Monday, February 17, 2020

Pat Ferns Exits Canadian TV With A Last Flash Of Brilliance

"This is it --my last TV production," sighs legendary TV producer Pat Ferns from his B.C. headquarters.
"But I couldn't go out with anything more challenging.  I've spent the better part of a year finishing the French. German and Canadian versions  of Listening To Orcas --all of which are different."
When I first jumped into TV criticism in 1971 at The Hamilton Spectator Ferns was one of the biggest producing names in the business.
The very next year I flew to Montreal and boarded a rented car driven by publicist Pat Bowles to travel deep into the Quebec countryside and the site of the new mini-series The Newcomers.
Imperial Oil pumped millions into this project produced by Ferns and partner Dick Nielsen and each hour dramatized a different era of immigration to Canada.
A New France settlement had been meticulously reconstructed to show how our first settlers depended initially on the aboriginals to sustain themselves through the difficult winters.
Ferns and partner Dick Nielsen seemed to be everywhere in those days with bold, innovative projects that were outside the humdrum boundaries of weekly TV series.
And Ferns agrees with me this tandem worked because each was so very different they complemented each other.
Ferns was quite brilliant but taciturn with a very clear vision of what he hoped to achieve in every production.
And Nielsen was a wild man of ideas forever churning out synopses and challenging the boundaries of ordinary TV landscape.
And they both excelled at a time there were only 10 competing TV channels.
"I just felt CBC had a tremendous responsibility in bringing culture to television that can't be matched today," he says.
Part of the problem lies in the breakup of the huge audiences --in a 100 channel universe there are few outlets with the kind of audience to support cultural productions.
"We had left CBC to form a company (Nielsen Ferns Productions) and were able to do things that a single network couldn't afford to do and we could sell to other markets and that was encouraging."
I remember one NF film I was on was Quebec Canada 2005 which was put together by Nielsen and mostly shot at the King Edward hotel.  All the principals were in the Toronto Star newsroom for a shot or two and they included Martha Henry who I chatted up at my desk.
Nielsen Ferns was finally purchased by the Toronto Star (in 1976) as a production company but the federal government was not favourable to having companies owned by media giants.
So these days if a high school teacher wishes to screen a copy of The Wars to show to the class Torstar reluctantly sends out a tattered VHS copy demanding it be returned within days.
So Nielsen andd Ferns founded a second company Primedia and a whole host of sparkling new productions came forth : Glenn Gould's Toronto, the four hour mini-series Glory Enough For All, Heaven On Earth (written by Margaret Atwood) and bought for Masterpiece Theatre.
In 1995 Ferns decamped again to recharge the Banff Television Festival and turned it into an internationally renowned centre which was much admired by talent on all sides.
About the current state of Canadian TV production he says "In British Columbia the TV studios are full but most of the series being made here are American shows."
For the past year Ferns has toiled on his latest production Listening To Orcas premiering on CBC-YV's The Nature Of Things Friday February 21 at 9 p.m.
"It's about the toughest assignment I've had. There is a separate French version and another German one. I somehow feel Michael's English language version the best --they all wanted different angles to the same story."
Michael Allder directed it beautifully and the co-writer is Gail Gallant and Geoff Matheson edited it very tightly.
There are so many memorable scenes.
We see the narrow habitat of the orcas off Vancouver island which is threatened with noise pollution as well as the scarcity of salmon stocks.
We get to know neurologist Lori Marino and zoologist John Ford who are rushing to save the habitat of the orcas who are decreasing .
Sarika Cullis-Suzuki is once again our host and she covers all the basis. The use of drones to track the migration of the orcas provides a novel visual.
I think we come to care about these enigmatic animals particularly the lot of one born here in 1969 but shut up in a mainland  aquarium for 50 years.
In retirement should she be taken back to her home?
We see the shots of her reacting to her baby and not knowing how to feed it --that is the saddest moment.
Ferns says he may be finished with productions but wants to mentor students on how to survive in a cut throat business and all the while produce splendid Canadian TV shows and specials.
"After all I've been doing this for a very long time."
MY RATING: ****.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

