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.]


I like the reno, I don’t like the reno, I like the reno, I…

When I decide for sure whether I think the Museum Station platform renovations have turned out to be a good thing or not – I’ll let you know.

One the one hand…everything looks crisp and clean and sharp. It induces the visual equivalent of the “new car smell.” You know what I mean.

On the other hand…why did they pick the muted, rather dull, dusty rose colour for the station walls? Though it’s a nice colour, it just doesn’t seem to go with anything. Not with the red pillars that mimic those from the Forbidden City in Beijing. And certainly not with the huge bright orange “M-U-S-E-U-M” letters with the inscribed black Egyptian heiroglyphs, sunk into the rose walls at the forward end of each platform. Striking though the contrast is.

If the idea was to link this renovation with the Royal Ontario Museum and the Gardiner Museum aboveground, as the designers said it was, it might have made more sense to go with something in silver, black, and grey, to match the new look of both those institutions.

On the other hand…those pillars do look sharp. alternating from the Doric Greek columns, to the Toltec Warrior column, to the Egyptian Osiris with crook and flail, to the First Nation house pillar in the shape of a bear, to the Forbidden City columns. They march in orderly procession down the platform, each one illumined with its own special light, and you really feel like you’re strolling down a corridor in a museum somewhere.

On the other hand…did the designers really have to make most of them dark gray?? The carving is intricate and detailed and clear – but they’re gray! In the original published “artist’s conception,” we were presented with rows of pillars shaped like Egyptian sarcophagi, painted in authentic colours, so that you could have imagined yourself walking through a real pillared hall in an ancient Egyptian temple. Even if the designers did eventually change from all-Egyptian pillars to the variety we see now, would it really have been that much more expensive to paint these columns to resemble their real counterparts? Even though the Doric columns at least are creamy white, the only real colour is the plain red of the Forbidden City pillars – which, as I said, clashes with the dusty rose walls and their big orange letters.

On the other hand…it gave me goosebumps, staring up at that impassive Egyptian face in its striped headdress, arms folded across the upper chest, crook in one hand, flail in the other, with heiroglyphs marching up the other three sides of the column. Or peering at the fierce bear growling from the house pillar, claws raised as though to strike. Or gazing at the other-worldly face of the Toltec warrior (even though he does rather look like he’s about to stick out his tongue). These do really feel like museum pieces themselves.

On the other hand…although the roof above has been fixed and cleaned up and painted a fresh white, I looked at the obvious cement surface and the stark electric lights and thought, “basement ceiling.” Granted, the subway is underground, but it doesn’t need to look like a basement. I have a feeling they were trying to make the ceiling plain enough that it wouldn’t distract from the other artistic elements, but that cement plainness itself was a big distraction for me.

On the other hand…the whole area is fascinating and educational and makes even a short wait for the train much more interesting. In my few minutes there, as several trains went by, there were always lots of people clustered around the big information plaque, learning what each pillar stood for, and what the heiroglyphs said. This, too, carried overtones of a real museum experience.

So in many ways, the designers have achieved their goal of taking the aboveground experience down into the adjoining subway station, either to get incoming museum patrons into the mood, or else to ease outgoing visitors down gently. I just don’t know, yet, if I think it all works.

But on the other hand! We can now say for sure that nobody will be wrapping these pillars in gigantic vinyl toothpaste or toilet paper ads. So that’s one good thing we can agree on already.

(Some of my photos of the renovation can be found here.)

Taking “Consolation” in history

There’s a story behind the story of wherever we live, whether it peeks out from a weathered keystone, lurks in the architecture behind the modern signage on an old building, or ghosts through someone’s comment about a house or business that “used to be here.” And according to Michael Redhill, we might just be less lonely as a society, and even treat each other differently, if we discovered and paid attention to that story.

This past Monday, as part of the “Keep Toronto Reading – One Book” initiative, the Reference Library launched the month-long program with an evening featuring the “One Book” itself — Michael Redhill’s Consolation. The choice of book might seem obvious for a Toronto program, since it features dual storylines set in the city in 1997 and 1857, but the underlying idea that propels both stories is universal and equally important to any city or other community.

It’s too easy, Redhill said during his discussion with journalist Tina Srebotnjak, to be interested only in the “here and now,” while letting the past go without even a look or any documentation. Yet he believes that the way we treat our physical city “leaks into” how we treat other members of our community. The physical city has a lot to do with “the polis,” which the Greeks conceived of as the community itself, exercising citizenship responsibilities within that physical place.

So the modern-day storyline in the book deals with the race between finding and documenting the remains of an old shipwreck at the former shoreline in downtown Toronto, and the threatened destruction of the archaeological site by the construction of a major sports centre on top of it. Running in parallel, the 1857 story depicts the loneliness of three characters who forge a relationship in the old city (part of the “consolation” of the title), and eventually document its early growth with the emerging photographic technology of the time. The result of their work is a 13-part panorama given to the city, which is then sent to Queen Victoria by municipal officials who hope to persuade her to choose Toronto as the capital of pre-confederation Canada. It is the original plates for this panorama, possibly carried as cargo in the lost ship, that the archaeologists seek in the modern story.

The prints of this panorama do in fact exist, one copy in Toronto and another in London, England, although the plates are gone and no one actually knows whose work it was. But it was this photographic series which inspired the novel Consolation and, Redhill said, “put flesh on” the instinct that there was an ongoing Toronto story, carried through past and present.

Monday’s event was more than “just” Tina Srebotnjak’s interview with Michael Redhill. Ross Manson, founder and director of Volcano, an independent theatre company, presented two dramatic readings from the book, one from each time period. And singer Mary Lou Fallis, accompanied by pianist Peter Tiefenbach, provided a musical setting with several early Canadian songs.

In fact, a couple of those musical numbers perfectly illustrated the points Redhill was trying to make. “Oh, What a Difference Since the Hydro Came” chronicles a lover’s complaint that amorous trysts in the darkness of an evening have disappeared, since “the hydro” now makes night as bright as day. Even in 1913, when the song was written, the customs of the past had been cast aside by the progress of the present.

Another early song, “We Dye to Live,” was originally sent around on sheet music by the Parker & Company Dye Works, to the firm’s customers and other citizens in 1890. It served both as a marketing tool, and a song the whole family could sing around the piano.

And the Parker & Company Dye Works, so far as can be ascertained, was originally situated on the site of the Toronto Reference Library. There’s the past and present, connecting once again in a single evening.

Do I want to read this book? Actually, I cheated: I read it last year when it first came out in hardcover. But because I love discovering the history of a place and feel that it helps a person experience the present life of that place in a richer way — yes. That was exactly why I wanted to read the book. And this evening with Michael Redhill would have induced me to read it if I hadn’t done so already.