More short stories for Original Pictures

Winnipeg-based Original Pictures and Toronto's Shaftesbury Films have teamed up again to adapt short stories from another of Canada's most renowned female authors. Last year, they produced an Emmy-winning dramatic series based on short stories by Margaret Atwood, and now they are busy adapting short stories by Carol Shields, with plans to approach the work of Alice Munro next.

Winnipeg-based Original Pictures and Toronto’s Shaftesbury Films have teamed up again to adapt short stories from another of Canada’s most renowned female authors. Last year, they produced an Emmy-winning dramatic series based on short stories by Margaret Atwood, and now they are busy adapting short stories by Carol Shields, with plans to approach the work of Alice Munro next.

Pulitzer Prize winner Shields passed away July 16, three months before the series went to camera, but was involved in the project to a limited extent during its development stages despite struggling with breast cancer.

‘[The Shields Stories] is a tribute to the life and liveliness of Carol Shields,’ says Kim Todd, executive producer and Original Pictures president, who got to know the author personally when she lived in Winnipeg.

‘Carol wrote stories of great depth that are deceptively light,’ Todd continues. ‘She found depth in everyday occurrences and we’re paying great attention to the details of objects and places from her stories, to those small moments between characters, because that’s where Carol felt the most drama exists.’

Christina Jennings, executive producer and Shaftesbury chairperson, worked closely with Shields eight years ago on an adaptation of her novel Swann, and says the author was thrilled The Shields Stories was to be filmed in Winnipeg. The series shot from Nov. 10 to Dec. 19 and premiers on W Network in March.

The Shields Stories is similar to The Atwood Stories in that the entire series will be imbibed with the essence of the writer, a key objective on both productions, says Todd, but each episode will play as a distinct short film.

Five shooting days are allotted to each of the six episodes, which share equally in the $6.5-million to $7-million budget.

The Shields Stories is funded through the LFP, EIP, Rogers Cable Network Fund, Manitoba Film & Sound, CanWest Western Independent Producers Fund and Corus Entertainment.

‘Each story has its own writer, director and its own look. The efficiency of shooting them all together is economic, but the goal is that each film has a team looking at creating a unique piece,’ says Todd.

When choosing writers and directors for each of the short stories, Todd says much attention and effort went into determining which directors were best suited to which story.

The first episode, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, starring Torri Higginson, and the fifth, A Wood, starring Patrick McKenna, are both written and directed by Lori Spring. It was Spring, along with Toronto filmmaker Francine Zuckerman, who brought the idea for the original Atwood stories to Shaftesbury.

Spring initially imagined doing the short stories over several years, but Jennings encouraged shooting them together, on a tight schedule, thus creating the format.

Spring’s Dolls is a haunting childhood flashback about a neighborhood child abductor, while A Wood tells the story of how a girl and her two brothers attempt to emerge from the shadow of their recently deceased father.

Various Miracles, the second instalment in the series, is about the magic that underlies everyday occurrences, and who better to direct such a story than Vancouver filmmaker Mina Shum, whose film Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity, which debuted at TIFF 2002, is about a young girl who uses Taoist magic to help her mother. Written by Esta Spalding, the episode stars Sara Botsford and Michelle Nolden.

The Harp, third in the series, is about a young character, and Todd says Sarah Polley was an obvious choice for writer/director. The Harp stars Robin Brule, Jayne Eastwood and Sarah’s father, Michael Polley.

Hazel, number four, written by David Young, is about an older woman who rediscovers herself after her husband’s death, and Todd says the director had to be someone who would not romanticize or caricature the protagonist. ‘We went with Norma Bailey, who is a very strong, experienced director and very good at handling a story that has emotion without making it sentimental,’ she says.

The sixth and final episode, Windows, written by Dennis Foon, is about two painters, and so the producers looked to Lynne Stopkewich to direct. In addition to having directed an episode of The Atwood Stories, Stopkewich has a background in fine art, having worked as a production designer.

Although finding the right director for the right episode was essential, Jennings says it was the writers they went to first, and she plans to do the same for The Munro Stories, currently in development. Young will write one of the Munro episodes, as will Stopkewich and Foon. Jennings says Shaftesbury has also contacted Keith Behrman (Flower & Garnet) to write and direct.

The addition of The Munro Stories will be a great advantage for international sales of the three anthologies, according to Jennings. She says the fact that there will be 18 half-hours in total, with a strong possibility for more, has already attracted the interest of American broadcasters.

‘There’s not a huge market for half-hour anthology series no matter the quality of the material, and our plan is that as we do more, we’re more likely to sell internationally,’ says Todd. ‘When you go out there with six half-hours, a lot of people do like the material, but they just don’t have a place to program it.’

Craig fund develops docs

Craig Media’s Calgary-based A-Channel Production Fund has provided development funding for five one-hour docs from emerging documentary filmmakers, focused on immigrant and refugee experiences in Alberta and Manitoba. To date, the fund has contributed a total of $14 million and triggered 135 hours of domestic programming.

Untying the Knot, from Calgary prodco Earth to Sky Pictures, went into post in late December after three weeks of shooting in Calgary and Las Vegas between September and November. Written by Smita Acharyya, the doc tells the story of Acharyya’s Las Vegas wedding to an Alberta-born French-Canadian man and how the marriage impacted her mother, who struggles to impart her Hindu culture to her daughter. The $84,000 doc is produced by Christina Willings and exec produced by Nancy Laing. Patricia Harris-Seeley directed and David Schultz was production supervisor. The doc received funding from A-Channel, CAVCO, the Alberta Film Grant and Rogers Telefund.

Currently in development, Amorikano, from Winnipeg-based Rocky Point Productions, examines the experiences of South American refugees who have remained connected to their homelands by forming a musical group in Winnipeg. Producer Gary Zubeck submitted a second draft by writer E. Anne Dawson in December. On a budget in the $350,000 range, Jesse Green will direct, with Barry Lank the DOP.

Escape!, from Calgary-based Joe Media Group, is the personal story of first-time docmaker Heydi Panameno’s coming to terms with childhood experiences of war in El Salvador. Panameno writes and codirects with coproducer Neil Thomas of Edmonton and executive producer Joe Novak. Panameno submitted a treatment and trailer for the doc in December and is waiting for the green light from A-Channel.

Also waiting for approval from A-Channel is Rising Star, written, produced and directed by emerging Calgary documentarian Jasmin Poon. She is working with producer Pati Olson of Edmonton-based Bogart Productions on a personal story about her relationship with Iranian musician Amir Amiri. Growing up in Iran where music was illegal, Amiri was forced to learn his art underground, before coming to Canada as a refugee, where he struggles to make a living playing music from the homeland that tried to silence him.

Chop Suey! Personal Stories from the Chinese Restaurant examines the integral role Chinese restaurants played in the struggles and evolution of the Chinese community in Canada. Produced and executive produced by Nicolette Saina through her Edmonton prodco ImagiNation Productions, the docudrama is written and directed by first-time docmaker Katherine Hoy, with dramatic elements written by Marty Chan.

Saina is also in prep on Selling Innocence, which goes to camera in Edmonton in mid-February. The CTV MOW about a 16-year-old girl who is convincingly lured into an Internet modeling scam is executive produced and produced by Saina in coproduction with Montreal-based Cite-Amerique producer Greg Dummett and executive producer Vivianne Morin. Post-production will be completed in Montreal.