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Kevin Tierney

Playback’s 2019 Hall of Fame: Kevin Tierney

The Montreal filmmaker is best remembered for Bon Cop Bad Cop and giving back to the industry he loved.

For his many producer credits and all he contributed to Canadian film and TV, the late Kevin Tierney’s crowning achievement will always be Bon Cop Bad Cop.

The 2006 action comedy – about a pair of detectives from opposite sides of the Two Solitudes who unite to solve a murder at the Quebec-Ontario border – gave Canadian moviegoers their own buddy cop movie, mining differences between la belle province and the Rest of Canada for bilingual belly laughs. Directed by Erik Canuel, it’s hardly highbrow cinema, but it fit Tierney’s penchant for crowd-pleasers.

“Canada needs to keep making movies Canadians want to see – movies of different genres, and more movies that are perhaps less personal statements and more the result of passion and the desire to reach an audience,” Tierney told Playback in 2006, when he was named Producer of the Year.

Bon Cop certainly did reach an audience, taking in more than $12.6 million at the Canadian box office – 80% of that in Quebec – a record for a homegrown production. And it received the affirmation of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television (ACCT), winning the Genie Award for best picture.

The idea for the film came from Québécois star Patrick Huard, who brought it to Alliance Atlantis Vivafilm’s Patrick Roy, who then turned to Tierney. He had been working mostly in TV, but was a shrewd choice as an English-speaking producer based in Montreal who knew the French industry and had a wicked sense of humour. He wrote the script with Huard, Alex Epstein and Leila Basen.

All that was missing was their English-speaking cop. Enter Colm Feore, Stratford veteran and Gemini Award-winning star of the 2002 Trudeau miniseries, who tried to win over Tierney and Huard over Greek food at a Montreal restaurant.

“The biggest problem was they didn’t have the money quite set up yet,” Feore recalls. “But Kevin was working his magic with the Canadian and Quebec funding agencies. He was a great mover and shaker in the province. He was chair of the Cinémathèque québécoise and what they call ‘un bon Anglo.’ His French was impeccable and he was a huge lover of French culture.”

Of course Tierney did put together the movie’s sizable $8 million budget, and the rest is Canadian cinema history. But despite the film’s unprecedented success, it took 11 years for sequel Bon Cop Bad Cop 2 to appear. Huard and his manager François Flamand wanted to take the reins, so Tierney sold them his interest in the property.

Feore had continued working with Tierney, who began focusing on feature films. The actor had a supporting role in 2008′s Serveuses demandées (Waitresses Wanted), writer-director Guylaine Dionne’s drama about the hard lives of two strippers, played by Clara Furey and Janaina Suaudeau. It was a change of course. As Tierney told Playback, “I wanted to produce a film d’auteur and do one in French. I wanted to do something personal and interesting.”

His next project allowed the Irish-Canadian to get in touch with his roots. Love & Savagery (2009) tells of Newfoundland poet Michael (Allan Hawco, in a career-boosting role), who has a scandalous affair with Cathleen (Sarah Greene), a waitress bound for the convent in an Irish village in 1969. The film is a copro among Tierney’s Park Ex Pictures (named after the Montreal neighbourhood where he grew up), St. John’s Morag Loves Company, and Dublin’s Subotica Entertainment.

Morag’s Barbara Doran, who first met Tierney when he taught English at John Abbott College, approached him with the project that came with director John N. Smith and screenwriter Des Walsh attached. Collaborating with her old friend proved a healthy mix of business and pleasure.

“He loved being in Ireland,” Doran recalls. “He was on set every day in case any crew had problems or questions, and his paperwork was very organized. I have never worked with anyone else who worked as hard as Kevin, yet he always found time to throw together marvelous dinner parties at the drop of a hat.”

The film did not have the luck of the Irish at the box office, but Martha Burns won a Genie for her supporting role as a sympathetic nun. Doran had another project in the works with Tierney but says now she doesn’t “have the heart to do it without him.”

Tierney next worked with family on The Trotsky (2010), written and directed by son Jacob Tierney. The comedy follows Montreal student Leon (Jay Baruchel), who believes he is Leon Trotsky reincarnated and plots an uprising at his high school. Feore plays a by-the-book principal with an uncanny likeness to Vladimir Lenin.

Jacob – director and co-writer of Crave’s Letterkenny – started acting as a child, and took on directing features with Twist (2003), a gritty modern take on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Tierney executive-produced the $60,000 Toronto production, lending it $7,500 and shipping over leftover Super 16mm negative from one of his productions.

The two collaborated more directly on The Trotsky, which the elder Tierney helped finance with his Telefilm Canada performance envelope from Bon Cop Bad Cop.

“He loved the script,” says Jacob, who won a Genie for it. “It seemed like the right stab at making a commercial comedy that still felt Canadian. The movie got made the way it needed to get made because of him. It’s a high-school movie with a huge cast that required many bodies to fill the screen. I wouldn’t have had that [$6.4 million] budget if not for my dad.”

They followed up with Good Neighbours (2011), a dark thriller about obsessive Montreal apartment dwellers – played by Baruchel, Emily Hampshire and Scott Speedman – who form an uneasy triangle as their NDG community is threatened by a serial killer. It did little theatrical business, but enjoyed a warmer reception stateside in a DVD release through Magnolia Home Entertainment.

