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Norman Jewison is supposed to be talking about himself right now, but he would rather discuss the mysteries of migrating lichen.

Jewison, the acclaimed director whose films include the Oscar-winners Moonstruck and In the Heat of the Night, is here in his midtown Toronto office on a sultry afternoon at the end of June, and he’s been reviewing the guest list for his upcoming 90th birthday party. Most of his family is going to be there, but one of his granddaughters, a doctoral student in geology, will be on a dig in Scotland. “She’s interested in what the world was before there was any trace of humanity!” Jewison says excitedly. The last time he saw her, he explains, she entranced him with a story about finding particles from the same species of lichen within ancient rock formations in both Cape Breton Island and the Pyrenees mountain range almost 5,000 kilometres away. It may be evidence, he says, of a land bridge that existed millions of years ago, before the birth of the Atlantic Ocean.

Canadian director Norman Jewison. (Christopher Wahl / for The Globe and Mail)

He tells this tale with enthusiasm and infectious joy, in the same bright, curious tones he uses to speak about working with Sidney Poitier or meeting the legendary director William Wyler or wrangling Cher, and as he entertains me with an unlikely story about rocks, it seems there may be a connection between Jewison and the ancient microorganisms his granddaughter is hunting. Call it cultural geology: While she spends her days trying to understand how Earth came to be, he has spent a lifetime creating records of life as it was lived, artifacts that point the way to – and might help us understand – the fraught world we now occupy.

Want to see the moment 50 years ago when some Trump supporters felt their America slipping away? It’s there – alongside a still-galling instance of racial profiling that seems ripped from our own headlines – in In the Heat of the Night (1967). How about a glimpse of Cold War panic, brought to life with comic verve that feels awfully familiar today? Check out The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! (1966). More than four decades ago, Jewison’s Rollerball (1975) envisioned a society in which politicians had been sidelined by corporations, which must sound very familiar to delegates at the Democratic National Convention who have spent this week decrying the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night.

In recent years, film and TV critics have cheered the advent of the auteurs, directors who are celebrated for – but also, if we’re being honest, limited by – their stylistic sensibilities. While Jewison has always been as artistically uncompromising as today’s young Turks, his range was almost unparalleled: His 24 theatrical features released between 1962 and 2003 span light comedies, musicals, social-justice dramas, thrillers, satires, romances and sci-fi. Together, they comprise a living argument that, in venerating today’s unique voices and their connection to tiny if passionate niche audiences, we may be missing out on the empathic, humanist touch of the old-fashioned generalist with catholic tastes.

And so I sought an audience with Jewison, to see what he was working on, to hear what the Canadian film industry’s (unofficial) director emeritus had to say about the changing place of movies in our culture, to ask about his dreams and regrets and how it felt to make popular entertainments that had social impact in a tumultuous age.

Jewison’s office is on the top floor of a five-storey brick building just off Yonge Street, and it greets visitors with design elements reminiscent of a fortified medieval castle: two small wooden knight’s shields, one on either side of a double-height door that looks like a portcullis built to withstand a battering ram. If you look up to the fifth floor, where his Yorktown Productions is headquartered, you’ll see each window adorned with a knight’s shield and a spiky wooden palisade. You half expect a moat and a raised drawbridge.

But Jewison is a gracious host, welcoming visitors into his office, an expansive wood-panelled lair with a burnt-orange, deep-pile rug, and making sure they’re comfortable with his golden doodle, Baxter, before settling in to talk. He evidently delights in telling stories. As he notes in his absorbing 2004 memoir, This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me, his talent with a tale stretches back to his childhood in Depression-era, East End Toronto, where he would go to the movies and then charge his friends a penny or two to watch his re-enactments.

After getting his start with the British Broadcasting Corp. in London, he returned in the early 1950s to CBC-TV in Toronto, where he worked on live variety shows. In 1958, CBS hired him to direct some of its live TV shows based in New York City. Then Hollywood called, and Universal Studios signed him to a seven-picture deal. “I made Doris Day films! And everybody was happy and went to the seashore,” he says, a little ruefully, referring to The Thrill of It All (1963) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). “I mean, they achieved their aim at that time in my career and at that time in the world of cinema. And I didn’t look down on what was happening artistically.”

