In the opening scene of The F Word, the protagonist sits on the rooftop of his attic apartment at night, overlooking the city’s skyline. The city is unmistakable: there’s no attempt to digitally erase the CN Tower. And throughout this urbane, witty romantic comedy, director Michael Dowse (Goon) shows off Toronto with the affectionate gaze and eye for detail that Woody Allen once brought to Manhattan. It has never looked so authentically hip—even though Dowse is a Montrealer. In fact, everything about The F Word, which originated from a play at the Toronto Fringe Festival, feels organically Canadian—except the cast. Britain’s Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and American Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) play the leads, with rising American star Adam Driver (television’s Girls) cast as the protagonist’s best friend.
At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Canadian directors generated some serious heat, but much of it was fuelled by the star power of Hollywood talent. “You can’t make a film without a quote-unquote star,” says Dowse. “Unless it’s an ultra-low-budget, hand-held thing, you won’t be able to close your financing without one.” Dowse, who’s now writing a movie for 20th Century Fox, adds, “A slew of great directors who started in Canada will be splitting their time between working in the States and up here.”
In fact, Canadian cinema is starting to look a bit barren, as some of its most eminent filmmakers have deserted their industry to direct American movies. Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore) sparked Oscar buzz at TIFF with Dallas Buyers Club, a Fox Searchlight movie starring Matthew McConaughey in the true story of Texan Ron Woodroof, an electrician who became an unlikely AIDS activist in the 1980s. Vallée is now about to shoot a second Fox picture, Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. Another Quebec director, Denis Villeneuve, whose career caught fire in 2011 with the Oscar-nominated Incendies, has vaulted to the big time with Prisoners, a $55-million thriller from Warner Bros. starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. Villeneuve, who has been asked to make another film with Warner, also cast Gyllenhaal in Enemy, a Canadian art-house film shot in Toronto. Meanwhile, Toronto auteur Atom Egoyan, backed by Harvey Weinstein, was at TIFF with Devil’s Knot, a U.S. production starring Colin Firth and Witherspoon in a drama based on the 1993 West Memphis murder trial of three teenage boys.
Canadian filmmakers seduced by Hollywood money, and stars, are often surprised to learn they don’t necessarily have to sell out their artistic freedom. “I was aware I was putting my feet in enemy territory,” says Villeneuve. “I’d heard all those stories of directors being crushed and coming back with their tail between their legs.” But he swears he had compete control of Prisoners. After he showed its producers his 2½-hour director’s cut, “they just clapped me on the back and said, ‘We’re super-proud of you—it’s your movie.’ They’re the best producers I’ve ever worked with.”
It’s only natural that our directors will aspire to make American movies. But what changed is how Canadian cinema has become so wired to Hollywood stars. “This is not a good thing,” says veteran mogul Robert Lantos, who produced The Right Kind of Wrong with his son Ari—a $15-milllion Canadian comedy starring Aussie heartthrob Ryan Kwanten. “It’s a very bad thing for small, independent films.”
As stars become the universal currency of co-productions, perhaps the whole notion of a national cinema is passé. One of the most brazenly Canadian films at TIFF was The Grand Seduction, Don McKellar’s English-language remake of a Quebec hit, with a domestic pantheon that includes Gordon Pinsent, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones, Liane Balaban—and Taylor Kitsch, a homecoming star bruised by a string of blockbuster duds. But Ken Scott, who made the original film in 2003, has moved on to direct a DreamWorks remake of his other Quebec hit, Starbuck, casting Vince Vaughn as a sperm donor confronted by his 533 children. An idea born in Canada, but clearly destined for Hollywood.