On a sunny recent autumn afternoon, off King Street in the eastside of downtown Toronto, sat one of the most famous cars in Canadian filmmaking history: a 1960 Chevy Impala convertible, with hand-painted flames and "My Nova Scotia Home" on the door.
It's the car - or rather, a replica of the original said to have been found in Detroit - that actors Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley, as Peter and Joey, two wide-eyed young guys looking for a better life, drove from Cape Breton to Toronto to find work and whoop it up in the big city in the pivotal 1970 Canadian independent film Goin' Down the Road.
(The actors, of course, didn't really drive the car from the East Coast, but were shot heading down what were, at that time, rural roads just north of Toronto.)
But what's this car doing back in Toronto 40 years on?
Director Donald Shebib, 72, is making Down the Road Again, a sequel aimed for completion in 2011, which will undoubtedly surprise many who remember the original as a landmark film in independent dramatic filmmaking in English Canada, just as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy were in American cinema.
"People have said to me for years, 'Why don't you do a sequel?' which I've been very reluctant to do," Shebib said during a break in filming inside a tiny restaurant, a few doors down from the parked Chevy Impala. "I mean, come on! Goin' Down the Road 2? Son of Goin' Down the Road?" he says mockingly.
But when he was approached again in the fall of 2008 by producer Robin Cass with an idea to revisit the lives of Pete and Joey, he started working on a script in earnest. "It actually fell into place very easily. I was surprised at how much sense it all made," he says. "It's a sequel, but it's really a prequel. It's about Pete's past and how he revisits his past with the death of his friend."
At the end of the original Goin' Down the Road, Pete and Joey's Toronto scheme was in ruins and they were last seen driving west, away from the city, scarred and no better off than when they had set off from Nova Scotia. The film was an important chronicle of the wave of Easterners coming to Toronto, if not of Toronto's own growing pains.
In the new film, Pete (McGrath) is an elderly, retired Vancouver postman. He receives news that his old pal Joey has died (actor Bradley died in 2003). Pete finds himself with a series of letters, an envelope of money and directions to take Joey's ashes back to Cape Breton. What unfolds is the backstory of the two buddies, along with a new, complicated friendship with Joey's daughter (Kathleen Robertson), as she and Peter head back eastward across the country from Vancouver to Nova Scotia.
"It's very Dickensian in how things are revealed. Dickens was always a master at surprises and having things pay off. And he could always do it in a way that wasn't phony and manipulative. And I think that happens here. I think it's a pretty good script in that sense," Shebib says.
"Seeing [actor McGrath]playing this character, it's like going back 40 years. After a few moments of initial shock, it's like we've never been away. And in a strange way, Goin' Down the Road is far more relevant today than it ever was. In 1970, there weren't any homeless people [in Toronto] and a lot of that film deals with people who become homeless," the director adds, as he sits at the restaurant table, wearing an utterly unadorned outfit of shorts and pullover on the warm autumn day.
The original film, shot by documentary cinematographer Richard Leiterman, had the gritty look of the era. The famous scenes of Pete and Joey walking along Yonge Street (just as famously parodied by an SCTV takeoff) were dominated by dark shadows and neon signs. The bottling plant where the two worked was a panoply of fluorescent and natural light, glass bottles and wooden crates stacked high.
Shebib indicates that the sequel won't attempt to mimic the look of the original. "It's a completely different look," he says.
However, Robertson, sitting in her trailer on the set, notes that the original is certainly being used as a reference. Known for a recent role in A Night for Dying Tigers, along with her mid-1990s stint as Clare Arnold on Beverly Hills, 90210, Robertson says the sequel's Toronto production office was filled with stills from the original film detailing the working-class look of the lead actors, the buddies' work shirts, the girlfriends' hair and makeup.
"I think the original looks good, even though it was so low-budget. We've tried to keep the palette the same," Robertson says "No glamour here, which is the way it should be."
The original wore its hard-worn look partly out of necessity. It was shot on a shoestring with its crew of four often entering locations on the spur of the moment, without permission. The sequel has a much larger crew, although still tiny by industry standards, with gaffers and set people readying lighting equipment inside the restaurant.
Shebib, who directed a number of independent features, such as 1971's Rip-Off and 1973's Between Friends, as well as episodic television since Goin' Down the Road, is reluctant to divulge too much about the new film or to compare it to the critically acclaimed and popular original.
"I think I see Goin' Down the Road differently than most people see it. I think it was a very good beginning film. It had a lot of flaws and weaknesses in it. It had terrific performances by the actors, especially Paul Bradley and Doug. And I had a lot of skill as a filmmaker and editor. I had made 20 films at that point. The editing made as big a contribution to the success of the film as anything - the way I structured it and put it together," he says. As with the original, he will edit the sequel himself.
The new film puts the emphasis on its story more than the original's atmosphere of gritty realism.
"It's a very solid, very good script. I think it has the chance to be a much better film than the original. Whether it will be as popular and as timely, I'm not so sure. A lot of the film is about just growing old. A lot of the people who saw the original film in their 20s or 30s are now in their 60s and 70s," he says.
"But it's really a detective story about what happened in the past rather than what happened later. Some secrets are revealed. As I said, it's very Dickensian in that sense. It's like Great Expectations," he adds before heading off toward the flame-painted Impala.