Conquest: A Feature Interview with Rob Forsyth

Conquest: A Feature Interview with Rob Forsyth

by Wyndham Wise

Rob Forsyth grew up in Saskatchewan until the age of 17 when he left tostudy general arts at York University. Finding himself out of work and on asinking boat just off the coast of Greece, he and a friend engaged in adiscussion that situated various professions they might consider on a hatescale with law at the top and writing as the least hated profession.Forsyth became a writer. He moved to Toronto and then to Stratford, wherehe continues a successful writing career which includes the controversialfeature film Clearcut and several episodes of Due South, The Outer Limits,North of 60 and E.N.G. His most recent work is Conquest, a romantic comedyset in small-town Saskatchewan starring Lothaire Bluteau, Tara FitzGeraldand Monique Mecure produced by Shaftsbury's Christina Jennings. CanadianScreenwriter spoke to Rob Forsyth in September.

WW    How did you get a break in this business?

RF       I was trying to write poetry and children's stories when I was 24 or 25.

When was this?

In 1976 or 1977. The typist for my children's stories knew a televisionproducer from Florida who was coming to town. He was doing a children'sseries. When the producer, Stanley Colbert, came to town, we talked for twohours about American football and how Canadian football was better. Thenwith about three minutes left in the conversation, he asked, "Do you wantto write one of these things?" I asked him what they looked like, because Ihad never written a script, and he said, "I'm not doing it all for you. Gofind out." And I did.

Then you wrote for Sidestreets. Was that your first series?

Yes. I did five of those, plus a lot of rewrites.

What was Sidestreets?

It started out trying to be a purely Canadian police show, a gentler policeshow. The police weren't dealing with violent criminals all the time. Itdealt with community issues, the sidestreets of Toronto, but within a yearor two it moved into harder crimes like rape and murder. It ended up doingquite well and it's still seen. I was recently teaching in Zimbabwe, and itwas on the local TV. It plays in Italy in loops and loops 20 years laterbecause it's cheap programming. I'm not sure they even pay, they just keeprunning it.

You then moved on to For the Record.

I was asked to do a For the Record by Sam Levine. He wanted a show onunemployment, and it was my first For the Record, "The Winnings of FrankieWalls," which remains one of the best things I have ever been involvedwith. It just worked.

For the Record was one of the most interesting series produced by the CBCat the time, perhaps the best of its anthology series, certainly the last.

It was the heyday of CBC drama. They were using writers for what writerscould really do, and using interesting directors. They were creatingmini-movies. There was no film industry to speak of in Canada at the time.The best writers and the best directors were doing For the Record. As awriter, it's what you wanted to do, because you could create from astanding start. You were given a blank slate and I was given two of them.One was on unemployment and we did another on nuclear power. We were givenabsolute free rein with big budgets and long shooting schedules. "FrankieWalls" was like writing a little movie. It didn't deal with politicalissues; it was the story of an unemployed man. The other one I did,"Harvest," was much more a docudrama, where you took a real situation andtold a story around that.

Is the writing any different when it comes to traditional drama and docudrama?

The second one, the one on nuclear power, took a lot longer because when itcomes to docudrama you want to stick to the facts, and it takes a lot ofdrafts to get rid of the facts. Facts don't make drama. "Frankie Walls," orany straight drama is much easier to tell because you are not trying tostick to the facts. In the end, the only docudramas that work deal with thespirit of the facts and not the facts themselves; otherwise make a regulardocumentary or a radio program. It's very hard to get the facts out of yourhead and I tend to do much less research now. Just the bare bones as towhat the issue is and put the books aside.

Do you think that this is a process writers should strive for?

I think writers for film can really over-research. Film is not aboutteaching. Television is about teaching. Film has to entertain. So if you'restuck with the facts, you can't entertain.

Through the 1980s you did Vanderberg, a sort of pre-Traders mini-series,and you had become a senior writer at the CBC.

There weren't an awful lot of us. There were about a dozen writers. Weweren't on salary, but we worked all the time-John Hunter, Michael Mercer,Barry Pearson, it was a small, closed club. I think I wrote some goodthings for them. The For the Records were good. I don't thing Vanderberg worked as well as it should have.

You then moved into features. What was the attraction? Where you interestedin the longer form?

They're different. It's a whole different experience. Television, to me, isa bridge to the stage. It's a medium that can contain very many ideas. Filmis a very different medium. It's a medium of high entertainment and muchless information. It tells the truth. I like doing both, but features aremaking an experience tell the truth.

Clearcut was made in 1991 and is considered in some quarters as one of thegreat Canadian features, certainly underrated, but with great direction anda very powerful script. How did you get involved with Clearcut?