A New Suzuki Shines On The Nature Of Things

Here's where I admit my age as I remember the time not too long ago when two fine CBC-TV series were battling for ascendancy. In one corner there was the great This Land and in the other long running Nature Of Things.
And as NOT's executive producer Jim Murray explained to me with upcoming budget cuts only one could survive.
"So I've decided to personalize the series with David Suzuki as host and he'll bring in his followers every week."
This Land elected to stay host-less and was the one CBC-TV eventually dropped because of slightly weaker ratings.
And then only a few years ago the new CBC programming chief told me he intended to drop TNOT on its 50th year on CBC-TV.
I broke the story in The Toronto Star,  all hell broke loose and The Nature Of Things still survives and the programmer in question is long gone.
All of which serves as a reminder that the more things change the more they remain the same.
Now I'm promoting the latest Nature Of Things hour and welcoming a new face to the perennial favourite.
She's Sarika Cullis-Suzuki and, yes, she's the daughter of guess what world famous environmentalist turned CBC-TV host.
Her first hour long program Kingdom Of The Tides is pretty terrific in its own right.
"It started out with my fascination as a little girl in the summers I spent in B.C. by the ocean. Looking at the many creatures who lived at the edge of the sea or in the tides. So this was a sort of reunion for me to help better understand how these original creatures could actually adapt and thrive there."
The hour is actually two stories in one.
"We also go to the Bay of Fundy which has an entirely different set of creatures and mud flats that stretch forever. This I wasn't used to --we have to slide along the mud flats or we'll wind up getting stuck out there."
There are some great shots --like the hermit crabs who exist living in the discarded shells of other creatures.
"And the sea stars making meals of the mussels."
One theme is the fragility of these two very different but similar ecosystems, how climate change or pollution could spoil these sites irrevocably.
"We try to show how they all exist on each other. but these creatures are all masters of adaptation. They depend on each other. I felt a sense of wonder when there."
Cullis-Suzuki says she asked her father for advice in her first hosting role --she's a marine biologist by profession-- and he simply told her to be herself.
She has a fine, instinctive way of appearing before the camera and her enthusiasm for the subject really comes across.
She does give us some facts but is not at all pedantic.
And Cullis-Suzuki has already made a second TOT documentary on orca whales to run pn Feb, 2!1.
Kingdom Of The Tiide was expertly written directed by veteran  Christine Nielsen----- and photographed beautifully by Stefan Randstrom for Infield Fly Productions.
And yes, its virtually a must see.
MY RATING: ****.


