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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The bumpy road to Love

By RAY CONLOGUE
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 2, 2003

Romance, Fay knows, grabs on to people like a prize deformity; it keeps them on edge, taunts them, then slitheringly changes shape and withdraws. Romance -- that holy thing. A cycle of rupture and reconciliation. -- The Republic of Love

A month before The Republic of Love was slated to start shooting, Deepa Mehta still didn't know who Fay was going to be.

For most of us, this would be unsettling. Fay is the heroine of Carol Shields's acclaimed novel of the same name, and by October of 2002, a lot of hard-working people had spent six years trying to turn the book into a film. Two British production companies had signed on to co-produce it, and had then gone out of business. The federal funding agency Telefilm Canada had a change of policy and, with no more preamble than a gaseous burp of indigestion, reduced its production grant from $2.5-million to zero. Director Deepa Mehta, acclaimed for the weighty epic films Earth and Fire (about India's bloody coming of age earlier in the century), got tired of waiting and went off to make Bollywood Hollywood.

With what tenacity and serendipitous good luck had this production come back together in the year 2002! (It premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.) Mehta had kept her promise to come back. And Bruce Greenwood -- an actor on the rise, who starred in Sweet Hereafter and was John F. Kennedy in the Hollywood film Thirteen Days -- had hung in since agreeing to play Tom, the male lead, the previous year.

But there was no Fay. Surely, the question is put to Mehta one sunny morning in her Toronto kitchen, not having a female lead a month before the cameras roll is cutting it close? "Not for me," she replies amiably. "We would have had somebody. I wouldn't have been happy. And I was confident that we would find her."

This inchoate jumble of thoughts is a fine example of the magical thinking that keeps the film industry alive. Making movies is a lot like romance: You believe the right actress will still come along even as you steel yourself for the directorial equivalent of a one-night stand.

"But I knew we would find our Fay," Mehta says. And rising British actress Emilia Fox, who had also fallen in love with The Republic of Love, showed up just in time.

What does it mean to be a romantic in the last decade of the twentieth century? -- The Republic of Love

"It's an out-and-out romantic film," says Mehta. "It's not a romantic comedy. I don't know what a romantic comedy is. It suggests fluff. And Republic of Love isn't fluffy."

The genre of writing called "romance" goes back to the Middle Ages. It has to have magic about it, an affirmation of magic that can enter the wintry reality of everyday life. A romantic comedy is a failed romance.

When Carol Shields published the romance called The Republic of Love in 1992, it seduced many readers with its tale of a long-delayed amorous connection between Fay, a folklorist, and Tom, a three-times-married radio host.

One of those seduced was Anna Stratton, a Toronto film producer in her 40s who has a husband and a child. For many years she worked in the difficult, marginalized world of Toronto theatre, before moving to the equally hazardous enterprise of producing Canadian films.

We sat down one day in a King Street bistro not far from the offices of her company, Triptych Media, to go through the history of how this movie got made. "Anna is the one who remembers the dates," says Mehta. "I'm hopeless about that."

1996Odeon Films, trying to find a partner for a Winnipeg producer who had optioned Republic of Love, asked Stratton to read it. "I thought it was a great treatise on love," she says. "It made me laugh out loud. And it intrigued me that the male protagonist, Tom, is the romantic. It's the woman who is reluctant, who isn't sure that love exists."

There isn't a lot of time to be charmed in this business, though, because the next thing Stratton discovered was that the option was about to expire. Other producers -- richer Hollywood ones -- were hovering. Carol Shields had become a hot property since the success of her 1994 novel The Stone Diaries.

Thus began the first money scramble. Stratton had 24 hours to raise $30,000 and renew the option. After many hours on the phone she succeeded. She now had five years to make her movie.

The first task was to decide on a budget. Four-million dollars, the typical cost of a Canadian film, seemed chintzy to adapt an important novel. Twenty million and up, the kind of cash Hollywood waves around, is a cruel joke for Canadian producers. Six million, max, seemed possible. But, "at that time, fall of '96, I thought we could only raise $4-million in Canada."

Triptych Media needed a foreign co-producer prepared to put up $2-million. "But Carol had won the [British] Orange Prize by then, and we thought we could cast Fay in England," says Stratton. Casting a lead actor in England would go a long way toward meeting the terms of the co-production treaty between Britain and Canada.

