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By Martin Keady · March 23, 2019
Famous Screenwriters is a new series by The Script Lab for 2019, in which our resident cinema historian, Martin Keady, looks at the great screenwriting cities of the world – those that have produced many of the world’s greatest screenwriters. He has previously covered London, New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston.
In Part 6, he looks at Toronto, the cultural capital of Canada.
It is often said of Canada that it combines the best of Britain and America, and that is particularly true of its biggest city, Toronto. Many of its greatest writers, including its screenwriters, have combined the great British and English literary tradition with the sheer energy and chutzpah of New York and Hollywood. And many of the city’s greatest screenwriters were part of the “Toronto New Wave” of filmmakers that emerged from the city in the late 1980s and 1990s.
As with every featured city, the writers on this list may not all hail from Toronto, but even those not born there have a strong connection with the city, either because they lived there for a time or because they wrote works that have become synonymous with it.
Here are 10 great Toronto screenwriters.
Graham Yost is a native of Toronto, hailing from the wonderfully named Etobicoke, in the west of the city. He comes from a cinematic family, as his father, Elwy Yost, was for several decades the presenter of a major Canadian TV show about cinema, Saturday Night At The Movies. Perhaps it was inevitable, therefore, that Graham would become a successful writer for film and television, whose credits include the hit movies, Speed (1994) and Broken Arrow (1996), and the TV crime drama, Justified (2010-2015).
A quarter of a century on, Speed remains Yost’s finest screenplay. One of the ultimate “high concept” movies, it tells the story of an LA cop (played by Keanu Reeves) trying to track down a domestic terrorist (Speed is definitely a pre-9/11 movie) who concocts a series of increasingly ingenious terror scenarios, culminating in placing a bomb aboard a bus that will explode if the bus’s speed drops below 50mph. For all the stupidity of its sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control (which was basically Speed set aboard a boat and which Yost did not write), the original Speed has an incredible kinetic energy that not only made it a huge box-office hit but even won the admiration of critics as distinguished as Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.
KEY TORONTO WORK: THE KEY “YOST” TORONTO WORK IS SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES AND THE OTHER MOVIE SHOWS PRESENTED BY GRAHAM’S FATHER, ELWY, FROM 1965 TO 1999
Sarah Polley is that rarest of creatures: a child star who not only continued to find work as an adult but actually expanded her career into writing, directing and producing. In addition to starring in some of Atom Egoyan’s earliest and best works, such as Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), she has written, directed and produced a number of critically acclaimed dramas, some of which were set in her home town of Toronto, notably Take This Waltz (2011).
Take This Waltz is a charming romantic drama set in Toronto’s Little Portugal district. It tells the story of Margot, a writer (played by Michelle Williams), who meets a stranger, Lou, on a business trip and develops romantic feelings for him, but does not act on them as she is married. However, when she returns home, she discovers to her amazement that Lou is actually one of her neighbors who she had never met before. Eventually, Margot leaves her husband for Lou, only to discover that what she is seeking is not another relationship but some more fully realized sense of self.
KEY TORONTO WORK: TAKE THIS WALTZ (2011)
Like most North American cities, and indeed most cities anywhere, Toronto is in many ways a city of immigrants and other incomers, many of whom have come from other parts of Canada, or indeed other countries, to try and make a new life, and in the case of artists new art, for themselves. Deepa Mehta exemplifies Toronto’s unique mix of British imperial heritage and North American enterprise. She was born in the Punjab, in India, but having met a Canadian documentary-maker, Paul Saltzman, in 1973 while he was filming in India, she married him and returned with him to his home town of Toronto. When the couple divorced in 1983, she continued to live and work in the city.
Mehta has worked extensively in film and television as a writer and director, including directing a screen adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s classic novel, Midnight’s Children (2012), which is set during the Indian Partition of 1947. However, she is best known and most celebrated for her “Three Elements” Trilogy of films – Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005) – which, like Midnight’s Children, tell the story of post-war India, concentrating on the attempts of individuals or small groups of individuals, ranging from a lesbian couple to a child widow, to try and forge meaningful lives for themselves amid the unfolding chaos of the Subcontinent.
