Profiling Screenwriters at Work
By Marc Glassman
Cover Me: Covering Peter Lauterman
"It's the histories of all the people that came before us." Peter Lauterman is talking about genre, a topic that Canadian television writers and producers know far more about than their counterparts in the film industry. "What attracts me to it is that it's the inherited wisdom of my industry." A veteran scriptwriter for Night Heat, Street Legal, North of 60 and E.N.G. among others, Lauterman is more than qualified to talk about the virtues of writing in forms where the audience expects a certain kind of entertainment. "Shakespeare wrote genre. He hid himself in all his characters and found ample room to philosophize, preach, make jokes and satirize without being a pedant. If you get good at genre and you can create a bunch of characters, then they will allow you to speak in many voices in many different ways. It's fun."
Lauterman is currently doing just that with his new television series, Cover Me. A spy thriller that weaves romance and politics into a drama that has a searing satirical edge to it, Cover Me may not make anyone forget the Bard but it certainly should make regular CBC viewers sit up and take notice. Comments Lauterman, "Cover Me is really two or three genres screwed together. I don't think there's anything like it on Canadian television. "Robert [Lantos] pitched the bare bones to me. He wanted a show that would partner an Albertan guy, like a Mountie, with a Québécoise as a way of writing about Canada." Lauterman responded by writing two Canadian archetypes, Andrew Chase, a "dull but steady" westerner, and Pascale Laurier, a beautiful Montrealer who is all "piss and vinegar." As Lauterman has written them, Andrew speaks Russian for "his work," but no French, while Pascale is a seperatist who is deeply suspicious of all Anglos. It's witty "Spy vs. Spy" stuff given a Canadian twist. At first, the only thing the two of them can agree on is their mutual hatred of Toronto. It's something that they share with many Canadians though not, one suspects, with too many power brokers at the CBC.
However, having spent the better part of the past two decades there, Lauterman is hardly a Toronto basher. Still, it is unlikely that Lantos would have asked him to work on Cover Me had Lauterman not shown a broader understanding of Canada by working on North of 60 for over five years. "North of 60 was like being back in Canada for me. I grew up in Ottawa in a simpler time when the natural environment, the Gatineau hills and the valley was all around me. I kind of lost that here in Toronto and North of 60 gave all that back to me. There was a kind of magic to it all. We were so isolated from the rest of the world and the show itself, some of the problems between the natives and non-natives, some of the agonizing social issues that arose backstage, just created an environment that actually felt like a community."
Lauterman's interest in social issues goes back beyond his series television days. It's probably most prominently on display in the Genie Award-winning documentary Raoul Wallenberg: Buried Alive which he wrote in 1982. The story of the Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War before disappearing into Stalin's gulag is one that clearly struck a chord with its Jewish-Canadian writer. "Our journey on the film started in Stockholm in the grey days of late winter and ended in springtime in Israel. There was a metaphorical symbolism to all of that which came out of interviews in Hungary, Austria, Germany, France and Scandinavia about Wallenberg, the Holocaust and coming to Israel. It allowed me to see Israel in a particular way. I have a lot of friends there now and I enjoy being there."
At the moment, Lauterman is content with working in television. He has come up through the ranks, working as a freelance writer, an executive story editor and, now, a creator and executive producer. Asked if he would rather write for film, he replies, "I like telling stories that average people can relate to. A feature would offer a broader canvas but it just seems like agony to do. Not that TV isn't difficult to do, but it's been good to me." If Cover Me proves successful, one can expect more TV in the future for Peter Lauterman. And that's good news for watchers of the small screen.
The Mystery Project: Getting an Earful From James Nichol
James Nichol has been a professional writer for well over 20 years. In that time he has written original plays for the theatre and television, done a well-received adaptation of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel for the stage and had a screenplay coproduced as an Australia/Canada feature film. But his greatest success has not been in any of those forms. Nichol has mastered that profoundly old-fashioned and Canadian format, the radio drama.Thanks to the CBC, the format, which launched Orson Welles's career 60 years ago, is still being created and broadcast across Canada. Nichol is one of the beneficiaries of that fact, as are the many people who have listened to The Mystery Project over the past few years. Producer Bill Howell and Nichol started The Mystery Project with Midnight Cab, a wonderful throwback that evoked Sam Spade and other powerful detective programs of the 1940s. Now, with Peggy Delaney, the two have gone farther, creating and nurturing a series character whose nature and subjects are darker than The Mystery Project's pulp roots.
Nichol is, unsurprisingly, an advocate of radio drama. "I think it's a poetic medium," says Nichol. "Although it came first, I think it's a more progressive medium than television. If you really listen to a radio play, if you get lost in it, you can experience something in your mind that is far more sophisticated than what is shown to you on a television screen." Take Peggy Delaney, for example. Nichol's current series character is a hard-boiled Toronto newspaper columnist who drinks too much and has only two friends, a down-at-the-heels news beat reporter who used to be an eminent journalist, and a gay pal who often knows what's going on in the city. Peggy is less interested in the "how" of cracking cases than in understanding the "why" behind the events that have taken place.
The Peggy Delaney stories evolved naturally out of Midnight Cab. "I found with Midnight Cab that the mystery would be embedded within a social issue. I'd get very interested in its ramifications but would have to pull out to do a more plot-driven thing. Now with Peggy, she's always discovering something surprising within an issue and it is often a hot-button topic on the news. It isn't always a conventional mystery." The dramas have dealt with gay bashings and outings, sexual and spousal abuse, and the problems inherent in single-parent/single-child relationships.
Some of the same themes pop up in Turning April, Nichol's only produced screenplay. Turning April is a rethought version of the Patti Hearst story. April, a poor little rich girl married to a vapid member of Australia's political and business elite, is kidnapped by anarchical political activists. She becomes emotionally and sexually involved with one of the anarchists, which prompts her to confront her pretentious and shallow husband and her sexually abusive millionaire father. "What we struggled with," recalls Nichol, "was taking a medium that is inherently realistic and seeing if we could communicate to an audience with something that was not real, but a representational piece of work." Despite excellent performances by Tushka Bergen as April and Kenneth Welsh as her father, the film's stylistic inconsistencies may have caused its failure to click with audiences in Australia and Canada.
The commercial failure of Turning April brought Nichol back, not unhappily, to his roots at CBC Radio. As a writer, Nichol unswervingly recommends radio drama as an excellent way for neophytes to learn their chops. "You can't cheat on radio. You have music, you have sound effects, you have silence, but mostly you have language. It's a very demanding medium for the writer as far as language is concerned. But it's wonderful in that you can lead listeners to wherever their imaginations can go." Thanks to radio, Nichol is able to pursue his main objective, which is to write publicly. "I think of myself as a storyteller. I don't seem to have any problems thinking up tales. Where they actually come from and what's the baggage in there? I'm not sure." For Nichol, radio always leaves him creatively satisfied. "I've done everything from two hours to 15 minutes, from musicals to poetic drama, from Faulknerian drama to theatre of the absurd and everything in between. Radio has been a very friendly situation for me."
Marc Glassman is a Toronto writer and editor of several books onCanadian film.