TIFF 2010 Opener: Score: A Hockey Musical

Score

Writer/Director: Michael McGowan
Producers: Michael McGowan, Avi Federgreen
Executive producers: Richard Hanet, Jody Colero
Production company: Mulmur Feed Co.
Key Cast: Olivia Newton-John, Noah Reid, Allie MacDonald, Marc Jordan, Stephen McHattie, John Pyper-Ferguson, Brandon Firla, Dru Viergever, John Robinson
Distributor: Mongrel Media
International sales: TBD
Budget: $5.3 million

They skated hard, and their work on the ice paid off with a first overall draft pick: the prestigious opening spot at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Michael McGowan’s Score: A Hockey Musical is generating lots of buzz leading up to its TIFF premiere. And not just because it’s launching this year’s festival. If the absurd genius of staging musical numbers on a hockey rink wasn’t enough to grab the spotlight, add in the fact that the movie stars ’80s pop icon Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Xanadu) as a hockey mom, and features cameos by Walter Gretzky, former NHL star Theo Fleury, and singers like Nelly Furtado and Hawksley Workman… well, it’s no surprise this movie is making a breakout play.

“This film is different enough and weird enough and charming enough… I think that’s the reason it’s received so much attention already,” says writer/director/producer McGowan, who was last seen at TIFF in 2008 debuting his road-trip drama One Week (starring Joshua Jackson) which scored box office gold in Canada (earning $1.3 million) and a U.S. pickup by IFC.

Score: A Hockey Musical is a comedic coming-of-age tale starring newcomer Noah Reid as Farley, a teenage hockey phenomenon who’s led a sheltered life of homeschooling and organic food, thanks to his hippie-intellectual parents. His mom (Newton-John) is a loopy, granola-eating environmentalist and his dad (singer/songwriter Marc Jordan) is an academic. But Farley’s world changes overnight when he’s signed by a junior league team and his stick-handling skills turn him into an instant star. But there’s one problem: Farley won’t drop his gloves and fight because he’s a pacifist.

“I am hoping we created a really unique world that that audiences buy into,” says McGowan.

Opening the festival with a light comedy – never mind a musical – is a marked departure for TIFF, which in recent years has chosen more serious fare like last year’s British period drama Creation and, in 2008, Paul Gross’ war epic Passchendaele.

But Score has a good shot of getting the puck over the goal line with its huge crowd-pleaser potential, given that it combines Canada’s favorite pastime with the current mania over musicals.

“I was fishing around and decided I’d like to try a musical and got this ridiculous idea of combining hockey with a musical,” says McGowan, who grew up playing hockey and recalls memorizing The Toronto Maple Leafs roster as a kid.

While McGowan says he didn’t look to any one musical as inspiration when writing Score, he points to the train station finale in Slumdog Millionaire, Michael Cera and Ellen Page’s duet in Juno, and John Carney’s musical film Once as his “influences on how to make a cool musical.”

Unlike many musicals – where the action of the story stops for a song – McGowan wanted the music to actually advance the plot, so he ended up writing the lyrics himself as a road map for the story. And then collaborated with some of the biggest names in Canadian music (Barenaked Ladies, Workman, Jordan, etc.) to fine-tune the songs and set them to music.

“As a person who can’t carry a tune, I’m ridiculously proud now to be a songwriter,” he quips.

Another critical point: McGowan didn’t want the dance numbers to look too polished or take themselves too seriously. Rather the filmmaker wanted to capture the ridiculousness of hockey players dancing in a way that would make audiences smile.

As a result, the dance scenes (choreographed by Amy Wright who’s worked on So You Think You Can Dance Canada and movies like The Time Traveler’s Wife) includes everything from hip hop b-boy moves in the dressing room to hockey players pumping their sticks like batons.

Instead of hiring figure skaters, Wright scouted dance studios looking for dancers who were trained in ballet jazz and hip hop, but also had a background in hockey.

McGowan expected casting the movie’s teen lead to be one of the biggest challenges.

“I thought it would be incredibly hard to find somebody who could skate, sing, and act but Noah [Reid] was the first person we saw, and he was fantastic at them all,” says McGowan.

Executive producer Jody Colero is friends with Jordan and brought the singer-songwriter in to audition for the dad role. As it happens, Jordan and his songstress wife Amy Sky are friends with Olivia Newton-John and sent her the script, which she loved.

As for the long list of cameo appearances, all the producers used their connections.

“We went after a lot of folks to see who wanted to play in our sandbox,” says McGowan. “We weren’t putting people in the movie for the sake of saying, ‘Okay here’s a famous person.’ It had to work in the spirit of the film. If it takes you out of the film, then it’s a waste of time.”

Even McGowan’s own dog Duck had a role in the movie.

In addition to government sources of financing (Telefilm, Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Harold Greenberg Fund, tax credits) and a distributor advance and broadcast licenses from TMN and CBC, the producers also came up with a creative idea to raise that final few percentage points of cash.

Corporate logos are splashed everywhere on the boards of real hockey rinks. So why not on theirs too?

“We had rink sponsorship from everyone from Scotiabank to Canadian Tire, to Tim Hortons,” says McGowan.

Score: A Hockey Musical shot for 25 days last February and March in recognizable Toronto locations such as Nathan Phillips Square, a home-made rink in Wychwood Park, and the Weston Arena. The production followed a green plan and saved an estimated 20 tones of greenhouse gases by reducing emissions and waste and using eco-friendly products whenever possible.

Mongrel Media has set the release date for October 22 in Canada. While there’s no doubt this film has a huge home ice advantage, it could be in the penalty box on the world stage. As an unabashedly Canadian film about hockey, the international appeal is a bigger question mark.

McGowan, who anticipated the ‘hockey doesn’t travel’ response from international sales agents, reports that early indications suggest otherwise.

In fact, he’s received emails from distributors around the world who are intrigued by the fact that the film stars Newton-John in a return to her musical roots.

“That is an easier sell than just a hockey film,” he explains. “Not one sales agent has said ‘It’s too Canadian’ so far. We haven’t hit those bumps at all, which is fantastic.”