Originally published in 2007
Norman Jewison’s downtown office overlooks a City of Toronto park that bears his name. The master filmmaker’s single request to the city was to include a dog fountain – named after longtime family pet Barney – with a trigger pedal so that canines could release cool water with a press of their paw.
The park is in recognition of his Toronto roots – which extend three generations – and effectively honors him as a national treasure.
Yet there are still some critics who question whether his body of work is ‘Canadian’ enough to merit inclusion in this Hall of Fame. Never mind that Jewison has been making his films in Canada since 1985 with Agnes of God. The critics will point out that he left the CBC for CBS in New York in the late fifties, moving soon after into feature films and basing himself in Los Angeles.
In point of fact, Jewison is the most honored Canadian filmmaker in Hollywood history, having received seven Academy Award nominations over a career that spans 50 years and more than 20 films – including a best director nod for 1967′s best picture winner In the Heat of the Night and a prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999.
The energetic and vibrant Jewison – an octogenarian in July – goes into character to recall one of his first conversations with an old friend, the late Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott.
‘[Jay said] ‘Now that I’ve met you, I can go back to all your films [and say] you’re a Canadian filmmaker.’ We talked a lot about the fact that films are a reflection of their maker,’ says Jewison. ‘Most directors I know have a passion to tell a specific story. They each tell it in a different style, and with a different interpretation. I do think my films have an identity.’
Filmmaker Clement Virgo, whose Conquering Lion production company has shared the same office building with Jewison for the past 10 years, agrees.
‘If you look at Norman’s films closely, you’ll see that he has a very Canadian point of view,’ he says. ‘They have the sense of being different and standing apart and looking at things objectively. I don’t think they have to be set in Canada to have a Canadian perspective. The Hurricane, which was shot in Toronto, symbolizes a lot of what Norman is about as a filmmaker. This is a guy who’s interested in social justice and is politically aware. He’s a Canadian who is socially progressive.’
There’s also another reason why Jewison is unquestionably not only a Canadian filmmaker, but a dyed-in-the-wool homegrown product.
‘I couldn’t have gone to New York, and I couldn’t have ever had a career in television and film, if I didn’t spend six years at the CBC,’ he says passionately. ‘We literally didn’t know how to do it, and we just stumbled onto the air.’ The first image aired on the CBC was an upside-down logo. ‘We had our own ideas and way of working, and CBC was – for the first 10 years on television – incredible. Man, did they have a lot of talent.’
Jewison laments that most of that talent migrated to other countries because of the Canuck media’s constant refrain of ‘You’re not very good.’ Artists don’t take that kind of negativity very well, he says. ‘They like to be patted on the head – and it has nothing to do with money. Canadians have a big problem embracing success. I don’t know what it is.’
Virgo is somewhat of a student of not only Jewison as filmmaker (he’s doing a feature-length doc on him for the CBC), but of Canadian film and television history.
‘It’s interesting to look at that generation, because in some ways they had to leave to make it,’ he notes. ‘Filmmakers that came out of the CBC and live television like Dan Petrie, Arthur Hiller and Norman Jewison had to leave in the late ’50s, early ’60s because there simply wasn’t a film industry here.’
As a result, Jewison went to New York to work in television. ‘There was the National Film Board. That’s it,’ Jewison says. ‘That’s why a lot of films coming out of Canada in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s have great difficulty with the narrative form, because they really wanted to be documentaries.’
But, like Petrie and Hiller, Jewison eventually came back home, settling in at a farm in Caledon, ON in 1978. And Canadian filmmakers have been reaping the benefit of his talent and experience for 20 years through the Canadian Film Centre – without which Virgo says he wouldn’t have a career.
‘My legacy is how I built the Canadian Film Centre,’ says Jewison proudly. ‘I would just hope there will always be a place where writers, producers, directors and editors can gather and talk about making films. Everybody needs a place like that. It’s that simple.’
There’s also the fact that Jewison has survived working with Hollywood’s major studios for nearly half a century, which makes his wisdom invaluable to newcomers. Young filmmakers turn to Jewison when they have to navigate through those shark-infested waters.
‘As a filmmaker, when you go to L.A., part of the ritual is to go see Norman,’ says Virgo. ‘You get half an hour, and ask for advice on what you have to do to make it in this town.’
Jewison is like his heroes William Wyler and Billy Wilder, arguably one of the finest cinematic craftsman and storytellers of the past 50 years. Virgo’s most recent film, Poor Boy’s Game, had its worldwide premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, and, as he does after every film, the filmmaker made sure Jewison saw a rough cut.
‘He knows intuitively how the story should be structured,’ says Virgo. ‘And he has a great detector of the truth. I’m always a little bit nervous when I show him a movie, because I can get away with stuff with other people, but Norman will call you on it. He says, ‘I don’t believe that moment.’ When he says it, you know it’s true. Multiple Oscar nominee,’ says Virgo, laughing.
Though he has nothing left to prove, Jewison is eager to get back behind the camera. He’s waiting on financing for High Alert, a $15-million political satire with more than a passing resemblance to his 1966 hit The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. He’s trying to build an ensemble cast that would include Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy and Annette Bening. But the unusually strong loonie isn’t helping with his desire to keep the production in Canada.
‘If I don’t get it off the ground this summer, then it’s gone,’ says Jewison, after pitching me the entire movie with a child’s enthusiasm. ‘I guess I could make it in South Carolina or Georgia,’ he adds softly, ‘but I had my heart set on making it in Nova Scotia.’
Jewison admits sometimes it’s hard to stay positive. Each film is just as hard to get off the ground as the last one. But he quickly leans forward and flashes that infectious grin. ‘You have to keep reminding yourself that around the corner there’s going to be somebody who says, ‘Yeah. Yeah! That would be great! Here’s some money.’ We all live on hope.’
Here’s hoping there will be many more Norman Jewison movies.
1953: Joins the CBC for its first six years on the air. He produces and directs more than 300 shows, including The Big Revue, a 15-minute puppet show called Uncle Chichimus, and Showtime with Robert Goulet and Shirley Harmer
1958: Leaves the CBC for a one-year contract with CBS in New York. He goes to Hollywood to produce The Judy Garland Show and ends up making movies with Tony Curtis and Doris Day
1978: Returns to Canada; settles on a farm in Caledon, ON – raising Hereford cattle and producing maple syrup. In the early eighties, starts tradition of hosting a small barbecue during Toronto Festival of Festivals
1985: Shoots Agnes of God in Ontario and Quebec. It’s the first of eight features he’ll make in Canada
1988: Creates the Canadian Film Centre for aspiring filmmakers, to be funded one-third from the government, one-third from the public and one-third from the industry itself
1999: In Toronto, shoots The Hurricane, about wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter. Denzel Washington is nominated for an Academy Award. It’s the 46th Oscar nomination for a Jewison film (including 12 wins)
2003: Robert Lantos produces $27-million spy thriller The Statement with Jewison as a France/U.K./Canada copro
2007: Planning to shoot High Alert in Nova Scotia. U.S. distrib Overture Films will finance if the budget is reduced from $15 million to $10 million