By Diane Wild of TV, eh?
Laszlo Barna has produced biopics of some of Canada’s most colourful characters: RomÃ©o Dallaire, Don Cherry, David Suzuki, Henry Morgentaler, Joyce Milgaard, Celine Dion. Sunday he adds Jack Layton to that list. Starring Rick Roberts and Sook-Yin Lee, the CBC movie Jack follows the story of the NDP leader’s last campaign and his relationship with wife Olivia Chow, from their first meeting until his death shortly after that election.
“I saw how the Canadian public reacted to Jack Layton’s death, not only NDP supporters but nationwide. I believe in making movies about people Canadians care about,” said Barna, the president of Pier 21 Films, in a recent interview. “You can’t take the NDP out of Jack Layton, but when you look at the historical view we remember people, we don’t remember political parties. The overwhelming memory is of someone who cared and worked for his country.”
The film entwines the political and personal, making the point explicit in an exchange between Chow and Layton that the political is personal to him.
“The biographies I’ve done are people with great determination and drive, and usually there’s a great story behind the person,” Barna explained. “David Suzuki was interned during the war and it helped shape who he was. Joyce Milgaard was a woman who started life as a party girl and ended up a warrior who helped get her son released.”
“What surprised me in the story of Jack was that the story of Olivia and Jack was so sweet and all-encompassing. We learn from it, we empathize with it and that makes a good biography.”
The movie was produced with the cooperation of Chow, who was approached about a month after her husband’s death. “She’s a very open and interesting person. She looked at the movies I’d done before, and she wanted his story told,” Barna said, dismissing concerns about going into production so soon after Layton’s death. “The legacy Jack left is of celebration and optimism, not of negativity and darkness. I think now’s the right time to do it because people recently lost him and the film is relevant.”
Barna has also produced television series such as Da Vinci’s Inquest, Call Me Fitz and Haven, among many others. But he sees the dearth of television movies in recent years as a loss to the Canadian industry and the Canadian public, though he’s pragmatic about the cause: “Networks like to promote series and invest in series. Promotion of a television movie is costly and a one-off. I don’t see there being a return to the old days.”
“It’s so sad. There used to be so many more television movies. My guess is that we’re not making a third of the movies we used to make,” he said. “The great loss is often you want to tell these stories that aren’t necessarily for an international marketplace. I make television shows that sell all over the world; Jack is a Canadian film. And it’s a great loss to Canadians that broadcasters are shying away from television movies because they’re a great thing for telling stories about ourselves.”
He knows he’s hit on a perfect television movie subject when he can tell a cab driver the name and get a nod of recognition. “It means we’ve hit on our common currency.”
With Jack in particular, he calls it “a great romance a positive image, and a very entertaining film. He lived well and he lived a very colourful life. It’s a tribute and a fun journey.”