Last week, The Strand spoke with Daniel MacIvor, actor, writer and director extraordinaire, about his new film on small town life on Canada's East Coast|
by Karen Arcot, published on October 20, 2004
To be fair, Wilby Wonderful is a perfectly pleasant movie, but director Daniel MacIvor himself acknowledges he wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. The result is an agreeable, picturesque film chronicling life in the fictional small town of Wilby, Canada. Critics have been comparing Wilby to movies like Magnolia because it follows multiple story lines in a twenty-four-hour period, but it reminds me more of Road to Avonlea and other typical CBC Canadiana fare. As Simon Cowell would say, this movie is "safe."
Boasting a veritable who's who of Canadian talent, with Daniel MacIvor, master of dark humour, at the helm, Wilby brims over with potential. It's a pity not all of it is realized.
Wilby follows several plotlines, but no single plot takes prominence, which is absolutely refreshing and entertaining. The story goes something like this:
Duck (Callum Keith Rennie), the dyslexic painter, keeps interrupting Dan Jarvis' (James Allodi) attempts at suicide, much to his consternation. Dan enlists Carol French (Sandra Oh) to sell his house after his wife leaves him. Carol, however, is more concerned about selling a house to the Mayor, in order break into the top social echelons of Wilby. Her husband Buddy (Paul Gross) could help her, as a descendant of the town's founder, but he finds her ambition tedious. Besides, he's rather distracted by bad-girl Sandra (Rebecca Jenkins). Sandra, though, has her hands full with running the diner and raising her teenage daughter Emily (Ellen Page). Emily's worst nightmare is that she will become a floozy like her mother, with an illegitimate child. She insists her own first love is "not about sex," but her cute boyfriend, Taylor (Caleb Langille), has other ideas. Meanwhile, the local newspaper plans to out the gay residents of the town, which brings us back to Dan and Duck.
And that's not all of it.
The actors are tremendous, slipping into their roles as if they were made for them, which for the most part, they were. James Allodi, Paul Gross and Rebecca Jenkins give outstanding performances, but the real scene stealer is newcomer Ellen Page. Her performance as the troubled teenager is too good to be true. Everyone had a wonderful time during the shooting, and their camaraderie and good spirits shine through, creating an easy-going dynamic between characters akin to the cast of Friends. That said, Wilby seems more like a sitcom or a made-for-TV movie than a feature production. Wilby moves a little slowly - surprising for a 99 minute movie that tries to capture over seven different storylines in the span of 24 hours - but it definitely has its moments when MacIvor's black humour seeps through. There is something familiar and comfortable about the film, like a well-worn pair of jeans. It epitomizes the easy-going, amicable Canadian attitude, and maintains it even through the more somber moments of the movie.
A light-hearted flick worth watching, I recommend waiting until the movie comes out on DVD, kicking back in a flannel shirt, a Molson in hand, and watching it at home.
Here is what director Daniel MacIvor has to say about his experience filming Wilby. It is now playing in theatres across Canada.
The Strand: You're sort of a Renaissance Man - actor, writer, and director. Do you like directing best?
MacIvor: You know what, someone asked me this question yesterday in Vancouver, and I thought, thought, thought for a long, long time. So you're going to be getting the benefit of my thought in Vancouver, because I can answer "yes."
The interesting thing is [that] writing is the most natural thing to me, but it's also the hardest thing to do. I mean ... you're sort of so solitary. Directing is actually where I get to be Dad, and I actually like being Dad. I think that's what I'm loving the most.
The Strand: What's it like directing a movie in which you act as well?
MacIvor: It's not so bad actually. The biggest problem is weirdly superficial because of the fact that I don't really want to spend any time in the make up chair, because I'm in a hurry, right? I've got other things to do, so I always end up looking like the crappiest one, because I never have any make-up or hair done. The thing that's really good about it is that sometimes it's really hard to articulate in words what you want an actor to do, and what you want them to bring to the scene, but if you're actually acting in a scene with them, you can set the tone by the way you're playing it and then they can understand it...You can direct another actor by acting with them.
The Strand: What's it like working with Paul Gross, fresh off Men with Brooms? Did he try to direct you back?
