Malcolm MacRury (Cra$h & Burn, ZOS: Zone of Separation, Republic of Doyle, Deadwood, The Man Without a Face) is the screenwriter and an executive producer on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, based on Stephen Leacock’s classic book as well as the author’s life. MacRury recently answered some questions on this literary reimagining, airing Sunday, February 12 on CBC.
In the television movie, co-produced with Movie Central, the elder Stephen Leacock (Gordon Pinsent) narrates the tale of his boyhood self at age 14 (Owen Best). The movie combines two key stories from Leacock’s comic masterpiece: the sinking of The Mariposa Belle steamer with its holiday crowd in the perilously shallow waters of Lake Wissanotti, and the frantic campaign to save Mariposa’s hotel and bar from the Liquor Commission’s shutdown.
Why this book at this time for you?
I’ve loved Stephen Leacock ever since I fled academia to write comedy. Here was a genius who could do both — write best-selling humour books that went around the world and also teach political economy at McGill. I’ve been on a mission to bring his comic masterpiece, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, to TV for about 20 years. The stars finally aligned when the centenary of his book and the 75th anniversary of the CBC coincided. Timing is everything!
How did you approach adapting such a well known book and put your own voice to it? Did you have to get over any sense of reverence or trepidation?
Being faithful to his characters and to his wild wordplay was important to me — everything else was up for grabs. I didn’t want to write or produce a “dead-letter” adaptation. Leacock was an inspiration for the Marx Brothers and The Goon Show. That encouraged me to take chances. At an early stage I decided to combine Leacock’s childhood with his fictional creations and with his reflections as an elderly narrator. That liberated me to go for both the comedy and the drama of his world in more of a magic realist fashion. But when in doubt we’d always say: “go for the funny.” or as Leacock’s great niece told me — “Uncle Stephen would roll in his grave if you made an unfunny film. Don’t you dare.”
It stars pretty much everyone who’s ever worked in Canadian TV and some I’d forgotten were Canadian (Gordon and Leah Pinsent, Jill Hennessy, Donal Logue, Peter Keleghan, Caroline Rhea, Colin Mochrie, Ron James, Sean Cullen, Eric Peterson, Patrick McKenna, etc. etc.). How did casting come together?
Leacock created Canadian comedy. He was the first to put it on the world stage. Our goal in casting was to people the movie with the best of his comic heirs. We wanted to enlist them all to make a tribute to the original master. It’s remarkable how many said yes and I’m grateful to them for it.
The opening is fun, with the pop-up book effect, and there are some interesting effects with the shipwreck, etc. Were there challenges to creating the visual style you wanted within your budget?
Leacock’s Mariposa is the archetype of all the small towns in Canada. We set out to bring that to life with the film’s visual style. The idea was to give the little town by the lake an almost magical, Brigadoon feel. To say here’s one of Canada’s founding stories and myths. Put less politely we called it Anne of Green Gables on Acid!
And yes it was hard to do on a Canadian TV budget. But the director, Don McBrearty, the production designer, Stephen Roloff and the creative team at Rocket Science succeeded brilliantly.
What’s next for you?
A lot I hope! But apropos of bringing Leacock back to Canadian TV, I’m also working with Jason Sherman and Paul Gross to bring the story of Canadians liberating Italy in WWII to the CBC. Our dream is to make our own Band of Brothers. The CBC is behind it and hopefully the stars will align here too!