Prompted by this Saturday's screening of the Canadian film Barney's Version on SBS One and what I've been doing lately, I'd like to sing the praises of producers, two in particular.
Over the last fortnight I ran 16 discussions with filmmakers as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. It's very satisfying work because it involves creative people who think deeply and open heartedly about the nature of the world and humanity, and because it forces you to ponder afresh the pain, pleasure and challenge of financing, making and finding audiences for films.
If I had to pick three highlights they would be: facilitating an acting masterclass with writer/director Rhys Graham and actor Maya Stange centred on the making of the heartfelt new Australian film Galore; sitting with novelist Tim Winton beside me wrangling a panel about the utterly groundbreaking new Australian film The Turning; and listening for several hours in all to Robert Connolly, one of the 18 directors and one of the two producers on The Turning.
Connolly directed and wrote or co-wrote the features The Bank, Three Dollars and Balibo (and also directed episodes of The Slap and the telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story), and produced The Boys, The Monkey's Mask and Romulus My Father.
The Turning is absorbing and intriguing because he had the vision and the guts to make a feature from a book of short stories with some overlapping characters but no through narrative. The wildly experimental project pays off because he trusted the directors with creative control. It's a big statement I know, but being at last Saturday's world premiere of The Turning was one of my best cinematic experiences ever.
The more I read about the making of Barney's Version, a big sweeping tale of love and death and friendship that you can't help but love, the more I learned about the sterling work of its producer too. Robert Lantos is a dominant figure in Canadian production. He has produced or executive produced about 45 features – including Sunshine, Eastern Promises, Crash, When Night is Falling, The Sweet Hereafter and Black Robe, a co-production with Australia – and been one-time head of Canada's biggest production company.
He didn't allow Barney's Version to go into production until the script was ready and this took years because it was very difficult to replace the writer of the original source material, the novelist Mordecai Richler, who died before he finished the script. Eventually Lantos had the nous to see that he was too close to his friend's autobiographical novel and accepted that scriptwriter Michael Konyves nailed the adaptation by hanging the action off the love affair between Barney and his third wife rather than trying to cover everything. Lantos also wisely picked Paul Giamatti for the starring role and got what was a pretty costly movie financed.
Lantos is one of the key drivers behind a plan to establish a new specialty television channel entirely devoted to Canadian movies. There, like in Australia, films have a hard time competing against Hollywood blockbusters in cinemas. Not all producers have what it takes – just like not all directors or writers do – but Lantos and Connolly (a trailblazer of new distribution models) do.
Lantos must also be a producer who puts his projects ahead of his own ego. How do I know that? Because of some information I stumbled upon here. Barney is a film and TV producer and there are some fabulous scenes that make it clear just how vapid the television that he makes is – and just how disinterested he is in making it any better. Richler actually based these sections of his novel on Lantos!
“He was poking fun at me … Barney's television show, O'Malley Of The North, is a spoof of the series I produced many years ago, back in the early 90s, called Due South. That's what he's making fun of. He is a shit. He's also a loveable shit. But he's a shit. And the thing is, most people, in my personal experience, are flawed. And Barney Panofsky is definitely very flawed.”
Barney's Version premieres on SBS ONE on Saturday August 10 at 9.30pm, and will be available for catch-up viewing for a limited time afterwards.