Paul Gross scares me

Paul Gross scares me. In both a deliciously good and a disquietingly bad way.

I saw him interviewed last evening, as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series at the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University. The audience consisted mostly of students from that faculty and from the School of Radio and Television Arts, everyone eager to hear a “horse’s mouth” account of Mr. Gross’s experiences in theatre, television, and film. And to hear what he predicted for those industries in the future.

We got more than we dreamed of, and perhaps also more than we wanted.


Paul Gross, in Paul Gross’s Words

Paul Gross and Ryerson professor David Langer

Paul Gross and Ryerson professor David Langer

First of all, the man is hilarious. Which will surprise no one who watched his delivery of those shriekingly funny deadpan lines as the Mountie, Benton Fraser, in the TV series Due South. But when our evening started out with a clip of scenes from many of his TV and film appearances over the years — and he then commented, “That was like an acid flashback” — the tone was set for most of the evening.

He’s scary-good because of his many talents. Moving frequently as he grew up in a military family, he tended to end up with the “weirdos” at his new schools, and got pushed toward the arts because he couldn’t do math. While beginning to act, as a young person, he also started writing because the in-between-acting moments were “kind of dull.” His first publically produced play was a big success. Over the years, he’s added producing and directing to his repertoire, and of course, as a Canadian film-maker, “Fundraiser” has become another unofficial title.

And he does music too: he was trained in classical guitar at the age of sixteen.

All this prompts one to claim, “Is there anything he can’t do??” But Gross downplays much of this track record, or at least attributes his success mainly to perseverance. He believes there are many people with far more talent who are much less successful because they aren’t as stubbornly persistent as he is, in going after what they want.

Yet the talent is undeniable. He admits that playing Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in 2000 was a turning point, because doing that role changes a person forever. He was told that there are “pre-Hamlet” actors and “post-Hamlet” actors, and says doing that role is “like going to the world’s meanest, cruellest therapist.” He describes how he actually started blacking out — “simply disappearing” — during entire scenes (which his fellow actors nonetheless told him he did very well, even if he wasn’t consciously there). When he asked another Canadian actor and previous Hamlet, Brent Carver, about this, Carver replied matter-of-factly, “Oh yes, that’ll happen. It will last for a while. And then you’ll be paranoid for a while.”

Gross recounts how Christopher Plummer, another former Stratford Hamlet, chatted with him before a performance, saying how good it was that he was getting to do the role. Gross finally asked, “You’re wishing you could do it again, aren’t you?” To which Plummer replied, “F**k yes, I’d do it in the parking lot right now.”

Gross had some hilarious tales to tell about being the producer, and/0r director, and/or writer of shows like Due South, the film Men With Brooms, and his most recent triumph, the First World War movie Passchendaele.

For example, he and John Krizanc co-wrote Men With Brooms, neither knowing a thing about the sport of curling, yet Gross wanted to do a curling story because curling was “a fundamentally hilarious sport.” So Krizanc got a rulebook, and many of their ideas (including the climax of the final game) came simply from reading the rules. And Gross loved doing Passchendaele for many reasons, but admitted that one of them was, “I’m a guy, and I like gear.” So he’d drive onto the field thinking, “This is all my shit! There’s my army! Go in and invade that country!”


The Canadian scene, and the Arts in general

Paul Gross talks to students at Ryerson

Paul Gross talks to students at Ryerson

Gross also relates several tales about the fundraising he had to do for Passchendaele. The process took about ten years, and he wishes he could have made a documentary just of the lunches and meetings, and all the odd billionaires he encountered.

But as he described this fundraising process, the scary-bad elements entered into the conversation. Because Gross, having delved into so many aspects of theatre, film, and television, has a perspective on Canadian arts, Hollywood, and the world artistic culture in general, that few of us have. And what he sees at the moment is not good.

He’s long been known as a fierce advocate of government funding of the arts in Canada. Whenever the federal government threatens the arts — again — Paul Gross is right up front, demanding that the feds honour the arts as every other country in the world does. He goes so far as to say that if a country does not build a kaleidoscope of its own stories, so that all citizens can understand each other, no government can possibly work.

And he loves telling Canadian stories. As he says, we have an extraordinary history that we have become ashamed of for some reason. And we have a lot to tell the rest of the world, not the least of which is our accomplishment of taking in everyone in (especially in Toronto), with almost no trouble. Plus, he adds, “Canadian iconography is hysterically funny. A beaver? And our flag has a leaf on it. A leaf.”

The fact that Canadians are always asking, “Who are we?” is who we are, Gross says. We keep unfolding and adding to ourselves, unlike the Americans who have to keep returning to one document “like it’s a sacred liturgy.” Canadians don’t have to refer back to anything, to decide who we are, and he sees that as a strength rather than a weakness.

Yet there is no doubt the entertainment industry is in trouble. In fact, it’s in the midst of total collapse, caused by the “perfect storm” of Internet + world economic crisis. The world can support about 300 movies a year, yet about 3000 get made annually. Because of this glut, few films make back what it costs to produce them. Passchendaele grossed about $5 million, yet the average take for an independent film is a mere $500,000. Of the major studios, Warner Bros. is pulling back, to make only eight movies per year, and Hollywood is “imploding.”

Gross predicts that 1/3 of everyone working in the industry will be out of a job by March 1st.

And what of the television industry? Advertising revenue is dying, while production costs keep rising. The recent series, Deadwood, cost $5 million per hour. There is simply no revenue to support that. NBC, says Gross bluntly, “is finished.” In fact, the major networks like CBS, NBC, and ABC as we know them will disappear, and become “brands” more than anything else. There’s enormous upheaval coming — with lots of casualties — while people try to figure out how to “monetize the Internet” as everything moves there.

Yet Gross is not entirely pessimistic. Films will still be made, and he’s creating a mini-series right now. He doesn’t quite know how the current chaos will be reshaped, but he believes the students in the audience last night will do much different things than he has. They will be the ones who create the new entertainment industry.

One thing we can count on, however, in the midst of this uncertainty. Whichever way the industry goes in Canada, Paul Gross will be at the forefront, fighting for its survival and continued support. That fact makes the coming changes at least slightly less scary.

[Note: For another account, more of a transcript, including so much that I couldn’t fit into my own piece, check out starfishchick on LiveJournal. (I believe you need to be signed in to LJ to see her photos in that post.) She captures more of how hilarious Paul Gross really is.]