|Paul Gross: Comedy Canadian Style|
Actor-director-writer Paul Gross straddles the fence of famous and obscure. Say his name to TV fans, and most of them will tell you they never heard of him. (Sorry, Paul.) But dress him up in red and mention Due South (CBS, 1994-96, CBC/BBC, 1994-98) and suddenly you hear: "Oh yeah! He was the mountie, wasn't he?"
Gross no longer wears red for a living, but he still serves as one of our northern neighbor's best unofficial spokesmen for things Canadian. These days Gross makes movies as well as acts in them -- movies that feature intelligent scripting, sure-fire plots and the kind of quality production values that most people, unfortunately, associate only with Hollywood.
The year after Due South ceased production, Gross and the show's producer Frank Siracusa formed Whizbang Films. That same year, Whizbang produced Murder Most Likely, a made-for-TV movie in which Gross starred as Patrick Kelly, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer accused of murdering his wife. The film seemed a deliberate attempt to wipe away the clean-cut Mountie mask Gross created in Due South and move on with his career.
Last month Gross, along with producer Robert Lantos of Serendipity Point Films, flew into Seattle to attend the U.S. premiere of their film Men With Brooms, a romantic comedy about a disgraced curling team. (Click here for the review.) The film aired as part of the 2002 Seattle International Film Festival.
Men With Brooms marks a return to a kinder, gentler Gross. Sort of. The movie centers around the ancient sport of curling, in which grown men sweep in front of a 42-pound rock hurtling across a 138-foot-long sheet of ice. They use the brooms to smooth the ice in order to make the rock travel faster towards the goal, a "button" located at the far end of the playing field. The first record of the game goes all the way back to 1511 Scotland.
"The rudiments of curling are not that different from bocci or shuffleboard. I mean there are games like that played all over the place. My view of history is that people didn't really have that much leisure time," Gross said.
But Gross concedes they must've had a lot of time on their hands to invent so strange a game. He added, "When I started reading about the history of the game, I found pictures of hordes of Scottish men falling through the ice repeatedly. And they stuck with it! Wouldn't you give up on it? I mean, 'Ach, I'm soaked again.'"
When asked about the production staff for Men With Brooms and their connections to Due South, Gross noted that by the time Due South folded, "We had probably the most efficient crew in the city [Toronto]."
A shooting schedule of 35 days and a budget of only $7.5 million made gathering an efficient crew essential. Gross said, "It takes a while to develop a shorthand on a set. I didn't want to ask a key grip for something, have him tell me it'll take half an hour and then have it turn out to be three hours. When I turn to Mitch [the key grip on the Men With Brooms] and he says half an hour, I know it's going to take half an hour."
Not only did Gross bring the show's production team along with him, he also collaborated with former Due South writer John Krizanc on the script of Men With Brooms. John and Paul collaborated on a few episodes of Due South, for which they won a Gemini Award (Canada's equivalent of the Emmys) for Best Writing for a Dramatic Series. Krizanc also served as a creative consultant for the show and wrote a few episodes on his own.
While working on the script for Men With Brooms, Gross and Krizanc talked for quite a while about the general shape and flow of the story. More granular detail followed, such as creating back story for the characters and working on dialogue. Gross laughed as he said he ended up doing most of the typing because, "I'm a faster typist, and I can spell."
Gross enjoys watching actors fill out the characters he's written. "The most rewarding thing is directing actors. That is really a treat," Gross said. "Part of the reason is if you have really good actors, as I did, it's just a joy to watch them go at a scene. To be reminded of what a wonderful thing it is that actors can do...to inhabit these people. You've really only written these black and white symbols we call words and they suddenly are full bodied and they have hearts and it's fantastic."
Gross relied on the talent of his cast to work as collaborators in a sense as well. He took the approach of being more of a guide than a dictator as a director. "I don't want to mislead you into thinking that it's democratic," Gross said. "It's still tyrannical, but I couldn't do everything if there weren't other people [to support me]."