KEY TORONTO WORK: SAM AND ME (1991) (THE STORY OF THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN A YOUNG INDIAN BOY AND AN ELDERLY JEWISH MAN IN CONTEMPORARY TORONTO)
William Fruet is a Canadian director and writer for both the stage and screen. He wrote a stage play that he later adapted and directed for the screen, Wedding In White (1972). Based on the story of a real woman who Fruet had known, It told the harrowing tale of a young woman who, during World War Two, is raped by a soldier home on leave and then, when she becomes pregnant, is forced to marry an old man, to try and maintain her family’s “respectability”. It starred the young Carol Kane, who would later find fame in both Annie Hall (1977) and the sitcom Taxi (1978-1982).
However, Fruet’s most important screenwriting credit is on one of the most important “Toronto” movies, Goin’ Down The Road (1970), which he co-wrote with its director, Donald Shebib. Goin’ Down The Road is a classic example of what might be called the “Coming To The City” genre, in which young people from impoverished rural communities move to the nearest big city to find work and new opportunities for themselves. It is a tradition that stretches from classics of the silent era, such as Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), to more recent films, such as Gareth Rees’s Written In Dust (2014), which relocates this archetypal coming-of-age story to modern China, which has experienced the biggest and fastest urbanisation in human history. Goin’ Down The Road is a worthy addition to the genre and Fruet’s best work.
KEY TORONTO WORK: GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (1970)
Patricia Rozema was part of the “Toronto New Wave” of film-makers, a loosely affiliated group of film directors and writers who all emerged more or less simultaneously from the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although not remotely on a par with the legendary French “New Wave” of the early 1960s (no other cinematic “New Wave” is), it still witnessed the arrival of several important Canadian film-makers, some of whom are included in this list, including Patricia Rozema.
Having made her name with Canadian-set dramas such as I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing (1987) and When Night Is Falling (1995), she came to international prominence at the turn of the millennium with her screen adaptation (she both directed and wrote the screenplay) of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1999). Although Mansfield Park is not one of Austen’s trio of truly great novels – Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility – all of which had been filmed (for cinema or television) to great acclaim in the preceding five years, Mansfield Park is an intriguing (and at times extremely funny) adaptation of a minor Austen. Latterly, Rozema has mostly worked in television, including on such notable series as In Treatment (2008-2010) and Mozart In The Jungle (2014-2018).
KEY TORONTO WORK: I’VE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING (1987)
Jeremy Podeswa is another member of the “Toronto New Wave” who has worked in film and television extensively, including directing episodes of such superb series as Six Feet Under (2001-2005), The Tudors (2007-2010) and Game of Thrones (2011 to the present). However, as a screenwriter-director, his greatest achievements have been three films: Eclipse (1994), a drama set in Toronto in the build-up to a solar eclipse; The Five Senses (1999), a portmanteau film about people living in the same building who somehow embody each one of the five senses (a masseuse who signifies touch, etc.); and, above all, his film of Anne Michaels’s magnificent 1997 novel, Fugitive Pieces (2007).
The first thing to say about the film of Fugitive Pieces is that it is not as good as the original novel, which is one of the greatest novels of the last fifty years. Written by the great Toronto poet, novelist and academic, Anne Michaels, it is a stunning “prose poem” that merits comparison with what is arguably the finest example of that genre, By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down And Wept (1945), which was written by another great Canadian poet-novelist, Elizabeth Smart. (There is clearly something about Canada that produces great prose-poets and indeed great poet-musicians, such as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.) Nevertheless, Podeswa’s film of Fugitive Pieces is still a fine piece of cinema, and one of the most intelligent and moving screen tales about the Holocaust and its effect on those who survived it, or even escaped it.
KEY TORONTO WORK: ECLIPSE (1994)
Don McKellar is yet another “Toronto New Wave” veteran who has excelled in several different fields, including acting, writing and directing. Born and educated in Toronto, he both acted in and wrote the screenplay for the compellingly odd Roadkill (1989), a road movie about a young female employee at a record company who is tasked with finding the label’s missing band. McKellar went on to write or co-write a number of major features, including The Red Violin (1998), which did for a famous violin what Winchester ‘73 (1950), the classic Anthony Mann Western, did for a famous gun, namely telling its story through that of its various owners. However, his most interesting film – and key Toronto work – is Last Night (1998), which he wrote, directed and acted in.
Last Night is an eve of the apocalypse movie, telling the story of a group of Toronto friends as they prepare for December 31, 1999. McKellar took the idea of the millennium bug (the then-very-real idea that all computers would cease to function, because they would be automatically reset to “1900” rather than “2000”) and expanded it into an actual apocalypse, due to begin on that fateful day. And the most memorable of all the characters’ reactions to impending doom is that of the man who belatedly tries to realize every sexual fantasy he has ever had in the last few hours of his existence.
