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In Conversation with Tim Southam

In Conversation with Tim Southam

Fall 2014

The new President of the DGC, Tim Southam, is a man of many qualities. He possesses a fierce intelligence and strong will, vital characteristics for a film and TV director. Leavening that rock-solid core are droll wit and sophistication—this is a man who appreciates dance and theatre but is just as concerned with politics and business. Southam is a nerd when it comes to governmental policy issues as well as the right kind of equipment to use on a film shoot. He burns white hot when answering questions about the state of Canada’s media industries and the tough road that creative people have to travel to get work done in this country. But he is just as passionate about Aboriginal people in Canada and how their rights have been betrayed. With Tim Southam, the roles of art and politics merge.

As a director, Southam has had a diverse career. Considering his wide range of interests—the performing arts,
Aboriginal rights, Canadian politics, an intense love of literature—that isn’t too surprising. The main thrust in his work has been a fascination with narrative. It’s storytelling that has been his keenest pursuit, whether in documentaries, feature films or television episodes. His love and respect for all genres in media shine through his work, as does his unyielding professionalism.

Southam’s filmography has a variety of through-lines. His weather eye for the right detail marks his work with such dance and theatre artists as Veronica Tennant (Satie and Suzanne), Jean-Pierre Perreault (Danser Perreault) and Brent Carver (Home Through the Night). Southam’s appreciation of literature informs such films as David Adams Richards’ Bay of Love and Sorrows and Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Tale of Teeka. His love and anger about politics fuelled Trudeau 2 and One Dead Indian. Southam’s concern for the intricacies of narration and how to effectively tell a story are the challenges he faces every time he directs House and Bones, the hit American TV shows that have launched him in the U.S. —Marc Glassman

Marc Glassman, Montage’s editor, talked to Tim Southam at the DGC office in Toronto about a host of subjects ranging from Canadian film policy to his own filmography.

Montage: Tim, your education was somewhat disparate—liberal arts and then an economics degree—and you travelled quite a bit. What was the draw for you to go into film and television?
Tim: I was really a person in search of a calling. I was absolutely steeped in media. I come from a family that was involved exclusively for 125 years in getting the news out. I happened to be very interested in what it means to reach out to fellow human beings through media, and of course what is it to build a business around that. That preoccupied everyone I heard around the dinner table, all through my life, so I’m a media brat.

Montage: I thought of you first off as a writer. Would that be true?
Tim: I’m a writer of essays. What I learned subsequently as a director was that I have the ability to interpret text into something else. It means working with this road map that we call a script and doing something aggressively creative, which is transforming the written word into sequences of film and sound. Coming at this profession from the position of a very active reader is what all of the members of the Directors Guild of Canada do: We receive a script and we turn it into film on all screens and all formats all over the world.

I also pursued something I thought would be useful, which was economics. It allowed me to understand some of the other dimensions of what our Guild is about, which is the strict economics of bringing people to work on a film project.

Montage: Your directing career begins with Satie and Suzanne. Can you tell me about it?
Tim: It was a virtually narrative-free one-hour exploration of what I thought was going on inside the head of the French composer Erik Satie at a very specific moment in his life. It was as non-narrative as a film is allowed to get, and yet the most exciting formal exercise of my life in that we set ourselves the challenge of making a film that was visually born entirely of special-effects techniques that were performed inside the camera the way they would have been in 1923. I love to return to this kind of abstract filmmaking, as I got to do over the years with films like Perreault Dancer and, just recently, with a tribute film I made for Brent Carver’s Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

The very next thing it occurred to me to do after Satie was to go to the folks making the mainstream Global television series Traders, and to suggest to them that I become one of their writers. My objective there was to learn to write conventional narrative scripts, and by a complete set of happy accidents I ended up doing just that.

Montage: Did your business background help you?
Tim: It did. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, I had studied economics and spent several years selling advertising space to bankers. That gave me what I describe as a meta-knowledge of economics and banking, which I was then more than happy to sell by the pound to Traders, the plots of which were all about the stock markets and banking in the tail end of the exciting go-go years of the ‘80s and early ‘90s when bond traders ruled the world. The people who made Traders thought this would be useful.

