Canada’s hottest up-and-coming directors, actors and writers

Perhaps drama production is currently on the wane. But that does produce one positive side effect – it means that you have to be a pretty special talent to remain in the game. This year’s 10 to Watch ably proves that. Playback staff have pored over the rosters of local talent agencies and have chimed in with their own regional expertise to draw up a list of 10 men and women from across the country – helmers, performers and scribes – each on the verge of making noise in his or her respective craft. With talent like this, the future of film and TV drama appears to be in good hands.

DIRECTORS

Nisha Ganatra
Age: 30
Residence: New York/Toronto
Agency: Great North Artists Management
Buzz: directing Cake, starring Heather Graham

While growing up in Vancouver, Nisha Ganatra got her first taste of the biz as an actor, but soon realized she wanted to be behind the camera.

‘I was so interested in film, because I thought it was a way to effect cultural change, but there was no way to do that as an actor,’ she says.

Ganatra took her first steps studying at UCLA, although not pursuing a film degree. But while enrolled in pre-law (at her parents’ request), she snuck into screenwriting classes and was inspired to make her first short, Generation seX.

At 21, she headed east to attend film school at New York University. Her short Junky Punky Girlz (1996) won NYU’s Tisch Fellowship and most outstanding short film from PBS, leading Ganatra to leave before graduating to direct the comedy Chutney Popcorn (1999), in which East Indian and North American values clash within a family. The film, which she cowrote, went on to win best feature at the L.A. and San Francisco film festivals, and audience awards at Berlin and Newport.

Despite her quick success, Ganatra says her mom was worried she would never get a job because she hadn’t completed her degree, so she returned to pick up her remaining credits.

In the wake of Chutney Popcorn, Ganatra directed a season of MTV series The Real World in New York. Then in 2002, she came to Toronto to direct Fast Food High, a CTV MOW.

Last year she directed MOW Cosmopolitan in New York and is currently working on Cake, a Canadian feature starring Heather Graham and Taye Diggs, about a young woman who, after exploring the world as a travel writer, returns home to Toronto to take charge of her father’s conservative wedding magazine.

Cake, written by former 10 to Watch pick Tassie Cameron for Northwood Productions and Lions Gate Films, is currently shooting in Toronto and will wrap mid-July. Laura Bracken

Paul Fox
Age: 41
Residence: Toronto
Agency: The Characters
Buzz: CFC feature Head Games currently in post

After Paul Fox’s mother took him to see King Kong at the Roxy, he knew what he wanted to do, and now he has locked picture on Head Games, his first feature film.

Fox attended New York’s School of Visual Arts, and his student film, Last Round Up, not only won him the best fiction film award at the Mexico City Film Festival, but also an invitation to Sundance, where he secured a first-look deal with New Line Cinema. Fox returned to Toronto shortly thereafter, where he became an editor for music video shop Revolver Film Company and attended the Canadian Film Centre.

This led Fox to directing episodic TV, including Cold Squad and The Associates, and the short film Reunion. Although he never intended to do another short, Fox is glad he did, as it took him around the world to festivals and initiated his working relationship with Brent Barclay (coproducer on Marion Bridge), who would go on to produce Head Games.

The film, made through the CFC’s Feature Film Project from a script by Wil Zmak, is a psychological thriller about a psychiatrist who takes her family to a winter cottage only to have them held hostage by one of her former patients. The film is in post-production.

‘It’s great to have a movie,’ says Fox. ‘It’s what I feel I’ve been moving toward for a long time. It’s exciting and gratifying.’

Fox is also set to direct The Mysteries of Ice Fishing, from his own script, and is attached to direct Nocturnia, written by Derek Schreyer (another Cold Squad alum), as well as Douglas Coupland’s original screenplay Everything’s Gone Green, through Toronto’s Radke Films.

‘Everything’s Gone Green is a comedy, which is what interested me about it,’ says Fox. ‘I want to have a career where you can do a thriller one year, a comedy another year and a western another. Westerns are what I’d most like to make.’ Dustin Dinoff

Ziad Touma
Age: 30
Residence: Montreal
Buzz: first feature Saved by the Belles snagged three Genie nominations

Born in Beirut and residing in Montreal, Ziad Touma says he’s often called a Renaissance man, because of his tendency to take on many roles in addition to directing, which often include producing and writing.

Touma graduated from Concordia University’s communications program in 1994. His student film Dinner at Bubby’s won best Canadian student film at the Montreal International Short Film Festival in 1995.

Through his company Couzin Films, Touma wrote and directed Saved by the Belles, distributed by Cinema Libre. Set against the backdrop of Montreal nightlife, the film tells the story of two clubbers who rescue a boy found unconscious in the street.

