stories but eventually they began to open up.

He set his story around a country singer facing the fact that he's almost over as far as being a music star. And to make it even worse, his female singer is getting offers, without him. While this sounds sad, John found nobility in the singer and even set his story in Paris, Ontario. Yes, there is one. The movie is gritty and the music was amazing.

This was a big deal for filmmakers, that we could actually make movies without NFB.  And John followed up with more gritty stories about characters that get lost along the way. He also referred me to Paul Lynch, a director who filmed several of John's screenplays. I happened to be at a party in Toronto and was introduced to Paul, who immediately said that "Hunter" as we called him, said I was a reasonably decent writer.

It led to an agent in L.A. and the rest of me is in my blog.

But back to John. He met another friend of mine, Phil Borsos, who I talk about previous to this blog. Just go back to Feb 9, 2015 for that blog.

What happened next is that Phil always wanted to make a western based on a true story about an aging American train robber coming out of jail and deciding to rob banks in Canada, which were rarely if ever robbed.

What came out of the collaboration of John and Phil was arguably one of the best feature films ever made in Canada, The Grey Fox. It won the Canadian version of an Oscar, the Genie, and took home at least 20 wins that night including two nominations from the American Golden Globes.

I'm not sure if any other Canadian film ever won so many awards.

After that I met John now and then, we seemed to be on different sides of the country, but when he lived in Vancouver, I would drop by and he would talk about movies and why some are good and why some are bad. And why we have to write.

One of the last times I saw John was In Vancouver and met with Gary Fisher, another close friend to John, and we swapped our usual stories about bad producers and why it was so hard to make films in Canada.

I met John again in 1995 when Phil passed away at age 41, and we both sat and talked about Phil and about what we would miss about him.

Ironically, John passed away on the same day and month as Phil, 20 years apart.

I always treasured those moments with John, he had a subtle sense of humor and always was graceful and ready to help those moments of emptiness that writers fall into.

1 comment:

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