KEY TORONTO WORK: LAST NIGHT (1998)
The last member of the very loosely affiliated “Toronto New Wave” on this list is the writer-director who became so successful that he soon outgrew any movement or scene and ended up becoming effectively his own one-man genre, Atom Egoyan. Egoyan was born in Egypt in 1960 to parents of Armenian descent, who emigrated to Canada in 1962. Although they settled in Victoria, on Canada’s west coast, Atom studied in Toronto and subsequently made his first movies there, including his breakthrough, Exotica (1994), which was largely set in a Toronto strip club of that name.
Since Exotica, Egoyan has written and directed several films (some of which have featured other screenwriters on this list, including Sarah Polley and Don McKellar) that have examined contemporary Canada, such as The Sweet Hereafter (1997), an almost unbearably moving drama about the deaths of a group of children on a school bus and the devastation that it wreaks upon the small town that they came from. However, he has also investigated his own family roots in Europe. In particular, Ararat (2002), is Egoyan’s obviously autobiographical story of the attempt by a contemporary Armenian-Canadian film director (played by the French singer, Charles Aznavour, who himself was of Armenian descent) to discover the truth about the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, which famously inspired Hitler to pursue his own genocide of the Jews, the Gypsies and anyone else he considered unworthy of existing.
KEY TORONTO WORK: EXOTICA (1994)
David Cronenberg is the other great contemporary Toronto writer-director who has become his own genre, in his case “body-horror”, as his visually arresting and intellectually disturbing films frequently examined the difficult intersection between emerging technology and the fragile human frame. From Scanners (1981) to The Fly (1986) to Crash (1996), Cronenberg specialized in making films that were often almost unwatchable, precisely because they are so “bodily-horrific”, as human beings are torn, ripped and even decapitated in extraordinary and extraordinarily stomach-churning ways.
However, in the second half of his career, Cronenberg has moved away from the “bodily prison” in which he increasingly found himself being confined to consider radically different subject matter and film-making style. In particular, A History of Violence (2005), although still preoccupied by violence and what it does to people (as the title suggests), is not a techno-fantasy but a brutally realistic drama about a former criminal who tries to leave his violent past behind only to discover that, like a hero in a Greek tragedy, he simply cannot escape his fate.
KEY TORONTO WORK: VIDEODROME (1983)
I will admit that the final entry on this list of “Toronto screenwriters” is something of a cheat, in that Michael Ondaatje is undoubtedly a great Toronto writer – along with Anne Michaels, he is probably the greatest Canadian writer of the late 20th century – but he has never actually written a screenplay. Nevertheless, he has contributed to cinema and cinematic writing in two absolutely crucial ways.
First, Ondaatje is, of course, the author of The English Patient (1992), the original novel that Anthony Minghella’s epic film of the same title, released four years later, was based upon. Although Minghella in his screenplay and actual filming of his script differed significantly from the novel, he remained true to Ondaatje’s truly poetic writing, translating Ondaatje’s dream-like but still-specific prose into ravishing imagery, including some of the finest aerial photography ever captured on film.
Secondly, in addition to all his other poetry and prose, Ondaatje wrote a non-fiction book about cinema that is one of the most important books about film, as it examines what is arguably the most important cinematic art, and indeed the basis of all art – editing. That book is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002) and it deservedly ranks alongside When The Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story (1986), by Ralph Rosenblum, as the greatest book ever written about film editing.
Just as Ralph Rosenblum was Woody Allen’s editor (he edited six of Allen’s films, as well as many other films by many other directors), so Walter Murch was Francis Ford Coppola’s editor, in particular on The Godfather (1972) and on The Conversation (1974), Coppola’s extraordinary account of Watergate-era surveillance and espionage that he made between the two Godfather films and that he famously left Murch to complete when he had to begin filming on The Godfather – Part II (1974). Ondaatje met Murch while Murch was editing the film of The English Patient, and the two men struck up a great friendship. Their “conversations” are effectively transcribed by Ondaatje (in as much as a poet can ever simply “transcribe” anything, rather than transmogrifying it) and they are full of insight, not just about cinema but about life, perhaps the greatest of which is Murch’s theory that to be happy as an adult you should try to do what you enjoyed doing most when you were 12.
KEY TORONTO (OR AT LEAST CANADIAN) WORK: THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996) (TWO OF WHOSE MAJOR CHARACTERS, THE NURSE HANA AND THE SPY CARAVAGGIO, ARE CANADIAN)
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/