Cinexus/Famous Players bought the book A Dream like Mine by M.T. Kelly. Ihadn't read it, but I knew it was controversial and people were shocked byit. I was called by Stan Colbert, who was by now my agent, and he thought Ishould read it and go talk to the producers. I read it and loved it. Ithought it was amazing, so I went in and talked to Stephen Roth. We gotalong well, and I started within two days. However, with Clearcut, in thesame way the facts can get in the way, the book got in the way at thebeginning. I did three or four drafts, but it was not working and becausewe were trying to stay to close to the book. It wasn't until I realized thebook didn't have a central character, it had a narrator. We created acharacter out of the man who was telling the story. The first draft of thatworked and then the film worked after that. Ultimately, it was thischaracter, the liberal lawyer, that got the film so heavily criticized incertain quarters. It was no longer one man's experience, the lawyer becamea metaphor for liberal society. This was the film's strength.

Even though his role was most heavily criticized?

In terms of the film, if I watch the film, the lawyer, Ron Lea, was notfully developed as a performance.

It certainly doesn't match up to Michael Hogan and Graham Greene, who givepowerful performances. Especially Graham, who just burns up the screen.

The film came out right after Oka and it was confusing. People didn't knowwhat to think of native uprisings and here was a film that was sayingsomebody has got to pay.

Which leads to the violence in the film. The physical violence thatGreene's character imposes on Michael Hogan is some of the mostgut-wrenching ever seen in a Canadian movie. Do you think people wereturned-off by that? Do you regret going that far?

No. It's not a regret, but I wish the film had made it clearer in itsopening act what the set-up for that violence was. I think it demanded toomuch of the audience to make the leap. The violence in the film was createdby the liberal white lawyer, not by the Graham Greene character. The Greenecharacter is a figment of his imagination, his externalized anger, and hedoes what the Ron Lea character thinks. He's sick of dealing with whitecourts, he wants someone to pay, he wants someone to hurt. And no, I don'tfeel badly about going that far. As Graham says after he skins MichaelHogan's foot, and Ron Lea is outraged by this, "What are you so upsetabout? This is one man's foot. They used to cut off the tits of Apachewomen and play baseball with them, and you're upset about one guy's foot?"No, I wasn't upset by that, but a lot of people were. I still read aboutit, that it goes to far, but I don't think it did.

How do you look back on it now?

It may have had negative impact because it was so shocking. I think peoplethought that's what I was like. I was doing a lot of television, so Ididn't mind, but in terms of features, people who saw Clearcut wouldn'tthink of me for a romantic comedy.

In terms of television, you were doing a lot of series work going back tothe early 1990s, The Campbells, Night Heat, E.N.G., North of 60, OuterLimits, Due South, Cold Squad.

I do series television like that one or two episodes a year, usually withfriends, or with friends producing. I haven't had time in the past 18months, but I'll still do them. I like writing for series television. Ifind it fun.

What do you like about series work? What's the fun part?

It's a knack, and you get to exercise this knacky part of your brain. Ofcourse, the writer must have the talent, but there is a knack to be able todo this stuff in four equal 12-page acts and to sustain and build the storyover 53 minutes. It's not just craft. I don't know how to describe it, it'sjust a knack. It's something that really can't be taught. Either you can doit slightly and get better at it, or you can't do it at all. And there area lot of writers who just can't do it, which is good, because maybe itsaves them from burning themselves out on a television series. I've alwaysfound it fun, but never found it fun enough to work on an entire series.I've been offered at least half the Canadian television series in the past20 years, but I don't want to live like that. I don't want to write 13 to21 hours of the same thing.

Surely with your knack you could be paid handsomely to do series work inthe U.S. It's a great cash cow, isn't it?

Yes, and extraordinarily hard work. It's 12, 16-hour days, six or sevendays a week. Some people love it. They see it as 20 or 30 mini-featurefilms. I don't see it that way. One or two hours is enough.

Let's move on to Conquest, your most recent feature script, and the firstsince Clearcut, isn't it?