Then I was given the opportunity to write a treatment for an episode, and then to write the episode itself. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being helped and mentored in this activity by two of the greatest television writers in modern history—Hart Hanson, who created Bones, and David Shore, who created House, both of whom are Canadian. They showed me how to write this script, and I did my best, and we were all nominated together for Geminis for our separate scripts but I knew very well where mine had come from. At the end of that season I went back to what I really wanted to do, which was to make films. I came away from Traders with at least a slightly better ability to make narrative films. Traders taught me to make linear storytelling my mission, so I then set out to do that on a variety of long-form projects.

Montage: You were able to bring those narrative skills to Drowning in Dreams, which is a documentary.
Tim: Right. I got into a more narrative form of storytelling with Drowning in Dreams, which is set on the north shore of Lake Superior and which I feel draws on the abstract dance filmmaking and the more narrative drive of linear storytelling that I acquired from Traders. To my mind, it was a satisfying blend, and I feel it told the story of these very real people.  

Montage: I’d like you to talk about that notion of abstraction. You have very interesting abstract notions in Satie and Suzanne. You’ve got that whole sense of what cinema history was and you also evoke Preston Sturges in Drowning in Dreams. This was not normal practice for a documentary filmmaker at the time.
Tim: My overriding preoccupation in both Drowning in Dreams and Satie and Suzanne was to create a state of complete suspended consciousness. The idea I had was to use a specific menu of techniques to do this. In Drowning in Dreams the idea was to metaphorically throw this character into Lake Superior and as the character descends towards the object of his desire, which is a sunken shipwreck, everything that happens psychologically to him and the other five narrators of the film is revealed to us. It gets particularly loopy when our divers are caught by rapture of the deep—nitrogen narcosis. In Satie and Suzanne we found ourselves inverting sets and using all kinds of special art department and in-camera techniques to induce a suspended state—an absinthe-driven one in Satie and Suzanne.

Montage: On The Tale of Teeka you got to work with Michel Marc Bouchard, a brilliant playwright. Did that help in the education of Tim Southam as a writer and director?
Tim: My mission to essentially stalk and harass writers began early. So it seemed perfectly normal for me to stalk David Shore and Hart Hanson when I was working on Traders and it was equally normal for me to stalk, harass and otherwise badger one of our great playwrights, Michel Marc Bouchard, into allowing me to film his screen adaptation of his play L’histoire de l’Oie. Making that film introduced to me the missing link, which was how to drive a story at a prosaic level with relentless suspense and an ability to engage audiences with characters, but also to have, at a subliminal level, the element of abstraction.

What I found with the making of The Tale of Teeka was that I was on the front lines of art as manifesto—the very dangerous front lines of what art could do to provoke people. As soon as the film was ready for broadcast, the Catholic School Commission in Quebec put it on their famous Index, which is to say it was censored.

Montage: Let’s abandon your film chronology and leap ahead to One Dead Indian. The Tale of Teeka dealt with the consequences of child abuse when the issue was still steeped in controversy. You were in the forefront again with One Dead Indian. What brought you to the project?
Tim: One Dead Indian was also an adaptation, this time a great script by Andrew Wreggitt and Hugh Graham from an excellent non-fiction book by Peter Edwards. In terms of the question of abuse, it felt a lot like The Tale of Teeka. We were talking about a community that had been absolutely misunderstood. Our objective as filmmakers was to provide the humanity of the events in as cogent a way as possible. We were making a film about Mike Harris’s Conservative government, which was exceeding its brief and engaging in abuses of power the likes of which we had never seen in 20th-century Ontario and which whipped a peaceful protest into the shooting of Dudley George.

The real dialogue was around how to do it properly in terms of representing the Stony Point and Kettle Point communities, and telling the story in a way that made sense to everyone involved. And the dialogue was not just with our actors but also with Dudley George’s family to make sure we were doing things in a way that was representative of the community, because every community is different. I found that to be far from the abstract, dream-driven world of fantasy filmmaking I had been doing up until then. I was coming back to an absolutely crucial responsibility to be as socially truthful as possible and for me, One Dead Indian was an exercise in being as humanly truthful as possible.

