Problems in Canadian Cinema — Theater and Theatrics

The Canadian cinema and television industry has a fairly close relationship with the theater industry in many ways, the biggest ties of which are stage actors becoming film actors and stage plays becoming screenplays. The direction is often stage to film, but it’s not exclusively so. Just off the top of my head, the recent film It’s Only the End of the World is based on a play, just as Monsieur Lazhar, Tom at the Farm, and Elephant Song among others.

There are positives and negatives to both theater and film, and although film has the potential to take the positives of both and remove all the negatives most Canadian films end up being the worst of both worlds, with very few of the pros.

Let’s quickly look at some of the pros and cons of each.

Theater

Pros:
1. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Tons of rehearsal. No mistakes. Often gets better with time.
2. Stick to the script. No improvisation. No freestyling. No make it up as you go along.
3. Enunciation. Speech is always clear.
4. Good stories. The basis of a play is a good story with good actors and dialogues. Since there’s no camera work, scenes, soundtrack, special effects, action, etc. the basis has to be rock solid.
5. Blocking. Actors are told where to stand. It is all planned in advance.

Cons:
1. Overacting. You gotta act, move and speak for the guy at the last row to understand. It ends up being unnatural.
2. Compressed scenes. The dinner party that lasts 5 minutes. Guests arrive at 0:00, the main course is done at 2:30, dessert at 3:30, tea at 4:30 and they’re done in 5:00. Same with the 3 minute high school biology class, the 4 minute heart surgery, etc.
3. It’s live. Mistakes cannot be undone.
4. Props are limited.
5. Locations are often limited to backdrops.
6. Limited themes. Most plays are dramas. Indiana Jones wouldn’t do well on stage. Action, adventure, war, be it pilots or cavalry, sports, lots of themes are difficult to do on stage.
7. It’s all there. Weaker parts are usually not cut out of the play.

Film:

Pros:
1. Better, more natural acting — facial expressions, gestures, etc.
2. Freedom to choose a variety of representations of time, real time (full dinner, for example), a slice of time (cut to dinner at dessert), highlights (cut out the unneeded parts), etc.
3. Camera. No need to worry about the last row, they’ll all see the smallest facial expression on the big screen. Camera distance and movement adds to the film.
4. Better sound.
5. Soundtrack adds to the mood, story.
6. Not live. Can edit out the bad parts or cut down long scenes.
7. Better props.
8. Computer generated images, if needed.
9. Better locations.
10. Limitless themes.
11. Can cut out the fat in post-production.
12. Can use subtitles for foreign languages.

Cons:
1. Unrehearsed. Many Canadian films do not have dry runs or group rehearsals before shooting. Actors just need to turn up to the set on the day of the shoot. Rehearsal with co-actors is optional.
2. Improvisation. Some films make changes to the script while shooting, mostly changing dialogue lines.
3. Some actors take the “We have a microphone” to a whole new level, whispering and mumbling unintelligibly.

Films can easily take the pros of theater and many actually do that: 
1. Make rehearsal compulsory and do dry runs. This will improve the chemistry between actors. 
2. Stick to the script. Weaker parts of the script can be discovered in rehearsal, where they would be brought to the attention of the screenwriter, who has the time to think of something better. Last minute, on-the-set changes are not the best idea. People don’t want to see improv, they want to see something thought out and polished. Coaches in sports are paid to tell the team what to do, not to encourage the team to freestyle and do interpretive dance on the grass.
3. Dry runs with microphones can find issues with sound and microphone placement before the cameras are brought in. Just because digital cameras don’t use film stock doesn’t mean that the crew’s time is free. Let the actors iron out the wrinkles before bringing everyone in.
4. Good stories. It seems like a pretty basic idea, but most Canadian films don’t start with good stories. If someone would buy your screenplay and read it with nothing but ink and paper, then that’s a good story. If they won’t, then that’s not a good story. It’s that simple. Would you want to read Foolproof on your eReader? What about One Week?
5. Blocking. Yes, just because the camera moves or there are multiple cameras doesn’t mean that blocking is not important. Tell the actors where to stand, where to move and don’t overdo it. People usually have conversations standing, not pacing. People usually don’t talk and then go to the window to look outside while continuing the dialogue. This is soap opera stuff. Does not belong in film or TV dramas.