1997-1999

To interest a co-producer, they needed a "treatment, a sketch of a screenplay. Actors Susan Coyne and Martha Burns, who had both lived in Winnipeg, were fans of the book and worked on a treatment. "We were trying to get off the ground, and they came in for several months to provide their support," says Stratton.

That year, 1997, Triptych had a modest hit with Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden, which made the company a credible agent to sell the new project in England. They got a nibble from Dogstar, the company that had produced Dance with a Stranger.

It was the novel itself, not the treatment, which sold Caroline Drebbin from Dogstar. The two women shook hands, and Stratton was delighted. "It was fantastic to have them as co-producers." A formal agreement was signed in 1998.

Drebbin hired an English writer to produce a script, while Stratton signed Carol Shields as a script consultant. "We often spoke on the phone," recalls Stratton, "and we met at least twice during that time." Shields was not yet ill with the cancer that would eventually kill her.

Things move slowly at this stage of the game. It's the director who hires the actors, and they didn't have a director yet. So even though Stratton always thought of actor Gary Farmer for the part of Tom's best friend, Ted, she didn't mention it to him. "You don't want to get people's expectations up."

Of course, she and Drebbin talked about actors. "It's part of establishing a rapport with the co-producer. "If she's thinking Arnold Schwarzenegger while I'm thinking Bruce Greenwood, you've got a problem." Fortunately, they were thinking the same way.

The screenplay was ready by 1999. And so was catastrophe. Late that year, Dogstar's two principals, David Parfitt and Mike Newell, had a fight and shut down the company. All that was left was the Dogstar script. It was time to start over.

2000

It's spring, 2000. No co-producer, no director, no actors. One year left on the option, and nobody interested in the script.

That summer a lucky (for Stratton) disaster befell the Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta. Mehta's film Water, then shooting in India, was shut down by Hindu fundamentalists who considered it to be immoral.

Mehta, who can reach the boiling point and stay there a long time, had dragged her crew to another Indian state and fought a losing battle in India's courts. Now she was home in Toronto, in her little Robert Street house with the dozen skinny cedar trees planted in its tiny front yard. Still boiling.

"Anna gave me a script," recalls Mehta. "It wasn't comfortable for me. I had to give it back and say, 'I can't do it.' And she said, 'Okay, why don't you read the book?' "

This was smart because Mehta doesn't like other people's scripts. She did, however, like Carol Shields's book. "It was big, yet small. A magical book." By September, Mehta had written her own script.

Mehta's name opened doors in London, where her film Earth had been a hit. By December, Sarah Sulick from Renaissance Productions had signed on and sent Mehta some money to keep working on the script. Renaissance eventually agreed to put up $2.2-million.

Meanwhile, Sarah Green, the New York producer who did the film Frida, had become an informal co-producer, raising money and opening doors to actors' agents. "She's got an executive-producer credit," says Stratton, "even though she hasn't been paid a nickel yet."

2001

With a script and a director, actors can be engaged. Greenwood was "attached" to the project, while Renaissance set out once more to find a British Fay. They also hired Edward Fox as Fay's father and Claire Bloom as her godmother.

By early spring the project had jelled enough to apply, at last, to Telefilm. Seville signed on to distribute the film, and Renaissance became the international sales agent. By June, says Stratton, "we were ready to go ahead."

It was time for another disaster.That's when the Screen Actors' Guild in the U.S. announced a strike. Producers threw money at actors to get them to sign up quickly for projects. One of these was Greenwood, which meant Republic was put on hold. Mehta went off to do Bollywood Hollywood, and Stratton produced Bay of Love and Sorrows.

Telefilm tut-tutted that they might not be able to support the film the following year.

"I wanted to tell Carol [Shields] that we were going forward, and I couldn't," says Stratton.

The impact of the delay shook the project right down the line. This is where personal loyalties may be the only thing that saves a movie. An example is Sandy Kybartas, who had signed on to design the film, from the paint on the walls to the colour of the dresses. Would she abandon it now? "I had worked with Triptych on Lilies," she says. "I am tied to them with steel chains. Why? Because they bend over backward, at their own peril, to do worthwhile work. That's the why of it."