Montage: Now to peel back, to give it a bit of chronology: We jumped over The Bay of Love and Sorrows and again, having worked with Michel Marc Bouchard, you got to work with one of the great novelists in Canada, David Adams Richards. Tell me about that experience.
Tim: The attraction of The Bay of Love and Sorrows was that it articulated in a very original way the story of a mid-20th-century prototype that has always interested me, which is the Gucci socialist—the socialist-in-theory who has a personal backup plan, who has money. The story in The Bay of Love and Sorrows centres on wealthy Michael Skid, returning at the age of 18 or 19 to the small town he grew up in on the Miramichi River with big ideas about communal living, where everyone would pool their money and live together.

All of the films I have done, apart from the performing-arts films, have to do with the land. The Bay of Love and Sorrows is set in the woods along the Miramichi River, a very wild and fascinating part of the world that David Adams Richard knows intimately, having grown up there. 

Montage: Can you talk about the process of adaptation? We’ve been talking about three different forms really—the non-fiction investigative journalistic book, the play and the novel. You have been able to adapt all of them to the dramatic media of television/film.
Tim: Reading well, understanding something and then translating it to the screen is what I do. On the filmmaking side, I delight in chasing down writers who have said something I would like to say differently but respectfully on film, and on the TV side it’s the same—I look for writers who are doing something I feel is making me laugh, making me cry, making me think in a different way, and who have figured out how to do it in the medium of their choice. I try to get on board with them for as long as I can.

Montage: Tim, you’ve been working a lot in the States over the past few years on the hit shows Bones and House, and some upcoming fairly hot cable shows. What’s your work experience been like there, in terms of crews and the ability for you to perform as a director?
Tim: For me it comes back to this agenda of stalking great writers and, with that, looking for a chance to work and learn with the greatest actors and crews. We all want to do our best, and a director really gets to do his or her best when script, cast and crew are at their best. Bones and House are state-of-the art productions set in these hybrid “dramedy” universes I adore, and they have budgets. You’d have to be crazy not to want to have those experiences and learn everything you can from them.

Montage: When did you join the DGC?
Tim: I was forced—because you literally could not direct Canadian episodic television with an accredited producer without joining the Directors Guild of Canada. So I was in mid-shoot on my first show, which was Blue Murder, and found myself in the position, after 10 years of directing in a non-guild posture, of being forced to join the DGC and, having done so, then discovering that here was an organization that was going to give me healthcare, which was going to eventually offer me a pension if I worked enough, which was going to defend my rights on set when the going got tough, which was going to make sure the scheduling of these shows, the workplace safety aspects and my rights as a director were reasonably protected, even in an extremely high-pressure environment like episodic television, where hard decisions have to be made every day. There are baseline rules for how these decisions are made, which are entirely the product of negotiations between the unions and the engagers.

I learned all of this and, most importantly, from my point of view, here was an organization that was doing an absolutely stellar job at convincing lawmakers in Ottawa that what we do has relevance, that we are culturally and economically so important that all governments needed to continue to take an interest in homegrown filmmaking in Canada, that we had a choice between being exclusively service-providers to powerful U.S. producers and working for those people or we could also grow film and TV here. We’re still in mid-flight on that project, and the Directors Guild is heavily engaged in making that case and also internally with our partners, looking for solutions to the question of how to do this better: How can we make these films better? How can we make these series better? What should we argue for? What should we get together and workshop? How can we bring much more diversity into the mix? How can we be really, truly competitive on the world stage and also speak clearly and well to our ever-evolving Canadian population? All of this with only 12 million households hooked up to cable and budgets a third or less of the budgets that can be achieved in the larger U.S. market.

Montage: It’s interesting that, with the exception of House and Bones, which of course are American shows, albeit with Canadian writer/producers, we’ve been really talking about Canadian artists all along. It seems to be that there is something within you, which is a true belief in Canadian art and Canadian identity. Would that be correct?
Tim: For the members of the Directors Guild of Canada, in some sense there is a slogan that we could all reach for: “Proud to tell our stories, great at telling yours.”