Dubbing it an ‘urban fairytale,’ Touma says he wanted to create a unique universe through color, visuals and music. ‘But I also wanted the film to be a time capsule of how Montreal is a testament to the culture so that the audience can relate to it.’

In addition to Genie nominations for cinematography (Francois Dutil), art direction (Christian Legare) and music (Mark Anthony, Brian C. Warren), Saved by the Belles won best feature film at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival in 2003.

Touma is currently developing his second feature, while acting as series director for Galafilm’s docusoap Web Dreams, which follows the lives of six porn stars, each with their own website. The show is scheduled for Showcase in 2005.

Other credits include video projects for MusiquePlus, Showcase’s Kink and docs for the series Made in Montreal for CTV and TV5.

Touma says he enjoys his hectic schedule because he’s always having fun: ‘I have a very diverse background and like to do different things.’ The director, who cites pop culture icon Andy Warhol as his greatest inspiration, says he would like to be known as a good storyteller. Marise Strauss

Michael Downing
Age: 35
Residence: Toronto
Agency: CTI Artist Management
Buzz: won student Oscar; two films in the works

Michael Downing has been on a roll of late, amassing critical acclaim for nearly everything he puts his directorial hand to.

Born in California but raised in Toronto, Downing had an artistic upbringing and became interested in theater at a young age. He formed an experimental theater outfit and began to film the company’s work.

‘Shortly after doing my first experimental film, I didn’t look back,’ says Downing. ‘[I knew] this was the thing I was supposed to be doing.’

Downing attended the American Film Institute in L.A., where he honed his helming skills. He has since directed three short films: Clean-Rite Cowboy (2000) and Why Don’t You Dance? (2003) were nominated for Genies, while fine, which he coproduced with Philip Svoboda, won a Student Academy Award last year.

While still at the AFI, Downing put together a commercial reel and was picked up by Toronto’s Radke Films for representation.

‘I’ve always thought commercials are a very involved and sophisticated form of storytelling, and I get to practice all the time and work with talented DOPs and actors,’ says Downing.

For his commercial efforts, Downing won last year’s Playback/Saatchi & Saatchi First Cut Award for rising spot helmers.

Now he is champing at the bit to direct his first feature, which he hopes will be the film adaptation of Canuck David Macfarlane’s novel Summer Gone, to be produced by Svoboda and Colin Brunton. He says, at its core, the story is about a family in cottage country, and likens the project to ‘The Ice Storm meets Memento.’ He hopes it will be ready to shoot in summer 2005.

Downing has also penned an original screenplay called Wildlife, about a collection of clubbing thirtysomethings whose stories intersect during a moment on a club’s dance floor. Dustin Dinoff

ACTORS

Chris Kramer
Age: 29
Residence: Vancouver
Agency: Lucas Talent
Buzz: plays the lead role in The Collector, CHUM’s new sci-fi series

Born in Regina, Kramer moved to Calgary when he was 15, but it wasn’t until six years later that he began his acting career at Calgary’s Company of Rogues studio.

After some early exposure on the stage in Calgary, Kramer decided Vancouver was the ideal place to pursue his career, and after living between the two cities for a couple of years, he settled on the West Coast five years ago. Kramer cites 1999/00 appearances on the children’s series Caitlin’s Way, a Fireworks Entertainment production for YTV, as a major breakthrough in his career.

After making guest appearances on TV series such as The Chris Isaak Show, Just Cause, Seven Days and The Twilight Zone, Kramer’s status as one of Canada’s hottest young actors was secured when he was selected to play the lead role in the sci-fi series The Collector in July 2003. CHUM is so confident in the show’s potential that it has ordered 88 episodes.

In the CHUM original series, produced by No Equal Entertainment, Kramer plays Morgan Pym, a seven-centuries-old aid to the devil who would usually be stealing souls, but this time around is out to help them find salvation.

‘This is by far the most involved character I’ve ever played,’ says Kramer. ‘I’m constantly studying, because there’s so much dialogue, but it’s great for me because every episode heavily involves my character. I just get to play every day.’

After having shot season one of The Collector, Kramer took a step away from the series to star in Cable Beach, another CHUM property, directed by James Head for Brightlight Pictures. The murder mystery, written by Andrew Struthers and produced by Nora Arajs, is about a fisheries officer who uncovers a crime while patrolling a remote beach.

