The two men behind Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story -- director John N. Smith, 62, and his screenwriter son Bruce, 39 -- have different ways of dealing with life. Gruff and low-key, John is said to play the world's calmest game of golf. Friends say his more animated son could have been a great litigator. But both men have reputations for being among the most issues-oriented, dogged, scrappy filmmakers in Canada today.
"Information junkies, drawn to reality-based dramas, full of conviction -- it's a father-son thing," says Toronto producer Bernie Zukerman, who has worked with the Smiths on separate projects (with John on Dieppe, and with Bruce, who wrote the scripts for Zukerman's The Sleep Room and The Investigation).
Unfortunately, the only project on which père and fils have worked together -- on producer Kevin DeWalt's $7.9-million Tommy Douglas drama, which was seen by more than 800,000 viewers when it aired in March -- has pitched the Smiths into the midst of one of the CBC's nastiest brawls in years.
This spring, under pressure from the defenders and descendants of Douglas's political foe, Liberal Jimmy Gardiner, CBC Television asked a historian to assess the film's portrayal of Gardiner, without telling the Smiths. Last month, again without telling the Smiths, CBC executives apologized to the Gardiner family, cancelled a scheduled rebroadcast and suspended further sales of Prairie Giant DVDs. It's hard to see how the CBC can now convince the two filmmakers to swallow their outrage. Very hard, if you look at the family history.
After the death of his father, John and his two brothers were raised in Montreal by their mother Margot. A New Yorker by birth, a secular Jewish intellectual by culture, she worked all day as a secretary and put herself through university at night, fully expecting her sons to become doctors or PhDs. No comic books were allowed in the house; as reading material, 12-year-old John was given I.F. Stone's Hidden History of the Korean War. In the mid-1960s, as a staunch member of the McGill Socialist Society, John decided he didn't like the CBC's coverage of campus unrest, and went to the Corp. to explain the students' point of view. "Fine," a CBC producer told him, "you do a program."
By the time his son Bruce was born, in 1967, John had put aside his thesis on "the Revisionist Controversy in the German Social Democrat Party 1895-1905" to work as a broadcast journalist. By 1970 he'd served time in prison for refusing to reveal the people he'd interviewed for a CBC story on separatist bombings. There were rats in Montreal's Bordeaux jail, but he says that he was more appalled because "CBC just cut me loose." It reminds him of what's currently happening to his son over the Douglas script, he says.
Bruce does not remember his father's jail time -- it lasted only a week -- nor much of the family's relocation to New York in the early 1970s, where his father worked for ABC and won an Emmy. In any case, the Smiths returned to Montreal, John to work at the National Film Board, his wife Eleanor to study law. "I love New York, but I didn't want to make American stuff," says John. "And I had to decide, did I want my kids to be American?"
The marriage ended when Bruce was 6; he, his mother and brother Morgan moved to Toronto. His father remarried (to filmmaker Cynthia Scott), and saw his older sons mostly in the summers, at Margot's country place in the Laurentians. This spot has been the family core. It's where Bruce is right now, trying to relax even as he issues refutations of the anonymous historian's critique of Prairie Giant.
Though his time with his father was intermittent while he was growing up, he says, "I could see that making movies about true subjects is an enormously difficult task. I saw the great pits of despair that John and his friends at the NFB went through, particularly making The Boys of St. Vincent."
Evidently, this didn't frighten him. Indeed, although his father has made dance documentaries, epics ( Random Passage and The Englishman's Boy, on which he is currently working with Prairie Giant producer DeWalt) and feature comedies ( The Masculine Mystique, Geraldine's Fortune), it is John Smith's weighty, topical projects that have most impressed his son. Nor was Bruce deterred by his father's early 1990s battle all the way to the Supreme Court to have a lower court-imposed ban removed from The Boys of St. Vincent," says Bruce.
For the son, that meant writing, not directing. One of his first stage plays, The Mosquito Man, won a Quebec Drama Festival award. His script for The Sleep Room, a 1998 television drama about CIA-sponsored experiments on Montreal psychiatric patients, won a couple of Geminis. He also worked as story editor, then associate producer, on the Ridley Scott and Tony Scott TV series The Hunger ("I wrote everything that came out of David Bowie's mouth," he says). Given his close-up view of his father's various battles, it came as no surprise to Bruce when one of his scripts drew threats of a lawsuit (a cop objected to The Investigation, a 2002 drama based on the problematic police investigation of serial child murderer Clifford Olson).
In 2002, John put Bruce's name forward to work on Prairie Giant. For the first time since Bruce's childhood, father and son were together for the better part of a year. "It was fantastic having that time together," says John Smith.
What was hard, says Bruce, was living in Regina, away from his wife, Christine van Moorsel, and their daughters Annalies, now 5, and Daisy, 3. "It reminded me of when I was little and my dad would go away," he says. "When I saw them walk down the long white hall at the airport, I broke down. I was bawling."
Like his father, he threw himself into work. He drove all over Saskatchewan with Tommy's daughter Shirley Douglas, interviewing old-timers; he read at least 30 books, plus two cartons of newspaper clippings and copies of Hansard; he hired a PhD student who had done his thesis on Douglas at the University of Regina.
Then came the job of determining how to dramatize a complex history. "I love Bruce as a writer," says Zukerman, for whom Bruce has done a script about the investigation into Steven Truscott's murder conviction. "To get complex material into a dramatic space -- it's a rare gift."
That skill requires compression and use of metaphor. One scene in Prairie Giant shows angry farmers dumping manure on Gardiner's yard. This never happened; the writer created it to dramatize farmers' rage at the Liberals' support for a farm foreclosure act. He also created composite speeches for Douglas rather than quoting from Hansard verbatim, and set his drama between the 1930s and 1960s, which meant leaving out Tommy Douglas's opposition to the 1970 War Measures Act. (That was among the reasons that Shirley Douglas withdrew from the project. Admits Bruce, "There were lawyers' letters.")
Everyone expected more controversy. Sure enough, when funding for the project was announced in January, 2005, Conservative politicians complained that taxpayers' money was going into a partisan project. Then CBC bumped it from its January 2006 airdate, lest a biopic of a socialist look like an attempt to influence the federal election. Still, no one was prepared for what happened when Prairie Giant was finally broadcast in mid-March.
Led by Gardiner's furious granddaughter Marg, the film's critics claim its depiction of the Liberal as a demagogue who stooped to xenophobia and who (in one scene only) is shown with a glass of booze in his hand is historically unsupportable. The Smiths beg to differ. Now Bruce hotly demands a chance to refute the anonymous critique of his script, while John speaks with calm, weary anger about the situation's damage to his son's reputation.
And that's what makes this controversy particularly hard to resolve. It's not just about Saskatchewan political wounds, or the CBC's freedom, or the nature of historical interpretation.
On both sides, it's about family.