But instead, we get the worst of both worlds:

  1. No rehearsal. Many films would rather do 100 takes of the same scene with the whole cast and crew rather than get the actors to rehearse alone.
  2. Improvisation — the director makes changes on the set, actors make their input while they’re on the set for the first time, removing important things they deem trivial. The screenwriter is often not on the set. If he is, he is asked to make last-minute, on-the-fly changes.
  3. Speech is not always clear. Untested locations have poor acoustics. Unrehearsed actors mumble.
  4. Poor stories. Many directors think the script is less than half the film. Directors add long shots that add nothing to the story. One Week is comprised mostly of sunsets, open road, nature shots, beaches, Instagram as a film. Many films add long periods of nudity that add nothing to the story.
  5. Many directors have never been to the location before the day of the shoot. Blocking, camera placement and movement, microphone placement are all done at the very last minute.
  6. Overacting. Many films cast actors from theater. They tend to overact.
  7. Compressed scenes. Many films are adaptations of stage plays. They end up having compressed scenes rather than doing things with cutting. Two minute dinners are not realistic, folks. Some films go the opposite direction, putting realistic scenes like someone taking a piss for 3 minutes, waiting in line for the supermarket, flossing, etc.
  8. Despite it not being live, many poor cuts are kept in the final cut. Foolproof featured an “unloaded” gun that was actually loaded. We see the cartridge fall out of the gun, but the director did not know or did not care to cut that.
  9. Props are unlimited, but many films still mess that up in many ways (this deserves a separate post).
  10. Locations are unlimited, but many films shoot indoors, at home, in small towns, etc.
  11. The themes are unlimited, but most films do family dramas, come-of-age stories, coming out stories, or love triangles. One can write a story in medieval times, space, future earth, WW1, the 50’s, but most Canadian films are set in a small town in the current year.
  12. It’s still all there. The way films work is a screenwriter writes 200 pages, this is reduced to 180, some of the fat is cut out, some scenes are reduced in time without being cut (instead of two scenes we get the audio dialogue from scene 1 playing as we see the silent scene 2). Then we have many hours of film shot, let’s say 30. The bad takes are removed. The weak takes are removed. Then we might multiple takes of the same shot and the best is chosen. And even when we have the best takes, some of the best takes are cut out of the film, not because there’s something better, because the whole scene is cut from the film to get it down to 2 hours. It was in the script, yes. It was shot. Yes. It was great, even perfect, yes. But sometimes it has to go. (That’s why you get Director’s Cut and other versions on DVD/BR). In many Canadian films, however, many scenes could be cut out, but for some reason they aren’t. The “some reason” being, many Canadian films are written and directed by the same person. A director would cut weak parts of someone else’s script, but when he’s unlikely to notice them in his own script. In some films the director has influence on the editing process, giving the film editor little-to-no input or, in the case of How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town, the screenwriter is the director and the editor of the film. The same is the case in the 2016 film titled “Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau” — not only does this 3 hour film need some editing, but the name could use some cutting as well.
  13. Many films overlook soundtracks. They don’t hire professional musicians to compose a soundtrack, opting to choose songs from their own playlists or have no music at all. Using non-song music to add texture to scenes is, excuse the pun, unheard of.
  14. CGI is rarely used in Canadian films, even when it could be helpful.
  15. Foreign languages are rarely used, as are subtitles. The vast majority of non-Quebec Canadian films are in exclusively in English. American films, on the other hand, can be in any language from a dead one like Latin (Passion of the Christ) to a fictional ones like Na’vi (Avatar), with many living ones in between (Italian in the Godfather, German in any WWII film.)

This is just a quick overview of the situation. A critical understanding of Canadian cinema is necessary to improve the industry, but in-depth analyses and technical discussions are less interesting than a discussion of nationalism that everyone can participate in and understand.

There are so many problems with the industry, but in this age of inclusivity and consensus-making, we want to reduce the problem to one single issue that everyone can understand and agree on, even if that’s not the real issue in any way. It’s more important for some that we all agree on something than that most of us understand what the many issues, disagree on some and discuss the others.

It seems that nationalism is the layman’s answer to every problem. I’ll leave you with one last thought.

England, Russia and Serbia are all perceived to be underperformers in football tournaments. England, having the most richest popular league in the world, Russia, for its size and population, and Serbia, for the talent of its players all perform on the international stage. There are many different issues facing each footballing nation, but when it comes to discussing the issues, the discussion is reduced to nothing but nationalism. England has “too many foreign players coming to our league,” while Serbia has the opposite problem of “too many local players leaving our league” and Russia, with no problems of excessive imports or exports, has “players not playing with enough love for their country.”

No one wants to talk about the lack of pressing from the front, but people want to talk about the pressing issue of who was not singing the national anthem. No one wants to talk about fullbacks returning to their position after set pieces, but instead foreign (or local) players returning to their countries. No one wants to talk about how the team plays without the ball, but people are interested in the midfielder adjusting his balls during the national anthem. Blocking the ball? Nah. Let’s talk blocking work permits for footballers.

So blogs like these that talk about microphone positions, camera movement, blocking and dry runs are less interesting to most than chanting “CA-NA-DA! CA-NA-DA!”

Oh well.

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