MacIvor: Oh, Paul was unbelievable. He was so generous and great. He's got a lot more experience than I do, and he just gave over to me and said he trusted me. A lot of the parts I actually wrote for the actors, but [for Paul's] I didn't. Paul didn't come on board until much later, after the script was finished, so I was a little nervous. Paul is incredibly good-looking - he's a real hero kind of guy - and the character had to be a man in crisis, and I was wondering if Paul goes to this place easily. So all I had to say to him on the first day was, "You know, this character is really insecure and you're not. So I need you to go to a place where you're insecure and play him from there." And he thought about it for a second, and he said, "Ok, I can do that." And he did. So he's great; I just love him. If he had a gay brother, I'd be calling him. [Laughs]
The Strand: Was it hard directing such a large and talented cast?
MacIvor: Everybody played on the scene; everybody made it easy for everyone else. That part was a joy, really... They were very good-natured and generous... The things that were most challenging were the editing and writing, because it is an ensemble. It's about everybody; it's not a movie about a woman or a man or a young girl. It's about a town, so the attention has got to be equally distributed.
It's a real structural challenge when editing. I always sit in the editing room fulltime with the editor, and one of the things we like to [do] is sort of throw it all up in air and change the order. You know, really mess with the structure to get some more ideas...Really the challenge was less about working on the set, and more about before and after.
The Strand: How did changing the film's name from Honey to Wilby Wonderful affect the movie in terms of editing?
MacIvor: What a good question. The time when I was calling it Honey, there was a whole metaphor about how sometimes the thing that stings you gets you to something sweet. Sometimes you have to suffer for something good. And the town was called Honey... Then I realized I couldn't call it Honey because there was already a movie called Honey, and I didn't want to do that. I started to think about opening it up a bit: What is [the film] about if it's not all about that? And I thought, well, really, it's about hope, and it's got to be about hope. All the stuff I do, I think, is ultimately about that. So I started to think about it, and then ... something hit me on the side of the head and said "Wilby." And then the town was Wilby, because that was about the future. And then Wilby Wonderful came from that, and all of a sudden the whole new draft came [from] that title. It's the magical thing that happens with writing: sometimes you have no idea where it's going and then all of a sudden you can't imagine you were ever going anywhere but there.
The Strand: Did Cape Breton inspire [the fictional town] Wilby?
MacIvor: Yeah, for sure. You know, Cape Breton is a lot bigger. There's elements of, certainly, growing up in a small town. Where I grew up is actually a city, but it's sort of a small town city. In a lot of ways, even living in Toronto [is like this]. When I first moved to Toronto I was pretty awestruck by the size, but it didn't take too many years to realize that we're all just living in these small town little neighbourhoods. We all have our neighbourhood, we go to this club or we go to this convenience store or this laundromat. We're a city of small towns, and I think the whole country is like that in a way, so we can all identify with these characters. I don't know if you remember a TV series called Gunsmoke, but in some ways Wilby for me is kind of like an east-coast Western: there's the Sheriff, and the cowboys, and the woman who runs the saloon - except here it's a café instead. These are characters that you'd find in an old-fashioned Western, too.
The Strand: Do you feel that there is a lot of pressure for Canadian films to become like Hollywood movies?
MacIvor: I think that there's different levels of it. The people who are funding it want it to be successful, and so they're looking at what Hollywood's doing, but the people who are actually going to it don't really want to see that. So what I'm doing here is I'm trying to make a commercial Canadian movie. That was one of my big intentions: to make this movie that had a familiar story, [and] characters we can identify with. It wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel or be a stylistic adventure of experimentation.
But at the same time there were some twists and turns and some potentially challenging storylines that you might not find in Hollywood, because of fears that the audience might not be able to identify with this character. Canadians are much more open to other kinds of lifestyles, and everybody's eager for Canadian film to be supported by Canadians... I think with Wilby, people will find that it's familiar as a Canadian movie, but at the same time it's satisfying like a Hollywood movie can be. So hopefully it's a bit of a hybrid.
The Strand: What is your favourite movie?
MacIvor: Good question. There are two movies that I really love: one is this Woody Allen movie called Stardust Memories, and the other is a John Schlesinger movie from around 1970 called Sunday Bloody Sunday. I really love those movies. I really like the Coen brothers; pretty much anything they do is good... I love The Hudsucker Proxy.
The Strand: So do you have any final words?
MacIvor: If people go see the movie and have something to say about it, go to www.wilbywonderful.com, and there's a place there for comments. I'm really interested to hear what people have to say about it. I'm eager to hear what people connected with or didn't connect with.