On set: External Affairs

The transition from play script to screenplay was a smooth one for Shaftesbury Films' $3-million tv movie External Affairs, adapted from Timothy Findley's play The Stillborn Lover by screenwriter Jeremy Hole....

The transition from play script to screenplay was a smooth one for Shaftesbury Films’ $3-million tv movie External Affairs, adapted from Timothy Findley’s play The Stillborn Lover by screenwriter Jeremy Hole.

At the helm of the production and making his television film directorial debut, Peter Moss, ytv’s vp of programming and production, has a rich theatrical history. He not only collaborated with Findley on the original stage version of Stillborn Lover but he also directed the play at the Grand Theatre in London in 1993 and in 1995 at the Stratford Festival, where he has directed nearly 20 stage productions over seven seasons.

Then three and a half years ago, Moss approached Shaftesbury producer Christina Jennings about turning the play into a movie.

While Moss had collaborated well with Findley on creating the play, the author said he wasn’t interested in spending the amount of time it takes to do a film treatment. However, with Hole (Philip Marlowe: Private Eye, Kurt Vonnegut’s Monkey House) having just written an adaptation of one of Findley’s books, Famous Last Words, the screenwriter was employed to adapt The Stillborn Lover.

To finance the film, they had development money from the Ontario Film Development Corporation and Telefilm Canada, and had considered getting financing for it as a feature. The cbc, however, expressed interest in the film, so they decided to work with the public broadcaster, which greenlit the movie last January, thereby triggering the rest of the funds from Telefilm, the Canadian Television Fund and the Canadian Film or Video Tax Credit.

Moss then took a six-week leave of absence from ytv to work on the project (he returned to his office Dec. 9).

On the set, one of the challenges for the first-time film director is ‘getting it done in 20 days,’ Moss says with a laugh. ‘But directing full-length Shakespeare at Stratford is just as complex,’ he says. ‘So the scope and size is not foreign to me or uncomfortable.’

Acting-driven drama

With a plot resembling a Shakespearean tragedy, the 90-minute tv movie is loosely based on actual incidents involving two Canadian diplomats in the 1960s. The film’s central character is Harry Raymond, Canada’s ambassador in Moscow at the time, who at the top of his career is implicated in the brutal murder of a young Russian artist.

Raymond and his emotionally fragile wife Marianne are called to Ottawa by his old friend Michael Riordan, the minister of external affairs. An investigation into Harry’s life reveals secrets that threaten the careers of both men and their friendship, and unveils the surprising role Marianne has been playing in her husband’s life.

Playing out this drama is a cast with a strong credit list.

Victor Garber (film: Titantic, Sleepless in Seattle, Exotica, and theater: Art on Broadway and four Tony award nominations) plays Raymond.

Veteran Quebec actress Louise Marleau (Countess of Baton Rouge) is cast in the role of Marianne.

Kenneth Walsh (Margaret’s Museum, Whale Music, Legends of the Fall and winner of the 1998 Earl Grey Award for Lifetime Achievement) plays Riordan.

Henry Czerny (Clear and Present Danger, Boys of St. Vincent) plays rcmp Superintendent Jackman.

Domini Blythe (Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Afterglow) plays Riordan’s wife Sylvia, and Kate Greenhouse (The Assistant, Traders) is Raymond’s daughter Diana.

The four-week shoot began on Nov. 9 and went from Ottawa to Toronto. Turning Toronto into Moscow in the 1960s was a challenge for production designer Susan Longmire. Luckily, art director Alta Doyle visited Moscow on a high school trip in 1973 and kept everything from cigarette packs to bus tickets and had photographs, which they were able to use for source material.

But authenticity in terms of sets and costumes has its price.

‘Period pieces always cost more,’ Jennings says. ‘This [film] is set in a very upper-income world of dignitaries and ambassadors. That means all the sets and all the wardrobe are high-end. It’s not like you’re doing a ’60s movie in Yorkville.’

External Affairs wrapped Dec. 4 and is scheduled to air on cbc in March. Alliance is handling worldwide distribution.