Yan England is only 30 years old but he’s been a showbiz kid for most of them – almost 23, in fact, having made his debut in a Quebec TV show when he was 8. Since then, the thoroughly bilingual England has acted in several other francophone series, popular ones like Trauma and Yamaska, hosted youth-oriented programs, been the morning man at CKOI-FM Montreal (“Mes Hits. Mon Fun.”), and generally functioned as a familiar face in the Quebec media landscape. It’s the kind of scenario that unfolds, one supposes, when your mother – in this case, Diane England – is a prominent, award-winning Montreal film and TV producer with expertise in the youth market.
Even before becoming a professional actor, however, young England claims to have had a passion for the big and small screens. On the phone the other day from Montreal, he mentioned he’s been watching the Academy Awards ceremony religiously since age five and has long (but quietly) harboured dreams of going there some day, some way. Living in Los Angeles in his early 20s – he’d gone there to sharpen his English and “learn the game” – England would occasionally visit or pass by the Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre in Hollywood, site of the Oscars – but “I always refused myself permission, I don’t know why, superstition maybe, to walk up those stairs. I’ve always told myself, ‘Look, man … walk those stairs only if you ever get nominated.’”
On Feb. 24, a tuxedoed Yan England will indeed stride up the Dolby’s red-carpeted stairs with his mother at his side and together they’ll make their way to their reserved seats in the 7,000-seat auditorium. England’s 21-minute film Henry, a heart-stirring homage of sorts to his late grandfather, is one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for best live-action short. (All five are being shown Friday through Feb. 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.)
“It’s been a great, beautiful journey,” England said, not least because he wrote, produced and directed Henry entirely on his own dime while relying on the kindness of at least 50 friends, family and fellow showbiz professionals to make it a reality. Inspiration for the film came almost nine years ago when he and his mother were having coffee in a Montreal restaurant with England’s then-92-year-old grandfather, Maurice England. “All of a sudden he’s not sure who we are,” England recalled. At one point, “He asked us: ‘Have I been a good man?’” The question stunned young England. His grandfather was his “hero,” a man who could speak five languages, “always remember every single detail of everything,” a one-time intelligence officer with the British army during the Second World War, a film producer in Italy … and here he was falling prey to the ravages of what was soon diagnosed as Alzheimer’s.
While not expressly about England’s grandfather, Henry uses the confusions of the dementia he suffered to inform its point of view and to tell England’s story of an elderly classical pianist (played by veteran Quebec actor Gérard Poirier) who, finding his violinist wife (Louise Laprade) missing from their home after returning from a lunch, becomes convinced something bad has happened to her.
England shot Henry at various locations in Montreal in spring 2011, hustling to get the film into post-production so he could meet the deadline for consideration by that summer’s Rhode Island International Film Festival, the only Academy Awards-qualifying festival in New England. He was a couple of days late. Nevertheless, Rhode Island agreed to take a look as it had hosted the world premiere of England’s first live-action short, Moi, four years earlier, where it earned “best film” honours. After a well-received screening there, England sent Henry to 10 more festivals over the next several months. “It was my duty to submit it as much as possible, to get the attention,” he explained, “because everyone – the cast, the crew, everyone – had given me so much and for free.”
In other circumstances, England might have applied to agencies like Telefilm Canada and the Quebec funding body SODEC to help fund Henry. But he claims he was “impatient” and “I knew there was this moment – March, April, 2011 – that I knew I could shoot it.” Besides, he was determined to make Henry his way and didn’t want to “risk getting a refusal.”
As for the future, England spoke of starring in a feature film, writing and directing a full-length movie, maybe directing another screenwriter’s script. However, he skimped on specifics. “I have secret ambitions, secret dreams, topics in my mind, all of that,” he said, laughing. “But I’m always afraid to speak them out loud because I don’t want to jinx them.” So far at least, such caution seems to be paying off.