Film producer Paul Barkin is standing on a busy corner in Toronto's Chinatown, blowing on numb fingers, watching a scene for his upcoming movie, The Love Child , with comedian Russell Peters and Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer).
For an April afternoon, it's maddeningly cold. But the 40-year-old Barkin insists on being on-set as a gesture of solidarity for his crew and cast, which also includes the elder Sutherland (in a first-time, co-starring role with his 30-year-old son), Rebecca Romijn ( Ugly Betty ), Greg Germann ( Ally McBeal ) and Sarah Roemer ( Disturbia ).
The affable Barkin hovers on the fringe of the action like a protective parent, visibly anxious, he explains, in part because he's spent the better part of the past six years trying to get this $6-million movie off the ground.
"It's had various incarnations - and almost derailed three times," says Barkin.
"But it's something I've been very passionate about making sure happens. Every time I thought it was going to fall apart, it actually found itself new legs," he adds.
Since he's always behind the scenes, the Toronto-born Barkin is largely unknown to the average film-goer. But in independent film circles, the Canadian Film Centre grad has steadily gained stature as a wily backroom guy able to bring money to the table to make such projects as Andrew Currie's Night of the Living , Bruce McDonald's The Tracey Fragments (with Oscar nominee Ellen Page) and, most recently, Amreeka , which has been invited to screen at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Director's Fortnight and also premiered in world competition at Sundance.
" Amreeka is a very complicated film because it needed to shoot in the West Bank, and was also set in Illinois," says Barkin of the movie, in which Winnipeg served as the Midwest state's stand-in. Christina Piovesan of First Generation Films, Barkin's Toronto co-producer (based here and in Los Angeles) "came to me, and I said we should try to figure out how to do this in Canada. We teamed up, but it was her project. She drove it. I just came in to lend support." Directed by New York-based Palestinian filmmaker Cherien Dabis, Amreeka , about a woman who moves to America with her son and struggles to assimilate, was shot for $2.5-million (U.S.) in April of 2008. "It's a universal story, a humanistic story about family and immigration," says Barkin, who adds that it was picked up for distribution by Toronto's E1 Entertainment.
Barkin fell into filmmaking after finishing an undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario. He had moved to Vancouver, and somehow found himself working as a location production assistant on a tiny film. He moved back to Toronto in 1995, worked a couple of summers in the sales-and-industry office at the Toronto International Film Festival, completed the CFC program, and founded a production company, Alcina Pictures, in 1997.
Since then, he has been navigating the dicey waters of film production, largely unnoticed. "I didn't know how I was going to do it, or what I was going to do," he says. "But somehow, I've found my way."
The Love Child , with a budget of $6-million, is the film he's banking on to break him out of anonymity. "I really believe in this film. I think it has great commercial potential," he says. "It's the story of an ex-con [Vince, the younger Sutherland]who finds himself a new life as an artist. It's a smart comedy - and an example of the kind of comedy we should be making more of here, because we tend to be good at it."
The Love Child is based on a screenplay by Nova Scotia native Michael Melski and is directed by veteran casting director Risa Bramon Garcia, whose feature-film directorial debut was the ensemble comedy 200 Cigarettes , starring Kate Hudson alongside Ben and Casey Affleck.
After Vince is paroled following a five-year stint in prison for a heist, he resumes the life of a car thief and works in a chop shop owned by a ne'er-do-well named Kranski (Sutherland senior). When he has down time, Vince tinkers with a hobby he picked up in the clink - metal sculpture. One day, art dealer Belinda (Romijn) brings her car into the shop, takes a shine to Vince's work, and he bizarrely finds himself the toast of the art world.
The plot then follows Vince's efforts to extricate himself from Kranski and stay in the good books of his snarky parole officer, played by Peters. Barkin says the first cast member to sign up was Romijn, who has just had twins with husband Jerry O'Connell, and is probably best-known by filmgoers as the eye-popping Mystique in the X-Men franchise. "Rebecca was at the top of our list," he says.
Next to commit was the younger Sutherland, who wowed Bramon Garcia when she saw the fourth-youngest Sutherland child - there are five - in the bank-robbery comedy High Life , which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this winter (garnering an enthusiastic review in Variety) and opens in Canada later this year.
"Rossif is just coming into his own," asserts Barkin, who met him last September when both were jury members at the Atlantic Film Festival. "He's got that thing, that star quality. He's smart. He's astute. He's really passionate about his work, and he gets it. Plus, the camera just loves him."
They were struggling to cast the Kranski character when Rossif Sutherland's agent at Creative Artists Agency pulled out a plum. "We were talking to them," recalls Barkin, "and they said, 'Well, funnily enough, Donald's read the script and loves it.' Risa was, like, 'Wow.' And I was like, 'That's incredible. What a coup!' The two of them are very excited to be working together. It's something they've talked about for a long time." The film started shooting March 31, and wraps in May.
Barkin hopes to have The Love Child picked up for distribution by Maple Pictures, backed by Telefilm Canada, and through postproduction by early 2010. He then plans to turn his focus to a $12-million science-fiction thriller directed by Jeff Renfroe (Peter Krause's Civic Duty ), called The Colony , which he hopes to start shooting in Canada next year. "But I have to get through this one first," he says, heading back to mill among the crowds on Spadina Avenue.
"It's a challenging distribution climate for films. It's tough to compete against American studio pictures, especially with comedy," adds Barkin.
"Do I sometimes get discouraged? Sure, sometimes. But I'm not a quitter. I see my job as keeping the momentum going. And to be honest, I try to roll with the punches and just take each day as it comes." Even if some of them are a little colder than he'd like.