"It's been a typical Canadian movie story," says John Buchan, who was hired that year to do the Canadian casting for The Republic of Love. "We have the money, we don't have the money." But he had worked on Bay of Love and Sorrows, and he too agreed to stay on board.

2002

By February, Stratton and Mehta were hard at work on the project again. Writer Esta Spalding had come in to help Mehta with the script. ("Any creator gets to a sticking point," says Stratton, "and fresh ideas are necessary.") Greenwood was available again, and Telefilm had a new "cap" of $2.5-million. It signalled that Republic would probably get that much.

But by April, something was wrong. Renaissance in England wasn't replying to Stratton's messages. The next month she learned, with a hideous sense of déjà vu, that Renaissance had shut down after a fight between founders Stephen Evans and Angus Finney.

"I spent the month of May walking up and down Oxford Street looking for a producer," Stratton says. Eventually an earlier good deed paid off. Triptych had once helped Julie Baines, a British producer, do a few days of shooting in Toronto. Now Baines returned the favour by signing her company, The Film Consortium, to take the place of Renaissance.

"I wanted to work with Deepa, and I wanted to help Triptych," says Baines. Alone among the project's players, she wasn't wild about Republic of Love itself. "My hand on my heart, I wouldn't have developed that novel on my own." But like most independents, Baines sees her business as "a patchwork quilt" where small players have to help each other.

Baines made a crucial change, lowering Fay's age from 38 to 30 because "sexy, 40-ish actresses are hard to get, they're so busy." So the film loses the novel's quality of being about a middle-aged couple finding love. "And that's what made it special," says Kybartas. "Who cares about young people finding love, they do that every two days."

Baines also lobbied for the music to be done from England, so Mehta hired British composer Talvin Singh. He wrote the film's seductive tapping tabla soundtrack, very Indian for a very white love story. "And why not?" says Mehta. "Just because you're white and Protestant doesn't mean you don't have emotions. That's what I love about Carol."

When the ferment gets this rich, it means things are really happening. That's when Telefilm turned them down.

The very day The Film Consortium signed on, Telefilm rejected Triptych's $2.5-million application. New policy, you see. Only support films with "marketing viability." Famous novelist not commercial enough. "It doesn't really lift off," the bureaucrats wrote after examining the most recent script.

Mehta was furious. "I said to Anna, let's do it. We don't need all that money. We'll make a smaller film."

Meanwhile, Greenwood angrily phoned Telefilm to lobby for the movie, a startling thing for a star actor to do. "But I did very little," says Greenwood. "I made a couple of phone calls when it was necessary and had some conversations that helped them see it another way."

The movie had become important to Greenwood, who usually plays "bad guys with 15 agendas. Of course I thought I could play a romance."

Telefilm, finding its new policy somewhat drastic, eventually came back, though still offering a million dollars less than Stratton had asked for. Too little, too late. The film could no longer be a sedate adaptation of the novel where pretty Toronto streets would pretend to be Winnipeg. The wild tergiversations of Telefilm and the funhouse bankruptcies of the British co producers had forced Mehta to grab the helm and improvise a new course.

Shooting days were reduced from 35 to 25. The story would now be set in Toronto. Most dramatically, it would be shot underground in the PATH connecting tunnels of the financial district, an "enclosed community" that would echo the enclosed community of the novel. Tom and Fay would live in a soulless condominium tower.

The director of photography Doug Koch thinks he might have jokingly suggested the underground shooting because the project was "heading into winter and here's a romantic comedy with people walking around at night in minus 20."

He was amazed when Mehta decided that was exactly what they would do. "All I had to do was say, 'Sure, we'll go underground,' and everybody freaked out," laughs Mehta. Designer Kybartas had been drooling over the novel's description of the "beauty in these small front yards." Now she was stuck in a tunnel.

And strangely enough, at the end of the day everybody was happy with that. Koch ended up being inspired by the wide, white marble staircases underneath the Toronto Dominion Centre towers, and Kybartas got used to orange condominium walls and became intrigued by underground passages where "there's no conversation, just the sound of feet!"

Mehta had, holus-bolus, turned The Republic of Love into a new kind of story. "It was Carol's love letter to Winnipeg, so I decided to write my love letter to Toronto. A different kind of love affair. It's not about a beautiful neighbourhood. It's about the potential of a global city."



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