Gross added, "There's a spirit that comes up on the floor [of a movie set] that's organic. You can't buy that stuff. You can't write that stuff."
Gross seems to revel in all the activity required to function as a hyphenate (writer-actor-director-singer-composer). The multiple roles usually reinforce each other, even if it can get overwhelming at times. One day on the set of Men With Brooms, when everything, including the ice, was heading for a melt-down, cast member Peter Outerbridge told Gross, "I don't know what you have in your head right now, man, but if someone put a gun to my head and said 'you gotta direct a movie,' I'd do two guys in a room on heroin. Twelve people, curling, comedy -- are you nuts?"
In spite of the trials -- or perhaps because of them -- Gross looks at his directing of Men With Brooms as a wonderful learning experience. "The first time that you direct something you think you need to concentrate on everything and while to a certain extent that's true, there's a hierarchy of what's important and what isn't. I had it all flattened out into all of it being of critical importance. So I think I'd be better at it if I did it again," Gross said.
Working as an actor-director creates a bit of a conundrum for the person who takes on that split role. Normally, a director provides the actor with an outside eye on the actor's performance, helping the actor to guide and shape a character. When you serve as both director and actor on a project, it becomes difficult to know what you put out there as an actor works within the framework of the film and the other actors.
"First of all it's very hard to see yourself period, even if you're not directing, it's very hard to see what you're doing, particularly on the moment. So I would finish a take and run around and look at the monitor. On those monitors you can hardly see anything and they're black and white and so shitty that I'd turn around and ask people [about my performance]," Gross said.
The other actors helped Gross direct his own performance. In fact, he said that if he changed any one big thing in the film, he would change his performance. "I don't know, maybe I would have smiled a little more or something."
At the same time, Gross believes that, in comedy, if you're aware of the director, then the director didn't do his job well. "In drama, it's different, especially in auteur cinema," Gross said. "You want to see the director's hand in every frame. But if you see my hand anywhere in this film, then I've screwed up somewhere."
If not for Gross's hand, however, the viewer would miss some of the wonderful little moments in Men With Brooms, like the little love story between two very minor characters told in roughly four tiny scenes and almost no dialogue. Like all good directors, Gross understands the value and power of a glance, a look, a stare, a smile.
Gross also holds an obvious affection for Canada's national symbols. As he parades a bevy of beavers across the screen accompanied by bagpipes and vaguely native-sounding chanting, one understands that he embraces them (and the maple leaf and the Mountie) even as he chuckles at the mild absurdity of the pictures they must present to the outside world
He shares this affection for Canadian iconography with the film's producer Robert Lantos, head of Serendipity Point Films, the production company responsible for Men With Brooms. Both Lantos and Gross wanted to bring to Canada and the world a uniquely Canadian film that also made people laugh. They both desire to elevate the role and acceptance of Canadian cinema outside Canada's borders.
More and more it appears that Canada's talented actors, directors and writers choose to remain in Canada rather than venture to the wilds of the U.S. Or if they do try to make it in Tinseltown, they also make sure they do work in their home country as well. As Gross's former Due South co-star Callum Keith Rennie said once, "I'm a good fucking Canadian. I don't see working here as a consolation prize."
Sadly for Men With Brooms, the very thing that makes the movie charming, its Canadian air, makes the outlook for U.S. distribution of the film look grim. Producer Lantos noted, "I've taken it to all the major distributors and they all say the same thing. It's too Canadian."
However, Gross remains hopeful that the film will find an audience, or perhaps that the audience will find his film. "The Full Monty was out for two years before it found a place in the U.S. And there's a film that I think is just coming over here called Bend It Like Beckham that was a massive hit in England, the one of the biggest grossing domestic films. And it's two years old."
Click here to read Jenny Buehler's review of Men With Brooms.
to read Jenny Buehler's review of Love and Carnage, a CD
by Paul Gross and David Keeley of the Broadway cast of Mamma Mia.