Season two of The Collector is currently underway in Vancouver, which could keep Kramer busy for the next four years. Laura Bracken

Rachelle Lefevre
Age: early 20s
Residence: West Hollywood, CA
Agency: Edna Talent Management
Buzz: stars in features The River King and Head in the Clouds

For most actors, waiting tables is merely bridge financing between projects, but for Rachelle Lefevre it actually got her acting work. A regular client at a Montreal restaurant where Lefevre worked landed her an audition for a small role in the teen sitcom Student Bodies, which she didn’t get. But shortly afterwards, the casting agent called her back about a lead role in the Telescene/YTV series Big Wolf on Campus.

‘I got it! I didn’t have a CV or a head shot or anything!’ Lefevre recalls, talking on her new cell phone in her new apartment in West Hollywood, where she recently moved. ‘That was seven years ago… Now, I can afford a good head shot.’

Indeed. Lefevre, with her trademark mane of curly red hair, finished filming the imX communications copro mystery thriller The River King opposite Ed Burns in Halifax in April. Her CV of features also includes the unreleased Noel, directed by Chazz Palminteri, with a star-studded cast including Penelope Cruz; the Remstar copro Head in the Clouds, again with Cruz and Charlize Theron, also to be released; George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; and the romantic comedy Hatley High.

Born and raised in Montreal, Lefevre studied creative arts at Dawson College, taking intensive summer theater classes at Boston’s Walnut Hill School, before beginning a degree in education and literature at McGill University.

‘But I always knew I’d be a performer, after falling in love with Madonna and dancing around the house to her songs,’ Lefevre says. ‘I found out early that I couldn’t sing, however.’

Her latest role on the forthcoming U.S. sitcom Related by Family has Lefevre letting loose. She plays Lily, one of the stepkids in a newly assembled family.

‘I am the object of affection of one of my stepbrothers,’ Lefevre says, laughing. ‘He sees me as this ideal girl, but soon discovers that if he hangs around me too much, he tends to get arrested.’

Lefevre can be seen in Related by Family on Fox starting in January. Joanne Latimer

Ricky Mabe
Age: 21
Residence: Pointe Claire, QC
Agent: K.L. Benzakein Talent
Buzz: stars in new sitcom Commando Nanny on The WB

‘I sucked at hockey! My dad was my hockey coach and I played for five years, but I was awful,’ says Ricky Mabe, musing about his childhood decision to go into theater, which is more than paying off today. ‘There was an acting class – Kids in Action – just at the end of the street from my house, so I took that Saturday morning program instead.’

Mabe still lives at home with his folks when he’s not in L.A. for pilot season. This is his third pilot season, and he has returned to Tinseltown’s Oakwood Apartments, a hotel-apartment patronized by Canadian talent.’But it’s not home,’ he adds. ‘l.a. just isn’t home.’

Mabe got his first real taste of L.A. nine years ago while visiting Burt Reynolds, whose son he played in the Canadian feature Frankenstein and Me (1995), when he was 12 years old.

‘I didn’t even know who he was! I didn’t know the heartthrobs from the 1970s – but my mom sure knew him,’ laughs Mabe. ‘He was great. He took us to L.A. and showed us around and took us to see the studios.’

Only 21, Mabe’s biggest break was perhaps the lead role in the CineGroupe/YTV series Seriously Weird. Other credits include lead or principal roles in the likes of the horror film Believe; the drama features Little Men, Who Gets the House? and Two Summers; the Michael Madsen feature Pressure Point; and the MOW Phantom of the Megaplex. He also scored a recurring role in the former Cinar’s Sci-Squad series.

And now, after doing a year of stand-up comedy in Montreal, Mabe has completed his first big Hollywood gig, as the wayward kid in the sitcom Commando Nanny, to air on The WB. The series is based on the nanny experiences of Mark Burnett, TV’s current possessor of the Midas touch who created Survivor and The Apprentice.

‘Everything is on such a big scale,’ Mabe says of the new production. ‘There’s more pressure, more people watching. I’ve never been so nervous as when we filmed the pilot.’ Joanne Latimer

WRITERS

Karen Hill
Age: 38
Residence: Toronto
Agency: The Characters
Buzz: slated to write 13 episodes of upcoming nightly show Bang!

It was not until Karen Hill started working for Women in Film and Television and the Writers Guild of Canada that she realized screenwriting was within the realm of possibility for her. Prior to that, Hill’s career as a journalist included editor duties at the University of Toronto’s student paper The Varsity and national bureau chief of the Canadian University Press.

Her continued interest in screenwriting took her to the Canadian Film Centre in 2000, where she enrolled in the television writing program. ‘We worked on a one-hour drama there, so we learned the nuts and bolts of writing a story and putting it together,’ says the Toronto-based writer.

