Sarah Polley, the Oscar-nominated, Canadian writer/director/actress, spent 20 years thinking about how to adapt Margaret Atwood's sprawling novel Alias Grace for the screen. She spent her own money to buy the rights when they came available. Then, she spent nearly two years writing, often in snatched hours during her children's naps.
Somewhere in the middle, as she surveyed her 700-page feature draft, it hit her that perhaps the future of this Canadian film was … television. She honed it to a six-hour limited series, which she finally believed captured the scope of the Giller Prize-winning, based-on-a-true-story novel of an unreliable narrator recalling murders she may or may not have committed, covering 30 years, multiple locations and shifting points of view. And then Polley promised herself something: "I will not make this for less than $30-million."
No one likes to talk about money, but it's vitally important to, especially this week – dubbed Screen Week – as the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television hands out its Screen Awards in 134 categories over four nights. (It culminates Sunday with a live CBC-TV broadcast hosted by Howie Mandel.)
It's obvious that money is a key to excellence. The most-nominated series and films this year – and not coincidentally, the Canadian fare the public is most familiar with – are the ones that had enough money to buy the writing time and production values it took to make them good. In series, Orphan Black had 14 nominations; Schitt's Creek, 13; Vikings, nine; Frontier, seven. In feature films, It's Only the End of the World had nine and Race had eight.
So when the creative team behind Alias Grace – which will air this fall, first on the CBC, followed by Netflix – gathered on Wednesday for one of the academy's several Members Lounge panels (daytime education/networking seminars, a new offering the academy hopes to make a permanent part of Screen Week), they were willing to talk dollars. And to acknowledge that the future of Canadian filmmaking lies in admitting that, sometimes, film isn't the right medium – that, to succeed, you have to be story-specific and platform agnostic.
"No one had ever handed me six scripts before," said Noreen Halpern, the CEO of Halfire Entertainment and Alias Grace's executive producer, about her first meeting with Polley. Immediately, Halpern responded to the "incredible piece of writing based on an incredible piece of writing."
She loved Polley's characterization of it – that it had a People v. O.J. Simpson vibe, about a crime of a century that was also a jumping-off point for present-day social commentary, including immigration and class issues, sexism and sexual violence. She respected Polley's choice for director: Mary Harron, who'd made American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page. And she took Polley's assertion – "We're not making this unless we get the right budget" – as a challenge.
Their first stop was the CBC. Sally Catto, the general manager of English-language programming, is a friend of Polley's; she'd been keeping an eye on the project for years. "There couldn't be anything more perfect for the CBC," she said. "We're focused on telling distinctly Canadian, iconic stories. Literary adaptations are something the public broadcaster should be doing. The writer, director, producer and star are all Canadian." (Toronto-born actor Sarah Gadon plays Grace.)
"But Grace is also very contemporary," Catto continued, "a woman who's flawed, complicated. There's something timeless and timely about her. It's historical yet progressive at the same time."
Said Polley: "I spent my childhood on the CBC [acting in Road to Avonlea], this bucolic vision of this time that never existed in this country. As nice as it was for families to watch, it was a bit of a lie. So to be back on the CBC in this brutally honest look at what it was like for women in period costumes, and people get spattered in blood, was extremely cathartic."
Still, Polley knew the CBC couldn't afford to make Alias Grace without a partner. So she, Halpern and Harron went to Los Angeles. They spent two days refining their pitch, and three days presenting it to eight potential buyers. Three wanted it, and Netflix won, partly because they said two key things: We want it to be your vision. But we won't do it until we talk to the CBC, to make sure we're all making the same story. "You can't do a co-pro unless both parties are invested in that," Halpern said. (Interestingly, as with the pitchers, the three Netflix pitchees were all women, too.)
In the three short scenes that played during the panel, the sweep of the story and the ambition of the storytelling – the hell-yes-we're-doing-this-right of it – were evident. The production brought a sailing ship over from Europe, and built its interiors on a Toronto sound stage, set on a gimbal so it could rock. They built a massive set for Grace's arrival in Toronto, for about 1.5 minutes of screen time. "That kind of thing happened over and over, because Sarah writes television as if it's a film," Halpern said. "But when you watch the footage, it makes a massive difference, because you feel the scope. It feels like real life."
"I was adamant about the budget because from the moment I wrote the scripts, I knew the first thing to go would be the boat," Polley said. "For me, one of the most pressing issues in this series is immigration, class. We look at refugees and immigrants now, and we forget the squalor, the horror of what people went through to get here. We see this story in Canadian immigration over and over again. There's always a stigma. So that was my line in the sand. The boat's not going, the immigration part cannot go. This is what we need to see right now."
Despite the best efforts of the academy to pump up Canadian television and cinema, the product won't improve, or become more popular, until we rethink – and talk about – the money. "I spent most of my career looking at financing first, and then making the shows I made fit that," Halpern said. "You can't do that any more. You can't compromise. The bar is too high.
"You have to look at the show and find the budget for that show," she goes on. "If you can't, don't bother making it." She advocates "less but better" – fewer shows, shorter orders.
And of course, more co-productions. Orphan Black is a co-pro between Space and BBC America. Schitt's Creek airs in the U.S. on Pop. Vikings is an Irish-Canadian co-pro; Frontier comes from the Discovery Channel and Netflix. Next week the CBC launches Anne, the Anne of Green Gables reboot, also a co-pro with Netflix.
"It has to be about the content," Catto said. "The question is no longer, 'Is this a feature, television, or digital?' It's, 'What is the content, and what length of time do we need to realize it?' We're transcending that barrier between platforms.
"We're competing in a high-calibre, international marketplace," Catto summed up. "We need to make things that will both shine in this country, and carry our stories and talent outside."
"Unless people don't like it," Polley said. Still Canadian, after all.