Yes. Conquest has had a very long and interesting history. When I was firstmarried, we went to the town of Conquest in Saskatchewan and there was aVietnamese woman working in the café who was the unhappiest woman I haveever seen in my life. I came back, having met her, to the CBC and said Iwant to do to a TV movie about this Vietnamese boat person who has ended-upstuck in this café. And the CBC said no, we're not interested in smallPrairie towns and Vietnamese boat people living unhappy lives; we're onlyinterested if boat people are heroes. So nothing happened. Then I got acall from an actress who asked if I would develop a film for her at the CBCand I said I would. I went in with a producer, and the CBC agreed this timeto put Conquest into development. That was about four years ago. I wrotethe first draft, but it became evident to the CBC that they weren't goingto produce it; however, I continued to be paid to write the next two draftsand eventually it was shown to Christine Jennings at Shaftsbury Films. Shecalled up and asked if it was available and I said, "no, it belongs to theCBC." Christina is the most tenacious woman in Toronto. She started to makephone calls and said to the CBC, if you're not making this, let's strike adeal. The deal was that the CBC would give the project back to me and Iwould sell it to Christina for whatever the option price was. The CBC wouldbe paid out of Telefilm money and make it as their first theatricalfeature. Christina was very keen on having a British actress in the leadbecause that would allow us to do a coproduction and it felt better,anyway, to have either a Britisher or Australian coming into town. The filmoriginally focused on the old people of the town and the younger couplewere secondary, but that clearly was the wrong way to go. Nobody wants towatch a beautiful young couple play secondary, supporting players. So weshifted it. The young man believes his town can be saved, against all hope,against reality. He's the town banker. Bankers are very important in smalltowns, at least he believes they are. This branch, in reality, would beclosed by now. If you do drive into small Prairie towns, almost ghosttowns, there'll probably still be a Royal Bank there, because farmers needbanks. Everything in the rest of the town is closed up. The café is onlyopen because the banker bought in a boat person to run it. Into town comesa young, mysterious woman, very beautiful, in a red Alpha Romero who is onthe road to someplace else. She doesn't know where and finds herself stuckin this town and ultimately falls in love with the young man. It's based onthe idea of the main prize, of finding what the prize in life is. She hasnever found it. For her it has been the prize of money, position or place,and she ends up saying the prize might be the man.

The film has great performances from the two leads Bluteauand Fitzgerald, and works as a romantic comedy, but it is also a"fish-out-of-water" story. The woman comes into town without sign- posts.

Christina Jennings's instinct to make her British was exactly right. Thisis not a place you would choose to come to. This is not a place where youdream of living.

Presumably if she was Canadian, she wouldn't be coming there.

The character of Daisy doesn't want to stay there, but she has nowhere elseto go. It was originally written for someone from Vancouver, but it neverplayed very strongly, because you kept wanting to say, "why don't you justpick up and go back to Vancouver." Whereas, a British girl who hastravelled the world, has run a series of cheap stores all over the world,it's quite natural that she would want someone she can latch on to.Conquest is a very complex drama to try and make work and the director,Piers Haggard, and I had to go through about five drafts, struggling tomake it work through the inner energies of the characters rather than theevents surrounding them. There are virtually no events in Conquest. Therearen't music and sex. Conquest is a straight-up, 1960s-style romanticcomedy, so it's not relying on sex. It relies on the actors, and withoutTara FitzGerald and Lothaire Bluteau, there's no movie.

Bluteau plays a French-Canadian in southern Saskatchewan, and to those whoknow their Canadian history, this is perfectly logical. But for a lot ofpeople, his character plays like another fish out of water. Was thischaracter originally written as French-Canadian?

No. It's written that way because Christina wanted Lothaire for the role.It added to the piece. It makes the Prairies exotic and for a Europeanaudience it's a great sell. This French-Canadian in the middle ofSaskatchewan is something very rare.

There's a touch of magic realism running through Conquest, almost whimsy, aquality not found often in English-Canadian features.

There was much more magic realism in the conception and it's one of thosethings that I wish we had more of. Originally, there was a lot of magicrealism. The caragana bushes are very big in the film and every timeLothaire's character would walk along a hedge of caragana bushes, theywould flower. Flowers would appear along the sidewalks, buildings would bepainted the morning after a happy event. It changed a lot from the scriptpartly because of the expense and partly because it just got lost in the tight schedule.

A lot of writers complain that at the feature-film level they lose controlof the script, which is taken over by actors and the director. Do you findthis to be the case, that perhaps you have more control over your TVscripts?

It's actually the reverse. Most television that I do, I understand there'sa writers' department that has to do what it has to do. It's just thenature of the game. So on Due South, for example, when you write an episodeyou know that its writers' department is full of talented people and theyare going to mess around with the script to make it work for theirproduction needs, to make it work for Paul Gross, for their guest star, forthe music they got that week that Paul has written, so on and so forth.Sometimes what goes on-air bares a fair similarity to what you havewritten, sometimes it does not. Conquest was shot word for word.

Did you go on set?

No, I think writers on set are a distraction and should not be there. Wereworked the script slightly during rehearsals. These were very seriousstage actors, both Lothaire and Monique. They weren't up to changing lines.If a line wasn't working, they would try for 20 minutes to make it work,then they would turn to me, helplessly, and I would say I would fix itbecause things don't always work. But everything that was fixed was fixedwith their involvement so when they got on set, everthing on that film wasscripted. Clearcut was the same, shot to script. I think, on features,there is not the money or the time to change things once you start. Onceyou start mucking around with the script there's a risk that it is going tocost money. On a 25-day shoot, and Piers was big on this, you just have tonail everything day by day. You can't play around. So if a good ideastrikes you, it's too late.

Wyndham Wise is the editor of Canadian Screenwriterand the editor-in-chief of Take One: Film & Television in Canada.

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