The first big opportunity to work on a show was as story editor on season four of Global Television’s now-canceled crime series Blue Murder. ‘It was a chance to work for six months with really seasoned writers on my first hour of broadcast television, which was a bit of a milestone,’ says Hill.

Prior to joining the writing team on Blue Murder, Hill was hired to work on the romantic comedy series Show Me Yours, about a woman researching a book on sexual practices, for Showcase in Canada and Oxygen in the U.S.

‘It’s a lighter, sexy, more comedic half-hour show and I enjoyed working with the other writers on developing sexual chemistry between two characters,’ says Hill.

Keeping busy, she’s on board as a freelance writer for the cross-cultural series Bang!, produced by Protocol Entertainment for Rogers OMNI Television in Toronto, to air in October. In addition, Hill is writing for the 8 x 60 series Moccasin Flats for Showcase and APTN, while developing story ideas for a new Showcase series called Rent A Goalie.

‘I consider myself very lucky right now because it’s a difficult time in the industry, so I’m happy to work on projects that are interesting and entertaining,’ she says. Marise Strauss

James Hurst
Age: 34
Residence: Toronto
Agency: Harrison Artist Management
Buzz: currently penning Instant Star, a new dramatic series for CTV

Montreal-born James Hurst’s first passion was feature film, so much so that he refused to own or watch TV for almost a decade. Now the boob-tube convert is quickly becoming one of the country’s hottest young TV writers.

His training as a writer started at Toronto’s York University where, while studying film production and screenwriting, his adept essay-writing skills led to a covert papers-for-sale operation. Luckily for Canadian TV, Hurst decided to go legit in 1995, when he got his first gig writing and story editing for the children’s series Kratts’ Creatures.

The educational doc/drama hybrid, which aired on TVO and PBS, was a bit of a crash course for Hurst, who worked on 50 episodes over a year and a half at now-defunct Paragon Pictures.

‘I love kids and I’m fairly immature, so I relate to them,’ says Hurst. ‘But I almost got into a kids [educational] ghetto and desperately wanted to tell stories and be doing drama.’

After working on children’s shows such as Zoboomafoo, also for PBS, and the third season of Incredible Story Studio, from Regina-based Minds Eye Pictures for YTV and TVO, Hurst joined the team at Toronto’s Epitome Pictures to write for Degrassi: The Next Generation.

After helping to build Degrassi audiences to over 700,000 in its third season, Hurst, a longtime music enthusiast, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work on Instant Star, which is about the life of a 15-year-old girl struggling with fame after winning a star-search show a la Canadian Idol.

‘Epitome is bursting right now with two totally distinctive shows in the works at the same time,’ he says, referring to season four of Degrassi and the first season of Instant Star, both of which should be completed by the fall, with Instant Star due to premiere in January.

The 13-part series, created by Epitome head Linda Schuyler, is currently being shot in Toronto. Laura Bracken

Max B. Reid
Age: 26
Residence: Toronto
Agency: CTI Artist Management
Buzz: gonzo scribe has optioned three feature-length scripts

Just one year ago, Max B. Reid was working at Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore. Since then, the York University grad has attended the Canadian Film Centre and had three screenplays optioned.

With influences ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to comic book artists Warren Ellis and Charles Burns, Reid’s scripts and ideas are admittedly offbeat, involving ‘magic realism’ in the middle of unremarkable settings. His optioned scripts include Satellite Kid (currently in development as a CTV MOW), Monster Lawns (now with Creative Engine and Crescent Entertainment) and Dick Harmony (recently optioned to producers Colin Brunton and Philip Svoboda, about a skateboarder-turned-detective employed by 10-year-olds). In addition to challenging conventional filmmaking ideas, Reid also likes to challenge himself.

‘A lot of it comes from my general dissatisfaction with a lot of stuff I see,’ says Reid. ‘Dick Harmony came to me when I asked myself how I could do Chinatown, then filtering that kind of desire through my own set of variables and letting it come out as, hopefully, something original.’

He says he applies these lofty expectations to all of his work.

‘It’s an extremely difficult thing, and the odds are I’m not going to get there, but if I’m sitting down with the right intent it’s a good place to start.’

Reid has also embarked on a writing partnership with his brother Adam. As a team, they are writing a script called Kinjo Ninja (a ninja movie set in the ‘burbs, for which they are in negotiations with a local prodco) and developing two other projects, Bread Crumb Trail and Spiderland. In the meantime, the brothers Reid are on the writing staff for the CBC’s new stop-motion animation series What It’s Like Being Alone, headed by fellow CFC alum Brad Peyton. Dustin Dinoff

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NFB75Anniversary - Sarah Polley (filmmaker) with her Stories We Tell producer Anita Lee (NFB Ontario executive producer)

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