Our members are world-class filmmakers who can either make something up and move it all the way through the process to screens around the world—that would be known as domestic production or homegrown production—or we can rent or sell our services to producers from other places and provide the very best filmmaking available to those people anywhere in the world. We are extremely strong artists and extremely strong craftspeople and we practise those skills, in some sense, in an unpredictable way. We never know if we’re going to have a chance to suddenly become financed—and a new film or series may suddenly become the next great Canadian success—or we may find ourselves working for years on other people’s work. That duality, that dichotomy between working for someone else as a filmmaker or working on your own material, is well known to all our members. It’s all good art and we’re happy to be good at both.

The fact that we are seen as such cutting-edge artists that we could work on the very best shows anywhere in the world is something our members are very proud of.

Montage: Before becoming the DGC president, you were head of the NDD, the National Directors Division, for a number of years. Can you talk about that and what that role was?
Tim: The National Directors Division, in bringing directors together at the national organization, has been given the informal mandate to negotiate its own contract for directors nationally. It’s the only caucus currently that negotiates a national contract for a group of members, at least within the standard agreement, which is a big piece of the country. We’re hoping something similar will evolve for the entire membership and a more nationally coherent contract will emerge for all of our categories—all of this is, of course, at the behest of our district councils, which hold our negotiating rights. The other piece of the NDD’s function is the sophisticated, multi-pronged conversation we’ve introduced through workshops and screenings and Montage and the Awards around doing what we do better and better as the playing field keeps shifting massively beneath us. Filmmaker Rob King is the newly elected NDD Chair and I’m hugely optimistic about the course he’s charting.

Montage: We talked a lot about The Tale of Teeka, among others, including the fact that you shot in both French and English and you were raised in both languages.
Tim: I see our efforts to become more effective in French as simply our obligation to be vigorously representative of French-speaking members in all categories, anywhere in the country.

Montage: As the president of the DGC, how do you see ways in which the conditions across the country can be made better across the board, and are there ways of sharing information or of doing something more collectively in terms of the financing of films?
Tim: The Directors Guild of Canada is a very active cultural lobby for film. One of the sad ironies of where we are right now in film and TV in Canada is that, in some ways, things have never been better. Seemingly, in television, there has never been a better legislative framework for getting Canadian television shows onto the prime-time schedule on the networks. On the film side, Quebec in particular has produced a new generation of truly international stars. Beneath that success story, we also know there are some terrific challenges. On the feature film side, you can argue that, while the flame is burning bright in Quebec, it has probably never been dimmer in English Canada in terms of the prospects for emerging filmmakers and the prospects particularly for repeat filmmakers who are contemplating their second film in Canada.

It is a commonplace to say that much of the energy and vitality of independent feature film have shifted to the television universe and, along with it, many of the actors and writers and directors of this generation—particularly to cable and the Internet, where the opportunity for unique and audacious expression is higher than it has ever been in television. Having said that, there are filmmaking centres around the world, including Quebec, which are showing there is still a great deal of potential vitality in feature film, so why is English Canada seemingly sitting out that opportunity?

Montage: As well, why is it that, with a few exceptions, the equivalent of the HBO and Showtime kind of authored TV shows aren’t really happening here either?
Tim: When we ask the question of all of our members—what they think would take us to the next level in feature film and in television in Canada, particularly English Canada—a consensus emerges quite quickly that we may not have found a way yet, in our various production services, to identify and support the creative team in the way we see similar teams being supported elsewhere internationally. There is a chance that Canadian production is hampered by a tendency towards creation by committee, and a worthwhile experiment rests ahead of us where the creative team, however it is defined, is really given the opportunity to soar.

