Thursday, September 3, 2009

With Guns Blazing, Sudz Sutherland Scores Big Time

It was a warm July day, 2007, when I took the 7 a.m. GO Bus for Hamilton. I just had to be the first TV critic to get on the set of Sudz Sutherland's latest TV miniseries Guns --and I was.
The Star was already faltering financially and I had to pay my own fare but that didn't matter. The location that day was Hamilton's downtown Ramada Inn, specifically the basement ball room converted into a ritzy go-go parlor complete with strippers attired in faux fur.
I wanted to be front and center to observe Sutherland's directing skills and also meet his wife and writing partner Jen Holness who was carting around their newborn daughter.
Well, here it is more than two years later and Sutherland's mightily ambitious production finally gets a much deserved CBC-TV screening Sunday and Monday nights at 8.
It was well worth the wait.
I first latched on to Sutherland as one of the great hopes of Canadian TV when I watched his CTV movie Doomstown made in 2006 and based on the same central theme: the prevalence of violence in a society that's supposed to be vilence freem
One scene I watched that day: in a tight booth two youthful gun dealers played by KC Collins and Gregory Smith duel verbally while Smith's girlfriend played by beauty Elisha Cuthbert waltzes by (she's the barmaid).
It looked fine to me but Sutherland asked for several additional takes, trying to get the young actors more emotionally involved so they'd speed up their dialogue.
And now that I've seen it in the finished preview DVD I can report it works memorably as do so many other scenes an ordinary director might just toss off.
"We just had to make this one," Holness told me that fateful day. "Just had to."
The team had been increasingly intrigued by the growing gun violence on the streets of Toronto, the gang violence that seemed to be spreading, the feeling of disenchantment from many black youths facing bleak futures.
As Sutherland told me "We've had drug trafficking, trafficking in humans and now it's guns. It's already out of control."
Holness said the project could only have come forward with the sustained effort of some very big name Canadian actors.
"Colm Feore took a look at the script and was the first to say he wanted to come onboard. Then I got to Elisha Cuthbert (24) and she just had to do it. Then Gregory Smith (Everwood) wanted in. Then Shawn Doyle...."
And what emerged was a very violent story.
Said Sutherland to me: "There are a lot of guns in it. People die."
Sutherland wanted to explore the origins of that violence and to be truthful about everything.
In a corner I chatted up Cuthbert reminding her I'd first interviewed her for the CTV film Lucky Girl and correctly predicted she'd garner a Gemini. And she beamed at the memory.
"This script just hit me, had to do it. I want to keep coming back for quality work."
Later on when I was lunching with the Sutherlands Cuthbert was back to show off her entire family: mom, dad, younger brother all in from Montreal.
And there was the reaction of another familiar Canadian name, Gregory Smith (Everwood).
I last interviewed him when he was a gangly 18-year-old ready to embark upon the WB prime time soap.
He described his new part as a step to maturity and joked "Look! I grew facial hair."
The shoot included 42 locations including Osgood Hall and a dramatic recreation of a shooting at Dundas and Yonge.
And the marvel is the whole complicated saga works both visually and on an emotional level. There are no one dimensional characters here. The dialogue while visceral at time snaps and crackles with authenticity while Sutherland's restless camera moves and probes, keeping every scene alive and vital.
Feore is restrained and completely credible. A young black actor Sutherland first used in Doomstown. JC Collins, is quite brilliant as a black youth trying to rediscover his roots.
Doyle is the agitated cop whose home life is suffering because of his obsession with getting criminals off the street. And Cuthbert acts in a taut way she's never shown in her glossy Hollywood features.
Sutherland gets real help from his cinematographer Arthur Cooper (Naked Lunch) and production designer Rupert Lazarus.
Guns --the title really says it all --is completely compelling, a must-see, yet it revs up on CBC before the official start of the new season and another big budgeted project The Iron Road got blown off in August.
So much of Canadian TV these days is irrelevant reality shtick.
But then along comes something as completely watchable and yes brilliant as Guns.

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