Still: “I knew I was just a cog in a highly commercialized company called Universal Pictures. Lew Wasserman, who was the head of it, used to pat me on the head and say, ‘This is our Canadian.’ He always thought it was kind of odd to have a Canadian in the commissary.”

Canadian director Norman Jewison. (Christopher Wahl / for The Globe and Mail)

Jewison gets up from his desk. As he ambles over to a bookcase, I begin to take in the overstuffed, if orderly, nature of the office: neat piles of scripts along one wall, dozens of framed photographs (Mother Teresa, Wayne Gretzky), paintings (Jewison in the Ontario woods tapping a maple tree), honorary doctorates and commendations (Golden Globe nomination certificates, etc.). He chuckles as he motions toward what appears to be a series of books, bound in red leather, with the names of his movies. “Film is forever. Like books are forever,” he says. I pull down the volume marked In Country, Jewison’s 1989 post-Vietnam drama, open it up, and realize the boxes contain VHS videocassettes.

After making four pictures for Universal, Jewison was able to wriggle out of his studio contract. The move gave him more creative control. “George Stevens [Gunga Din] once told me, ‘See all those studios out there? They are the enemy! We are the artists! So you must fight for what you believe in!’” he recalls. “I became a kind of a monster for the studios, because I’ve always believed in total freedom of expression.”

Jewison turned his focus to films which reflected his own world view. He was enamoured of the United States, its energy and its celebration of individual achievement, which contrasted sharply with the downbeat Canada of his youth. But he was also wary of America’s blind spots and its never-ending fear of enemies within, which found expression in witch-hunts such as those conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and the creation of the Hollywood blacklist.

One experience had permanently seared him. After serving briefly in the Canadian Navy toward the end of World War II, he hitchhiked in his dress uniform – better for free hospitality – south from Chicago. One day, while in Memphis, Tenn., he was kicked off a bus: He hadn’t realized he wasn’t supposed to sit in the back with the black patrons. More to the point, after seeing black men in uniform up in the northern states, he hadn’t realized segregation still existed in the United States. It would both infuriate and energize him, spurring a moral outrage that fuelled three of his most acclaimed features, including A Soldier’s Story (1984) and The Hurricane (1999).

Denzel Washington portrayed boxer Ruben"Hurricane" Carter in The Hurricane. (George Kraychk / Reuters)

In December, 1965, Jewison and his family were on vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho, when his son Michael broke a leg while skiing. At the hospital, Jewison met the father of another injured skier: Senator Robert Kennedy. To pass the time, Jewison told Kennedy the story of a film he was trying to make, about a black police officer from Philadelphia who, while passing through a small Mississippi town, becomes a suspect in the murder of a white businessman simply because of the colour of his skin and the money in his wallet.

Telling the story now, Jewison adopts a pinched New England accent, an exquisite imitation of Kennedy. “He says, ‘This could be a very important film, Norman!’” Jewison pauses to let that sink in, then adds: “It was the first time anybody said what I was doing was going to be important.”

In the Heat of the Night starred Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, the cop who, after being cleared of suspicion, ends up staying in town to show up the local hicks and solve the murder. In one extraordinary scene, Tibbs confronts a genteel local cotton magnate by the name of Mr. Endicott with the possibility that he committed the murder. An outraged Endicott slaps Tibbs; in a moment of cinematic history that became known as The Slap Heard Round the World, Tibbs slaps him right back. The local sheriff, taking this in, does nothing. Endicott stutters to Tibbs: “There was a time when I could have had you shot.” And as Tibbs and the sheriff depart, Endicott is left alone, bewildered and near tears, trying but failing to grasp the tectonic social shifts under way.

But progress doesn’t occur in a straight line. The following year, Kennedy was assassinated, and Jewison packed up his family and left the United States. In protest, he says, he turned in his green card.

“You can only go through so many assassinations and then you lose your equilibrium,” he explains. “And when they killed JFK and then they killed Martin Luther King, and then they killed Bobby, I thought, ‘Gotta get out of here. Just gotta get out of here. I don’t want to be here, there are guns everywhere, this is a violent country and they even slay their heroes.’”

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night.

Working out of London, Jewison made Fiddler on the Roof (1971) on location in Croatia, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) in Israel and Rollerball in Germany. In the late-1970s, he brought his family home to Canada, buying a farm outside Caledon, Ont., where he has been based ever since (though nowadays, he spends five months of the year in Malibu with his second wife, Lynne; they married about five years ago, after the death of his first wife, Dixie). In 1981, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada; in 1991, he was made a Companion.

