Norman Jewison’s legacy is more than a list of great films; it includes helping to build and shape the Canadian film industry.

by Mary Dickie

Among Canadian filmakers; no one really comes close to Norman Jewison; whether you’re talking about commercial or artistic success, social consciousness, worldwide impact or just the diversity of styles and genres he has seen and conquered. It would be unthinkable in today’s climate for the same director to helm a romantic comedy like 1964’s Send Me No Flowers, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and just three years later make In the Heat of the Night, the Oscar-winning drama about police racism starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Not to mention follow that up with hit musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler on the Roof, and a late return to romantic comedy with 1987’s classic Moonstruck.

As if those accomplishments weren’t enough, Jewison has also had a starring role in building the broader Canadian film industry. In 1986, he founded the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) to develop and support homegrown filmmaking talent, and he has mentored dozens of writers, directors and producers over its three decades. Now, it’s hard to imagine the Canadian film industry without the CFC—or him. At 93, having slowed down just a touch, Jewison says he’s looking forward to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), mostly because of the CFC alumni represented in the programming.

“I’m very excited, because over 40 alumni are involved in the festival this year,” he says. “One of them, Peter Raymont, is one of the producers of the opening film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. I saw him the other evening and he was so excited—and he said it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t gone to the film centre.”

Jewison says TIFF and the CFC have grown up together ever since TIFF founders Dusty Cohl and Bill Marshall helped him in his effort to establish the film centre, a decade after the festival’s debut. “I think that was the beginning of Toronto really becoming a centre for filmmaking,” he says. “Between the festival and the CFC, we’ve attracted the film industry of the world to Toronto. Now it’s probably the most important film centre in North America, next to Los Angeles and New York, and I don’t think that would have happened without the festival and the Canadian Film Centre.”

Many of the CFC’s most illustrious alumni maintain that Jewison’s support has been instrumental in their careers, as well as for the industry as a whole. Producer Damon D’Oliveira and director Clement Virgo (Lie With Me, The Book of Negroes) met at the CFC in 1991, and started collaborating on films including Rude, the first feature lm in Canada written, directed and produced by people of colour. “Norman has been a kind of entire career mentor for Clement and me,” says D’Oliveira. “He always believed in us; he would watch cuts of our films and give us incredible, really thoughtful feedback. He even found office space for our Conquering Lion Pictures and became our landlord for 20 years. He was always just a floor away. I don’t know if there’s a more impactful Canadian filmmaker who’s worked in both Hollywood and Canada—and who’s always bringing home what he learned in the U.S., which is incredible.”

“Norman started the film centre at a moment when there was a surge in hope for a national cinema, and I was lucky to be around at that time,” says writer-director Don McKellar (Last Night, Through Black Spruce), who was at the CFC in 1991 and 1992. “He represented a kind of connection between an independent Canadian cinema and a successful long-term career in Hollywood. Norman wrote a letter that I used to get my first visa to shoot in the States, and he was a big supporter of me and Bruce McDonald when we were making Highway 61. And not only did he come in to the centre himself, but he sent his friends and connections up from the States, so it was a real infusion of power and significant names at the beginning of the institution.”

Semi Chellas (The Eleventh Hour) took part in the screenwriting program at the CFC in 1994, and later won a Writer’s Guild award for her work on Mad Men. She is one of the CFC alumni with a lm in this year’s festival: American Woman, her directorial debut. “It was an incredible experience, and formative, obviously,” she says about her time at the CFC. “Very early on, when I was trying to figure out what kind of screenwriter I would be, Norman steered me towards understanding the simplicity of a good story. Every time Norman speaks, he tells stories, and he talks about telling stories. It’s that simple and fundamental—he’s a champion of great stories.

“I think especially when they’re starting out, screenwriters can get caught up in how much they can t into a script, and Norman just has a great perspective: ‘What is the story you feel connected to? Find that. And what does it mean to you?’ It’s good advice. I think the difference between a movie that succeeds and one that doesn’t is the meaning and how you share that meaning. Whether it’s profound or political or horror, that’s where it comes from, and Norman really understands that and captures it.”

The Toronto-born Jewison began his career in television, first at the BBC, then at the CBC in Toronto and CBS in New York before heading to Hollywood to make movies, seemingly switching at will between genres. “If you look at his career as a director, from the very stylish The Thomas Crown Affair to the comedy of Moonstruck to the serious drama of The Hurricane, he’s a very eclectic and versatile filmmaker,” says Virgo.

“I’ve always been inspired by his commitment to wrangling with the social questions of the time while making very entertaining popcorn movies,” Chellas adds. “The fact that he managed to do that is a pretty rare thing.”

“My career has had its ups and downs,” reflects Jewison. “Some films take off with the audience and some don’t. For instance, Moonstruck just exploded on the screen. I think people were hungry at that moment for a romantic comedy, but it changes from year to year. Sometimes musicals are dominant, other times they’re not.”

McKellar believes Jewison’s use of music is crucial to all his work, not just the musicals. “At a time when the big tentpole musicals were dying, he made Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most successful interpretations of classic musicals,” he says. “Music is always key for him. I remember when he came to talk at the CFC, his sense of music really struck me. He emphasized that it was an important exercise to see film as music, and he recommended that we put things to music, and think of the purely musical potential in films. That really influenced the way I wrote films. I was just about to write 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, and thinking in terms of musical sequence was a valuable instruction. But on top of that there was just his support and his genuine enthusiasm. He really was excited by what we were doing, and he has followed through—it wasn’t just an empty gesture. A lot of people put their name to a charity or cultural institution and walk away, but that was never the case with Norman.”

Jewison’s films have been nominated for 46 Academy Awards and won 12, among many other honours, and the CFC alumni stress his singular, perhaps unique position in American film. Says McKellar: “He was one of the premier stylists—he did some very innovative work in The Thomas Crown Affair—and he had a social consciousness. He blended those things in a way that was unique, because those movies were hip and stylish but at the same time increasingly pointed in terms of their social commentary and civil rights agenda.”

“He’s always been a progressive,” Virgo points out. “I would argue that Norman has made some of the best black films ever. I mean, In the Heat of the Night is a seminal black film, and so are A Soldier’s Story and The Hurricane. His films always have a core of social consciousness, and they’re full of ideas. He makes you think, and tries to advance the culture a bit.”

Jewison’s 1966 film The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, starring Alan Arkin, Carl Reiner and Jonathan Winters, is a bridge between the genres, being a very funny political comedy with a message about peace during the Cold War. And maybe only a Canadian director could have made it. “Well, Canadians have always had a great gift for comedy and satire,” Jewison says. “That movie was a major satire, and there were a lot of people in the United States who got offended. I remember a couple of editorials calling me a Canadian pinko! I reminded them that the vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, had attended the premiere in Washington. I was also invited to Moscow by the Soviet film workers’ union! But I think Canadians have always kind of stepped out of the box a little bit, and our films are different from American films in that respect.

“I’m so proud of my country and what it’s doing in film, because we really have advanced so much in the past 20 years,” he adds. “That’s why I’ve always been a supporter of the film festival. And I’m proud to see our alumni so successful. It’s a tough business, and when I think that 70 per cent of our alumni are working somewhere in the world, it gives me great joy. As for me, I’m 93. I’m just glad to be alive!”