“I was lucky to make two movies I’m proud of with the person I love the most,” Jacob says. “He was a great producer. He was super-supportive, a great listener, great with people, he hired great people and he was very engaged. He had worked enough aspects of the business that he knew how a set should be run. Those experiences were charmed.”

One aspect Tierney had not yet explored was directing, but he decided to take a shot at age 60 with French Immersion (2011), which he co-wrote with Jefferson Lewis. The comedy targeted the same Anglo/Franco divide of Bon Cop Bad Cop, but more directly. Here, a group of English speakers arrive in a Quebec town for a boot camp to learn French. The movie good-naturedly pokes fun at various groups, but with an underlying message of unity reflecting Tierney’s outlook.

Despite an impressive cast of English and French actors including Feore, Burns, Gavin Crawford, Fred Ewanuick, Pascale Bussières and Karine Vanasse, reviews were mixed and box office stalled around $100,000. Those close to him say Tierney was deeply disappointed.

His career trajectory had been anything but predictable. He got a B.A. from Sir George Williams University, studied theatre in Dublin, then got his Bachelor of Education at McGill in 1974. He and his wife Terry Smiley combined their professions with their love of travel and set off to teach in Chad, Algeria, and China.

Back in Montreal, he received a communications diploma from Concordia and went to work as a publicist with David Novek. One of his most memorable assignments was the epic Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990), which shot in China, where his familiarity with the country was an asset.

Les Productions La Fête’s Rock Demers, who employed Novek’s firm, was impressed with Tierney’s work and hired him away in 1989 as his full-time publicist, and things moved forward from there. “He began to assist me in the international sales of our films, follow the development of scripts, participate in casting, and finally he took over the complete production of certain projects,” Demers recalls.

They made the 1994 doc series Pierre Elliot Trudeau: Memoirs and several Heritage Minutes instalments. Tierney’s producer credits at La Fête include kids movies Whiskers (for Showtime) and Dancing on the Moon (both 1997), the latter which he coproduced with Demers and cowrote with Jacqui Manning-Albert.

Later, he persuaded Showtime to make a sequel to the sexually groundbreaking 1993 miniseries Tales of the City, following various characters in San Francisco and starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. More Tales of the City appeared in 1998 and received five Emmy nominations, two Gemini noms, and won for outstanding miniseries at the GLAAD Media Awards.

More Showtime projects followed, including mafia miniseries Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story (1999), starring Martin Landau, before Tierney left to launch Park Ex. “After 11 years of fruitful collaboration he decided to fly off on his own, but we remained good friends,” Demers says.

Tierney co-produced the well-budgeted Showtime Holocaust drama Varian’s War (2001), starring William Hurt, and CTV movie One Dead Indian (2006), about the killing of Ojibwa man Dudley George by an OPP officer. The latter was nominated for seven Geminis, winning three. And then came Bon Cop.

As busy as he was, Tierney found time to help the industry through the ACCT, participating in award juries, contributing to books Making It and Selling It, and eventually serving as vice-chair of cinema. He focused on the Genies, helping to refine the jury process and trying to solve the conundrum of producing a major event around films few Canadians had seen.

“He understood the Genies and what they could do, and with his marketing background he helped build them and awareness around them,” says former ACCT president and CEO Maria Topalovich. “He was one of the Academy’s most enthusiastic, energetic and active supporters.” The Academy posthumously recognized Tierney with its Board of Directors Tribute as part of this year’s Canadian Screen Awards.

Tierney, known for his impish grin and for putting himself in cameos in his films, had strong opinions and loved to express them, finding a perfect platform with a regular column in the Montreal Gazette starting in 2016.

His three-year battle with cancer did not slow him down until the very end. In his last year he and his wife visited Southeast Asia, Portugal and Cuba.

Daughter Brigid Tierney, who also acted as a child and now manages TIFF’s youth and community initiative, says he was a dedicated mentor.

“If I had a friend who needed a job, he would ask them, ‘Where are you at with your career? What are you looking for?’ And he would write to people he knew in the business and say, ‘Give this person a shot.’ He had a strong desire to do that,” she recalls.

Despite his illness, he was willing to submit himself to a public roast as a fundraiser for Montreal’s Infinithéâtre – where he was a board member – scheduled for May 5, 2018.

“He was excited to do it,” Brigid says. “He was a legend in Montreal. He knew the whole town. But we were a little nervous because although he loved a good joke, he didn’t always like being the butt of them. Ultimately, though he had been sick for a long time, he deteriorated very quickly at the end, so we had to cancel.”

He passed away just one week after the fundraiser date, surrounded by family. Tributes came pouring in. Infinithéâtre renamed its playwriting competition The Kevin. The CMPA renamed one of its honours the Kevin Tierney Emerging Producer Award, and at the 2019 Prime Time conference, Sim Lighting & Grip named him recipient of the Douglas James Dales Industry Builder Award for “sustained contributions and commitment to strengthening the Canadian film and television industry.”

He was also an inaugural jurist for the Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame, a post he held for several years. And now it’s his rightful time to be inducted.

Image: Lois Siegel

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