Out & About –Monday, January 7, 2002

The Shipping News helps put The Rock on movie map

By Michael MacDonald
The Canadian Press
St. John’s, Nfld.

Regardless of what critics say, if the first Canadian screening of The Shipping News proved anything, it’s that Newfoundland’s film industry is on a roll.

The release of the big-budget Hollywood film, starring Kevin Spacey and shot mainly in Newfoundland, caps two years of extraordinary growth in the province’s motion picture business.

The sneak preview in St. John’s will be followed by the release next month of two other major productions shot on the Rock: the TV mini-series Random Passage, and the feature film Rare Birds, starring William Hurt.

Both films are based on books written by Newfoundlanders.

As for The Shipping News, it’s slated for wide release this month.

Over 300 people jammed a shopping mall theatre for a charity screening of the two-hour film, which featured spectacular performances by Spacey and Dame Judi Dench, as well as jaw-dropping scenes of coastal Newfoundland.

None of the stars attended the Canadian premiere, although some crew and minor cast members were in the crowd. The reviews of those leaving the theatre were overwhelmingly positive.

“It captured the flavour of this place in a magical way,” said Margaret O’Dea of St. John’s. “You fall in love with the place through the characters.”

“I wasn’t as fond of the book as I was of the movie.”

Pat Grattan, also of St. John’s, had his doubts going in about Spacey in the role of Quoyle, who is described in the book by E. Annie Proulx as an odd lump of a man. They evaporated quickly.

“It was great to see him blossom through the film,” he said.

Production recently wrapped up in St. John’s for The Red Door, an independent film starring Keifer Sutherland and Stockard Channing. It’s among 40 film projects at various stages of development in Newfoundland.

“We have to keep that momentum going,” said Barbara Doran, producer of Random Passage, a four-part series about life in a Newfoundland outport in the early 1800s. “We’ve reached a plateau in Newfoundland.”

In the past three years, the Newfoundland Film Development Corp. has helped the industry grow from a humble, $2 million business to a thriving, $20 million enterprise.

“There’s been a lot happening,” said executive director Leo Furey. “We’re a half-million people on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic… But as far as film, theatre and writing is concerned, it’s amazing.”

The recent spurt of activity stems from the province’s 1997 decision to offer producers a 40 per cent rebate on their labour costs. The subsidy is similar to those offered in most other provinces.

Paul Pope, a St. John’s film producer, said the rebate allowed him to make Rare Birds, which is based on Ed Riche’s novel of the same name.

“Levelling the playing field made it possible,” said Pope. “It stimulated quite a bit of production here.”

But the growth of Newfoundland’s movie business shouldn’t be overstated, said Pope, noting that at least a dozen major films are released every week in North America.

“It’s fantastic that we’re getting a cluster of them,” he said. “But we’re still very, very small.”

If Newfoundland wants to continue attracting films like The Shipping News, it must invest in its own soundstage and film gear, Pope said.

“Quite often, that’s a deal breaker.”

Still, Furey insists Newfoundland has plenty to work with.

“We’ve got the stories. We’ve got the actors. We’ve got the musicians. We have the history.”

He didn’t mention the weather.

The Shipping News was shot earlier this year as eastern Newfoundland emerged from one of its worst winters on record.

“The joke is that they have four seasons: fall, winter, misery, and summer,” Spacey said recently. “We were right in the heart of misery. It snowed on May 24.”

But director Lasse Hallstrom didn’t mind. Despite the added costs and rough weather, he was determined to film in Trinity area.

When Furey asked him why he came so far to make a film, Hallstrom said: “Hey, Newfoundland is the main character. Of course we’re doing it here.”

The film chronicles the life of Quoyle, a struggling newspaper reporter who is traumatized by the death of his wife and moves to his ancestral home in Newfoundland to start anew.

The promotional bumf for the movie breathlessly describes Newfoundland as a place “where life is as rough as the weather and secrets are as vast as the ocean.”

“The scenes of Newfoundland were quite spectacular,” said Sheila-Kelly Blackmore, a Sandy Cove, Nfld. resident who took in the premiere. “It showed the rural setting of Newfoundland in a way many of us see it.”

The $45 million production also features performances by Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett. Hallstrom also directed The Cider House Rules, Chocolate, Something to Talk About and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

The Shipping News is based on Proulx’s Pulitzer prize winning novel of the same title. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 40 weeks.

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Thanks to Roving Spacey Reporter Lisa of Halifax, NS, who loved the movie.