Montage: What would be your evolving agenda in terms of working with Telefilm, the CMF, the CMPA and all the other organizations to make sure these conditions actually happen, so that the creative teams can actually create authored work in film and television?
Tim: It’s all part of asking what we can do together to really float Canadian television upwards and have it join the extraordinary surge of quality that is happening worldwide. And what we can do to produce recognizable, branded and known cadres of repeat names in feature filmmaking, what we can do to get past that first feature on the English-language side. What can we learn from Quebec? Should we be talking about greater commitment from our provinces to equity investment in feature film, in addition to the tax credit? Is there a way in which we can aggressively single out strong voices in feature film and give them another shot? We’re already doing a good job of understanding that the measure of a film’s success is not purely box office in a world that is increasingly watching films at home. What can we do to bring the entire system into the actual ebb and flow of creation in film in an increasingly platform-agnostic world?

Under our constitution, the national organization is tasked with dealing with all issues of national or international import, as well as membership services and being the home of the director. Many of the questions I’ve raised around how to build a better mouse trap in television and film and on the web have to do with the director’s role in both. The National Directors Division already has a very full slate of initiatives designed to pull writers, producers, editors, composers, production designers and directors into environments where they can really work out the best ways and means. We know we’ve had an impact; we know certain shows’ creators and entrepreneur producers, by virtue of attending some of our events, have chosen to move to a new approach to making their shows.

Montage: Do you feel our broadcasters, producers and distributors are being entrepreneurial and innovative enough in terms of the product that has been produced for them?
Tim: The fact that there are relatively few players in a highly managed environment, industrially in Canada, means the highly managed component of that environment requires scrutiny by non-industry players, by citizens and by unions. I dare say that, without unions in this country, the level of scrutiny that is necessary to the proper management of what is essentially a cartel-driven economy would fail. I feel it is almost a sacred obligation for guilds to understand the industries they work in, to understand how quickly they evolve and change, to have the courage to scrutinize how these highly managed economies are being managed and to have the courage to challenge how they are being managed, all the time. I believe the Directors Guild of Canada has an obligation to be a scrutineer in this small economy.

Montage: Over the period of the next three years, what would you like to see happen? Are there goals you can articulate?
Tim: I’d like to see a new generation of repeat filmmakers on the independent film side. I’d like to see a generation of empowered and enabled filmmakers feeling confident they will get a second and third and fourth film made, and there will be some name recognition attached to them as artists, in Canada and around the world. We don’t have that right now in English Canada and we have to.

I would like to see the same thing for the creative teams that are responsible, more as a collective, on the television and web side, because of the sheer scale of series producing; making anywhere between 13 and 24 episodes of any given title a year requires teamwork. I would like to see those teams properly empowered. I would like to see a filmmaker’s voice emerge more truly in Canadian television-making in the way that it has in the U.S. market and the European market.

I would like to see the conditions of film workers currently working right on the edge of their ability to survive on a low hourly wage radically improved. I would like to see all of the guilds get better at understanding the very awkward nexus between commercial filmmaking and independent filmmaking. We have constant friction between a type of filmmaking that is inherently profitable, or at least functional commercially, and a kind of low-budget filmmaking that is done on a wing and a prayer and is costing the filmmakers their entire livelihoods and their homes and their cars.

I’d like the Directors Guild of Canada to come up with a way, with producers, to properly articulate an independent film contract that will get us further down the road in optimizing opportunities for independent filmmakers at a very low budget level. I think we can do a more supple job together. That can only help with the new kind of independent TV that’s going to come up—low-budget television that will be essentially like a low-budget film except it will be a serialized production for television or for the Internet.

Similarly, we are already well on our way to articulating a creative environment for the Internet. I’d like to make sure we understand who is playing in that field, what they are doing and what that business is like because it’s evolving so quickly. I would like the industry to better acknowledge the intense diversity of Canadian society and reflect it in our hiring practices. And finally, I’d like the Directors Guild of Canada to continue to be as nimble as it is in surfing the unbelievable level of change, which is in a way energizing and in other ways eroding our industry and our craft and our art form in this decade. I feel we’re already light on our feet—I’d like to stay that way, and the way we do it is by staying in touch with our members, staying in touch with our engagers, staying in touch with our government partners and articulating a vision for the future of Canadian production.

Marc Glassman is a night owl. He likes to imbibe Earl Grey tea, soya sauce and Sauvignon Blanc, but not together

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