Sunday, February 2, 2020

I Remember Daniel Taradash

In August 1983 I was again on the Television Critics tour at the Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles and I had a day off. A friend had given me the telephone number of famed screen writer Daniel Taradash and I phoned him early that morning. Not only did he pick up the call he said he'd be over at about 3 p,m. for an hour long interview.
Here are highlights of our conversation:
JB: I was surprised you agreed so quickly to my request for an interview.
DT: Had to. Two days from now I'll be at a film festival in Barcelona where a newly minted print of From Here To Eternity is being shown.
JB: Let's start at the beginning with your upbringing in New York city.
DT: Well, I grew up in New York city, went to Harvard and law school was something my father insisted on. I was always writing short stories for myself but I didn't think during the Depression I could make a living at it. I won a contest for a new play and parlayed that into a trip to Hollywood.
JB: And then you wrote the screenplay for Golden Boy(1939)?
DFT: Something like that. Rouben Mamloulian was going to direct Golden Boy from the Clifford Odets play but Odets was in Europe with his wife Luise Rainer and unavailable. Several seasoned writers had taken cracks at it but Rouben said they were missing the point.So he hired me and Louis Meltzer from the contest and told us to try rewriting the first scene and he liked both our works and hired us at $200 a week which was a lot of money to this mostly unemployed writer.
Finally we all went to a desert retreat for two weeks along with Rouben and every day we'd tackle a different scene.We had to stick to the play as much as possible and not loose its foundations. Then Columbia had me write a biography of the warden of Sing Sing but never used it and I was dropped. So I got a job writing for Joe Pasternak at Universal in a movie titled A Little Bit Of Heaven designed to make Gloria Jean into another Deanna Durbin.
Then I was drafted and went into the army unit making the Why We Fight shorts, After the war I joined Allan Scott who was then a producer at David Selznick's lot but nothing came of the projects we worked on. Then producer Robert Lord hired me to juice up the dialogue on Knock On Any Door (1949) at Columbia where I got to know the star Humphrey Bogart who was quite a della.
JB: You also wrote the play Red Gloves for producer Jed Harris in 1949.
DT: A really nasty character. He started off very sweet but turned into this raging egomaniac. I think he just liked to be noticed. A true sadist.Charles Boyer was our star and at a certain point he told Jed not to speak to him any more.
JB: Then you wrote a western Rancho Notorious (1952) for Fritz Lang?
DT: When we met I discovered he was a real scholar of the American West.As I wrote a page he'd add the camera angles, the pauses, the direction right into the script. When we went on the floor he was suddenly challenged by our leading lead the great Marlene Dietrich. Both loved a good fight and they fought every day. The cut he delivered to Howard Hughes was so tightly edited it could not be changed much at all. This was for me a  great lesson in film making --don't give producers anything extra because they'll just cut it anyway.
JB: How did you get the assignment for From Here To Eternity (1953)?
DT: Well, James Jones had tried to adapt his own novel and failed. I had a chat with Buddy Adler who was running Columbia and he thought I was onto something and took me in to see Harry Cohn and Harry ordered me to be hired. Harry said he was stuck with a lemon because with all the bad language gone what was left? I  started off deepening the  Maggio character--he just peters out in the novel but I argued he has to die at the end. I finally went home to Florida because I couldn't deal with Harry's constant interference and I worked from there.  I doubt Harry ever read much of the book anyway.
And I was the one who suggested Fred Zinneman as director --he was close to finishing Member Of The wedding and Harry thought he was a prestige name.
JB: Were you in on the casting?
DT: I made myself available., Fred insisted on Monty Clift as Prew but Harry said "I got Aldo Ray" and insisted on a test. It was OK but Fred said he'd walk without Monty. You know Donna Reed ran lines with Aldo for his test and Fred then signed her as the prostitute although Harry wanted Audrey Totter.
Harry had just signed Joan Crawford to a multi-picture contract but she came in and selected a very expensive wardrobe that wasn't right and insisted on her own choreographer so Fred just let her go. He hired Deborah Kerr as the wayward wife which which certainly was offbeat casting. Frankie Sinatra campaigned for Maggio and took a tiny salary to get it. Lancaster was always going to be the biggest star. But you know Monty Clift was a Method man and he took lessons in boxing but was so un-muscular we used a double in some long shots. Another thing --I didn't want the couples to ever meet. The two women do but only at the end.
JB: Did winning the Oscar for best screenplay help you at all?
DT: Well, I told Harry Cohn he owned me one. And I deliberately selected the powerful story Storm Center about the censoring of books and I told Harry I was going to entice Mary Pickford out of a 20-year retirement to play the leading librarian. We were still at the height of McCarthyism,remember.
JB: Then what happened? Well, you know gossip hen Hedda Hopper was a terrible right winger and she kept pounding Mary in her column day after day for being un-American and it finally got to Mary and she just left. So I got Bette Davis and made it and it has yet to make a penny of profit which I prophesied from the beginning.
JN: Then came Desiree (1955)?
DT: Oh, please. A  terrible mess. We wrote it for Marlon Brando because he owed Fox a picture after walking off  The Egptian but he was boredas Napoleon  and didn't try and we had Jean Simmons and Merle Oberon who at least worked on their parts.
JB: Then came Picnic (1956).
DT: At the first preview an older woman comes up to me and says "There's no picnic, is there?"I talked to Bill Inge about it and he said he hated the play because a happy ending was superimposed. I tried to capture the feeling of that small Then Harry Cohn started cutting it up and Roz Russell's partas  cut sharply.  Harry wanted her nominated as best supporting actress but she refused. I thought Bill Holden too old for it and Kim Novak a blank stare. But it did make a lot of money.
JB: What about Bell Book And Candle (1958).
DT: Miscast. Jimmy Stewart was too old for it. Kim Novak wasn't comedically aware if you get my drift.I still say we should have used Cary Grant and Grace Kelly but Grace retired to become a princess and Cary lost interest.
JB: You say Harry Cohn's death in 1958 affected your career.
DT: I was going to do Andersonville for Harry but the new front office vetoed it as not box office. And I wrote some very bad pictures like Hawaii (1966) and Morituri (1965), Alvarez Kelly (1966) was another stinker and my Golden Boy Bill Holden was drunk through much of the shooting. There was turmoil on the set of The Other Side Of The Mountain(1969) and when I finished the first draft they tried to fire me.
So you see I really do miss the Hollywood of Harry Cohn. He was lucky he died before the independents took overbite business. You look shocked --I'm just being realistic. -- it was much easier  when I knew who I was working for. But whenever FHTE is on TV I'll watch a bit --I'm always interested what the local stations chose to cut for commercials.