By James Latham
Q: Besides being in Hollywood, what do Louis B. Mayer and Tommy Chong have in common?
A: They’re Canadian. Who knew? You will after you see this film.
Among the terrific independent documentaries we’re screening this year is Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood, a fun and insightful look at the historical and current roles that Canadians have played in our entertainment industry and pop culture. As it turns out, Canadians have been in Hollywood, more or less in plain sight, since the earliest days of the industry—and they have stories to tell. To talk more about the film, I spoke recently with its producer and co-director Leslie Bland.
James Latham: Gone South has a lot of archival material and current interviews with Canadian immigrants to Los Angeles. Your website says that this film “presents the argument that without the slow and subversive influence of Canada, Hollywood as it is known would not and could not exist.” That’s a pretty bold statement. Can you briefly describe this influence? In what ways has Canada most strongly influenced Hollywood?
Leslie Bland: As a Canadian I would be remiss (is that a word in the US?) to not apologize for our boldness. Sorry about that, but Canadian influence was felt from the very beginnings of Hollywood. Al Christie from London, Ontario built the very first permanent movie studio in Hollywood in 1910. He moved Nestor Studios from New Jersey to Hollywood, starting a stampede as the East Coast studios relocated to Los Angeles. Other highly influential studio moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers came to LA via Canada, as did Mack Sennett. Sennett discovered Charlie Chaplin and developed the Keystone Cops, essentially inventing comedy on film. Of the first four Academy Award Winners for Best Actress, three were Canadian: Marie Dressler, Mary Pickford (known as “America’s Sweetheart”), and Norma Shearer.
JL: Yes, there were many influential Canadians in the classical Hollywood era as well as in recent film and TV, including James Cameron, Howie Mandel, Alex Trebek, and Neve Campbell; and in other parts of the entertainment industry, such as Celine Dion and Justin Bieber. I was actually wondering about how you’d describe the collective impacts of “Canadian-ness” on the American entertainment industry. What sensibilities, cultural practices, or other qualities have entered and changed the Hollywood ecosystem? Or, if you prefer to discuss a particular person, what, if anything, about James Cameron’s work screams “Canada”?
LB: It’s hard to define a “Canadian Influence” other than I think we carry more of a world view than many Americans. When Neve Campbell in our documentary discusses the differences between LA and Toronto, she’s also picking up on the differences in sensibilities between the two nations. We care about how our country interfaces with the rest of the world, and how we are viewed by foreigners. When Hollywood is viewed as “liberal” by some Americans, I think they are, in part, picking up the sometimes overlooked influence of Canadians. James Cameron’s Avatar for instance deals with environmental themes, and Mr. Cameron, interestingly enough, has been highly critical of Canada’s oil sands developments. He’s concerned about the earth, the environment, and, I believe, how Canada is perceived by the international community.
Canadians bring an objectivity to pop culture. Whereas citizens of the US are more expressive and heartfelt, we are more cerebral as a nation -- more thoughtful. That’s where some of the politeness comes into play, but it also allows us to observe and comment without, as Harland William states, “having a stake in it.” We feel free to make comments on American politics and culture, because, well … we’re not American. We’ve all encountered the expression, “That’s Un-American!” Basically, it translates as, “That’s not right!” But in Canada we don’t wrap ourselves in the flag by saying “That’s Un-Canadian!” We simply say, “That’s not right!” Our national identity is not mixed up with right and wrong.
JL: Yes, good points. There is something subversive in showing Americans how much Canada has shaped the U.S., as we Americans tend to ignore, belittle, or ridicule our northern neighbors. Your film uses a lot of humor to entertain the viewer as well as soften this critique. Has there been any noticeable difference between how audiences north and south of the border have reacted to the film?
LB: I think Canadians find all of it amusing, because they are in on all of the jokes. If certain Americans don’t get some of the references, again, on behalf of myself, our documentary, and our nation -- I’m sorry. As we have an objective view of America it can be easier for us to find the humour – sorry – humor in it. As a result, I’ve found that a US reaction to the doc can be a little less vocal.
JL: Along with talking about the industry, Gone South also says a lot about the experiences of all newcomers to Los Angeles. The driving, the food, the culture.... Did you (or your crew) have any of those strange experiences or ah-ha moments here while shooting the film?
LB: Well, I met Gene Simmons when we interviewed Shannon Tweed. I grew up a big KISS fan, and dressed up as Gene at Halloween two years in a row, so to have the chance to meet him and Tommy Chong the very same day was surreal. Between the ages of 9 and 11, I drove my family crazy reciting Cheech and Chong routines word for word.
Singer / songwriter Tracy Thomas, the documentary host, got a chance to audition for David Foster. This is captured in the doc and was not planned in advance with Mr. Foster. He invited her back the next day to hang out with him and another Canuck, Bryan Adams, for a creative jam at his studio. Following the session, Bryan asked Tracy and her husband to attend his concert the next evening and visit with him backstage.
So, yeah, we experienced some unexpected, serendipitous, and memorable moments during the shooting of Gone South.
JL: I see that initially this project was to be a book, but instead you switched to doing a feature-length documentary. Why?
LB: The original idea was to put out a book. When we pitched the book as a documentary, we picked up a Canadian broadcaster. The film got momentum and is now complete. The book version is still in the works. Looks like we have a publisher interested.
JL: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
LB: David Shore was a trooper. He was ill when we interviewed him, and you wouldn’t know based on his responses. He said some really funny and insightful things.
JL: OK, thanks for your time, and for sending us your film.
LB: You’re welcome. We’re thrilled it will be screening as part of The Valley Film Festival.
The 14th annual Valley Film Festival takes place December 10-14, 2014, at the all-digital Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. For more info, visit our website or Facebook page. Gone South: How Canada Invented Hollywood screens at 2:30 pm on Saturday, December 13, followed by Q&A with Tracy Thomas, host of the documentary.