If you're a TV show and the Hells Angels are considering a court injunction to stop you from being broadcast, then that's what you'll be famous for.
But The Last Chapter, the $10-million CBC miniseries about biker wars, has a quiet but probably longer-lasting claim to fame. It's the first time a major Canadian miniseries has been filmed two times: once in French and once in English.
"It's a way of getting around dubbing," says Brian Freeman, creative head of movies and miniseries at the CBC. "Dubbing is an alienating technique."
In recent years Quebec has produced some of the strongest TV programming in the country. Every one of those shows -- the sprawling Gone with the Wind-like historical series Les Filles de Caleb, the newspaper drama Scoop, the crime series Omerta -- has died the death in flickering TV-lit living rooms from coast to coast. English Canadians will not watch French shows dubbed into English, no matter how good they are.
Three years ago Freeman, together with Montreal producer Claudio Luca ( Boys of St. Vincent), started looking for a story that could play strongly across Canada. "We needed a story that could work in both languages," Luca says. "We thought of bikers because of the biker war then happening in Montreal [the Hells Angels were trying to crush a long-established local gang, the Rock Machine, with endless violence and lurid headlines] The idea was, why don't we have French bikers trying to take over Ontario? We didn't know then that it was really going to happen."
Since then the Hells Angels, now dominant in Quebec, have indeed turned their sights on Ontario. They are not very impressed with the producers' arguments that any resemblance to The Last Chapter is purely coincidental.
But that was the last thing Freeman and Luca were worried about three years ago. For them the challenge was how to shoot a TV series two times, both versions identical except for the language spoken.
It seemed straightforward in theory. They would hire bilingual actors who could perform in both French and English, and shoot two takes of each scene.
In practice, it wasn't that simple. There are lots of French actors who can work in English, but not the other way around. And there would have to be at least one bankable Los Angeles-based Canadian star -- as it turned out, Michael Ironside ( Total Recall, Top Gun, Scanners, The Perfect Storm) -- who couldn't speak any French at all.
Ironside plays Bob Durrelle, a Toronto biker who arranges a friendly and profitable takeover of his Ontario gang by the Triple Sixers, a worldwide biker gang that controls all the other Canadian provinces. But the Triple Sixers' Quebec branch doesn't like the idea of absorbing Ontario: It means the French bikers will become a minority in an organization they had controlled until then.
"It's a great script with more than one thing happening," says Ironside, who grew up in Toronto and started his film career with David Cronenberg. "There's the ascension to power in biker society, there's the Enron avarice of society as a whole -- and there's the whole French-English trauma."
He couldn't hope to learn French well enough to do himself in French, but a compromise was reached: A voice coach would teach him sufficient French to speak his lines, and then another actor would dub them. Because the dub would go onto lip movements already making French words, it would theoretically be imperceptible to the viewer.
Nice theory. "But how could I act that? Especially in the scenes with my wife [played by Marina Orsini] those intimate man-woman things, and here I am acting phonetically."
The two francophone actors he played opposite -- Orsini, and Roy Dupuis as Durrelle's former biker partner -- both speak English as well as they do French (Dupuis is the star of the long-running crime series Nikita). They suggested Ironside just play his dialogue in English, and they'd reply in French. "Maria was especially great about it," Ironside says. "Sometimes she'd say some of her dialogue in English, I think just to make me feel more at home."
Director Richard Roy, who has shot feature films in both French and English, struggled to make it all work. He used a technique known as "doing an Italian," where actors recite their dialogue as quickly as possible, with no emotion, in order to fix it in their mind. It helps actors feel comfortable delivering dialogue in the other language.
But it didn't always work out. Francis McCarthy, an English-speaking actor, knew French well enough to play his role, but when Roy saw the rushes he found McCarthy's English accent so strong that it made the character not completely believable. More dubbing.
On another occasion -- Montreal singer-actor Dan Bigras playing the biker Roots Racine with a marked French accent in English -- Roy decided to go with it.
"It's very hard. I had an instinctive feeling that the English audience would understand if a French biker from Montreal spoke English with an accent. But the other way around, I just didn't think the Quebec audience would feel right about it."
The upshot is that about 10 per cent of The Last Chapter had to be dubbed. That's a vast improvement over the conventional situation, where 100 per cent is dubbed, but it slowed things down and added to the cost.
"And then," Luca adds, "there's two postproductions, two mixings, two foleys [sound effects] two editings. At the end of the day, it cost about 30 per cent more than if we'd just shot it once, in one language."
But it also cost 30 per cent less than if each network had decided to shoot its own version separately.
"It's economically driven," CBC's Freeman says. "Money can be saved. We had begun by thinking of it as an English-language story, but realized we couldn't finance it with the English network as the sole licenser. We needed Radio-Canada. And it does fulfill a corporate agenda that the two networks work more together."
For Luca, who has struggled for years with the growing difficulty of selling Quebec product internationally (even France doesn't care for the Quebec accent), the carrot was the big international dollars to be made with the English-language version of the series. "Everybody wants to buy English production. And with Michael Ironside and Roy Dupuis, well, everybody knows them. It's very sellable."
Dupuis had his own reasons for wanting to be involved with The Last Chapter. He speaks fluent English, having lived as a teenager in the Northern Ontario town of Kapuskasing. When he starred in Les Filles de Caleb, which had the biggest audience of any show in Quebec history, he was naturally hired to dub himself for the English-language version.
It was discouraging. "I speak English well, but still, when dubbing, I had to match English sounds with the shape of my mouth onscreen, which of course was moving the way it moves when you speak French. So the beauty of the dialogue or even the meaning of what you're saying has to be changed to fit the shape of that mouth that the viewer is watching." It's a compromise that never really works: Even if you mangle the dialogue to find English words that resemble the French ones, the viewer still knows it's a dub. A dub with inferior English dialogue.
"So you get rid of those problems by doing the double shooting," Dupuis says. "But I can't say it's ideal. It's more work and concentration because you have to play it twice. Sometimes the magic happens in one take or the other, but not always in both."
I watched an episode of the show in both English and French, and found it remarkable how closely the actors reproduce their performance in the two languages.
So viewers in Toronto and Regina will finally get a chance to see big French Canadian stars such as Orsini and Dupuis, and lesser ones such as Michel Forget, performing in English. The burr under the saddle that dubbing represents has been removed.
But there may still be a problem in the kind of story being told. Written by Montreal television writer Luc Dionne, the script has an implicitly Quebec view of a story that takes place largely in Toronto. The Quebec-based characters are aggressive and confident and in no way do they defer to the English-speaking characters. It's something that English-Canadian viewers have never seen before.
"I think that Luc knew it would make a little wave in English Canada," Roy says with a laugh.
Although double shooting has never been used on a miniseries, it was attempted in the 1980s with the hockey series Lance et compte ( He Shoots, He Scores). Nobody has done it since. Will The Last Chapter become another such curiosity?
"I don't think so," Freeman says. "We know we have to get away from dubbing. And financially, doing the double shooting worked out cheaper than we'd expected. So we'll do more. There's a new dramatic series already ordered, and of course we're going to do a sequel to The Last Chapter. Double shooting is an idea whose time has come."