It must have been about five years ago that my friend Tim Long first told me about the movie he was writing. Tim had been on staff at The Simpsons since the late 1990s, following a few years as head writer for David Letterman and other TV gigs, and all through that time he’d enthusiastically pursued the imperative to “write what you know,” plumbing his apparently wacky upbringing in the Western Ontario town of Exeter for the entertainment of millions.
I’d heard some of the stories, in the common rooms of University College at the University of Toronto, where he and I wrote for the campus paper, The Gargoyle, in the late 1980s, including one about a French exchange student and another about a flash blizzard that hit Exeter during the school day, marooning him and his classmates until they could be rescued.
I’m pretty sure that, upon subsequent retellings, Tim admitted he and the other students were stuck in school for maybe an extra hour or two. No matter: The tale became the premise for one of his first credited Simpsons scripts, an episode entitled Skinner’s Sense of Snow in which Bart, Lisa and the other kids take Principal Skinner hostage when Springfield Elementary is snowed under on the last day before the Christmas break.
Then, some years ago, Tim told me about a feature film script he was developing about a mopey, pretentious teenager in 1980s small-town Ontario whose life is turned upside down when an exchange student visits from France.
Unlike most Canadian writers and actors who end up in Los Angeles, Tim had never actually worked in Canada. He’d moved to New York after graduation, then relocated to Los Angeles for the Simpsons gig.
In the spring of 2019, though, The Exchange got the green light as a Canadian-British indie co-production, with additional backing from U.S. producers. So I travelled to Ottawa, where the film was shooting under the direction of Dan Mazer, whose credits include co-writing the two Borat movies as well as directing the Robert De Niro-Zac Efron comedy Dirty Grandpa. The Exchange, which opens in Canadian and U.S. theatres and online platforms on Friday, struck me as the sort of movie that is rarely made in this country, never mind with the help of funding agencies such as Telefilm: a light piece of pop entertainment designed for both domestic and international consumption, as shamelessly Canadian as it is commercial.
Not only was the film being shot in Canada, it was set here, too, in the fictional town of Hobart, Ont., which those in the know would recognize as a thinly disguised Exeter: Like Tim’s hometown, Hobart has a mascot, a white squirrel. A voiceover introduction refers to both the town and its mascot as “throwbacks on the verge of extinction, struggling to fight off stronger competitors – and almost wholly white.”
There’s something else Tim borrowed from his upbringing for the movie: himself. The movie’s protagonist is named Tim Long, a decision that he says just struck producers as funny, but which also feels like reflexively Canadian self-effacement.
When people from his past hear about the movie, “there are two reactions,” he said. “There’s the first thing, which is: ‘We’re gonna be in a movie! This is great!’ And then there’s, like, ‘Wait, how am I gonna look? Is somebody gonna play me?’ And I’ve assured people, truthfully, that the only person who could possibly be embarrassed by this movie is me. There are no direct analogues. Even my parents [in the movie] are not the parents I had.”
On the morning of my set visit, the production had made itself at home at D.A. Moodie Intermediate School, a two-storey brutalist hulk in Nepean that had been decommissioned in 2017 because of declining enrollment. “It sort of reminded us of the school in The Breakfast Club – which is good, because we’re aiming for a slight John Hughes vibe,” Tim said.
While it might be seen as a companion piece to the spate of mid-1980s comedies, The Exchange is also a canny corrective that sends up the racism and sexism threaded through some of those films, such as the depiction of the Asian exchange student in Sixteen Candles.
“What’s so interesting about those [John Hughes] movies – and I think Molly Ringwald has written about this – they’re so sensitive in some ways. It’s incredible that he captured the feelings of a young girl,” Tim said. “But then, certain things, like ... Sixteen Candles is like eating a delicious soup with glass in it.” he said. “But yeah, just the blind spots that people had. I mean, I don’t mean to be too smug about that, because I have no doubt that people are going to look back on movies from now and say, Can you believe they did that, and they didn’t even realize it?!”
In the scene being shot that day, Tim Long (played by the Australian actor Ed Oxenbould) brings his French exchange student to school for the first time. Stéphane Belmadi (played with louche irony by the Canadian actor Avan Jogia) is a Vuarnet- and parachute-pants-wearing Eurotrash smoothie: He’s (the character) Tim Long’s nightmare but he charms everyone else. He even appeals at first to the cartoonishly toxic gym teacher Gary Rothbauer (This is Us heartthrob Justin Hartley), a onetime pro hockey player who also serves as a part-time OPP officer and tells Stéphane that he’d be happy to have him try out for the school’s soccer team – and not to worry, because “I don’t see colour.”
Noah Segal, one of the film’s producers and the co-president of Elevation Pictures, which is releasing the The Exchange in Canada, believes there is a growing hunger for unabashedly Canadian content both domestically and abroad, partly in response to the homogeneity of so much streaming content washing over us. The success of Letterkenny and Schitt’s Creek, he said, “show us you can be commercially successful and patriotic simultaneously.”
“I don’t think anyone wants these generalized ‘Anywhere, USA’ stories any more that could appeal to everyone, because then they just appeal to no one,” Tim said to me. So, prodded by the producers, he stuffed The Exchange with Canadian references: to Wilfrid Laurier, the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1838, Crispy Crunch bars.
“I don’t think people are that uncomfortable if they watch a story and there are specific references they don’t get,” he said. “It adds texture, and if you care enough, you can look it up. I mean, that’s sort of the principle that The Simpsons operates on: Nobody needs to get every joke.”
That’s one of the reasons Segal and the other producers pushed Tim to make the film as Canadian as could be. When he first started writing spec scripts about 20 years ago, Tim said, he didn’t want to draw on his own life, so he wrote, instead, “some misguided space opera, a weird political thriller – and Hollywood emphatically said: ‘No! We do not want this!’”
But he also knew his background was one of the things that made him stand out. “It’s just something I’ve always been weirdly proud of,” he said. And “in a writers room full of guys who grew up in suburban Connecticut, and whose dads were on Wall Street and who worked at The Harvard Lampoon,” he would regale them with strange tales of a foreign land. “Yeah, my town had a mascot that was a white squirrel, and we would go around spending loonies and toonies, and we drank a version of Kool-Aid called Freshie! And people were, like: ‘What?!’ They were really taken by it. So of course you run with what works.”
The Exchange opens July 30 in select Canadian theatres, the same day it is available to stream on-demand.
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