“When I meet someone else who’s a member of the Order of Canada and they’re not wearing their pin, and we’re in the States somewhere, I really go after that,” he says. “‘What the hell – you’re not wearing it!’ ‘Well, nobody knows what it is!’ I say, ‘I don’t care if they look at it and they think it’s a 4-H button! It’s your honour! You should be honoured to wear it!’ God damn it, you know? You gotta be proud of your heritage, for God’s sakes.”

In the late-1980s, Jewison created the Canadian Film Centre, a luxe compound in north Toronto on the grounds of the old E.P. Taylor estate to serve as a counterpart to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, dedicated to developing this country’s film talent. But though he began to make more films in Canada, and he produced Dance Me Outside, Bruce McDonald’s 1994 comedy-drama set on a First Nations reserve in Northern Ontario, Agnes of God (1985) is the only Jewison-directed film set in this country. (Toronto has a supporting role in The Hurricane.)

Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor for his role in The Hurricane. (George Kraychk / Reuters)

“I’ve always felt I was a political animal. I wish I could have made a statement about Canada vs. the U.S., and Canada vs. the rest of the world.” He pauses. “I would have loved to have made the Great Canadian Film. I would have loved to do it. But I never found a story that I believed I could make into an exciting motion picture. Because you’ve got to make an exciting motion picture first.” He adds, by way of explanation: “If you set out to make a big statement about Canada, you’re going to fail!”

In recent years, he’s been working on and off with the writer John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, 1987) on an English-language adaptation of the Italian film Bread and Tulips. “Norman is one of the most stand-up guys in the film business,” Shanley says over the phone recently, recalling how, when they first worked together, Jewison gave him, a then-little-known off-Broadway playwright, a piece of Moonstruck’s profits.

“He has this lust for life. That’s very much what’s going on in Fiddler, or the pageantry and excitement of Jesus Christ Superstar,” Shanley says. “He’s sort of Zorba the Filmmaker.”

Cher and Nicolas Cage star in Moonstruck. (MGM Pictures)

Still, Jewison recognizes it’s tough in the current landscape to get much traction for the sort of films he likes to make. And there’s this: “I’m kind of disappointed in the direction that cinema has taken. Whether it all happened when the technology moved from film to video, I don’t know,” he says. “But that was a big move. Because the very soul of motion pictures was the film, was the exposure of light. I think of Sven Nykvist [Bergman’s cinematographer, who shot two of Jewison’s films, Agnes of God and 1994’s Only You]. I think of all the brilliant cameramen I’ve ever worked with, and how we laboured so carefully. And all of a sudden, video came and the art of cinema seemed to be reduced.” Now, directors know that, if they don’t get the exact shot they want, they can always tweak it in post-production.

“I found that video was different. It was a million electrons bombarding the screen. It wasn’t tactile. I couldn’t touch it. And it moved so fast – ‘Let’s go, let’s go, we got another setup’ – that we didn’t take the time. With film, you have to take a little bit of time to expose the film properly.” People, he says, stopped caring as much about the craft. “And that bothered me.”

We’ve been talking now for almost an hour and a half, and our time is running out. I mention a new documentary about Brian De Palma that’s playing at the TIFF Lightbox in downtown Toronto. Jewison wrinkles his nose – “I’m not a huge fan,” he says – and then I ask what he thinks of De Palma’s suggestion that “being a director is being a watcher.”

“I think he’s on to something, because that’s what we did,” he nods. “But let me put it another way. I always questioned, the moment I saw the shot I was working on, ‘Was it believable?’”

Jewison launches into a fictional on-set dialogue between himself and an actor. ‘Was it good when I cried?’ ‘Nah, not really.’ ‘Well, what’s the matter?’ ‘I can’t tell you, but I didn’t believe it. So can we do it again? Can you reach inside of yourself? You’re an artist! Reach inside that person you’re playing and let me see how they react to this moment. Maybe there’s no tears. Don’t worry about it. I don’t want you to push it. Make it believable!’ That’s directing to me. It’s always been the same.” He shrugs.

You make it sound so simple, I say.

He smiles. “It is simple!”