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Canadian stories get their turn in the spotlight

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"It's this daunting, iconic Canadian book, but I knew in my soul how I could tell this story," she says. "Not to write some kind of scholarly report but to tell a very feminine story about a woman's passion. If I tried to pick up all the metaphoric layers that have been examined by scholars, I'd lose sight of what is just a damned fine story."

With a script aimed at an ideal viewer who is "a young woman with a head on her shoulders," Skogland moved the storyline up about 30 years, converted the interior monologue to dramatic events and added four sex scenes. (Whoever imagined a pink young Hagar Shipley skinny-dipping in a pond?)

Four years ago, she approached Michael McMillan, head of Alliance Atlantis, to help her make the movie, but then Alliance Atlantis moved out of film production. So Skogland found another long-time fan of the book, Liz Jarvis of Winnipeg's Buffalo Gals Pictures, to help make the $8.5-million film, and eventually lined up Telefilm Canada and international sales financing herself, although "financing came and went week-to-week."

To play the elder Hagar, Skogland managed to land Oscar-winning American actress Ellen Burstyn. After an exhaustive search, they found 24-year-old Christine Horne, fresh out of theatre school, to play young Hagar. Skogland was afraid the producers would be resistant to an unknown in such a major role, but everyone agreed Horne was a future star. She's undoubtedly more beautiful than Hagar's account of her young self, but also probably more marketable.

Of the three novels, perhaps the most painful to make into a movie was Emotional Arithmetic, based on the late Matt Cohen's 1990 novel about three people who are incarcerated in a Nazi prison camp in the Second World War, and who are reunited in an Ontario farmhouse 35 years later.

For a relatively low-budget ($6.8-million) film, Emotional Arithmetic has an impressively high-powered international cast, including Susan Sarandon as Melanie and Gabriel Byrne as Christopher. Max Von Sydow plays Jakob, the man who saved them and who later was imprisoned in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, emerging as a famous poet. Christopher Plummer plays David, Sarandon's embittered husband, and Roy Dupuis is their son Benjamin.

The actors were attracted by the strong script, although whose script it is has been a matter of dispute. Jefferson Lewis is credited as the sole writer, after winning a Writer's Guild arbitration. Director Paolo Barzman says the decision has left him personally hurt and "deeply puzzled" and he plans to fight it.

Nothing was easy about Cohen's novel, which includes the perspectives of five different characters and takes place over 30 years in various locations in Europe and Canada.

Before his untimely death in 1999, Cohen had been struggling with a screenplay for Anna Stratton, who had acquired the film rights for Toronto's Triptych Media. Cohen's widow, Patsy Aldana, approached Lewis, a close friend of Cohen's, to write the Emotional Arithmetic screenplay. He did so, sticking closely to the novel in a relatively linear retelling of the events. "In some ways," he says, "that was a kind of high point. Patsy wrote me back a note saying this was the screenplay that Matt would have wanted, which was the best thing I could have heard. Later, of course, your role as writer is to find the movie that the director wants to make, and in many ways, your private creative pleasure is over."

There were a number of setbacks for the film en route. One of the producers, Rebecca Yates, died suddenly in 2002 (the film is dedicated to her and to Cohen). At another point British co-producers were brought in, and Lewis recalls tweaking the script to emphasize a love story.

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